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Monday, December 31, 2012

Looking back and trying to look forward


During the academic year, I am often out of the house before 8 in the morning, finding that the first few hours in my quiet office are the most productive.  So during the holidays, it has been a treat to begin my mornings sitting in front of a lit Christmas tree with only my reading light on, watching the blackness outside turn blue before winter appears out my window.  I drink my coffee and read Daniel Deronda.  Occasionally I simply stop to look at the Christmas tree and let my mind wander toward the new year while Twig parks himself on the top of the sofa cushion behind me so that I can sometimes rest my head in the curve of his neck and listen to his purr. 

I have spent the last couple of days reflecting on the past year and trying to think my way through the next one.  It has been a frustrating, disheartening task.  This is in part because the academic year, since I returned from my idyllic sabbatical, has been dominated and even at times overshadowed by attempts of the central administration, the Faculty of Arts, and the Department of English to plan for funding to the University of Regina to be cut 3% a year, possibly for the next three years.

I have been teaching for thirty-six years, and am watching an institution to which I've given my life--the idea of the university, not simply the U of R--attempting to transform itself into a professional school.  What has happened to the university's commitment to ideas, curiosity, engagement, a sense of life's complexity, and a sense that one individual's confusion and passion have been experienced countless times before by others and that there are at least some reliable questions one might ask?  Parents and politicians--and hence students--are  now convinced that familiarity with the world's ideas and questions are less important than a definite job at the end of four years.  What has happened to the process of finding oneself, to spending four years thinking about self and world and how those two things might relate to one another?  What has happened to adventure?  Does one really know at 18 that one wants to become a petroleum engineer?  And what happens when there are no more jobs for petroleum engineers, when we have all bought electric cars and the oil supply has collapsed?  Does that engineer know how to live, how to adapt, how to find a new purpose?

Human beings don't plan very well.  We are particularly bad at planning on the long term, and even worse when our planning should take the needs of others into account.  We can see that this failure is endemic in Canada.  Not protecting the environment, but rather considering how we can best benefit financially in the immediate future from selling mineral rights is not effectively planning for the future or for future generations.  Not finding a way to improve the lives of our Aboriginal peoples is certainly not thinking long term or of others.  Allowing the divide between the wealthy (and even the comfortable) and the poor to increase is not planning for the future, because such a future is likely to involve rebellion or push-back of some kind.  Taking money out of education, which is the best predictor of health, and putting it into health care is certainly not planning for the future.  Putting money into the health care needed by people living on the street rather than housing them is not a long-term solution.  I have a sense that our leaders are not willing to take the long-term solutions because the short-term response at the ballot box might challenge their views and their actions.  But what are leaders for?  Did we elect them just so they could do whatever it takes to get themselves re-elected?

In the face of these failures, I have felt that the university (as an idea) provided a place to reflect, that its many disciplines provided a variety of perspectives from which to consider the challenges of the present historical moment.  In the Twitterverse, pundits and gad-flies and politicians attempt to provide immediate answers; politicians in particular are hampered by the society's expectation that they not to waffle or change course. The university moves at a more human pace; here the only expectation is that we not simplify, that we don't ignore evidence, that we don't assume that a single individual has enough perspectives to see the challenges of a new problem or the potential implicit in change in all its complexity.  If politics is the story of individuals attempting to put their stamp on the future, the university (again, as an idea) is about a community's commitment to reflection, to complexity, to conversation rather than edict.

I'm not sure we can plan with the idea of long-term student needs in mind.  Our administration has argued that more students are demanding professional or pre-professional programs like petroleum engineering or marketing.  Yet we are told that student engagement is down--perhaps because professional programs do not prompt the kind of engagement required by Fine Arts, Arts, and Sciences.  Professional programs are focused on an end product--the piece of paper that leads to a degree and a secure job--not the journey.  I wouldn't suggest that students enrolled in the professional faculties like Nursing or Engineering are not thoughtful; I would suggest that a cultural language devoted to destinations rather than journeys, a cultural preoccupation with jobs rather than lives is skewing their expectations and perhaps their curiosity.  What happens when the university has built an infrastructure of programs and professors only to find that times have changed?  As Ezra Pound once said,  "Literature is news that stays news."  The same is true of history, philosophy, and all the sciences, though each of these disciplines is also attuned to change, to revolution.  Indeed, they are committed to making that change.

Behind the Christmas tree, the sky has turned an improbable pink, and occasionally I can hear the falling needles clink against a glass Christmas ornament, providing the perfect setting for my sad contemplation of my own future.  I have loved teaching this term.  At the same time, the endless meetings and crises have been exhausting.  Hence I'm faced with the conflict between "duty to self" and "duty to others" that Austen exposes so well in Sense and Sensibility.  What is happening to universities all over the world is breaking my heart. If I were simply thinking of my own well-being, I would retire in 2014.  I've found myself on the edge of this decision numerous times in the last months, only to step back.  Because the truth is that I will not be replaced.  The credibility and practicality of the  English Department's Creative Writing program in particular will be questioned.  Yet I feel that it is creative people that our society needs at this moment.  Yet if I continue to teach, what will I do with my own creativity, which is hobbled and hampered by an atmosphere so tense and fraught?

Well, I'll go back to reading Daniel Deronda, Eliot's last novel, wherein she considers what one might call the ethics of identity.  Both Daniel and Gwendolyn Harleth wonder who they are:  their dogged and passionate posing of that question leads them to consider a whole range of ethical choices they must make.  Eliot won't give me any answers, but she'll suggest a way of thinking things through.  It is, perhaps, the questions that count, though they don't make one comfortable or self- satisfied.  That is, perhaps, the best way to begin a new year. 


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jane Austen's Persuasion and Academic Freedom


Jane Austen's final novel, Persuasion, is my favourite.  I might think Pride and Prejudce the most skilfully built (though I only think this in certain moods); I might concede that Emma is an astute attempt at psychology that involves the reader in an interestingly conflicted relationship with the too-privileged Miss Woodhouse.  But Persuasion is the most visual of Austen's novels; its autumnal notes are fully present to our inner eyes.  It also has a rather startling heroine in Anne Eliott, a woman in her later twenties who, unlike so many of Austen's unfortunate heroines, decides to take her fate into her own hands.  It's the most egalitarian of Austen's novels; the gentlemen from the British Navy turn out to be more principled, more domestic, more sensitive and humane than the landowners who have been living beyond their means, have failed to play leading roles in their communities, and only seek social connections based on status.

But I would also argue that it's Austen's most philosophical novel.  Austen's work is firmly situated between the Enlightenment and Romantic eras:  although she wrote what appear to be courtship novels, she was more concerned with development of her heroine's abilility to think clearly about and judge her conduct, her preconceptions, and her society.  We see this most dramatically in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet reads and re-reads Darcy's post-proposal letter, cross-referencing it with what she has observed and what she has ignored and what is probable in Darcy's account of Wickham's life and her family's unconventional (and not very proper) behaviour, finally uttering "Until this moment I have never known myself!"  In a way that also echoes Austen's engagement with the Enlightenment, the word "persuasion" recurs over and over in her last novel, allowing us to see persuasion in all its manifestations and to consider what role it plays in our civil lives. 

The first kind of persuasion Austen explores is a kind of top-down variety.  Seven years before the novel opens, Anne Eliott had been persuaded by Lady Russell to give up her engagement to Captain Wentworth, because he "had nothing but himself to recommend him."  Wentworth is convinced he will be successful--in Austen's time members of the Navy were awarded the spoils of the ships they took in Naval battles--and indeed he is.  But Lady Russell doesn't entirely believe in character alone as a predictor of success:  there must be some aristocratic or at least propertied family behind a young man to guarantee that he would get on in the world.  And of course Lady Russell's advice is wrong.

Indeed, if we shuffle through our memories of Austen's novels, we come up with a number of characters who believe they can use their powers of persuasion in this way.  Lady Catherine De Bourgh, with her tendency to look into Charlotte Collins's linen closets and advise on other ways of arranging them, is one such character.  Darcy's decision to persuade Bingley to give up Jane Bennet because she's not really attached to the latter is another example of this kind of persuasion gone wrong.  And of course, Emma could have been subtitled Persuasion, so disastrously flawed are Emma's efforts to arrange the lives of the people who live in her community.  Austen is suggesting, then, that when the powerful or the privileged think they know what is best for us, they risk, in Anne Elliot's words, giving "advice which is good or bad only as the event decides."  Those authoritarian persuaders often risk giving bad advice not only because humankind doesn't see the future particularly well, but also because it s difficult for any of us to comprehend another person's wishes, dreams, desires, or another's capabilities complete with secret strengths and weaknesses.

Yet persuasion is crucial to our social lives.  Those characters who are not "persuadable," like Anne's two sisters, Elizabeth Elliot and the hypochrondiacal Mary Musgrove,  and Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliot, are locked in their own world views.  These characters are treated satirically by Austen and shown to be individuals who are incapable of reality checks on either their finances, their social pretensions, or their beliefs about their own health.  We see these individuals locked inside their own perspectives and thus self-involved and unable to undertake their social obligations as members of the gentry.

This issue of being persuadable is most dramatically explored when Louisa Musgrove, who presents herself as someone of a determined mind not easily persuaded, decides against Wentworth's advice to take a second leap down the stairs at Lyme Regis onto the stony Cobb and falls, probably giving herself a concussion.  Anne Elliot wonders at the time if it occurred to Wentworth "to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits.  She thought t could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character."

Like so many aspects of our social lives, persuasion works best as part of a conversation, not an edict.  When Anne attempts to persuade Captain Harville to moderate the grief he feels at the death of his betrothed, Fanny,  Anne talks to him about the literature they both love:  "He was evidently a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry; and besides the persuasion of having given him at least an evening's indulgence in the discussion of subjects, which his usual companions had probably no concern in, she had the hope of being of real use to him in some suggestions as to the duty and benefit of struggling against affliction, which had naturally grown out of their conversation."  Such a conversation occurs again at the end of the novel in the life-changing moment when Anne realizes that her conversation with Harville's friend, Captain Benwick, about whether men or women have the most long-lasting feelings, is being heard by her former lover, Captain Wentworth, and she has a chance to speak to him indirectly about her feelings for him by suggesting that women continue to love long after it serves any purpose.  Benwick, of course, thinks that this is a quality of men:  as they have the hardiest bodies, so do they have the most long-lasting feelings.  Besides, he continues to argue, women's inconstancy is continually written about in "songs and proverbs." Anne argues that these songs and proverbs were written by men.  Benwick, frustrated, asks "How shall we prove any thing?"  Anne responds "We never shall.  We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point.  It s a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof.  We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle."

Here Anne and Austen, far ahead of twenty-first century psychologists, observes the effects of "confirmation bias"  which my friend Katherine Arbuthnott has taught me about.  Because the world is complicated and at every turn we attempt to tame its chaos to make it manageable,  we tend to offer ourselves simplified narratives and explanations which feel comfortable to us because they accord with our beliefs.  As in Anne's explanation to Benwick, we choose to attend to or note only those cases which confirm our account.  This s probably not a significant problem in our daily lives; as Kahneman points out, most of the time we make "good enough" decisions based on our impressions.

But when we are making large-reaching and long-lasting decisions, "good enough" is not good enough.  Then we need to be aware of our confirmation bias and find ourselves a kind of devil's advocate who can see what we are inadvertently ignoring.  And here is where Jane Austen meets the academy and persuasion as a conversation meets academic freedom.

Canadian university administrators have recently reconsidered the issue of academic freedom, and have decided that the freedom of its teachers and researchers is limited to the scope of their scholarly expertise; we are not to question the administration's decisions unless we have the special knowledge that bears on the question at hand.  Not uncoincidentally, many of those university administrators now need to lead their institutions through a time of decreasing budgets.  This is precisely not the time to silence dissent, because one of those cranky and opinionated voices is going to see something the administrators themselves do not see in their quest for a coherent strategy.  As decisions are made about which programs to cut, which to support and develop, decisions about what the university of the future should look like in a society increasingly faced with more and more difficult decisions about scarce resources, social trends, new technologies, and the meanings of our lives, confirmation bias is going to become more, not less of a problem.  We simply can't afford at this critical moment to silence individuals who see beyond our coherent but simplified view of the future towards strategies that might be, in Austen's words, "good or bad only as the event decides."

We are seeing this trend in government, in the Saskatchewan government's refusal to consult widely about the community pastures, beyond those voices who will confirm the government's  already-made decision that "the market" is the most reliable means of determining what should happen to them.  We are also seeing this tendency in the Federal Government's decision to limit environmental protection at every turn.  If you are only looking at these issue through the lens that tells you that private ownership, growth in jobs, the development of natural resources--and thus the market--are the most important factors for deciding what to do with your land, you are not going to see what a species means to an ecosystem or understand what clean water contributes to peoples' lives.

I have worked in the academy for 36 years, and for much of that time have seen that one of its roles is to challenge the direction other parts of the culture is inadvertently--or advertently--taking.  Just as persuasion was central to the responsible conduct of Austen's characters, academic freedom is a central ballast for the wider culture, a way of questioning and perhaps moderating its values and goals through conversation.  Now is not the time to limit it.  In fact, it is self-defeating to do so.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Winter: when time is a prairie or a core sample of snow


If you live on the prairie, it's hard not to think of time in the terms the landscape dictates.  You unthinkingly see time and memory as something that stretches from horizon to horizon.  In the service of being more exact, you might fiddle with the metaphor a little.  At my age, you could envision the land tilting inexorably uphill, so that you see yourself closer to one horizon than  the other, rather than smack in the middle, the way you are on the flatter stretches of fields south of Regina.  That uphill tilt is indeed more exact, particularly on days at the end of term and before Christmas, when you have the same things to do you always had, the baking, shopping, wrapping, planning, shopping, cooking, with less energy to do it with.  Then there is the fervent wish to be doing exactly what you are doing--baking cookies for a neighbour who is undergoing chemotherapy--while also wanting to think in long draughts of thoughts about Virginia Woolf's ideal reader with only cats to interrupt.  The tension is painful.

That shorter horizon at the end of the rise before you is more dramatic when you long to sink into the field of ideas and words.  Because that closer horizon reminds you every day that there is less and less time between now and the point where your mind refuses to give you the right word, or to weave a complex formal pattern that you want all your writing to partake of in some way or another.  Less time between now and the age when you'll read mostly detective fiction because convention dictates that toward the end of the novel the detective will explain how he or she solved the crime and will recap all the details you have forgotten.

(Even to myself, I sound here like someone contemplating retirement.  But then there's an inward battle between the delights of teaching, the current financial and philosophical chaos at the U of R, the sense of isolation that will be part of my writing life when I retire, and the ecstasy of knowing that I can get up each morning to write.)


Then occasionally a gift arrives to throw your metaphor out the window.  Rather than standing in the middle of a prairie, you are driving down a prairie road and glimpse something surprising in your side view mirror, which always reminds you that "objects in mirror are closer than they appear."  (I thank Chris Brown for this metaphor, which he used in his linked collection of subtle, suggestive stories that made up his creative honours paper, "Coal Carriers," which I examined on Friday.  He was using the trope of the of the side view mirror for another purpose, not to describe memory, but he brought the possibilities of the metaphor to my attention.  Thanks Chris.)   December is generous with such gifts. I caught one grocery shopping on Saturday.  As I was heading from "milk" to "meat,"  I glanced down the row of tinned fish and saw flat, oblong cans of smoked oysters, something my father loved to eat during the holidays.  I think  I was the only one in the family who shared his taste for them.  Certainly,  I couldn't eat any today.  I'd find them too greasy, the oddly-coloured innards that are the consistency of damp plaster, plus the valve bits which are rubbery would be too weird for my taste now.

When I was talking to Chris about his linked set of short stories which begin, chronologically at least (though not formally) with a father's uncanny meeting with a bull moose that didn't seem to acknowledge his presence, I said that I found fathers (like cats) a mystery.  But it's more than that:  it's a mystery that's sidled right up to you in a hug or a whisper.  So I'm grateful for these moments when I catch my father in the side view mirror and he seems closer than he is.  Sometimes when my knees hurt, I remember rubbing my father's right knee from my perch in the middle of the Chevy's front seat.  I always think of him when we put up the Christmas tree.  He was so proud of choosing perfect trees that one year, when he brought home a real dud with gaps around the bottom, he sawed off lower branches, drilled holes in the trunk, and stuck the trimmed branches in the holes.  For the most part, I don't know the meaning of these moments.  Well, that's not true.  He'd been in the Navy, which perhaps left him with a sense of craftsmanship, of neatness, of pride in doing something in a workmanlike way.  That's what appears in the memory of the Christmas tree.  He had the skills and tools to make the tree look better; all he needed to add was the time.

But his character doesn't explain my eating smoked oysters with him or rubbing his knees while he drove.  As children, if we're loved, we seek intimacy with people we don't really understand.  We're too inexperienced and too busy being ourselves and seeing what that feels like to figure out other people.  We just know the intimacy feels good, even if it tastes funny.  And then suddenly it's too far from our present lives to get anything more than a glimpse of.

Let me madly mix metaphors.  Time may be a prairie with its shifting horizons; sometimes you may catch things made suddenly close by your side-view mirror.   But in December it's also a core sample, of mountain or snow.  That's because our whole surroundings are saturated with memory's prompts.  When I looked down that aisle at the smoked oysters, there was a Christmas carol on the muzak and there was holiday food everywhere.  Our memories are on overdrive.  This seems natural to me somehow.  As the days grow shorter and shorter, as I sit daydreaming in front of the Christmas tree in the dark, it seems a good thing to pull up a core sample of snow and study the layers that are brought close by the time and the inclination to reflect.  Maybe above all, in the seasonal busy-ness of shopping and wrapping and cooking, time to reflect is really what I'm longing for.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Beneath a Petroliferous Moon

In 1940, Pablo Neruda published his poem, "Standard Oil Co," which concludes

They buy countries, people, seas, police, county councils,
distant regions where the poor hoard their corn
like misers their gold:
Standard Oil awakens them,
clothes them in uniforms, designates
which brother is the enemy.
the Paraguayan fights its war,
and the Bolivian wastes away
in the jungle with its machine gun.
A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum,
a million-acre mortgage,
a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified,
a new prison camp for subversives,
in Patagonia, a betrayal, scattered shots
beneath a petroliferous moon,
a subtle change of ministers
in the capital, a whisper
like an oil tide,
and zap, you’ll see
how Standard Oil’s letters shine above the clouds,
above the seas, in your home,
illuminating their dominions.


How Pablo Neruda knew this about oil and its place in our lives in 1940 eludes me, except that I suspect it has something to do with my profound and embarrassing lack of knowledge about how oil companies exploited South American governments who either could not or would not hold them to ethical standards.

Neruda's description of a world "Beneath a petroliferous moon" is the title of an exhibition at the Mendel curated by Jen Budney.  She has gathered together artists from as far afield as Benin, Rome, Austria, and Canada in an aesthetic query of lives that are made possible by the energy that comes from oil.

Immediately inside the gallery the viewer is faced with Louisa Conrad's "Disintegration:  A Catalogue of Arctic Flowers 2009."  Scraps of drawing paper have been carelessly cut and adhered to the wall in a kind of constellation; each of these contains a beautiful, detailed pen and ink drawing of the flora Conrad saw on her trip to the Canadian Arctic in 2009.  The form these take on the wall figures forth the disintegration of our arctic, the thawing of the permafrost and the melting of the polar ice cap brought on by climate change.  

Next, one is faced with Ernst Logar's "Documents and Drawings."  These contain a sequence of large photographs (perhaps 24" by 30"), each presenting a serene and seemingly unspoiled landscape--a field or a sea shore.  Except that in the foreground of each of these there are awkwardly built tripods with assemblages nailed to them--plastic bottles, tools, oil cans.  I didn't quite know how to read the tripods:  were they an artist's ironic easel?  Or the tripod for a weapon or a camera?  Or a surveyor's levelling instrument--so crucial for marking off the ownership of land?  Whatever they were, they obscured much of the beauty beyond them.  

Yoruba artist Romuald Hazoume of Benin has created masks out of containers for motor oil and other oil products.  While these clearly reference the African masks appreciated and collected by Virginia Woolf's friend, Roger Fry or written about by D.H. Lawrence in Women in Love, or even the more edgy faces represented by Picasso, they also marked a shift in the tradition.  While those masks were crafted into their formalized shapes, these were violently cut and smashed.  Oil has done something to the human face, they seem to suggest.

Most easily read and yet most dramatic were Edward Burtynsky's photographs of the oil sands.  Taken from the height of an "establishing  shot," they first give the viewer a sense of the immensity of the landscape.  Then one sees that the earth's skin has literally been peeled away or has been pocked with machinery, roads, and vehicles necessary for getting at the oil beneath.

Many of these artists spoke of the way in which the energy from oil that makes our lives possible seems almost invisible--present in our communities only in the little corner gas stations where we grab a coke or a newspaper or even a bundle of firewood.  They sought through their work to make oil more visible, something Robert Ladislas Derr did quite literally by videotaping a street in Oil City Pennsylvania, America's first oil town, through the film of oil gliding down the window the viewer looks out of.  It is beautiful and horrifying at the same time.  

In a little gallery next door to these works I found Terry Billings's elegiac "Reassembled Moult," a carpet of Sandhill Crane feathers that flows lyrically down the gallery wall and onto the floor.  Nearby was Billings's "Revealed Wasp Drawings," made (how I am not entirely sure) from the paper of wasps' nests.  These were the thoughtful monochrome of Art McKay's mandalas, while the movement of the subtle designs recalled the spinning of the stars in Van Gogh's "Starry Night."  Something has happened to art, this juxtaposition seemed to say.  Cranes and wasps can unconsciously be and make beauty (albeit mediated by an artist), while the human presence is deforming the planet.  Yet oddly enough, this was a hopeful exhibition:  around the world, artists are giving us portraits of ourselves, landscapes of the world we have made.  None of these works was what my friend Diane Whitehouse used to derisively call "a one-read painting."  They all asked for our imaginative attention, our engagement, which is the first step toward reflection and perhaps change.

You can find the rest of Neruda's poem here:
http://revolutionaryfrontlines.wordpress.com/2010/06/26/standard-oil-co-by-pablo-neruda-canto-general/

You can find the Mendel's website for this exhbition here:
http://www.mendel.ca/2012/beneath-a-petroliferous-moon#more-6239

Friday, November 30, 2012

Time and the Land

I had one of my first Saskatchewan existential and historical  shocks galloping on a horse above Echo Lake on high grass prairie, the smell of sage stirred up by the horses all around me.  I had spent the afternoon riding through some of the most beautiful landscape I knew in the Qu'Appelle Valley, which I'd really only seen by car.  On a horse, you wind along the coulees filled with golden birch, you are part of the mysterious folding and winding of the land.

I was with my colleagues in the English Department on a Sunday horseback riding afternoon organized by Jeanne Shami at Clayton Cyr's ranch on reserve land.  As I looked at the landscape and at my colleagues--Jeanne Shami, Ken Mitchell, Barb Powell and her husband Dave, Nick Ruddick and his wife Britt Holmstrom, as well as our children, I tried to understand what complex threads had taken me from richly treed Ann Arbor Michigan to the Qu'Appelle valley.  The thread was obviously my education, which was why I tied one end of it to Ann Arbor and the other to the colleagues around me.  It was one of those moments when beauty shocks you into being profoundly where you are; at the same time the moment's intensity poses questions.  Why are you here, listening to the wind off the prairie and the breathing of horses, the flickering of birch leaves in your ears, the smell of sage in your nose, your eyes drinking a landscape whose beauty and mystery you could never have imagined?  Why are you here at all?  What mysteries of physics and biology have led to the creation of this world and your improbable existence in it?

I had a quieter echo of that shock last Friday when I found myself in room full of ranchers and farmers, environmentalists and poets and artists, civil servants and psychology professors, considering what it means for the province to sell off the fragile pastures that have been protected since the 1930s when farming practices that didn't take the quality of the soil or the possibility of drought into account led to huge clouds of prairie top soil falling into the Atlantic Ocean.

The night before, we had heard Candace Savage's description of this landscape's beauty and vulnerability.  Bad public policy decisions that led to breaking the soil in the Palliser Triangle, an area of mixed grassland in the arid southern portion of the province that some believe to be an extension of U.S. deserts, had led to extreme erosion and loss of native species of plants and animals. One of her many slides included a photograph from Canada's Atlantic coast of an immense black cloud over the ocean:  prairie topsoil.  Candace whimsically and incisively tied her talk both to her ancestors and to her descendants as a way of reminding us that we are but temporary stewards of this land and that we should seek to preserve it, not only for our grandchildren, but for the generations of native plant and animal species that come after us.

She also talked of how the PFRA land management was returning this land to its original austere beauty.  The Prairie Farm Reclamation Administration paid to put stewards on the land, pasture managers who, over the last seventy years have observed and questioned, developing the lore and the practices that allow this land to thrive.  Land that was originally grazed by buffalo still needs to be grazed--but not over-grazed.  Hence one of the jobs of the pasture managers is to organize cattle grazing.  Pasture patrons pay for the management of their herds, paying a large part of the costs for the management of the land; that land in turn supports the overall Saskatchewan rural economy. Pasture managers live in rural communities and their presence there is one of the things that keeps these communities alive.

The federal government no longer wants to manage these lands, so they have devolved to the province.  In turn, the province wants to privatize this rich and fragile ecosystem as quickly as possible, proving once again that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  (Thank you, Oscar Wilde.)  So spearheaded by naturalist Trevor Herriot, Katherine Arbuthnott, (a U of R psychologist who's passionate about the environment and is continually exploring how knowledge of psychology can help us see what nature contributes to our daily lives and how we can convince people to take better care of it), Emily Eaton (from the U of R geography department), and Naomi Beingessner (from RPIRG), a "Pastures Forum" was organized that included farmers, ranchers, the aboriginal community, the union representative of the pasture managers, and anyone else who cared.   So here was my second existential and historical shock:  what was I doing sitting behind a very tall man in a large black cowboy hat with a notebook tucked into the back of his jeans listening to the history of the PFRA?

We began the day with Doug Faller, the policy manager of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, quoting philosopher George Santayana:  "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  Initially, the Palliser Triangle was seen as too arid to farm, but when botanist George Macoun visited the area in the 1870s, there had been an unusual amount of rain, leading him to observe that it would be fine for agriculture.  There followed three dry periods during which farming and grazing on that land collapsed:  1906-7, 1918-20, and the dirty thirties.  May of 1934 saw the largest ecological disaster in the history of Canada, when dust clouds traveled all the way to the Atlantic.  From the size of the clouds, they calculated that the sky contained 300,000,000 acres before they gave up calculating. 

What began in the 1870s with a bad public policy decision was brought to an end in 1935 when the PFRA was created "to manage a productive, biodiverse rangeland and to promote environmentally responsible land use and practices."  Their first objective was to preserve environmentally sensitive land, though they soon recognized that cattle grazing played an important role in creating a healthy ecosystem. In the 77 years since its creation, pasture managers have observed and experimented with the land under their protection, evolving some of the best techniques for the management of the environment.  In turn, their work helped sustain mixed farms and the rural communities that support them.  According to Faller, the PFRA folks have a business plan:  the cost of managing the land is a mere 25% of the benefits to farmers, ranchers, and the Saskatchewan economy.  He pointed out that this was a remarkably good investment.

Not surprisingly, Trevor Herriot spoke of the 31 species at risk that live protected on the community pastures.  His list makes a kind of poem, so I'll simply paste it in.  There are three mammals in trouble, the swift fox, the black-footed ferret, and the black tailed prairie dog.  There are six plants at risk: smooth goosefoot,  western spiderwort, hairy prairie clover, buffalo grass, slender mouse-ear cress, and western spiderwort.  There are three reptiles: northern leopard frog, great paint frog, and the eastern yellow-bellied racer.  There are three lepidoptera:  the monarch dusky dune moth, the gold-edged gem moth, and the mormon metalmark butterfly.  Then there are the birds, which are closest, I think, to Trevor's heart:  the piping plover,the common nighthhawk, the long-billed curlew, the mountain plover, sprague's pippet, the  bobolink, the barn swallow, the chestnut-collared long spur, the barred sparrow, the loggerhead shrike, the peregrin falcon, the ferrugenous hawk, the sage grouse, (in real trouble), the short-eared owl, and the burrowing owl.  He described this land, with its rich and fragile ecosystem, as "our old growth forest.  They are a lily pad in a sea of disturbance," he told us.  The PFRA pasture managers have led the way in species at risk care in North America.  They've developed a model that other agencies have adopted.  It was developed in the field, with the pasture managers.  Cowboys and environmentalists.  But the Species at Risk Act is is a federal law and can only be applied to federally-owned land.  Once the land is sold, it ceases.

The provincial government has told managers and patrons that it has 5.7 million dollars to help them.  Help them do what?  As Chief Roland Crowe tactfully put it, the provincial government has been rather vague about what managers and patrons might do with these funds.  He was only the last in a long line of voices who begged the provincial government to slow down on this decision and consider all the sides.  Katherine Arbuthnott pointed out to me this morning that even businesses are incorporating a "devil's advocate" into their decision-making process when there isn't someone to play this role because they've learned that when you have a number of like-minded people, a homogeneous group, making decisions, you leap to conclusions and miss nuances.  

Voices.  Wise, complementary, nuanced voices.  That was really what the poet in me was at the Pastures Forum to hear.  You'll quit reading if I go on summarizing the things everyone said, but I need to tell you about the voices.  Chief Roland Crowe's velvety, patient voice, respecting the nature of time.  Joanne Brochu's matter-of-fact, well-informed voice.  Brent Cramer in his black cowboy hat and slow drawl observing that he didn't think "the university can tell me how to take care of my grass;  we've done it for three generations and I hope my kids will do it after I'm dead.”  Yes, he used the word dead.  No euphemisms here.  "A cattleman is one of the best managers.  He's got to be.  Ranchers are not in it for the money."  Inter-generational passing of the land is their raison d'etre, along with a good healthy life style and an ability to pay the bills.

Time was on everyone's mind.  The long time that the earth was here before we were, creating a rich ecosystem just for the hell of it, for the beauty of it.  The time it takes to wrap your head and your soul around the enormity of a prairie landscape.  The number of times--three, now--that prairie people have suffered because we've been bad stewards.  The provincial government's hurry, which can only be motivated by the desire to get this over and done with before people realize how stupid it is.  And the time until the next drought.  Because it isn't "if" there's a drought.  It's "when."



Friday, November 23, 2012

Minimalism


In Monday's Globe and Mail, as part of "the weekly challenge" feature, Courtney Shea wrote about a week's experiment meant to challenge her relationship with clothing.  She wore the same clothes for an entire week. Shea wisely chose a comfortable jersey dress that could be dressed up or down with accessories and that could be quickly washed.  Except for one colleague who asked "What's with the dress?" no one seemed to notice or to comment.  For Shea, this experiment had ethical overtones:  According to To Die For:  Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? most North American and many European women buy half their body weight in clothes every year and own four times as many outfits as they did thirty years ago.

I've flirted with minimalism over the years.  My first husband and I started our home in the early seventies, an age of slender glass canisters and sleek white china.  Perhaps most radical was our crystal, which, unlike any we received when we were married, lacked the curving almost human profile that has been traditional for centuries.  Ours was completely straight, and had a thick bottom rather than a slender stem, a single drop of air trapped in the base.  When we separated thirteen years later, I began an anti-minimalist rebellion, buying myself Christmas presents (to unwrap alone while my daughter spent the day with him): antique pillowcases with hand-knit lace, and china teacups, many of them, I now confess, appalled at my choices, pink.  These are slowly making their way into the annual Cathedral Village Arts Festival garage sales.  I can only give up so much of my past at a time.

Since our renovations, Bill and I have put things back into the rooms we emptied with more thought for what we value.  There's more art on the living room walls, but fewer quilts in the upstairs hallway:  I don't want to muddle the walls' serene pale blue.  Moving back into the kitchen, I put tools I seldom used into a box, with the promise that only if I used them six months after the reno was finished would I let them back into my drawers--which are now much clearer, though not up to IKEA standards.  My food processor and my blender are in cupboards, so I have a much clearer and more pleasant space to work in.  I had no idea how infrequently I used them.

The delight I feel with an emptier closet or clearer drawers or a blank walls that have only slices of sunlight or shadows of tree branches for their decor has drawn my attention to the fact that many of my happiest hours, weeks, or even months have been spent in spaces that looked very like Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond.  My first experience was my dormitory room at the University of Michigan, a small room with lead-paned windows that cranked outwards and that I kept open for most of the winter because the dorm was hot.  I also stored my bottle of port, bought to help me sleep, on the stone window ledge, six storeys up. A bookcase, a comfortable chair, a bed, and a desk:  what more do you need to explore the world of ideas other than simple furniture, a library card and challenging classes?  An electric typewriter and some paper, perhaps.

My two weeks at the Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, which the University of Saskatchewan has decided to close, may have appeared to an outsider to be a "retreat," but how can you explain the remarkable  inner voyages you can take when the encouraging layers of history and creativity all around you seem to speak every time you mind stills for an instant or trips over itself, momentarily lost?  In the workroom of my cabin, with its eight windows looking onto the lake and the boreal forest, I had a small yellow table splattered with paint and ink, traces of past inhabitants, probably artists or scientists--who really are fellow travellers, both of them attuned to wonder. I knew that Clement Greenberg and Barnet Newman had spent time there, that it had been a place for the Regina Five to gather, that Dorothy Knowles and William Perehudoff had found peace and inspiration there.  One of Greenberg's main tenets was that a painter's canvas was simply a flat space:  how vigorously Perehudoff and McKay challenged and realized that idea.  At the same time, can you think of two painters more radically different than Barnet Newman and Dorothy Knowles?  Here is one of the paradoxes of minimalism: that these simple cabins can give rise to such exuberant variety.

The monastic rooms at St. Michael's Abbey, where I spent a wonderful Sage Hill Writing Experience, similarly have a calm, supportive aura. The cabins in the Leighton Colony at the Banff Centre for the arts also resonate:  they have guest books for everyone to sign so that there is a kind of narrative linking the creative lives of the people who thrive there, whose work thrives there.  Yet this is a space devoid of your personality:  all I brought was a computer and a guitar.  I think it's that absence of self that's liberating in some almost Buddhist way.

I'm quite sure that minimalism can give rise to creativity, whether it's Thoreau's simple cabin on Walden Pond or Turner's eyrie at Petworth, which I've always envied.  Though realistically one needs to realize that the rigours of simplicity don't suit everyone.  Consider the studios of Picasso or Cezanne, full of props and ideas.

But I can't quite work out the relationship between the aesthetics and the ethics of simplicity.  In some ways, those who have chosen very simple lives, people like Thoreau or the monks at St. Michael's Abbey, conceived of an ethical component to simplicity that is almost Buddhist:  mindfulness, the freedom to reflect, observe, and imagine, they might say, is gained by a certain detachment from things, even while the simplicity created by that detachment is frequently beautiful.  There's also the practical fact:  if you're not interested in amassing things, you can work less and create or reflect more.  But David Claerbaut's video, "Sunrise,"which I wrote about last February, makes it quite clear that minimalism requires a lot of upkeep and can be both beautiful and alienating.  Frequently the most elegantly simple clothing is also the most expensive.  (Though jewelery these days is opting for the baroque and extravagant, almost as if it's flying in the face of the economic downturn..)

 "Less is more" pronounced Mies van Der Rohe, as he stripped down the high rise.  "A house is a machine for living," observed Le Corbusier as he built homes like the Villa Savoy.  My daughter, Veronica, who has studied "Corb," tells me that aesthetically appealing and simple spaces were both quite expensive and not very home-like.  He had hoped to help us strip down our own lives to what was important by providing a visual corollary for us to contemplate.  At the same time, however, there's no place to comfortably sit and contemplate in his houses; he's always moving you on to the next task in its perfectly-defined and designed space. He has not designed the modernist version of Thoreau's cabin at Walden.

I confess I love winter.  (Don't tell Bill.)  I love its minimalism.  I spend autumn engrossed in searching out the truth of the subtle greyed colours and the complex textures of trees, shrubs, grasses that have dried or lost their leaves.  Some days it is a stretch to see the beauty that I somehow cannot live without, cannot stop searching for.  Then one morning I wake to a new-made world.  There is a white harmony in the naked textures and more space to breath in the chilly air.

Friday, November 16, 2012

By the skin of our teeth


Here is my idiosyncratic news culled from the last couple of days:

  • The Americans approach the "fiscal cliff" because Republicans refuse to tax the wealthy.
  • Demonstrations occur in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where government cutbacks have created instability and high levels of unemployment.  In Spain, they blame the bankers.  Maybe we need to update Shakespeare's line from Henry VI about the lawyers:  "First thing we do, let's kill all the bankers."
  • My environmental network is telling me that the current managers of the PFRA lands, which the provincial government wants to sell, are being muzzled, forbidden to comment on the value of the million acres of native prairie and sustainably grazed pasture, in spite of the fact that they know that land and understand its importance and its management from the inside out.  Nevertheless Candace Savage, recent winner of the Hillary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction, will be speaking to interested people on Thursday November 22 at 7 in the Education Auditorium, and a group of people interested in saving the PFRA lands from the auction block will gather on Friday, November 23 at the Orr Centre, 4400 4th Avenue (on 4th and Lewvan Drive).
  • Meanwhile, Harper is calling into question the charitable status of any organization that doesn't tow the conservative line, particularly on environmental issues.
  • Then, of course, we come to the Faculty of Arts and the English Department.  In some ways, what is happening here is clear:  the provincial government is demanding that U of R become "more efficient," and is forcing that efficiency on us by threatening to give us no increase in our funding or by holding us to a 2% increase.  (A 2% increase is, in effect, a decrease, since our costs rise by about 5% a year.)  The other clear fact here is that Saskatchewan, currently a "have" province, ranks 9th among the provinces in the amount of money it provides to post-secondary education.  It is unclear whether the Faculty of Arts is being asked to take more of a financial hit than other, more profession-oriented faculties.  I am hoping that Paul Bogdan's excellent piece, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" in The Carillon and David Fraser's briefer piece in the Leader-Post will shake down some answers to our questions.
  • Chris Hedges believes, as do a number of people I respect, that governments are attempting to "silence" or "starve" the humanities and the social sciences because we're the ones who teach the troublemakers--if we aren't troublemakers ourselves.  We ask the uncomfortable questions.  We don't take the government or corporate line for granted, nor do we share their vision of "prosperity"--that it is synonymous with "profit." We don't believe that the lives and the societies and the environments they have in mind for us are either the best or the only possibilities.
This fall, just before the term began, the English Department met to consider the budgetary realities, and I found myself saying that critical thought, the arts, cultural institutions, and the natural world that so beautifully supports our existence, are hanging on "by the skin of our teeth."  My memory queried that phrase the minute it was out of my mouth.  It came from somewhere memorable.

It's the title of the first chapter of Kenneth Clark's Civilization, the one that describes the dark ages between the fall of Rome and "The Great Thaw" that began, from his perspective, in 1100 C.E.  I nodded inwardly, realizing that we are heading, possibly world-wide, toward a twenty-first-century Dark Age, one where the barbarian hordes are those who believe that profit and wealth are the only true "good," in spite of the fact that the economists of happiness and the cognitive psychologists will tell them that their hunger can never be assuaged.  So I went back to Kenneth Clark's book, and found both some disturbing parallels and some hope. 

First, the devout St. Gregory burned countless volumes of the Classical literature we had inherited from Greece and Rome because they "seduced men's minds away from the study of holy write" (17).  He is the precursor, then, of ideologues who want to silence dissent and free thought.  On the other hand, there was Charlemagne, who, with the "help of an outstanding teacher and librarian named Alcuin of York...collected books and had them copied....Our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne" (18).
I don't find despair exactly energizing.  At any given moment, it is probably as rational to say the glass is half empty as to assert that it's half full, and I fully respect this fact.  So I choose to take the "half full" view, even though sometimes it's initially quite a struggle.  In part, that means teaching with all the passion and joy I can muster, because for every politician or CEO who's on the wrong track, I can touch an Arts student who can reflectively maneuver us onto the right track. In part, it means looking out my window as I work, taking in the beauty of the natural world, thinking about my daughter's photograph of the church in King's Lynn on Ascension Sunday and about the potters who made the jars that unceremoniously hold pens and clips.  The natural world always reminds me that there's something bigger than myself, something as beautiful as anything humans have ever made.  So I also drive to work through the park, making my left turn off Albert at the Legislature and taking the long way in along the lake, where the geese still have a bit of open water they gather around and where the opposite shoreline is often shrouded in fog.  It means taking a different route through the park on the way home where I almost always see a rabbit out for for "silflay."  In the words Kenneth Clark uses to describe the wonderful Unicorn Tapestries, "nature goes on naturing."

In some ways, I keep hope alive by writing this blog, by finding a place where literally no one stands between you and me.  It means, unfortunately, trying to ignore the fact that Candace Savage won the Hillary Weston Non-fiction prize for a book published by Greystone, and imprint of the now-bankrupt and restructuring Douglas and McIntyre publishing firm.  That, in turn, makes me think of book stores...and forces me to take a deep breath before I spiral down yet again.

It makes me want to spend time with creative writers, as I will be doing on Saturday when the English Department hosts a Creative Writing Open House.  Creative people are the only ones who can get us out of this.  That's not only because they are the ones who will entertain us on the improbably dark nights that are ahead or who can make history live in our memories so we know where human progress left off.  They are the ones who will help us be subversive, if not the ones who come up with the solutions.  But more than that:  creative people know the joy of making something, not simply buying it.  They can't be bought off.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Music for an empty house


I have revised and revised and edited and revised the talk I am giving tomorrow on Woolf's aesthetics as they are revealed to us by the form of To the Lighthouse and by Lily Briscoe's painting.  I have spent considerable time on the last paragraph, of course, because late on a Friday afternoon, in the part of the term when people are very tired by the end of the week, I need not only to write a logical conclusion--difficult enough!--but to get the cadence of the words to say what I can only partially articulate. 

I am not happy with the last couple of sentences. I am trying to describe one of the paradoxes of art:  that in its humility, its uncertainty about its place in our private and civic lives, in its refusal to lay literal claims to us, in its desire to engage us in conversation, not to harangue us, it gains a kind of oxymoronic powerless power.  I have scoured my rather good thesaurus.  Do you have any idea of the extent to which power is associated with potency, powerlessness with impotence?  Words are going in the wrong direction altogether.

 So I came home to dine alone, since Bill is in Saskatoon for a meeting early tomorrow morning.  During the renovations we did not have our stereo, so now I am rediscovering music.  There was a CD I still hadn't played, recommended by my sister, Karen:  Arvo Part's "Alina."  There are five sections, the first third and fifth played by piano with violin or cello, the second and fourth by the piano alone.  The melodies are starkly simple, the accompaniment broken chords that aren't always pretty or predictable.  The solo piano interludes speak to me most powerfully.  Haunting, simple harmonies are played with a tentativeness that suggests how fragile beauty is, how tender our connection with time, how uncertain our grasp of what we feel. This is perfect music for an empty house, echoing in its space the way it echoes in our minds, with the mystery of its simplicity and restraint.

Hoping that Part wrote them for a person or an occasion that will explain their haunting quality, I turned to the liner notes to find nothing but a musicologist's meditation on Part's original voice.  But in tiny italics there was this:   "I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours.  Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener."

This metaphor would have suited Woolf perfectly.  The last chapter in my study of her aesthetics (not written yet) will be on her sense of the reader as a co-creator, the reader as an important part of art's integrity.  For it is readers thinking for themselves that, in her words "presses the weight of their consciousness" upon the writer, urging her on, being frank when she's being lazy, giving her a sense of her culture's anxieties, joys, pleasures, fears.  But it is perhaps even more importantly the writer who leaves suggestive spaces between her thoughts who makes the work that softly commands our attention.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The generosity of book launches

I am back in the thick of teaching and of all the marking that comes with writing classes, so I only went to two of this fall's panoply of book launches.  Is it even reasonable to draw some conclusions from two launches?  Well, I shall do it nevertheless, since I've seen the change coming for quite some time.  Book launches now are not simply an occasion for the writer to preen herself or himself over the delights of the printed book and keep people listening to a reading for longer than is otherwise conscionable.  The new launch is likely to include an interview (as did Britt Holmstrom for her book of elegant stories, Leaving Berlin); there might be music or other readers.  The new book launch includes conversations and is more generous and less single-minded.

In September, Brenda Schmidt launched her book of essays, Flight Calls:  An Apprentice on the Art of Listening, a book she worked on when she was writer in residence at Mackie Lake House, and published by Kalamalka Press.  The launch took an unusual format.  Brenda read, briefly, from her introduction, which described her first meeting with Gerry Hill, who was to become her SWG  mentor.  Then Gerry had some observations and favourite moments from the book that he used to try to get a conversation going between Brenda and himself.  Sometimes they cooked.  Sometimes Gerry's questions seemed a little hermetic for an author nervously launching a book.  I should also say that his voice twines through Flight Calls itself, since each essay has an epigraph sent by him, and a long letter from Brenda to Gerry winds in and around the creative process and among Brenda's careful observations of the natural world.

Flight Calls is certainly about listening, beginning and ending as it does with Brenda's concerns about her own hearing.  It is infused with birdsong, the sound wind makes in different kinds of trees, the hum of her computer, the song "Trees," sung by 256 women in which they name 81 different kinds of trees.  Brenda writes "The other day I listened to it while looking out the window.  I pictured 256 women singing among the trees, 256 clouds of breath rising.  The daydream fell away in seconds.  The trees came forward.  The naked crowns of poplar and birch, lilac and maple, the tangle of spirea and caragana, the leaning spruce, the beheaded spruce" (105).  But Flight Calls is as much about vision and vision's uncertainties and celebrations.  Brenda and her husband Harvey are avid birders who play host to ptarmigan, who participate in citizen science by keeping bird counts.  One winter day they find a Rustic Bunting in the trees near the feeder.  This is a bird that summers in Scandinavia or Siberia and winters in China--definitely off course in northern Creighton SK in February.  Brenda and Harvey post their siting, photographs, and video on the internet and play host to 27 birders, watching the bunting look sadder and sadder.  They last see him on the day they leave to attend the funeral for Harvey's dad.

There's nothing trickier, it seems to me, than identifying birds, particularly those on the wing.  Birding, then, is a test of the limits of the visual; you're sometimes given little more than a split second to take in the details and compare those with drawings and photographs in books.  Back and forth you go between book and bird, bird and book.  In so many ways, then, Brenda's book speaks of the rich web of connections between vision and the natural world that seems, in Kant's terms, to be especially designed for our very abilities to see.  Cognitive psychologists are telling us that we are more generous when we're in a natural setting; Brenda's book, then, speaks of the generosity of seeing and meditating on the natural world, the remarkable visual richness that world gives back to us.  I certainly recommend you read it.

My second launch this year was of Coby Stephenson's book of linked stories Violet Quesnel.  This too was an unconventional launch.  Coby said she wanted to give something back to the communities that had supported her, so invited a number of people to read.  Hosted by the very funny Devin Pacholik (who opened with what I suspect was a kind of found poem of the reality TV programs we were missing because we were there), it included readings by young poets Cassidy McFadzean and Courtney Bates.  I must confess a kind of maternalistic pride here:  all three of these young people took classes with me, and though I certainly never think of myself as having contributed something "significant"(those are ironic quotes, not scare quotes) to their work, I like to think I at least created a congenial space for experimenting, wondering, thinking about creativity and its seeming inexhaustability.  For this was what I felt, particularly when Cassidy and Courtney and Coby read:  that these young voices are adventurers at the outer edges of language and thought, writing highly unconventional sonnets or updating fairy tales in really intriguing ways.  Allison Kydd also read from her intriguing New Leaf book, Emily via the Greyhound Bus.

Coby, I think, spent more time thanking people than reading the first story about her central character, Violet Quesnel, who "just happens to have bi-polar disorder."  Herein lies another kind of generosity:  the refusal of the creative artist to judge, label, pigeonhole.  Coby has clearly tried through the collection to present bi-polar disorder as simply one of the many interesting facets of Violet's adolescence and early adulthood. Two things stand out about "The First Time."  One is Coby's interesting use of second person narration, implicating the reader in the story, as if we understand Violet's frame of mind:  "You didn't sleep again because the 1984 edition of Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedias, which your mother earned by shopping at Safeway, distracted you.  You have read up to Volume C.  You leave off at court cupboard and you are already dressed for the day because you didn't undress" (9).  The second is her willingness to look Violet's mental illness in the eye and be undaunted by it as a writer:  "These days it hurts for her to try.  To try what?  Just to try.  It feels like she has swallowed a stone.  Perhaps that heavy feeling will make it easier to sink to the bottom of Lake Superior.  Even the fine hairs on her chin feel heavy.  She worries that one day she'll slow down so much that even blinking will cease" (16). Read Coby Stephenson's Violet Quesnel too.

So. The generosity of mentors, of birders who allow other birders into their lives to see a "rarity."  The generous use of language that takes us into the writer's world and allows us to huddle or strut or quietly observe for a while.  The generosity of a newly-published author to give her fellow classmates a chance to share the limelight.  The generosity of acceptance and curiosity.  I don't think this generosity is simply part of the creative attitude or process:  we all know stories of writers who are envious shits. But oh, it is welcome!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Optimism of Teaching


Canadian designer Bruce Mau begins his essay "Imagining the Future" by observing "I am a designer, which means I cannot afford the luxury of cynicism."  The language is loaded, I know; I'm not sure I would ever suggest that cynicism is a luxury, as if it were some kind of warm, deep bath that we'd all like to immerse our aching bodies in from time to time.  If I could imagine cynicism as something available to our senses, it would be sour lemonade or lukewarm coffee.  All the same, I take his point:  there are some occupations that don't mix well with cynicism.  First, Mau's historical horizon is something he calls the "Long Now."  If we don't make our judgments of the current moment simply based on our impressions of that very moment and the few months leading up to it,  but appreciate the way our own time is simply the crescendo that's been building for quite a number of years, we can see how much life has improved.  As he points out, fewer people in the world are either hungry or sick from preventable diseases; child mortality rates have dropped while life expectancy has grown.  Second, as a designer he solves problems, perhaps with air traffic control systems or with machines that make kidney dialysis possible at home, and there is something inherently optimistic about solving problems and building new things.

I am a teacher, which means I'm not inclined to cynicism:  that's how I'd revise his sentence to fit me.  There must be some cynical people who teach; or people who teach may have parts of their lives that they're cynical about.  I can easily get cynical about politicians and about the whole political process.  I can certainly be cynical about how capitalism is shaking out in the early twenty-first century, particularly when "free (and hopefully unregulated) markets" are touted as the cure for everything.  I'm with Mark Kingwell on this one:  we're happier with more time to reflect, to spend with friends, to form supportive communities than we are with the latest gadget or fashion.  I'm not so much of PollyAnna that I don't realize that some students will try to play me, which is okay because there are natural consequences for missing classes or missing deadlines:  those students won't do well in my class, though the next time I see them in the hallway I'm still a friendly face.  I've just let the universe unfold as it will.

In some ways, it's particular groups of students who inspire my optimism.  Students in writing classes, whether it's "Introduction to Creative Writing" or the seemingly more drab "Expository and Persuasive Writing" always make me feel hopeful.  I've got fourteen remarkable young people in my Expository and Persuasive Writing class, which I I began by telling them that I want them to develop their own "credible voice." This means creating a voice that sounds like them, with its own individual cadence and vocabulary and world view--but that's just the "voice" part.  Being credible also entails paying attention to details like learning to use semi-colons rather than simply and blithely committing comma splices.  Being credible means using precise language and getting your Works Cited page right. They're more than willing to work to achieve this kind of credibility.   In this class, I have students who make films and students who are involved in dance.  I have students who do volunteer work with people with disabilities, but who can see beyond those disabilities to the spirits and wisdom of their clients.  I have students who work at Dojack because it makes them feel good to help others.  I have half a dozen people, at least, who should be in creative writing classes:  so vivid are their ideas about anxiety or happiness or depression.  I have students who are intensely curious about how society works, students involved in the political process.  I also have young people who are simply cheerful and curious.  Every day is an adventure with them, and rather than dreading my marking, I look forward to it:  spending time with their minds and words is an adventure.  How could I not be optimistic about a world where young people care about ideas--about exploring and expressing ideas?

The other class I'm teaching is Jane Austen.  There, my 24 fellow travelers will read 1,663 pages of some of the clearest, most exquisite yet workmanlike prose in English.  They will all write better after they finish the class.  They are curious about the historical period that gave rise to Austen's novels, yet they see that some elements of those novels echo their own circumstances.  Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Morland and Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood are caught between two ideas of marriage:  the older generation believed that marriage ought to be a contract that improves the position of the family as a whole either economically or socially, while the younger generation hoped to marry for love and companionship.  Similarly, my students are aware of the way in which a particular historical moment limits or shapes the possibilities of their lives.  History isn't something "out there," visible in battles and elections.  The individual is often strangely and inextricably touched by it.

We have just begun Pride and Prejudice, rightly everybody's favourite.  I've taught Austen enough to know that once they've waded through Sense and Sensibility (we begin with Northanger Abbey, which is simply a fun spoof but gets us used to Austen's language and syntax), they seem to simply understand the rules of Austen's plots and worlds.  We proceed mostly with questions and answers, and create a lively conversation in the classroom.  Today, as a prelude to a discussion of the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, we talked about the world views and moral assumptions of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and dear generous Jane. My students are insightful about the way such worldviews blind or betray some of the characters both morally and practically.  Were Austen to suddenly appear in my classroom, ready to chat with them about her novels, she would be delighted with their observations.

The first batch of essays is due in the Austen class tomorrow, so the romance may wane a bit.  I may grit my teeth over paragraphs that aren't coherent or my 23rd comma splice over the last hour.  But I've often thought that it's just as rational to think the glass is half full as to conclude that it's half empty.  That seems about right to me:  there just about as much stupidity and greed and cruelty in the world as their is generosity, curiosity, and happiness.  I'm lucky, though.  My students make it much more difficult to just give in to despair and hopelessness.  Yes, much is wrong with the world, but I see the growth of a generation that is insightful, thoughtful, and compassionate.  I want to spend as much time with them as I can.  Fortunately, they put up with me.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The "Power of We" Blog


I usually climb on my soapbox in what I hope is a sort of sly, sidling movement that the readers of my blog are just learning to detect--and perhaps avoid.  Frankly, I try to soften you up with either beauty or craftsmanship--the pleasant cadence of a well-turned sentence or an evocative image--before I circle back round to the things that matter to me:  beauty, craftsmanship and its satisfactions, all art, all play, the importance of conversation, reflection on our goals--all leavened by my reading and thinking.  But I've found myself doing something rather surprising.  I've joined in "Blog Action Day" in which committed bloggers are writing posts on the theme "The Power of We."  Are all artists independent folks who just want the time and solitude in which to create?  But of course, for me that desire for solitude is mingled with a desire for the kinds of conversations I have with my students, for the kinds of learning both my students and I do during a term's exploration of Jane Austen or creative nonfiction.


Yet my Facebook page and the friends who check in there have certainly changed my behaviour--as has my own sense (seconded by the vision of thinkers and observers like Chris Hedges) that we are possibly facing a twenty-first-century dark age, a time when economies are in tatters, when we try to re-think whether we value wealth or art/conversation/friendship, a time when climate change is threatening the world in which we live and questioning what it is we value:  the profits from oil sent to China or the pristine environment of The Great Bear Rainforest.  Daily I find myself signing petitions or following links to organizations like Leadnow or Ecojustice or to Occupy Regina. 

Using the language of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, somehow the "hive switch" has been thrown for me.  At this particular historical moment, I do not think I can say, with W.B. Yeats "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" ("The Second Coming").  I am more hopeful.

Right now, the worst that Yeats speaks of are the cynics, those who, in Oscar Wilde's words, "know the price of everything and the value of nothing."  They have the most power; they now dominate the non-conversation about what we value, wherein free, unregulated markets are the answer to every problem.  Do you have common land in Saskatchewan that the Federal Government has given back to you to do with what you please?  Biodiversity and protected habitats are much less important than simply selling this land off to the highest bidder.  Do we know that adequate housing not only saves misery, but saves governments money?  But who will profit?  Are we putting our intelligence into figuring how to get oil to China, which is happy to fuel its own economy?  Why aren't we exploring solar and wind power?  But how can we charge for sunlight and wind?

Most of what we value is what we share in common.  Educational institutions.  Green spaces.  Justice.  Clean air and water. 

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt acknowledges that chimps never cooperate, partly because they can't conceive of or communicate goals they might share, and that we resemble chimps in this respect more than we'd like.  But he also talks about how "the hive switch" can be turned on.  Interestingly, both Haidt and Netta Weinstein, Andrew K. Przybylski and Richard M. Ryan have done interesting work on the way immersion in the natural world leads us to be more generous. Haidt writes "Awe acts like a kind of reset button:  it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns.  Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life.  Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch, along with collective love and collective joy...precisely because nature can...shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole (Haidt 228; italics in original).

On Friday I was talking with one of the students of my Expository and Persuasive Writing class about mob mentalities.  Obviously Haidt's description of the elephant came into my attempt to explain why and how people

Monday, October 8, 2012

Despair and Thanksgiving


Saturday mornings, Bill and I have a comforting, settled routine.  We begin our day as soon as Tangerine opens and take in the spirit of the wonderful jazz they play along with our coffee and scones or hot chocolate and muffins.  Then, because we're only three blocks from the Farmer's Market and because finding parking any closer is difficult and because we've had a miraculous fall, we get our shopping bag out of the trunk and walk up Lorne to market on Twelfth Avenue.  We may not even need very much, but we go anyway  Partly, we simply like the atmosphere:  the friendly, funky, chaotic atmosphere you create when you turn a street into a market space without restrictive aisles.  You have to negotiate other people's paths, which leads to eye contact and smiles.  If I do need anything, I like to buy it as close to home and as low on the capitalist food chain as possible for environmental and political reasons.  I'd rather pay a local farmer I can smile at than an anonymous Mr. Safeway.  Also, we're likely to run into someone we know for a little weekend pinch of sociability.  Gail Bowen and her daughter Wendy are regulars.  Sometimes we see Katherine Arbuthnott leaving as we arrive.  Last weekend we ran into Jennifer Arends and Justin Messner with their new baby, Malcolm.

As we stand in the middle of Twelfth Avenue, letting the market flow on around us like water around a quartet of boulders, it's like being at the still centre of a carnival.  Or of impromptu theatre.  Somehow when you're forced to look someone in the eyes and figure out what path they're on, you're struck by the sense that just that moment you've had a walk-on part in someone else's drama.  Quite often they are quiet dramas:  an older woman trying to figure out how to load her granny cart, a family trying to give a six-year-old some freedom without losing him; an anxious but very hip young couple trying to figure out how they want to live, negotiating what they value as she heads for the organic gardener while he eyes the jam in the stall next door.

Last Saturday morning at Tangerine, I'd been reading Chris Hedges' Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.  I'm a child of the sixties and anti-war and civil-rights marches, so I gave a miss to the chapters that talked about how we got here.  His last chapter, largely on the significance of the Occupy Movement, was what I was curious about, since that movement has winkled its way into Soul Weather.  Hedges argues that we have arrived at an age of ultra-capitalism, when CEOs shape our lives with a defining vision of the developed world:  we will all be making and buying widgets.  We should be educated to provide capitalism with self-sustaining skills and we should buy into the idea that the fulfilment of our lives is to have more stuff than the person next door.  Hedges either sees this vision as a given that no one questions or as a world-wide conspiracy that even President Barack Obama is implicated in.

I know enough people from different walks of life--and I know Althusser's theory of interpellation--that I can easily believe that a distressing number of people (some of them the parents of my students) have accepted this view of the world.  We have all heard too many times that an unfettered, unregulated market will solve all manner of ills.  But the psychological research suggests we seldom derive a sustained sense of well-being (notice I'm avoiding the word 'happiness,' which I think it problematic) from the pursuit of extrinsic goals. If beauty is our ticket to happiness, we will have to face the fact that we age.  If wealth is the lottery ticket we've got in our hands, we're doubtless going to find out that someone else is wealthier.  Fame subsides very quickly in a Twitterverse  always hungry for the next big story; ditto power.  But if what we seek is our own very personal satisfaction in something crafted, some injustice righted, some kindness given, some good food offered, intense and challenging friendships fostered, then a sense of well-being is with our reach.  The caveat, of course, is that you need a modicum of comfort and security before you can turn to these goods.  It is hard for someone on the streets to get inspired by the thought of making a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner for friends, which is one of the Occupy Movement's concerns,. 

But Hedges' sense that in North America at least--and perhaps in much of Europe--capitalism is the order of the day disturbed me as I went about my business.  I looked up from one paragraph to see an older man across the street from Tangerine, just in front of Lorne Drugs, standing next to a car for a full five minutes, looking up and down the street, his chest visibly heaving even from my perspective.  I wondered if he was waiting for the ideal moment to break into the vehicle--and older car that didn't look all that promising--when he opened the passenger's side door, lifted up his respirator and put it in the passenger's seat.  He walked around the car, got into the driver's seat, attached himself to the respirator again and then sat there for another five minutes before driving off.   Was there no one who could have run his errand for him?  Was this his declaration of independence, a deep need to get outdoors in the sunshine on his own to enjoy the last crisp but sunny September Saturday morning?

I have already told you about our visit to the Farmer's Market.  On the way back, in one of the graveled parking lots on Lorne between Fourteenth Avenue and Thirteenth, a lot where I have seen half a dozen rabbits out to nibble weeds in the dusky light, about fifteen people ranging in age from their mid-twenties to their mid-seventies were doing Tai Chi.  It is an unprepossing place for people to join for this meditative practice, but their smooth musical movements didn't suggest that the gravel underfoot and the weeds at the edges of the stalls concerned them at all.

Hedges' powerfully critical generalizations don't take into account the number of us who do our best to live "off the grid," as I have come to put it:  to live outside or on the edges of the capitalist system he derides.  Hedges is not the only writer who depends on over-generalization to make his case.  In his critique of the oil industry and our dependence on oil for the texture of our daily lives, Andrew Nikiforuk has written The Energy of Slaves:  Oil and the New Servitude; as its title would suggest, he argues that we are all enslaved to oil.  Alanna Mitchell, in her review of Nikiforuk's book (I'll admit the review is all I've read),calls Nikiforuk "an impeccable, wide-ranging researcher and prolific writer" and points out the number of significant awards he's won.  All the same, she writes that his basic analysis isn't incorrect, but that the situation "is not as one-sided, as paranoic or as clearly demarcated as he makes it seem.  I fear that just as our society is disfigured by dependence on cheap oil, his analysis is disfigured by rage.  Can you really believe that modern cities are simple human feedlots [for keeping oil's slaves alive]?  It seems to me that there is more here than that.  I look around and see art, joy, neighbourhoods, bookstores, communities, families, gardens, thriving local businesses and parks.  Plus, for the record, people who live in modern industrialized cities use less carbon per person than people who live on farms.  Just saying" (Literary Review of Books October 2012 page 13).

I can see that Nikiforuk's and Hedges' views might be coloured by rage.  I also suspect they are trying to get our attention.  And perhaps even more, their books are tinged with despair which I sometimes share with them, particularly in a time when governments are cutting funds to arts and to universities--the very places and people charged with creating thoughtful solutions.  At the same time, this morning I opened up my Facebook page to find Deborah Morrison's wonderful litany of the people she's grateful for:  from the young man who fixed her furnace to the workers in her mother's care facility who dialed Deb's number so they could have a Thanksgiving conversation, to friends who listen and support and feed.  This, along with my farmers and the group practicing Tai Chi and the man whose mortality is with him daily, create networks of care and creativity and perspective that speak to a very different world than that of oil barons and powerful CEOs.  Perhaps besides being grateful this year, we could all put our own creativity to work and figure out how to make the thankful vision we have a more creative force in our societies.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Who do we create for?



As I worked on my Sunday quota of four blocks for Veronica's quilt, I thought about one aspect of craft that I haven't often reflected on:  that the craftsperson most frequently makes things that will be used in other people's everyday lives.  Although I'm having fun trying to make interesting blocks when faced with Veronica's idea of the quilt she'd like to have on her bed, I am not driven to make this quilt the way I was driven to make the New York Beauty that is now on the spare bed.  I had this theory about colours:  that all colours could go together if they were arranged or grouped in an effective way, if you paid attention less to the colour than to their level of saturation--the amount of black or grey mixed in with a pure colour, and if you created a rhythm of saturated and unsaturated colours.  I made the quilt, then, as a way of learning something I really wanted to know, as an experiment.  It didn't need to satisfy someone else's hunger, to speak to someone else's sense of who they are, the way something beautiful and well-crafted is able to do.

I seem to be managing this with Veronica's quilt; she looked at all the blocks I have pieced and said "That's it.  Understated with a bit of red.  That's me."  And in a way the need to understand someone else's desires and vision is a gift:  it stretches me as a craftsperson beyond my comfort zone.  I find that some of my principles still hold, though in different ways.  Many quilters, for example, talk about encouraging the viewer's eyes to move around the quilt.  What we're trying to do is to build in surprises that urge you to explore, or to build in echoes that you seek out.  I'm still doing that here, but in a way that's much more subtle. I have to intuit what Veronica would like, and that imaginative act is, in itself, exciting.  She's found a cream print with simple grey butterflies and moths on it, and I'm going to "fussy-cut" pieces and make a slight change to the block so that, perhaps three times in the entire quilt, there's a large moth or a butterfly right at the centre of the block.   

Thoughtful craftspeople imagine the person who will use their work all the time.  Randal Fedge, who tried to teach me to work on a potter's wheel, often took the lovely edge of a bowl and gave it a twist with his thumb.  He was anticipating the bowl's owner picking it up right by the comfortable, inviting divot he'd made.  Jack Sures makes inviting thumb-rests on the top of his mug handles.  I have a very flat porcelain bowl made at Chosin Pottery by Judy Dyelle.  She has made a tiny pleat on the edge of the thin porcelain that always makes me smile, perhaps because it made her smile when she created it.  

Thinking about craftspeople making invitations to future users or attempting to anticipate what would give their owners delight made me wonder whether artists do something similar.  Who do artists create for?  Other artists?  Past masters?   I had a chance to put that question to three young writers last weekend.  "Who do you write for?" I asked them.  Sarah Taggart gave an answer that moved me.  She writes for her characters.  Then because she messes it up, she says, she has to go back to write for herself--for her sense of self-respect.  And then for future readers. 

Brenda Schmidt launched a very interesting book of essays, Flight Calls on Monday.  All of these were prompted by rather enigmatic epigraphs sent by her Saskatchewan Writers' Guild mentor Gerry Hill:  clearly at some level she--like many of us--wrote for a mentor who perhaps temporarily comes to stand in for the audience we would like to have, an audience we respect and trust.

Adorno has a lovely phrase about a successful work of art.  He says it is the equal of itself.  In other words, what the artist has accomplished actually comes very close to the artist's vision.  Faulty craftsmanship, a simplistic world view, inattention haven't crept into the work so that it fails to reflect that Platonic ideal the artist had.  I kind of like Adorno''s notion, except that sometimes I suspect I don't grasp that complex ideal until I'm nearly there.  If I could articulate that ideal in words, I wouldn't have difficulty writing the poem or realizing the character, would I?  Yet I still believe that in the early stages I write for the work itself.  There's some complex aesthetic whole which speaks to what it means to be human that I strive for, even if I only imagine it at some level of abstraction.   It's only as I get closer to this hazy idea that I begin to think about how I'll create a bridge between the work and the world I want it to live in.