Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Taking a breath

Sometimes when you've clamped on you skis and are racing down a hill that is steeper than you'd thought, life intervenes to bring you to an unsuspected plateau where you can catch your breath.

I don't think Virginia Woolf ever anticipated sending anyone racing perilously downhill, but the uninterrupted, dogged work on my book about her aesthetics had put me in a downward spiral.  Though last week was productive--the chapter on To the Lighthouse is nearly finished--I felt like an old woman, unable to find the energy to do two things at once:  to work on the book and to feel as if I was glad to be alive.  So I was just doggedly working on the book.  In fact, I felt to some degree that I simply was "the woman who worked on the book."  I'm sure this is something all writers feel when they become, for good or ill, single-minded about their work.

But on Saturday afternoon, I would be reading from Soul Weather at the Cathedral Village Arts Festival, so on that glorious Friday in an otherwise grey rainy week, I got the first chapter back out to do the inevitable revisions.  There are two advantages to reading from something you're working on.  One is obvious:  you get to experience other people's reactions and to reconsider some of your choices.  The second is perhaps less obvious, and happens even before you open your mouth to read aloud.  The very threat of a public reading sends you back to revision mode with a kind of seventh sense.  You are forced to experience the cadences of the words in your mouth and imagine them in other people's ears.  You consider what you can actually do in a brief 20 minutes.  Having read a couple of essays lately on effective beginnings to novels, I looked at the first 10 pages of Soul Weather to see how well I'd managed to accomplish two contradictory things, one slow, one fast:  to immerse the reader/listener in the idea-world that the novel will become, but also to involve the reader in a narrative that would make the characters and the idea-world compelling.  It felt good to make some adjustments to the early pages, to get things going more quickly, and to see that for me at least the ideas still held.  So thank you CVAF for putting a plateau on the side of that mountain.

On Sunday, Bill was heading for Swift Current to spend some time talking about healthy living, so I thought I'd make up for my Friday of hookey by working on Woolf that morning.  To quote Winnie the Pooh, "it rained, and it rained, and it rained."  I had a lovely afternoon tea with Veronica, but other than that and vacuuming up water in the basement, and making stew we could eat on Bill's return, I can't honestly remember what I did that day.  Monday I got back on my horse and did a good day's revising on the Woolf book.

And then the sun came out.  And renovations picked back up again, and Bill was away, so I had to be at home herding cats.  (Actually, in our household we don't herd them.  We call and they usually come.)  I decided to take two days off Woolf, and to begin the first day with an early breakfast with my friend Katherine.  Here, friendship made another plateau.  She's just returned from helping out while her fourth grandchild was born and had stories.  And we talked as we always do about our latest reading on the environment--two mature women with their shared hobby horse.  The environment, particularly our ability to be at home on a planet whose weather we don't recognize (does the rain and cold of the last week or so ring any bells?) is one of my concerns in Soul Weather.  But to quote Virginia Woolf (inevitably), who reports on painter Lily Briscoe's thoughts about Mr Ramsay's practice of philosophy, "Teaching and preaching is beyond human power, Lily suspected.  (She was putting away her things.)  If you are exalted you must somehow come a cropper" (39).  I don't intend to teach or preach.  I hope to create some drama that arouses your curiosity.  I was telling Katherine that a character who entered the book about half way through was a fellow named Chris who was doing graduate work--I thought, on animal language.  Katherine, who teaches a class on environmental psychology and who is far more widely read than I am, pointed out that he'd have to understand the animal in its ecosystem in order to explore its language, and that there was interesting work being done on birds.  I could get a start on my reading with Trevor Herriot's Grass, Sky, Song, which was sitting on my bookshelves, waiting.

I would return after breakfast to find a carpenter putting frames around my new windows,  mudding in the kitchen, and taking off the door frame into the dining room so we can get the new fridge in; to an electrician coming in the next few days; to the tile installer who would seal my new ceramic tiles.  I would need to deal with finding a cat sitter and arranging delivery of the appliances.  Trevor Herriot seemed like a wonderful companion, an antidote to downhill sweep of working on Woolf while I tried to organize renovations.  I could do some weeding in there and think about my next quilting project, which needs to be applique rather than piecing because piecing is chaoric and I can't stand any more chaos.

So this morning, I settled down with the cats in front of the open window where I drank my coffee and watched the birds and the bicyclists and the dog walkers, and continued yesterday's reading of Grass, Sky, Song, picking up with a chapter titled "On the Air."  Sitting on a porch that's become an Aeolian lyre in the wind, Herriot thinks about the work of David Abrams in his groundbreaking book of eco-philosophy.  In a chapter called "The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air," Abrams describes "the Lakota and Navajo understanding of the air as the continuous and material flow that enters our bodies and consciousness in breath and thought, thereby connecting us to everything else in creation....Abram says that our language and culture are rooted in the knowledge that air is the matrix of spirit and awareness, but his larger thesis argues that language and culture arose from our sensuous immersion in the 'more-than-human' world of nature."  In turn, that world of air and awareness is made manifest by the birds--by the robins across the street who seem to be almost hovering around the mountain ash, perhaps picking off its berries. "We are fascinated by birds, hold them in our esteem, because they put flesh upon, incarnate the soul of the land they inhabit, bringing it to our senses in ways that mammals, insects, or reptiles cannot match." Herriot's words and Abram's ideas were timely, not only for my thinking about Soul Weather, but for this moment of my life.

I have always thought that some of life's joys are the simplest things.  One is the feeling of air on your skin.  In the spring, you can almost feel the greenness of the air as it strokes newly bare arms.  Later in the summer, toward evening, you might walk through a pool of cooler, damper air coming from beneath the trees mixing with the warmer, dryer air on paths and sidewalks.  You are aware that the earth is breathing.  Another deep pleasure, connected to my poor efforts to meditate, is the awareness of my own breath, my sense of the way my breath takes in joy as I breathe in and achieves a momentary peace as I breathe out and am profoundly still for a moment before the whole cycle begins again.  And after my mother's death, I was so aware of the magic and the mystery of breathing:  of how I could choose to breathe, calming and being aware of my breath, yet how for the most part of my life it simply went on without my awareness.  For a while it was breathing, not a beating heart, that seemed to mark the difference between life and death.

Is this awareness of air and breath, whether seen in the dips and arcs of a goldfinch's flight or felt in one's own body, even more important for artists?  In one way, I don't think so:  I've always resisted the portrait of the artist as a special personage.  But the double meaning of the word "inspire" has a long and undeniable history, referring to our breathing and to our inspired connection with the world.  If we aren't still, don't find the time to reflect on the mystery of bird flight or on the soft regular breathing of our own bodies, if we're just hanging on as we careen down the mountain, our lives suffer and so our work suffers.  When we forget to breathe, we forget to see (Again, can't that be said for most people?)  So yes, I'll be going in tomorrow to revise the Lighthouse chapter.  But I'll not only be remembering to take a breath, I'll try to be mindful of all that breathing means.

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