Saturday, December 28, 2013


I have just come back from a glorious walk along the creek bank; when the weather gods and goddesses give you days like today and yesterday, it's a reminder  to find at least half an hour where you walk and feel inside your body, letting your senses and muscles do all the work of living, your senses and muscles reminding you of the moment you are living in.  Clearly, I've been reading too much, getting ready for next term. At first, I simply admired the light, which was coming through thin cirrus clouds, so that only the thickest branches of the trees cast soft striated blue shadows on the white counterpane of the creek bed.  Then I watched as a father went right down on his belly as he pushed his children down into the bowl where children go to sled.  Except he picked himself up and walked away and his white hair suggested he probably wasn't their father--just a kind stranger doing a favour for a couple of kids who wanted to slide down the hill really fast.  Farther down the creek bank, Florence Stratton's guerilla hollyhocks are resting under the snow, the seeds getting ready to flower once again.  A Great Pyrenees, whose owner says he's nothing but a big suck, wanted to put his paws on my shoulder and have a face to face chat.  On my way back, I simply stood at the edge of the bowl, watching and listening as the children screamed and yelped and wheedled in colourful chaos.

The holidays help me live in the present in quite another way by making  me feel grateful for my life, for Veronica and Bill, most intently, but also for a wonderful circle of friends, for quirky, loving (and sometimes maddening) parents who remain powerful memories, for my sister who shares her quilting passions with me.  That gratitude can quickly spread to being grateful for living in Canada; for not being a woman living in Pakistan, Egypt, or Afghanistan; for the weather we have here in Saskatchewan; for having electricity; for not being a Ukrainian journalist; for the cat who is sitting on my lap; for the Christmas tree--somehow a manageable Christmas tree gets smaller each year--with the promising little lights Bill ensures are on each morning when I wake up.

On Boxing Day evening, Bill and I went for our annual "sparkle tour," a tradition he's created for us, though I'm the one with the mental map that tells us where we'll find the most homes decorated with lights.  There is something intimate about driving slowly along in the dark on winter roads, talking desultorily about this and that--whatever comes into one's mind as one drives down streets that are unknown to us for most of the year.  We create our own coziness in the car.  At the same time, people have left their curtains open to reveal their Christmas trees, so we're invited into all kinds of lives--a group of eight or ten at dinner in a very modern house on Robinson, a slightly stooped older woman in her kitchen making tea.  I am so aware of many, many other lives that I will never live.  I love my old house on College, but I'm aware that I'll never live in a minimal modern space, that I'll never have a house on the edge of the creek bank with a western view of the sunsets.  Life is drawing itself around me, like a heavy, fur-lined cloak, and I had better pay attention.

I am not making any New Year's resolutions this January.  I usually do, finding some small way I can make my life better or easier.  I am waiting for July 1, the first day of my retired life, to make resolutions.   Though I already have lists and plans.  I have a small blank book with titles of books to read.  I plan on making bread on Fridays and soup on Sunday or Monday.  I can't even count the number of quilts I want to make, but the list of those is started in my planning book, where snippets of fabrics have been fastened.  Most importantly, however, there is all the writing I am eager to delve into.  Last night, having finished re-reading Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault, I got out the notebook I use to keep track of ideas for Soul Weather, and spent an hour or so thinking about what I have come to call "unsmiling novels," those that not only do not make us laugh out loud occasionally, but that do not provoke a smile in the reader at a funny or joyful moment.  I thought about the tone of these novels, about the intelligent voices the writers create, about how profound they are, about how they take themselves quite seriously--as do their readers.  I'm not sure the world they create is my world:  I could not go, as Jean does in The Winter Vault, an entire year without joy and laughter.  I would feel dishonest, as if I were dissing life.  And with my fur-lined cloak around me, I am sure that life is not for dissing.  So I'm oddly grateful that I have two books to finish before I start again on Soul Weather.  I have a lot more thinking to do.

Actually, I have made one resolution--if you can call it that.  Because this is what I do every January and every September:  I am determined to find the curiosity and intelligence in my two classes and foster it as best I can.  I am going to "find out where my students are and take them farther," as I have said to myself at the beginnings of terms for years and years.  I have been teaching for 37 years.  Now is not the time to abandon one's principles.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Open Letter to Politicians, University Administrators, and Teachers

I envied mathematicians last week.  Canada's ranking in the Program for International Student Assessment scores has fallen, prompting whole pages in The Globe and Mail to be filled with discussions about the importance of mathematical knowledge and skill to our nation's economy, productivity, and innovation.  PISA also checks students' knowledge of science and reading; if our scores drop there as well, we can expect to read more commentary about why the "discovery" approach to scientific knowledge forces students to invent the wheel again and again.  But PISA makes no attempt, apparently, to discover whether students can write.

I'm not going to wax eloquent (today) about why we should all be reading, or tell you what wonderful things your brain does when you read.  I'm not going to extol the virtues of imaginative literature and tell you how it entertains us, helps us consider our response to the myriad ethical difficulties of being human, lets us inside the minds and experiences of people who are entirely different.  I want to talk about clear prose.

A policy that addresses homelessness.  How to make chicken soup.  The story of your child's first sand castle, decorated with seashells and seaweed. (Imagine your cell phone drowned.)  Information about medications for your high blood pressure.  All laws; all social policy.  Goals for city planning.  Thoughts for a new widow or for someone living with cancer.  An argument for saving the habitat of an endangered species.

We need clear writing.  There are numerous theories about why civilizations decline.  My favourite is that they cut down all the trees and had no more materials to build houses or keep warm--an extreme version of mismanaged resources.  But what happens to the quality of life, the innovation and imagination, the communication of a culture, the way it considers its values if clear prose is neither taught nor valued?  Do we give all communication to the adman?

"Ah," you will have said by now.  "It's the end of term and she's gotten cranky."  Actually, my students tell me that I'm one of the few profs who hasn't gotten cranky, though they're not impressed with their marks.  I would have told you that I had the best job in the world until I returned from my sabbatical in 2011. There I found, even in my Jane Austen class, the seeds of what I have come to call "The 2008 Generation."  Somewhere in the midst of their impressionable adolescence, what is now being called "The Great Recession" (clear prose?) hit.  Their parents, in a new riff on an old edict, pointed their fingers at their children and said "You go to University and get a job."  The result is that students are much more concerned with ends (marks) than means (clear writing); in a corollary to their parents' expectations, they now say "I want to come talk to you about my grade."   That's what every student who wanted to see me about an essay this term said.  Not "I want to come talk to you about my paper," which at least assumes that we'll talk about the paper's strengths and weaknesses and consider how they can approach the next essay more effectively.

The 2008 Generation has also moved through a school system that has focussed relentlessly on their self-esteem.  Though the kids themselves laugh at this and think they've kind of had a free ride, they are wrong on a couple of counts.  One is that there were fewer official, academic repercussions associated with not learning; the flip side of this is that they've got a lot to learn before they become adults and citizens.  The other is that, despite their ability to see through the school system, they don't see the dark shadow of their self-esteem:  the assumption that it's so fragile that they must be protected from failure.  Consequently, their response to the marks they get in university doesn't help them grow.  If they have been protected from criticism, it must be because criticism is always a personal judgement, whereas it's really just information about where they are on their way to understanding the world and expressing that understanding.  Psychologists (you can thank Katherine Arbuthnott again) tell us that these are the two basic ways students react to criticism.  The student who thinks it is a personal judgement is stuck; little learning comes out of that defensiveness.  The person who sees it as information can turn that information to good use and learn from it.  Let me be clear; I'm not advocating raw, unbridled criticism.  I always tell my students what part of their essay is working well and what they can do to improve their work.  Rigour doesn't have to be mean. On the other hand, I think the citizens of Saskatchewan pay me in part to be rigorous, to be honest.

There are other interesting habits of The 2008 Generation.  They go missing from class for a week in the middle of the term, emailing from Acapulco or the Bahamas that a family vacation was planned months ago and could I send them the next assignment.  They ask for extensions on essays because they haven't finished reading the novel they were supposed to write about.  Meanwhile, in class we have moved on to the next novel.  They mangle their language and say things they really don't mean.  A colleague of mine reported that one student in his class had defined "stereotype" in such a way that it sounded like she believed there were good reasons for things like racism or sexism or homophobia to be seen as stereotypes.  In fact, the English Department's end of term munching and drinking devolved--for the first time in my 23 years--into a complaint session.  Everyone had a story about the worst essay they'd ever seen in an upper level class, the story of someone who disappeared, the story of someone who rarely attended, did none of the assignments, and then showed up for the final.  We all shake our heads and say that our marking is taking us about 50% longer. (I think I've found the reason our students find us cranky.)

When Ken Coates talked about the future of the humanities last February, he said we're taking in about 25% too many students.  I suspect we are.  I suspect that we have to.  As provincial governments across the country pay a smaller and smaller percentage of the costs of running a university, we need more students' tuition.  At the same time, this is a worrying trend.  I'll tell you my own story of just one of my worst essays (disguised as much as I can while still giving you enough information to understand my point).  The essay was worth 35% of the final mark and was not for a first-year class.  The student wrote four paragraphs:  an introduction that wasn't bad; a paragraph that simply said the same thing over and over without citing evidence for why her assertions were true; a second paragraph where s/he did cite evidence from the text, but mis-attributed it, thus assigning opinions and attitudes to the wrong characters.  A summary conclusion followed, telling me (in case I had forgotten) what she'd written about.  More and more of us in our complaints note that quite a few students, like this one, metaphorically fail to show up.

As a society, we're thinking hard about where  to invest our limited resources.  One metric being used to consider how much to invest in universities cites the economic value of a university education, in terms of ends, not means.  These researchers do not care whether a person's life has been enriched by four years of study, four years of being urged to be curious, four years of wallowing in the wonder of knowledge.  They want to know how a university education effects the student's ability to earn a living.  But if some of our students aren't even showing up, their failure to earn a middle-class living doesn't represent a failure of their education.  Something has gone badly wrong before they arrived at our doors, and we need to figure out what that was.  Something in the schools?  Something in the values of the larger culture?  Something in the shift to a wired world of texts and emails and Google?  Whatever it is, that something is being blamed on us and used to suggest that because we're not doing our job we need less money, not more.

In the week that I've been thinking about this post, while I marked exams and read late papers, I found myself wanting to restore the value of excellence and elitism.  But I kept coming up against the fact that neither of those words said quite what I meant.  I don't really want the university to become an elite institution; such desire suggests that some people are more deserving than others, where it's really a matter of suitability and inclination.  Every person needs to feel the cloak of their human dignity furled about them; then we can consider the value of an institution suited to a particular turn of mind that our culture needs.  I need my mechanic and the cheerful young men and women who renovated my kitchen and built a new garage.  I need the baker who makes my bread and the farmer who grows the grain.  But I also need--we also need--and we should not be ashamed about it--people who want to think deeply and clearly about fundamentals:  the fundamentals of what we know about our world and our universe, our society and our psyches, and people who express that knowledge in good clear prose.

"Excellent" and "awesome" and "brilliant" are all words that have been co-opted, so instead of excellence I think I'm going to wish for clarity.  Clear prose is fundamental to a society that feels and plans and hopes and regrets and resolves to do better.  Might not transparency in prose lead to transparency in politics?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Memory's layers; memory's hallways

Veronica is the person in our family who reads the most speculative fiction, so last night I asked her, while we were getting ready to make tea to drink in front of the newly-decorated Christmas tree, if she could think of a work that had a doorway opening to the past that could only be opened on certain days or certain times of the year.  Certainly, I know about the doorways to other worlds in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Root Cellar, but I wondered if there was a literary precedent for what I experience this time of year.

"Would you like to try a new kind of tea?" I asked her.  "I bought you too many stocking stuffers."


"Then hand me my watch."

Veronica laughed.  "That's a non sequitur if I've ever heard one."

My mother was the queen of the witty, whimsical non sequitur.  So it was as if I had just opened the doorway to find her going about her life in a kind of timeless space that the dead occupy.  Here they simply hang around obligingly, waiting for us to stumble on them again to remember something we had forgotten or had not given its proper place in our portraits of them.

Most times of the year, memory seems to be like a lake--in winter, like a frozen lake.  You look down through a layer of thick ice that distorts what's below, but if you concentrate you can see the fish moving about slowly, see the weeds waving in an invisible current.  You know that below this there is the sea bed; on the prairies, which was twice an inland sea, this layer of sediment can be quite thick.  And beneath that is the earth's crust, though you can only say the words:  you can't quite describe what it is.  

Occasionally, in the weeks leading up to the solstice and to Christmas, for example, or in the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination or in the days after Nelson Mandela's death, this metaphor seems to turn ninety degrees, so that memory is at  not a lake but a hallway with many, many doors.  In 1985, I saw James Dickey at the Modern Language Association Conference in Chicago, which is always held between Christmas and New Years; he looked like a large workman and had an impressive set of keys dangling from a chain fastened at his belt. Though that was twenty-eight years ago, I remember thinking that all those keys were just right; he seemed to me to be a kind of guide to the underworld, someone who had the keys to rooms we might--or might not--like to look into.

I don't think our memories are on high alert just because of the archaeology of the boxes of Christmas decorations, though that was in play again this year. Veronica pointed to two tear-drop-shaped glass decorations with turquoise liquid in them and said she couldn't remember any Christmases without these on the tree.  These and a couple of glass balls come from Christmas in Boston, when my first husband and I searched the shops around Harvard Yard for decorations for our tiny tree.  We left it for a couple of days to make a quick trip to Michigan and returned to find it contorted and misshapen for lack of water; I still find the memory disturbing.  I'm also very aware of the absence of a large glass ball given to me by my mother:  one year we didn't have the tree solidly in the stand, and Bill and Veronica stood in terrified paralysis while the newly-decorated tree slowly lurched forward, breaking many--but not all--of the glass ornaments.  I have no memory of this; I must have been cooking.

I think it's the darkness, the short days, that prompt us to reflect and remember, as if sunshine and warmth are for living and long dark evenings are for re-living.  The picture above is my attempt to capture the yard light on snowy trees through a frost-covered window.  I haven't quite gotten it right. Like memory, it is layered, though the layers aren't quite in sync.  And we never get memory quite right either.  As often as not, there's a shadow in the corner that we're not paying attention to.  Or the clarity with which we suddenly see someone is overwhelmed by our own shadows.  

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Art as Experience: An Archive

I could begin this post on art and experience in many, many places. Were I talking to a creative writing class, I could remind them that one of a fiction writer's most powerful strategies is to create scenes; moreover, that if they want to move a reader they need to fill these scenes with details that will appeal to a reader's senses: what is the light like in the room where the two people are talking?  What colour of orange are the girl's sneakers--bright orange or a softer peach?  How does the air coming through the window smell?  Is there a breeze that ruffles his hair, or is the night perfectly still?  But most importantly, what are they doing?  Is this an argument?  The negotiation of grief?  What are they saying and how do their bodies react to those words? Anyone who has read the single-day novels of the early twentieth century--Ulysses or To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway, knows that these authors mine something quite powerful because they give us an experience of other people's lives.

Or I could be more philosophical.  On the one hand, I could tell you (not again!) that in the last decade of the twentieth century, philosophers turned from the question "What is art?" to the question "What is beauty?"  In part, this is a turning away from a question that yielded no clear answers--an embarrassment to aesthetics.  It is much more acceptable to say that you can't define beauty, and then to run with that wonderful fact and recognize that beauty is undefinable, that we have to talk about it, that our sense of beauty tells us something about who we are.  But it also brings "the aesthetic" and the conversation about the aesthetic within the realm of people's everyday lives, into their everyday experience.

Or I could get philosophical in quite a different way and ask you to think about your experience of a work of art.  This week, my wonderfully keen group of students in my class on Britain in the Sixties has been reading poems by Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, and song lyrics by the Beatles. We spent nearly 75 minutes on Larkin's "Whitsun Weddings," which is full of exactly the kind of sensual detail about the heat and the landscape and the groups dressed to celebrate weddings that we look for in an effective piece of writing.  We know so much about those couples when Larkin tells us about the girls' nylon gloves or when he imagines that "A dozen marriages got under way" as the newlyweds took the short train ride into London, in a "time [that] would seem / Just long enough, to settle hats and say / I nearly died."  "Whitsun Weddings" repays all kinds of attention to form, sound, rhyme scheme, the subtle shifts in the speaker's attitudes, that toward the end of class I used the hackneyed metaphor of Dr. Spock's mind-meld:  it's simply remarkable to have spent time with the mind of someone who isn't even there.  This is one of the things that makes me feel most human:  that a work of art urges me toward the understanding of someone who is not even standing in the same room as I am--indeed toward an understanding of someone who might well be dead.  Or another thing that makes me feel human:  that I'm urged to ask questions I know will never be answered.  What did Ted Hughes mean by the shorter and shorter lines of "Crow Blacker than Ever"?  We were all affected by those single words that were isolated in their own stanzas.  We spent quite a bit of time attempting to articulate just how they made us feel, trying to articulate their effects, and mostly failing.  But we were left with important questions.

Or I could go off on a sad, political tangent and talk about the fact that even SSHRCC is hoping that the research I do can benefit a business somewhere, that enrolment in the Faculty of Arts is down, that parents don't want their children taking "useless" Arts degrees:  business and engineering are much more useful, they've been told, in spite of the fact that employers in the business world, as well as wearied faculty members, talk about the fact that arts degrees give students a whole toolbox full of transferable skills.  They can solve problems, do research, see the bigger picture, synthesize, respond to a rhetorical situation, think critically.  Well-educated people, we are wont to say, are crucial to any democracy:  who else is better prepared to consider whether to focus our foreign policy in places where we can gain trade for businesses is a good thing?  Who can better consider how we frame or make long-term decisions?

My office door is papered with articles written by people who defend the arts, particularly English degrees.  Adam Gopnik in August wrote quite a compelling piece in The New Yorker about the way reading literature made us human.  Psychologists and philosophers can get firmly behind that argument and suggest that reading makes us more compassionate; it gives us a chance to rehearse situations and choices that we will later face; it has a profound effect on our brains.  Nevertheless, my colleague Craig Melhoff pointed out another essay in The New Criterion by Mark Bauerlein that makes a slightly different argument.  Just as the creative writer doesn't move readers with abstractions, so those of us attempting to keep the arts alive perhaps ought not to put all our eggs in the abstraction basket by talking about critical thinking and transferable skills and humanity.  Bauerlein observes that "People back the humanities with their feet and pocketbooks because they savored Monet’s seascapes, got a thrill when Frederick Douglass resolves to fight Mr. Covey, and relax after work with Kind of Blue or Don Giovanni. They had an 11th Grade English teacher who made Elizabeth Bennet and Henry V come alive, or they recall a month in Rome amid the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and Apollo and Daphne as a high-point of their college days.... Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty. The humanities defenders, mistakenly, try to persuade and coerce when they should intrigue, excite, fascinate, and inspire."

In that vein, I could tell you about standing in front of a late Monet painting of water lilies; in his later years, Monet wasn't seeing colour accurately, but he didn't make any attempt to correct for his eyes' misperception.  The resulting paintings are wine-coloured and dark in a way that makes them mysterious.  I was at the Musee Marmottan in Paris, lonely and isolated, travelling in a city with only the most appalling and embarrassing French to work with.  But an older woman was standing next to me in front of the paintings, and turned to me to speak.  When her French only puzzled me, she got out her rusty English and we negotiated a conversation about beauty--one of the few conversations I'd had in ten days--because we could not resist talking about it.

Or I could say how I always feel when I am reading To the Lighthouse, trying to keep track of the contradictory characters' contradictory experiences, when I read young James's revelation about the lighthouse and about his father:  "For nothing was simply one thing."  I have to see the world all over again, without judgment, in all its complexity, with my sense of wonder intact.  Or when I listen to Shostakovich's militant, mournful, and disturbing 9th symphony, I can't help but think about how he spent his nights sleeping in the hallway of his apartment building because he didn't want Stalin's henchmen to wake his family when they came for him.  You can hear the horrible fear in those movements, as well as the jack boots of censorship and murder.

So let's create our own archive of experience:  there's all kinds of room for your comments at the end of the blog.  What moves you so much that you know that savouring and saving it makes our lives fuller, more human?

Here's the link to Mark Bauerlein's essay.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


I don't know about you, but inside the contradictory complexity that is me, I have one simple mechanism.  Perhaps it's too simple.  It's a switch that has two positions, like "on" and "off," except my switch is marked with the words "I can do this!" and (written in a kind of groan or sigh) "I can't do this."  Thursday, I woke up with the switch clearly in the "I can't do this" position.  First, I couldn't wake up.  I had put in a very long day on Wednesday, marking and reading a complicated essay on "The New Formalism" until well after my bedtime.  So neither my body nor my mind was interested in waking up.  The seductive smell of coffee was no help.  Then when my car slid out back lane right into the street, my inner voice groaned some more.  The season of falls has begun.  I can drive in this weather; I can't seem to learn to walk in it.  I felt instantly vulnerable:  in previous winters, I've broken an ankle and a hand.  After I fractured my hand (quite neatly, apparently; by the time I was convinced I had done something horrible and got x-rays, they couldn't tell whether they were seeing an old fracture or a new one), I became much more careful, but took two tumbles last spring when I stepped into puddles that had ice in the bottom.  

The mood continued throughout the day, getting noisier just before each of my classes.  Intriguingly, once each class got under way, something curious happened.  First, I was no longer aware of that vulnerable, bone-tired feeling.  Second, I had wonderful classes.  I don't know whether my students collectively realized that I wasn't quite myself, and so decided to pitch in to make my day easier, or whether a less intense persona gave them permission to participate.  In my "Reading Fiction" class, we had reached the chapter of Carol Shields' novel The Stone Diaries called "Work," which consists of other people's letters to Daisy Flett.  A couple of weeks ago, the morale of this class seemed to be struggling; they had reported that their professors are "cranky," so I'd given them some creative assignments for their essay, one of which was to write Daisy's half of the correspondence for some of the letters.  So perhaps their creative engagement in the text did make them more attentive to the novel, and this was reflected in the spirited, insightful discussion.  "What a thing to learn in your last year of teaching!" moaned my vulnerable I-can't-do-this voice. 

When we turned to the next chapter, "Sorrow," I found myself explaining how people who are depressed often do not completely understand their frame of mind, so perhaps for Daisy Flett to imagine how other people saw her experience gave her more insight than she would have had simply ruminating over the same un-answers she rehearsed every morning when she woke up.  This was coming a bit close to home.  For twenty-four years, I had long conversations with depressions, particularly in November and December, though they stopped abruptly when I moved to Regina.  Still, I can be moody as the days grow shorter, though I've learned to do what needs to be done to enjoy the cosiness of the dark (right now I'm composing in front of a fire, for example).   Today's snowy weather has given me permission to stay home most of the day, reading Woolf, working on making Christmas presents.  Still, there may be some stormy days between now and the solstice.

Yet in the midst of worrying about  visits from my depressions, I also found myself eerily observant and grateful for the world around me.  As I walked toward the doors to Campion with my coffee and my briefcase, a young woman in a bright pink hoodie and orange sneakers waited quite a while to hold the door open for me, saying that she'd seen I didn't have any spare hands.  I was struck by the juxtaposition between the ice-covered branches outside the Language Institute, which were shot through with light, and  the intensity of sirens that seemed to come closer and closer.  (It seems someone had fainted in the registrar's office, and since they didn't know why, they called 911.)  I stared at the calligraphy of staples on my bookshelves, where workers fastened plastic over my books so they could safely remove the asbestos from the ceiling.  Walking through the library, I was strangely aware of the corridors made by bookshelves and how they seemed to close in; aware at the same time of the warmth and colours of book covers that invited and beckoned with unknown distances.  I was endlessly grateful.  Grateful for the department secretary, Danielle, who takes such good care of me; grateful for Melanie Schnell, who talked so movingly about dealing with rejection in a way that doesn't shut down one's writing life; grateful for my sweet daughter, whom I'd not had lunch with on Wednesday because I'd been marking, marking, marking, and whom I'd missed; grateful as always for Bill, who is endlessly supportive and unfailingly loving.  

Intriguingly, yesterday's weather, unpleasant as it was--could it be either windy or snowy, but not both?--brought a kind of clarity.  I remembered my father's shirt size and talked to Twig the way my mother used to talk to her dogs: saying whimsical things in the matter-of-fact tone of voice that you would use to talk to a fellow-worker.  I cleaned the snow off the bird feeder, filled it, and leaned on the kitchen counter to drink my coffee and watch the juncos and nuthatches, who swoop in and out as quick as thought.  Later, I put boeuf bourguignon in the crock pot and watched the three squirrels who live under my eaves chase one another through the trees between turns hanging by their toes as they take sunflower seeds out of the bird feeder. Puzzlingly I remembered  reading The Lost Honour of Katerina Blum, prompted perhaps by reading a review of a Swiss author in The Globe and Mail.  I'm back, in short, to being my complicated self, rescued from the startling simplicity of that problematic inner switch.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Life in Quest of Narrative"

I had an "old fart" moment in Thursday's class on Carol Shields' Stone Diaries.  I confessed to my students that when I stand in line at the grocery store, I read the headlines of the tabloids and the celebrity magazines and shake my head because I don't understand why we think that stories about people who are really neither interesting nor gifted nor thoughtful nor particularly kind are more important than our own stories of trying to live our lives the best we can. 

This sense that the stories of our own lives deserve and need to be told and valued has been even more at the forefront of my mind since re-reading Paul Ricoeur's quite moving essay "Life in Quest of Narrative."  Ricoeur proposes that telling our stories, even to ourselves, is one of the important ways that we understand ourselves and make meaning out of our lives.  In a sense, we make these narratives into little works of art.  Life, as you know, doesn't always have meaning.  It doesn't have meaning when you are so preoccupied by your daily round that you are living by rote.  It doesn't mean when you fail to pay attention.  It certainly doesn't have an implicit meaning when you are faced with the death of a child or mental illness or the onslaught of dementia.  That's its difference from art:  the structures of art confer meaning on events that might otherwise seem arbitrary or chaotic, though we must at the same time admit that it's a meaning the maker and the viewer are giving it, not a meaning the rises naturally out of the events themselves.

Stories also have ethical dimensions.  Working from some of Aristotle's premises, Ricoeur concludes that art--literature in particular--"constitutes so many thought experiments by which we learn to link together the ethical aspects of human conduct and happiness and misfortune." Stories allow us the opportunity to consider how various kinds of conduct might lead either to "happiness or misfortune"--which is perhaps one of the reason I hate the whole celebrity machinery:  we somehow manage to believe that celebrities' lives are charmed in ways ours are not, yet at the same time we're shockingly (and perhaps unethically) delighted when those charmed lives go awry.  We assume that their stories have a meaning ours do not--that they are rewarded or punished on a much grander scale than we are in our own pedestrian lives.  But perhaps it's only the journalists and publishers and readers of these magazines that confer meaning on a sequence of events that was probably too complicated to reduce to a two-page spread in Us.

Other philosophers like Noel Carroll and some of the writers of the "On Fiction" blog suggest that literature provides us with a dress rehearsal for our life, largely because our wonderful brains, they discover, do much the same things when we are reading as they do when we are living.  If we are following a character through the labyrinthine streets of London, our brains' spatial centres light up as if we were attempting to follow that route ourselves.  Carroll also suggests that it's literature's complexity--its refusal of simple rewards or punishments, its eschewing of unmixed motives, that allows us to consider life's complications, preparing us empathetically to face similar situations in our own lives.

In my classes, the two works I'm teaching also highlight these ideas of Aristotle, Ricoeur, and Carroll.   In the Sixties class, we are finishing up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, one of Tom Stoppard's early plays.  Stoppard borrows two marginal characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, and follows them as they struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of hanging around the stage waiting to be of use in someone else's story.  Their lives are determined for them by their situation; at the same time, they have, like all of us, a sense that their own choices and narratives should have meaning--a sense that is profoundly frustrated by the fact that their lives have already been written.

In the class on reading fiction, we're looking at Carol Shields' Stone Diaries, with its puzzling and problematic narrator.  In the first chapter, Daisy Goodwill Flett tells the story of her birth, a story she could not possibly have known, since her mother died just as Daisy herself opened her eyes to observe the world around her.  So strong is the need to have a story that launches her into her own narrative in a meaningful way, that Daisy (we suspect) makes up all kinds of details that no one  could have known or shared with her.  (Shields is very careful to eliminate any possible provenance for details like the way her father's fellow workers thought about his relationship with Daisy's portly mother.)  Other chapters--in a powerful and teasing conflict with this opening--silence Daisy, making it impossible for the reader to see Daisy as a teller of her own life.  Of course this is wonderfully frustrating for the reader; it seems to me at least possible that Shields is using some of these strategies to illustrate what happens to our sense of self when we're not allowed to shape the stories of our own lives.

One of the strategies that Ricoeur talks about in his essay describes the way stories take a mere succession of events and turn them into a meaningful configuration.  Intriguingly, giving that much of the time this term I'm living exactly the kind of life that makes me sad, just getting things done and moving on to the next thing that needs doing, I'm seeing configurations pulled out of successions everywhere I look in those moments when I raise my head--like a drive Bill and I took to Lumsden today.  The geese who are rehearsing their migrations are practicing arranging themselves from a messy configuration of honking creatures into a tight, aerodynamic line.  The large power poles that cross highway 11 on the way toward Lumsden seem to organize the space beneath their large legs into a purposeful cadence embodied in the power lines that connect them.  And then there's the knitting that I'm mindlessly doing when I need to shut down my grasshopper mind, which won't let me sleep. Stitch after stitch is simply a succession until I finally bind off and find I've finished a Christmas present.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Time Passes"

On Thursday, I surprised myself and my students when I observed that without time there are no existential questions.  They looked at me blankly for a few moments and then scribbled madly in their notebooks.

We  are working away at To the Lighthouse, which I have had to see in an entirely new way, imagining how an undergraduate would experience it, not how a 63-year-old scholar would attempt to explain its aesthetics.  This creates a funny kind of doubleness for me, since I think one of the novel's most intense and characteristic concerns is voiced by adolescent James just as he, his sister, and his father are about to arrive at the lighthouse.  When he had been young, this place he so badly wanted to travel to was

 "a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening.  Now--James looked at the Lighthouse.  He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry.  So that was the Lighthouse, was it?  No, the other was also the lighthouse.  For nothing was ever simply one thing."

But it was the "Time Passes" interlude that we were working on. I'd pointed out that toward the end of "The Window" existential questions began to rush in, with Mrs Ramsay wondering "Where are we going to?" and Mr Ramsay musing, "What was the value, the meaning of things?  There's also a figure in the "Time Passes" section that comes back three or four times--a figure who cannot sleep and so who walks down by the beach pondering even more existential questions:  "Meanwhile the mystic, the visionary, walked the beach, stirred a puddle, looked at a stone, and asked themselves 'What am I?' 'What is this?' and suddenly an answer was vouchsafed them (what it was they could not say)."  After war begins, a purplish stain upon the sea intrudes "into a scene calculated to stir the most sublime reflections and lead to the most comfortable conclusions....It was difficult blandly to overlook [the changes wrought by the war], to abolish their significance in the landscape; to continue, as one walked by the sea, to marvel how beauty outside mirrored beauty within."  The war, it seems, has changed even our relationship to beauty, questioning the Kantian notion that the beauty of the world has been arranged to appeal to the beauty of our souls.  It's not only that time makes existential questions possible; history demands such questions. 

As I drove through Wascana Park on the way to the university a few days later, I thought again about time passing and existential questions, thinking that in some ways fall is the most existential of seasons.  Perhaps because we know we are heading for winter and have no idea whether this year will bring six feet of snow into our back yards or two weeks of 30 below, we watch time and change eagerly, apprehensively.  Every day brings  change.  My eyes adapt to the beauty of trees and their naked architecture; at the same time I search the Wascana Lake shoreline for the bronzy gold of an aspen or the grey-green of the stubborn Russian Olives.  My garden has been shutting down for a month, yet the leafless trees let more light into my kitchen and allow me to see the birds at the feeder.  If we think the nights are getting longer for us, how much longer they are getting for them. 

At other times I become a student of light.  How many ways can I write about light?  I've been sitting in my bedroom, which faces south and west, watching the late afternoon light turn from blue and  silvery gold close to the horizon, which I can now see because the elm tree across the street is now bare, to blue and brilliant, improbable pink.  Earlier this week, I drove through the park to see the lake all still and pewter, like an elegant silver-haired woman in grey.  This morning, when I drove through early for my breakfast with Katherine, the trees were a complex calligraphy, an inky black next to the lightening horizon that had no colour I could name:  it was simply and purely light.

When I am not studying light, I simply feel empty.  I have written only two posts this month--the least I've written since I started the blog.  Except when I am teaching, I seem to be thinking nothing except how to get my marking done and how to plan my days so that the machinery of teaching and preparing and writing up assignments and marking those assignments doesn't break down.  I keep saying "I've got this.  I'm on top of this."  But a question lies beneath or behind that assertion.  Perhaps there is a different way to understand what I told my students:  without time to reflect, the questions disappear.  What replaces them?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Freedom from and freedom to

Tuesday morning had magic about it.  Looking out my kitchen window as I made my breakfast, I could see that the bird feeder had fallen from its chain in the crab apple tree.  So I jerry-rigged it with some twist ties and filled it again with sunflower seeds.  The nuthatches were unalarmed by my presence and ran up and down the tree trunk making their tiny-squeeky-animal-toy sound.  I drove to work through Wascana Park; fog was rising off the lake and the world was a rather cheerfully golden.  These past days, I've been drawn to be aware of the fact that the colour changes with the light.  On grey days, the sky's colour emphasizes the tangled grey-brown branches of the trees that have lost their leaves and mutes all the other colours, so that the world looks like a taupe Japanese quilt.  In the dusk of sunnier days, the gold of the elms and aspens is heightened by the slanting light, and the colours of the world look like those you would find in a Rembrandt painting.  Sometimes the gold leaves clustered around the trees look as if light itself had fallen and pooled.  Katherine Arbuthnott says that my peculiar tendency to keep track of where one can find colour on any given day, where one can see rabbits at dusk (sometimes 5 at a time), of how I can drive home past landscapes that are resonant and evocative comes from my "gatherer brain," that part which, in the past, helped people keep track of where they could find food, except that I'm looking for a different kind of nourishment. 

This week I've been teaching Blithedale Romance in my Reading Fiction class and Alan Sillitoe's working class (and very urban) short stories in my British Sixties class.  Though the nineteenth-century rural delights of New England and the urban chaos of twentieth-century Manchester would seem to have little to do with one another, both books, for a variety of reasons, explore the idea of freedom.  Yet one can see that this freedom is limited.  Miles Coverdale and the other inhabitants of the Blithedale Fourierist community seek freedom from the capitalist "getting and spending" that they see everywhere in Boston.  They have retired to rural Blithedale to do their own honest labour, hoping that this work will leave them time and energy for the writing, thinking and reflecting that they found it difficult to do  Sillitoe's characters long to be free from the working class background and the constraints that this imposes on their lives in a society that continues to be class conscious.  Smith, the character in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," believes that in rebelling against the way the borstal institution seeks to transform him into a useful member of society he is gaining freedom.  He will continue to steal until he is caught again, at which time a friend of his will publish the story.  Since we have the story in our hands, we must assume that he's been caught again.

Both of these works address an old philosophical conundrum going back at least to Kant.  What is the difference between freedom from and freedom to?  In Isaiah Berlin's work during the 1950s and 1960s, he coined the terms "negative freedom" and "positive freedom."  Negative freedom, or freedom from, is freedom from external constraints that create obstacles.  We could put freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from racism, sexism, fat-ism, or homophobia in this category, and once we collect enough examples we can see that public laws, institutions, and attitudes are largely responsible for these freedoms. But just because we have freedom of speech or are free from sexism, does that mean we can come the person we want to be or act on our most profound desires? Both Coverdale and Smith (what a duo!) have succeeded in getting freedom from some of the institutions that govern the shapes of their lives, but neither has fully succeeded, I suspect, in blooming.

This is where Berlin's concept of "positive freedom," or "freedom to," comes into play.  If we have positive freedom we are in control of  our own lives.  We are agents who can consciously and wisely make the choices that are best for us.  This type of freedom is intensely personal, coming out of the encouragement and permission we give ourselves, probably modeled by the people around us, and combined with our ability to critically reflect on our desires and our actions; we have gained self-mastery when we have achieved positive freedom.

Philosophers continue to argue about the difference between positive and negative freedom.  In general they concede that individuals must have negative freedom in order to make the fullest use of their positive freedom, and that it is the job of our society to guarantee as much negative freedom as possible.  Simply put, if you live in a sexist or homophobic society you are going to find it difficult to even imagine that you have the freedom to dream of becoming a CEO or of achieving an open, long lasting relationship.  But a Buddhist monk or an ascetic might well tell you that once you have adjusted your desires to fit your conditions, you are always free; in fact, you always have the freedom to make such a choice. 

It seems to me that some cultures are more preoccupied with both of these kinds of freedom than other cultures, and that they sometimes have contradictory or paradoxical ideas about negative and positive freedom.  For example, if everyone in your culture has the negative freedom to own a gun, does that limit other citizens' negative freedom to simply be safe? Michael Bloomberg's attempt to make supersized unhealthy drinks unavailable in New York City met with enormous resistance.  People should have the freedom from paternalistic constraints, so that they can make their own choices about what to eat or drink.  But does this negative freedom really further their positive freedom?  Is the self-reflection that is integral to positive freedom really kicking in every time they buy a big gulp?  How does that negative freedom further their agency in their own lives--particularly in the face of food industries who do research on the amount of sugar, fat, and salt makes food most addictive?

I've been thinking about negative and positive freedom in the context of the stories a culture chooses to tell, prompted by Charles Baxter, who suggests that victims--people who have so little freedom from that they have no freedom to--do not make the most interesting characters.  I need to think about this much more, but I can observe that insofar as literature critiques our social institutions, it explores the constraints that get in the way of our negative freedom.  Action movies may be very much about negative freedom--though I could be wrong.  Tell me if I am.  But that quiet book that explores how someone learns about themselves, learns how to trick themselves into taking risks, reflects on choices they have made, decides to make different choices or to revisit the ethics of past actions is about positive freedom.  We don't make many movies about this.

And what does this have to do with my gathering brain and my attention to the sound of nuthatches and to the times of day when rabbits are likely to be out for "silflay" in Wascana Park?  It is making me aware that our mortality leeches negative freedom out of our lives day by day.  Each day the constraints become stronger, higher, more painful.  Yet oddly enough--and this might provide something new for the philosophers to argue about--the absence of negative freedom compels one to explore more positive freedom.  To make this point almost banal, I would say I'm retiring because I need more time to simply "be," to reflect, to explore the beauty of the world I live in during long walks, to think and make. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Poetics check

"Poetics" in my title serves the same purpose as "reality" does in the expression "reality check." The hoopla around David Gilmour's opinions, as well as some reading I've been doing (because I've been too sick to teach) and a wonderful workshop last weekend with Sandra Birdsell, have prompted me to ask a whole series of questions around storytelling in the twenty-first century. 

Last weekend, eight other fiction writers gathered around a table in the SWG offices for a fiction workshop the Guild had arranged with Sandra Birdsell.  We were a varied lot--some of us writing for the first time, some of us published; some of us writing romance, others memoir or realist fiction.  But I've always found variety a good quality in a workshop.  What you find there are writers--but also readers.  And with a leader as skilled as Sandra, you learn from her commentary on everyone's work, as well as from the reactions of your classmates.  It was a rich afternoon, well worth being inside on a sunny, albeit ridiculously windy day.  What I heard about the opening chapter of Soul Weather was that I really needed to get to the story earlier--to that moment of tension that Bob Kroetsch used to say lets the reader know why the story begins here.

This piece of advice arouses in me all kinds of conflicts.  Does any of you know a general rule for how many pages into a novel the tension needs to begin?  Mine is about halfway through the first chapter.  But this is because I've got lots to do in those early pages.  I need to explore the character's relationship with her world--the one she's not quite at home in.  I also want to give the reader some sense of her MFA ceramics project.  I want them to inhabit her body as she throws a tea pot, to understand the pleasure of craftsmanship, which is particularly physical for a potter.  It's the need to do these things that brings the internal conflict in.  When I write novels, I'm a story-teller, not a poet writing in a different form.

I get that, though I sometimes strain against it.  But what has happened to the novel of ideas?  If I look at the novels that I have loved--from all of Austen's work, to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, to George Eliot's Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, to everything Woolf wrote, to writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Carol Shields and Jane Urquhart--I do not have the sense of the story exploding out of the gate with a crack and hundreds of pounds of horse flesh behind it.  In fact, sometimes--with Woolf, for example--you don't understand why the story is being written until about 3/4 of the way through when everything that has gone before suddenly coheres to create a hologram of the world you've been immersed in.  Rather, what captures the reader is the narrator's voice and the character's or characters' complexity that makes you curious.  In these novels you feel as if your hunger to understand the human condition is going to be assuaged.  Or to put it another way, you're willing to be led; you don't need to be pushed.

So here's the first question in my reality check.  I've described the poetics of the nineteenth-century and the modernist novel.  Post-postmodernism, are the poetics suddenly transformed into conflict, violence, and trauma, the sooner and more relentless the better?  While I was sick, I read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which certainly contains quite a bit of violence and trauma.  Yet the difference between that an the unsatisfying, unnamed novel I read earlier this fall was craftsmanship and vision.  There isn't a single gratuitous scene in Gaiman's brief novel; his style is spare or descriptive as the moment requires.  But what he's given us is a powerful teleological myth about how and why evil and discord come into the world running underneath the coming of age story at its centre.  In the earlier novel, a wife had put her husband through misery with a separation of at least a year, only to shrug her shoulders and say she hadn't really been in love with the man who had replaced her husband.  And he accepts that.  End of story.  No reflection, no accountability.  Just lots of violence and award nominations because violence, apparently, announces the seriousness of a piece of fiction.  Poetics check:  I sound like an old fart.

My second meditation on the poetics of fiction came, of course, courtesy of David Gilmour's problematic comments about what he teaches and why.  After I finish batting him about the head with a helium-filled balloon, I'd like to remind him that art is not a mirror, that in fact one of the qualities that many of us value about a painting or a story or a piece of music is that the artist has found a way of introducing us to and immersing us in the viewpoint of someone quite unlike ourselves, and has enlarged our humanity--not simply confirmed something we already knew.  Gilmour's sexism doesn't disturb me as deeply as does his wholesale blindness to difference.  It's unimaginative, to say the least.  Even the Greek philosopher Terence once said that the work of art allows you to say to yourself  "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."

Unable to commit myself to a novel at this point in the term, I picked up the beautifully-crafted stories of Richard Ford in A Multitude of Sins, a book I began in Massachusetts on holiday.  I wrote here about their craftsmanship, but also whined, in old fart mode, that I had become tired of people behaving badly.  Last night, however, I read one of the later stories, "Charity," about a husband and wife who have become estranged and who are taking a short holiday to spend time together once again.  Unbeknownst to Nancy, Tom, a former police detective specializing in robberies,  is also thinking about making a fresh start to his life after he was shot on the job in an incident that killed his partner.  Except we don't have Tom's point of view:  we only hear Nancy's thoughts and the dialogue between the two of them, dialogue in which Tom's intentions become clear, as she attempts to understand the motives for his infidelity and the purpose of this trip.  I got to the end of the story and said, aloud, "Wow!" 

Because what we have at the end of the story is Nancy helping a little girl and a man in a wheel chair fly a kite, and here she finds some strength and triumph and joy of her own.  We have no idea whether she will accompany Tom as he attempts to find a new approach to life that isn't so complicated by his partner's death (which we don't find out about until at least halfway through the story, even though this is clearly where the story actually begins if you are simply looking at the chronology).  We're left, instead, with a powerful and visceral image of Nancy's strength and resilience and joy:  "The spacious blue bay spread away from her down the hill, and off of it arose a freshened breeze.  It was far from clear that she could hold the kite.  It could take her up, pull her away, far and out of sight.... And then, she thought, coming to the two of them, smiling out of flattery, that she would take the kite -- the rod, the string -- yes, of course, and fly it, take the chance, be strong, unassailable, do everything she could to hold on" (214).  What we have is a passionately reflective character making a choice that could go anywhere; her strength could take her back to Tom to help see him through his crisis, or it could take her into her own life as a public defender in a way she couldn't, at this moment, imagine.

 Earlier in the day, I'd been reading Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries for work on my poems, and he'd pointed out that in literature there are two kinds of lines:  the converging paths of Oedipus that give the sense that no matter what the character does, he or she will end up where the fates have decided, and the diverging paths of Frost's "The Road Not Taken" that provide choices.  While Kingwell was applying this to the narratives each of us makes in the city as we move through it, I'd like to apply it to stories.  What happens to the story where characters have choices?  What happens when they don't?  This chapter of Tom's and Nancy's story is certainly begun by a random event, but these two characters are trying to figure out what choices to make in response to that event, choices that will make their lives better or at least return them to some equilibrium.

I'd been thinking about things like mistakes and choices because I have also been reading Charles Baxter's remarkable set of essays, Burning Down the House.  In "Dysfunctional Narratives, or: 'Mistakes Were Made,'" Baxter talks about the kind of dysfunctional narrative in which characters are simply passive victims.  He suggests, cannily, that when writers free our characters to make mistakes "we release them from the grip of our own authorial narcissism" into "what Aristotle thought was the core of stories, flaws of character that produce intelligent misjudgments for which the someone must take responsibility" (15, 14).  He sees these misjudgments coming at moments of high tension when decisions must be made quickly.  It's not comfortable for the characters or the writer, but "for some reason, such moments of unwitting action in life and in fiction feel enormously charged with energy and meaning."  Readers love this:  "They love to see characters getting themselves into interesting trouble and defining themselves" 14).

Maybe what I'm responding so critically to is not simply the violence of a text, but to the way that violence is treated in the fictional world.  It seems to just "happen" to the narrator of the untitled book; it goes on around him, but there's little he can do or does do to change the outcome.  He's a passive observer.  I've tried to think about why I'm seeing so much of this.  Are TV and the movies turning us into voyeurs rather than into readers;  have we become the passive observer in someone else's life that we value more than our own?  Is it staring at the tabloids as we wait to check out at the grocery store?  Has 9/11 become such an enormous historical and cultural touchstone that our own lives look puny and indifferent beside it?  Are we waiting to become the victims of the next terrorist plot? 

While all these things happen--the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi--we will lose our own lives to our own indifference if we don't expect our writers to reflect--and reflect on--the things that happen every day:  joys, mistakes, false steps, choices that lead us somewhere we couldn't possibly have expected.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Theme and Variations

I have made a terrible mistake.  I wanted my students in the fiction class to get some sense of the genres of fiction that accompanied the rise of the novel in the late eighteenth century, so I have taught Pride and Prejudice as an example of a Bildungsroman:  after all, Elizabeth Bennet exclaims after she has evaluated and re-evaluated Darcy's letter "Until this moment, I never knew myself!"  If that doesn't demonstrate the beginnings of development and self-knowledge, I'm not sure what does.  The second novel they're reading is Hawthorne's Blithedale RomanceThere's my mistake. But I wanted to them to understand that an early source for the novel was the romance, and I hope to begin seducing them into liking the novel by telling them stories on Tuesday.  Nevertheless, they're going to struggle with Hawthorne's language and his wonderfully decorative style that makes everything from a rock to a veil, from a hand-netted purse to an exotic flower into a symbol of something in the idealized and yet fallen universe of Blithedale,a community based on the ideas of Charles Fourier which were tried out at Brook Farm, a community Hawthorne briefly joined.

Of course, if I'm going to teach them about the romance, my first task is to turn to Northrop Fry's Anatomy of Criticism, to take advantage to the patterns he saw in his encyclopedic reading.  (I once had lunch with Fry as a very pregnant graduate student and was treated to the breadth of his knowledge and his kind sense of humour.  I thought I needed to eat more!)  The romance for Fry is the mythos of  summer.  He tells us "The essential element of plot in romance is adventure" that involves the hero in a quest in which he will fight with the villain, perhaps winning, perhaps not, in order defend the values of his culture.  His reward is the bride; his accomplishment is a golden age or at the very least the renewed fertility of a wasteland.  If I'm lucky, when I give my students Fry's "recipe," they will recognize the elements of the genre fiction they read, and we'll be able to put Blithedale Romance  on a continuum between the Arthurian romances and "Wife of Bath's Tale," and Lord of the Rings or at least a Robin McKinley novel or Star Wars.  The themes and variations on the romance are legion and they remind us what fun it is to take a pattern and twist it slightly in one direction while pulling it a little out of shape in another.

I suspect there is something inherently pleasurable in the theme and variations.  Bach used this form for his "Goldberg Variations"; Brahms wrote brilliant variations on a theme of Hayden.  Many final movements of symphonies use the theme and variation form.  They ask "How far can I get from the original impulse and still be on the same road?"

But think of the potential for parody and critique in the theme and variation.  In last Saturday's s Globe and Mail, there was a piece on Reconciliation Week and an exhibition at the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC called "Witnesses:  Art and Canada's Indian Residential Schools."  The illustration is a painting by Lawrence Paul Yuxwelptun  that shows a young girl standing in front of a piece of Haida carving that reads both as her cultural background and as the halo from an icon or the painting of a Madonna.  Here, the variation (young Haida woman who is not serene) on a theme (Madonna) is a critical reference to the religious residential schools that mis-shaped the lives of too many innocent people.  Clueless is a brilliant send-up of Jane Austen's Emma--as indeed are all the films of Austen's novels in one way or another.  Blithedale Romance starts with the founding of the golden age, but its heroes are either too introverted or too pig-headed to defend the world they've made.  Taking one woman as bride leads another woman to suicide:  antebellum America, Hawthorne seems to suggest, is not fertile ground for the idealism of the romance.

Perhaps one of my favourite variations on a theme is the many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories were so popular that when he got sick of writing them and killed Holmes off at the Reichenbach Falls, the British public demanded that Doyle find a way to bring him back.  The Holmes stories cover a period between 1880 and 1914, when Holmes is recruited to help uncover a plot during the First World War.  The Second World War saw Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson in the movies which first recreated in their Victorian setting.  But when Twentieth Century Fox stopped making the movies and Universal Studios picked up the rights, the two friends were turned into Nazi hunters.  Holmes is the ever-brilliant, unswerving reasoner who can work his way through the knots of any crime or plot, the man we want brought back to help us out of an historical, political, or social quagmire.  How many other versions can I think of off the top of my head?  There's the wonderful BBC twenty-first-century Holmes, where our technology fits right into to Holmes's way of thinking.  There's Robert Downey Jr.'s very ironic Holmes.  More recently I've been watching, rather too avidly, "Elementary," where Lucy Liu plays Watson, who has become an addictions counselor and Jonny Lee Miller plays a very twenty-first century Holmes who has enough respect for Watson to teach her some of his methods.  Moriarty, meanwhile, has been uncovered:  she is no less than Irene Adler, Holmes's lover, whom he thought was killed by Moriarty.  Miller plays Holmes as a rude, abrupt, slightly ODC slightly hyperactive addict with an impressive tattoo. Either I can't figure out what this says about the kind of genius we need now--or the kind of genius that is given to us--or I'm enjoying the kinds of puzzles Holmes is faced with so much that I'm able to ignore how the writers see the twenty-first century.  Maybe this is the delight of the theme and variations:  you can take pleasure in the playfulness and skill without always wondering about the principle that determines the new shape and emphasis.

The photograph, btw, is of our last visit to Rowan's Ravine for the year.  Only one other extended family was there, and the women collected down by the water to talk together.  I get tired of having my mug in the blog fingerprint on FB.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ambivalent Light

On Wednesday afternoon, with no pressing preparation for Thursday's classes I allowed myself the freedom to go home and read on the bench in our front yard.  It was a magical fall day, full of light that shone through the tall red grasses I had put in a planter with begonias this year.  Not needing to prepare for Thursday, I was beginning to read a book on trauma edited by Cathy Caruth that I will use in my winter term class on the Canadian novel and its tendency over the last ten years to revisit moments of historical trauma, violence, or loss.  Caruth points to one of the paradoxes of trauma:  that it is a kind of after-image that its victim revisits later, rather than at the time of the event.  Thus, the "truth" of the event is illusive as its shadow or after-image, which Caruth takes to be "not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history" (5).  I had made myself a low-tech latte and sipped it as I looked through these glasses at the light, thinking about the traumas of history occurring right now, in Syria, for example, where children who have been traumatized or moved to refugee camps will never be able to challenge the way these years have forced them to view the world and their lives.  The red grasses continued to glow and rustle.

On Saturday, I spent most of the day in a board room discussing the unsustainability of the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  A reluctant participant--I wanted to be outside!--I nevertheless found it a valuable discussion and thought we came to some agreement about what we could and could not go on doing with our limited resources.  Bill had dropped me off, since parking downtown is troublesome, and I was delighted at 4 to walk down Rose, across Victoria, and then through that very mixed neighbourhood south of Victoria and north of College, jogging to catch that lovely little park between 14th and 15th where people were playing baseball.  I stopped at the beds to look at airy sprays of white flowers I couldn't name, and watched the sunshine come through the corn and sunflowers at the south end.  Fall days have a certain kind of potential in them, as if they are the perfect time to begin a new life.  I could easily imagine myself at 24, settling into one of the lovely old apartment buildings (lovely from the outside, anyway) to become a writer.  Except at 24, battered in a whole variety of ways, I would have had no sense whatever of how to begin the first sentence.  That golden light suggested perhaps that it's better to begin this  next year at 64, when I will have some tentative idea about what I'm doing.  The clear light of spring perhaps has its limitations; perhaps it's the hazy slanting light of fall that reveals honest complexities and complications you might otherwise not notice. 

There's something about early evening light in the fall that makes me feel domestic, makes me imagine that we have all taken to our houses with a new sense of comfort, houses that smell of bread; houses where soup is on the stove and there's a line of newly-preserved fruit in its jars on the counter.  All cliches.  How to get beyond the cliche to express the powerful feeling I have in such light.  I think of the work of Winnipeg artist Aganetha Dyck, who once created the most startling, comforting, discomforting installation of buttons that she had canned.  The heat of the canning process had made the buttons expand and soften: they were extraordinarily beautiful.  Yet there's something perverse about canning buttons, taking the domestic out of our clothing and putting it in jars.  They might capture the fact that while the light speaks to me of deep comfort, I know at the very same moment that it's not something shared, universal.  Someone is eating a frozen dinner alone.  Another person isn't sure eating is worth the trouble.  In another household, eating is a time of family squabbles and argument.  Yet that same light shines through the windows in all of those houses.

Today, Bill and I went for a walk along the creek west of Elphinstone.  The trees, as you will have noticed, have just begun to turn.  At the same time, under the bridges was the most playful graffiti, reflected in the water.  We startled three yellow-shafted flickers, and they flew their golden underwings against that startling blue sky, dropping light as they rose.

When we got home, Bill put on music for me to cook by, something he often does.  Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong brought their own kind of gravely playful light into my kitchen as they sang "Autumn in New York"--my favourite Vernon Duke song.  I hadn't realized how much light their is in the lyrics:  glittering crowd and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel and gleaming rooftops at sundown.  I can hear the light in their voices.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


During the first week of the term I had to straighten out my course outlines, which involved a fair amount of anxiety about whether the plans that make sense on paper can be realized in the classroom--in spite of the fact that I've been teaching now for 37 years.  I've had to deal with graduate students and arrange meetings and do the and paperwork that's part of being the new Graduate Chair.  In spite of the fact that I was tired (my beginning of term anxiety sometimes makes it difficult to sleep), my classes on Thursday seemed fine:  I have found that a good way of introducing students to some of the theoretical issues we'll deal with during the term is to ask them to apply those models to something they know more about than I do.  So in the fiction class, where I want them to think about genre as well as the techniques of fiction, I introduced three models for describing a genre and then let them talk about the genre fiction they read.  In my class on Britain in the Sixties, we considered how difficult it would be to create a coherent yet honest narrative history of the present moment, and they talked to me about the technology they carry in their pockets (I do not even have a cell phone) and the way that influences their social and intimate relationships with people, and then considered the other things that go into history:  events, ideas, important people.  Besides being the experts, they could clearly see that writing a history is a vexed undertaking.

So in light of the chaotic and anxious week, what did it mean that I was "hungry" to work on the little quilt above?  The basket blocks are about 4 inches square and the setting triangles are made of dozens of different fabrics.  I'm still not sure why I invited such chaos into my workroom, but I did have fun.  This might be partly because you cannot over-think a project like this.  Although you might start out organizing those little setting triangles by colour and contrast, eventually you run out of options and just start putting things together.  And because there are so many fabrics and so many colours, they work.  (Though that's largely because they are reproduction fabrics and they all have the same amount of grey in them:  there are no bright colours that stand out.)

While I worked, I thought about human hungers.  I thought about how often they are antidotes.  Overwhelmed with work, we are hungry to be lazy; in the middle of masses of detail, we want to do something large and crazy like play baseball; finding we are at the end of our bank-account of self-restraint, we want to find a way to feed ourselves and turn to chocolate or caffeine or sugar.  I have often thought of desire as a social wild card.  Think of African American's hunger to be equal, to have equal opportunity, and all the social questions that raises.  Think of women's desire for equality, which I find eroding in startling and unnerving ways.  Think of sexual desire and the many, many ways it challenges the social contract.  I've just finished reading Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which explores how desire shakes up the class structure and the authority of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  I hope soon to watch Victim, a Sixties film with Dirk Bogarde in which Bogarde plays a closeted lawyer who attempts to challenge a blackmail ring that is terrorizing gay men.  The film not only made Bogarde's career (though sadly he did not let the world see his long-term, stable, and loving gay relationship), but is credited with provoking the British Parliament into begin questioning its laws against homosexuality.  Desire can sometimes open the gate to equality.

But I also wondered how often our hungers are our own.  I've watched with some curiosity while New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, concerned about the epidemic of obesity, attempted to enact laws against over-sized sugary drinks. People railed against a politician who attempted to tell them what was good for them, a politician who attempted to rein in their desires.  The freedom to satisfy your own hungers seems to be an inherent part of who we are.  Yet I also know that companies do research on getting the balance of salt, sugar, and fat just right in order to make some foods more addictive.  Are we always agents of our own desires?  Yesterday I was certainly seduced, in part, by the whole discourse of comfort and creativity that infuses the world of quilters:  what speaks more to the idea of comfort than a quilt, particularly a quilt made of fabrics that look like those popular in the mid nineteenth century?  Is that idea part of my own history, my own aesthetic, or is it something that quilt magazines have convinced me of?   I am also aware of how beautiful so much advertising is, particularly for cars, and the way our leaning toward that beauty is often a leaning away from what might be ethical, practical, affordable, or environmentally responsible.

These are all questions I have no answers to, and in any event my own answers would not be yours.  Our desires, like our sense of beauty, are at best particularly our own.  At worse, they urge us to eat and spend mindlessly.   Yet they can also be a source of deep satisfaction and even social change, a prompt to think through what matters to us.

My apologies for craning your neck.  While my camera knows how to get a face in the right orientation, it hasn't learned that quilt baskets have a right side up.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hopes for students--and other people who start their lives again in September

If all goes according to plan, this will be my last fall on campus.  After turning  five, I have spent every year of my life beginning a new adventure in September as a student or a teacher, and I have learned to associate the changing light, the dropping temperatures, the fresher mornings and the changing colours with the pilgrimages and promises that schools and universities offer.  Inspired by George Saunders's remarkable and moving commencement address (link below)--yet knowing I'm not nearly as wise or as funny as he is--I'd like to think about what I'm hoping all students find and accomplish in the coming year.

I hope they find a problem that matters to them, to their discipline, or to their community and go some distance toward solving it, or at least learn what the challenges are.  When I think about what society is going to need from our fresh young faces, I think about people who can creatively solve the problems that we and our institutions have collectively created.  (Many of those problems are created by the nature and history of those institutions, so they could always think about how to change or challenge them.) I'd also like them to see that in some ways this is what the university is about.  Professors don't simply show up at the front of classes and drone on about what we already know about some privileged body of knowledge that has been handed down to us.  Most of us have just come back from our own adventures in learning about the world through the lenses of our discipline and trying to solve the problems that have piqued our curiosity.  We'd love to share that.

I'd like them to learn to think about evidence, about where it comes from, about how it can be found, about how it illuminates the world, about how it can be bent and mis-used.  When we're not ideologically driven, we base our decisions on what we know, on the "facts" as far as they can be found.  But there are lots of ways to know more, to seek out dissenting opinions, to find evidence that is not immediately apparent, to figure out how to gather evidence more carefully.  At the same time, we need to realize that we're all ideologically driven:  each of us has a world view that shapes how we interpret the world.  That world view is like our skin:  just as we do not think every day about how our skin holds us together and separates us from the world, we do not think critically about our world views because, in a slightly different way, they hold our experiences, our families, our communities, and our historical moment together in our minds.  They help us explain to ourselves the world we have experienced.  But we need to learn about the blind spots our world views create.  We need to learn how our own hopes and dreams and fears colour what we see.  And we need to be committed enough to evidence as an ideal to attempt to get just a little bit farther beyond what is immediately apparent to us.  That's what it means to grow.

I'd like them to find their own individual, credible voices.  Unfortunately, the models of academic writing they read suggest that they need to write using a very formal vocabulary--one they really can't manage--and to use lots of words, preferably jargon, to impress the professor.  But each of them has an individual perspective on the world and a particular way of speaking about it, one that incorporates the language heard in their homes or communities or among their peers.  I'd like them to find a way to harness their individual voices and perspectives to the kind of clarity we expect from young thinkers.  I'd also like them to consider what I mean by "credible."  No comma splices:  semi-colons at the ready.  Unified, well-developed, coherent paragraphs that allow the reader to glide on the back of the careful, considered thought.  A credible voice comes out of the knowledge that when we pay attention to the details of our prose--to punctuation and syntax--our readers trust us more.  A credible voice also assumes that it isn't just putting in an appearance, doing an essay to get the assignment done to get the credit for the class to get the degree to get the job.  It's a voice that recognizes its own potential power and that believes that power can matter in the world.

I'd like them to just be curious.  Give me curious students, no matter what their background (or lack of it) is, and I can teach them almost anything.  Alice Munro has said that curiosity is the only guarantee for happiness, and I think she's right.  Times change, circumstances change, people change--and not always for the better.  But if our interface with the world is curiosity, then we carry the seeds of an attitude that says "Aren't people interesting and mysterious?  What's happening here?" and so find the energy to get through difficult times.  Curiosity implies a basic sense of wonder:  that the world is designed in some way to capture and deserve our attention.  This is probably my most important life skill, and I suspect that, in this respect at least, I'm not entirely idiosyncratic.

I hope they get chances to use their imagination.  Their imaginations are going to be one of the most powerful ways they can approach that question or problem I spoke of earlier; in fact, it's probably the only way they can find their way beyond the half-answers to questions other people have found.  I'd like them to look up occasionally from their books and their smartphones and their computers and spend some time in wonder at the world around them.  I hope they people watch in Common Ground:  people are so endlessly interesting, and these little snippets give us occasions to wonder about what it means to be human, what our communities and our cultures are up to.  They are occasions for kindness.  They are occasions to consider beauty of people, of the built and natural environments, which in turn take us out of ourselves as we stand in wonder before something besides our own desires and thoughts.  Their imaginations are their most powerful ethical faculty.  How can we decide how to treat someone who is different from us, how can we make judgments about what we should and should not do, if we are not imagining that other person's life or other options open to us?

I hope, in short, that they--and you--are beginning a mind-bending but joyful adventure next week.
You will find George Saunders' remarkable advice for graduates here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Still lives; stilling life

I'm pretty sure this photograph is slightly out of focus, and I haven't quite lined up the horizontals and verticals, but the minute I took it, my camera folded into itself and said its battery needed re-charging.  This is where I have been spending my mornings trying to get Twig to come out of himself, and it's a spot that only gets occasional sunshine, so it's unlikely I'll be able to take the photograph again and get the same effect.  But in some ways, that's okay:  it's a metaphor for my mood toward the end of August.   There is something gorgeously ripe about August.  The days can still be hot, but the nights turn cool in a way that is cozy and comforting.  The produce at the farmer's market has hit its peak. The blue of the sky is brilliantly clear in the dryer air of August.  Tonight as Bill and I walked along Wascana Creek just north of the RCMP Museum, the moon bobbed above the horizon, full, huge, and a pinky-gold that I've never seen before.  Quite likely the moon will not be that large again until it reaches the full next August.

Nor will I put the season's first apples in the silver bowl again this year.  Just like the sunshine in my comfortable corner and the harvest moon, the first apples are a once-a-year event.  In some ways that's helpful:  singular events keep us aware of the passing of time in a way that's celebratory rather than infused with our mortality. 

Yet like the photograph above, this all seems slightly out of focus.  My relationship to time--probably one of the most complicated relationships in my entire life--has been a bit different this summer because it's my last one before retirement.  I've tried to keep up a full schedule of writing, tried to make good headway on the Woolf book, in spite of the fact that I still have much to do and could, perhaps reasonably, just sigh and give up until I retire.  Yet I've also been trying to spend more time with my introverted cat, Twig, who really wants me to retire--perhaps more than anyone.  He thinks it's so cool that I hunker down to have my coffee with him in the morning.  These moments, when I sit where the sunshine is above, have slowed down time, almost stilled it. 

I'm more and more aware that each moment in my life, like the first apples or a harvest moon, is one I cannot have again.  Whether it's August or February, moments have their singularity, and I would like to find a way during my last year of teaching to frame such moments--in focus or even a little bit out.