Friday, March 30, 2012

Renovations, revisions, and a drive to Moose Jaw

We don't yet have a date for the kitchen destruction, but my skillful cabinet maker came on Wednesday to take a careful look at the room and firm up some of the plans.  In the meantime, I've been cleaning out drawers and cupboards, thinking about what is really necessary for the kind of cooking I do now.  There's a kind of archeology to this process:  as I dig into the back of drawers, I fetch up things like an avocado green hard-boiled egg slicer or the baby silverware or four differently-sized whisks. (I was looking for the perfect whisk, I suspect.)  I moved my kitchen into this house in 1990, when Veronica was 11, and haven't really cleaned out drawers since, though my cooking has changed dramatically.  There's now a box downstairs with items that will go to Community Living or some similar charity.  I'll leave them in the box, which I can get to easily in case I need something; but a month after reno, out they go.  If I haven't used them by then, I don't need them.  Even before the new kitchen is created, I have more space.

I have good feelings about revisions like this one.  Twice in my life, revision made an enormous difference.  There's the funny story:  about how I had posted a provile on LavaLife, (before it got cheesy) but wasn't getting much interest.  A close friend was dying, and the portrait of myself that I'd created was of someone facing a friend's mortality, facing the unfairness of a universe that took a friend in the prime of her life.  Serious.  No sense of play.  I no longer remember what inspired me, but one morning I rewrote my profile, making it much more playful and flirtatious.  Bill got in touch the next day; we met a week later after a series of insightful emails; I set a land speed record for falling in love.  I have actually shared this story with students in writing classes with the following moral: It always pays to revise.

Then there's the startling story.  When my insightful publisher, Ruth Linka, read the edited draft of Blue Duets, she said quite firmly "This ms is 120,000 words long.  You've got to get it down to 90,000."  She had two reasons for this.  One was simply that Blue Duets was a first novel and you can't sell first novels if they cost more than $20.  The second was aesthetic.  The novel tells a fairly small story--small in the context of books about wars, about injustice, about massive cruelty, about historical figures.  The manuscript, on the other hand, was bloated.

You have no idea how liberating it was to undertake that revision.  I had to decide what was important and to shave or sand away everything else.  If the novel has a coherent shape, it's because Ruth insisted on that revision.  If the reader clearly knows what's important, if she or he connects emotionally to Lila's experience, it's because there is less dross, fewer red herrings and false turnings.  When you find the right shape for a story, you can quit talking about it and let the story be the reader's guide.

This morning, I hit the road for Moose Jaw.  That's a non-sequitur if you've ever heard one.  But I'd gotten to the point in the chapter on Mrs Dalloway where I can't see the chapter's shape, where I'd lost the thread of its purpose. 

There are two elements to revising.  One is to literally re-see or re-view what you have made.  This part of the process forces you to take the long view, to step back and study the way the various pieces fit together, to see whether they're running alongside an elegant fence or simply held together, cruelly and crudely, with baling wire.  The second element brings you much closer to what you're written to see if the paragraphs hold together and have a coherent structure, if your mechanics are solid and keep the reader's confusion to a minimum.  Hence the need to drive to Moose Jaw.  On the road, I can't flip my pages back and forth defensively to tie up the bits of string that seem to be straggling between the pages.  If I can't recall the major steps in my argument while I study the prairie, I'm in trouble.  There's something about that huge landscape that makes one take the long view, the large view.  So I found where I'd gone awry and figured out where the next pieces of my argument should take me.

At the same time, driving to Moose Jaw at this time of year, when the landscape is as minimal as my kitchen drawers, makes you attend to detail.  Is that a hawk?  Are there birds in those nests?  Do I really see buds on these trees?  So you come back ready to do the other kind of revision, the less inspiring but nevertheless satisfying work of getting all the details in place. 

I like both elements of revision.  The large-scale version is a cheeky girl who's looking at you archly and saying "So?  So what?"  The smaller-scale version is a youthful engineer who is convinced everything will work better if all the pieces and screws and washers are in their right place.  If that machine is your stove or your sewing machine or your computer, you also value efficiency, tidiness, and a sense of purpose.  So of course you want your writer or your artist to make that thought as clear as possible so you are ready to grapple with the demands it's going to make of you to think in a new or different way.  Then it's your turn to hold the piece of writing or the work of art up to the world you see to see if you, too, need to revise.  The drive from Regina to Moose Jaw takes just the right amount of time for doing that.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ken Probert: Our libraries, ourselves

On Wednesday I met with Bruce and Kathy Probert, Ken's brother and sister-in-law, to consider what might best be done with Ken's enormous and varied library.  We took the green tea Kathy had made and wandered the rooms upstairs, where the books were all hugger-mugger, some of them in large blue bins--perhaps moved from his office and sadly never unpacked.  There was one bookshelf devoted to beautiful books--a Folio Society slip-cased edition of Trollope's novels and a beautiful boxed set of Jane Austen; Grimm's complete Fairy Tales next to two lovely volumes of Sherlock Holmes.  He had a number of titles from McSweeney's publishing house, each put together in a way that playfully challenged what the book could be.  Part of the portrait that emerged here was that of a man who loved the beauty of books, who felt their seductions and satisfactions.
What an interesting portrait of a man who read Foucault and Freud, but who was interested in New Yorker covers and Edith Wharton's decorating style.  Books on slavery, the result of Ken's interest in nineteenth-century American literature, nudged books on World War I.  He wasn't simply interested in other places, though the Saskatchewan Encyclopedia had lost touch with Saskatchewan geography and history, so we did some sorting.  There was one island of order in all this:  Ken's set of Library of America editions, which will be a significant addition to the University of Regina Archer Library.  We never found, though, copies of the books he edited, Writing Saskatchewan, and Writing Addiction.  Ken's humility was clearly in overdrive.

Fortified by Kathy's tasty cookies which have healthy seeds and decadent chocolate chips, we went downstairs.  The "family room" had built-in bookshelves, and as I stood in front of them I suspected I could see the young Ken Probert organizing his intellectual passions as he filled the first bookshelves in his house.  There were all of G.B. Shaw's plays; a set of "complete poems" from all the important nineteenth-century Romantic poets (and a bit beyond):  Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Tennyson; three lovely volumes of Yeats. His more recent enthusiasms had built up in the spaces between, where Alice Munro was evident.

As I stood back to attempt to get a view of this wall as a whole, I suddenly found my memory inhabiting Buswell Street in Boston's Back Bay.  My first husband Dan and I had moved into Boston University married housing, while he worked on his Master's degree in music.  For three or four weeks, my own books remained in boxes:  can you imagine that university housing had no bookshelves?  I became, frankly, more and more depressed as I took buses to and from Brandeis University where I typed up (and slyly corrected) the writing of a group of social scientists.  (People caught on to my furtive improvement of their work and were pleased, though I do remember one very tall fellow looking at typed-up copy, reading the first page, and exclaiming "Did I write that?  Wow!"  I didn't enlighten him.)  I needed to have my books out, I told Dan miserably.  That weekend we headed to the nearest lumber yard where we bought the wood for bookshelves that my daughter Veronica continues to use.  Ken's boxed set of Austen will be happy there.

But as my mind conflated this memory with the books before me, I thought about our relationship to books.  First, how hopeful they are, how they speak to us of hope and adventure as we imagine reading them.  How they speak of our willingness to go to places deeply unfamiliar as well as half-known.  Even if some of the titles on our shelves are only there because we think they should be, they speak of better, deeper, wiser selves we hope to become.  (Until this year, Remembrance of Lost Things has filled that space on my bookshelves.)  How we organize them tells something about us.  Are they alphabetical, speaking of our penchant for order?  Do we have the beautiful books at eye level, the orange Penguin paperbacks down near the floor?  Do we fancy our high-falutin taste for European literature, and give them place of prominence?  Have we kept our Hesse?  Do we claim solidarity with the guys and set Cormack McCarthy next to Hemingway or show our support of women by putting Marge Piercy and Doris Lessing next to George Eliot and Margaret Drabble?  Do we slip in a little chick lit to prove we're not snobs?  Maybe The Jane Austen Book Club?  (I have a copy that Ken gave me.  He was my snob detector.)

Interestingly, the fiction was on shelves in another corner of the room:  most of the important British and American and Canadian fiction of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, all thumbed and annotated.  Any of us who have inherited Ken's well-read books can speak to what an intelligent, uncanny reader he was.

After we'd packed up some books I thought my colleagues would value--Helen Vendler on the Sonnet for Jeanne Shami, and Emily Dickinson and Edith Wharton for Cindy MacKenzie--the three of us stood in the hallway, a bit overwhelmed.  It had been in many ways a plangent and congenial afternoon thinking about Ken.  (Though I have to say that Ken has called me more than once on my love of that word "plangent.") As you will know, I simply had to bring up Virginia Woolf, particularly Mrs Dalloway, and this passage from the beginning of the novel, where Clarissa is walking across London to choose the flowers for her party:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.  (8)

"That's what we're doing with Ken's books," I told them.  "We're sending him out into the world."


Monday, March 19, 2012


At my age (sixty-two on Saturday), I find myself drawn to snippets in the media that consider the lives of seniors.  I note with some comfort that it's been decided that older folks' reaction times aren't really slower:  we simply choose to reflect for a moment before firing across the bow.  Even more comforting is the fact that older people are happier than their younger counterparts--this in spite of the fact that I have three seriously dedicated curmudgeons in my neighbourhood who provide daily examples of dissatisfaction, frustration, and even anger.  Apparently there are two reasons for our optimism and cheerfulness.  One is that we have more fully-developed coping mechanisms.  The second is perhaps (the scientists don't say this in so many words) that our apprehension of our mortality and our sense of history have conspired to teach us what's important. 

I'm finding that my sabbatical, in giving me time out of the fray of institutional and personal politics, battles for power and recognition (some very covert, but pervasive and poisonous nevertheless), time out from the necessity of multi-tasking and being constantly interrupted, has honed my sense of and whetted my appetite for what's important.  For the most part, this lies in simple, solitary things:  Sheba settling down next to my computer to purr while my thoughts about Woolf come with a richness and ease I couldn't have imagined.  (Believe me, this doesn't happen every day.  Right now, I'm avoiding writing the introduction to the Dalloway chapter by writing this blog post instead.)  Hearing my first robin on Saturday, kneading bread, knitting complicated lace or piecing quilts, reading Anna Akhmatove's poetry, arguing with Bill about the way movies reflect and influence our sense of what the world is like--these things are important. 

Reading Woolf, galloping ecstatically through Mrs Dalloway has had no small part in this hunger, for what she manages to do with her beautiful language and trenchant use of form is to remind us that experience is what matters, not money or power.  At the beginning of her eponymous novel, Mrs Dalloway thinks "In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June" (4).  Lily Briscoe, toward the end of To the Lighthouse, as she works on her painting, observes that "One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled.  One must hold the scene--so--in a vice and let nothing come in and spoil it.  One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy" (272).  Certainly Woolf gives us a kind of Buddhist advice to be in the moment, but with her language, the ecstasy of her sentence structure, the varieties of unique and everyday experience--brass bands and utilitarian chairs, she harnesses and directs our attention imaginatively.  It's all very well to be in the moment; what's important and life-saving is to recognize how complex, contradictory, chaotic, and miraculous the facets of that moment can be. 

Mrs Dalloway realizes how important it is to be grateful for all those people who make her magical life possible; in the same vein, let me thank all of you who sent birthday greetings, some of these coming from former students who are now far away, and whose words create the web of connections that is at the centre of Mrs Dalloway.  But it was Bill, Veronica, the weather, Golden Willow and the BBC's "Through the Night" radio program that gives you six hours of surprising music that made my day rich and peaceful. 

I've said that seniors have been taught by history and mortality to realize what's important.  I think our expectations change as well.  As we pack up for the various renovations to our house, I'm finding myself throwing out (or sending to Value Village) quite a few things I feel I no longer need, and putting things back in rooms slowly. I don't want to simply recreate the old living room and dining room, except for a beautiferous floor.  I want to put up the artwork that still moves or fascinates me, to put out the ceramics that seem to me to question what pottery can be.  I want a simplicity that lets me see each thing fully.  In the same vein, I have come to love simple birthdays.  Bill's gift (besides a wonderful meal at the Creek Bistro) was, as requested, a donation to BecauseIamagirl, a U.K. charity that focuses on girls' health, education, and well-being.  Veronica made me a pair of socks.

A pair of socks?  How underwhelming for a sixty-second birthday, you say?  Absolutely not.  These are "Crazy Samurai Zaubersocks."  I can see her choosing the Zauberball that leads off my post, thinking that these are her mother's colours.  Then she found the perfect pattern for them (which you can't really see in her photograph) from a book of Japanese knitting.  Then she improved on the pattern, which stopped at the ankle, with a lovely little cable which goes all the way down the foot.  Then serendipity loaned its delight.  Zauberballs have stripes of colour, but they seem not to repeat in a predictable way, so you can't make two identical socks.  Off-kilter socks for her off-kilter mother!  Perfect.

Simplicity, whether in your mind or your interior decoration, gives you time to think about what goes into your conversations with your husband or your daughter's planning (not to mention three weeks of knitting) of the perfect pair of socks.  Such simplicity needs time, however.  I'm worried that I will lose these quiet moments of knitting and music and reflection that deepen experience when I get back from sabbatical.  But maybe my off-kilter socks will remind me to be off-kilter and to take advantage of the disguise of a curmudgeon  to decline serving on some committees and to break off a mean-spirited or gossipy conversation, to spend time with the people and animals and thoughts that I love. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Building a Flexible Democracy

Today Katherine Arbuthnott and I were having our Thursday morning breakfast together at Tangerine at the bracing hour of 7:30.  (We've done this four Thursday mornings in a row, so I suspect that constitutes a tradition in the twenty-first century.)  But Tangerine has deadly scones and great jazz, and Katherine and I have conversations that range from children and grandchildren to saving the world from itself, so stealing time early on Thursday is definitely worth it.  We were laughing about women who buy the latest anti-wrinkle cream or the lotion that makes your skin luminous.  We weren't laughing at them, you understand.  We were laughing at this example of what economists call "sunk costs."  You've done it:  invested in something you can tell isn't working and then invested in even more in it, just in case you're not using enough cream or drinking enough water with echinacea or giving that deadbeat lover enough of a chance.  You've invested more in a losing strategy just to prove you're not a complete fool.  Here's how Katherine describes it in a paper she's working on:

"The term 'sunk cost' refers to previous investments that are irretrievable, but have no influence on future outcomes.  Thus, consideration of such past costs for future investments violates the principles of rational decision-making.  This is a reasoning error because we cannot change the past (e.g., recover spent resources), but we can make better or worse decisions about future strategies, independent of our past decisions or mistakes."

After we got through laughing about the useless cream and the even more useless lover, we considered what this theory tells us about how we're responding to climate change.  Because building a Keystone XL Pipeline or a Northern Gateway Project  is sunk cost with a vengeance.  Yes, fossil fuels have made possible the culture and technology that heats and lights our homes and keeps us in contact with farflung friends and even organizes uprisings against dictators.  But first, we know that supply is limited.  Second, we know that we're overheating the planet and destroying habitats and plant and animal species.  So why aren't our leaders (sorry:  you've heard me harp on this before) changing directions and putting money behind solar or geothermal sources of energy?

It turns out there are reasons why we pursue losing policies, reasons that public opinion--yours--might do something about.  First, leaders are severely criticized for changing their minds.  We don't see this as a rational shift brought about by better and newer data.  It's waffling.  But surely at a time when change is occurring so fast that few of us can keep up (how many of you have updated your Facebook home page and embraced the new format?), changing your mind might be a virtue.  If we praise these changes, say about the decision not to spend billions on fighter jets, we might make it easier for leaders to reconsider their policies and their choices.

Second, even when we're given good information about choices, we almost always see the information about the choice we've been inclined to make as better than information that contradicts our past decisions.  So we need to build into our decision-making committees and our governments room for the devil's advocate who can call us on that bias.  We might have called that advocate "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" (as an American, I love that phrase), except that they seem to be understandably in disarray right now.  But maybe we can inject the virtues of the devil's advocates in our conversations over the next three years or so and help Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition see the honour in and importance of that role.  We all need a reality check:  that's why I've got wise people like Bill and Veronica and Katherine in my life.  It's perfectly honourable to embrace people who tell you occasionally get my drift.  So let's make it honourable and functional in politics and in other groups that undertake important decisions.

I came home from breakfast to my other task for the day:  to write the introduction to my chapter on Mrs Dalloway.  That accomplished,  I took myself off for a glorious walk on the creek bank.  I joined the world of dog people, including one young man who wanted to tell me about his 9-week-old Brittany Spaniel who nibbled my fingers, and whippet who put her sleek, elegant head into my outstretched hands.  Am I a dog person in a cat person's body or a cat person in a dog person's body?  I noticed that at the Robinson Street Bridge willow leaves fell after the ice formed and now the ice around them is melting more quickly, so it looks like the creek is full of tiny, flashing 3-D fish. I overheard snippets of conversations about someone's instability and the tea towels that were in the box along with....  I know, I know, having this walk on the 15th of March is gloriously abnormal.  But the warm weather isn't a nice side-effect of climate change; it's caused by a shift in the polar jet stream.  The lack of snow and the grass fires are a worrisome result of the kinds of fluctuations in precipitation patterns we can expect.

So, besides your own secret story of sunk costs, you've got a story about what happens when we get out of our houses and our cars and are living in the world, on the earth and in the mud and breeze again.  That experience is worth saving.  So let's get busy and talk about ways we and our leaders can honourably change our minds and embrace our inner devil's advocate.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Ethics of the Imagination: Virginia Woolf (again)

In 1976, when I finished the coursework for my Master's Degree at the University of Michigan, I had a day to wander Ann Arbor (and Ann Arbor's book stores) before I packed myself up and returned to Winnipeg, where I was living at the time.  I felt strangely grown up, partly because taking courses at the University of Michigan during three consecutive summers was intellectually exhausting, and because I was going to start a Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba in the fall.  But there was also something about the lush, verdant Ann Arbor summer; my sense that my marriage was in trouble; a married man with a wonderful voice who had found me attractive (but neither of us would or could do anything about it); and a desperation to figure out what I could do besides return home.  People with an M.A. in English have no obvious job skills (it was even less obvious then than it is now), so I bought a book:  Max Frisch's Sketchbook 1966-1971.  I was attracted to the entirely different kind of reading that this would be, to the idea of being inside a writer's head, to the idea of European sophistication that seemed so unlike my entirely existential uncertainty.  One of the first entries contained this question at the bottom of the page:  "If you believe strongly in an idea, would you be willing to impose it on other people?"  There was a strategic page turn while you contemplated this question.  At the top of the next page, Frisch asked "Why not, if you are right?"

That question has bothered me for years, but was only answered by the work I am now doing on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.  Here is Woolf's diary entry for 27 August 1918, but completed three days later:

"Now I confess that I have half forgotten what I meant to say about the German prisoners; Milton & life.  I think it was that    ?  (all I can remember now (Friday August 30th) is that the existence of life in another human being is as difficult to realise as a play of Shakespeare when the book is shut.  This occurred to me when I saw Adrian [Woolf's younger brother] talking to the tall German prisoner.  By all rights they should have been killing each other.  The reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one's imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him--the infinite possibilities of a succession of days which are furled in him, & have already been spent"  (Diary 1 186). 

Use your imagination to put that entry beside one way of looking at Mrs Dalloway.  While the novel's characters have a range of ways of seeing and understanding the complexity of other people, Woolf illustrates two extremes.  One belongs to what I call the fundamentalists, people who know they're right, people who have taken a body of knowledge or belief, like psychology or Christianity, and turned it into certainty, judgmental, destructive people like Miss Killman and Dr. Bradshaw.  Then there are people like Clarissa who can imagine the integrity and the experience of others.  It would take me paragraphs and paragraphs to give you the subtle evidence of Clarissa's view of others, but let me simply offer a synecdoche and a single example.  For Clarissa, who looks frequently out of a window and glimpses the old woman living in the house next door, the notion that "here is one room; there another" is one of life's mysteries and miracles.  Those rooms stand, I think, for the individual's integrity which wraps them round like a shell or a room.  We should no more break into that integrity by telling them "that they were this or were that" (7) than we would break into their house.  Clarissa can also imagine the suicide of a young man she's never met, a suicide that's talked about at her party:  "Always her body went through it, when she was told, first, suddenly, of an accident:  her dress flamed, her body burnt.  He had thrown himself from a window.  Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes.  There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness.  So she saw it.  But why had he done it?"  (156).

It's no accident that Woolf couples Milton or Shakespeare and life and German prisoners.  Milton urges us to understand Satan, to see both his hubris and his charisma.  Current research is leading psychologists to understand that a process they call "deep reading," which is essentially getting lost in a book, is crucial to the development of empathy.  Woolf's final unfinished essay is called "The Reader."  It concludes, or comes to a full stop, with her imagining a reader faced with Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy:  "It is here then that we develop faculties that the play left dormant.  [Earlier she'd imagined a literary world dominated by drama rather than essays or the novel.]  Now the reader is completely in being.  He can pause;  he can ponder; he can compare; he can draw back from the page and see behind it a man sitting alone in the centre of the labyrinth of words in a college room thinking of suicide.  He can gratify many different moods.  He can read directly what is on the page, or, drawing aside, can read what is not written.  There is a long drawn continuity in the book that the play has not.  It gives a different pace to the mind.  We are in a world where nothing is concluded" (Essays 6, 601).

The world of art is one in which nothing is concluded but everything imagined or suggested or questioned. Or as W.H. Auden put it in his poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats,"

For poetry makes nothing happen:  it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Art, poetry, the novel, provide moments for reflection, ask questions about how it is with the world and with ourselves, but it isn't an instruction manual.  It doesn't change the world.  What it changes is our thinking, and it cannot predict or determine how those changes will occur--or even if they will occur.

In the past, I've been tempted to begin my English 100 and 110 classes by telling my students, some of whom really don't want to be there, that their imagination is their only ethical faculty.  But I've never been able to do it.  If they don't understand by the end of thirteen weeks of me how the imagination works, my sermon, or "peroration," as Woolf would call it, isn't going to bring the message home.  Besides, if I began my class that way, I'd become one of the fundamentalists.

So last night, as I was chopping eggplant to make vegetarian chilli, and looking out at the blue hour, I was thinking of Clarissa Dalloway.  I have a word to describe the world's Bradshaws and Killmans.  I call them fundamentalists.  I don't care whether their certainty comes from religion or politics or science; certainty in this ever-shifting world (I was watching the light change) is dishonest and destructive.  And maybe stupid.  I can't find a single word that sums up Clarissa Dalloway's attempt to understand or just be curious about the people in her life.  Maybe language is teaching me something:  there is no word to sum up the people who rebel against the tendency to sum up.  But suddenly Max Frisch's question popped back into my head.  And I said out loud, thirty-six years later, "Because I'm a writer and a teacher.  I create spaces for people to think and suggest that there are many, many perspective from which we can see the world.  The rest is up to each person I touch.  Clarissa Dalloway is right:  here is one room, there another."