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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.

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