Friday, July 27, 2012

Home again

Our renovations are finished.  In fact, I paid the bill about a week ago, but it's taken me this long to really feel the full impact of having a beautiful house.  I've been trying to think about why it's taken so long, and I've come to this conclusion.  Houses aren't just spaces that store our stuff and keep us warm or cool.  They house the habits that tell us who we really are, and it's taken me about a week to discover a new set of habits, most of them much simpler and more elegant than the old, to discover how these spaces will work their way into my muscles and memories.  We are a certain person, I sometimes think, when we do things, mostly because actions have long and separate histories and associations aside from the vagaries of our complex daily lives.  We think of ourselves as "a woman who bakes bread," and that becomes a clear and definite part of our personalities.  Or we think back through our mothers who also made bread or coq au vin, and are tethered for that moment by the movements of our hands and the smell of the ingredients to our history.  There's the whole resonance of making soup, a memory of making minestrone while I watched a much younger Veronica out the back kitchen window while she jumped in piles of leaves.  Plus a few lines from a Little Bear story.  And memories of the desire that infuses soup:  a wish to comfort and nourish people I have loved with something both simple and complex.   I will have to recreate these habits, actions, and memories now, having made neither bread nor soup for months.

Houses are memory containers; a book on a shelf reminds you off needing something to stare at while you had a heated conversation and needed to listen with concentration to someone else's viewpoint.  You remember where several of your cats, folded in your arms, finished their lives.  You remember buying those canisters on Cambridge MA, and with that memory comes the whole spirit of shopping around Harvard Yard and being student-poor.  (Now they won't fit in your new kitchen, and you're trying to decide whether to give them to Community Living or keep them downstairs on your pantry shelf.)  You remember your husband bringing you a kiss and a new pair of earrings while you sat at your desk, waiting for him to unpack from his trip, and that kiss connects somehow to all the others you've given one another in your back hallway--a strange but convenient place to kiss in moments your paths cross.  Veronica's growth chart is still penciled on the door of my study and reminds me how short I am.  I stenciled ivy vines on my hallway walls, which reminded me of foolishly standing on the banister to pull down the last bit of wallpaper attached to the hallway ceiling by someone much taller than I am.  The ivy is now gone; will I similarly forget youth, better balance, and a time when I didn't think about my knees?  I took my quilts down from the hallways to have them painted and can't decide whether to put them back up or not.  I am going to have to carve new memories and habits in the new rooms, and that may take a while. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Phases of non-fiction and fiction

In her Hogarth Essays Series, Virginia Woolf published a remarkable, lengthy essay she titled Phases of Fiction.  In England, the 1920s inspired a whole host of meditations on the nature and the craft of fiction, from Percy Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction to E.M. Forster's Aspects of Fiction, to an odd book entitled Scheherezhade, which explored the seductions of story.  It had suddenly occurred to critics, writers, and readers that regarding the novel as a species of artsy journalism would not longer do; in answer, they began to explore the poetics of the novel.   Of these you probably know Aspects of Fiction, whether I've made you read it or not:  in this series of Cambridge lectures, Forster talks, among other things, about plot and character.  "The King died and then the Queen died" is not a plot, he tells us, though "The King died and then the Queen died of grief" is.  Plots, he opined, depend on causality, not simple chronology.  In a later lecture he explains his theory of flat and round characters, which some English teacher has doubtless drilled into you.  Flat characters don't simply lack complexity; they are captured in a characteristic phrase or two and could not stretch beyond the pages of the book that contains them.  You can imagine round characters, however, conducting a life outside the book or even becoming embroiled in scenes the author doesn't think you need to know about.  These reasonable pieces of advice aside, Aspects of Fiction is quite an odd book.  It's hard to tell whether Forster wrote it for readers, critics, or  writers.  Woolf reviewed Aspects of Fiction and then wrote her rather cheeky reply, I would argue, in Phases of Fiction, whose audience is quite clear. 

Woolf cared about readers, and it's the reader's peculiar and ever-changing hunger that she explores, limiting herself to the novel.  Respecting the novel's antecedents, she begins by talking about the "truth-tellers," those writers whose primary reason for writing a novel is to explore and reflect some truth about human nature and the societies and environments we create for ourselves.  But we all tire of truth from time to time, so she carefully follows the hungers of the reader as they find themselves in need of a little Gothic fantasy or of the style-driven intricacy of the poetic novel.

Summer brings out these vascillating hungers in me.  I wrote about my glut of historic fiction in "The Stories We Tell" and "Deadheading the Roses."  During my holiday with Veronica, I read Frances Spalding's astounding biography of Roger Fry, which Woolf (who wrote her own biography of her friend and formalist art critic, Fry) would have approved for being so full of story and analysis.  Long hot nights--and don't nights get longer when it's hot, inviting us to read in bed until well past midnight and damn the consequences?--make me want to read books with an exquisite sense of style, so I've returned to Proust and am re-reading Woolf's most  poetic novel, The Waves.  Yes, I'm reading The Waves because I need to write another chapter, but no one ever reads The Waves only with ulterior motives.  The thing about hot nights that makes me want to read complex, challenging work is that I'm just hanging out until it's cool enough to sleep, so reading a paragraph over a couple of times to suck the full flavour out of it is simply a timeless pleasure. 

This last weekend, I discovered among the books sent to Wascana Review, Anthony Bidulka's mystery Dos Equis.  Bidulka's detective is  Russell Quant, charming, witty, thoughtful, and gay.  The murder is, as Veronica puts it, "a plot device," not something that horrifies and outrages us because we know and like the victim.  Nevertheless, there is moral outrage leavened by very "out there" characters and twists and turns of plot.  But even better were those moments when Russell, who is our narrator as well as our detective, stopped to reflect for a few moments and took me into a life I couldn't imagine leading, helping me to understand those different lives.  It was delicious for a warm weekend.

But what I've found myself hungry for is illumination, preferably provided by fact.  Does this happen to all old farts:  as you get farther and farther from the generations that are experiencing and creating change,  the less you seem to understand the values that motivate people, sometimes to the extent that you wonder if there are any values there, or whether people simply pursue naked self-interest?  In Canada, I've been dismayed by a federal government that denies or squelches evidence that doesn't accord with its ideology.  In Regina I'm disappointed with a mayor who has to leave the  "legacy" of a stadium rather than a city with sufficient housing.  In politics everywhere, the "conversation," when there is one, is not about truth, service, justice, but about winning.  So I approached Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion with some hope.  It doesn't address the fact that most American congresspeople, regardless of the campaign debt they bring into their first day in office, leave Congress as millionaires.  (Haidt is perhaps less cynical than I am.)  But it does explain (without changing, unfortunately) the Harper Government's dislike of evidence.  Apparently all of us are 90% elephant and only 10% rider.  Most of us don't make "rational" decisions, but lean toward what seems natural, intuitive, or pleasant.  Only occasionally does the rider manage to convince the elephant to change its mind.  Haidt's book also suggests why the world seems more polarized right now into camps we label left and right.

I won't be able to give you all the twists and turns of his argument here, nor to follow the elegant complexity of his thought, so let me give you the broad strokes.  It is an accessible book, filled with clear arguments, funny and illuminating metaphors, as well as lots of examples and evidence. He has anticipated the fact that many of us will read the book on the fly, and so includes summaries of each chapter that serve as foundation stones of his bigger argument.  His examples come from a range of scientists working in a range of disciplines,  helping him to construct a bigger picture of human social behaviour.  He appeals to scholars and thinkers like Edmund Burke, Emile Durkheim, Plato, and Darwin.  What he helped me to do is to better understand other peoples' motives and reasoning. It's harder now to simply dismiss people who think differently than I do.  I have more ways of understanding other peoples' motives, behaviour, and values. 

What I found most central to my own thinking was the research on Moral Foundations Theory.  He and an army of graduate students asked a wide range of people from varied cultures a series of questions designed to elucidate the modules that make up moral matrices.  If you're a left-leaning Westerner (and if you're reading this particular blog, you probably are), you belong to a group Haidt calls WEIRD--an acronym that stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic--you're one of the world's moral outliers.  Westerners think of themselves as highly autonomous, whereas other cultures emphasize a network of relationships to family and community.  Hence we're likely to to emphasize the modules that focus on the morality of care (rather than harm) and fairness (rather than cheating or stealing).  But other groups include four more modules:  loyalty, respect for authority, emphasis on personal freedom, and a concept of what's sacred.  Moreover--and here's the kicker and why you should read the book--those four modules promote, for better or worse, groupishness.  They help like-minded groups of people, whether they share religions beliefs or promote free market capitalism (where liberty is privileged) work together toward common ends. 

Essentially, the political left thinks that compassion and fairness will, morally speaking, get you a long way.  But the political right's ability to appeal to more moral modules and to create cohesive groups (think Tea Partiers, fundamentalist Christians, and those promoting the primacy of the free market) gives them a political advantage. 

I don't think Haidt is thinking in terms of realpolitick--in terms of elected officials who will do anything to get themselves re-elected, but in terms of good, thoughtful people who want to create a better society.  Paradoxically, he's accomplished what a good novel should:  he's made it difficult to simply dismiss people who think differently than I do.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The stillness of this green, wet summer

Tonight as Bill and I drove back from the gym, we caught a glimpse across Wascana Lake of the highrises downtown shrouded in mist.  The leaves on the trees hung still and seemed to have lost their individuality, their particularity.  In the misty light we didn't see individual leaves fluttering or turning in the breeze, the texture of each tree's foliage clear in the sharp evening prairie light.  We saw stasis:  tree.  Simple, green, of a slightly particular shape, but around its edges simply blurring into the other trees.  The deck in my shady back yard has begun to turn green with moss.  The usually crisp white sheets on our bed feel damp and cloying at bedtime.  The cats are lethargic.

As am I.  I feel burdened by this weather, weighted down by the humid air and the lack of a breeze.  And I feel cheated.  Every day we have less light.  Normally we can expect the clear light to hang in the air for a while after sunset, but the humidity seems to shroud it as early as possible, to steal its ability to create the long definite shadows that show up the detail in the world around us.

My plants seem happy.  The lilies are blooming, the clematis is exploding into the wet green air. 
But I am not a plant, and the dry Saskatchewan summer I can usually count on has always been the excuse, the prompt for long productive days, for going to bed early, watching the sun slowly set out my western window, and reading or musing. 

But instead of thinking about Woolf's aesthetics or about Lee's pottery or about Chris's work on bird language or about Dana's enthusiasm for political demonstrations, particularly those of the young, I'm thinking about stasis, about balance points, about the irresolvable paradoxes of being human.

I met my first powerful human paradox hanging out a window with a high school friend, Henry Bracey, who was telling me that black blood flowed in his veins while I, wanting to erase all difference, told him no, it was just the same as mine.  Aside from the important racial politics of that moment, we were asserting two contradictory human desires:  the wish to be just like everyone else, as good as, as beautiful or rich as everyone else, and the desire to be ineluctably ourselves.  We veer from side to side, some days wanting to assert our difference, some days struggling to assert our place in the human community.  Seldom do we find the comfortable/uncomfortable balance point between the two.

I met my second paradox teaching Jane Austen who, in Sense and Sensibility, shows us better than any other writer and in the clearest possible terms that we need to balance "duty to oneself" with "duty to others."  The self-sacrificing ways of Elinor are not without their dangers for herself as well as for the man who loves her.  The self-preoccupied emotional dramas of Marianne present, if possible, even more dangers.  If you have been a parent, or have taken care of someone who was quite ill, or helped a friend or partner in mental or emotional distress, you know how uncomfortable, how effacing it is to focus on one's necessary duty to others.  At some point you feel you will disappear, like the Cheshire Cat, leaving behind only a grimace.  But you have also doubtless found yourself--I hope you have found yourself--riding the other swing of the pendulum, preoccupied by your own aches, pains, losses, griefs, only to be horrifically embarrassed at some point by your own self-absorption while the world has quietly gone on with or without you.  How humiliating, and, if we are wise, humbling.

I have been trying to find ways of enjoying weather that I don't find very comfortable or pleasurable.  A meaningful conversation with a friend or colleague.  Sometimes just the delight of very cold water.  The cats are no help; they're lethargic for their own reasons.  Twig, my resident foodie, is off his food, and if he doesn't eat tomorrow morning is going to the vet. 

But mostly I have told myself this is the perfect summer to work very hard, and then stared out my office window at the rain or the unmoving leaves and thought about how we balance hope with resignation and even rebellion.  For it's impossible for us to ignore mudslides in B.C. and an active tornado season in our own province, as well as record-breaking temperatures across Canada.  England  got an entire month's worth of rain in a single day.  We know that something is awry, and we're pretty sure what it is.  Ultimately, there's no point in my grousing about the weather.  We're not going to get a clear, dry north wind just because I'm sick of humidity.  At the same time, though, I have to believe that there's hope, that a break in the weather will come, that we're not the reverse side of Doris Lessing's remarkable Making of a Representative for Planet 8, in which an ice age is destroying life on the planet and the powerful forces in the universe will let a single one of them leave, taking with them lore, history, humanity, grief.  Because without hope I can't find the energy to be rebellious.  Unless we're lilies or clematis, unless we just love humidity and heat, we're going to have to start rebelling by changing our own behaviour and by finding ways of forcing politicians to change theirs.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Playfulness in Quebec

Our time in Montreal has been infused with Montrealers' and Quebeckers' sense of fun.  We spent Friday and Saturday nights hanging out at the Montreal Jazz festival where we heard wonderful music.  But also fun was watching people's willingness to carve out two square metres to dance or their willingness to celebrate rhythm and melody with their bodies, their smiles, their gestures, their conversation with one another.

We walked endlessly, it seems, down St. Hubert looking for fabric stores, strolled along St. Denis which combines tony chic boutiques with funny little paper shops and bead palaces.  In fact, almost wherever we went we found enormous, well-organized, off-kilter bead shops where you could find the means to make any decoration your heart fancied and your imagination could dream up.  We walked Old Montreal, where the architecture has become a bit cliched and cute, but where artisans join in collectives to support their creative habits.  The saddest moment of our time came in old Montreal, in a very upscale shop selling Inuit art.  There was an entire wall of carved bears, all of them dancing like circus animals to music someone else had forced on them, the way teen aged boys with ghetto blasters force the entire beach to pretend they're enjoying the party.

Halfway through our time in Montreal, we drove to the Eastern Townships.  If you've read Blue Duets, you'll know that I've set an important scene there, based entirely on the evidence of reading and photographs.  But I'll confess I've never been.  So I braved the super-speedy Quebec drivers, secure in the knowledge that driving 110 km/hr gives you better mileage than 130.  I also had a map that was only initially helpful, but fortunately once you leave the numbered highways behind, the area has put up royal blue signs to direct you through the twisty, turny, hilly landscape of the northern range of the Appalachian mountains.  It's remarkably beautiful; its densely treed hillsides are probably Quebec's lungs, creating the heady, airy atmosphere of the place.

What we found most remarkable, however, was how friendly everyone was and how playful.  The very chic woman from whom I bought an iris and blue silk scarf wanted to know what I taught (Somehow we began talking about governments and how they're not funding the right things.  This led us to talk about underfunded universities and my work).  When I said I was going to be teaching Virginia Woolf to graduate students and literature and the environment to first years, she looked puzzled, so I told her we would begin that class with Lorna Crozier's series of poems "The Sex Lives of Vegetables," a part of her book of poems The Garden Going on Without Us.  My chic clerk was delighted with the idea of sexy, funny poetry to read in bed at night and made me write down the title.

In the tea shop, the owner offered us some iced tea, which Veronica accepted, but which I declined.  It turned out to be a rooibos, which Veronica didn't like but I did.  "You see.  It really was meant for you all along," the owner quipped with a glint in his eye.

Then we discovered the yarn shop, Mon Tricot, where they were having their playful Sunday.  The owner explained that running the shop was relentless work--putting more of their stock online, writing their blog, keeping the shop itself going--so on Sunday they played.  You could hear the playfulness in their conversation around the central table.  One women was crocheting earrings.  A young girl was making a skirt out of two "rainbow balls" of yarn, with knitted and purled pleats (she was knitting it vertically) so she had two rainbows running in vertical stripes around the skirt.  They laughed at my indecision when I went outside to check the colour of hand-dyed sock yarn and came back with a cowl off a model standing in the doorway to ask whether their fabulous alpaca would work for it.   I bought a modest amount of wine red alpaca.

Tea shops.  Bakeries.  Art galleries (not all of them full of art, unfortunately--but still playful).  More bead palaces with playful samples.

Our final morning in Montreal, we went back to the Musee des beaux arts to explore their third building, which we hadn't gotten to earlier.  It was full of playful design, sometimes even more playful in its arrangement.  An eighteenth-century German sleigh with a dragon head was displayed next to a snow mobile.  There was an "architecture desk," decorated as if it was a miniature eighteenth-century building on stilts.  Jane Timberlake  had contributed plates, cups, and bowls of simple white porcelain with advice on etiquette in clear blank print--how to eat your soup, how to get a piece of bone or gristle out of your mouth, reminders to wipe your mouth with your napkin before you drink your coffee so you don't leave goop on the edge of the cup.  Another potter had produced intensely coloured, compartmentalized plates and bowls meant for "fast food," so that the irony of the hand-made plate and the machine made food jarred and clanged.  There was a whole room of brilliantly coloured glass, including a clear smiley faced water pitcher made by Picasso.  (No, I'm not kidding.  Yellow glass on the clear made a cross between the smiley face and the Kool-Aid guy.)

I've often said that the least mature, most childish people I know are seldom child-like.  They've forgotten how to play, how to joke and cajole.  They take themselves way too seriously.  If our experience is at all typical, Quebeckers are grown-ups indeed, knowing when to parade with pots and pans (if you haven't seen the viral video, check it out now:, knowing when to get out their knitting needles and make a pot of tea.

The wonderful photographs are, as usual, by Veronica Geminder.  My camera battery died the minute I got off the plane and I'd forgotten to pack my charger.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nature Up Close

Veronica and I have been in Ottawa for two and a half days now.  Because we're staying downtown and getting the train to Montreal tomorrow, we didn't rent a car.  So we've walked miles in the heat.  We've trolled the Byward Market for culinary lavender, soap from Provence, and tea.  We've found a fan in China town and rose water in an Indian grocery store.  We found the one downtown yarn shop, but exercised some restraint.  We've walked the canal and Veronica has taken some remarkable pictures, but mostly of alleys.  Somehow the Ottawa streetscape--too polite, perhaps?--doesn't quite lend itself to the kind of photography she does.  She has a wonderful photograph of three women in  head scarves and long robes walking confidently down a very dark alley talking to one another animatedly; this will be part of the book of photographs and poems we're working on, though I've got a harder imaginative job than she has.  Or perhaps I can take my cue from her and not make anything in particular of their accents or their dress, but only notice their modernity, their liveliness, their at-homeness with one another.

The highlight of the trip has been the reason we're in Ottawa:  the National Gallery of Canada has put together a blockbuster show of Van Gogh's paintings entitled "Van Gogh up Close," focussing on work from the last four years of his life.  The paintings come from all over the world, from Amsterdam, Chicago, and Tokyo.  The minute you walk into the exhibit, Van Gogh is indeed very close:  in fact, it's entirely surrounding you, his magical brushwork translated into the walls of the entryway.  This becomes implicit advice in how to see Van Gogh.  We were at the end of the group allowed in at 11, which was actually fortuitous.  We felt no need to hurry, and every opportunity to stand in front of each painting, soaking in his brave, vibrant sense of colour, first; then comparing his composition of a group of fruit to what might be expected of a less adventurous painter, and then getting up as close as the security would allow to look at the brush strokes. 

We think there's a "typical" vigorous Van Gogh brush stroke, but these paintings--none of which I'd ever seen before--belie that assumption.  What they do suggest is that every stroke of his brush is purposeful, and that he pays particular attention to the backgrounds of his still lifes.  We stood before the painting above (photographed here from the catalogue) and Veronica quoted Yeats to me:  "..the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, /  the blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned."  (If I've got that wrong, blame my memory.  I'm guessing at the line breaks.)  The hurried brush strokes of the background evoke this sense that everything is about to spin away from the centre.   Then she pointed out that the centre does hold, and it's the everyday, the domestic. 

His brush stroke is sculptural.  You can almost feel his body's energy in the canvas, and this is conveyed to your body, so that your reaction is almost as physical as it is mental or visual.  His work makes you an embodied viewer.  You want to dance with the almost anthropomorphic wheat sheaves in his paintings of fields.   In some of the landscapes from this period, the brush strokes in the foreground are particularly intense as if to urge us to pay attention to what is before us.  Sometimes the horizon line is absent from the painting, so we can't get oriented and can only depend on what's right in front of us.  There are forests with undergrowth that pull you right in and fields of poppies without end that embody joy.  

Once you leave the exhibition, you can't get back in, so Veronica and I paused before the exit doors and then turned around and went back through the crowd to our favourites.  One of the things that struck me then was how polite we all were, crowded as we were into the rooms of paintings.  One woman was viewing them from a wheel chair, and we were all very careful not to cut her off or crowd in front of her.  When we caught someone's eyes, there were smiles of knowing delight.

Upstairs in the galleries that normally hold photographs and prints  was an exhibition that meshed perfectly with the Van Gogh entitled "Flora and Fauna."  Here up close and beautifully lit black and white photographs taught us about the architecture and physiology of leaves or watercolours created urban gardens.  I found one of the most affecting pieces to be what looked like a small sarcophagus lined with butterflies.  The title of the work was "Pavane pour une enfante defunte" by Laurie Walker, with references to Ravel's music of the same title.  This explained the small sarcophagus and suddenly shifted the meaning of the exotic butterflies--each of them a small soul.

When we felt that we were nothing more than eyes, we went to the Rideau Chapel to hear Janet Cardiff's sound installation "Forty Part Motet," a recording of the forty voices it takes to sing sixteenth-century composer Thomas Tallis's "Spem in Alium," translated "I have never put my hope in any other but You."  She recorded the voices individually, and has positioned them around the chapel in groups of five.  We came in at the end of a performance, the full voices of the choir surrounding us as we walked toward the chapel, goose bumps on my arm.  We then stayed for two more performances, once simply sitting to feel the celestial music surround us, once to walk around and become acquainted with the individual voices.  The recording actually starts before the performance, so you can hear people humming bits of their parts, or a young choir boy explaining to the bass sitting next to him where the difficult bits come for him.  Each voice has its very own point, yet all forty make a rich and orderly sound tapestry  to surround the listener.  Hearing the pre-performance conversations and practice makes the musicians very human, very individual.  And then they become part of something far bigger than each of them to create something quite divine.  Listening is a humbling yet transcendent experience.

The national gallery didn't say anything to us about the environment.  It didn't chastise us for our failure to recycle or the effects of our plane trip here.  But it taught us how to see, and it showed us the marvels, the miracles of the natural world--miracles we would be loath to do without.  Van Gogh's paintings and his words on the walls spoke to the way nature made little points of sanity in the otherwise difficult last five years of his life--thus of the way our relationships with nature might be one of the most sane and humane things about us. And then it let us hear what we can accomplish when we put our voices and our energies together.  Don't tell me art is a frill, a little pretty decoration for bored lives.  It's clearly integral to thinking about what we value while giving us the freedom to think our own thoughts and to imagine our world viewed a little differently.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Deadheading the roses: Surprised by Joy

This cool rainy summer has apparently suited my roses; some of them have bloomed like never before.  Today I was out dead-heading, though my Henry Hudson explorer rose continues to flower.  So while I snipped out the faded blooms, I could watch the bees wallow ecstatically in the pollen and could still smell fresh flowers.  There's a pecular economy to dead-heading; while you are trimming out the faded blooms whose moment has passed, the work is tinged with hope.  It's simply this:  if you do a good job of dead-heading, you will get a second burst of blooms, not quite so ecstatic as the first, perhaps, but still beautiful.  August is just a little bit different if you can get your roses to bloom again.

While I was in the garden, I was  listening to the birds, feeling the air on my skin, and getting excited about the fact that my clematis is clearly happy where I've put it.  There's a particular delight in a happy plant or a happy animal that is doubtless tied to to our relationship with nature, no matter how tech-savvy we've become.  I had a couple of ferns I needed to put in, so dug good deep holes and went out to my compost bin to fill my basket with compost to put under and around the ferns.  I make great compost:  it's light and fragrant.  I learned after watching a couple of perennials die, pulling out their corpses, and finding their roots still in the shape of their pots, that you don't put in any plants in Regina without making a bigger hole and filling it with compost.  The clay is simply too hard for some roots to penetrate.  But there was that funny little feeling again, over my good compost.

I was, to use the words of William Wordsworth and borrowed by C. S. Lewis, "surprised by joy."  Wordsworth's sonnet isn't actually all that joyful, largely because he feels guilty about forgetting for a moment how deep his grief is for his daughter Catherine, who died at the age of three. 

When I turn to the books I've been reading over the last few weeks--The Free World by David Bezmozgis, The Time in Between by David Bergen, and Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas, I don't find much joy.  When the family in Bezmozgis's novel finally gets permission to immigrate to Canada, any joy is compromised by the fact that such permission has come only because their old, unhealthy father has died.  Thus, like Wordsworth, their new lives are founded on a bedrock of confused and angry grief.  (The family patriarch was a difficult man.)  Bergen's novel is about a Viet Nam vet's return to Viet Nam to either resolve his feelings about that troubling, problematic war, or commit suicide, and about his daughter's efforts to find him there.  To suggest there can be any joy in either of their quests is to be both deaf and blind to history's brutality.

Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas isa wonderful book, deserving of its awards and nominations.  Our young narrator grows up in a savagely religious household on the prairies which threatens to misshape her entire life until she is asked to go to England after her grandfather's death to look after her grandmother.  In the less fervent atmosphere of Anglican England, she is seen for what she is--a good-hearted, generous, curious girl--and not for what she isn't--sterile perfection with no desires, no body, and no questions about her body.  During World War II, she loses an adopted cousin, with whom she's fallen in love, and her father.  She returns back to Canada to take care of her mother, who has MS.  (The family tree is weighted with illness; her father had epilepsy.)  But while she's taking care of their scaled-back farm after her brother enlists, she meets a young man who had been a fleeting presence in her straitened childhood. 

Who said that style in a novel is an expression of worldview?  Everything in a novel is an expression of worldview.  The narrative of her father's difficult time after he signed up for the Barr Colony in England, her parents' illnesses and the role of the war all speak to the difficulties of thriving in this world, the ways history and biology and culture all attempt to thwart who we really are.  What intrigued me about the novel this morning as I watched the bees wollow in pollen is that there was certainly joy--in a new pair of shoes like the stylish ones her friends have or in the narrator's relationship with Russell and making love in the hay loft.  But the joy is left off stage.

These three novels were chosen rather casually, but the absence of joy must say something about the particular moment we're living through and the stories we need to tell ourselves. Do we think joy is a cop-out, a cheap thrill in the context of all the things that are wrong with the world?  And perhaps thanks to instant information, we know more about what needs changing.  Seemingly we can also organize ourselves more effectively to lobby for those changes, though Canada has particularly intransigent governments right now.

But think of this:  what did you do Tuesday evening after the downpour when the sky was suddenly filled with mamatus clouds?  Did you sigh, turn your back and go into the house without saying anything to anybody?  No.  You took pictures and posted them on the web.  You stood out in front of the house or on a street corner pointing toward the sky with your cell phone.  You tried to find out what they were and posed questions to the CBC for Claire Martin to answer.  What makes clouds like that?  Why do they sometimes line up in tidy rows?  I'm 62 and have seen a lot of skies:  why have I never seen them before? 

We were surprised by joy.  Unlike happiness, which we pursue--and even have constitutional protections for that pursuit, joy happens.  If often arrives via the natural world or through the people we know or through art.  We simply have to be ready to grasp it.

I struggled with depression for twenty-four years and was raised by a mother who was also depressed.  One of the things that got me through some of those difficult times was the surprise of joy:  my daughter's laughter, a cat's loyalty, a hummingbird dipping into the nicotiana in my garden, a work of art that was profound but that had a shadow of whimsy or delight about it.  I remember a bizarre phone call with my mother; she was berating herself (yet again) for not being self-sacrificing enough, for not making the sacrifice with a glad heart.  I  tried to tell her that joy is moral.  We clearly weren't speaking the same language, so I tried to tell her about Lord of the Rings.  Surely the reason why the hobbits can be trusted to return the ring to Mount Doom but Gandalf can't is that they know, down to their hairy toes, that the things that matter in the world are the moments of joy with friends or a bit of pipeweed--and food, of course.  You can't tempt people with visions of grandeur if they  know about joy.   Mother, alas, hadn't read LOTR, so we had to leave the phone call speaking in different tongues.

I know why my mother didn't understand the ethics of joy.  She was a housewife in the forties and fifties; what was ethical involved self-sacrifice.  But I don't understand my own time.  Hedonism, particularly capitalist hedonism, is everywhere.  Open a magazine or a newspaper, watch a TV show and you'll see hedonism strolling down the street or decorating an exclusive condo, always well-dressed.  But you can't buy joy and I suspect that no one can give you your own personal recipe for joy.  It's a about discovery and attention.  Some philosophers who study the intersection between aesthetics and ethics will tell you that what you find beautiful is entirely personal.  I suspect the same is true of joy.

Maybe the reason that joy is so often accompanied by guilt or grief is that in that joyful moment time stops; the moment itself is timeless and immortal.  There will be the inevitable lapse into mortality, one's daily duties, the exigencies of the particular lives that we live.  But to me this makes joy more precious, not something out literature should be embarrassed about.     If the earth is going to startle us with mamatus clouds, isn't there something disrespectful  in a failure to celebrate?