Sunday, April 29, 2012


She paces among the dust motes, the old summer doors
with the wood and metalic clap barely echoing
among curtain rods and oak banisters that have come unmoored.
She paces and waits for the wind to sand the sun
free of clouds, for the steadiness of light that streams in
like an annunciation. When it comes
what she sees is how eyes and light conspire
to conjure radiance,
how we become what we see, how the reflection of bricks
makes walls out of windows.
The moment the camera's shutter flicks open
is a meditation on eyes,
how even when we sleep one eye opens inwardly,
how the thick green layers of glass look like the sea's eyes
studying the stillness of its own deeps.
Blood was spilled in the blinding
of Gloucester and Argos,
but it has been assuaged by the families who studied
the green and gold prairie light
through these windows, read the pages of winter,
then lifted each pane carefully down to pile them here.

This photograph was taken by Veronica Geminder at Restore.  Here's how they describe themselves:  "The ReStore sells new and used surplus building supplies (and other donated surprises) to help reduce costs for home owners, landlords, crafters, community groups and artists in Regina. The Restore is committed to solid waste management and diversion from the landfill." All of their profits to go Habitat for Humanity projects.

Veronica's photographs  are inspiring a sequence of poems we are working on for Hagios Press.  The poems are not, technically, instances of ekhrasis, which is essentially the verbal description of a visual object, first created by Homer in his description of Achilles' shield.  Rather, I'm trying to tease out the way they talk to me, they way they have stories implicit in them that I try to find or imagine. Here I'm trying to include the making of the photograph in the poem and to explore the idea of restoration that comes from the site where the photograph was taken.   I love working with them because they completely take me out of myself.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Monday afternoon I began cleaning out the flower beds along my front walk.  The warm air on my skin, the smell and crunch of old leaves, the green fuzz of the enthusiastic flax and the blades of the early bulbs (I don't remember what I planted there!) were like Proust's madeleine.  I wanted to be writing creatively, not struggling to understand Woolf's brilliance, and "nature naturing" (in Kenneth Clark's phrase about the Unicorn Tapestries), along with Facebook updates about people's marking or students' exams made me want to throw in my garden gloves and hit the keyboard.  

Unfortunately, I don't think I'll have much time to work on Soul Weather this summer, though I continue to read and think about the ideas I want to explore in and weave through this novel.  Just last night, sleepless, I was reading a thoughtful piece by Daniel Johnson on the Occupy Regina Facebook page about what they accomplished.  Certainly I can't write about the twenty-something generation and not take this movement into account. His modest goals and gains are inspiring:  if I had to sum up his sense of what they'd accomplished, it was to be a civil presence in our midst that fostered conversations about social justice and questioned our habits of thought.  We were lucky in Regina to have a crew committed to civility, willing to keep their camp drug- and alcohol-free, to be a kind of drop-in centre for the homeless, and to keep Victoria Park a clean, safe place.  Clearly they realized that their behaviour made their voices more credible.  I'll post a link below.

Rather, I need to put all my concentration into my project on Woolf's aesthetics:  there simply isn't any other way to work on this.  Writing about Virginia Woolf is all-consuming.  It isn't like knitting or quilting:  you can't have several other projects on the go as long as you've got space to keep/hide them.  Though the poems inspired by Veronica's photographs are saving my life by giving me something so vivid to respond to.  I spend a large part of every Friday working on them; that day is like a circuit-breaker for me, like a thunderstorm that brings clear fresh weather behind it.  So there are two sides of my mind's life right now:  the daily struggle of wallowing in Woolf's work, being immersed in her diaries and essays, in the criticism, in aesthetics, trying to find a route through the complex, tangled ideas  that a reader can follow.  And writing poems.  So in spite of the chaos of Woolf and renovations, I have a modest habit that saves me.

In fact, I've been thinking quite a bit about habit lately.   I've noticed how much effect unthinking habits have on my quality of life.  I barely play the piano any more.  How did I get out of the habit?  Why can't I get back in the habit?  I've found I do much more knitting and much less quilting than I used to do.  I think I understand this.  Piecing is messy and chaotic.  With renovations going on, I don't need messy and chaotic.  Hand quilting is very zen, but if your mind is spinning, there's nothing else to concentrate on that will slow your mind down the way knitting a complicated sock or shawl will. The big question for me is whether it's easier to break old habits of to create new ones. The experts tell us that it takes six to eight weeks to really create a new habit.

When Marcel travels with his grandmother for a summer by the sea at Balbec, he thinks about habit:  "As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely on Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services....My habits, which were sedentary and not matutinal, for once were missing, and all my faculties came hurrying to take their place, vying with one another in their zeal, rising, each of them, like waves to the same unaccustomed level, from the basest to the most exalted, from breath, appetite, the circulation of my blood to receptivity and imagination" (319).  Taken away from his perhaps over-protective mother and from Paris, Marcel finds himself, as do many of us when we go on holidays, recharged with physical and mental curiosity.

I can see exactly how this would work for Marcel's rather torpid and introspective character, but I find that habit can also liberate, can provide a structure for exploring and taking risks.  My knitting and quilting habits, as long as I haven't fallen into them unthinkingly, provide way stations for thinking quietly, for letting my mind drift around in creative shoals--particularly if I knit or quilt in front of an open window where I'm just vaguely and delightedly aware of a world outside me:  of stories that move by my house in cars, of children trying to walk along the stone wall at the front of my house, of birds with their desires and squirrels with their sense of play.  

Yet I also see around me people who are not quite completely happy because their lives have fallen into certain habits of mind or habits of task that are safe. "Safe" and "happy" aren't necessarily compatible, and nothing is as safe as unconsidered habit.  Habits, like being a workaholic or being a couch potato, can be deadly.  At some level, they're an expression of who we think we are when we aren't thinking about ourselves or about what we really want but don't dare risk seeking.

Scroll down to March 14. There are also a lot of other goodies here. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mrs Dalloway and the Swoopers and Bashers

I'm revising the Mrs Dalloway chapter, so I have a very clean office.

All of you who write will realize that's not really a non sequitor.  Last Friday and  yesterday I gave myself the whole day to work on revising the chapter, and so accomplished lots of other things, sometimes avoiding revising, sometimes doing something stupid (like rearranging two of Bill's jars of change into a jar of nickles and dimes and a jar of pennies for United Way while I put the quarters aside for parking meters) while I tried to think.  I have the structure of the chapter down and most of the evidence is in place.  What I need to do is to think more fully about the significance, the implications of this evidence.  This is both the hardest and the most important work a writer of literary criticism needs to do.  It's also rewarding when you stare at you computer monitor for fifteen minutes, type out two sentences and then tell no one who's listening "Ha!"  In those moments the world suddenly opens out and I have a sense of the role of form in Virginia Woolf's work and a sense of how she wants us to engage with her text and of what puzzles she's left for us to play with.

But continuing in this way is not a very efficient use of time.  I have the extra library books back to the library, the coins sorted,  books returned to colleagues  (sad to say I will not be reading Guy Gavriel Kay during this sabbatical), several rows done on a sock that I keep in my office to knit when I feel panic coming on.  I come home on these days seriously impatient with my lack of discipline and focus.  I can't go on like this, I say to myself, feeling the To the Lighthouse chapter almost ready for drafting.  So today I hit on a new technique.  I read Lighthouse criticism this morning--some of it startlingly good and very helpful in my discussion of Woolf's vision of the autonomous work of art, but not quite on topic--which is the best for me.  After my mid-week lunch with Veronica, I gave myself two hours in my office to revise before going home to hang out with traumatized cats and do more reading.  In two hours I got a lot done and didn't wander the hallways disconsolately or look at a single penny.

Sometimes I think that one of the differences between writers and non-writers isn't some gift for language or profound desire to create literature, but simply the common sense to re-make or rearrange one's writing habits when whatever you're doing isn't working.   How you do this depends on whether you're a swooper or a basher, categories defined by Kurt Vonnegut in Timequake and drawn to my attention by my colleague Craig Melhof.  Here's what Vonnegut says:

Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter anymore, have been either swoopers or bashers.  Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way.  Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn't work.  Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one.  When they're done they're done.  I am a basher.  Most men are bashers, and most women are swoopers.  Again:  Somebody should look into this. 

I find his assignment of gender interesting.  On one hand, he's right:  I'm a woman and I'm a swooper.  I need the larger shape of an argment or a plot to ground me.  It's a bit like Leonardo sketching a cartoon of a painting he wants to make--though that's just a simile, not my claim to genius.  Then when I know what the bigger argument is all about, I'm happy to tinker, tinker, tinker, playing with wording, creating an emphasis here, an echo there, fleshing out a summary to create a scene or reducing a lengthy scene into a brief summary.  I have a mantra:  the larger, grander idea I want everything to be suspended from in the most elegant and natural  and light-hearted way possible. 

But my daughter Veronica is a basher.  Everything she writes is so densely inter-woven that she feels she can only build from the firm foundation of everything that's gone before.  Here's the real difference between bashers and swoopers that I see:  I have a hunch, an intuition.  I've looked at the evidence or thought long and hard about my characters and my idea, and I'm willing to fly off on a wing and a prayer.  It's only a draft, after all.  A draft is just something you can make better.  Veronica, in contrast, is very linear.  Hunches aren't worth much (not even that whole JAR of pennies) in her writing universe.   

Writing this, I realize that there are some times when I bash:  when I'm writing poetry.  Then I've got a prompt--a vision, one of Veronica's photographs, half a sentence I overheard someone utter--and I have to figure out what it means, what its significance is.  I bash off a little kernel, trying to get every word right and to see where those words want to go.  Then I bash off a little more around the edges to see where its balance point is, its centre of gravity.  Then more careful bashing and re-bashing.

So here's this week's quandary:  are you a basher or a swooper?  Is Vonnegut mostly right about gender?  Does your decision to bash or swoop depend on what you're writing?  I'll be teaching nonfiction in the fall, so fill me in on all the various bashing and swooping you do so I can help my students find their own useful method.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Renovations and Parents: Paring back even more

I talked to my oldest friend, Liz, who has known me since I was twenty, on Sunday night.  It was my much-belated birthday phone call.  Her father, with whom she is very close, has had a stroke that has left him with little ability to create new short-term memories (like the fact that he shouldn't get out of bed without his walker) and some worrying holes in his long-term memory:  he still believes that his parents are alive, although he recognizes the assisted-living facility where he lives.  Liz understandably feels unmoored, given the suddenness of the stroke and the way she'd depended on her father's presence.  I tried to explain how our parents stay with us even when they die, but that didn't resonate with her, given her circumstances.

Right after my mother's death, I found myself left with her expressions, many of which were Janus-faced--optimistic and funny as well as dark and angry.  But after several months, I found that both my parents had become presences in my life that exceeded in many ways their place over the last ten years or so.  Veronica suggested that I'm not thinking of them through the glass of concern or worry or loss that dominated the ends of their lives.  While the insight is Veronica's, the metaphor is mine:  it's as if there was a dirty window or a mud-and-bug-strewn windshield between us.  Once the worry was gone--once I stopped thinking about how we were going to get Mother calmed down to go to the doctor for one of the endless UTIs, or figure out how we were going to get Dad to eat, I could see them more clearly.  Now there's a new metaphor:  it's as if I look through a glass-bottomed boat almost daily, seeing memories through clear water as they float up into my experience and my consciousness.

Earlier this week, we finished clearing out the kitchen for the renovation; the destruction is supposed to start this morning.  I had cleaned out the buffet and the china cabinet in February to move them when the floors were done, and had purposefully not put anything back in them.  Now they are my very minimal kitchen cupboards.  I've taken my library of cookbooks off the shelf underneath the microsave so it can hold the ingredients I use daily--the olive oil, the rice wine vinegar, the cinnamon and baking powder.  I've cleaned out drawers I hadn't looked at for twenty years.  The paring back feels good. 

But mostly I've been thinking about my mother.  Unlike her Janus-faced expressions that echoed her view of the world--she was often depressed, but could also be enraptured by joy, curiousity, and wonder--her ability to improvise struck a single note.  The need to improvise brought out her creativity and her pride in inventiveness combined with practicality. 

My father was a TV repairman who was always the last person in Grand Rapids Michigan to raise his service call rates, so we lived on the edge of respectable poverty punctuated by what my mother saw as the necessities of life:  trips to the library and symphony tickets.  Travel was one of those necessities, part of our education.  We went on vacations every year, the range of our travel determined by the family economy.  But we never ate out.  We had a Coleman stove, a water cooler, a large cooler and a picnic basket.  Somehow my mother made three meals a day, often including a cooked breakfast (though we also loved the little boxes of cereal that were their own bowl) out of whole cloth.  I don't remember grocery shopping:  it was as if a whole week's necessities grew in the picnic basket and the cooler every night over night.  Small toys to amuse a bored daughter magically appeared out from under the front seat of the car.  Sometimes, in desperation, she paid me twenty-five cents an hour not to talk, though I could write notes.  But except for her amused desperation at being locked in a car with Chatty Kathy, I don't remember her ever losing her cool.  Making it up as she went along seemed to suit her during those times.

My mother's unlikely gift to me at this moment is a sense of playfulness, of improvisation.  I probably made my last bread for a while on Easter weekend, but I don't see any reason I can't make fruit crisp or almond bars while we're under construction. Last night be had pork tenderloin with balsemic cranberry sauce; on Friday I'm making Morocan chicken pie.  I'll make it up as I go along, which, when you think about it, is a joyful, optimistic approach to life. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Days to retreat and reflect: paring back

The Mrs Dalloway chapter is done, coming in at a cool 40 pages.  I will leave it for a week while I read Woolf's diaries for the next few years, read the criticism of To the Lighthouse, and then re-read that perfect novel again.  In the meantime, I have to work up my courage to write, something the Dalloway chapter seemed to steal.  In its place, it has left what I have come to call "The Dalloway Headache."

So I had a plan for the long weekend, which the weather initially conspired to help me keep.  First, I made my Cardamom Bunnies, which somehow get made every year, regardless of how many chapters I need to write or how many essays I need to mark.  The comfort of kneading warm bread dough and the smell of cardamom in my kitchen seemed like a plausible antidote to "the Dalloway headache" and the fear of writing.  Bill and Veronica enjoyed the rabbits, but the headache stayed put.

On the windy, wet Good Friday, I turned to music. I am not at all religious, but I always mark the major Christian holidays with music, perhaps because I believe that these festivals have become part of what makes us human, and it is art that captures that humanity for me.  So I have listened to Bach's St. Matthew Passion with its extraordinarily calm depiction of suffering.  Through many of the movements there is a motif in the bases, a kind of tum-TUM that sounds like the beating of a heart.  Friday I listened to Verdi's Requiem.  During the magnificent and martial "Dies Irae"--Wrath of God--I couldn't quite say why it moved me so.  If I do believe in God, it isn't the angry deity of the Hebrew texts, but some curious and yet indifferent creative force who has made a magical world and people with consciousness (think how magical that is) and said "You've got all you need to thrive.  Let's see what you do with it."  Sheba undercut the fury of the Dies Irae even more by sitting on my lap and stretching one of her white paws toward my throat.  I called Veronica, who was listening to Arvo Part, to ask why we do this every spring:  listen to the sacred music of the season.  "We need to remember that people suffer and to pay attention to that suffering.  This seems like as good a time as any," was her wise response.  Sheba was deliciously unaware of any suffering.

On Saturday, we had our usual routines of morning coffee and grocery shopping.  And of course, we admired the thick sticky snow but not the northwest wind that had  fixed it to tree trunks and fences.  I settled down to read a biography of Thoreau.  Veronica and I, after our "debut" with my poems and her photographs at the Humanities Research Institute celebration of Ken Probert's life and its effect on the writing community, have committed ourself to do a book of poems and photographs.  I so love the way the photographs take me out of myself, challenging the practice of "confessional poetry" that began in 1959 with the publication of Robert Lowell's Life Studies.  Veronica's photographs are distinctly, relentlessly urban, though she's got some beautiful black and whites of Walden Pond.  While we were there, we saw the reconstruction of Thoreau's cabin.  It has everything a writer needs:  bed, chair, table, bookshelf, and stove.  One of his mottos, which I've got on a postcard somewhere, is "Simplify! Simplify!"  I'd like to end our book of photographs and poems there.

Yet Robert Richardson's biography of Thoreau makes it clear how complicated it was to simplify.  I hadn't realized how rich and complex was the philosophical tradition that led to Thoreau's lifestyle; certainly I didn't know about its German roots in Goethe's concept of Bildung.  Here is Bruford on the German idea of self-cultivation:  "The inwardness, the culture (bildung) of a German implies introspectiveness; and individualistic cultural conscience; consideration for the careful tending, the shaping, deepening, and perfecting of one's own personality."  This describes, I suppose, what we all need to do: self-reflect and learn from what we observes of ourselves.  It's a perfect prompt for a cold windy Easter weekend.  It also appealed to the Dalloway headache:  surely I could self-improve my way out of this?

Sunday I began by cooking.  I'm not much good anymore, as you know, at multi-tasking in the kitchen, so I tried to get as much done well in advance as I could.  I started to make bread only to discover that I was nearly out of white flour.  As a result of my alarm, I forgot to put in the salt.  Next was a lemon meringue pie--simple enough, I thought.  But it turns out I don't really know how to make lenon meringue pie:  I had no idea that you baked the meringue; my mother always broiled it.  More alarm.  Will this work?  The Dalloway headache had a field day with my cooking, enjoying especially the fact that half my tools are in the basement.  But Bill and I had a lovely evening with Veronica and Jenny.  Bless him, Bill did the dishes while I sat with my young knitters and marvelled at what they accomplish with two sticks (sometimes 5).

This morning, the Dalloway headache is a faint presence, but it seems to have taken with it any sense that I could tend or perfect my inward personality.  What inwardness?  I doubt this is what Thoreau thought of when he exhorted his fellows to "Simplify!"  There is sunshine.  There are cats who were grateful when I got up at 6 to feed them and then cuddled while I knitted.  Perhaps inwardness--thinking about why the Dies Irae moves you--is over-rated?  Or perhaps inwardness needs a clean slate once in a while.