Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Toward the Solstice: A Season of Light

One evening in late November, I found myself outside in the still air, shoveling snow, and thinking of how my mother used to say that December was "a season of light." 

Christmas was important to my mother, and she worked very hard--and usually cheerfully--to make the season beautiful.  Preparations began in late November, when (without a calculator) she did the tax roll for Moorland Township, which involved sharpening countless pencils to do numerous calculations, all of which were written in an enormous columned book about two feet square.  Then the calculations were checked and written in fountain pen.  She did this in the evening at the kitchen table, while Karen and I washed dishes, and she made the astronomical sum of $50.  This was when gas was usually less than 25 cents a gallon, so $50 to spend on Christmas presents did seem like untold riches. 

Then the baking began.  Spritz cookies forced through the cookie press, silver shot pressed into the flowery shapes before baking.  Swedish Christmas cookies, which contained egg yolks that had been cooked in simmering water and forced through a sieve.  Divinity.  Fudge. Penuche.  Home-made mincemeat.  Christmas cake that lived in the cold of the old coal chute.  A couple of times a week, Mother would get up on a chair in the basement to take it down and give it another spoonful of brandy. The Swedish Christmas cookies were frosted, sprinkled with coloured sugar or decorated with silver shot.  Some years the airy clouds of divinity were coloured pink or green; other years she added peppermint oil grown on her brother's farm to the pure sweetness.  Divinity is essentially beaten egg whites to which you add a sugar syrup that has reached the soft ball stage.  It's just sweetness; frankly, I've never seen the point, but my mother made divine, creamy divinity.  Fudge seemed trickier:  you had to catch it at just the right temperature and beat the hell out of it so that it wasn't grainy.  Penuche--essentially fudge made with brown sugar and without chocolate--she made only for herself.  She deserved it.

But light?  Michigan in winter easily gets an hour more daylight than Saskatchewan, but winter there was often cloudy, the streets full of grey slush. I haven't thought of this saying of hers for years, but as I threw the airy snow from the walkways, I thought it made some sense to try to understand what she meant.  In the silent evening air,  casting the glittering snow around me, I wondered if "light" might be metaphorical.  The snow, after all, was light:  insubstantial and glittering, it flew into the air catching every scintilla of light around it.  

I found myself instead thinking of the ways I try to create light as we move toward the solstice.  On foggy days, I admire the way the headlights of cars driving through Wascana Park flare through the fog into the darkness.  Like everyone else, I take pictures of hoarfrost or snow that has fallen so gently it catches on the bark of trees and renders mere twigs both more and less substantial.  I light fires.  An introvert by nature, I wish a hearty Merry Christmas to people I barely know, sometimes wondering whether such words mean to them the same thing they mean to me.  (Probably not, if only because one's confused spiritual life is entirely idiosyncratic--as are other people's.)

Coming in after the shoveling to listen to the evening news, I thought there's darkness enough in the world, much of which I talked about in my last post, so I won't weight down this quest for light with  despair, murder, war, terrorism, fundamentalism of many kinds--which I tend to see as the source of most of the world's evil, because people who are sure they have the right line on things can justify doing just about anything to impose their "truth" on everyone else.

Closer to the solstice and to Christmas, we're driven by two contradictory impulses.  We're frantic and frenetic, trying to get everything bought, wrapped, planned, baked, prepared to begin feasting on Christmas Eve.  Yet what we really want is a brief hibernation:  we want to get out of the traffic and the grocery store, where we've gone for the parsley and lemon we've forgotten, seen and avoided several neighbours because we don't feel cheerful just now; we want to hibernate, sit down in front of a fire and pretend to be a child for about 48 hours.  We'd also like, please, to get out of the kitchen for a bit, though the house smells divine.

Somehow the balancing between that centrifugal busy-ness and the centirpetal hibernation begins to generate light.  We take baking to the woman next door whose husband has been in a nursing home for years now, and we struggle to make conversation.  We are patient with the person in front of us in the line at the grocery store because she realizes there's something important she's forgotten:  the tin of pineapple for the ham, perhaps, without which it won't be quite the same.  The cloves will look so lonely.  We look with wonder at the people assembled at our table, and are silently grateful.  Kindness kindles something:  a season of light.

Friday, December 12, 2014


When Tory MP Peter Goldring confessed that he wore a body camera when he visited his lady friends for a game of Scrabble long about 2 a.m.--a camera that would prove he hadn't behaved inappropriately--I knew that our culture  had hit a crisis.  Mind you, I'd had a couple of lessons over my last year in the academy, examples of an administration that didn't trust its faculty and of faculty that didn't trust administration.  Lack of trust is corrosive.  Because how things come out depends altogether too much on who blinks first or who has the most power, not who's considered opinion is the right one.

There are some very good reasons why we trust people less.  Most of these involve our relationships to people in power, as Peter Goldring inadvertently reveals:  “MPs must learn, as I have from encounters with authority figures in the past, that all do not tell the truth." Here in Canada, beset by government by ideology rather than by evidence,  we are right not to trust the advertisements vaunting the Conservatives' environmental record or believe their reasons for building more prisons and being tougher on crime. Until we're given any evidence, why should we give our trust?  In the past year, we've been given reason not to trust our Senators to turn in accurate expense claims or not to trust Members of Parliament to behave appropriately toward their female colleagues.  (This case is messy, I admit, given that there has been no formal complaint--which only increases our distrust.)   We don't trust Bill Cosby, who used to be known as America's dad, nor do we trust CBC celebrity hosts to have charming off-air personalities like those carried by the airwaves.

People in Ferguson Missouri and New York City don't trust cops to use force in a way that is measured and reasonable.  In the United States,  "the Justice Policy Institute has estimated that police officers in the U.S. killed 587 people in 2012 alone. Over the course of a decade, they’ve tallied more than 5,000 people in the U.S. during that period" observes Dave Lindorff on AlterNet.  Quite likely, the majority of those people are black.  It makes absolute sense, given the failure of the justice system to even indict cops who kill unarmed people, that African Americans do not trust the police.  Police killing suspects, many of them racially profiled, in the interests of police safety, trumps citizen safety; this is a sure recipe for distrust.

But there's something else going on here:  a rotten game of in-group vs. out-group.  As Jonathan Haidt reveals, when times are difficult, one of the first things humans do is to take stock of who belongs in their group and who doesn't.  Think of Neanderthal man around the campfire during a famine year:  the way you decide who is going to get fed is to make that basic distinction between who really belongs and who doesn't.  My guess is that inside those courtrooms where juries decide to indict or not, in proceedings (at least in Ferguson) they can never talk about, the in-group card is played, subtly or overtly.  "We have to hold together, those of us who know ourselves to be law-abiding citizens, or chaos will be loosed.  The cop is one of us; the young black boy on his knees or the black man the cops are trying to arrest for selling illegal cigarettes are not one of us. So who are you going to choose to believe?"  
But something else is at play here.  Certainly there are legitimate reasons for some of the distrust we feel.  At the same time, however, distrust is often being used to keep us passive and uncritical.  Such distrust erodes our sense of community, our sense that we can change aspects of our society that we find troubling.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman would point to what he calls "the availability heuristic."  When we're told something again and again, we come to believe it.  I don't know how many times it can be said to either parents or city governments or police departments:  crime has dropped and continues to drop.  Plans to get tough on crime and to give more munitions and powers to police are out of touch with this reality. But when every newscast leads with the most recent disturbing/colourful/weird crime, we are all--police and citizens alike--being primed to believe that our world is less safe.  Similarly, newscasts that focus on war sometimes make us feel that we are living in very violent times, whereas there is less conflict than ever--in spite of politicians' attempts to threaten us with that crime, committed perhaps by ISIL, is coming to Canadian shores near you.  Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's attack was framed as a terrorist act, and as grounds for giving more powers to security institutions, whereas perhaps the radicalization of young men might be seen as a one of the routes mental illness takes in the twenty-first century.  If you are living in North America and feel like an outsider, how can you understand your feelings of marginalization? Perhaps exploring the beliefs and actions of other groups that have been marginalized will give meaning to your feelings.

So the other side of the trust issue is that we believe that mistrust makes us safe.  And in many cases, it's that appeal to our safety that governments use to convince us to give up our civil liberties or to reassure us that they know how to be tough on crime, though it costs money that is syphoned away from health and education--areas of spending that might improve people's lives, money that might have helped Michael Zehaf-Bibeau deal with his sense or marginalization in a different way.  Similarly, news organizations, whose very survival is threatened in a variety of ways by the openness of the internet, need to grab our attention, and there's nothing like a manhunt or the word "terrorist" to do that.

But as Daniel Kahneman points out, the "availability heuristic" come an "availability cascade."  Here's what he has to say in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

"An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action.  On some occasions, a media story catches the attention of the public, which becomes aroused and worried.  This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement.  The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by 'availability entrepreneurs,' individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news.  The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines" (142).

Availability cascades create unintended consequences.  One of these is the various costs of distrust.  Dean Richard Kleer told me today that economists actually talk about the "extrinsic costs" of distrust, which across the economy are enormous.  How many (unnecessary) forms did you fill out this year to prove you weren't doing something reprehensible?  How many reports did you write to prove you were doing your job, and what actually happened to those reports and the time that went into writing them?  How many children walk to school or go with a group of friends to the nearest schoolyard or park just simply to hang out and perhaps climb a tree or two?  What effect will this have on our effort to address climate change--if nature becomes nothing more than annoying or violent weather? 

But there are two other, larger unintended consequences.  Distrust tends to lead to a focus on standard operating procedures that will catch the "free riders," and from there to a managerial style of "leadership" that focuses on SOPs, to the exclusion of the real problems that face us.  Real leadership deals with complex problems, often in messy ways, by gathering together creative teams of people who work collectively to understand the complexity and find creative, perhaps unanticipated solutions.  Distrust has no place here.

Distrust may also, at the ballot box, prompt us to vote for the people who scare us the most and promise to keep fear at bay.  Are you worried about higher taxes, terrorism, drugs on city streets?  These worries, whether reasonable or not, might prompt you to vote in ways that are actually against society's best long-term interest--for the tough-on-crime bunch rather than the tough-on-climate change advocates, since crime is feared here and now, whereas climate change is feared elsewhere and later--though the United Nations declares it is the biggest challenge facing the human race.

Distrust also leads to a kind of individualistic bunker mentality that actually works against the sense of community that might lead to solutions. If you are standing on the street waiting for a bus that is late again, but are distrustful, are you likely to talk to the other people who are waiting about how this bus works for them, to see if you can work together to convince the city to make some changes?  Or are you likely to remain silent?  Even if you talk to them but distrust the city to be responsive to your concerns, are you convinced you can do something?

Several social movements have been working lately to counteract our sense of distrust, to connect a variety of people together to effect social change:  Idle No More, the Occupy Movement, and Saskatchewan's own Prairie Pastures Public Interest group.  Such change works very slowly, partly because it eschews the kinds of top-down "leadership" that has gotten us in trouble, because power and wealth all too often turn people who once wanted to serve into people who want more power and wealth.  (And yes, there's some shocking psychological research on this.)  Rather, these grass roots movements often begin by educating people who are sympathetic to their goals and beliefs, and education takes a while to trickle down into the ballot box.  Occupy has recently influenced the Bank of England's position on wealth, and the Los Angeles City Council has passed a resolution indicating its informal support.  Prairie Pastures Public Interest brought together Chiefs, ranchers, farmers, academics, and poets (there were two of us!) to consider how we can respond to the province's decision to sell off the public pastures that protected vulnerable species of plants, birds, and animals, while providing grazing land for ranchers and small farmers.  We're working behind the scenes and are gaining some traction.  Idle No More goes from strength to strength.

Organizations which want to gain people's trust need to turn to transparency and fairness.  And when we're faced with the lack of transparency and fairness, we need to be noisy, like the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, who demonstrated against police treatment of African Americans yesterday in Washington.  In contrast, those who seek to effect meaningful change must foster dialogue and the trust that comes from honest speaking and listening.  We must all resist the availability heuristic that distorts our sense of reality because lacking trust, we vote for the status quo, become more frightened, less visionary, less open to change that is desperately needed in Canada and the United States.

I could not have written this post without the help of Katherine Arbunott, who helped me think about things like leadership and community.  Here's to breakfast at 7:30 a.m. with a smart woman!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Libraries: from the bookmobile to the iPad

I doubt that there are many impassioned readers who do not have an equally impassioned relationship with libraries and book stores:  the places where they met books, where books on shelves seemed like limitless possibilities for ideas and lives, places where they could find the time and the atmosphere that encouraged reflection.  In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the bookmobile came to our neighbourhood, parking a mere block and a half away from the house.  There was both plenitude and minimalism inherent in a visit to the bookmobile.  Compared to the downtown library, where my mother often took me, the selection was quite limited.  Yet being there on my own meant that the choice was all mine, and it was not an overwhelming choice.  The limited number of books meant that I sometimes took home things that didn't, at first blush, seem entirely interesting, only to find that this book, of all books, was precisely the one I needed to find.  I think the first time I remember this happening was when I took out the Illustrated Classics Edition of Jane Eyre.  I'd read through all the longer kids' books like Mr Popper's PenguinsI'd cracked East of the Sun and West of the Moon many times, but never managed to climb on board.  Jane Eyre completely startled me.  I had never known the passionate expression of such feelings; this was the fifties and we didn't express anything passionately, certainly not seemingly antisocial things like rebellion and righteous indignation.  We didn't cry out for justice:  parents said over and over things like "Do as I say, not as I do"--which as far as I am concerned is still the antithesis of just.

Not long afterwards, a small shop in our neighbourhood three blocks away became a branch library.  It was soul-less:  imagine moving out a small drug store or insurance broker and bringing in shelves and shelves of books.  I simply don't have the kinds of memories of the branch library that I had of the bookmobile.  Yet I know I went there frequently.  The librarians knew my name.  I discovered Bartok and Faulkner there--reading As I Lay Dying for weeks on end, always being struck by the force of each passage, yet never figuring out how the book as a whole worked.  I lost my bicycle there.  I had ridden my bike over to fill up the basket with books, but was perhaps so enthralled with my finds that I forgot to take the bike home.  So the next time I went out to the garage to look for my bike, I could only conclude that someone had stolen it.  A week or so later, I returned the books to the library and found my bicycle still parked out in front.  It was an appalling bicycle.  The plate around the chain had been kicked and bent so that each time the right pedal passed by it, there was a long, metallic "Whoosh."  The stand had come lose so that the pedal on the left side clicked loudly each time it came around.  The large seat was cracked:  it was not advisable to ride it wearing short shorts. So it was in no danger sitting in front of the library for several weeks without a lock.  Sheepish, I put my new cache of books in the basket and rode it home.

That same bicycle later allowed me to ride to the downtown library, where I eventually inveigled my way into the Reading Room.  It was a dark room with shelves of reference books, large comfortable leather chairs, green-shaded lights, and the current newspapers.  It was largely inhabited by old men who came there to get their day's news and perhaps to give some purpose and ritual to their lives.  My excuse was probably one of those junior high school projects on the geography of Bolivia or the exports of Germany that required, in those days, exactly the kinds of reference books you found there.  Working in the Reading Room required a certain amount of stealth and a lot of quietness;  there was a librarian at a dark wooden desk who seemed to do nothing and so who seemed a kind of beadle, there to enforce appropriate behaviour.  Perhaps she was simply an early incarnation of the "reference librarian," who for me has always been embodied by U of R's inimitable Larry MacDonald, who could help you find anything.  I always tell my students that reference librarians are their best co-conspirators, turning my first impression on its head.

There have been other reading rooms that have given me the same pleasure.  Most undergraduates at the University of Michigan studied at the aptly-named UGLI, or "Undergraduate Library" (yes, it was ugly and has since been replaced) but it was known more as a place to socialize and get picked up.  Not for me.  So I worked in the reading room of the Graduate Library, loving the old, enveloping captain's chairs, the three-storey windows, the darkness that descended on the quiet cork-floored room, where long long tables had inverted troughs of light so that the only things that were illuminated at night were the materials you were reading and writing.  It effectively closed out the whole world.  

The Reading Room at the Boston Public Library was one of the few cool refuges during the hot Boston summer of 1973, though it contained no books.  On the other hand, you could find anything you wanted in the secluded reading rooms of the British Library in London, though I don't remember the chairs being as comfortable.  But like all great libraries, they managed, through the architecture and decor, through the rituals and through lighting to suggest that you have walked into an alternate universe.  

I had a particular fondness for the Current Periodicals Room on the sixth floor of the Archer Library, until the students discovered it was a good place to sleep between classes.  They would commandeer two chairs right in front of the windows that gave views of Wascana Park.  I've had some fairly anti-social fantasies in that room--imagining myself pulling a chair right out from under a sleeper and telling them they obviously weren't looking up from their reading to consider their thoughts under the influence of a landscape that encouraged long views, so the atmosphere was wasted on them.  But somehow antisocial thoughts are quickly curtailed in a library.

Given this long and sentimental history, I don't know what to make of the fact that I've fallen in love with an iPad mini that Bill gave me.  Oh, yes, it's great for keeping my life in order and for making lists.  But what I most love is the easy, easy access to the Gutenberg Project and the library I am accruing.  It has done away with the laziness and disorganization of my frequent thoughts that run something like this:  "Woolf absolutely loved Thomas Browne's Urn Burial, and I really must read it some day."  That thought never comes to me when I'm at Archer collecting books.  But now I simply walk to my iPad, link to the Gutenberg Project, and presto, it's in my own library, along with Maupassant's essays (which I should read if I'm going to pretend that 3 or 4 times a month I'm going to try to write one myself, and which Woolf also loved), and Meredith's Diana of the Crossways, along with War and Peace and James's The Ambassadors.  I find I can indulge in almost any reading whim--though I must confess that I still buy new hardcover books as they are reviewed.  

My enthusiasm for my iPad library has prompted me to think about what it is we love about libraries.  Google "beautiful libraries" and see what you come up with.  There are whole websites and books about beautiful libraries, both of which often celebrate historic buildings and massive collections housed on carved wooden shelves held up by soaring arches, inundated by light.  Perhaps what we are really celebrating is how long libraries have been valued, and how "library" and "beautiful" so often go together, and how these words have been companions over time.  The combination of those two words needn't refer to an enormous collection in an eighteenth-century building, but to a certain spirit.  When I have unpacked my books at a writers' retreat along the window sill or the back edge of my desk, I have a different, minimalist sense of the library's beauty. Perhaps part of what we imagine when we think of exploring one of the world's beautiful libraries, is time to reflect in companionship with the best minds of our culture in a setting that echoes the beauty of that act.

Virginia Woolf wrote an essay entitled "Hours in a Library," a title she borrowed from her father.  It's a strange, meandering work that explores the many ways 'hours in libraries' come about and the many moments when we seek time there. Her archetypal reader is sitting in front of a window, the way I wanted to do in the Periodicals Room in Archer Library, when she looks up and the words and pages of the book she is reading look like they are fusing, surreally, with the landscape beyond the library and the windows.  Really, I think that this is what libraries and books should do:  not simply to exist massed in protected collections, but to unwind ideas and perspectives--sometimes helpfully contradictory ideas and perspectives--through the landscapes of our daily lives. If my iPad gives me better access to the books I've always thought I should read, why not see it as the new library?  

The "beautiful libraries" somehow combine the "best that has been thought and said," in the words of Matthew Arnold--all those various minds coming at life from different time frames and different perspectives and identities--with beauty and comfort. Really, libraries shouldn't be places of comfort:  they are there to challenge us all.  But perhaps we need the illusion of comfort in order to settle into, give credence to, converse with, all those voices who have been willing to work very hard to speak to us, to continue speaking to us.  So what if it isn't Wren's library at Trinity College, but my bedroom with my iPad?  At least there I can have tea and a cat--necessary and comforting companions for the wild adventure I am about to undertake.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reflections on colour and light

Bill took last Monday off as part of a four-day weekend, and we drove to Moose Jaw for a little early Christmas shopping and for a stop at The Quilt Patch.  I wrote last month about a change in seasons prompting me to look at nature with different eyes.  Monday required another shift.  On Monday, the world was muted, tangled; it was made of texture rather than colour, teaching me again that each kind of tree--not to mention each tree--has its own shape.  You could see the human footprint in the fields, the scoring in the stubble like words on a page that told you exactly how that field had been harvested. You could also see the low-lying places in the field that remained wild, outside of human efforts.  Dugouts were mostly iced over; the water birds had gone.  What remained was a neutral world of hyphenated colours:  ruddy-brown, grey-brown, grey-gold,  greeny-grey.  

It is a thought-provoking landscape.  On the way to Moose Jaw, I thought about Katherine Lawrence's wonderful interview of Lawrence Hill at the Sage Hill Fundraiser.  Katherine seemed to have read everything Hill has written, and asked moving and intelligent questions about his writing practice.  There were three things he said that I have been reminding myself of since that evening because I think they're important to anyone's creative practice.  One is that when you are creating, you have to realize that whatever it is you are making--whether of words or notes or colours--has to be and is a beautiful thing in your life, whether it's published or heard or bought--or not. Katherine Arbuthnott would chime in here and tell us that our motives have to be intrinsic, part of who we are, not extrinsic--a desire for the world to tell us who we are and how important we are.  Creative people make things for their own sake, to glory initially in the making. And then Virginia Woolf would like to have her two words, and would remind us that at some point, if we want "self-expression" to become "art," we have to find a way to bridge the gap between our vision and our craft and the people we'd like to share our work with.  We have to create a conversation.  But if we haven't been deeply joyful while we've been conceiving and drafting, we've missed the point.  To go back to Lawrence Hill's wisdom:  our work has to be a beautiful thing in our life first.

Katherine asked him what it was like to suddenly be famous with The Book of Negroes, and Hill quipped back that he thought his career was going just fine:  every book he wrote was better than the last one.  The Book of Negroes has sold 600,000 copies in Canada and is being made into a mini-series for TV.  We could say Hill has arrived.  Yet he has humbly and wisely stuck with his own principles:  just keep writing better.  That's do-able.

Katherine's good questions about character produced this wisdom that I was thinking about in particular as Bill and I drove to Moose Jaw.  He exhorted us to remember that the character who has the most to loose is the most interesting character.  We'll let Henry James in on this discussion with his observation (I paraphrase, but I'm pretty close):  "What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"  One of the weaknesses of Blue Duets, I think, is that none of the characters had more to lose than we all risk losing every day.  I'm trying to think beyond that for Soul Weather.

Two days later the hyphenated colours of the landscape were swathed in white.  They reminded me that my mother used to call December and Christmas-time "a season of light."  Given that I have difficulty with the shorter days, I pondered that awhile, until yesterday I was out shoveling snow after dark.  Mother was right, but not in the way I expected. The season's light is the light you make--fires and candle light and comforting food, and the light you search out.  As I threw the snow under the trees, there was quite a lot of light and I wanted to shine it on the writing I was getting ready to do when my two current projects go out to publishers.

There are (at least) two questions all writers need to ask themselves.  The first concerns their world view.  Roger Fry felt that art was a complex of vision and design.  You can translate that roughly into content and form, yet his word "vision" insists on something else:  a world view that is provocative and intriguing, an understanding of the world and of human nature that is in some way visionary:  seeing the world with a particular kind of accuracy, from a revealing perspective and with the breadth that is generous to everything that is human, natural, and cultural. Though of course, my definition of what is visionary is part and parcel of my world view.  A satirist would describe "visionary" much differently.  We are all, to some degree, limited by our world views, seeking out other people--friends and artists--with whom we can have a conversation about that view and how it influences our lives.  But we have to know what that view is.

The second thing writers have to understand is the people they believe they can have the most fruitful conversation with.  I caught an odd glimpse of this in October, when I was taking manuscripts for Grain Magazine to the SWG office.  I was traveling north on Broad Street, waiting at the light at Saskatchewan Drive.  Just ahead was the overpass used by trains and pedestrians traveling between Casino Regina and their parking garage.  There was a single woman in black walking across it.  Behind her was a tall fence that separates the pedestrian path from the railway tracks.  The fence curves away from the tracks to make it impossible to climb--a design element that I found disquieting.  Because it says that someone might want to make that climb.  The fence itself suggests that someone may lose their balance--a simple thing with appalling consequences.  Somehow the scene captured what people do every day:  walk alone through a landscape of vague threat, trying to pretend it's ordinary, that we're just going through our days. I want to shine some light on that element in our lives, some light that means something to the person walking alone.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Blog hop

Apparently there is a blog hop going around:  writers answer questions about their writing and then tag two more people to do the same thing, on pain of writer's block for seven years.  One of my former students, Cassidy McFadzean, tagged my current student, Courtney Bates, who in turn tagged me.  How can I resist playing with the young'uns?

What am I working on?  
Too much.  I'm working on a collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by Veronica Geminder's photographs, and need to write about ten more poems to have a good-sized manuscript.  I'm also working on a study of Virginia Woolf's aesthetics whose working title is Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement. This is a project I've been chipping away at for a long time.  In the wings are a novel, Soul Weather and some essays I'd like to write.  But working on two manuscripts--which works well most of the time--is enough, so I'm only taking occasional notes for the novel and essays.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This isn't just a "blog hop" question:  it's something every writer should be asking herself or himself once the manuscript begins to take clear shape.  I don't know that many books that are entirely ekphrastic, or that match each poem with a work of art.  The one I know best is Elmet by Ted Hughes, with photographs by Fay Godwin.  Godwin's remarkable black and white photographs of Yorkshire came first, and Hughes's poems about the place where he grew up followed.  Sometimes the relationship between the photograph and the poem is clear; sometimes the photograph seems like the occasion for a meditation that runs parallel to the photographs, rather than being ekphrastic.  It's a remarkable book.  But I'm no Ted Hughes, and I'm not trying to be.  Moreover, these poems are clearly autobiographical and nostalgic (if one can accuse Hughes of nostalgia).  

Veronica and I are working in a similar way:  the photographs have come first.  But unlike Godwin's photographs, Veronica's are ceaselessly urban, and often they are of cityspaces that I've only visited, so there's no nostalgia involved.  Rather, what I'm trying to do is not only to write a collection of ekphrastic poems, but to explore the role cities play in our lives, how they shape our days, how they give us places to play and sometimes make us feel imprisoned by the way they're structured and regulated.  I'm hoping, then, that the book as a whole will be a kind of "essay" on cities, that it will prompt people to think about the urban spaces where most Canadians live--spaces that can make our lives easier and spaces that can be frustrating and limiting. We tend to take the built environment as "always already" there, rather than to be critical of the way it shapes us.  I'm trying to make people more aware of its role in their lives.

Why do I write what I do?
Because I'm curious.  It's my curiosity about how Woolf structured her essays and novels that has led me to write about her aesthetics.  I suppose the poems about Veronica's photographs have a different impetus:  she's my daughter, as well as a photographer who doesn't really know how to get attention, so I thought initially that I'd just write a handful of poems I'd place in journals.  But I found that writing about her photographs was a wonderful challenge that took me beyond the kind of poetry I have written in the past.  So this project is allowing me (when it's not forcing me) to grow. 

Soul Weather has yet another motive behind it.  You could say that it's motivated by a lot of questions:  what does it mean to be at home in our houses, our bodies, our lives, our futures, our weather and planet?  What are the different ways of being at home?  But at the same time, I want to write a kind of Condition of Canada novel that will tell readers something about what it's like to be young and not very at home.  

I find that the most interesting work, whether it's poetry, essays, or fiction, comes out of questions.  Any writer who says she or he also has answers is bullshitting you or only considering simple questions.

What's my creative process?
For me, it's important to balance discipline with the writer's need to live, play, reflect, and read; to balance going inward with looking outward.  

Retirement is allowing me to experiment with keeping a very rigid work day:  I read under Twig, coffee in hand, until shortly after nine.  By ten, I'm at the computer, and most of the time I don't check my email or Facebook.  I try to take an hour for lunch, and then get back to writing from one until three.  When I can actually do this, I'm blissed, and I feel oddly liberated, given that my job as an English professor involved meetings and administrivia that took away more and more time to reflect, teach, and do research.  

But there are important breaks from this pattern.  This week, instead of being at the computer for those hours, I'm reading Woolf criticism, and I'm keeping much longer hours.  I also tend to know when I'm not getting anywhere with a poem and need to turn to something else.  I know when I'm trapped in my own head and need to do some reading or walking or gardening to shake things up.

Perhaps the most important part of my creative process is allowing drafts to go anywhere, not to censure myself or worry about whether something is good.  If I'm making discoveries, then good things are happening.  This free part of the process is balanced by an almost savage editor who queries every choice of content or language. Why do I think that?  Does this really reflect the human experience?  Is that the best word?  Does that image work?  How does this piece work with the others?  Am I making a whole?  Am I obsessing about unity?  Will anyone care?

This last is the one that trips me up.  I seem to care about a lot of things that don't even register with other people. 
And sometimes I seem to be entirely out of sync with most people's reactions to an event or a facet of our zeitgeist.  Given that I think it's the writer's or artist's job to be a compassionate, insightful, but critical reflector of the human experience, "Will anyone care?" is a question that often keeps me up at night.

The photographs here are all taken by Veronica in Paris.  The first is taken on Rue Descartes, the second in an arcade called Le Grand Cerf--shades of Walter Benjamin, and the third on an a street that had modern reflective buildings on one side and old buildings across the way.  I'm using it to think about cities and history.  These are the prompts for the poems I'm been writing over the last month.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Time to Reflect

I have to admit that I've not fully succeeded in getting back into my delicious rhythm of writing.  My first week back from Italy was basically a write-off because I really struggled with jet lag and because I had so many little things to take care of after falling out of the real world for a couple of weeks.  Then over Thanksgiving weekend, I obviously cooked a meal with more food than anyone needed (though the leftovers were glorious), and spent quite a lot of wonderful time with Bill, walking the White Butte Trails and driving to Assiniboia to revel in the fall landscape and see the room full of Group of Seven paintings and the new exhibitions at the Shurniak Gallery. Believe me, it was worth the trip and recharged something that had run down after nearly two weeks in Italy.  A sense of space, perhaps, that echoed the rhythm one might want to create in a life. 

As well, in the twenty-first century, we have perhaps learned not to ignore weather--its woes and its delights.  It just seemed silly not to go for long walks and recharge.  When the seasons change, I'm particularly aware of nature teaching me to see.  We had a wet, green year and were enveloped in a green world, even in the city.  With that much green everywhere, we don't stop to notice a single tree, much less a handful of leaves.  For me, when autumn comes, with its association of a new [academic] year, even now, the slight melancholy I feel from the shorter days and the softer colours, many of them bleaching toward grey or brown or soft gold, is tempered by my sense that the natural world is asking for my attention in quite a different way.  I'll hunt through the bleached golden grasses on the creek bank for hints of colour, and find berries clinging to branches of greygreen leaves.  Or I'll notice a row of trees I've walked by dozens of time this summer on my way to the creek, for the way they seem to be both resisting and giving in to time, changing, but changing more slowly than the trees around them.

I might jog my route a little bit from A to B to drive past the one flaming maple tree I know in my neighbourhood. Each glorious day of this remarkable fall has been grasped by most of us, knowing that quite another kind of seeing (and feeling) is around the corner when the only colours in nature are the neutrals of the branches of trees and shrubs and the various shades of white that snow can be--blue in the morning and night, pure white at noon, but with shadows of a colour I can't quite name.  Later rather than sooner, the widening days will encourage us to watch the tips of tree branches for signs of spring.
 One routine I've kept from my former life is early morning breakfasts with friends. This last Monday, Katherine and I had our usual breakfast and found ourselves--not surprisingly--talking about the effects of nature and art on our daily lives. Psychologists have learned that our deep attention on any task is limited. Attention is like a muscle:  it gets fatigued when it's pushed to its limits. What such stretched attention wants is something more fluid than, say, the next rigorously-organized paragraph on Woolf's use of narration in Jacob's Room.  Two of the best ways of recharging are to turn to the natural world or to art.  Both offer visual riches; neither dictate where you should put your attention, but allow you to wander at your will through the worlds they create.

But one of the reasons that my "creative practice" calls for walks is that these moments of less focused attention are sometimes better times for solving the problems that my attentive mind can't. Art and nature are, for me, prompts for reflection.  Some of that reflection is on the season itself; some of it is inevitably on the nature of time and how I want to negotiate my allotted portion.  Sometimes I reflect on the news and what it really might be telling me about how it is with the world. [What is really the meaning of this week's two murders of Canadian soldiers?  Does it have anything to do with ISIL or Muslim beliefs, or is radicalization simply the latest trend followed by young men who can't figure out their place in the world?  Why isn't anyone talking about masculinity as we reflect on these events?]  Sometimes I replay scenes from a movie (Bill and I saw The Judge this weekend, and I highly recommend it) to find the quieter echoes or the underlying connections beneath the noisier tensions of plots.  Sometimes I simply give myself over to joy:  this fall has been a wonderful time to do this.  If, as I believe, it is as rational when you wake up every morning to conclude that the world is well and truly fucked as it is to believe that another miraculous day has arrived, nature tends to come down on the side of optimism and joy.

This month, the Literary Review of Canada contained an essay written by Robert Sirmin about his time as director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts.  Sirman is certainly optimistic about the arts.  He is not, however, as optimistic about the world.  Let me close by quoting from his essay:

"Artists are specialists in the application of all forms of human intelligence, whether linguistic, mathematical, musical, spatial, kinesthetic or emotional.  Their work inspires the reflection so needed to make sense of the complexity of our lives.  Artists may not be the creators of the city or the faith or the imagination, but they are critical to their animation and vitality, and through their reflective capacity help each of us better understand who we are and what it means to be human.  

"I am convinced the arts serve an evolutionary purpose, and that there is nothing random about the global ascendance of artistic practice.  The future of the human species, if not the planet, is increasingly at risk.  Reflective capacity contributes to adaptive capacity, and adaptive capacity offers an evolutionary advantage critical to survival....Consensus is mounting that the survival of humanity is inextricably linked to an enhanced sense of collective responsibility that can only come about through a radical change in consciousness, the kind of change in consciousness that is the hallmark of all great art."

Nature, of course, doesn't have the same purposiveness of art:  it doesn't necessarily prompt us to critique our treatment of people who are different from us or to consider how democracy, in a time when campaign contributions have such an impact on the outcome of an election, can keep its integrity. But maybe, in prompting us to look at it more carefully, it makes careful observers--certainly the first step of any creative process--of us all, and prompts us to think about the more philosophical issues of time and change and our place in this miraculous world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Craftsmanship, revisited in Venice and Ravenna

I began the first of three blog posts on craftsmanship quoting the didactic panel next to Bill Reid's magical sculpture, "Raven and the First Men" on exhibition  at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC:  "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made." I wrote in that post of the lore of craftsmanship that was part of knitting, quilting, ceramics or woodworking, suggesting that one of the qualities of craftsmanship was its relationship to time.  The practice of a craft--ceramics, for example--is founded in the rituals and practices of other ceramicists who have gone before.  I also suggested that craftsmanship is timeless, insofar as the maker is not concerned with how long it will take to piece that quilt or make that Shaker box, but with how well she or he is doing it.  Bill Reid's words, even after my trip to Italy, still seem like the right place to begin this conversation.

I realized, after my time in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, that I have made unarticulated assumptions about craftsmanship.  In particular, I have tended to see craftsmanship as part of a minimalist aesthetic, one that you can see in a piece of well-turned wood or a mellifluous sentence.  Craftsmanship, I think I would have said, is present when the simplest, most elegant solution to a maker's problem is brought to bear.  This is ironic, given that most people who aren't quilters tend to see quilting as a practice of buying perfectly good fabric and cutting it up into tiny pieces to sew it together again.  Some of my quilts are simple, like the Amish ones.  Many of them employ colour and pattern and design in ways that are less than simple.  And then there's my penchant for knitting complicated lace, particularly when I can't sleep.  I think my error is the product of nostalgia, of the notion that the times when the lore of a craft developed were simpler times.  Someday, though, there's going to be a Ph.D. thesis on the craftsmanship of the effective tweet or the engaging computer game or the most elegant Ap. Or at least an essay.

The Basilica de San Marco, was (finally) consecrated in 1093, and is an example of Italo-Byzantine architecture--and of Venice's historic connections between "east" and "west."  Every surface is decorated.  The walls and the vaults that hold up the domes are the simplest example of such decoration:  marble with complicated patterns has been cut in sheets and re-assembled on the structure to create complex patterns.  The floor of the enormous church (of which I have a good dozen photographs because they are a great sourcebook for quilters) is entirely made of inlaid stone, one pattern butting up against another.  The capital of every column is carved and often painted gold.  Some columns in lesser-used areas are carved into a wood frieze that twines around, with hundreds of people and animals in each column:  they are an encyclopedia of human experience, showing a knight in armour, a shepherd carrying his sheep, a man hanging himself.  Those found at hand height are lightly worn where people have touched them as they passed, adding another layer of the human.  The ceilings are covered with mosaic figures, most of them in a simple gold ground.

I would have expected to be overwhelmed with the relentless decoration, longing for a simpler structure of Palladio, for example.  But I was uncharacteristically entranced.  Veronica (whose photographs you see here, except for mine of the floor) put my reaction well.  For the most part, one thinks of places like St. Mark's as expressions of "the greater glory of God," yet what one often experiences is the glory of the human:  of our inventiveness, of our delight in craftsmanship, of our sense of the human, of our attempt to reach toward the divine.  You could feel, in this space, the makers' delight in invention, in the craftsmanship necessary to give voice to that inventiveness.  You could feel their sense that they were making a world apart, but a world so rich with echoes of our own world that we would see the connection between the daily and the spiritual.

Perhaps this is because craftsmanship threads together the traditions from the past, the present engagement in the making, and the imagination's vision.  There is something timeless about craftsmanship, but it's not necessarily the timelessness of elegance or simplicity.  The photograph below is of the ceiling of the Basilica of Saint Vitale in Ravenna, built in 527, half a century before San Marco.  We were told by guides that Italian birders who happen to come in with their binoculars can recognize birds on this ceiling that are still alive--so detailed and accurate are their portraits.  These earlier Byzantine churches require an enormous amount of time to unfold.  You have to be willing to stand there, letting the detail and inventiveness work on you.


Many sections of mosaics can be read for their "plot," like the small piece you see at the left.  We see a newly-born Christ Child sitting in his mother's lap, surrounded by angels.  We know what this depiction means.  But if you let the craftsmanship and inventiveness work on you, you will begin to see that each facial expression is quite different, that each of the virgins (You can see one of them below) to the left of this panel has both a different facial expression and her robes are made of a different pattern of draped material, and somehow this is composed of pieces of stone or glass about half a centimeter square.  Then you begin to see the flowers, the abstract designs that embrace every arch and window well, all of which are different.  The invention is astounding.

Standing in these fifteen-hundred-year-old buildings made me see that craftsmanship is timeless in yet another way.  Yes, it speaks to the past traditions, the current practice, the vision for the future.  And yes, the craftsman is not thinking about time but about using their craft skillfully.  But appreciating craftsmanship also takes time.  Interestingly, the days Veronica and I spent looking at mosaics or at art seemed longer than other days, particularly when we sat down for dinner and thought about the day.  It seems that the time you spend allowing a work of art or craft unfold its complexity is time given back to you twicefold--at least.  It's time spent engaged with another sensibility, another worldview, another mind, another delight, and your world and life expand to encompass it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Improbable City

In spite of Venice's long history as a republic, as a naval power, as part of an important trade route between the Muslim world and Europe, it remains for me an improbable city.  Whoever thought of building a city on 117 islands divided by 177 canals and joined by 409 bridges? There are no cars in Venice, making it a wonderful place to wander and get lost.  But everything needed by everyone living or visiting there must be brought in by boat:  the flour you use to make bread, the bottles of wine and water consumed by 50,000 visitors a day, the needle and thread you need to tack up your hem, lest you look unfashionable in this very fashionable city, the ribbons and sequins used to make the masks that fill shop windows.  I didn't know whether to call it the city of masks or the city of layers:  it seemed open and closed, beautiful and severe; its buildings were constantly falling apart and being repaired, revealing how many layers held the structure together.

Our arrival was equally improbable.  Late in the afternoon on the first day of fall, Veronica and I were floating down the Grand Canal in the boat that connects the airport to the city, observing how ceremonious the palazzos on the canal looked:  most of them have a second- or third-storey balcony that would have allowed onlookers to feel part of a parade or a party floating down the canal.  Behind us to the north, dark clouds rumbled and then flashed, so the Alilaguna employees set about creating a waterproof cabin for themselves (we were already under cover) and ensuring that luggage still out on deck would be out of the rain.

We seemed to move just ahead of the storm, which arrived just as we reached our small bed and breakfast, pouring down rain and hail.  Alas, our host wasn't there, so we stood in the rain for about half an hour until the woman living two doors down, who had tried to contact the B&B owner by cell phone, trudged toward us once more in her housecoat and slippers, which sloshed more each time, with a torn envelope on which she laboriously wrote down the phone number written on the brass address plaque, and went to give him, we suspect, a piece of her mind.  On each of her helpful incursions into the rain her Italian burbled faster and faster, in spite of the fact that we'd told her, in our pigeon Italian, that we didn't understand anything she was saying.  He arrived ten minutes later, but we were both soaked.  Water had even permeated the zippers of our luggage.

Once inside, our clothing strung around the room to dry, we found clothes we could wear to dinner, and had a pleasant meal at a small restaurant in Campo Santa Margherita.  We decided that we were not quite warm enough for the tables outside, and so took the last tiny table indoors in the crowded restaurant.  Fairly soon, the waiters started moving those stalwart souls who had been eating outdoors into the restaurant and closing the glass doors to the patio--to some applause.  We all moved our tables a little closer together to accommodate everyone.  Someone began to whistle "Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer," which we thought a bit silly.  From inside, we watched the lightning illuminate the other buildings on the square, turning them into the backdrop for an old black and white movie that has a small lighting budget.

When we left, we walked out into two inches of hail.  Picking our way slowly through the slippery streets, we were told by an elderly German gentleman, though in English, the lingua franca of Venice, "Please be careful.  Be very, very careful," as we climbed the steps to the small bridge we needed to cross to our bed and breakfast.  The next morning, the sky was blue and late summer weather had returned, though small piles of hail remained where shopkeepers had swept it away from their doors.

The trick to navigating Venice, which seems to have filled, higgledy-piggledly, each of its 117 islands with buildings that would fit, wasting the least amount of space for walking, is to figure out the clearest path between where you are and one of the major bridges that crosses the Grand Canal.  On our first day, we made for the Ponte dell'Accademia, which would take us to Campo San Marco.  On our map, the path looked like a set of arbitrary squiggles, but if we exited Campo San Barnaba at the right spot, we joined a whole parade of people going the same way at a leisurely pace.  This was also true of our attempt to navigate between our B&B and the Rialto Bridge.  The important thing was to discover where you exited the squares where restaurants and cafes spilled into the streets, squares filled with pharmacias, with small shops selling masks or herbal soaps or groceries, with children playing with scooters or balls.  Other than that, you followed the other tourists as they wended their way through the small shops selling Murano glass, leather, hand-bound books, and high fashion.

But, I asked myself stubbornly, what if you had arrived after dark, sleepless, and left your hotel at 6:30 a.m., before the tourists were out, looking for breakfast?  How would you possibly find your way, if there were no tourists to follow? Asking this question reveals another rule for navigating Venice.  Follow the small shopfronts, many of which are beautifully designed.  If you are tempted to go down a street like the one above looking for a quicker bridge to the next island, resist that temptation.  Even if you can find several bridges, it will have a dead end, bringing you face to face with Virginia Woolf.
The area around the Rialto Bridge is one of the major shopping areas, with its own H&M, Max Mara, and Disney store, as well as the obligatory Prada and Armani.  Having walked there, stopping to look at several small churches, we were soon inundated with tourists and their ennui:  "What is the perfect thing I can buy that will encapsulate this moment, and can I get a deal on it?"  Attempting to elude this crowd, we wandered farther eastward, hoping to find a parallel route back to our B&B.  After several dead ends like this one, we found a track that looked more promising, giving us a couple of bridges to cross on to other islands, bridges on the stone walkways more or less in the direction we wanted to go.  (This was before we'd figured out that one needed to follow the small shop fronts.)  We finally came to a dead end in a square surrounded by large old apartment buildings, full of children playing, dogs barking, mothers talking.  Not a tree or a plant in sight.

Because I'm working on poems inspired by Veronica's photographs, and because Veronica is very much an urban photographer, I've been reading a lot of theory about cities.  Most recently, I've been reading Jane Jacobs's groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  In her introduction, she writes "I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things:  for instance, what kinds of city streets are safe and what kinds are not; why some city parks are narvelous and others are vice traps and death traps; why some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition; what makes downtowns shift their centers; what, if anything, is a city neighborhood, and what jobs, if any, neighborhoods in great cities do.  In short, I shall be writing about how cities work in real life, because this is the only way to learn what principles of planning and what practice in rebuilding can promote social and economic vitality in cities, and what practices and principles will deaden these attributes" (4).  I particularly tried to keep in mind Jacobs's notion that cities are not works of art, that they do not have to be beautiful.  But try as I might, and no matter how heretical it is, I had some questions about the way Venice had been "planned."

Most of the campos have no trees or benches, so that although they create a place for children to play and for people to meet and chat, little in their structure encourages this--except that there's no place else to do it.  When the squares do have benches, these are almost always full.  I wondered whether the small cafe and restaurant owners discouraged benches so that people looking for someplace to sit would be more likely to buy a cappuccino or a piece of pizza in order to be comfortable.  The square surrounded by apartment buildings seemed, in Jacobs's terms, to be "working."  People were clustered around talking and the children were shouting and running.  There are no cars in Venice, so children and the well-behaved medium-sized dogs Venetians seem to prefer are not going to be run over.  But I can't help wondering what it says about Venetians' sense or pride of place that no one had bought a couple of large pots and put in a few trees that would provide some small shade for a couple of benches placed face to face.  What does it do to a child's notion of play that it takes place on stone, surrounded by stone--all of it (in this case) dark grey?  Where are the ants, the dandelions?  Perhaps I am imposing my own sense of nature deficit disorder on people who do not feel this at all.  Like all of us, they regard their lives as relatively normal.

Certainly on the smaller island of Venice's southern edge, Guidecca, home to a couple of Paladian churches we went looking for, plants are an important part of the aesthetic, and there the more modern, less crowded areas are filled with greenery in pots.  When I mentioned my concern about Venice's severe setting for its lovely architecture, she pointed out that in North America, we have an almost luxurious amount of space. 

I left Venice with quite a bit of ambivalence.  Touted as the world's most romantic city, it is made largely of stone and water.  Its streets can certainly be described as quaint, its architecture majestic.  It has been, in a day of brisk trade coming from the East, the richest city in the world.
It is in some ways eerily quiet and noisy:  there is no traffic noise at night, but private conversations echo down the stone walkways and give you melodic snatches of other peoples' private lives.  People gather, of a Friday night, in their local bar/coffee shop to trade gossip and complaint.  But its green shutters close off everything to the street.  In all my time there, I never saw a family sitting down to a meal or conversation.  Willing to talk to a complete stranger on the water bus about life, the universe, and everything, they nevertheless--perhaps in self-defense, close their lives off to the stony streets.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Being and Time Redux

Perhaps it began shortly after I retired, when I found myself driving differently.  I have noted for quite some time that people are less and less aware of one another in space, in the hallways of the university, in the amount of room we take up in parking lots, or on the roads. I'm going to be an old fart for a moment and blame this on our smart phones, where we wait impatiently for the addictive dopamine hit that comes with the next "like" or the imperious text telling us to meet Fozzy at Common Ground today at 4.  We are less often where we actually are and more often in some space that's between here and there, mediated always by our "devices," to use Bill's word.  But after retirement, I found myself driving differently, more intent on modelling civility on the road or being patient with the person who didn't quite know where he was going, someone perhaps checking the map ap on his phone.  

Perhaps it began last weekend, when Bill and I went for a drive to Katepwa Point and then along the lake to Fort Qu'Appelle.  Maybe I glimpsed it when I wished that I could photograph sound, particularly the hilarious, whooping, joyous laugh of a young man sitting near us, eating french fries.  Perhaps it was inspired by the pelicans that simply drifted effortlessly along the currents or by the clouds that seemed to hang inert from the sky, not even bothering to drift with the currents.  They looked so serene, as if they embodied the fact that hanging out, especially hanging out somewhere up high, gives one a sense of perspective.

Maybe I was convinced by reading Proust's In Search of Lost Time.  I have nearly finished the second volume, and at some point settled into the novel's pace.  It probably helped that sometimes I read it in the evenings sitting in the front yard until I could no longer see, or taking it upstairs to read in bed, among the trees and the breeze at the end of the day.  I love the time created by summer TV re-run season, the way evenings open out into late day light and cooler air and a kind of exquisite, engaged laziness.  So I have begun to revel in Marcel's attempt to stop the narrative to see everything there is to see and consider an event from every possible (and some impossible) angle.  What does this all mean, he asks himself as he observes the troop of young girls who are currently the focus of his interest and his questions.  What does her facial expression mean?  What does his reaction, that odd feeling in his gut--half longing, half nostalgia, half self-knowledge, half self-delusion--mean?

The nature and uses of time have changed profoundly for me. Time is no longer something to be fought with or even bested in some peculiar way by doing more in a given period than is really humanly possible.  It's not exactly that I'm lazy; I'm editing the upcoming issue of Grain Magazine, I examined a creative MFA thesis at U of S, where I also had a charming and informative chat about poetics with Adam Pottle, Grain's current poetry editor. And if I'm not doing these things I'm writing a minimum of four hours a day.  Four sacred hours:  10-12; 1-3.  Gardening or playing the piano or watching the birds over the enforced hour for lunch.  Surely we can meet some other time?  Yet in four hours (a time when I do not let myself check FB or my email) I can get a great deal done.  I can do it over and over several times, so that whatever I'm writing is better written, more carefully reflected upon--deeper, I hope.  I can try out words, delete the almost right word to look for the right one. 

But the other hours in my life have changed.  I have time to study the pattern of a boil in the apple jelly I am making, or listen to the hollow sound of canning jars bubbling while they get sterilized. Instead of running right back to Regina after the thesis exam last Wednesday, I went up to the family farm where dee Hobsbawm-Smith and Dave Margoshes live.  dee and I walked down the causeway the next morning, stopping to listen to the birds or to talk about Amigo's arthritis, or to share stories of our lives and so become better friends.  On either side of us, the prairie sky was clear from horizon to horizon, and I felt as if I were inside time in an entirely different way.  I've glimpsed this way of being at Emma Lake or at Banff, but I don't think I was prepared in either case to delve right into that sense of peaceful timelessness which takes care of itself while we take care of what's important to us.  I probably lost a day or two as I made the shift from time-as-antagonist to time as a place to glory in being.

We live too quickly.  What are we running towards?  What will we accomplish at the pace we force ourselves to keep?  Anything thoughtful or permanent?  What happens to a culture whose heroes are ineffective CEOs who are lauded for the long hours they work--long, ineffective hours?  Multi-tasking--interrupting one task for another--makes us even less productive.

I have seen some of the plot lines of Act III, wherein the comedy of your life is likely to turn tragic.  When the way you begin every single day is the result of a deliberate choice you've made because you are now retired, then time is on your mind, particularly the fact that each day there is one less day for you to live.  That sounds like an existential threat.  But what I'm learning is that your relationship to time shifts, so that each moment, each long walk, each coffee with a friend, each poem drafted, each chapter of the Woolf book almost brought up to snuff, is something to be celebrated. That there is time and that it flows through a glorious world full of moonrise and cats and words and stories and gardens (and wars and religious fundamentalism and cruelty) brings you back, in Act III, to decisions about what matters.  It's profoundly joyful and liberating. 


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Life- and Mind-Changing Books

My student, Courtney Bates, challenged me and 9 other friends to make a list of the ten most important books in our lives.  I understood that these were supposed to be life-changing, though other list-makers have interpreted the instructions differently--which is appropriate, I think.  Important books don't say simply one thing, which is why they're important.  They leave respectful room for the reader.  You will smile when I say that I couldn't simply make a list; I want to explain the list--of course.

Some of my earliest memories are of my mother taking me to the public library in Muskegon Michigan, where I was born and lived until I was five. I remember taking out favourites again and again, particularly Make Way for Ducklings and Mr. Popper's Penguins. As well, my mother had a small pamphlet given to her by my Aunt Hazel, the only one of my mother's siblings to attend what was then called "Normal School."  Aunt Hazel became a teacher, as my mother should have done if she hadn't found the first few days away from home overwhelming.  I can still see this little booklet, which was about 8" x 5" and printed widthwise.  The book titles, along with brief descriptions, were printed by age group.  My mother consulted this pamphlet constantly. Nevertheless, my family had a very small "library," which sometimes lived in the cupboards under the bathroom sink.  There was Daddy Long Legs, Gone with the Wind, several volumes of the Funk and Wagnall's Encyclaloopedia, bought from A&P,  along with a very old, musty copy of Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins

Much as I loved and read over and over Make Way for Ducklings and Mr. Popper's Penguins, Alcott's book would be number 1 on my list were I following chronology.  It's the most feminist of all Alcott's books (of the ones I know).  Rose Campbell has been recently orphaned and sent to the Aunt Hill, where her father's siblings live, to be brought up primarily by her Uncle Alec--a sailor who makes perhaps unusual guardian until we see that he combines compassion and good sense in exactly the right measures.  The aunts give Rose, as they gave me, a variety of patterns for being a woman.  Aunts Peace and Plenty  were domesticity and self-sacrifice personified; they were philosophical but  somehow stifled.  Aunt Myra was the hypochondriac:  not a good choice.  Aunt Jessie was bringing up four boys on her own while her husband was away at sea and is often Uncle Alec's sensible partner in bringing up Rose.  My favourite scene occurs when "the aunts" gather together to give Rose new clothes for her 16th birthday:  a lovely drapey mauve something that is absolutely the latest thing for the period.  Rose tries it on and looks glorious.  But Aunt Jessie has warned Uncle Alec, who has his own birthday present prepared, and asks her to try on his clothes and make a choice.  His outfit is a sensible kind of girlish sailor outfit that gives Rose the freedom to run and jump--and of course is the one she chooses.  She vaults over the sofa in it to prove to her aunts that if she is wearing this she can run away from mad dogs.  This  scene is perhaps the closest to Austen's wise advice to heroines in Love and Freindship [sic]:  "Run mad as you choose but do not faint."  Heroines who can't act for themselves are sitting ducks.  And women who assume there's only one way to be a woman are given plenty of choice by Alcott's novel.

Number two isn't a single book, but twelve.  My mother's family drew names out of a hat for Christmas presents, and I suspect that Aunt Hazel went to particular trouble to find mine, for two years running she gave me the first two of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.  Raised in a time when "history" was names, events, and dates, I suspect I found in these a kind of history of daily life that provided me with a somewhat sanitized but detailed account of how the pioneers who settled the west managed to survive between 1868, when the Ingalls family leaves the woods of Wisconsin and 1881, when they endure, without much food and no coal, one of the most difficult winters experienced in South Dakota.  The more I read these, the more I realized how heavily they were censored and idealized, how they left me with a sense of the paradox of women's lives.  Ma is crucial to the survival of the family.  She milks the cow, makes the butter, makes soap, smokes meat--things that are described in luscious detail in the novel.  But she has no say about where the family lives.  If Pa decides that he needs more space, they go.  But at the same time, I had a sense of how pioneers lived their daily lives, making quilts, building sod huts, hemming sheets or getting the first sewing machine in time to make the sheets for Laura's new household.  They've left me with a love for the history of everyday lives, with a sense of the beautiful ways in which people improvise to make life joyful.

Number three is Jane Eyre.  Another strong heroine.  Are we seeing a pattern here, even in the late fifties?  I took Jane Eyre out from the bookmobile that spent one day a week on a city street about a block and a half away from home.  I could go on my own.  There I found the novel in one of those beautiful Illustrated Classics volumes that made reading so inviting. Reading this book gives me the memory of an early experience of "deep reading," that state of mind that psychologists say is so good for us, teaching us imagination and empathy.  I remember reading about Jane at Thornfield, Rochester's house, and looking up, surprised to find myself sitting in Grand Rapids, Michigan on a summer day in the early sixties.  To this day, that experience colours how I look at literature:  someone from another time and place and circumstance can touch a reader's mind. If that isn't a marvel, I don't know what is.  I once had a teddy bear named Rochester.  Enough said.

Number four is Doctor Zhivago, which I studied in Grade Ten English with Mr. Twedt.  And here is another theme of the books I've loved:  I might have been able to imagine Jane Eyre's life, but Yurii Zhivago's was entirely beyond me, particularly historically.  A novel that begins at the end of the nineteenth century shows us the beauty and culture of the lives of aristocratic Russians--only to devolve into World War One and the Russian Revolution.  I don't think I thought of the Little House books as history; here I couldn't miss the historical dimension.  Nor could I miss, in the record of the lives of Yurii and Lara, the way history has a profound impact on the most intimate and private moments of our lives.

Number five is Pride and Prejudice. I borrowed the copy from my first husband during my boring early years in Winnipeg.  As you know, one thing led to another, with this miraculous book (quite brief, really) that traces a woman's education.  Somewhere in the early nineties--before the BBC Pride and Prejudice and the spate of films that followed--I taught my first Austen class in AdHum 348, which was full to bursting.  The 37 of us (a librarian came over just to spend time with us) started Austenmania all on our own.

Number six is Jacob's Room.  It's 1978 and I'm in Italy, but have run out of reading.  In a small bookstore in Florence, I find a few books in English and choose this one.  When I finished reading it, I said--aloud, I believe--"That's the most beautiful things I've ever read, but I have no idea what it means."  How did I finish both a Bachelor's and a Master's degree without reading a word of George Eliot, Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf? That doesn't bear thought, but it sends its own historical message:  I had to discover Woolf in a small book stall in Italy.  You know, too well, the rest of the story.

Number seven is Toni Morrison's Jazz, the novel written by the Novel Prize Winner that I can't quite get out of my mind.  It's a study in voice:  I can almost hear Morrison reading it.  And like Dr. Zhivago, is too studies the ways in which history resonates through the private moments of our lives.

Number eight is The Stone Diaries. I knew Carol Shields, who was just an unassuming, lovely woman, and was startled when someone I knew won all those well-deserved awards.  Another woman.  Hmmmm?  Shields creates Daisy Goodwill Flett, the heroine who almost disappears from her own book, but does it with such care and attention for the domestic realities of Daisy's life.  From Carol, I suspect I learned the call of the archive, a call which coloured my first novel (which is now living happily in a box under my desk at the University). 

Number nine is Don McKay's Paradoxides, which is really a stand-in for any of his books of poems.  From Don I learned that poetry can be crystalline yet complex.  It's diction comes from daily lives, but the wisdom coming from Don's favourite Chinese writers and his rich knowledge of the natural world.  Getting to know his work re-made poetry for me.

Number ten is Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just.  The three essays were given as the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Perhaps because analytic philosophy can't find a way of defining art that includes everything those philosophers believe to be art but excludes everything they know isn't art, philosophy has turned its attention over the last twenty years to beauty.  Don't get me start about the wonderful books this turn has produced--Denis Donoghue's Speaking of Beauty and Alexander Nehemas's Only a Promise of Happiness are just a couple of favourites.  From Donoghue I learned that beauty too is undefinable, so we have to talk about what beauty means to us--always a fruitful conversation.  Nehemas taught me that we are in the presence of beauty when we return to the source again and again, sure that it will repay that attention and maybe even give up its secrets.  Both of these are must-reads.  But Scarry was there first.  She argues (please, it's a brief and beautiful book:  just read it!) that beauty is not a matter of prettiness scattered throughout our world, but that it is an integral part of our lives--of the Human Values the lecture series names--that prompts us to be just.  I can't do this book justice in a brief paragraph, so let me simply tell you about one of her central points.  When we are struck by something beautiful, we are taken out of ourselves, something that is crucial to justice.  The secondary effect of being thus startled by beauty is that we see the world differently.  We pay attention to particulars and bestow this different kind of attention on the people around us. Justice doesn't even begin to happen in the world until we stop insisting on our own viewpoints and give our attention to others--something that good books always ask us to do.