Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mortality, Craftsmanship, and Heidegger

Yesterday afternoon, some time between my reading of Being and Time and my work on the soft blue-green quilt for the bed in my study, my mother died in her sleep.  My sister had gone in to meet potential hospice workers, had arrived early, and so sat by my mother to smooth her sleeping forehead.  She got up briefly to look for something to clean Mother's wheelchair, came back, stroked her forehead again and found it already cool.  So I can add the words "died peacefully" to my mental obituary.

That is, until the emergency team arrived and attempted to revive a nearly ninety-six-year-old woman because it's the law and because the care facility couldn't find the Do Not Resuscitate orders until after the apologetic emergency guys had given up.  There have been times of late when I've watched the university become more legalistic, and observed "we have more rules and fewer principles."  Now I see this isn't simply the university; I'd known about litigious American society, but this was the time it really meant something,

Now I feel as if I'm left with blocks for an unfinished quilt, unread Heidegger, countless questions about what happened when, and my mother's favourite expressions.  My job is to find a form for all this.

Just this morning, I read Heidegger's analysis of how we come to understand being-with:  "This understanding [of co-existence], like all understanding, is not a knowledge derived from cognition, but a primordially existential kind of being which first makes knowledge and cognition possible.  Knowing oneself is grounded in primarially understanding being-with."  I understand why he wants "being-with" almost a priori, but Heidegger is perhaps only partly right here; knowing oneself isn't primordial unless parents and other caregivers are.  I was born in 1950, so knowing myself probably began with my mother.  More heartbreakingly, Heidegger talks about those moments when Da-sein loses itself, something my mother regularly did.   I know I'm reading Heidegger through the lenses of grief, but it's oddly as if grief allows me to see things I might not have noticed before.

It also feels like something has happened to history, as if it's been pulled from the straight, gone cattywampus.  While my mother only sometimes recognized me during my visit for her 95th birthday, all my unanswered questions were only theoretically unanswered.  You've got them too:  what happened the time when...?  What happened to so and so?  Who did you leave me with when you...?  (I don't think I ever saw them again.)  How did you feel when...?  And the big one:  "What's it like now?"  I've been teaching postmodern historiography in my Sixties class, so I've become aware of what Hans Kellner calls "the scandal of general discontinuity."  Kellner is speaking of our belief, on the one hand, that every person and event has left some historical trace that we can find and interpret; we like to believe in this continuity.  The lived reality is that a lot goes missing and never gets found, much less interpreted or interpreted "accurately" (whatever that might mean).

Like a lot of mothers in the fifties (and perhaps like all parents), mine was a mystery.  She had times of extraordinary joyfulness and playfulness and times of significant and debilitating depression which seemed to become worse the older she got, particularly once she and my father retired to Florida, worse again when they moved to Georgia in 2001.  Sometimes, in her anger, she seemed beyond reach, but then she could be suddenly enchanted by the sound of frogs in the Georgia night.  "Come listen" she would say, taking my hand--I who had two minutes before been the enemy who was exhorting her to take her anti-depressants.  Here is the paradox of parents:  on the one hand, they're the stick figures we know completely in our childhood and adolescence, people who are so simple we can read them like a book.  Later, they become much more complicated, but just as we are finally old enough and generous enough to finally ask "What is it like to be you?" they are gone.  When they die, our parents' complexity becomes multiplied like a smiling weeping puppet in a hall of mirrors.

Perhaps because I'm teaching a historical methods class, and because my reading of late has been so preoccupied with memory (see "Literature and Memory" post), my mother's death seems like a synecdoche for all the unobserved and unsung moments in our lives that, like the butterfly in the Amazon, might have led serendipitously to something more important.  Or like all those lives cut short by wars, violent acts, accidents--lives that we will never quite understand.  There's a theorist I quote in my article on Woolf's first experimental novel, Jacob's Room, who talks about the way the language of elegy dissolves around the edges because the place we want to get to--on the threshold to where the loved one is--is beyond language, much less experience.

What has been lingering in my mind and for some time (for I knew this was coming, though not how soon) are my mother's favourite expressions.  She often called me a mugwump, which was "a bolter from the Republican Party in 1884." Where she got the expression I'll never know; she probably liked the sound of it.  When I spent the day in bare feet or went outside without shoes, she would always ask "What are you doing frogging around in your bare feet?"  She talked about bad drivers who took their half out of the middle of the road.  She answered the phone "Joe's Bar and Grill" when she was pretty sure it was my father; sometimes she was wrong.  She called herself "Charlie's hand laundry" and "Chief cook and bottle washer."  She'd give you a Werthers from her stash in the car "To keep the starve-to-death away."

So here's the task I've been avoiding all day today, reading Heidegger, dashing to Golden Willow because I'm almost out of the raw silk I'm making my Crystal Leaves shawl out of (see Woolgathering post--I'll put up a photograph when it's blocked), writing a blog that I hope is not  opportunistic:  I've got to find the poem somewhere that manages to take these words that linger around the edges of my memory of her and manage to get them to articulate the mystery that was her experience of being herself.  In part, it's the perennial challenge of form and content.

Thank you for listening.  It's helped.  At least now I know what I'm supposed to do.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Guerilla Reading

The February break is upon us, and one of the things I hope to find time to do is read:  that completely engrossing kind of reading that ends with your looking up in surprise at discovering where you really are.  You know the kind of reading I mean.  You have walked onto the pages of the book, perhaps as a character or narrator or simply a hidden observer, to watch the events unfold, the characters struggle and triumph and birth and die, the world change for the better or the worse, turning now the young brilliant green of spring or suddenly plunged into the monochrome of winter.  Perhaps you finish the book.  Or maybe you finish a chapter and in the slight pause of turning a page and reading another title you notice that you are hungry or that the light outside has completely changed.  Maybe  your husband stands in the dining room telling you that dinner is ready--a fact you could have discerned if you had taken your head out of the book and smelled the world you are living in.  Your first reaction is surprise.  This is where I've been all this time?  I'd completely forgotten, so whelmed was I by this book, this story, this voice.

In her essay, "Reading," Virginia Woolf talks of another kind of reading altogether.  At the opening of the essay, she's visiting a country house with a distinguished library:  "I liked that room.  I liked the view across country that one had from the window, and the blue line between the gap of the trees on the moor was the North Sea.  I liked to read there.  One drew the pale armchair to the window and so the light fell over the shoulder upon the page....[S]omehow or another, the windows being open, and the book held so that it rested upon a background of the escallonia hedges and distant blue, instead of being a book it seemed as if what I read was laid upon the landscape not printed, bound, or sewn up, but somehow the product of trees and fields and the hot summer sky, the air which swam, on fine mornings, round the outlines of things" (Captain's Death Bed  151-152).  Woolf's description of the book merging with the landscape and in the process becoming unbound, is almost a metaphor for a different kind of reading, one that urges the reader to look up frequently to reflect, to consider the ideas on the page as they merge with the scene before her.  Sometimes I like to do this kind of reading in public places, coffee shops and comfortable chairs around campus, so that the scene before me helps me reflect on the book's relationship to the life I live.

I have some favourite places for what I call my guerilla reading; I've given it that name because I do it at unpredictable times or unusual places--usually places where no one can find me.  Stone's Throw, the coffee house kitty-corner from the U of R campus, is a great place to read poetry the first thing in the morning.  There a luscious decadence to starting the day reading the poems, say, of Don Domanski (most recently).  The ground floor of Research and Innovation Centre at 7:30 of a winter morning is wonderful for reading philosophy.  Between the north and south residence towers, you can watch the sun come up, watch the blinking Christmas lights flicker more and more indistinctly as you consider Heidegger's ideas about being.  It takes a bit of staring off into a space that's becoming saturated with colour to take Heidegger in.  I love the periodicals room on the sixth floor of Archer Library, except that the comfortable chairs in front of the windows are so often taken by sleeping undergraduates.  Coffee houses that give one a view of the street are also good places for guerilla reading.  Sometimes it's just the surprise of the light for the place and the time of day that makes my meditations on the book I am reading and the life I am living so intense and joyful--discovering light and the social life of the city and ideas all at the same time.

Neither the intense reading that forgets time and space nor the more diffuse kind of reading that attends to them are better than one another.  It would be easy to plunk mysteries in one category, philosophy in another, but they're really different relationships to the book, the world, and the self.  I hope to find time for both this week.

Where and when do you do your guerilla reading?  And what will you read this week?

The photograph above was taken in the Mendel Art Gallery's cafe by Veronica Geminder, whose work can be found here.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Craftsmanship and Mortality

My mother, who will be ninety-six next month, fell out of bed a couple of weeks ago in the middle of the night and had to go to the hospital for stitches and to make sure there hadn't been a stroke or some other kind of "episode" that caused the fall.  She hasn't really eaten since then, though she'll drink some chocolate-y Boost or suck on one of those lollypop sponges hospitals provide to moisten people's mouths.  My sister Karen, who is doing all the hard work of going to the hospital in the middle of the night or trying to figure out  the next phase of my mother's care in the confusing context of the U.S. health care system, says the doctor explained two things to her late this week.  First, the body and the mind, whose intertwining we all too often ignore in our healthier years, are almost indistinguishable in our nineties, so that episodes like falling out of bed have a profound impact on cognitive abilities; but when the episode is over, we don't go back to being the same person we were before the minor fall.  The doctor has also suggested that mother's refusal of food is the beginning of the end.  We obviously don't know why, whether she's lost her sense of the point of food, or whether some wisdom not snarled in the dementia says 'I'm tired.' 

First, let's be frank:  for the last ten years, Karen's done the heavy lifting. She's written checks and opened new accounts and filled out endless forms and cut out coupons for Depends--not to mention making frequent and always ill-timed trips to Emergency that are never short.  But that said, being hundreds of miles away has its challenges.  While Karen gives me complete reports, I can't quite grasp what's going on.  I can't simply stop in to see for myself what Mother's demeanour and frame of mind are like.  I have to imagine it.  I have a very good imagination, which is a mixed blessing.  To say someone has a good imagination is not necessarily to say that they have an accurate imagination.  Mine's been working overtime in the evenings and sometimes through the night.

Of course Bill and Veronica have been wonderfully supportive, but they can't simply climb into my head for the hours between 8 p.m. and about 2 a.m. when I wonder.  So I've turned to a resource that I suspect women have called on since time out of mind:  the work of their hands.  I've started a new and very complicated pair of socks.

But it's piecing quilts that has given me the most comfort and pleasure.  Quilting is a combination of zing and zen.  The zen comes at the end with the hand quilting, and as I wrote in my first Craftsmanship blog, when you're quilting by hand, time doesn't matter.  What matters is the size and straightness and evenness of each tiny stitch made with a thread that seems to connect one to every other woman who has tried to still her mind with the zen of hand quilting.  Piecing provides the zing.  The wonderful thing about quilting is that it has perameters--like the designs of particular blocks (there are literally hundreds of these)--that provide a framework for the quiltmaker's creativity.  Choosing fabrics and a block that will show them at their best, combining colour in a way that's harmonious yet unexpected or inventive, sewing the straight 1/4 inch seams and seeing your vision come together as the blocks take shape, deciding how you're going to pull the blocks together and seeing a whole quilt emerge--this is the zing of piecing.

The quilt at the top of the blog is made of baskets; if you look carefully at the design, you can see that many of these are different.  There are probably a dozen ways to represent a basket in the quilter's vocabulary.  This quilt was inspired by the butterfly fabric that you see in panels down the sides of the blocks, but I ended up using most of it to make a small joyful quilt--the colours are bright and snappy--for a friend of mine undergoing chemotherapy.  So I had to find a way to make a quilt with just a little left.  The solution was to make the top borders of an entirely different fabric, and I like the sense of "making it up as I go along" that this border gives the finished quilt.  That's what a lot of quilters do.  The colours in this quilt have given me enormous comfort and cheer over the last couple of weeks.

The two quilts you see above are made in the Amish style--which is to say that you only use plain colours.  I love making Amish quilts because they force you to return to the quilter's most basic vocabulary:  colour.  If you use a lot of black--a classic Amish practice--you can get almost any colours to go together.  The larger quilts, a Sunshine and Shadow, was made years ago.  I've been working on putting together the blocks for the small crib quilt in the last few weeks. 

One of the things that strikes me about Amish quilts is the paradox.  The Amish are a peace-loving people, and they refuse to fight in wars.  Yet their quilts are often characterized by a tension in the colours which makes them feel very modern.  Quite likely the tension sneaks in because they make their quilts out of the scraps left from their everyday sewing:  the quilt is just an instance of making do.  Yet the most gifted Amish quilters make an art out of it.

This photograph is of a quilt that I'm working on now.  It's a simple block, called a four patch.  But I've added small triangles at the corners of the lighest patches to give the blocks a focus when the four-patches are put together.  Here's where craftsmanship comes in big time:  getting all those tiny triangles together to make the little square requires all of one's skills on a sewing machine.  (You can only see the effect in some of the blocks, since I haven't joined them all together yet.)  Here I'm playing with colour yet again.  This quilt will go in a room that is sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes blue-green, sometimes grey, depending on the light.  So I've tried to put all those colours together to make a quiet harmony that still has some life.  The easy work is done:  I have a pile of about 150 of the four-patches.  Now I need to choose four that will go together, choose the fabric for the tiny triangles that will be balanced and harmonious when the block is put together, and get all those little triangles to line up into a square.

Unlike my mother's mortality, making this quilt is simply a problem to be solved.  Sometimes I give in to chance, and simply put together the next four four-patches on my pile.  Sometimes I find myself taking both sides in aesthetic quarrels about harmony and balance and the beauty of unpredictability.  Sometimes I sit down at my sewing machine and I'm only eyes and muscles, trying to sew those triangles accurately into little squares.  I cheer myself on and give myself a thumb's up when it goes well.  I'm not waiting; I'm engaged in the present moment.  Yet paradoxically, this escape brings me closer to her, creating a space where it's safe to think about mortality, to imagine my mother's negotiation of these final days, and to allow memories to float to the surface of my mind where they drift in their startling impermanence. Perhaps this is because craftsmanship threads together the traditions from the past, the present engagement in the making, and the imagination's vision.  Perhaps this is because we will always need the beauty and warmth of quilts.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Telling Stories

Prompted, perhaps, by North Americans' reaction to people of other races after September 11, Princeton Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote Cosmopolitanism:  Ethics in a World of Strangers.  As the title suggests, the central challenge he's trying to elucidate is how we relate ethically to people whose values are unfamiliar to us by virtue of race or religion.  One of the solutions he offers is telling and talking about stories.  Every culture, he points out, tells stories.  When we join reading groups or simply go for beer or coffee after a movie to talk about it, we're engaging in one of the most important things people do:  "evaluating stories together is one of the central human ways of learning to align our responses to the world.  And that alignment of responses is, in turn, one of the ways we maintain the social fabric, the texture of our relationships" (29).  He suggests elsewhere that listening to stories from different cultures and in turn telling our own stories is one of the ways we change the world a little bit without imposing our own worldviews on others.  Stories aren't (or shouldn't be) dogmatic or polemical; readers or listeners can take what they wish--whatever seems to them (in the argot of my students) "relatable."

I'm teaching a class in expository and persuasive writing this term.  Knowing that writing in the academy encourages students to adopt or create a voice that is not natural to them, I begin by having them write narrative and descriptive essays that force them to find their own voices.  The vague multi-syllabled Latinate language of academic writing doesn't convey the immediate experience we hope for when we read a good story, so they're forced back into their Anglo-Saxon roots for strong nouns and precise verbs.  In the age of Facebook status updates and 142-character tweets, I was delighted by the variety of stories they told and by their attention to language and narrative form.  They wrote about listening to stories and to the rhythm of the reader's breath while tracing raindrops down windows in Vancouver and about how this experience changed their relationships to words.  They wrote about struggling with their family's attitudes towards food; about witnessing surgery for the first time; about the family history suggested by an abandoned farmhouse, a few photographs, and a bird that suddenly bursts into the empty house, filling it with mystery and terror.  One young student compassionately described a father's need for alcohol, understanding all the physical and emotional wounds it salved.  I experienced their stories alongside them; my world grew as I marked essays.

One of the reasons we people-watch, I suspect, is that we are witness to mini-stories.  If we apply my own mantra--"Just be curious"--to those tiny moments, we find that we too can be imaginative storytellers for a moment or two, even if only in our own imaginations.  One of Bill's habits, which charmed me shortly after we met online, was his ability to tell humane and whimsical stories about a man driving an old car erratically down the road or a woman walking purposefully under a sun umbrella.  He has a whole troupe of "imaginary friends" whose stories he tells me while we do the dishes at night:  their travels, illnesses, friendships, jobs.  My favourite is the archeologist Dot Savage, though I also love Madge with her erratic travels and health problems she always downplays.  I haven't yet met Madge, but she's coming to town this weekend to have a Superbowl party with some of her 85-year-old friends.  It will be a hoot, Bill tells me.  More hot wings will be eaten there than anywhere else in town.  But they'll use finger bowls.

The photographs are by Veronica Geminder, whose work can be found here.