Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Solstice and the Paradoxes of Hope

I have been thinking about hope for several weeks now, since it seems a good thing to meditate on as we drift toward the darkest night of the year and the shortest day.  I have had two guides in my thinking, two guides who couldn't be more different from one another, but who made a great tag team. 

My first guide was Stephen Pinker, whose magisterial The Better Angels of Our Nature is a brilliantly researched book that could be said to be about hope.  His thesis is that in no other historical moment have there been so few wars, so little state-sanctioned violence, such an extension of human rights; this, in turn, has led to better health, standard of living, and education for more people on the planet than ever.  I began to read the book out of rebellion.  Like all of us, I watched the refugee crisis in Europe and the media's footage of endless lines of--hopeful?  hopeless?--people wandering from country to country, facing fences metaphorical and literal, trying to find an economy that could absorb them and the attitudes that would welcome them.  Like you, I was horrified by the Paris attacks, so close on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  Then there were the attacks at San Bernardino.  The concluding report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the government's decision to study the tragedies of the missing and murdered indigenous women are certainly hopeful, but hope only in the teeth of too many tragedies.  

Pinker's book comes with its own paradoxes.  How do you research hope?  Well, you research violence; you write a history of violence.  And then you mark the various ways and reasons it has fallen off.  With reams of research and daunting graphs and tables, Pinker is able to reveal the way human beings have constantly re-shaped their relationships with one another in ways that result, first, in fewer large-scale wars and, second, fewer small-scale conflicts.  Believe it or not, the wars that gathered people into empires were one of the first ways we decreased conflict.  Empires gave rise to the rule of law, and though that law might be capricious and the king's or emperor's motives for keeping internal conflict at minimum might be completely selfish, "Leviathan," to borrow the name Hobbes gave these governing bodies, made the world safer.  As well, government didn't want to have to manage small-scale conflicts between one knight and another--such conflicts made it hard to collect taxes and threatened valuable resources like food.  So the king turned his knights into courtiers who jested at court rather than jousting just north of some dark wood.  Manners were born.  Self-control and self-restraint were born, though there are of course places around the world where the self-control of "the civilizing process," as Pinker calls it, hasn't reached.  The Middle East is one; the American south is another.

Capitalism has played an intriguing role in "the civilizing process."  If you grew wheat and your neighbour kept cows, you might decide that rather than fight your neighbour for his land--a chancy and expensive process--you might instead barter.  Once Leviathan had created financial and physical infrastructure--money and roads--you might conduct your trade at further distances.  Pinker argues that "gentle commerce" had a whole host of unintended consequences, the most significant of which was empathy.  You had to imagine what someone who lived a goodly distance from you would like to buy or trade.  

In "The Humanitarian Revolution," (which I admit to not having finished yet, but I need hope NOW), Pinker looks at the way in which state-sanctioned violence--the torture of heretics or the burning of witches--has also declined in most of the world, as has slavery.  This change, like "The Civilizing Process" I described above, is much more complicated than I can explain here, but this passage will give you the gist of his findings:  "People began to sympathize with more of their fellow humans and were no longer indifferent to their suffering.  A new ideology coalesced from these forces, one that placed life and happiness at the center of values and that used reason and evidence to motivate the design of institutions" (133).  Those of us over fifty can probably look back and see some of the changes in how our culture has regarded human and animal rights.  Women's rights.  Gay rights.  The rights afforded too slowly to people of colour--First Nations in Canada and African Americans in the U.S.  But it's no longer intellectually or legally defensible to deny these rights, though people's opinions of "the other" are too slow to change.  The right of a woman to wear a niqab when she takes the oath of Canadian citizenship.  Animal rights.  Even the rights of the planet are being considered.

What Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahnemann calls "the availability heuristic"--our sense that we can come up with a lot of examples of violence and the violation of rights, so there must be a lot of both--is playing us false.  Things are better than the nightly news would have us think.

My other guide to hope is Jenna Butler, whose A Profession of Hope:  Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail has been an extraordinary and joyful reading experience.  Every word of this book is tender with hope.  She and her husband Thomas bought a quarter section of land 90 minutes north west of Edmonton and began farming, with the hope of being able to become self-sustaining. The book records their joyous and exhausting work on the land.  Here are some of the things I find hopeful--and these are idiosyncratic:  I find hope in the way they are able to see their quarter section as a complex and varied ecosystem where human intervention can allow the various parts to work together more richly and efficiently.  Who knew that digging a pond would bring frogs that helped with insects in the garden or that managing the forest would invite hawks and owls to help with pest control?  Who knew that "worm poop," which they cooked up in a bucket of red wigglers under the sink and to whom they fed their compost, would be the only thing between their market garden (besides a good shelterbelt) and grasshopper infestation that otherwise destroyed everything Big Ag had grown for miles around?  And then there is that wonderful relationship they have with the bees, who determine some of the cycles in the garden to ensure a constant supply of pollen.  (Another great hope book is Bee Time by Mark Winston.  Winston also has interesting advice for Big Ag:  leave more land wild to accommodate the bees, and you'll get a better yield than if you planted every square inch of your fields.)  In turn, the bees give them light in the middle of winter.  So here is perhaps the overarching hope of this wonderful book:  we can work with nature instead of against it, and find much joy, delight, wonder, and adventure in the process.  

But I also found the chapter called "Cartography" hopeful.  Jenna, who is also a poet, walks you through June in north country.  The prose here is so poetic that you are able to follow her through time and space with all the magic this entails.  Every one of our senses is engaged:  "Walk with the sun behind you, the cooling land lifting a night breeze around your ankles, to the bottom of the hill. Static ping of grasshoppers off road crush, sweet wild alfalfa in shades of purple, poplar leaves just past sticky green, everything about them the scent of rising sap.  A slight fog over the ground rolls as you walk:  the willows have let fly their seeds this week, and you will be chasing them through the garden beds for the next month.  This clock of seasons, of seeding:  past willow, not yet balsam poplar" (39-40).  Another element of hope was that McNally Robinson, where I bought my book, has planted A Profession of Hope all over their store--in memoir, in agriculture.  It's a book you can't quite categorize or pigeon hole, which is also hopeful.  We keep hope alive when we keep complexity and interconnections alive; we kill hope (along with a lot of other things) with certainty and with the idea that there's one right way to do everything and think about everything.

I also find hope in Jenna's humility, her sense that once she has stopped farming the land, it will return to some natural state, perhaps a bit better for her.  She has such respect for the land that she is willing to give it back to itself.  She knows she's only borrowed it for now.  That sense of the planet's integrity--that it's a place we've all just borrowed--is not only hopeful, but ethical.  When I taught "Literature and the Environment," I told my students that if human beings disappeared tomorrow the planet would be just fine--if not better off without us.  But if the bugs disappeared tomorrow, we'd all be toast.  Many of my students reminded me of that fact in their final exams, suggesting that they had suddenly seen that they were not the centre of the universe.  The bees and dragonflies and ants are that. 

I need hope not only because we are at the dark time of the year and I've watched too much news.   Twig is in the midst of another bout of pancreatitis, and I am faced with how much longer I am going to allow the cycle of suffering followed by treatment, which involves being in a vet's office all day for three days with a needle in his front leg, to go on.  Perhaps, at 15, his body simply doesn't have the resources to fight off this infection.  In How We Die, surgeon Sherwin Nuland talked of how hope changed for cancer patients, how they hoped not for a cure but to live long enough to see a child graduate or a grandchild born or to have one last Christmas with the family.  Twig has been reminding me, as has A Profession of Hope, that hope always exists in the context of our mortality.  Or, perhaps to be more precise, our mortality lingers around the edges of hope.  Perhaps our mortality is even a prerequisite for honest hope.  Hoping to find the perfect luxurious or cutting edge gift under the tree isn't really hope.  It's desire dressed up in hope.  "Hope is the things with feathers / That perches in the soul. / And sings the tune--without the words / And never stops at all," as Emily Dickinson wrote.

But hope may also require respect, our ability to get outside of ourselves.  Perhaps there is an ethics of hope that involves thinking both about self and other.  Many of the hopeful social transitions that Pinker observes came about because we could imagine someone else's suffering or we could suddenly envision the rights someone else deserved.  I have been thinking about a sentence in Sir Kenneth's Clark's Civilization:  that the Unicorn Tapestries illustrate nature naturing.  Once again, hope and mortality are linked.  Jenna's farm is certainly an example of "nature naturing."  But Twig and his chronic illness is also part of nature naturing.  He isn't talking to me, so I am going to need both respect and imagination to attempt to understand what his hope might be.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Memory-Roots of Christmas Trees

My memory is on full throttle this time of year, and I blame it on the light.  Just this morning, when I was talking with Katherine about the value of grasslands for carbon sequestration--which, counter-intuitively,  is equivalent to the value of forests--I remembered saying to Veronica when we drove from Montreal to the Eastern Townships and saw hills and hills of trees, "These are Quebec's lungs."  What a thing to come twanging out of my memory at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning!  Or Saturday I remembered David Powell standing in the middle of my tiny kitchen during a Christmas Noyse--a musical party I used to give every Christmas when my friends' children were young.  Adults and children brought violins, basoons, flutes, and the occasional rusty voice--and I remember David Powell saying that there had to be a way to give me more work room.

It's that late afternoon light that goes golden and looks like something out of a Vermeer or a Rembrandt.  How can a blue sky go golden?  If gold is added to blue, shouldn't it go green?  Or is light layered in a way that watercolour, say, isn't?  Then after the gold disappears, mystery starts to grow from beneath the trees and shrubs, close to the houses.  Neighbourhoods you know by heart suddenly look different in this light.  The sky remains azure while the tree branches and trunks turn an inky, saturated black that gives their tangles a new weight.  The azure subtly deepens until the air is a colour we never see in summer.  Then more change is wrought by what we do to answer this darkness:  we put up Christmas lights in our yards in arrangements that range from beautiful to funny, with everything in between.  We play with light.  All this changing of the light is an invitation to reflect and remember, to hunker down with the people we love and haul up the artifacts of memory through the sand of our everyday lives, like the early explorers of the pyramids.

I always find decorating the tree to be a kind of archeology, as each ornament comes swimming up with its history.  I have only one glass ball left of those my first husband and I bought in Cambridge Massachusetts the first year we were married.  And there's the tin Santa Claus Veronica brought back from her first term at McGill.  There is the flock of sheep my sister Karen sent to us, one at a time, from Atlanta, Georgia.  There are the decorations I bought when I knew I was pregnant and wanted to add a child's voice to the otherwise rather sophisticated tree.

But this year, it's the trees themselves that have come back to me, as if each of them is a layer in the sandstone of memory.

My mother had an older step-sister, my Aunt Hazel, who was childless and so who put her energy into breeding Scotties and making Christmas as beautiful as possible.  I make her sound like a cliche, but she was really a ferociously creative person, if sometimes frustrated by the outlets the 1950s gave her.  One year Aunt Hazel used only blue lights on her tree.  You have to realize that this was the late fifties or early sixties, and the only kinds of Christmas tree lights available were strings with large bulbs and many colours.  Suddenly the Christmas tree had an elegance that its otherwise higgledy-piggledy lights had never given it.  The next year, my mother did the same thing.  By that time, I was old enough to get myself up in the morning, and I had to leave to walk about three miles to school before anyone else was up--not uphill both ways.  Grand Rapids is relatively flat.  So I had my breakfast in front of the blue Christmas tree and used the house's silence to probe my Christmas presents to see if I could figure out what I was getting.  Books were a dead give-away:  everything was hardcover, and you could feel the slight dip made by the smaller pages.  That was the year I got Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki and Lin Yutang's The Chinese Way of Life.  The Christmas tree had grown up and so had I.  These were doubtless Aunt Hazel's recommendations.  I managed to read Kon Tiki because Mr. McElheny, my grade nine English teacher (and the person responsible for my love of poetry) said that sometimes skipping the first chapter and leaping into the second was a good strategy for cracking into a book that felt foreign.  I never did figure out how to read The Chinese Way of Life.

Our families were a bit befuddled when Dan and I moved to Winnipeg, where he played trumpet in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and I took classes on Russian literature.  They tried to imagine what this empty space north of North Dakota was like.  Was it wilderness?  So our first Christmas, my sister Karen gave Dan a little hatchet which we decided to use next Christmas.  There was an area east of Winnipeg where you could go to choose and cut down your own Christmas tree.  We found a lovely little evergreen, Dan wound up and gave it a good whack with his hatchet, and the head came flying right off.  Frozen wood is very, very hard.  (I suspect we should have soaked it before using it, but really Dan was a musician and I was a reader of long Russian novels:  what did we know about being woodsmen?)  We found another perfect little tree that someone had abandoned because it had fallen rather hard on its side as it came down and so was a bit flat there.  It nestled up closer to the wall than Christmas trees usually do.

Before Dan and I had Veronica--and an excuse not to abandon our own house for Michigan each Christmas--we sometimes packed up our Christmas decorations in our little Fiat along with our suitcases.  His parents didn't have a tree at all--something about allergies--so we sometimes bought a small extra tree to put up at my parents' house.  One year we stumbled on the perfect solution.  A man selling Christmas trees also had some live trees whose root balls were contained in bushel baskets.  We thought it would be perfect for my parents who lived out of town on a lot with lots of poplars, elms, and maples, but no evergreens.  After we'd used it for a Christmas tree, Dad could plant it.  There was a caveat, however; the seller said that if the tree were brought indoors he couldn't guarantee that it would make the transition back outdoors.  But we decorated it; Dad planted it; and it turned browner and browner through the spring.  Dad finally dug it up and found that there was no root ball; it had been chopped off like every other Christmas tree.

The first year after Dan and I separated, Veronica and I set out with the toboggan to buy a tree at a kiosk in our neighbourhood.  It was the coldest day yet, and dark, though star lit.  It seems, in retrospect, always the coldest day when we went looking for a tree.  But the long-needled Douglas fir, fragrant and thick, fit nicely on our long toboggan.  Veronica, who was seven at the time, sat backwards on the toboggan hanging onto the trunk, and we hushed through the snow in the starlight.  I have always felt that this was how you should bring home a tree.

I can still see a teen-aged Veronica and her best friends, Sara McQuarrie and Jenny Noland sitting in front of the Christmas tree to have their annual gift exchange.  Unlike Sara and Jenny, Veronica had no brothers.  I baked, as I always have.  We had about any kind of tea in the house you could want.  So Christmas happened for them in front of our tree.  One year the three of them decided that if Veronica and I ever had a less than perfect tree, that would be the year of the apocalypse.  Once we get the tree decorated, Veronica still sends a photograph to Jenny, and they joke about the apocalypse being averted.  But the trees were never perfect--or all trees are perfect, perhaps.  It's a matter of knowing where to hang the large silver balls to hide a hole.  It is not a matter of cutting off a branch from the bottom and drilling a hole higher up on the trunk and sticking it in--something my father frequently did. 

Bill and I work well together, whether it's building furniture, installing a workable closet for him, or putting up a Christmas tree.  We're calm and methodical.  He does the lifting and carrying, and I lie flat on my stomach to turn the screws that hold the tree in its stand. Then there was the year the just-decorated tree fell forward in slow motion.  I wasn't there; I was probably in the kitchen getting tea and Christmas cookies, but Bill and Veronica tell me that they simply stood, slack-jawed.  There was no time to rescue it, and yet the fall took forever.  That was the year we lost so many of the glass balls.  That year we decided that there was probably a complicated formula showing that the height of a feasible Christmas tree was in inverse proportion to the age of the person turning the screws to hold it up.  (There's probably another formula that calculates when seniors give up on live trees and go artificial.  We're not there yet.  We may never be.)  We've gone for smaller trees, and the ease of getting them up more than makes up for the lack of grandeur.  

For me, Christmas is at least in part a pantheistic holiday, as you might guess from the sheep and birds and owls and the Santa Claus holding Noah's Arc, a giraffe, and an elephant.  Bringing the tree into the house and lighting it with stars acknowledges how central nature is to our lives, how we are nurtured by its beauty even when it's energy is hidden from sight, underground in roots and dens.  As we lean toward the solstice with its almost atavistic threat that the days could just get shorter and shorter until...the lights that we put in the trees are promises to ourselves.  We create what's not there.  

This morning as I came downstairs in the still-dark morning at 7, I could see a glow coming from the living room.  Bill had lighted the tree before he left for work because he knows that sitting in the dark in front of a tree with a cup of coffee and a cat is how I like to begin my December days.  Just as the waning of the light brings a sense of mystery, so the dark mornings  are an invitation to explore parts of our minds we might otherwise ignore.  It's been a year since I undertook this ritual.  What has that year brought?  How have I failed the gifts it laid at my feet.  Where have I found the mysteries that, even in the dark of the year, glow with life and promise?  How will I nurture them? Where will I put down new roots this year?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pleasure and Hope

I still have vivid memories of talking about pleasure to my mother, who was well into her eighties and lived in Florida--so our conversation was unfortunately long distance.  Otherwise, I'd have proved my point--that pleasure is moral--by walking across the room and folding her in a long hug.  If I waited 8 seconds, there would have been the requisite dopamine hit that lifts our spirits.

Instead, I found myself yammering on about Lord of the Rings.  My challenge was both unusual and usual.  My mother married in the forties and perfected domestic existence--pleasure for everyone else--in the fifties.  The fifties were a terrible time to be a wife and mother, as evidenced by the record number of prescriptions for Valium.  Yet we still regard it as the golden age of the family.  When I was pregnant, I read Adrienne Rich's remarkable memoir and study of motherhood, Of Woman Born, and suddenly saw that golden age differently.  It was the time of intricate jellied salads that required patience of the housewife:  each layer had to gel before the next layer was added.  If it was made in a Tupperware mold, then it would probably have a Christmas tree or a flower in the top that needed to be filled with dream cheese or mayonnaise at the last minute. The process said the housewife's time wasn't really worth anything that nurtured anyone, least of all her.  It was a sop to her boredom, a diversion from her lack of autonomy.

I also remember the weekend my mother made Chicken Tarragon, a favourite dish of Jacqueline Kennedy's.  It took an entire Sunday:  the poaching of the chicken breast in tarragon-infused stock, the reduction of the stock, the making of the intricate and delicate white sauce.  I had never tasted tarragon before, and the meal was indeed scrumptious, but along with her pride at successfully cooking a dish made by Jacqueline Kennedy there was a good dose of exhaustion.  

And here's a memory that occasionally startles me, one with its roots in Ladies Home Journal or Women's Day; one from the monthly column titled "Can this marriage be saved?"  I am standing in the front hallway, near the lovely oak door that graced what we would now call a character home.  I have no idea what I said or did that prompted my mother to announce that her first duty was to see that her husband was happy.  His happiness came before that of her children.  This was her clear duty, because if her husband wasn't happy, then the family simply couldn't thrive.  

Here is the source of my unsuccessful attempt to explain Lord of the Rings.  In our weekly conversation across the lines between Regina and Port Charlotte Florida, it is clear that my mother's spirits are flagging, that she is exhausted from continual self-sacrifice--as would have been any woman who still made jellied salads.  I am trying to convince her that taking care of herself by giving herself some simple pleasure--a cup of Constant Comment tea, an ice cream cone, a walk to the nearby park where she could simply sit and be herself, without my father's relentless, bored demands, while she watched the richly entertaining natural world--is moral.  Everything in her socialization had balked at that idea.  You can probably imagine the cycle that arose from her belief that everyone else's happiness mattered, and have probably even seen it:  self-sacrifice, self-sacrifice, and again self-sacrifice until the martyr explodes in anger.

So I was trying to bring the weight of Tolkien to bear in the hopes of staving off the explosion.  It was a silly, futile undertaking.  How could she take characters called Hobbits with names like Frodo, Sam Gam Gee and Pippin seriously?  How could she even imagine them?  But it has always seemed to me that, despite its mega-heroic quest, Lord of the Rings is about the ethics of pleasure.  If your greatest pleasure is a lovely meal, good Longbottom Leaf, and the companionship of the people you love, then you are of the race who can figure out how to return the Ring, which bestows almost unlimited power on the possessor, to Mount Doom.  The hobbits' life goals are intrinsic, not extrinsic.  They're not looking for power; they'd just like some decent pipe weed and time to chat with their friends.

At the end of last week, having finished (re)reading (in some cases) all Woolf's letters and diaries with the pleasure of my morning coffee and my now healthy cat, I decided to turn my morning reading to poetry.  The first book I pulled off my shelf was Dante's Divine Comedy, which I hadn't read since my undergraduate years.  Every morning, under Twig's heavy warmth, with a large mug of Highlander Grogg coffee, I read two or three cantos.  After each canto, I read the wonderful notes, and then re-read the canto.  It is glorious:  Dante knew so much that is subtle and penetrating about human nature, yet manages to convey this (so John Ciardi, the translator, assures me) in the everyday language of mediaeval Italy.  Ciardi, in turn, seems to draw his own poetic power from that simplicity, so that the astounding moments of a beautifully-turned metaphor stand out like candles in Hell.  Here is my favourite from this morning, set in the second circle of hell where the winds drive those who have let their carnal desires betray reason:

As the winds of wintering starlings bear them on
  in their great wheeling flights, just so the blast
  wherries these evil souls through time foregone.

Here, there, up, down, they whirl and, whirling, strain
  with never a hope of hope to comfort them,
  not of release, but even of less pain.

As cranes go over sounding their harsh cry
  leaving the long streak of their flight in air,
  so come these spirits, wailing as they fly.  

There is so much pleasure here, in the tension between the beauty and freedom of the bird images and the lack of freedom of those whose carnal desires are now wherrying (what a great verb!) them through the darkened air.  And then that phrase, "never a hope of hope"!  Hope is tenuous at best, but not being allowed to hope that you can hope, places one of the most important human  undertakings at unimaginable distance.  But my pleasure in Dante's lines is hardly the pleasure sought by those who live in the second and third circles of hell.  Their pleasures not only betrayed reason, but betrayed husbands and wives.  Gluttony focuses on desire at the expense of all else--well-being, friendship, duty as a citizen.  These are not the immoderate pleasures I was suggesting my mother might benefit from.

That cup of tea or home-made shortbread, the ten minutes spent watching the intricate dance of the birds at your feeder, a long hug, finding the words that almost capture what you mean--these are the pleasures with which we can feed ourselves.  Walking the dog or meeting a friend for coffee.  Standing in your garden in a still, sunny day.  They require us, unlike the gluttons or those who give themselves to immoderate and unfaithful carnal passions, to be in this moment, not the next one and the next after that.  Unlike the winds in the second circle of Hell, they stop time briefly.  They remind us how nurturing our everyday experiences can be if we will only pay attention, and they value experience over accomplishment or ownership.  I find such pleasures oddly hopeful.  How can ten minutes spent watching sparrows and purple finches give us such a calm energy to face the world, to write another paragraph or listen to a lover's plaint, a calm energy, even, to be generous?  

In writing of the simple pleasures of kitchen or garden, I am avoiding the more complicated pleasures of buying an expensive pair of shoes, a new car, or a fur coat.  The pleasures' simplicity is also part of their hopefulness:  at that moment, giving a small gift to ourselves, we are autonomous, unlike people who need expensive pleasures and need to have those pleasures seen and validated by others.

What we saw about ten days ago in Paris was an attack on the pleasures of going to a concert, spending an evening in a cafe with friends, or watching a soccer game.  Of course, this attack was presented in part as one founded in religious righteousness:  such pleasures are thought by some to be immoral.  And perhaps Paris was chosen in part because Parisians know how to do pleasure.  But it was also an attack on autonomy.  Like the subjects in Dante's hell, terrorists lack autonomy; they are driven not by the winds of the second circle, but by an ideology that has been shaped with the motive of getting them to do their masters' angry, judgmental will.  But that fresh baguette or cup of thick espresso is a hopeful defiance, a way of  grounding yourself and nurturing yourself in a simple moment that celebrates the freedom you are creating with a simple gesture.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Regret and Gratitude

When I visited colleague and poet Medrie Purdham to meet her new son, Victor, conversation turned to...well...babies.  Victor seems to be sleeping fairly well, but we remembered commiserating about the fact that neither Rowan nor Veronica slept through the night for several years.  Both of us tried everything, and both of us were the recipients of advice that sometimes ran counter to the strategies we were trying.  "The secret," Medrie wisely observed, "is to have no regrets.  To know that you tried the best inside whatever constraints, whether the temperament of the baby or what we know about best practices for sleepless babies."  

I thought that having no regrets was excellent advice, not only for parents but also for retirees and, most recently, for the owners of sick cats.  Medrie's words kicked around in my brain so that about a week later, when we had a glorious Thursday afternoon--likely the last truly warm day, since November approached--I thought about regrets.  Would I regret having Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement slowed down by two hours, asked the workaholic, or would I regret not kidnapping my daughter from work and taking her, her camera, and my bird glasses, for a walk.  The answer was straightforward.  The reward for deciding to play hooky was quite spectacular.  We saw a Great Blue Heron and a Double-Crested Cormorant.  And while Veronica took the time to frame, focus, and light the wonderful photographs she took that day, I simply stood in the sunshine, watching the last of the aspen leaves flicker golden in the light against dark pine trees on the boreal island, watching small waves on Wascana Creek flicker with a silvery light in one of those not-quite echoes nature sometimes offers to reassure us there is some order, some coherence in our chancy world.  Standing there, I felt what I can only call a kind of ecstasy, enveloped as I was in the minor key of late autumn beauty.

Then my gentle, companionable cat, Twig, stopped eating and ran a temperature.  Since he had pancreatitis a little over a year ago, I took him to the vet immediately.  There followed a course of treatment that was rather expensive for someone on a fixed income.  He got better quite quickly, until he stopped eating Wednesday night, and is now back in for more fluids and IV antibiotics.  No regrets is my mantra.  It led me to conclude that I have only two jobs here:  one is to see that he gets all the treatment he needs (though I must decide responsibly when treatments fail while he suffers from an inflamed pancreas, liver, and gall bladder), and that no love for him goes unexpressed.  (I am sadly aware that my decision to try every reasonable treatment is a privileged one.)  In turn, his illness has pushed me to say what it is about our animals that is so valuable.  We know lots of things about how they promote our physical and mental health:  how imagining their lives makes us more empathetic and how communicating through touch, since we don't share a language, promotes a sense of well-being.  Dog walkers, in particular, not only get exercise but connect with other dog owners and so have better social lives.  But these explanations didn't quite get to the core of my relationship with my cats.

We know one another in a way no one else does.  Bill is incredibly attuned to my moods and is always supportive, but Twig picks up on other clues, particularly around the small ebbs and flows of my writing life.  He knows when to ask for a cuddle, when to hang out nearby, when to guard the thesaurus, or when to distract me.  He seldom meows at me, something I used to think was sad, as if he had no needs he wanted to talk to me about.  But I've since learned that cats save their meows for owners, training them in that cat's particular language.  Since then, I've noticed Twigs substitutes for the meow a look, a stance, body language.  We talk a lot without words.  That means I'm intensely attuned to his aliveness, to his moods, his delights, his pleasure.  I would almost say there's an uncanny intimacy between us, if that didn't make me sound like the cat lady.  He isn't a pet, a kind of lesser being in the household (though if I had to trade between him and another human being, I know exactly what I'd do):  he is one of life's denizens.   So "no regrets" is my principle here.

But we often do have regrets, particularly around things we didn't see coming, or around decisions with consequences we couldn't anticipate.  For these, I turn to Rebecca Solnit, who writes in The Faraway Nearby, "Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional" (14).  I remember learning to say, sometime in my thirties, "Okay.  I'll try not to screw that up quite so badly next time," realizing that "try" and "not quite so badly" were important caveats.  Regrets, then, are opportunities for generous reflection that seeks to understand rather than judge, for evaluating or re-evaluating everything from priorities to world views to values. That ineffective choice I made:  what motivated it?  What was I thinking at the time and how might I understand that thinking?

But Twig has taught me something else about regret:  its opposite is gratitude.  As he was last time, he will be in the vet's office for three days receiving IV fluids and antibiotics in an attempt to kill off the infection that is inflaming his pancreas and liver.  Because it's important to get him to eat, I'll pick him up and bring him home late this afternoon, only to turn around and take him back tomorrow at 8 a.m..  When I open his kennel this afternoon, he will twine around my legs in gratitude.  

Regret grounds us in the past, and sometimes careful reflection on the past is important.  But reflection can't change what has already been:  to be useful, regret can only change how we frame or understand our past actions or decisions and how we decide to proceed.  Gratitude immerses us in the present.  It is only after we face difficulties and losses, perhaps, that we regret not being more gratefully present in our daily lives.   We may have failed to do X, but here we are at Y, and doesn't it have its compensations, its rewards!  Lately, I've been thinking about gratitude and mindfulness as sisters.  Gratitude is a spiritual practice--however you define spiritual; mindfulness a mental one.  Both insist that you plant your feet firmly in the present moment, look around you, and explore this time and space.

Gretchen Rubin--not nearly the calibre of writer or thinker as either Medrie or Rebecca Solnit, but she's done her research--writes about gratitude:

"Gratitude is important to happiness.  Studies show that consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives; they even feel more physically healthy and spend more time exercising.  Gratitude brings freedom from envy, because when you're grateful for what you have, you're not consumed with wanting something different or something more.  That, in turn, makes it easier to live within your means and also to be generous to others.  Gratitude fosters forbearance--it's harder to feel disappointed with someone when you're feeling grateful toward him or her.  Gratitude also connects you to the natural world, because one of the easiest things to feel grateful for is the beauty of nature."

I've set up my computer at the little writing table at the back of my living room so that I can watch the birds at my backyard feeders.  Today, I've had a raucous blue jay and a downy woodpecker, though I'm most grateful for the nuthatches who chirp like small squeaky toys and can walk down trees:  their antics keep me endlessly amused--but then I'm easily amused.  I will not go so far to say that I am grateful for Twig's illness, for the opportunity it's given me to reflect--for the way it has demanded that I reflect.  I am grateful for Medrie's fortuitous advice; I'm grateful for the fact that I can afford to give Twig the treatment he needs; I'm certainly grateful for the support of Bill and Veronica through this time.  At this moment, I'm most of all grateful for Twig and his extraordinary companionship through the last fifteen years.  I'm grateful for the knowledge that should this be the end of his time with me, there will be few regrets to trouble my grief.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Literary Locavore IV: Hacker Packer

Cassidy McFadzean has a habit of outdoing herself.  When she graduated with her M.A.from the University of Regina in June 2013, she carried away the Governor General's Academic Gold Medal for the Most Outstanding Academic Performance.  This was for a book of riddles.  But to write these remarkable poems, she brought together her edgy, contemporary world view and the Dark Ages, studying texts like the Exeter book, learning Old English, and going so far as to organize each of her lines into two pieces, to use compound nouns and alliteration, as do the Anglo-Saxon riddles like those found in the Exeter Book.  Riddles undertake two challenges to the reader's perception.  In the first instance, they make strange a familiar object.  But once the riddle has been solved, the poem becomes a guide to seeing everyday objects, like the kettle or the sun, in a new light, as it were.

Cassidy followed her Gold Medal with other achievements:  graduating from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop and being shortlisted for both the Walrus and the CBC poetry prizes.  Her first full-length book, Hacker Packer, was published by Mc Clelland and Stewart--a considerable achievement for anyone in their mid-twenties.

I've been triangulating Hacker Packer for the last two weeks, and have come to realize that there are three points in the poetic landscape she creates:  North Central Regina, where she grew up, the riddles she wrote for her thesis, and a visit to Europe on which she once said she spent her life savings and where she visited countless museums and monuments.  Some of the poems fall precisely on those points, but in other cases you can see her combining her riddling language to write about situations that are not riddles; other times her surreal North Central sensibility informs the reading of a museum in, say, Greece.  Time adds an additional layer to this map as she brings her 21st century sensibility to ancient places and practices.

I have to admit that as a whole Hacker Packer posed a significant challenge for this reader (and I need to remind you that I'm sharing my impressions--poet to poet--not reviewing her book).  There are several reasons for the difficulties I found.  One is that the title, while it's edgy and might be evidence of her love of riddle and rhyme, is more expression than meaning, unless I'm to take it to mean that after some packing she traveled to Europe, where she hacked into other cultures.  It doesn't guide me in any way into the poems or name a single poem that might provide this collection's key or ground note or central chord.  The second is that there are no sections.  Travel poems mix with riddles, which mix with sometimes straightforward sometimes surreal poems about North Central, which in turn bump up against poems about animals undergoing disturbing transformations, poems about gnomes, poems about the medicinal powers of plants, ekphrastic poems about Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.  Unless you are very patient and well-organized, you don't read all the travel poems together to understand the larger issues of world view and perspective that you could gather up if they were together.  The third is her remarkable vocabulary and range of cultural references.  This is literature in the age of Google:  you read Hacker Packer with your cellphone's or iPad's dictionary and search engine open to look up words like "oscine," and "corvus,."  You look up "Dolni Vestonice" and "Doctrine of Signatures."

Broadly speaking, Cassidy is asking her own questions about how the world works and how it means.  Most artists do this, I suppose; if the artist is serious about those questions and has developed an individual voice and perspective, then astute readers feel the poems will delight and surprise them; they are willing to walk through those questions with the poet.  Cassidy is serious about those questions.  The voice and approach she developed as a writer of riddles has bloomed here, informing both her riddling choice of language and her off-kilter perspective.

The North Central poems are the most direct, so let's start there.  "A Skin for a Skin" alludes to Canada's colonial history, the disruption and death it brought to First Nations people with its small-pox laden blankets, with its fur trade, with its laws.  "Soloist" and "On Naming and the Origin of Pity" (which was shortlisted for the CBC poetry prize, I believe)  bring us more up to date on the lasting effects of racism and racist policies, and suggest some small redemptive moments.  In "Soloist," a group of children from a North Central school are taken to Regina's Centre of the Arts for a concert after being coached on how to behave. For "kids shipped from foster / homes to rez homes to Dojack / then back," manners seem pointless.  Cassidy's riddling habits of seeing one thing as something else altogether are clear in the first stanza:

A piano is an animal's chest
propped open, ribs spread to better
hear the beating of its heart.

Despite the fact that for the children "the seams between / at-risk and asking-for-it" are beginning "to fray," that opening metaphor, with its heart reaching out is slyly hopeful, and gestures toward the closing, which suggests that art has the power to touch in the most surprising places:  "Moved to our feet, we clapped / when we felt it.  We did." 

There are similar hopeful moments in "On Naming and the Origin of Pity," a poem about a student named George, whose life seems laden with trauma and difficulty.  He is taller than everyone else in his class because he has held back; his face is a "wax-tightened mask" from having been badly burned.  Yet the firefighters choose George to demonstrate how to test a door before walking through it if there is a fire.  This is one of those broader queries about how the world works:  "Really?" we ask.  "They would do that?  What are they thinking?"  George is, in a sense, doubly victimized here.  Yet at free nights at the Lawson pool, George has two moments that are not about his burned body.  One is when he is befriended by the speaker's father, who helps George when he can't get into his locker--which contains no towel or jeans, but only a T-shirt and sneakers.  The second is when he jumps off the third-storey tower, where two things make his history beside the point.  One is that no one can see him clearly enough to remember that he has been badly burned.  The other is the ecstasy of simply being a body in flight--not a bruised body but a thrilled one: 

He dashed and dove off the edge of the platform,
a blur through the air,
then disappeared under water.

The travel poems constitute the largest group in the book.  In and early one and one of the collection's many sonnets, the speaker observes that "Museums are zoos where we see other countries' / breeds of griffins, nymphs, endangered stone beasts."  The metaphor of museums as zoos establishes the traveler's culture of the gaze:  I'm just here to look at you, it suggests.  Moreover, the poem's traveler doesn't want to immerse herself into the everyday life of the places they visit, but seeks instead the unreal, the surreal, the puzzling--nymphs and griffins.  Travellers are spectators, hoping to be entertained.  The collection's speaker observes carefully, as in the evocative "On Defeat in the Siegesallee."  Sometimes she even gets involved in the museal culture, as in "Thermal Shock, Dolni Vestonice."  Yet this reader gets the sense that these collections do not open themselves freely to the speaker's understanding.  What the speaker expects and gets from visits to graves, the boundary stone of a Greek Agora, or Rodin's studio is sometimes surprising.  In "The Charioteer," the speaker and her traveling companion crawl into a tunnel under the Temple of Apollo "expecting to unearth / some prophecies," whereas all they achieve is a "trance with dirt on our knees."  

Souvenirs get into the act of mediating our experiences as travelers.  In "On Wearing the Garden of Earthly Delights" (which could also be "On Carrying an Umbrella with Renoir's painting of a rainy day, or "On Wearing a William Morris scarf--museums depend on such souvenirs for a good part of their income) the speaker has clearly bought a pair of tights that depicts the central panel in Bosch's triptych, one scholars believe was designed for a patron, not for an altar.  The tights she wears depicting the central panel give the speaker an opportunity for ekphrasis--to describe the left-hand and right-hand panels which her tights do not depict.  In Bosch's painting, these are rather surreal versions of the creation and the Garden of Eden, and of hell.  The central panel has puzzled scholars:  it's another garden, but this one is full of naked figures in a surreal landscape that is neither earthly nor heavenly.  Those of us who don't like art made into commodities might suggest that making "The Garden of Earthly Delights" into a pair of tights distances us from the painting, making it more a part of the world of commercial stuff than the world of art.  Cassidy's poem suggests otherwise:  the speaker becomes part of the scenes the panel depicts:

      While at my knees, I'm touched by eager arms clutching 
for ripened fruit from the branches of my tree.
      My thighs host a battle scene:  owls besiege their prey
            as nude knights ride in procession alongside swine and ass.

Yet Cassidy's traveler is a little distracted or out of touch with what she views.  She leaves the bone chapel (in a poem with the same title) wondering how she is going to "keep my memory of this moment clear? / Like cartloads of bodies pulled to the friary and air- / buried, time eats our memories, no matter how dear."  She does not ponder this dilemma about memory for very long, however, being distracted by an attractive women in "short black hair and Ray-Bans.  Wedged heels, / tight grey jeans.  I wanted to be her, in Rome, / and disappear down the street talking on an iPhone."  This poem might, in a way, sum up the treatment of travel.  Cassidy offers the reader many, many well-observed moments and sites; you feel that you are traveling with her.  Yet there is often a quiet query about whether travel really gives us access to different cultures and times or whether it only offers an occasion to consider our own culture, our own time.  Is travel critiqued or celebrated here?  I'd say both.

Another group of poems considers transformations:  the way violent death changes animals, the way a fledgling the speaker tried to save became part of the garden, the way colourful blue fish turn colourless when cooked, the way honey looks like putty after decades, yet is still unspoiled.  In "As she talks, her lips breathe spring roses," replete with classical references to Ovid's Fasti and Botticelli's Primavera, the speaker undergoes the calendar-based transformations of Ovid's work, but the changes are entirely surreal.  A related fourth group of poems considers botanical magic and is grounded in "Triptych with Doctrine of Signatures."  Here too, plants have their surreal landscapes, transformations, effects, and uses.  When Cassidy announced on Facebook yesterday that she had "two new witchy poems in Petal," I wasn't quite surprised; in fact, it confirmed one of my reticent hunches about her aesthetic.  These poems about transformations and plants are not "realistic" or "representational."  Rather, in their surreal landscapes and situations, they gesture toward another world altogether, a world seemingly unlike our own.  Yet because that world belongs to Cassidy's powerful imagination and is viscerally evoked in her poems, it's a world we step into.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Branding vs. Imagination

Last year, University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath published Enlightenment 2.0, a book that considers the intersection between the way we think--or more importantly, perhaps, the way we manage to avoid thinking--and the new media environment in which our civic and political lives unfold.  He quotes Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda and devoted follower of Hitler, on two occasions, both with respect to successful propaganda.  Success goes to "the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of the intellectuals" (Heath 239).  Intellectuals, Heath notes, are defined by their belief in evidence and careful reasoning; an intellectual is "a person who thinks that beliefs should be assessed on their merits" (Heath 192).  But if that repeated message resonates, the public will begin to feel that it is intuitively right, and the minute we bring intuition into our decision-making process, we have turned out reason's lights. Intuition has no capability for meta-cognition, for questioning its own beliefs or conclusions, largely because intuitions are emotional, not rational.

Goebbels was, in a way, one of the first people to practice branding.  In the 24-hour media universe, a small phrase or an image becomes, through repetition, both the way we tell its adherent from the other guys out there, and a statement about the way things should be.  In a world where we are bombarded with stimuli and information, these simple statements come as a relief, and other concerns become irrelevant.  "Justin Trudeau will run deficits."  "The NDP doesn't understand business."  "We need to keep Canadians safe from terrorism." 

While all parties use such stock phrases, it's the Conservatives who have been  most expert. "Just not ready" is the meme that is supposed to stick in our heads when we enter the voting booth--and handily, the "just" echoes "Justin."  Fortunately, the other parties have played with this tactic--including the comment about the "great hair."

But nowhere is this tactic more insidious than the the Conservatives' opposition to the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.  I'm with Calgary's Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, a Shia Ismaili:  "I don't like the niqab," he told Wendy Mesley.  Nor to I, but I am also the first person to admit that I don't understand why women wear it, and I can't possibly know any woman's individual reasons for doing so.  What I'd like to have happen is for her to thrive in a free society long enough that change might just unfold, perhaps not for her, but for her daughters.  Kwame Anthony Appia, a Princeton philosopher, wrote in his insightful book Cosmopolitanism:  Ethics in a World of Strangers, that the most ethical and effective way to make cultural change is to tell stories, to simply talk to one another, without judging or forcing people to conform to arbitrary rules.

Here's what the Conservatives attempt to accomplish by keeping their opposition to the niqab and their promise of a hot line for "barbaric cultural practices" front and centre.  First--and obvious to you--they draw attention away from Harper's bad economic record, from the senate scandal, from a PMO's office that has ballooned and that virtually runs the country, from his opposition to science or any kind of fact that might challenge his "intuitions" and ideologies about the way the world should be, from budget surpluses gained by cutting services to the very veterans that exemplify his more "muscular" approach to foreign policy, from the building of ineffective prisons instead of effective schools--particularly on reserves, and from his abysmal environmental record.  (Did I miss anything?  Please add it in the comments section below!)  He will protect us from the Other and from their "barbaric cultural practices."   As Jonathan Haidt noted in another fabulous book, The Righteous Mind, when we are fearful, we vote right. 

Yet at this historical moment, weather is far more dangerous than terrorism.

Here's what else he does.  Heath notes that we need language in order to reason.  But the Harper campaign's manoeuvre does an end run around language:  there's the image of a niqab, and there's the Canadian maple leaf that the Muslim woman hopes to grasp.  If we're going to protect the Canadian identity, we have to challenge the niqab.  That image--flashed how many times on your TV screen in the past week or so--effectively shuts down argument by seeming to obviate it.  We don't need words for this!  If pushed to defend his position, Harper offers careless reasoning.  He assumes these women are oppressed and hopes that taking off their niqab in the citizenship ceremony will teach them the value of openness so dear in Canada. (Senate scandal?)  Except these oppressed women are talking back to the Canadian government, and that government, in stipulating what they will not wear is being as oppressive as husbands and fathers of the "barbaric cultural practices."  Oh, how handy that phrase is, in spite of the fact that we already have a hotline for barbaric cultural practices:  911.  Moreover, Harper hopes to ignore the practices that have led to the missing and murdered aboriginal women; we don't need to understand these.

Here's perhaps why the image resonates.  We see on the nightly news long lines of refugees, largely Muslim, taking to boats and flooding Europe, where we nightly see them in other long lines attempting to find a route to a country who can take them and offer them an opportunity for work and a peaceful life.  We have also seen footage of ISIS and of their executions.  These people are scary!  We don't understand them!  Harper is appealing to our chimpanzee brain with its tendency when under stress to identify in groups and out groups.  And now that fear is summed up in the image of a woman in a niqab.  Not, incidentally, a man in a Sikh turban.  Harper is appealing to all that is weakest and least developed in the human brain:  intuition, fear, appeal to in groups and out groups to explain why our world is experiencing chaos.  You can tell from the paragraph above that I don't think much of the way he's governed, but I do feel that his party's messaging for the last week or so represents a new low in his practices and in uncritical voter reactions.

What I want to appeal to is more than simply ABC:  vote anything but Conservative.  I want to appeal to your imaginations.  If Goebbels's strategy is to simplify, then the strategy of the imagination and of art is to admit the complex.  If Goebbels's strategy is to mock and ignore the intellectuals' challenge to the simplification,  then the imagination's and art's strategy is to seek as many perspectives as possible.  Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, one of the most successful Canadian novels of all time, has just published The Illegal, which is the next book in my autumn pile.  Set in a fictional but realistic setting, the novel is about Keita, a young runner who is caught between one regime engaging in ethnic cleansing and a country that has "draconian immigration and refugee laws."  Hill is obviously one of those gifted and visionary writers who sees history coming before the rest of us, and so has written about what it is like to be a refugee.  Hill's background for this novel comes out of his youth, when, in 1973, he worked for the Ontario Welcome Centre, where his job was to help newcomers find accommodation and navigate government bureaucracies.  What he hopes to do with The Illegal is "to excite the imagination.  Because that is, I think, where we fall down.  We just don't imagine, or don't want to imagine, refugees in our midst" (TGAM, Saturday, September 5).

By pure coincidence, besides reading the article about Hill's book, I have also been reading Shelley's  A Defence of Poetry, written in 1821--nearly 200 years ago.  Yet Shelley's take on the imagination is not that different from Hill's.  He writes "The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.  A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own."  In another part of the lengthy essay, he distinguishes between the efficacy of ethics and imagination, acknowledging that it is not "for want of admirable doctrines that men hate, and despise, and censure, and deceive, and subjugate one another.  But poetry acts in another and diviner manner.  It wakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought."  But there are other books I could have been reading that might have said the same thing:  Fry's The Ethical Imagination, Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader, Roger Fry's Vision and Design.  Our own imaginative lives open us up to the experience, feeling, and thoughts of people quite unlike ourselves, helping us to understand the cultural differences and to celebrate the human similarities.

Any art does this.  If I were simply to survey the six Canadian novels I taught in my last year at U of R, it would be easy to point how each of these authors does the work that Hill and Shelley think that literature ought to do.  Michael Ondaatje gave my students an inside glimpse of the civil war in Sri Lanka.  Lisa Moore gave them an opportunity to think about the experience of a family that loses their father to an industrial accident.  Esi Edyugan allowed my students to understand the terror of being a black jazz musician in Nazi Germany and occupied France.  Dennis Bock explored the defenses of a scientist who had helped make the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagisaki, and put us into the perspective of a Japanese woman whose life was forever changed, not only by the death of her family, but by the damage done to her own body.  Where the meme or the brand or the image seek to shut down thought, to "resonate" wordlessly (and hence uncritically) with the fears of the moment, the imagination works in an other way entirely, prompting us to be open to multiple possibilities, prompting us to understand before we judge. 

If you are still reading this blog, then I'm probably preaching to the choir.  So I'm going to invoke Derek Stoffel's Minifie Lecture on Tuesday night as a strategy for challenging the lazy  ways of thinking.  Stoffel told us that like many young journalism students, he had hoped to change the world by giving his audience both facts and stories that widened their knowledge and thus their perspective.  Stoffel's important mentor (whose name I unfortunately can't remember) suggested a more realistic goal:  keep conversations going around dinner tables.  Thanksgiving is coming.  Keep conversations going, even if they're uncomfortable.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


"Senescence" refers to the "graduate deterioration of function characteristic of most life forms after maturity."  It occurs at the level of the cell and at the level of the organism, though it is believed that cellular senescence underlies the death of the organism.  Senescence explains why so many people in industrialized and developed countries now simply die of old age; their cells give up and so do they.
But senescence has its enchanted side, which we are seeing right now, that have more to do with survival than with mortality.  All the leaves in our deciduous trees are undergoing senescence--a process scientists don't seem to entirely understand.  We know that senescence begins when the chloroplasts break down, so that leaves lose their green colour.  But they do this in order to release the chloroplasts' nitrogen back into the tree to prepare it both to survive winter and to flourish in spring.  We understand the external causes of senescence--extreme temperatures, drought, lack of sufficient light.  But plants are full of hormones that provide internal cues to start the process that we don't entirely understand.  The result is that trees turn from their cool green to a wide range of warm colours:  yellow, gold, orange, red, purple, rust.

Senescence doesn't proceed in an orderly way.  Right now on Wascana Parkway there is a row of four aspen trees, three of which are bright gold, one of which is still a clear green.  Each plant seems to have its own internal clock, giving them an individuality they don't have when they are as green as the rest of their kind.

There are so many of us that think of autumn as the real new year:  academics and teachers, people who are students or who loved being students, readers eager for the fall offering of new books.  Even in retirement, I still think of fall as the beginning of something.  Were I thinking carefully about the coming months, this time of year would instill dread, knowing as I do from long experience that as the winter solstice approaches there will be more insomnia; I will lose all belief in myself, particularly as a friend and a writer; and I will struggle valiantly (mostly succeeding) to enter into the spirit of the season. I will also, in Virginia Woolf's words, glory in the "lyrical mood of winter."  But as the days grow longer my spirits will lift and I will realize how exhausting the last two months have been.  But thinking ahead is entirely intellectual:  I don't feel dread or even concern.

Perhaps that is because I think of fall as a season of light.  Perhaps on some metaphorical or psychological level, I too am experiencing senescence, storing up thoughts, images, characters, ideas to mull over before the fire during the long nights, making lists of difficult books I want to muse over in the timelessness of insomnia.  Perhaps those of us who love fall are, without understanding the process, tuned into trees' survival mechanisms.

But something happens to light (accompanied as it is now by the sound of a trial flight by the Wascana Park geese) when it hits a burning golden tree.  Light also seems to have puddled beneath the trees, to be almost springing out of the colder earth.  I have a very shady back yard with volunteer Manitoba Maples growing in my own shelter belt on the west side.  Suddenly light starts to come through, and the leaves that remain create lacy flickering shadows that dance in the yard.  More light comes into the house (especially since I went on a window-washing rampage a couple of weekends ago).  I discover light coming into the house differently, sliding in the single living room window that faces south for the first time in months, tossing those leafy shadows on the wooden floor and on the quilt I'm working on.

I've noticed that when you get a group of people together who don't know one another there are two reliable topics of conversation that are both banal and illuminating:  animals or pets, and weather.  You can learn quite a bit about a person who talks of surviving the west coast rain for five years or the one who teaches a cat to play fetch.  I suppose when we talk about pets or animals we reveal our attitudes toward the helpless, the other, the wordless, and our sense of their rights in the world.  We're speaking of relationships and principles--as well as about what amuses us.  When we talk about weather, though, we talk about our own helplessness, a helplessness that is profoundly social, that many of us share.  Weather and moods; seasons and moods.  There's an enormous body of literature that attempts to articulate and understand those connections--some of it engaging in the pathetic fallacy, seeing weather as a reflection of human moods, but much of it more honestly trying to see weather as it is.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Literary Locavore III: What Can't Be Undone

There's a whole academic discussion about what makes a short story a short story.  Length, the obvious descriptor, doesn't cut it.  If a short story is a brief narrative, how is it different from a fairy tale, a joke, an anecdote your great uncle tells every time the family gets together?  Frank O'Connor suggests that short stories have protagonists who are outsiders.  Hence the title of his book:  The Lonely Voice.  That would work for dee Hobsbawn-Smith's first collection of short stories, What Can't Be Undone:  the characters in these stories, many of which have been shortlisted finalists for prizes, have been turned into outsiders by enormous losses.  A twin brother can't manage his addictions; another brother dies when the quinzhee he's been building with his sister collapses.  Wives die; husbands leave or die; none of the book's children (if memory serves) still have both parents.  In a culture that has pathologized grief or that studies happiness with the desperation of someone trying to kick a drug habit, this certainly renders them outsiders.

But I have a different metaphor, one that is eerily appropriate for this wonderful collection.  I think of stories structurally, as rich nodes of events that come out of a life that's been fairly pedestrian and that carry on into a future that may or may not be changed.  But certainly in those moments of the successful story there is a collision of energies that pose burning questions that will not brook a character's refusal to answer.  He or she can't say "Um...maybe?"  For me, the best metaphor is that of a horse riding across country rather casually who suddenly sees before him or her a fence or a stream that needs to be leaped.  A short story is like that moment when all the horse's energy and concentration are gathered together, when its past experience and knowledge is brought to bear as it gauges the challenge--and there's no shilly-shallying or indecision.  Three stories in this collection involve horses.  Hailey is the young horsewoman in "Nerve," and as she discovers, indecision in a story or dressage is deadly.

These stories are beautifully crafted.  In "Monroe's Mandolin," a twin sister's despair over her brother's addictions is revealed through a sequence of beautifully-realized scenes in the bar she owns.  He has been gone for some months when his mandolin, brought by their mother back from little town in Tennessee and reputed to have belonged to the great bluegress mandolinist, Bill Monroe, is offered for sale in her bar.  There is no exposition, no stopping a great scene to fill in details about the past:  the background we need is given as elegantly as Monroe used to play.  All the tensions between Lise and her twin Cory, between Lise's desires and the life she is now living, are revealed as rhythmically as a horse's canter. 

We also see one of the collection's preoccupations in this story:  how do you help someone you love who doesn't want to be helped?  How do you even broach the conversation about giving help?  How do you give help to a wife who was once a dancer and now can barely move?  How do you manage not to steal the independence of a sister to whom you've donated a kidney and whose health is a constant concern?  How do you help your brother's wife and her son after your brother has been jailed for abuse?   When help is accepted--when a young boy takes a lift from a mother who lost her own son to leukemia--the acceptance is a gift to the giver.

So is being asked to give help.  One of my favourite stories, "Still Life with Birds," makes use of a world that Hobsbawn-Smith, an award-winning food writer who ran a Calgary restaurant, knows well:  the world of the professionals who make us wonderful food.  In "Still Life," Ariana has been called back from a food sojourn in France to see if she can donate a kidney to her diabetic sister, Violetta.  The experience tightens their bonds, though Ariana doesn't worry any less over Violetta's health:  she knows that organ recipients seldom live more than 15 years after a transplant.  As well, the drugs Violetta takes to prevent organ rejection leave her prey to osteoporosis and other medical difficulties.  As the story opens, Ariana has opened Bistro Etoile, "a deliberate recreation of the small lake-side cafes she visited in France."  Enter Gordon, a young man who keeps bringing Ariana and Violetta cherry trees to plant; his attention to Violetta leads the narrator to comment that "This man's generosity is wearing down her worry-stone's hard edges."  While the story gives me insight into the professional world of food and its constant pressures, the generosity of food also forms a lovely backdrop for the favour Violetta and Gordon will ask Ariana:  to support their decision to marry and have a child, in the implicit knowledge that Ariana may someday have to be that child's mother.  Standing by the lake, thinking over her response, another kind of stone altogether enters the story world:  Ariana picks up "a smooth small stone that just fits within the cradle of her palm.  A rapid release and it skips across the lake, one two three four five skimming arcs that the avocets ignore....She lifts her face to the birds, their impermeable bodies graceful in the air, their beaks pointing south.  Their parabolic lives will bring them back in the spring.  That much is certainty."  The echo made by the stones is crisp and sure, pulling story and character and the moment for making decisions together beautifully.

"Still Life" is one of the few stories in this collection without a first-person narrator.  Another of Hobsbawn-Smith's cooks remarks that her chef, Lance, has "taught me how to build nuanced layers of flavour as elegant as a debutante's ball gown." That same narrator, Stacy, notices "black gravel spitting like curses behind the car's rear tires."  In a different register, Troy, the "pick-up man" of a story with the same name (and his role is both a pun and a comment on his life), notes that his nephew Aidan is a little hesitant about life:  "Aidan gets out of the back seat slowly.  I've noticed that, he don't run into things.  He holds back and assesses the lay of the land.  That sure ain't what I see in most of the teenagers who hang out near the drop-in centre where I work security.  Some of them run toward trouble with both arms open."  We hear Troy's socioeconomic place in the world, but also learn to trust his perceptions about people, all without comment.   Here's the voice of Alex, a widowed playwright and the narrator of "The Good Husband":  "At two AM, I'm settled in a comforter on Astrid's old divan on the balcony moon-watching.coyotes, madrigals in four part harmony, the late night sky ruffled with melody."  The collection is full of such moments when language brings character and that character's worldview alive for us effortlessly.

This is a collection to be read slowly, in part so you can appreciate Hobsbawn-Smith's gift for voices, for the precise yet surprising turn of phrase that brings a narrator's frame of mind to life.  The other reason for taking these stories slowly is implied by the collection's title, What Can't Be Undone  The collection speaks to the inexorability of life, time, fate, and character--all of whom will have their way with us at those moments when life gathers itself to take a significant leap that looked so do-able as you approached--not much worse than the other difficulties you have faced.  But suddenly the abyss, before you are quite on it, lets you see how wide it is, what challenges you will have to meet and how much you have to lose, how much you have already lost.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fun and Joy

Last week I found myself--not for the first time--accused of not making time for fun.  In fact, accused of not "doing" fun very well.  Of course I objected to the judgment, though I was stunned to wordlessness.

"Okay.  What do you do that's fun?"

"I weed and deadhead.  I feed and watch birds.  I practice the fingerings in Mozart piano sonatas so that someday I'll be able to play them musically--I get better at them each time.  I knit lace and socks--though I've realized that I don't think of knitting sweaters as fun.  I make quilt blocks, though setting them together into a quilt isn't as much fun.  Too much can go wrong.  I don't walk as much as I should, but that's fun.  I spend time with wonderful friends and brush the cat.  I read Proust in the garden on long summer nights.  Oh, and napping, especially in a sunny room."  I decided not to go into the many ways I had fun with Bill:  taking walks, checking out the singing frogs in the spring, or driving out of town to study clouds.  Going to art galleries and talking about what we see, like, don't like.  Talking, talking, talking.  Going to parades in small prairie towns.  That's just some of the  G-rated fun.  Nor did I say that teaching was once fun, when it was valued by students and administrators alike.

Of course, my interlocutor felt that I'd proven his point.  "Define 'fun,'" I demanded.

He admitted that he couldn't define fun, but he could give me a definition of play:  "An activity that's very satisfying, has no economic significance, doesn't create social harm, and doesn't necessarily lead to praise or recognition."  He went on:  "Research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life; people who have fun are twenty times as likely to feel happy" (with thanks to Gretchen Rubin).

Argument ensued, during which time we recognized two things.  First, that I didn't, by any stretch of the imagination, "do" fun the way other people did.  I didn't buy anything; my fun didn't involve eating or drinking, particularly to excess.  It didn't resemble a party, in short.  Also, it was rather quiet, except for the Mozart piano sonatas.  There was no glue involved, and no glitter. 

Second, that ideas of fun were intensely personal.  During the years when I both queried and accepted some of the tenets of postmodernism, whose number one rule was that subjectivity was always "contradictory and in process"--in other words, that the unified human subject was a fiction--I secretly believed that people were their stories.  It was my way of reconciling our sense that we're one human being with our sense that we're also full of contradictions and change constantly.  

But our sense of what's fun might also define us. Is your fun quiet or noisy?  Crowded, sociable, or solitary?  Does it require a lot of other people or just one or two or even none?  Do you make something?  Do you appreciate, listen to, or watch something--going to hear Leonard Cohen or watching the latest superhero movie?  Is it best done or experienced with an altered state of consciousness, or after a cup of coffee? (Which in some cases is an altered state of consciousness.)  I'd hazard a guess that our idea of fun or play is some ineffable mixture of our temperament and what our lives too often lack.  Even in retirement, I don't have enough time, so fun for me involves liberating a few hours to spend in a way that balances how I normally pass my time.  I'm indoors, alone, writing on a computer or reading Woolf criticism, so walking provides a good antidote, or conversation.  If I'm writing about Woolf, thinking as hard as I possibly can about the aesthetics of one of the twentieth century's most challenging authors, then simply getting my fingers to do something--knit lace or get a a Mozart fingering right--changes the subject nicely.  Maybe part of our idea of fun or play is an antidote or a balance to the normal tenor of our lives.  If so, those hard party-ers must live boring lives.

Play also seems to me to come in two flavours:  escape or immersion.  Sometimes after an exhausting day, I simply want to "chill."  TV, Facebook, movies, reading (of a certain kind), or knitting lace are my standbys.  And I've even occasionally been caught playing game after game of solitaire--with a real deck of cards, for pete's sake!  I'm not entirely sure that I'd call any of these "fun."  I'm driven to escape by a brain whose engine is badly tuned, spluttering away without quite reaching the haven of sleep. 

For me, play implies immersion in something that gives me joy--hence working in the garden, having a great conversation, or piecing a quilt.  The one you see above is an antidote to the coral and turquoise quilt whose border treatment I crowd-sourced.  (That one is in a bag somewhere, because I'm seriously not happy with it.  Too much is going on:  it's visual chaos.  I'm going to break it back down into its blocks and start over.)  Oddly enough, "fun" in the quilt above involved cutting fabric into the very careful strips of eggs, each with its name underneath, meaning my cutting and sewing had to be really straight.  Not everybody's idea of play.

But when I think of play in this way, I have trouble telling the difference between "fun" and "joy," which probably aren't entirely different, but perhaps exist on a kind of continuum.  At one extreme, fun for me has a kind of whoopy-do quality about it:  walking in the rain and looking for puddles to splash in.  Going wild in a quilt shop and imagining creating something that is unlike anything I've ever made before.  There's an "in-the-moment" wildness about it that creates energy.  Joy for me  means connecting or creating; joy quietly resonates for hours afterwards.  Both, I suspect, are important to the good life:  the crazy whirling goofiness that explodes like fireworks, reminding us that we're alive, and the meditative immersive play that changes the whole world with creation and connection. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Literary Locavore 2: The Trouble with Beauty

One of the paradoxes of this summer's forest fires was how much beauty they brought to southern Saskatchewan, to areas not directly affected by thick smoke and the desolate landscapes that fire leaves behind it.  Sometimes the smoke simply turned the landscape into ever paler distance.  One night I drove through Wascana Park on the west side, parallel to Broad, to see the prairie version of Claude Monet's painting, "An Impression," which gave Impressionism its name:  hazy trees, clouds, and houses irradiated by a gold-red sun whose rays glinted on the choppy lake.  I felt vaguely guilty about my reaction, as if in some weird way I was benefiting from other peoples' misfortune, displacement, and loss.  Yet Hannah Arendt says that it's ethical to turn away from history's tragedies if you know that's what you're doing; she seems to realize that we all need a break from bad news and disasters, particularly if we don't know what we can do about them.  Perhaps she'd give me permission, for a moment, to be suffused by breathtaking beauty if I also think, a moment later, about the paradox, about people who are struggling with the fires, people whose lives have been put on hold, people whose homes may be gone.

In Connie Gault's A Beauty, I couldn't decide what makes Elena Huhtala get out of Bill Longman's car to walk toward Gilroy without any money or belongings, in impractical shoes.  Was it simple impulse?  A sense that her trip with Bill was nearing its logical end?  Or was it the fact that Gilroy, at that moments, had been irradiated by a different kind of glistening light caused by the alkali dust from Old Wives' Lake in the atmosphere?  Was she in search of beauty--a beauty that can  be harmful over the long term?  Bruce Rice, in his award-winning book of poems, The Trouble with Beauty, seems to ask a similar question.  In the title poem, "The Trouble with Beauty," beauty becomes something we need to leave our mark on, like graffiti on trees and Parisian monuments beaten into beauty by bombardment.  Beauty may be embodied in the patina of old rifles, mountains leveled and, yes, the smoke from fires, but it's a troubling beauty.  Bruce's book seems to belong what has been called the "recent ethical turn" in literature.  At the end of this poem, the speaker strikes the ethical note when he observes that "Someday we'll pay, but for now, / see how beautiful it is."   

The very phrase "the recent ethical turn in literature" suggests that until recently literature had nothing to do with ethics.  While it's true that a group of British writers at the end of the nineteenth century that included Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, and Oscar Wilde thought that it was the duty of art to be beautiful, and that modernist formalism (and a whole lot of other issues of practice and politics) seemed to move away from posing and exploring ethical questions, literature has always had its ethical edge.  If all the writer does is to create a word-window on other lives, other cultures, other places, then the writer is committing ethics.  For what is more ethical than to help readers imagine what they do not know, and to keep that act of imagining, wondering, and questioning  resonating through readers' lives?

In the section he titles "Questions for an Overcast Sky," Bruce brings ethical questions to the fore.  In "Mobile Homes," the nothingness of a trailer park is juxtaposed to the crucifixion, the bomb on Bikini Atoll is said by the speaker's mother to have infused prairie milk and air, a man who survived Hiroshima asks the  24-year-old speaker for a job, Martin Luther King marches, "Indian kids were starving," Nina Simone sings, Israel shells Beirut.  Here, amongst militarism, messy politics, and failures to extend basic human rights we find two other sides of beauty.  In "Dialogue 2:  Regina Prairie Dog Interviews Photographer Robert Adams," the photographer tells a perhaps apocryphal story of a Vietnamese girl who is photographed asleep in a box on the sidewalk.  The photo goes "viral," (whatever that means in 1973), and the girl is rescued and brought to the U.S. for surgery to cure her heart murmur.  Adams tells the interviewer "I wouldn't begin to pretend that my own work has saved anything, not in that way.  But no matter how battered it is, beauty survives in the worst possible places.  The pictures are proof and that's what saves me."  The very next poem, "Askew," puts this another way as it describes an old building any observant prairie dweller has seen, leaning away from the prevailing winds:  "If we could hear like that / all the whispers in the world would tremble."  The poet and photographer do their jobs, calling attention to moments in the world; it's our task to observe and listen.

But just as often as Bruce "commits ethics," he "commits beauty."   I found two ways in which he wrote of the beauty of the prairie.  One was to put his speaker squarely in the middle of the landscape.  A good example of this is "Poem for Looking Up," that is exactly what it advertises.  Here the speaker lies in "last year's grasses" and considers the meaning (and the beauty) of what he sees and hears.  There are some lovely images in this poem, my favourite being his description of "the edges of clouds / glowing like heated wires."  His second approach to prairie is to leave it empty of everything human except, perhaps consciousness.  Let me quote from the conclusion of the opening poem, "Glossary of Hills," though I won't get the spacing exactly right:

There would be no apostrophes
                                in the Book of Hills, no possessive form.
                      To open the cover would be like looking

                                                 into the mirror
of our own faith, all the lost translations
                           the songs at the end of the wind.

Of these two approaches, speaker in the midst of landscape, or speaker as mere consciousness, I preferred the latter, though this says as much about me as a reader as it does about Bruce as a poet.  It was occasionally awkward for Bruce to logistically plant his speaker in centre stage; I wanted to get through the stage directions so I could get to the meditations.  It seems fitting to me, and somehow ethical, to simply find a way to let the prairie be itself, to imagine its immensity without us.