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.