Sunday, December 16, 2012

Winter: when time is a prairie or a core sample of snow

If you live on the prairie, it's hard not to think of time in the terms the landscape dictates.  You unthinkingly see time and memory as something that stretches from horizon to horizon.  In the service of being more exact, you might fiddle with the metaphor a little.  At my age, you could envision the land tilting inexorably uphill, so that you see yourself closer to one horizon than  the other, rather than smack in the middle, the way you are on the flatter stretches of fields south of Regina.  That uphill tilt is indeed more exact, particularly on days at the end of term and before Christmas, when you have the same things to do you always had, the baking, shopping, wrapping, planning, shopping, cooking, with less energy to do it with.  Then there is the fervent wish to be doing exactly what you are doing--baking cookies for a neighbour who is undergoing chemotherapy--while also wanting to think in long draughts of thoughts about Virginia Woolf's ideal reader with only cats to interrupt.  The tension is painful.

That shorter horizon at the end of the rise before you is more dramatic when you long to sink into the field of ideas and words.  Because that closer horizon reminds you every day that there is less and less time between now and the point where your mind refuses to give you the right word, or to weave a complex formal pattern that you want all your writing to partake of in some way or another.  Less time between now and the age when you'll read mostly detective fiction because convention dictates that toward the end of the novel the detective will explain how he or she solved the crime and will recap all the details you have forgotten.

(Even to myself, I sound here like someone contemplating retirement.  But then there's an inward battle between the delights of teaching, the current financial and philosophical chaos at the U of R, the sense of isolation that will be part of my writing life when I retire, and the ecstasy of knowing that I can get up each morning to write.)

Then occasionally a gift arrives to throw your metaphor out the window.  Rather than standing in the middle of a prairie, you are driving down a prairie road and glimpse something surprising in your side view mirror, which always reminds you that "objects in mirror are closer than they appear."  (I thank Chris Brown for this metaphor, which he used in his linked collection of subtle, suggestive stories that made up his creative honours paper, "Coal Carriers," which I examined on Friday.  He was using the trope of the of the side view mirror for another purpose, not to describe memory, but he brought the possibilities of the metaphor to my attention.  Thanks Chris.)   December is generous with such gifts. I caught one grocery shopping on Saturday.  As I was heading from "milk" to "meat,"  I glanced down the row of tinned fish and saw flat, oblong cans of smoked oysters, something my father loved to eat during the holidays.  I think  I was the only one in the family who shared his taste for them.  Certainly,  I couldn't eat any today.  I'd find them too greasy, the oddly-coloured innards that are the consistency of damp plaster, plus the valve bits which are rubbery would be too weird for my taste now.

When I was talking to Chris about his linked set of short stories which begin, chronologically at least (though not formally) with a father's uncanny meeting with a bull moose that didn't seem to acknowledge his presence, I said that I found fathers (like cats) a mystery.  But it's more than that:  it's a mystery that's sidled right up to you in a hug or a whisper.  So I'm grateful for these moments when I catch my father in the side view mirror and he seems closer than he is.  Sometimes when my knees hurt, I remember rubbing my father's right knee from my perch in the middle of the Chevy's front seat.  I always think of him when we put up the Christmas tree.  He was so proud of choosing perfect trees that one year, when he brought home a real dud with gaps around the bottom, he sawed off lower branches, drilled holes in the trunk, and stuck the trimmed branches in the holes.  For the most part, I don't know the meaning of these moments.  Well, that's not true.  He'd been in the Navy, which perhaps left him with a sense of craftsmanship, of neatness, of pride in doing something in a workmanlike way.  That's what appears in the memory of the Christmas tree.  He had the skills and tools to make the tree look better; all he needed to add was the time.

But his character doesn't explain my eating smoked oysters with him or rubbing his knees while he drove.  As children, if we're loved, we seek intimacy with people we don't really understand.  We're too inexperienced and too busy being ourselves and seeing what that feels like to figure out other people.  We just know the intimacy feels good, even if it tastes funny.  And then suddenly it's too far from our present lives to get anything more than a glimpse of.

Let me madly mix metaphors.  Time may be a prairie with its shifting horizons; sometimes you may catch things made suddenly close by your side-view mirror.   But in December it's also a core sample, of mountain or snow.  That's because our whole surroundings are saturated with memory's prompts.  When I looked down that aisle at the smoked oysters, there was a Christmas carol on the muzak and there was holiday food everywhere.  Our memories are on overdrive.  This seems natural to me somehow.  As the days grow shorter and shorter, as I sit daydreaming in front of the Christmas tree in the dark, it seems a good thing to pull up a core sample of snow and study the layers that are brought close by the time and in inclination to reflect.  Maybe above all, in the seasonal busy-ness of shopping and wrapping and cooking, time to reflect is really what I'm longing for.

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