Monday, July 25, 2011

Weather and Reading

When I returned home from St. Peter's Abbey, I came back to some of the hottest, muggiest days Regina has seen this summer.  The heat called, I felt, for a good mystery:  a book that would relentlessly take my mind off the heavy stifling heat.  Fortunately, I found a copy of Peter Robinson's latest Inspector Banks mystery, Bad Boy.  Robinson, though a Yorkshireman (and he sets his novels in a satisfyingly rainy and damp Yorkshire:  wonderful reading for a hot day), took an English Ph.D. at York University in Toronto and is one of the most literate mystery writers I've read.  Sometimes, as in In a Dry Season, with its references to T. S. Eliot, that literariness makes its way into his novels through their awareness of the literary tradition they join.  Bad Boy, though, is a study in point of view.  It has one of Robinson's less twisting plots; rather the narrative interest comes from our seeing the events from the points of view of different characters, making the novel more human and less of a cold and calculating whodunit.  Since the events flow from the various ways a "bad boy" is seen and experienced by a cast of characters ranging from the Chief Inspector Banks to his daughter, a young woman who might have many reasons for finding a bad boy attractive, to a major drug dealer, the focus on point of view was doubly satisfying.  The novel kept me suitably distracted until the weather broke. 

The milder days left me hungry, I admit, for something more substantial, but also something that wouldn't be (like Proust--I'm well into Volume II) a major investment of time.  I decided to re-read John Banville's Booker Prize winner, The Sea.  Where reading for the plot was exactly what I wanted for hot lethargic weather, reading carefully for description, language, the repeated motifs that reveal Banville's purpose was perfect for moderate weather.  In fact, re-reading The Sea made me realize what a disadvantage the need to read for the plot can be.  On the first reading,  you are preoccupied by the need to connect three main layers of narrative.  At the present moment, Max, a self-described dilettante writing and not writing a book on the painter Bonnard and whose wife has just died, has decided to spend his grieving time in a seaside community he and his parents visited while he was in his early adolescence.  During his youthful time by the sea, which comprises a second layer of the narrative, he inveigles his way into the lives of the inaptly named Graces.  While he was initially attracted by the voluptuous Mrs. Grace, young Chloe, twin of the mute Myles, soon gets his hormone-primed attention.  At the same time, as a man who is grieving, his narrative returns both to his courtship of his wife and of the final year of her life as she slowly dies of cancer.  Banville's prose is precise and evocative, leading the first-time reader to assume there's a reason why these three strands of narrative meet here--and of course there is.  But the narrative structure is only half the story, as it were.  A second, slower reading allows you to be aware of Max's pantheon, particularly the cruel gods of his childhood, gods that in a whole variety of ways conspire to create both a world and a character who are morally a little self-absorbed.  (Ironically, that careful wording was an effort not to give away the plot.)  We can also see the way Max's interest in Bonnard leads him to some perhaps self-deluding and certainly comforting thoughts about the way various perspectives might have aesthetic (but perhaps not moral) validity.

Narratologists, who have created an incredibly complex and arcane vocabulary (beginning with the term "narratologist"), talk in equally arcane ways about the relationship between the amount of time an event would have taken to occur and the amount of time it's given in the text.  Most simply and usefully, this leads them to talk about the distinction between summary (an event that takes three days is summarized in a single sentence) and scene, where a narrator's recall of an event might actually take longer than the original because the narrator spends time recalling, reflecting, considering the implications or possible interpretations of words or actions.  Banville is the master of the scene:  we see and smell the moments, the film is slowed down enough so that a seemingly casual gesture turns out to be filled with ramifications for characters' lives.   He manages to reveal in The Sea the way characters' desires invest seemingly offhand acts with moral weight.  He is also willing to let a scene go on for a surprising length of time just so that we can feel that precise camber of experience Max is having.  He taught me that sometimes a scene doesn't need to have a narrative purpose, as long as it bring the characters and the readers closer together.

Wild little Sheba seems to love my summer reading.  No matter where she is, she hears me getting into bed for my evening reading and arrives immediately.  As I slouch down into my pillows, she stretches out between my waist and my throat, often reaching her paws across my shoulder and putting her chin on them to watch me read.  She manages to relax every bone and to simply settle with me into this other world.  I certainly can't read her mind, but perhaps she can read mine; perhaps this is her way of reading by proxy.

The kinds of perfect days we had later last week leave me feeling inexplicably sad when I'm not overwhelmed by joy.  I've never managed to fully explain this to anyone, but let me try once more.  The obverse side of their perfection is their transitoriness; the very nature of their perfection is temporary, evanescent. They need, then, the perfect book to create a conversation with them, to measure them out in a way that celebrates their transitoriness.  Perhaps the right book, particularly evocative books like The Sea, helps me to be attentive to an experience that might otherwise melt into thin air.

Monday, July 18, 2011

St. Peter's Abbey: A Concert in Marysburg

Anne Pennylegion, the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild retreat coordinator, takes her job seriously, and in the middle of my second week there, that job meant letting us know that surprisingly enough a small country church held summer concerts.  So five of us set off in my car (our purses in the trunk) along a road north of Muenster. When we turned west onto the Marysburg road, however, we found that we were on a high plateau and could see so far into the distance that it turned blue.  The sense of spaciousness was remarkable, even for the prairies; you felt, looking at farms and trees and dugouts and hills that lay before you, that you grasped your context, your place in the world for a moment.

Assumption Church in Marysburg, the sign tells us, was originally built in 1920, but this small community has mobilized itself to restore it to its original beauty.  While the altarpiece looks rather like wedding cake, the rest of the church has a simplicity of character that has been retained.  The Ionic columns, vaulted ceiling, and lovely stained glass windows, each with their donor's name on a brass plaque underneath, all have an architectural cleanness and self-respect.  The artistic director of the Marysburg Summer Festival of the Arts Greg Schulte, spoke plainly and eloquently about their festival, particularly about how each member of the audience was a "resonator" and would be a kind of "co-creator" of the music we were to hear.  The audience was relatively small, but the magic was this:  we had all come together to a small village whose only access is dirt road to spend an evening with music, with the beauty of the building and the beauty of the performance, each of which conversed with one another.

Richard Konrad, who teaches at the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts in Winnipeg, began with a popular theme and variations by Schumann on a tune from his opera Rosamunda.  This is not deep music, yet Konrad gave it all his musical attention, making it the perfect bridge between our day's activities and this space apart from them.  The Beethoven Sonata, for me at least, was the spine of the concert.  Konrad can pound with the best of them--and pound accurately--but I found him most impressive in slow moments when he brought such careful thought to the phrasing, use of rubato, and dynamics.  These were the moments when you knew most powerfully how much he cared about what he was playing and about how he conveyed that to his listeners. 

Bravely, Konrad began the second half with a suite of pieces by Bartok that were challenging, dissonant, chaotic--speaking of the modern life that was certainly beyond this building where we sat on a summer's night.  As if he knew he was simply playing this for our good, and not for our enjoyment (though I enjoyed it very much), he barely paused for applause before moving on to three pieces by Liszt, which he had introduced with helpful comments about Liszt's liturgital music.  While I'm aware of two of Liszt's virtues--that he helped many musicians and composers in a wide variety of ways and that his free use of tonality and form eased the birth of twentieth century music, Liszt is one of my least favourite composers.  Yet Konrad's choice of music introduced me to a different Liszt, one who could, for example, handily and thoughtfully construct a theme and variations out of a Bach bass line.  You could hear Debussey and Ravel anticipated in this music.

Those in charge of the evening cannily did not turn on the lights, except for those that illuminated the musician.  The windows of the church are primarily a creamy gold; these allowed a rose sunset to change the light in the church moment by moment.  The effect was to create a second layer of beauty, to enclose us in a community of people who had gathered on a beautiful summer's night for music.  We lingered on the steps afterwards, talking about the music, about a scent in the moist air we couldn't quite identify, about the sunset. Our evening with music in this dim church had piqued all our senses. 

But just before I left the church to enjoy the sunset, I asked one of the gentlemen standing by the door with a proprietary air if he knew who had tuned the piano.  It's been a damp summer in Saskatchewan, and churches are by their nature damp places, yet the piano was beautifully tuned.  Only a well-tuned piano allows the full beauty of the performance to come through.  Yes, he did, it was a friend's son, he told me, and I asked him to pass on my compliment.  "We've spent a lot of money on that piano," he told me.  "About $2500.  We took it all apart and put it back together, like a combine."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

St. Peter's Abbey, Week Two. Soul Weather June/July

This introduction to Chapter Four occurs about a year after Dirk's wife, Dorothy, has left him and moved to B.C. with their two sons.

While Lee was glazing and firing pottery for Bazaart, and trying to winkle her way into people's daily lives, Dirk was mudding the kitchen. In all his years of renovations, he'd left the walls of the houses more or less intact. So when he decided to open the kitchen to the living area, he'd had a lot of destruction to do, and his inexperience made the process not very pretty. He hasn't figured out how he'll fix the hardwood floor where the studs and footing for the walls had been, but perhaps something clever will occur to him while he puts up Gyprock and begins taping and mudding. This last is a process he likes. He tries to do it with as little energy and mess as possible, as if the carefulness of the physical labour gives it more dignity – moves it closer to craftsmanship. But his inexperience has left him with some spectacular holes in the kitchen walls, so he's filling these in slowly, letting them dry, taping a crack or two, and then going back to add another layer of Polyfilla to the pits and furrows in the kitchen plaster before he returns to mud the cracks and the divots lefts by the screws.

Last year at this time, he'd missed spring. In April and May, life completely went missing as he spent early mornings burrowing around in his basement digs with his eyes closed, like a mole, and then came rushing out into the light, dashed into work, and then buried himself completely and sympathetically in his caseload. Because he wasn't noticing the weather, he was almost grateful for the rain that drowned the fields around Melville and Yorkton, and for the women who flooded into Regina to visit sisters and daughters, needing to talk with someone about their men's despair and helpless fury. In the more worrying cases, daughters and sisters encouraged the wives to call Mobile Crisis Services. Sometimes they simply had difficulties understanding their husbands' ranting and railing: surely crop insurance would get sorted out and it would be tight, but they'd be okay for a year. These calls weren't taxing. Being a guy, Dirk could try to explain what it felt like not to have meaningful work. Income wasn't the only issue for men, whereas a farm wife always had work, and that work counted, whether anybody said it or not. A meal on the table or a clean shirt said it. These were also men whose last emotional words might well have been uttered on their wedding days, so getting the farmer to talk about his feelings was probably impossible if not counterproductive. The urban women's magazine strategies wouldn't help her deal with his moods; probing might completely steal his dignity and self-respect. So Dirk, feeling deeply conflicted, had to talk to women about how to ignore men's moods. Make a quilt. Knit an sweater. Start a reading club or a 'Stick 'n bitch' group – something that gives you pleasure. That would get you and your family through. At the end of the day, he dodged unseeing back through the rain, down into his burrow, and did anything he could to get through to tomorrow. He'd watch crummy TV. Sports and sitcoms required no concentration. He sometimes played with his sons' gameboy. Or he played computer games that allowed him to save the universe.

Then he looked up one day, and found the sky blue and the leaves full-sized. He'd never before in his life lost a season. So this year as he works at remaking the ground floor of his house into a space for the group of undergraduates Lee will organize for him, he has all the windows open, which means he's sometimes cold. But the fresh air keeps Ruby's nose busy when she isn't asleep on the floor in the middle of his workspace; right now her attention is riveted by the fellow who rides his unicycle to work. If it's too cool, he simply pulls on the old sweater with its elbows out that's already got its patina of polyfilla and paint. He turns his Bob Dylan or Bruce Cockburn up loud and gets to work. While people continue to complain about the rain, wondering if cold grey springs are going to be the new normal on the prairies, Dirk is even happy with the rain. Well, not happy exactly, but comforted by weather he can inhabit, comforted by a frame of mind that can haunt something besides itself and its distraction.

So he watches every millimetre of change. At first, the trees seemed untrusting, which he understands. Then their buds, snail-like, crept to the ends of branches, where they looked like the round heads of finishing nails. Then he notices that, in the midst of people's soggy whiny complaints, the leaves on trees and shrubs tended to stretch after a couple of days' rain, though whether this showed enthusiasm and gratitude, or whether they're clutching at sunlight, he doesn't know.

The weather doesn't seem to be moving in a straight line, though it never does on the prairies. The weather gods will give you a tiny taste of sun and warmth and then lapse far back into an earlier season. So that now it is a breezy June day, and he can hear the rustle of leaves, but the sound is dry enough that it could be a fall day rather than a prelude to summer.

He wants to know where he is, meteorologically speaking. He doesn't want to look up to be suddenly enveloped in the grief of last fall: the kids buying supplies, going off to school, meeting new friends, all elsewhere. Hungry wretchedness fills you when your wife tells you that your kids are happy with the new life they're living without dad. You stare out the kitchen window while she tells you this. And afterwards every rainy day when leaves lie in sodden golden puddles under bare branches will carry echoes of this conversation. It's as if seasons – their smells, their whispers on your skin, the particular angle of light – have a clock that turns back at will and can plummet you again into that mood. This vision will forever stand for the fact that there's a whole other world you know nothing about. You aren't living here, among the glorious Regina fall days, but in a world where you have no senses, no touch or sight, and your kids report on home runs and new video games matter-of-factly in your weekly phone call, without any engagement in their voices. Is this because they're as grief-stricken as you are, because their mother is standing right there, or because they've forgotten the smell of you?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Cabin Fever at St. Peter's Abbey

This morning we had standard Saskatchewan weather: rain, harder rain, more rain. But in my endlessly optimistic way I decided this was a good thing. It would encourage what Sherwood Anderson once said was the only reliable source of a writer's inspiration: fastening the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.

But then this afternoon, luckily after the sun came out, I had an awful case of what Bill calls "the yips." The sound says it all for me; "the yips" is a kind of edginess that creeps into your muscles and your brain. So I went for a walk, to change the focus of my senses. Because it was muddy underfoot, so I was trying to figure out where to walk so I wouldn't skid in the mud, the first thing I noticed was the sound. Along the gravel road that runs east and west at the end of the alley of trees, there's a not very thick but extremely varied woods. The wind in the aspens sounds different from the birches, and these in turn sound different from the ashes and certainly from the pines. Interestingly, it reminded me of the sound of language, something that often gets left behind when you translate words to keystrokes too quickly. I was also reminded of a principle of nature that is also perhaps a principle of society and certainly of art: a richly varied ecosystem is a gift.

Interestingly, the verges are also varied. The edge of the road that goes east is filled with purple vetch and clover. Here the dragonflies were busy. There were large dusty blue pterodacyls that hovered like hummingbirds. Smaller gold striped ones looked like aerial tigers, and the smallest of all were an electric blue with wings so transparent they looked like levitating dashes.

Once I turned south, however, the sound and the roadside changed. Here I listened to the sighing of enormous pines and the wind through tall grass. Huddled in the grass were wild roses in full and fragrant bloom. There were more of the tiger dragonflies, but these were joined by an orange butterfly drawn, perhaps, to the roses.

As writers, we spend a lot of time in our heads. But how crucial it is to change our perspectives: to see things both up close and far away and to be reminded that both views need to speak in our writing.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

St. Peter's Abbey, Week One. Soul Weather: June

St. Peter's Abbey is certainly a great place to be productive. At the very least, the surroundings are so foreign that there's no forgetting you're here for a particular purpose. Here's an except I wrote earlier in the week in which Lee tries to make the difficult leap from being a student to being a professional artist.

Most artists, I suspect, have ways of "doodling" while they keep one part of their mind distracted so that the creative part can do its work. Let me know if Lee's way of doing this seems to trivialize the process.


Lee had been told after the examination of her thesis – both her essay on Empedocles and her exhibition of teapots – that she was quite good at melding theory and practice. But as soon as she could tell that her committee was happy with her defence and that she was going to pass, she began thinking about getting ready for Bazaart, where her thoughts about her practice didn't matter. The people who came to craft shows didn't want essays on Empedocles or teapots with mushroom clouds billowing out of their lids. If they wanted you to come down on one side of the transparent fuzzy line between art and craft, they wanted you on firmly on the craft side. They didn't care whether your bowl or mug had an idea. She suspected they wanted to know if it was attractive, nice to touch and hold, and matched their decor. She has other goals. She wants to make work with self-respect, something no one else has made. All the work she turned on the wheel had the imprint of her hands, but she wants her work to also have the imprint of her imagination.

So a couple of days after her defence in April, after she'd found all the ways she could think of to passively-aggressively rail at her father for fucking her over [He's selling the house and moving to Swift Current, where he wants to become an organic farmer] – she'd tried silence (he didn't seem to notice), she'd tried picking fights (he ignored the bait), she'd even hidden the overnight supply of makeup and shampoo and tampons Chrissie left in her dad's bathroom, taking them out of “her” drawer and putting them under the sink behind the toilet cleaner. – After she got over herself, as her mother would have said, she decided it was time to do something productive. So she hauled out the box in the bottom of her closet to look at the best work she'd done during her degrees.

From each set of her experiments, each time she played with a kind of clay or shape, underglaze or glaze or firing technique, she choose the best piece for what she thought of as her own archive. Others put their highest prices on this work in the student sale they held each term in the Riddell Centre. She'd noticed, though, how careful they were to make everything predictable, workmanlike. Somehow after she knew that she was in love with the feel of clay in her hands, in love with the way it it centred her as she centred it on the wheel and it rose to her bidding, her early decision to keep the best of everything as her own personal record liberated her to play a little more with form or decoration. So she took it all out of its box and set it around her on the floor of her room: the early thick terra cotta bowl simply glazed, the stoneware where she practised a kind of calligraphic underglaze the way Jack Sures did, though instead of using his dancing loops, hers were variations first on the pi sign and later other Greek letters. She played with them, sometimes putting a tiny sprinkling of them at the edge of a plate or a trailing them down a vase, until they morphed into her own expressive vocabulary. Then there's the work that's trying to be art, as she got ready to write her thesis. She'd read that potters needed to think of themselves more as sculptors, so she'd tried stoneware vases in the balanced elegant forms you see in Greek black figure pottery. But she'd thrown them rather thick, and when the were leather hard, she'd started incising them, scraping away part of their beautiful form while she left the classic neck or the rounded bottom half of the body alone. Or she'd carve them, even opening them in places, willing to let the kiln have their way with them. If they chose to slump, so be it.

Sitting on the floor of her room with her work all around her lit by wan April sunlight had been disorienting: she felt gay and sad, elated and sorrowful at the same time. The floor of her room was the only place she could have some privacy and spread her work out so she could see it all. Sitting there, her legs splayed on the faded cotton rug her mother had bought also made her feel like a child again. Her dad's comments at her defence made her see the work before her as a record of a childhood: her sandbox play. This was what the last six years of her life had been about? The memories of classes and conversations and arguments seemed so rich and complex, filled with illumination and questions, epiphanies and befuddledment, some puzzles solved, others still reverberating in her mind. Yet her father's suggestion that she needed to settle down and make workmanlike mugs that people who didn't give a hot damn for pottery would buy was demoralizing. Had he done that on purpose?

Her defense was over, her dad was suggesting she needed to be turned into a worker bee on the spot (what have I been doing for the last four years, Dad, working 15 to 20 hours a week at Roca Jack's to pay for classes and books and clay, leaving you with enough savings to buy a fucking farm?), and he was dismantling her home to go off and pursue his own pipe dream. Literally. She suspected he and Chrissie would find someplace secluded to grow some pot.

On the other hand, what stood before her in the frail sunlight, patterned like lace from the shadows of the branches and the buds on the trees, was the story so far, with its suggestions about where she might go in the future. She could see the learning before her in a kind of wild arc.

More experienced ceramicists had told her that as a newbie she'd need a variety of work. Established potters could make endless plates and bowls in the same design because people knew what to expect of them. Or they could bring nothing but twenty large expensive raku-fired pieces because they had built up a clientele for their work. She'd have to find ways of pulling in people with different tastes. She'd need something edgy for the young and hip, something carefully crafted for the thirty-somethings who wanted to signal their good taste, and something with more of an idea for the collectors – the people she really wanted to cultivate if she didn't want to join the brown mug crowd.

What she needed was a story, her own story. When she was a student with good teachers and a great supervisor, they guided her to the artistic role models she needed to realize her own vision. Now, except for every potter in the universe, she was on her own. She leaned back against her bed, narrowed her eyes to see her work differently, studied her toenail polish – it was badly chipped – stared out the window, willing the sun to work harder, and looked again at her work with narrowed eyes to see it less personally, less in the particular, more in the general. 'Inspire me,' she almost whispered to it, shouted at it, so calm and overwrought was she at the same moment. The glaze on that mug looked a bit like Styrofoam. What did that suggest? It suggested work, the smell of coffee, the stacks of cups she filled hundreds of times in a day. An arc connected several things in her brain. Ah. There it was, her edgy project: she 'd do some miniature take-out coffee cups and design an ironic logo for the lid. People could use them as bud vases or even as boxes for earrings or paper clips. She'd do some larger ones that could be used as mugs, writing orders on them: “soy milk latte with a double shot of hazelnut,” or “non-fat milk cappuccino with a double shot of espresso and a shot of cinnamon.” She always found these order affected, a parody of individuality. Would people know that as a barista in a very unbarista coffee shop she was being ironic? Did it matter? It couldn't matter.

She got up, went into the bathroom for a bottle of nail polish remover and a bottle of nail polish, and sat back down on the rug. She scrubbed away at her toenails, got up again for the clippers, sat down and stared at her work, studying one of the stoneware plates with its inscrutable Greek message on the edge. She put the clippers down, went to her bookshelf and got out a recent book she'd bought on firing. She hadn't gotten far into it, so the photograph she needed (she was sure it was on the left hand page) must be near the beginning. She flipped; she was sure it was this book; she'd taking to reading it while she was preparing for the defence. Firing was the thing she knew least about. Or was it glazes? There it was. The caption read “Anna Stina Naess, translucent porcelain cylinders, electric firing” (Firing 14). It was the plain white translucency she wanted underneath her Greek vocabulary. But not the austere shape. These were handbuilt cylinders decorated with dark scribbles that looked like Kandinsky doodles. She wanted sensuous thrown forms that would take her morphed Greek vocabulary, but planted as spontaneously as Anna Stina Naess had strewn her doodles. She wanted the tension of the formal shape and the arbitrary decoration. It would look cool enough for the thirty-somethings and it would have some self-respect. She hadn't exhausted, by any means, her deconstruction of the Greek pot. That would be her art. Simple glazes—the kind that Lucie Rie used—no decoration, just the carving. Glazes whose colour you couldn't quite name: not quite a mustard, not quite a tan. Soft blue grey green. A teal that shaded off into navy sometimes and nearly into black. These would be the jewels of her table.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

St. Peter's Abbey

I hadn't  quite gotten into the spirit of St. Peter's Abbey in Muenster.  There's construction going on here, and because the Abbey is a working farm, you hear tractors and other heavy equipment going back and forth during the day.  I missed the loons and the deer from Emma Lake--though perhaps not the bears.  I missed the profound enveloping peace of the boreal forest.

I did immediately appreciate two elements of being at the Abbey.  First, the simplicity of the rooms.  These writers' retreats are like playing Thoreau for a week or two,  whose motto was "Simplify!  Simplify!"  Even if you feel that you've brought an awful lot of stuff, once you get it into a room you realize how little you really need.  That's liberating,

You can also feel the monastic discipline of years of nuns and writers radiating from the walls of the small nunnery where they house us.  The silence on a summer afternoon (it's quiet in the building anyway; outside a truck is backing up) is a constant reminder to focus.  Even if that means staring at a paragraph for an hour, fiddling with language, trying to get it to articulate your vision of the human experience and to speak to your hypothetical reader, you are riveted by the sense of purpose and focus that infuses this place and almost breathes here.

Then I was taken to see the garden of Brother James, the Abbey's hermit, who died some years ago.  It's overgrown with thistles and purple looststrife, and every kind of grass imaginable, but its bones and its life-force remain intact. Anne Pennylegion, the Colony coordinator told the story of bringing a clematis to put in Brother James's garden, of how he blessed it and of how they drank a glass of Bailey's Irish Cream to celebrate its arrival.  I had the sense that this place is full of stories I only half hear.  There's also a wonderful, knowledgeable man named Jim Ternier who collects seed from the garden and who can give you the Latin name of most of the plants.  I could listen to him for hours; it's as if there's a body of knowledge there that's almost mystical, so connected is it to the earth. 

Perhaps that says something of me, of what I find mystical.  Religious order doesn't quite do it for me; natural order--or disorder--does.  I've also discovered the wonderful resources of BBC Radio Three:  like many of us in the city, I'll put in my earphones and block out the sound of trucks backing up.  And in the meantime, while every need is taken care of by St. Peter's Staff and Anne, I'll obey the whispering of the walls and concentrate.

You can learn about Jim's seed project at

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Soul Weather: May

While he worked for his CBO, Dirk also bought run-down houses, renovating them cheaply, but without stinting on the craftsmanship. He knew, from his work, all the statistics on homelessness and sub-standard public housing. He knew that it was cheaper to house drug addicts and the mentally ill than to keep them in hospitals when they bottomed out, but for some reason that's not what was done. He thought he was being realistic about what he could do, imagining a family at a time. If, while he was hanging new cabinets and putting tile around the bathtub, he also thought about a parent making a meal or a kid in the bath playing with a rubber duck, he could feel that one house, or two or three, made a difference. Not to the statistics, which were appalling, but to people.
          After he and Dorothy finished cleaning up the kitchen, he'd go off to the house he was working on for a couple of hours. He was always home by nine, in time to watch TV with Dorothy or put their kids to bed. If he couldn't sleep at bedtime, he'd sit at the kitchen table with his plans. He'd commandeered Kevin's large tablet of drawing paper, where he'd sketch out a kitchen or bath with its measurements, compare that to the brochures he got from Home Depot or Rona, write himself some notes about hardware, switch plates, glass for windows, and some cost estimates. He'd learned, after the first house, that to be organized and efficient saved incredible amounts of time, and had hit on the system of using one envelope for receipts and one piece of drawing paper—bath on one side, kitchen on the other. This also made his accountant happy.
          Some weeks, repairs took as much time as renovations. A furnace pilot light went out or a kitchen sink got clogged or a toilet wouldn't flush, or a cupboard door would need to be rehung. The first three he simply thought were normal wear and tear; he never figured out the cupboard door, but the skinny woman who greeted him looked so tired he didn't ask.
          The winter he was working on his fourth house while juggling loans and collecting rents, Dorothy took to sitting with him across the kitchen table while he planned and figured and listed. She sat in her bunchy terry-cloth housecoat and did the day's crossword or paged wearily through nesting magazines. Lately, she'd been buying them often; he'd asked whether she wanted to do some decorating or renovating, but she said no. Later, when the magazines made their way into the bathroom, he'd rifle them for ideas, things he could do on the cheap to make renters feel more at home
          One night, he was called to rescue a rubber whale from a toilet. The call came at about 7:30 from Naomi, a harried mother trying to explain the problem to him while her two kids shrieked and splashed in the bathtub.
          "Look,  I'll come over. You can explain then.” When he arrived, she was trying to dry the dishes and put them away but was continually interrupted by the kids' demands for a toy thrown out of reach or a towel to wipe water out of their faces. She was an earnest woman who worked at FNUC part time teaching a couple of classes. It was barely enough to live on, he knew, but it kept her home when the kids needed her. He always got to know his tenants a little, finding it made things simpler, less confrontational when there were problems or when the rent was late.
           “I haven't gotten them out of the tub yet. It's one way for me to get some time to myself in the evening.”
          If this was time for herself, he didn't know what distraction was. He went over to the kitchen sink and started washing dishes while she kept drying.  "So what's the problem?"
          “I think Kyle stuffed Sheldon's favourite bath toy in the toilet. That's what Sheldon said, anyway, and we can't find it anywhere. I was afraid to flush the toilet in case it made things worse.”
          “You've got two boys?” he asked, scrubbing at a large frying pan that had potatoes burned to the bottom.
          “Yeah. They're good, but a handful.
          “I can imagine. Listen, I'll just go on in and see if I can find out what happened. You can have a little more peace to yourself. Pour yourself that last cup of coffee,” he nodded his head toward the coffee pot, “and take a breath.”
           “Hey,” he said, going into the bathroom and grabbing a towel to dry the face of the younger boy who'd just had water poured over his head. “I hear something's missing. Know where it is?”
          “Yeah!” Sheldon said, standing up out of the bath for emphasis. “It's my purple whale. Kyle put it in the toilet. He said he did. I can't find it anywhere. It usually lives there”--he pointed to an ice cream pail of bath toys under the sink--”so it doesn't drown. It'll drown in the toilet.
          Dirk opened the toilet lid to find the water pale yellow, one turd floating around the edge of the bowl. He had thick rubber gloves in his tool kit. He put them on and reached down into the throat and found something was indeed down there. He turned his hand this way and that to see if he could get a grip, and finally pulled up the whale
          “Yeah! I want it.”
          “It needs its own bath first,” Dirk said, putting it in the bathroom sink. Where there are whales, might there be whale food? He reached back in and brought out a Transformer.
          “That's mine!" Kyle yelled. "It was riding the whale down the tunnel!"
          "He needs a bath too." Dirk got some dish soap from the kitchen, filled the bathroom sink, and gave the toys a good scrubbing before he threw them in the bath tub.
          "You guys clean yet?" He had meant to start cleaning out the next house, but this seemed more important right now. He put down the sodden bath mat and helped them one at a time out of the bath tub. "Do you know how they dry off in the Navy? My dad taught me this." He pulled one towel taut and gyrated it back and forth along Sheldon's skinny shoulders, back, and bum. "There. You can finish. Now you," he said, nodding at Kyle, who giggled as he let Dirk almost knock him off his feet. “Pyjamas? Whose are these?”
          Ten minutes later he had their teeth brushed and the boys were ready for bed. Naomi looked like she was nearly asleep.
          “That was so nice. So nice to get a break. Not to fight to get them out of the tub.”
          Dirk went to the kitchen sink to give his hands a good scrubbing. Even though he used his gloves for the uglier side of plumbing, they still left his hands feeling grungy.
          “I was here. Seemed the thing to do. Have a nice night,” he said as he let himself out.
          At home, he found Dorothy already in her bath robe watching CSI New York. He settled in beside her, putting his arm around her shoulders. She sniffed the air. “You always smell different when you come back from your rescue missions. Like someone else's cooking or different hand soap. It's confusing sometimes.”

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Soul Weather: April

A swift and early spring had been promised, and in the coffee shop where she worked early mornings, Lee diligently watched it open like a reluctant door on people's moods, revealing their better, more cheerful and sociable selves. Suddenly there were questions and observations where before there had been sleepy, sullen walls. They admired the cherry red streak in her spiky black hair. They asked about her artwork, though most didn't know she was a potter. Two years ago, when she was taking her undergrad print-making class, her boss had let her hang some of her etchings on the walls of the shop in between the sleek reproductions that fetishized lattes and cappucinos that promised sophistication, modernity, and clarity. The etchings stayed up for a long time; people liked them because they were neither offensive nor jarring like “a lot of the stuff you kids make,” but they were unwilling to pay for them or live with them. They looked antique from a distance, as etchings do, but they showed gameboys and cell phones and blackberries, morphed slightly so they looked like a continent where one might write “Here be monsters” or “The doldrums of connected boredom.” These were ringed round by ornamental earbuds and tangled cords like the scrolled decorations on old maps. So she'd finally taken them home, though “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” was a pick-up line she hadn't yet had occasion to use.

      In turn, she told the friendlier regulars a little about her thesis project and show. “Teapots? A Japanese teapots with an atomic bomb exploding out of the lid?” There wasn't time between the noisy steaming of milk, making of espresso, and pouring of coffee to explain her ideas about teapots. She would have liked to; she'd have liked trying to explain it to one person who wasn't an artist or a student in fine arts, to see whether her ideas were clear, to see whether they had a strong spine—never mind the subtle detours only for her supervisor.

     The other vantage for watching spring unfold had been the pottery studio in the Riddell Centre at U of R. The enormous space with its wall of windows onto the Academic Green was probably the accomplishment of Jack Sures and the long tradition of fine clay work in the university that grew up in the sixties when everyone wanted to be anti-establishment: a peacenik, a vegetarian and a potter. As she made teapots, she watched each trace and tincture of green spread daily like watercolour on damp paper. Some trees, she realized that spring, seem to put out spurts of seeds before they grew leaves. She jealously thought of them as the optimists of the tree world.

     Pacing is crucial for a potter, particularly for a potter with a deadline. The pot should grow out of the clay and one's hands with enough “vigour and certainty,” thought British potter Bernard Leach (one of Lee's gods), “to give vitality to the rhythms of a pot.” But speed stopped there. You had to wait for the work to be leather hard before you could trim it and shape the foot; this took several days in the damp room. Then it had to be slipped, bisque fired in the kiln, glazed, and fired again. The success of each phase depended on the craftsmanship of the previous one; a little clumsiness or carelessness early on made bigger problems later. So Lee had made her work schedule carefully, added ten days to it, counted backwards, and watched the early spring unfurl with reservations. It was a crap shoot, predicting an early spring. She didn't ever trust the odds

     One evening, she’d taken Tara’s late shift; Lee needed the money, as always, and Tara needed—there was a bit of euphemism here—a date. Tara had warned her to take a book or some homework; the last half hour, at least, was dead. Roca Jack’s did most of its business in the morning, with people walking to work, or in the afternoon when the guys from CMHA camped out front, sometimes even in the winter, to feel the sun on their faces, contemplate the southern sky, and try to create a little space of sanity with their careful conversation.

     Tara was right; Lee had brought her laptop since she was still struggling with her artist’s statement. Maybe a different time and space would help her make a leap she was struggling to express. She sat facing the doorway so she could see anyone coming in and snap back into her role as barista. She read what she’d written, a sorry first paragraph, and then stared out onto Thirteenth Ave in the dark:

"The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, attempting to explain the creation of the world around him, theorized that it consisted of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. According to his theory, the form these elements take is determined by whether the world at that moment was dominated by the forces of Strife or Love. Earth, water, air, and fire are also the elements necessary for the making of pottery, a practice that, because it goes back nearly 30,000 years, might be said to represent the nexus of the basic human need to carry water and cook food and the perhaps equally basic need to create beauty. Given the similar sources in Empedocles’ cosmogony and the creation of pottery, it seemed intriguing to...."

This last sentence won’t do; it’s not enough to be intrigued, but that’s what she was and is. Empedocles. How does she even say his name? How does she explain that she’s only read fragments of Empedocles, because that’s all we’ve got, plus some commentary on his ideas in Aristotle and Plato. She was just curious about what Empedocles, with his theories about the very elements that are crucial to what she loves to do might say about what she makes out of clay, about a bowl one wants rest in the curve of one’s hands or a plate one wants to throw through a window. It turns out that he says quite a lot. You can explain a lot of human nature by thinking about the poles of strife and love. Sex? Yeah, even sex sometimes. She still can’t justify the connection she wants to make between her teapots and Empedocles, except to say she was curious. Her supervisor won’t be happy.
     She stood up and went to look out the doorway just as a young man riding a bicycle with a potted orchid in the curve of his arm turned left off Albert and pedaled by Roca Jack’s. She smiled. Strife or love, she wondered, as she turned back to her computer

Soul Weather is, in some ways, my love song to Regina, so I've left place names and the names of people intact for now.  Does anyone know how I do this when I come to publish the novel?  Do I have to go to the owner to Roca Jack's and ask permission, or should I change the name and simply let the details point the reader's way?  Any other advice?  Do readers need more information on things like bisque firing?