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.