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Saturday, March 30, 2013

The zigzag of reading and life

I've been reading D.H. Lawrence's monumental Women in Love, because that's the penultimate book in my class that looks at the fifty years between Daniel Deronda and Mrs Dalloway.  I took a whole class on Lawrence while I was working on my Master's at Michigan, and it was terrible for my style, which became overly coordinated, full of appositives and digressions, rather like this sentence.  I have a kind of love-hate relationship with Lawrence, not only because of his style (for, after all, who can argue with the man who profoundly wants to bring the body into the novel and wants to understand the relationship between the body's and the mind's desires), but also because of his revolutionary view of women.  Quite simply, he understood that diminishing or oppressing women simply wasn't on, ethically.  At the same time, however, you can see clearly in him, in his shrill defense of masculinity, the kind of anxiety this new view of women has unleashed.

David Bradshaw's excellent introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition makes clear the extent to which Women in Love is preoccupied with society after World War I, though the war is never mentioned.  Rather, there's an underlying violence that pervades human relationships and makes the characters cynical and wary--particularly Lawrence's stand-in, Birkin.  The book is comprised of these well-constructed, very scenic chapters that almost stand on their own.  Interestingly, because there is no forward thrust of plot (sorry:  I've been reading too much Lawrence), each of the chapters seems isolated from the others, creating the sense not only of a fragmented world, but of people who can't quite get the facets of their personalities to cohere.  In the chapter called "An Island," Birkin is patching an old punt so he can row around Willey Water, and Ursula comes upon him for a little intense, frank conversation.  Birkin confesses to her "It infuriates me that I can't get right, at the really growing part of me.  I feel all tangled and messed up, and I can't get straight anyhow.  I don't know what really to do."  Ursula, in her calm way asks him why he has to do anything; might he not be "really patrician, and to do nothing but just be oneself, like a walking flower"?

"I quite agree," he said, "if one has burst into blossom.  But I can't get my flower into blossom anyhow.  Either it is blighted in the bud, or has got the smother-fly, or it isn't nourished.  Curse it, it isn't even a bud.  It is a contravened knot."  She catches on and asks "And why is it...that there is no flowering, no dignity of human life now?"

I was surprised to find that Lawrence's post-apocalyptic novel resonated so fully with the pre-apocalyptic mood I've experienced from time to time over the last six months or so.  He asks an important question:  why are things refusing to bloom right now?  Why do we find our students, for example, either so filled with anxiety or so indifferent that they have lost the curiosity that almost belongs to the young?  Why, in the face of so many movements like Idle No More or Occupy, do leaders continue to pursue their own agendas so unswervingly?   A "contravened knot," surely.

At the same time, however, I've been reading Haruki Murakami's After Dark.  Like his famous and quite wonderful Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, After Dark has its surreal elements.  I'm not entirely sure I "get" him, though After Dark is at least small enough to keep close track of the characters and the way they are interwoven.  It takes place in a large Japanese city and studies the kinds of lives people live between midnight and 8 a.m.  There's a young woman who is finding places to spend the night reading a very fat book because her beautiful elder sister decided, a couple of months ago, to settle down for a good sleep and hasn't for all intents and purposes woken up during that time.  Meanwhile, we are given visions of that beautiful sister migrating in some disturbing way to entirely different spaces she can't escape.  There's a young jazz musician who makes friends with our young reader, and a former female wrestler who now manages a "love ho," and exacts her own kind of justice with johns who beat their sex workers.  What I love about Murakami's work is the sense that he presents a coherent universe parallel to our own where an entirely different (though often consistent) set of rules obtains.  He challenges our self-absorbed or lazy or indifferent sense that we know how the world works.

Yesterday I began re-reading Dianne Warren's gentle and moving Cool Water.  I was trying to explain to my first-years today what Alistair MacLeod was attempting to do with his very elegiac "The Summer Closing Down."  It's such a beautiful story and their silence was suggesting they didn't get it.  Literature sometimes simply seeks to bear witness.  In MacLeod's case, it's bearing witness to all the changes in the Cape Breton town where the narrator lives:  changes in the fisheries, changes to the miners' bodies, changes to relationships because the miners are gone for so much of their lives, changes to traditions, as their children pursue dentistry or law instead of mining.  I realized that this can be said of Warren's novel too:  she is bearing witness to the changes to the family farm, to the towns that support those farms, to the landscape around them. to the shifting dunes of the Great Sand Hills.

I want my students, at the end of English 110, to be able to read independently.  At the same time, I realize that Warren's construction of Cool Water creates some challenges for the reader.  I'd argue that almost any book worth its salt cannot simply be read.  Our first reading is merely a matter of finding out what we should have been looking for.  If we have loved the world, the characters, the world-view, then we know what to look for as we re-read.  Cool Water, which follows its small cast around Juliet, SK for a summer day, could have been a sequence of short stories, a character for each story.  But that wouldn't have given us a sense of how all these lives intertwine in Juliet's landscape.   Instead, the novel is broken up according to the time of day, and we are given brief chapters from the perspectives of half a dozen of the characters.  Combining the goal of having my students read independently with the necessity of re-reading, I spent last week writing questions for each of the main characters or sometimes for groups of characters, and sorted my students into groups to re-read the novel and attempt to understand the developments of a single character.  On Tuesday of next week, they will start teaching one another what they've learned.

After I spent a fairly intense weekend writing questions for eight characters or families, I needed a break.  I found it in Inhuman Resources, a novel by my colleague Jes Battis.  Let me be perfectly clear:  this is not the kind of thing I normally read, so if I'm clueless about this marriage between the crime scene investigation genre and paranormal fantasy, it's not Jes's fault.  I was thoroughly enchanted with his characters, particularly his lead detective Tess Corday, with her skills as a mage.  Like any good detective, she occasionally compromises those skills by being passionate and principled, by being a know-it-all, by over-reacting.  Thus is the detective taken out of the sphere of the superhuman, though that isn't strictly true for Tessa.  I found Jes's depiction of the underworld where the necromancerss live to be so imaginative that I might have wanted to spend time there if it hadn't been so threatening.  They travel by flower sometimes, other times on the backs of nightmares, to the centre of darkness.  The working out of a complex plot involving Velasquez's Las Meninas and a Picasso variation was a complete surprise.  Jes's novel took me out of myself into a world where I was enthralled--no paranormal skills required, only Jes's extraordinary imagination.

Now I am about halfway through Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, this blog post having taken a while--about two weeks of a passionate reader's life.  I'm not going to try to do a quick portrait of what is perhaps Woolf's most accessible novel.  What Woolf values most of all is daily experience and the way people claim and inhabit this experience.  Septimus Warren Smith illustrates how dangerous this intensity can be, while the almost tinselly Clarissa is redeemed by it.  Everything about the prose of Mrs Dalloway, the rhythm, the sentence structures, the detailed observations, the smooth flow from one consciousness to another, is designed to surround  and immerse the reader with that experience.

The psychologists tell us that this kind of immersed reading provides us with dress rehearsals for our own lives.  We learn compassion and empathy from reading, as we attempt to turn little black marks on the page into characters with lives and experiences and emotions that we attempt to recover and comprehend.  What I have loved over the last couple of weeks' intense reading is the opportunity to be so many people, to see many worlds from a myriad of perspectives, which is perhaps why we should read the unfamiliar, the challenging, the seemingly inexplicable.  Doing so, we can occupy many selves and many worlds.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A week-long birthday


When you come to be sixty-three, birthdays change.  I'm not, like any other 39-year-old woman, pretending that they're not happening, and I'm not a prima donna who wants everyone else to recognize then.  Rather, they're occasions for reflection and celebration, and sometimes they take a whole week.  After all, there's a lot to celebrate.  Until September of 2012, I'd have told you I have the best job in the world.  I have admitted unabashedly on Facebook that Bill is a partner whom I never could have imagined:  funny, compassionate, reflective, committed to equality--and not simply in our relationship.  My daughter Veronica and I are close enough to be working on a book together; I'm writing poems inspired by her photographs and they are taking me adventurously and gloriously outside my comfort zone.  We have what we call "quality time" (yes, we put it in ironic quotation marks) once a week and chat like a couple of old friends.  And that, of course, brings up friends, who are the rich soil of any life.  I am a lucky woman, and though there are disappointments and wounds, I'm going to celebrate my luck.

The reflection came through a sequence of gifts that started arriving last Saturday.  Outside Artesian, after Noah Richler's talk on non-fiction, I stopped to chat with former student Kris Brandhagen, who had gone out for a cigarette.  She shared her wonderful news with me:  that she will be studying art in Toronto next fall.  And then came the gift:  she remembers when, years ago, I sat down with my green pen and taught her how a sentence worked.  Saturday she confessed that she was something she'd struggled with that no one had quite addressed.  "You don't remember all your students, but they remember you and your green pens," she assured me.  Maybe I do have the best job in the world.  This was an unexpected gift on a reluctant spring afternoon.

Then Tuesday I decided it was time to wash the car, and so went to the new Co-Op out beyond Grasslands:  I had a couple of other errands there.  (I'm addicted to dried apples and can only get them at Bulk Barn.)  It's one of those car washes where you steer your left tire into a conveyor belt.  Except that from that position, short little old ladies like me can't reach the machine where you punch in your code.  So I had to open the car door.  Back inside, I got D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love out of the bag on the seat next to me and settled in for a little reading.  Until, that is, I noticed that the inside of my car was getting washed.  Every time the water let up a little, I tried closing my door, but the problem was that my seat belt had fallen out and was also getting nicely cleaned, as was my black cashmere coat and Lawrence's novel.  This could have ruined my day, along with everything else in Regina these days that simply makes life harder than it really needs to be.  (Yes, I'm thinking of those mounds of snow that make it very difficult to get out of my garage, and that make it hard to navigate everywhere.)  Except I'm living on a street with its built-in reality check, which shifted my mood by the time I drove up the back lane and struggled, this time, to get into the garage.

On Wednesday, I went to visit my wonderful neighbour, Angela Oxman, who is living with a diagnosis of terminal cancer.  From my bedroom, I can see the light on in the room where she takes her visitors and her meals and sleeps her troubled nights.  She is, as you might now guess, my reality check.  The moment I got in the door of her room, she burst out "There are some things I need to say to you," and I took her hand and settled in for wonderful conversation.  The hour and a half was essentially spent by two women celebrating what they've liked about one another for the last twenty-three years.  One of the things I've admired most about her was the way she retired.  She took some history classes.  She worked with the Stephen Ministry.  She spent time with her grandchildren and with the children at St. Theresa School.  Of children she simply says "Arouse their curiosity, and everything else will take care of itself."  On nights when she has difficulty sleeping, she gets out all her happy memories and pores over them like a fond, familiar book.  My time with her was one of the treasures of my week.

One of my former students, Scott McLean, was our waiter when Veronica, Bill and I had a birthday dinner at Fireside Bistro.   Scott's gift was birthday drinks.  In another corner of the room was another student, Elaine (her last name escapes me, though I know she went on to library science).  A lovely dinner there was followed by deadly lemon curd cheesecake made by Veronica.  Veronica bought me a book about knitting Estonian lace with some patterns that are going to stretch all my skills, and a lovely jar of papaya body butter which smells like summer--something we all need right now.  Bill gave me tickets to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet performance of "Sleeping Beauty" last night--which was magical.  Sometimes I forget how much I love classical ballet until I see it again.  The composers, choreographers, dancers, scene designers, makers of stiff tutus, all work toward a single goal: to make a vivid, timeless world that envelopes  the stories that speak to us. 

I gave myself a day to play, banishing all thoughts of time by appliquing the basket blocks you see above.  There's a wonderful line in Don McKay's poem "Winter Solstice Moon:  An Eclogue," about the fact that we sometimes want time to be pregnant:  full of possibilities.  At this point in the term, I'm working six days a week, so needed a day when attention to craftsmanship means I didn't worry about time passing, but about spending time well.

Then there were conversations with my sister, Karen, with Gloria, my sister-in-law, and with Jeanne Shami; then a Government House concert with Katherine Arbuthnott.  Their horn player, Richard Burdick, has long been trying to convince the RSO administration to just loosen the purse strings to pay enough for a second horn player so that a whole new repertoire is possible.  I heard an early Beethoven septet and a piece Josef Miroslav Weber, a composer I've never heard of who brought the audience to its feet with "From My Life," a musical biography with  a lovely reflective playfulness.

Here are all the good things:  friendship, loving family, reminders of mortality leavened with care and generosity and wisdom, memories of the privilege it has been to touch students' lives, to watch them grow and evolve, music and literature.  Women in Love has dried out, and over the weekend I turned my attention to Dianne Warren's Cool Water, which I'm teaching in my Literature and the Environment class.

The last gift came yesterday morning, in a conversation  with a colleague who is far more affected by the budget crunch--and hence by all the decisions we make--than I am.  He is understandably grieving, and bitter because his time with us may be suddenly brought to an arbitrary end.  It's a terrible position to be in:  to have your life on hold while administrators try to figure out what's important, and to have little faith that they will get it right.  I nevertheless set him a difficult task.  Do not let administrators shape your last days here.  If you love what you do, keep loving what you do.  Like Angela, spend your time with the good memories and the good experiences.

Which, of course, is good advice for me, too.  Yup.  I do have one of the best jobs in the world.  If only someone would come up with a vaccine for two epidemics:  comma splices and the unwillingness to think for oneself.  Guess that's my job.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Who comes when you call yourself?





Last Sunday night I found myself standing in front of the washing machine, chucking in the laundry as I sorted it, with the most peculiar existential question on my lips.  Who was I as I did this?  How old was I?  That last question was particularly noisy:  after a full day's work finishing Howards End for my honours/graduate class and responding to my honours and graduate students' research paper proposals, I had come home from the university, peeled carrots and parsnips, washed potatoes, and tucked them into my clay baker with a fresh chicken; then I had promptly gone downstairs to start the laundry.  (Lest anyone wonder where Bill is in all this, he'd cleaned the house earlier in the day.  We divide up the chores pretty equally.  Makes for a happy household.)  I don't like doing the laundry on Sunday night.  It makes me feel disorganized.  It makes me feel, if you must know, like I am fourteen and my mother still has to remind me to do things before I leave them until it's too late.  Also, my birthday is this month, so I'm all too aware that I am turning sixty-three, but those fourteen-year-old feelings wouldn't leave me alone.  Yet that was the easy question, the question that caused a dis-ease easier to describe.  Really, who was this person standing here?  It reminded me of the end of Woolf's Orlando where Orlando wonders who will come when she calls:

"Then she called hesitatingly, as if the person she wanted might not be there, 'Orlando?'  For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not--Heaven help us--all having lodgement at one time or another in the human spirit?  Some say two thousand and fifty-two.  So that it is the most usual thing in the world for a person to call, directly they are alone, Orlando? (if that is one's name) meaning by that, Come, come!  I'm sick to death of this particular self.  I want another.  Hence, the astonishing changes we see in our friends.  But it is not altogether plain sailing, either, for though one may say, as Orlando said (being out in the country and needing another self presumably) Orlando?  still the Orlando she needs may not come; these selfes of which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a waiter's hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own, call them what you will (and for many of these things there is no name) so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs Jones is not there, another if you can promise it a glass of wine--and so on; for everybody can multiply from his own experience the different terms which his didfferent selves have made with him--and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all"  (293-4).

You can imagine me, one hand on the top of the washing machine, one hand chucking stuff inside, suddenly stopping and calling, first, for the literary reference.  And then for myself.  Perhaps the call came from exhaustion, both physical and mental.  "Why can't one work 16/7 (with eight hours for sleep)?" I have often asked myself, never getting an answer but only the rather matter-of-fact "Well, one can't.  One's brain turns to soapsuds.  And one's self goes missing."

Perhaps it was the snow.  Chicken in oven and laundry in washer, I sat down to read David Bergen's The Age of Hope.  Looking out the window, I saw one of those mid-winter days when the world is nearly obscured by fluffy, floating snow almost suspended, draping the world in its curtain, obscuring it.  Such days can be almost cozy in December, an excuse to stay home and huddle under a quilt with cats.  But such days are out of place in March.  The day before, we had a nice man named Rob take down our back fence and bring in his bobcat and haul off the snow that would have ended in our basement when it melted.  We didn't need more snow.  But more than the frustration with snow that many people have called "relentless," was the sense that the light was wrong.  I was waiting for a late dinner, reading and watching the snow, and the blue hour was just coming down.   

Perhaps it was reading David Bergen's novel.  I realized that he was setting himself an important and intriguing problem in his attempt to represent the point of view of a housewife born in 1930s Manitoba, deep in Mennonite territory.  But the novel was dissatisfying in a couple of ways.  First, the more interesting moments in Hope's life (this is not a plot-driven novel) recall more successful works like Plath's The Bell Jar, or Doris Lessing's short story "To Room Nineteen" or even The Golden Notebook.  The territory of the woman who finds herself wanting more than what society has given her has been convincingly examined by other writers.  I'm not alone in this; Mark Sampson, writing in Quill and Quire writes  "Bergen channels Alice Munro, or perhaps Carol Shields, in trying to write a slow-boiling domestic novel with a political undercurrent. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything particularly new or inspired in The Age of Hope. Yes, things happen: Hope has a nervous breakdown and spends time in a mental hospital; her husband Roy’s car dealership fails and bankrupts the family; their son Conner marries a shrew who eventually leaves him; Penny falls in with a religious cult. But the book’s underlying themes have been presented before – and more skilfully – in countless other works."