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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.

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