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Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

 
Rise from bed.                                       6:00              a.m.
Dumbbell exercise and wall scaling         6:15- 6:30     "
Study electricity etc.                               7:15-8:15      "
Work                                                     8:30-4:30     p.m.
Baseball and sports                                4:30-5          "
Practice elocution, poise, and
     how to attain it                                  5:00-6:00      "
Study needed inventions                         7:00-9:00      "

This is a heart-breaking passage found in the late pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  The schedule is written on the back flyleaf of Hopalong Cassidy and found by Gatsby's estranged father after Gatsby's death; it's proof that Gatsby had the self-discipline to be great.  I often think of that passage toward New Year's, convinced that if I could just find the right schedule, I could be more productive.  But of course, there's no room for eating, trips to the loo, or a genial conversation with colleagues or students or lovers or partners.  There's no room for the accidents of life from which we learn so much.  
 
Twenty-seven percent of us do not make New Year's resolutions.  Here are my husband Bill's non-resolutions:

Resolutions: The flotsam of the year end brings to mind the choice to reflect on a life. My life, the lives of friends, the still life of words not spoken or dances not unwrapped. I choose not to make resolutions. I tend to dissolve into a puddle of anticipation.

I anticipate: love, being with someone in anger and hearing their voice, potential to be part of change for the better, being mindful of what my body needs, challenging those I love to challenge themselves and rise up from complacency, accept head spinning laughter and deep sadness as part of being human, not tolerating bullying by peers or anyone in a position of power or authority, making a difference by being me, breathing, accepting rigid ideas as the walls some choose to hide behind, recognizing all of my gifts, abide with Roger (that makes sense from a prior post- trust me, his life is very important), accepting that mistakes happen as I learn, beginning each day by being curious.

Quite a puddle ;)


Of course, if 27% don't make resolutions, that meant that 73% of us do.  Given our failure rate (I can see the failure rate in the drop in visits to the U of R FLC by the end of February), why do we do this?  The "On Fiction" blog suggests that the time between Christmas and New Year's prompts us to tell stories about our life:  about the past year and about the future we'd like to create.  I like to think of New Year's as a kind of tune-up of my life choices; it's an admittedly arbitrary time to consider what's working, what's satisfying, and to think about changing what I'm finding frustrating or unsatisfying.  I've made some really practical resolutions in the past, like never letting my cheque register get out of date, that I've kept for years.  Other resolutions, like changing the way I eat and the way I use my time, I need to revisit every year.  But I don't completely backslide.  Several years ago, I decided to stop worrying about whether I would have enough time to do everything I needed to do.  Because worrying it multi-tasking, and human brains don't do that very well; each time we switch tasks, there's a drop in productivity and energy.  So I'd make a list of priorities and simply work at them one at a time.  I'm still doing this, though I continue to feel as if there's always something else that I could have done.  That's what I'm giving up this year:  my dissatisfaction with how many (or how few) hours in the day there are.  I'm going to try to be more mindful about being at peace inside those limitations.  That, of course, makes me think about what's really important to me.  Guitar practice or appliquing a quilt I've been working on for several years?  I'll go with my gut, rather than trying to over-think it.  And perhaps I'll take Thoreau's advice about time as well as about things:  "Simplify! Simplify!"  And in the meantime, I'll remember that it takes about eight weeks to change a behaviour, so I won't simply throw up my hands and tell myself what a failure I am.

Craig and Mark Kielburger, the founders of the Canada-wide "We Day," made a great suggestion in last Monday's Globe and Mail.  Rather than making our resolutions about ourselves and then feeling a failure because we can't keep them, why don't we resolve to take some opportunities to help others.  Here's what they said:


"This year, consider resolving to make more socially conscious choices. Little ones and big ones. Often or occasionally. Instead of a better you, try aiming – modestly or boldly – for a better world, starting with you.

"Sounds intimidating? Try this: Choose organic meat or eggs next time you shop. Just one time and already you’re healthier, the animals are happier, and the environment is cleaner. Or turn down the thermostat and throw on an extra layer to compensate. You’ve saved money, fought climate change and made Grandma happy because you’re wearing the sweater she made.

"The more you do, the better you feel, and the more resolutions you keep.
"Otherwise, it’s the same as any other resolution: Start small, with concrete first steps, and gather your own momentum. The joy you feel from helping others – a scientifically proven rush of endorphins equal to vigorous exercise known as the “helper’s high” – feeds your next action, until you’re happier, healthier and “better” in whatever way you want to define it." 
I think we need to make some resolutions as a culture, though the various "Occupy" movements began this process for us.  But I'm a bit baffled:  how do we decide as a culture that change is necessary?  And how do we get ourselves moving in the same direction?  Perhaps that questions answers itself (and to some degree was answered by the de-centralized structure of the Occupy movement):  in a democracy, you don't worry about going in the same direction.  But we do need, at this historical moment, to think about going in some direction.  The status quo doesn't cut it.  I can think of two huge things we need to call into question.  First, that the good life is only available for some and that it involves lots of money and power.  Let's make 2012 the year of people who are creative and helpful in small ways.  Second, I'd like to change the way the political process now works and the vacuum in leadership that it produces.  Because everybody is worried primarily about getting re-elected, they're not thinking about providing leadership on the huge questions that face us:  social justice and the opportunity to live peaceful, productive lives for those who are marginalized, and the justice for the planet that supports us all.
Time Magazine made 2011 the year of the protester, analyzing the protests in Arab countries, continuing by exploring the situation of people living in Europe and Russia, ending with a discussion of the North American "Occupy" movement.  I'm going to do a riff on this observation.  Let's make 2012 the year we all protest in varying ways.  Call your MP or MLA about upcoming legislation.  Sign a Lead Now petition.  Refuse to submit to your need for the latest cool whatever. Volunteer and spend the year on "helper's high."  Or ask for help when you need it, rather than suggesting that we all need to be self-sufficient, self-made people, like Jay Gatsby.  Refuse to believe that someone who is different from you--someone whose sexual orientation is different, who lives with mental illness, whose values or circumstances are profoundly different--is "other."  If 73% of people think they need to consider their values and habits, perhaps whole cultures need to engage in asking questions about what matters. 


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Holiday Reading: Midterm report

When I start my feminist theory class, I always begin with the same sentences:  "Men are not the enemy in this class.  We do not do any male-bashing here.  The enemy is our idea of what's 'natural' for men and women."  Then I ask them to try to identify any characteristics or experiences that all women share.  They propose quite a number of shared experiences or qualities--like motherhood or nonviolence--and then become aware of how many exceptions there are.  So they get very basic, down to women menstruating, but then I tell them that young girls who have had cancer and radiation or girls who are anorexic or very thin athletes or ballet dancers don't necessarily menstruate, and we're delightfully puzzled about why we're all sitting in this room talking about women--which is exactly where we should be.  Later I will tell them that our ideas about gender--about what's natural for men or women to feel or experience, about how some behaviours are natural (like men being aggressive and women being nurturing)--are a set of boxes and expectations that imprison all of us. 

One of the early articles that we read is about the number of children born with ambiguous sexuality, and the way the largely male medical profession works to turn anyone ambiguously male into someone more decidedly male. Enter Kathleen Winter and her hermaphrodite Wayne/Annabel.  It's as if Winter took my feminist theory class and really got it--which can't be said for everyone, try as they might.  It's kind of hard to think yourself outside the boxes of gender.  I can do it for other people, especially if they're young, but there are facets to being a stereotypical woman that I actually like.  I like being nurturing and making quilts.  I loved being a mother.  But I would fight long and hard for any other woman's decision to discard or avoid those roles.

I finished Winter's Annabel shortly before Christmas and so I'm trying to tell you about it without having to writer "spoiler alert!" at the beginning of every paragraph.  So maybe I'll stick to the theoretical issues.  Wayne has to take a lot of medication to establish his masculine musculature and voice.  No one's told him exactly what the pills do to him, but it simply doesn't feel comfortable, so he quits.  Then he's dropped into the ambiguity of sex and gender.  Winter does a wonderful job of letting us feel what it's like to be in Wayne's own skin (or letting us imagine we know what it's like to be in his skin), but it's her treatment of society's wildly varying anxiety about Wayne/Annabel's sex/gender that seems to me dead on.  Not surprisingly, the person most uncomfortable about it is Wayne's father, though Treadway also redeems himself brilliantly toward the end.  My one theoretical disappointment is that Wayne's mother, Jacinta, gets no say or role in Wayne's life once he's decided to stop taking the medication and embrace the way his desires (and these are wonderfully varied:  intellectual, aesthetic, and physical) lean toward what we usually think of as feminine.  I realize that Winter is suggesting that men still hold the cards with respect to deciding whether someone is masculine or feminine enough, or whether someone's decisions are valid and acceptable.  But Jacinta would have so loved a daughter, and my heart broke as she became more and more withdrawn after Wayne left their small Labrador community.

On Boxing Day, I began Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, and would recommend it even more strongly.  It's a plot-driven novel, which I don't usually devour (I hate being manipulated into devouring a book by its plot!) but because the plots are so compelling, so tied up in both individual desires and weaknesses and historical horrors, because the plots parallel one another in interesting ways, but defy those parallels in others, it's really a novel about how people choose to act when history throws them into the cauldron of Nazi Germany and the Nazis' quick march into Paris.  Our guide is Syd, a "high yellow" African American (which means he can pass for white unless you think a lot about race and observe him carefully) who plays the bass in a jazz band in Nazi Germany.  Between 1939 and 1940, he has to come to terms not only with Nazi policies regarding negroes and jazz (one example of the decadent art--created by even more decadent negroes--the Nazis cleansed from their culture) and effect an escape from Germany with his fellow musicians, but has to watch as his solid but minor gift is eclipsed musically and romantically by that of Hieronymus Falk, a half-blood German trumpet player who has a remarkable gift. In 1992, he has the chance to reconnect with Falk and to confess (or not) to the way his actions inadvertently put Falk in harm's way, sending him to a Nazi labour camp.  The novel's shift between the two time frames keeps the tension delightfully high, but also draws a possible comparison between Syd's jealousy and rediscovered delight in playing jazz as the group records the "Half-Blood Blues" of the novel's title, and the kinds of personal animosities and hatreds that drive the German "boots" who beat up the band and necessitate their escape from Berlin.  At other levels, there is simply no comparison between Syd's behaviour and that of the Nazi army, and it's this ethical dance that Edugyan won't simplify that keeps us thinking about the characters long after we've finished the novel.

But Half Blood Blues is also about music.  It's about people's need for musicians to express the whole range of human emotions and experiences, regardless of whether they're "decadent" or not.  It's not a simple thing to "rid" Nazi Germany of jazz.  It's also about the particular qualities of jazz, about the way it depends on a group dynamic and the way it invents expression out of thin air when musicians improvise.  It's also about the power of music to be rebellious.  The song they are trying to record when the Nazis march into Paris is based on a poem written and set to music by Horst Wessel, a thug the Nazis try to turn into a martyr after his wife has him shot.  It is a kind of anthem to Nazi nationalism and ideals.  But in the hands of jazzman Falk, it is ironized, and turned into the blues for those who are Nazism's victims.  Although it's believed all the takes are destroyed, a set turns up in the walls of a house undergoing renovations, as if musical expression, no matter how temporary or tenuous, won't be silenced.

I finished reading Half Blood Blues this afternoon, and was strangely and wonderfully aware of the soundscape of that experience as I turned out my reading light and sat in the blue dark with only the lights of the Christmas tree.  There was the silence of newly-fallen snow; there seems to be less traffic on College between Christmas and New Years'.  Sometimes the silence was interrupted by people's tentative attempts to clear walks and the particularly hollow sound of a shovel trying to clear stairs.   Prompted by CBC earlier in the day, I'd decided to put on some Beethoven, and wanting to hear the lovely under-performed Fourth Symphony, I also had to listen to the Third, the Eroica.  Of course I couldn't help thinking about the difference between the carefully-scripted symphony and the improvisation of jazz.  Then came the second movement, Beethoven's funeral march for the men who died in Napoleon's absurd quest to become emperor of Europe, and then I couldn't help hearing the enduring similarities. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holiday Reading


In a teaching year, as I would be watching the pile of exam booklets dwindle, I would also be thinking about what I'd read over Christmas.  I want at least one book of a certain kind:  the kind of novel that so engrosses you that you look up between chapters or when you're called for meals and are surprised at where you are.  If I hadn't already started it, I'd put Kathleen Winter's Annabelle at the top of my list.  It's a remarkable book about a hermaphrodite born in Labrador--and when I write those words I realize that Winter has made Labrador sensuously present (if "Labrador" and "sensuous" aren't an oxymoron) and an unfriendly environment for a hermaphrodite.  (Is there a friendly environment for a hermaphrodite?)  Wayne's father wants a son, a son of a certain kind, so before Wayne is even conscious there's some ambiguity he has surgery that establishes the least problematic masculinity possible.  (And perhaps "least problematic" and "masculinity" are also oxymorons.As are "least problematic" and "femininity.")  Through the life of a young man who finds he's a hermaphrodite only when he's twelve, Winter explores two things at the same time.  One is the arbitrariness of masculinity, which unfortunately is presented to men in the novel (and elsewhere) as a set of inviolable codes--sometimes subtle, sometimes stark--they either live up to or fail to live by.  The other is the complexity of gender--how, if we're honest, most of us don't experience masculinity or femininity in any completely coherent or unproblematic way.  I've gotten to the point where Wayne/Annabelle has graduated from high school and left home, and I'm so engrossed that it's going to be read well before Christmas.

So Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues is the next one on my list.  The premise fascinates me, and I've read the opening paragraphs to make sure that I can hear a voice that will envelope me in its experiences and its world views.  I've often felt irresponsible for reading a page or two of something and deciding whether it will captivate me, as if I'm a style snob or can only accept the perspectives of a narrow range of people.  But I only do this at certain times of the year--usually at the end of a term, when I want to be transported by a voice.  And there's nothing overtly predictable in my judgements:  I don't need a male voice or a female voice; I don't need a particularly educated voice; I don't need the voice of a particular class or political outlook.  I need someone who can sing of the world, someone who is so taken with the world that she or he can't help singing.  Not for me, those times of the year, the reasoned voice of cynicism or satire.  I often say that it's as reasonable to say that the glass is half empty as it is to say it's half full, but at the end of a term I want the half full version.  Perhaps I want to believe that my teaching over the past thirteen weeks has accomplished something, just as I want to believe now that the ideas I've struggled to express will mean something to someone besides me.

During my Christmas reading, I also want one "big" book--something that has a certain kind of scope.  I don't know if Edugyan's book will meet this need, so I'm holding a new translation of Doctor Zhivago in reserve.  I haven't read this novel since the seventies, when I was studying Russian history at the University of Manitoba with a professor who couldn't figure out why I kept talking about fiction.  It's a kind if historical evidence--no?

Some of my reading over Christmas will be done on my new Kobo.  You can blame Hilda Lessways for the purchase.  She's a character in three of Arnold Bennett's novels; Bennett, in turn, is one of the writers that Virginia Woolf criticizes relentlessly.  I thought I should see what she was on about and so read Clayhanger this fall.  I'm sorry, Virginia, but I loved it--mostly.  The end was a bit tedious, as if Bennett was being paid by the word and not by the adroitness of his plotting.  I can see that Woolf, with her modern sensibility, would be put off by the endless detail about daily life in "the five towns," a group of industrial communities where clay ware is made, but I found it soothing to relax into the completely-realized world.  Clayhanger tells the story of Edwin Clayhanger, the son of a printer, as he makes his way in his father's business, leaving behind his dreams of becoming an architect.  Quite early on--and much against his will--he falls in love with Hilda Lessways, marrying her in the end and after seeminly endless complications.  Hilda Lessways tells this story from Hilda's point of view, and I'm naturally anxious to see what Bennett will do with a woman's life.  But alas, the U of R library doesn't have a copy of Hilda, so I am forced to depend on Project Gutenberg.  I have no idea whether I'll like an e-reader, but I think it's time to find out.


But I'm going to inaugurate my Kobo with Thoreau's Walden Pond.  You can't imagine Thoreau and a Kobo?  Have you seen the reconstruction of his hut at Walden?  It's about the size of a small bedroom.  It has a single bed, a stove, a bookshelf, a small cupboard, a table, and a chair.  Looking in the door, you wonder what else one needs.  Thoreau has a saying that has skulked around my life for around the last year:  "Simplify!  Simplify!"  His motto has prompted me to clean out my fabric stash and send anything I won't use to the quilt guild, to edit my cookbooks and bring them to the third floor of the university where they disappear rather quickly, to get rid of kitchen tools I no longer use.  My  Kobo is an effort to simplify.  I can slowly bring my Hemingway, my Fitzgerald, my Hardy to the third floor and try to seduce some eager undergraduate to take them home.

I didn't think I'd need to do this wishful thinking this year as I brought my chapter on Woolf's Between the Acts to a close.  But both writing and teaching demand that you are fully, deeply yourself; they relentlessly demand that you  muster all your intellectual and emotional resources in a way that's sometimes exhausting--though, of course, it's a satisfying, exhilarating exhaustion.  So I want to be somebody else for a while over the holidays; I want to inhabit and explore another world altogether.

The photograph at the top is of a Christmas quilt I've been appliquing and quilting as the days get shorter for the last four years or so.  The figures on the bottom are a shepherd, a sheep, and a charming donkey that come from folk artists around Atlanta.


The black and white photograph of Walden Pond was taken by Veronica Geminder.  You can find more of her work here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Archeology


This December, my memories have run riot, in part because the Saskatchewan weather has been much more like the Michigan winters I grew up with and in part because this is the first Christmas I'm spending "orphaned into my mortality" as my good friend Deb put it.  I've been finding since my mother's death last February that memories of my parents are rich, warm presences that seem to rise out of nowhere in my daily life.  Veronica thinks this is because I don't have to worry about them any more--I don't have to worry whether my dad will eat or wonder how my mother's angry despair at losing her mind feels to her or how it will effect the people around her--and I suspect my daughter is right.   In any case, getting our Christmas tree up last Friday started a flood of memories.

When I was in junior high school and had a long walk to school in the morning, I had to get up before anyone else.  Do you remember those fifties burnished, coloured metal glasses with their curving rims?  Perhaps you still have a set at the cottage because they're indestructible?  I learned that I could make very good eggnog by putting my milk, egg, honey, and nutmeg in the metal glass, and using a single beater on my mother's mix master to make it frothy in less than a minute.  Once the Christmas tree was up, I'd have my eggnog in the dark in front of the tree, which my mother had decorated with nothing but blue lights--the large heavy kind you had to attach to each branch, getting sap all over your fingers.  She'd copied the idea from my childless, creative Aunt Hazel, giving us the most stylish tree in our neighbourhood.  Bringing a tree indoors has always seemed to me a magical accident:  our admission of the way the natural world gives its beauty to our daily lives.  Sitting alone in the dark with only the blue lights tinting the grey walls gave me time to simply be with this odd beauty that was half nature, half ritual, and half longing for something I couldn't name.  If I had time or was bored, I'd run my fingers around the edges of the smaller parcels to see which were books.  In a time when only hardcover books were printed, you could always tell a book by the dip between the covers, which you could feel through the wrapping paper.

Christmas also marks my first Academy Award performance.  One Christmas Eve, my father decided to polish his shoes before he and I went to see his Aunt Nell.  Polish then came in bottles, and was spread on shoes with a fuzzy round applicator at the end of a twisted wire.  We'd just had new carpet put in--a very taupe-y grey which my mother was proud of because of its elegance.  Of course the bottle tipped and made a large stain on the new carpet.  Argument ensued, in spite of the fact that my mother thought that Christmas Eve was "the most magical night of the year."  Perhaps because my mother thought it was the most magical night.  Noisy arguments were rare in my childhood, and perhaps all the more terrifying because they were rare.  Or perhaps it was terrifying because conflict is always terrifying for a child.  I knew my father would never give in and admit he'd been foolish because he was never wrong (men weren't in those days), and I could see that Mother was not going to let this go.  It was an affront to her every effort to give us a beautiful home.  So I very calculatingly burst into tears.  I remember, oddly, deciding that this was the only way to change the subject.  And of course it worked.

But beyond these memories that come flooding back, there's the archeology of the box of Christmas decorations.  I still have a few glass ornaments my first husband, Dan, and I bought in Boston for our first Christmas tree, and they still bring back the mood of shopping in tony Cambridge, feeling both free to create my own traditions and student-poor.  There are the ornaments we bought the Christmas I was pregnant--a small wooden train car, a wooden rocking horse, and a fuzzy teddy bear.  Then the ornaments that marked Veronica's first Christmas--a blue satin giraffe that comes from another land altogether, and a little girl in an oversize rocking chair.  These memories spin out of control, bringing with them glimpses of Veronica's Christmases as a little girl.  There is the flock of sheep bought over the years of Christmastime visits to Atlanta and the hand-carved wooden Santa Clauses my sister sent me.  There are the ornaments Bill and I bought together the first year his family's Christmas decorations mingled with mine.  There are the hand carved wooden Santas that Bill put in my stocking one Christmas, and the Santas that Veronica buys each year.  She still remembers where she got them, and we tell the stories as we put them on the tree.  There are the decorations that are not there, particularly a large glass ball my mother bought me; several years back the fully-decorated Christmas tree fell over, breaking some of the glass ornaments.  I wasn't there when it happened, so Bill and Veronica still talk about the slow motion shock of seeing the Christmas tree beginning to topple and their sense that, slo-mo as it was, there was nothing they could do to stop it.

Stories.  That's the archeology of Christmas.  Some of the stories we don't tell one another but simply fondle in our minds as we find the right space for a heavy ball or a long hand-blown glass icicle.  Some memories are too brief and fleeting to even call stories:  it's so hard to explain the aura of memory surrounding a bell or a bird.  It's a memory that has fragments of weather or a loved-one's gesture or even the mood of a particular phase of our lives clinging to it stubbornly.  The Santa Clause who has a night-time village painted around the edge of his long robe has a whole story, and we tell it over again, perhaps as a kind of protection for or an affirmation of the stories we can't tell.   It's what we do to comfort ourselves and re-create family and community at this dark time of the year:  tell stories.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Home Alone


I have to admit that I've never seen the whole movie "Home Alone,"--just clips on airplane screens.  But working on my book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics last Friday made me feel as if I were home alone.  I have never felt so profoundly that a chapter--in this case on Woolf's final novel, Between the Acts, which I see almost as her artistic manifesto--was thin and trivial, and that there was no one there (like my thesis supervisor) to help me do a reality check.  I was home alone.  So I came in on Monday to take a second look and discovered that I was right:  thin and trivial it was.  Back to the sources.  I re-read Woolf's diaries and essays from the period (as a scholar you don't even write the name "Virginia Woolf" without reading the five volumes of diaries and the six volumes of essays.  Reading the five volumes of letters would also be a good idea.) to see what she was thinking about the role of art as she watched the rise of Fascism across the channel.  Her husband Leonard was Jewish, so they had extra petrol and plans to commit suicide together if Hitler invaded England.  They also listened to his broadcasts, hearing his hysterical voice and the crowd's equally hysterical response.  Wonderfully, the essays from the time, "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid," and "The Leaning Tower" as well as her diaries from the time reveal her profound ambivalence.  She sometimes felt that "Thinking was her fighting."  At other times she felt that the reader's inattention to art during times of chaos made it impossible to write.  Taking my time, reading and re-reading, I wrote this paragraph about Woolf's biography of the great art critic Roger Fry who was one of the first people to begin to articulate a theory of the autonomy of art:


Society may make “statements and send…forth instructions, edicts, laws, definitions,” but the autonomous work of art, through its use of formal strategies that are a declaration of independence from the exigencies  and discords of life can send forth “counter-statements” (Donaghue 114).  Certainly, Woolf’s diaries reveal a tense awareness of Hitler’s “instructions, edicts, laws,” of his anti-Semetic policies, and of his pursuit of dominance and war, made all the more dramatic and intense because the well-informed Woolfs could hear Hitler’s voice—sometimes “mere violent rant,” other times “a savage howl”—on the radio (Diary 5 169).  At the same time, however, Woolf thinks of her work on Fry’s biography as a reasonable (if inadequate) antidote to Hitler’s and Fascism’s unreasonable behavior.  As early as September of 1938, when events in Europe suggested that “Hitler meant to slide sideways into war,” Woolf wrote in her journal that “To oppose this with Roger my only private position.  Well thats [sic] an absurd little match to strike” (Diary 5 170).  In September of 1939, shortly after Hitler had taken Dantzig, Woolf wrote that “this is bosh & stuffing compared with the reality of…writing, & re-writing one sentence of Roger.  So this experiment proves the reality of the mind” (Diary 5 233).  Three days later, having felt demoralized, horrified, and rebellious, she reflects “And the only contribution one can make—This little pitter patter of ideas is my whiff of shot in the cause of freedom” (Diary 5 235).  Writing Roger Fry, a kind of meditation upon the man who both understood and advocated the formal qualities of art, qualities that guaranteed art’s autonomy, and upon the man whose lectures represented “the best way of checking Nazism” (Letters 6, 414-415), might seem like a small gesture in the face of the events leading up to the war, but these comments suggest she believed that such a gesture was perhaps one of the most significant one could make because the autonomy of art, boldly put, guarantees the critical independence and freedom of both the artist and the reader.  

I had asked a simple question of Between the Acts and I'd gotten a simple answer.  Once I asked a more complicated question and had found the evidence of Woolf's ambivalence, I could begin to write a much stronger chapter.  I share this experience here for a couple of reasons, mostly because I suspect that many of my regular readers are also writers or creative people of one sort or another.  My first lesson is to listen to your own critical inner voice.  It's easy--particularly when your words look so nice and finished on the computer screen--to silence that voice and be unwilling to ditch a lot of material and start over.  But Woolf's sense that art mattered at this horrific moment is something we should all remember.  There may be no Hitler in the wings, but your ideas, perspective, viewpoint, queries and questions matter.  So when you know that you're cheating, when you're pretending with every tap of your fingers on the keyboard that you're being profound but part of you knows this is a lie, listen to that inner critical voice.  


The second thing I learned is that if you ask a simple question, no matter how good your analysis of a text or how careful your observation of human nature, you get a simple answer.  So ask complex questions, because that too matters.  As the Occupy Movement has suggested, there aren't simple answers to the most important questions--questions about equality, freedom, opportunity, justice.




Finally, once you've asked your complex and important question, keep going.  The paintings I'm using to illustrate my post are by Lowrie Warrener and are now on display at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon.  Veronica and I went to Saskatoon this week for our annual Christmas shopping trek, and yesterday morning after she went off to her library meeting I went to the Mendel.  If Warrener isn't a name that you know, don't feel that your visual literacy is in question.  He worked with the Group of Seven, particularly Lismer, but he more or less gave up when he was 31 because he wasn't achieving success--whatever that is.  When I saw "The Happy Cottage," the painting at the top of the post, I couldn't help smile.  I don't think Warrener is asking complicated questions:  who can, at 31?  But he's working on the technique and vision to capture a mood that would stand him in good stead if he hadn't decided instead to sell pencils for the Eagle Pencil Company.




So listen to your critical voice, ask complex questions, and keep going.  You know, even if an extraordinary work of art or criticism doesn't come of this practice, you'll be a better, more creative thinker because of it.  And heaven knows, in this historical moment, we need critical and creative thinkers.

All creative people are "home alone" in some respects.  It isn't a very comfortable feeling, but the result is something your community needs.

Monday, November 28, 2011

November Paradox


Because the leaves turned and fell so gradually this year, it seemed as if I could actually see that each day there was a little more light coming in my windows, sometimes reflected off the golden leaves under the trees.  The clarity that winter brings was so apparent this weekend, with light that studied the texture of bark, the rustle of grasses, the transparency of the dried leaves that hung on my clematis.  The light and the warmer weather encouraged me to stay outside and study the world instead of huddling inside, noting the pebbled surface of snow, how solid and stubborn it had become in the warmer weather.  I filled the bird feeders and stayed outside to watch the nuthatches and the single pine grosbeak peck at the seed.  Three or four flocks of pigeons flew in clustered scallops; as they turned, their wings were silvered with the light

But November changes when the blue hour arrives.  If I'm not cooking, I sit in the living room, probably with a cat or two, and watch that unusual, indescribable blue come over my back yard.  The birds are long gone, and the wind has probably died down.  So the back yard is still.  I can't decide whether the blue is serene and comforting--because I can only see it from indoors--or a kind of implicit threat.  Dennis Arbuthnott, a counsellor I talked to about Soul Weather and about the effect of weather on our moods, says that everything gets harder for us in November.  It's harder to see our lives and our actions clearly; it's harder to have the energy for the things that must be done; it's harder to exercise self-control. 

This November, I've found myself flooded with memories at the most unlikely moments.  When I'm waiting for Veronica to pick up special food for her cat.  When I'm sitting at a red light.  When I'm driving in the dark in an unfamiliar neighbourhood.

The other night when I was lost somewhere on the western edge of Lakeview, I remembered driving with my father to see his Aunt Nell on Christmas Eves, driving somewhere we never went otherwise, a sampler box of Whitman's chocolates with its cross-stitched cover on my lap.  Wherever it was we had to go, there were Christmas lights (something fairly rare in the fifties) that glittered and winked, lighting up my vague unease.  I was still young, so my impression of her living in a dormitory about the size of an elementary gym is probably quite inaccurate, but I know that the large room was full of beds and that there was no privacy. One had the vague sense that her living here was punishment for something, probably for being old and unwell.   My sister Karen has filled in some of the anxiety this memory brings:  my father visited her faithfully every year, and Christmas Eve really didn't start until we returned--something my mother resented.  But there's another mood in this memory that I can't quite name.  I have no sense that my father went to see her regularly; I only remember these Christmas Eve visits.  So this silent, capable man who is driving us:  what is he thinking?  Is he feeling guilty for not visiting at other times of the year?  Does he see this as a simple duty he must discharge?  What role does my mother's impatience play in this pilgrimage?  What is his tie to Aunt  Nell, given that he lost his mother when he was in his early teens?

This summer while I was at St. Peter's Anne Pennylegion said that we all grieve differently and that grief takes on quite different forms.  When my father died four years ago, I felt mainly relief.  He had been absent for several years and had been getting his nourishment by a feeding tube because he so often refused to eat.  Except one afternoon when I listened to the Faure Requiem, a piece of music he loved, or when I caught snatches of the Brahms Violin Concerto, another favourite, I didn't really grieve my father.  I told myself that this was because I mourned him each time I left Atlanta, and indeed I have a trail of poems to prove this.  But now I think that my mother's death has left me with the freedom and clarity (it's a long story) to see him more warmly.

November has its morning blue hours:  I sit with a cat and a cup of coffee, having finished the newspaper but not feeling quite ready to rush into the day.  And I can watch the morning blackness turn to blue.  And then in some moment when I'm not looking--perhaps I'm reading already, or perhaps Twig is sitting in my lap looking intently at my face and I'm returning the look, and the blueness lifts and clarity returns.

My father thought his daughters could do anything they set their minds to.  He believed we needed a university education:  to tell you how rare that was, I'd have to say that none of my cousins on either side of the family went to university.  He made me his buddy when he worked around the house, so I can now re-wire sockets or install new lights.  I'm not a bad carpenter:  I can cut molding at an angle and even have my very own mitre box.  He loved the Brahms Violin Concerto, and often put it on in the evening after I went bed.  But he also loved Quackity Sax.  I think I'll leave him with his contradictions intact, and simply turn the memories over in my hands and my mind when they come.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mindful Sundays


When I was a kid, my poor father complained about never getting enough sports.  The three women in his family would whine "Do we have to watch this?" unless the University of Michigan was playing in the Rose Bowl.  Now I love football Sundays.  Bill, who retains his loyalty to the Blue Bombers from his Winnipeg days, wanted to spend the afternoon watching the two semi-final games for the Grey Cup.  Now of course he's in a great mood, thinking about how Winnipeg is going to "whup" BC next weekend, though he's also a little nervous about the home team advantage.

But what I love about football Sundays is the opportunity to go guiltlessly to my workroom and spend time reading and working on quilts.  Today I was trying to get the blocks for the bluegreygreen quilt into rows that I could then "marry," as my mother used to call it, before I created a border of blocks turned on point.  I'm about half done.  As I pieced, I watched the sun move across the floor.  Sheba, who has her spot at the narrow end of the ironing board, supervised while Twig slept on the end of the bed.  I'd take breaks reading Frances Itani's Requiem or practicing the guitar.  Time stretched like a lazy cat in the meditative space I created.

Matching up those tiny triangles at the corner of the blocks kept my fingers busy, allowing my mind to drift over my thoughts about Requiem:  about how I'd have liked the narrator's voice to be less formal and more visual, but how important and touching the story is.  Bin Okuma seems to lose everything three times over:  first when his family is rounded up and interned in the interior of British Columbia.  Not only is their house and fishing boat taken, but the family is charged for towing the boat to the Navy yard.  The community they belong to on the Fraser River finds ways to house themselves and earn money growing tomatoes and keeping gardens.  While the outhouses continue to be terrifying for Bin, the community does manage to create bath houses and root cellars.  His second loss occurs on the happiest day of his life, a day when his father has put aside his characteristic anger about Bin's dreaminess.  We learn this is only because Bin is being given away to an elderly widower who has no children.  Though growing up in Okuma-san's household is much more peaceful, although his new father manages to find paper so he can draw, Bin's anger at being given away coexists right beside his gratitutde for Okuma-san's generosity and patience, for the introduction to art and music that he experiences in his home.  Finally, the loss that precipitates the "road trip" story that holds the novel together is the death of his wife Lena.  Requiem is a story that repays thought while you fingers feel the seams to make sure they're meeting in just the right way:  a story about loss, about the redemption of art anbd music, about the difficulty of letting go, about home and the various kinds of homelessness, about what our culture does to those who are different.

Perhaps it's ironic, but I also spent quite a lot of that time thinking about the future of the Occupy movement.  What could be more representative of home, besides bread or soup, than a quilt?  And what could be more "un-home-like" than living out of a tent in a public space and asking whether our society really does what it  can to make everyone feel at home?  And what could make them feel less like an integral part of the fabric of society than to have the police move in and put eviction notices on their tents--when they weren't taking them down and putting them in the trash?

I'm hopeful that the Occupyers will find other ways to help their ideas remain visible; some groups seem to already have spent time thinking about how they'll cope with this expected outcome.  Yet in this time of tweets and sound bites, our attention span is ridiculously short:  if the media doesn't keep its ear to the ground about what this group is thinking, the momentum will be lost, and I'm afraid the media doesn't care a lot about what's not in our face.  But at the same time, this idea that can't be evicted tells us that we have to change our way of thinking.  Even if they continued to live in their tents, the change has to be supported by those of us who vote.

First, we have to stop thinking about taxes as a dirty word.  They are, rather, the cost of our collective well-being.  Some of the most highly-taxed societies in the world, like Norway, also have the greatest sense of well-being, which is another way of suggesting that individual wealth and success shouldn't perhaps be the most important item on our agendas.

We have to stop thinking of leadership as what you do or don't do in order to get re-elected four years from now.  Leadership requires long-term thinking and a willingness to take some risks for the collective good.  Yet we continue to elect governments based on immediate promises (often for no new taxes) rather than long-term vision.

While capitalism seems to be the best system human beings have created, it's far from perfect, particularly in the current form that emphasizes the individual's success and the individual's needs and desires.  So we're really going to need to re-think the relationship between individual desires and society's well-being.  Interestingly, Requiem has some sense of what that might be like: a group of sixty families in shacks backed up against a mountain managed to have enough to eat and continued the education of their children even under very difficult circumstances.  Minimalism helps you figure out your priorities, whether you're in an Occupy camp or unjustly interned in the middle of nowhere. 



On another note altogether, people have been asking whether there will be something akin to a Ken Probert Scholarship.  To answer that question, I'm simply going to paste in an email from the English Department Head, Nick Ruddick:

Before his death, Ken Probert gave $10,000 to the U of R towards a new English Dept. scholarship. This gift will now be used to create the Dr. Ken Probert Memorial Scholarship, with the English Dept. itself to decide the scholarship criteria. The current fundraising target for this scholarship is $5,000. This amount, added to Ken’s gift and with all funds then matched by the University, will generate a scholarship of $1,200 per year.

Further information about how we might help achieve the fundraising goal is now available in the Dept’s main office. Please do pass on the news about the scholarship to Ken’s former colleagues and students.


The Department's phone number is 585-4320.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ken Probert


Yesterday was Ken Probert's funeral.  That the Speers Funeral Chapel was full; that the groups represented included a large family (the men wearing brightly-coloured Converse sneakers), many U of R faculty and students, Moose Javians, the Regina writing community, and old time friends and drinking buddies; that the word "generous" was on many people's lips, but that we also said there were parts of his life that eluded us--speaks of his complexity and of a largeness in his life that I don't think he entirely recognized or believed in.

Nick Ruddick came the closest to admitting the mystery of Ken when he said that although Ken regularly dropped the Sunday New York Times or a bag full of New Yorkers on his front porch, although they were hired at the same time after spending a year teaching together at the University of Manitoba, although they worked together for 28 years, Nick didn't know Ken particularly well.  Nick read "regrets" from people like Joan Givner, who remembered Ken's skills in the kitchen and his great recipe collection, and from Bela Szabados, who talked of what it was like to work with Ken on a collection of essays and of the myriad kinds of intelligence he brought to that task.  A former student who became a close friend, Rebecca Gibbons, spoke of Ken's generosity and insight as a professor.  Ken's U of S roommate, Rob Pletch, talked of their post-B.A. days seeing the world together, sharing the fact that Ken had spent two weeks in a cave in Crete--something I certainly never knew. Rob also talked about how Ken would throw himself into projects at Rob's Kenosee Lake cottage, but that he was also ready with a critique of the project--something that seemed more like Ken.  So we glimpsed, in the former part of our celebration of his life:  Ken the encouraging presence for creative writers; Ken the colleague who always knew what one was interested in and brought books, titles, newspapers to your door;  Ken the cook; Ken the editor; Ken the guy's guy who liked football, sailing, projects at the lake.

When Ken retired in 2010, I was asked at the last minute to speak; this was no stretch because I'd long had two favourite Ken Probert stories.  One involved a graduate student of Michael Trussler's who needed an emergency loan for a hearing test.  Ken took $100 out of his wallet, handed it to Michael, and said "I don't want this back, and I don't want anyone to know where it came from."  This was vintage Ken:  the generosity and the self-effacing humility.  The other was frankly autobiographical, but describes an important facet of Ken's personality.  I walked into his office one day and said--not very articulately--"Ken, I can't do this."  Ken closed his door, seated me in his comfy chair, and said "Kathleen, you have to stop trying to be so perfect."  In spite of not giving him much to go in with my cri de coeur, Ken knew exactly what needed saying.  I think Ken frequently knew how it was with us, his colleagues and his students.  For some reason I can only guess about, he didn't want us to know how it was with him.

Ken loved beauty.  In spite of his colour-blindness, it was clear from his conversation that he knew the great works of art and the role their iconography played in our cultural lives.  He loved music passionately and with a catholic taste I hope to be able to emulate when I'm eighty.  (I'll need the next twenty years to work on it.)  He loved Bach's music in particular, especially the Cantatas, and phone calls from Ken were often accompanied by the gorgeous sound of his carefully-constructed stereo system.  He could suss out the beauty from a line of Yeats or Eliot; he grasped and revelled in the beauty of Henry James's thick and complex world view.  He loved the contemporary world of ideas; so frequently a Saturday or Sunday phone call came from Ken telling me about a Canadian author who was being interviewed on CBC Radio.  And I think he simply loved having all this at his fingertips.  Rob spoke of Ken's pipe--an early affectation perhaps, for the man of culture?  Yet Rob was right:  he was never arrogant or elitist about what he knew. 

I've known about Ken's death for five days now, and I still can't take it in.  It saddens me enormously, often when I'm in the kitchen doing something absolutely pedestrian like chopping vegetables with one of the several knives he gave me and think that Ken will never again be part of the beautiful, magical dailiness of life that is sometimes a matter of getting by and sometimes a celebration. At the end of her collection of poems, Men in the Off Hours, Anne Carson writes of thinking about her mother's death at the same time she's looking at some Virginia Woolf manuscripts that have Woolf's cross-outs and revisions.  Carson writes

"Reading this, especially the cross-out line, fills me with a sudden understanding.  Crossouts are something you rarely see in published texts.  They are like death:  by a simple stroke--all is lost, yet still there.  For death although utterly unlike life shares a skin with it.  Death lines every moment of ordinary time.  Death hides right inside every shining sentence we grasped and had no grasp of.  Death is a fact....Crossouts sustain me now.  I search out and cherish them like old photographs of my mother in happier times.  It may be a stage of grieving that will pass.  It may be that I'll never again think of sentences unshadowed in this way.  It has changed me."

Perhaps Ken had insight into my moment of angst because he was also hard on himself.  Yet I've told the story of his comforting words to several graduate students who have gotten to that point in their writing where they're convinced they have nothing important to say.  The story almost always brings first tears and then relief.  Our stories about Ken will remain the crossed-out words that are sustaining.  Please add your own stories here if you wish.

I called the Saskatchewan Writers Guild on Thursday to see if they had any photographs of Ken hosting one of the many reading series, offering introductions that were insightful, quirky, and always always generous.  They could only give me a photograph to "publish" on my blog if they knew who had taken it, and this came down to the very dated photo you see above.  Ken was the host of the Signature Reading Series at the MacKenzie Art Gallery.  I had been here only a year and was reading from my first book of poetry.  I remember him saying that I already had a reputation as a fine teacher--words that encouraged me in some of the dicey moments we all have in the classroom.  The other people are Rosemary Sullivan and Brenda Riches, who also died far too young, on the left.  The photograph was taken by Christiane Laucht Hilderman in 1991.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Jamie Parker at St. Cecelia

We have water in the basement again.  I inherited a rented water heater when I moved to Regina in 1990, and was told it was a good idea:  that our hard water was hard on water heaters.  It had begun to look alarmingly rusty about a year ago, and I talked to the company about this, but they told me that as long as they continued to service it, it would be fine.  Skeptical, but also wanting a more energy-efficient furnace and water heater, I decided about six weeks ago to go through the environmental audit in preparation for new ones.  I will get a new furnace and water heater tomorrow.  Which is, of course, why the old water heater started leaking yesterday.  We had quite a mess before we even discovered it, and spent yesterday (and last night, taking it in turns) emptying every hour the only thing that would fit under the water heater and catch the drips:  a 9 X 13 baking pan.

Which is why we threw caution to the winds last night and went to hear pianist Jamie Parker, who was playing in the new St. Cecelia series.  We came back to a small lake, but it was worth it.

As you have doubtless figured out, I have some strange habits.  One is to go to concerts of course for the music, but also to people watch.  I'm curious about what people take away from concerts.  These concerts are scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sunday night, which is perhaps one of the reason there were so many relatively young kids there, as well as quite a few adolescents.  It was charming to listen to young beefy men and willowy girls with their long hair on top of their head talk about the repertoire they were working on, and how close they were getting to nailing it  It was moving to watch the five-year-olds melt into their mothers' arms and listen sleepily, or even stand up and move in time to Parker's wilder choices.  But mostly I'm simply curious about how we respond to something as mathematically abstract as the 12 notes of our octave.  I blame Diane Ackerman for this.  Thinking about whale song in her gorgeous essay "Moon by Whale Light," she considered the mystery of whales' need to sing in a rather metaphysical way.  Whales have huge brains, and brains take a lot of energy, so what are they doing with them? Here's my favourite quotation about consciousness:

"After all, mind is such an odd predicament for matter to get into.  I often marvel how something like hydrogen, the simplest atom, forged in some early chaos of the universe, could lead to us and the gorgeous fever we call consciousness.  If a mind is just a few pounds of blood, dream, and electric, how does it manage to contemplate itself, worry about its soul, do time-and-motion studies, admire the shy hooves of a goat, know that it will die, enjoy all the grand and lesser mayhems of the heart?  What is mind, that one can be out of one's?  How can a neuron feel compassion?  What is a self?  Why did automatic, hand-me-down mammals like our ancestors somehow evolve brains with the ability to consider, imagine, project, compare, abstract, think of the future?  If our experience of mind is really just the simmering of an easily alterable chemical stew, then what does it mean to know something, to want something, to be?  How do you begin with hydrogen and end up with prom dresses, jealousy, chamber music?  What is music that it can satisfy such a mind, and even perhaps function as a language?"

Our love of music is physical.  When I was at Banff, working on that grand piano, I remembered the physical pleasure of  playing relatively simple things on a wonderful instrument.  (I need to get my own piano tuned.)  What I love about the guitar is holding it up against my body, so the sound resonates throughout me, as well as in the air around me.  But there are still a couple of mysteries.  Why does Brahms speak to my body, while Bill Evans or U2 speak to yours?  How are these languages our bodies and minds translate?  I'm sure some of it is almost universal.  Give a piece of music a driving beat, whether it's the line of a bass guitar or octaves in a classical pianist's left hand, and we all have the same urge to move.  Some of it is surely cultural.  You know that it's way more hip to listen to Lady Gaga than to Debussy; to some degree your taste is shaped by the musical culture around you.  Yet how can I, the classical nerd par excellence, know that a song by Arcade Fire or Moonalice is fabulous?

Jamie Parker confessed to being a night owl.  He usually practices, he told us, between 9 p.m., when he puts the kids to bed, and 3 a.m.  Then he takes the dogs for a walk.  So appropriately he'd given us a program of music associated with the night:  from Schubert's Traumerei or "Dreams" to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, whose presto he played at breakneck speed--letting the dogs out, he called it.  This thematic approach allowed him to play some things we wouldn't hear on the standard "two sonatas" program, including some I can actually play, like the Brahms Opus 118 "Intermezzo."  So he clearly wasn't going for a program that would impress us, but rather one that allowed us varied occasions for reflection, thought, and daydreaming of our own.  He played each piece as if it was a gem that deserved all of his musical, thoughtful attention and every tonal colour the piano could provide.   His informal program notes were in turns informative, touching, and playful.  At one point, he even made the sound of a Hungarian frog Bartok refers to in his "The Night's Music" from his "Out of Doors Suite."  There was lots of solid information about how the music worked, but also confessions about how the music had moved him.  It was worth the lake when we got home, and gave us a much needed balm, a reminder of the way beauty and art can sustain us and are really more important and much more enduring than relatively unimportant inconveniences (in the grand scheme of things) like water in the basement.

So I'm thinking about Ackerman's whales again.  Somehow scientists have concluded that there's information in whalesong, though we haven't been able to decode it.  Perhaps the whales are more interested, though, in soothing or expressing; maybe this is a whale's version of a purr of satisfaction over tasty plankton or a slipstream of water that strokes them in a pleasurable way.  Maybe they're waiting for the water cooler to arrive.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Play

What do Halloween, the World's Series, my cat Sheba and art critic Dave Hickey have in common?









A celebration of play, of playfulness.  Play, particularly play that is purposeful and rule-bound, is often thought of as one of the things that makes humans different from the rest of the animals, but two of my cats, Sheba and Ivy,  have both challenged this idea.  Each of them created "rules" for their play that made it more challenging.  Sheba's idea of a good time is to bring me one of her crinkly mylar balls, drop it at my feet, and go stand in front of one of the chairs in the living room.  The rule is this:  when I throw the ball, she'll be standing on the floor.  But by the time the ball is over the chair, she'll be in it and will bat the ball off somewhere else that makes it interesting to scuttle and chase.

Even if we're not cats, we need to play.  Play allows us to make things complicated, to ask "what if?" to stir things up a little, even to translate one inexpressible perception or feeling into another that comes closer to expression.  Play seems to be very close to both art and craft.  In fact, the kind of play we do may determine whether we're working in the arts or the crafts.  The crafters will kill me (but leave a comment below before you do), but I'd say the play of craft is more whimsical and less risky.  It doesn't take itself terribly seriously.  You can knit socks for sign posts, or cover a bus in knitted graffiti without saying anything in particular, or with the intent of leaving a trenchant message.  "Content" isn't a big deal; meaning is even less than a big deal.  Just have fun, and leave a trace of that sense of fun on the world.  Google "guerilla knitting" and see how much fun people are having.  Some of the fun has meaning, but it doesn't worry about meaning.

Of course, Halloween costumes (given that mothers don't always have time and expertise) lean toward the commercial:  there are Supermen and Spidermen and the easy ghost. But my colleague Medrie is an ace seamstress and her son Rowan has an outside-the-box imagination, so he was a Jedi-Triceratops.  That is, he had a wonderful dinosaur costume but also carried a light sabre.  Apparently the original "guising" or wearing of costumes stems from a time when it was believed that souls wandered the earth, some of them seeking vengeance, until All Souls' Day.  The living dressed up so they wouldn't be recognized by the vengeful (not the Grateful) dead.  I'm having trouble following the line from this Sixteenth-century practice and a kid in a triceratops costume, but maybe I'm not being playful enough.  Perhaps one affirmation of life is play.


What is certain is that even as adults we need to play.  In a walk down Thirteenth Avenue on Tuesday (my brain, exhausted with aesthetics, was offline, so I needed to walk), I stopped into Paper Umbrella, a place that encourages play in wonderful ways.  The little easel by the desk had a notice about a Saskatchewan Bookbinders and Book Artists' event, so we talked casually about how much people need to be creative and playful.  He told me that there are quite a number of groups that meet to encourage play, one of them devoted entirely to paper.  Trying to find information on the bookbinders' event, I ran into another one also occurring this weekend.  So you can take your pick and go to the True Knit Art Show 3:  Craftermath  on this weekend at the Riddell Centre, offering us "renegade art and craft from great local artists."  On the same day, the Saskatchewan chapter of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists' Guild will have a show of hundreds of handmade books at 42 McMaster Place between 1 and 4.

The quilt at the top of the post is called "Sunflowers in the Night Garden."  It was made for my wonderful sister-in-law, Gloria, who has this thing for sunflowers.  But of course play, as Rowen well knows, involves doing something differently; it's a kind of jazz riff on the world of appearances, the world of stereotypes and cliches.  So I couldn't just make Gloria a quilt that looked like real sunflowers, straining, as they always do, toward the sun;  I wanted to think about sunflowers at night.  And instead of trying to make fabric look like real sunflowers, I used a traditional Mariner's Compass pattern to simply suggest sunflowers.  Your eyes have to play a little bit as you look.


This is one of my more recent "what if?" quilts.  The pattern is a conventional "log cabin," which usually begins with a red square in the middle and then builds up the block in strips of light or dark fabric.  As the name suggests, it's a very North American design, most often made in bright calicoes.  But what would happen if I combined the American design with the softness of Japanese fabrics? 






In a recent post, I tried to wax eloquent about the fall colours I was seeing.  I even tried taking photographs, but they were, as photographs, too washed out.  So I asked another "what if?" question.   What if I used an American block in a really small scale (the round object is my thimble, so you can see how small the pieces are), along with the soft colours of Japanese fabrics to explore the way you need to see the landscape this time of year?
In his essay, "Frivolity and Unction" (I almost typed that "fun/ction") Dave Hickey talks about a 60 Minutes episode where Morley Safer takes on the pretentiousness of the art world in a Sotheby's auction room.   Apparently Safer's critique was way off base, entirely uninformed, and created quite a righteous stir in the art world.  He queried things like the "emotive content" of abstract art.  But Hickey was okay with it.  In fact, he thinks the art world might be better off if it were a bit more playful.  "We could just say:  'Okay!  You're right!  Art is bad, silly, and frivolous.  So what?  Rock-and-roll is bad, silly, and frivolous.  Movies are bad, silly, and frivolous.  Basketball is bad, silly, and frivolous.  Next question'?"  He thinks that if we take art off its pedestal, next to other things we value, we could talk about it a little more vigorously, a little more adventurously.  It art isn't on a pedestal, we don't need to be qualified specialists to talk about it.  Might that not get a more democratic, more playful conversation about art going?

I took the photograph of that wonderful horse at the Minneapolis Institute of Art this summer. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Happiness and the Good Life 2: Community

On Saturday mornings, Bill and I begin our day by going out for coffee; sometimes we go to Good Earth in the Scarth Street Mall.  This last Saturday, the view was slightly surreal.  The tall homeless man (I'm making a presumption--and no, that's not a slip of the fingers) who stands silently at the corner of 12th and Scarth was there, and we talked about the weather, as we often do, while I dug around for my small contribution to his life.  Across the way, in Victoria Park, were the tents of Occupy Regina, still mostly peaceful.  I imagined what it would be like to wake up on a crisp October morning surrounded by people who shared your passion, your vision, standing around drinking coffee, talking about what mattered.  In my nostalgic haze, I hadn't thought where the hot coffee might come from.

Nostalgic it was:  because if I thought about the last time I felt embraced in such a community, it would be my early years in the English Department at the University of Regina, when we all taught four courses a year (instead of five every other year) and did far less committee work.  Wednesday mornings--because nobody taught on Wednesday--we often gathered in the Faculty Lounge and talked about what mattered:  students, texts, approaches to literature.   We created a community, and is so often the case, that community was created by our response to literature--to art.  Stretching back as far as Kant, the "judgement of taste" as he would have put it, assumed that other people might share your opinion, but that no one needed to.  More recently, in Dennis Donaghue's book Speaking of Beauty, he talks about the fact that a definition of beauty eludes us, so we must talk about it.  In Dave Hickey's Air Guitar, which I've been reading for my work on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics (an odd pairing if ever there was one:  Hickey loves Las Vegas, the one place in the States where he feels at home, and once dealt in psychedelic art), he talks about the feeling that you have when you have read a poem or a story, or have been to a movie or a gallery show, and you say to other people "You've got to see/read/hear this!"  This response makes Woolf and Hickey logical bedfellows, in spite of their obvious differences.  For what else is Woolf's two-volume The Common Reader but an attempt to create a community of readers?  When she heard that the copy of TCR in the Lewes library was spotted and splotched with food, she was delighted.  She had indeed reached common readers.

In the same essay, Dave Hickey told another story about community which entirely charmed me--again, with a sense of nostalgia.  Because he grew up in the fifties, when people kept their windows open during the summer, his father learned that the Jewish woman down the street who had survived the Holocaust shared a passion of his.  Simply put, on summer nights he could hear her playing Duke Ellington 78s.  This led to an extraordinary Sunday afternoon jam session, with Mildred, Hickey and his father and two other Irish dudes, two Latinos, and two blacks toking up and making music.  Unlike the others, Mildred brought an armload of sheet music, and when Hickey whispered about this derisively to his father, his dad told him to shut up.  The more experienced jammers made room for Mildred that afternoon, encouraging her to "take it," and giving her the usual 16-bar space for a solo that never came.  But they never stopped making space for her.  Who knew when she might finally feel enough courage?

This is a fairly long riff on my part, as it moves from my Saturday morning thoughts about community, to nostalgic memories of my early years in Regina, to an aesthetics of community and a 1950s slightly stoned jam session.  But as it turns out, it comes right back to where it began.  Yesterday afternoon I bought some cookies and muffins and went to hang out with the folks who are occupying Regina.  On the basis of 25 minutes of uneasy conversation between an English professor and a couple of guys, I'm not going to make any generalizations about the people who are occupying Regina with their signs that range from telling me not to trip over tent ropes (which I promptly proceeded to do), to assertions that "In Squirrel We Trust" or "This is Democracy in Action."  Interestingly, I talked to quite a number of people who are not occupying Regina, but who came there simply to hang.  One young man said sadly that if his wife would simply let him off his leash, he'd move in tomorrow.  Another young man had brought his kids. 

But Gerry (not his name), whom I talked to longest, said that the response to their occupation has been pretty good.  They have their whiteboard up with things they need, and people often read it, go away and clean out their closets, and then return with needed blankets or sleeping bags.  Gerry often keeps night watch, however, because when O'Hanlons gets out, they can find dudes pissing on their tents.  But a supportive retired couple drove in last week from Fort Qu'Appelle with enormous pans of ham and other hot food.  And apparently there were lots of leftovers from a Knox Met pot luck or fowl supper that got brought over to the group of tents.

There have been complaints that the aims of the "Occupy" movement are unfocussed.  I don't agree.  I think they're critiquing a capitalist system that's way out of tune, and I think they're worried about what we're doing to the planet--since changing our approach to the environment would (shock and awe) cost money (which we could take out of absurd CEO salaries).  But what I saw and heard yesterday, and the daydreams that the quiet collection of tents started in my head was the dream of community.  We could say this about the "Occupy" movement:  that in the place of an excessively competitive capitalism that divides winners and losers pretty ruthlessly, they're offering us a vision of community.  They clean up their park; they chant the words of the people who come to inspire them, they move their tents every couple of days so they don't kill the grass.  In his essay "What is the Good Life?" Mark Kingwell writes "We are, finally, happier not with more stuff but with more meaning:  more creative leisure time, stronger connections to groups of friends, deeper commitment to common social projects, and a great opportunity to reflect.  In short, the life of the well-rounded person, including crucially the orienting aspect of life associated with virtuous citizenship.  Nor is this basic social commitment something we should pursue for ourselves alone, a project simply to promote our personal happiness.  At its best, it is an expression of commonality that creates something greater than the sum of its--let us be honest--often self-interested and distracted members.  It creates a community."