Friday, May 29, 2015

Travel in 1905

As I mentioned in March, I have been reading the early diaries of Woolf, a volume titled The Passionate Apprentice that spans the period between the end of her first encounter with mental illness in 1897, when she was first advised to keep a diary, and 1909.  Whoever suggested that she keep a diary after she began to convalesce was inspired.  She encountered another very difficult period after the death of her father, man of letters Leslie Stephen, in February of 1904.  Once again, writing came to her rescue, but this time it was a request from Fred Maitland, who was writing a biography of Stephen and hoped to have a "note" from Virginia about her father's relationships with his adult children.  Then, little by little, family members and friends clearly brought their connections to bear, giving Virginia the opportunity to write reviews and essays for newspapers and journals.  

I've found this volume incredibly moving in a number of ways. One was seeing the way writing saved her.  In a late entry in 1903, she records the story of a suicide in Hyde Park's Serpentine who had in her pocket a note that explained the cause of her despair.  It is a simple sentence that closely echoed Woolf's own situation, given that her father's death seemed imminent:  "No father, no mother, no work."  Except that thanks to a family that understood what work might mean for a young woman, they saw to it that she had work after the mental breakdown and suicide attempt that followed Leslie's death.  I also saw the early stages of her love affair with beauty.  In her descriptions of her travels in Greece in 1906, you can see her encountering a kind of beauty that contrasts that of the English countryside, about which she had already been writing, and trying to find language to describe that beauty.  I saw Virginia Woolf the aesthete born, and I've been thinking about how I can bootleg this material into my already gargantuan study of her aesthetics.  Because beauty was important to her.  Denis Donoghue, in his study, Speaking of Beauty, observes that since that no one has been able to formulate a satisfactory definition of beauty, it's always something we need to talk about.  So I can say that one of the ways writers--all artists, really--can reach out to us to create conversations between the artist, artwork, and viewer, listener, or reader is to create beauty that we then want to talk about.

But what I'm interested in tonight, as I unpack my suitcase from my annual mother/daughter vacation, is Woolf's record of travel.   I wrote in March that her diaries became self-consciously historical during the General Strike and as Hitler came to power;  but really, it's hard for a keeper of diaries not to record some elements of social history.  The diaries of her travels to Spain and Greece give us a close look at the delights and difficulties of travel at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1905, she and her younger brother Adrian traveled to Spain in April.  Because Woolf was writing and selling creative nonfiction as well as reviews, she thought of this trip as grist for the writing mill.  So Woolf made herself a "paper book" for what she called her "Spanish Diary" before leaving:  no trip to Paper Umbrella to pick up a small Moleskine notebook.  Her packing was also complicated by the fact that she wanted to take a fair number of books.  In fact, she traveled with two boxes--no suitcases on wheels--one completely for books, the other for clothing--although her maid found space for more books there as well. Woolf was incredibly beautiful, but no one has ever accused her of caring much about dress; reading was more important.  Since they weren't going to France, they did not simply jump the English Channel; rather they sailed from Liverpool almost directly south to Portugal, and had a fair amount of time on board the ship for reading in their comfortable cabins.  Their ship ran into difficulties, however; it  overheated, so that they sometimes had to turn off all the engines and simply drift for a while.  Having lots to read was helpful.  This created havoc with their timetable, however, so that one of the first things they needed to do when they docked was to find another ship for their return journey.

Other difficulties arose.  One of the legs of their trip was made by a train that paused in a small village called Amonhon.  They were assured at the outset that there would be "a good second-class hotel" for them to stay in.  When they arrived, however, what they found more resembled a public house with a few ill-equipped sleeping spaces separated by sheets.  Needless to say, they spent a much-disturbed night in their clothes, listening to the conversations of customers who were getting more and more drunk, only to get up at 6 a.m. to catch the train for the next stage of their journey.  The ship that they had needed to arrange because theirs had been late was not nearly as comfortable as the one they had hoped to travel in, though Woolf reports that she had no difficulties with sea sickness, though others did.  When they arrived in Liverpool, they were almost out of money and had to apply to Lloyd's Bank for enough to buy their train tickets to London.  When you traveled at the beginning of the twentieth century, you needed to figure out how much money you would need and to take it all with you at the outset. No ATMs or credit cards.

Veronica now has an iPhone, which she puts to the best possible uses.  She and I arrived in Toronto on different flights, since she was coming from Winnipeg, so we messaged and found one another with no difficulties.  On the evening of our first day, we had tickets to Tarragon Theatre's Bollywood-inspired adaptation of Shakespears's Much Ado About Nothing, which was hilarious, energetic, and true to the text in a funny way.  Here's what the iPhone did for us:  thanks to a Toronto transit ap, we knew how long it would take us to get to Tarragon Theatre via public transit.  Thanks to Google maps, Veronica could look at restaurants along our route, follow the links to menus and reviews, so that we could choose, appropriately enough, an Indian restaurant that made amazing roti.  The iPhone was similarly helpful when we drove back from the McMichael Art Gallery and needed to find dinner before we went to a Toronto Chamber Choir concert of music from Renaissance Naples.  |It identified traffic jams, found us great Japanese food, and took us to the out-of-the-way church with remarkable efficiency.  And of course, neither Veronica nor I packed a box of books.  I carried my iPad mini, which allowed me to text Bill, could even be used as a phone, and gave me all the books I wanted.  So I alternated between Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, which Woolf identified as one of the novels that showed how life and human character were changing around 1910, and Ted Bishop's intriguing book, The Social Life of Ink.  

It is startling to note how much travel has changed in the last hundred years, which leads one to ask "Which traveler had the most intense and meaningful experiences, the one who was certainly immersed in the world they traveled through or the one who had the technology to buffer some of the inconveniences and frustrations of being in an unfamiliar place?"  I can't decide.  Certainly, facing unfamiliarity is a valuable part of traveling:  it de-centers your world view and your habits; it forces you to pay attention to the local customs and practices if you're not going to be one of those travelers who carries your snail shell on your back; and it challenges you with problems to solve, often quickly, keeping your wits agile.  It's also part of the sheer fun and adventure that we seek when we travel:  we're on the lookout for the unfamiliar, sometimes even finding it in ordinary things that are simply dressed a little differently.  

But travel, for me at least, is also about curiosity, about having one's curiosity the primary link between the traveler and the people and place.  Perhaps curiosity is sometimes thwarted by frustration, bad food, anxiety about where you are going and how late you are going to be getting there.  Finally, it's about having one's senses on high alert: listening to the sounds of the cityscape or landscape; studying the different light, the architecture, or landscape; tasting unfamiliar food; smelling the coal-infused air of the London Underground or the still, damp air of a rose garden.  And of course, it's about art, and the way this both feeds and challenges our minds and senses.  Thanks to the internet, we packed in a Shakespeare play, music from the Italian Renaissance, an incredible Emily Carr show at the AGO, the Group of Seven at the McMichael, and the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival at a number of sites.  I'm guessing that if you take your curiosity and your senses on holiday, no matter how you organize it, you'll be able to take rich experiences home.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Contemporary maxims suitable for wall or shelf

Did you know that for $99, you can get "Happiness Pennants" to mount above your fireplace?  Or, for rather less, you can remind people in your household to
I've been noticing this trend since about March, and furtively taking pictures, wondering what to make of our tendency to decorate walls, pillows, mailboxes, and mugs with words.  

Such maxims have a long and varied cultural history.  We have Aesop's fables with their tightly-expressed advice.  Proust's beloved grandmother reads Madame de Sevigny.  Gandhi advised us to "Be the change you want to see in the world," advice I try to make one of my principles.  It is unarguable: something we all need to do.  At the same time, does it ask us to do something we may inherently be too lazy to do:  think about what needs changing and about how our behaviour might change that?  We also have to believe that our tiny gestures matter.  So we don't argue with it, but I also don't know how much these words govern the way we live.   I need only type in "Do unto others...." and you know exactly what I'm talking about.  Or do you?   Has the maxim become the cliche, which poet Robert Hall once described as "the cinder block of language":  something functional that you don't really think about?

Some of these seem to be stands-ins for family crests: a statement of who we are.  If you have a cottage and also own a pillow that says "I love the lake," isn't that a bit redundant?  If you don't own a cottage and have the same pillow, it's an expression of nostalgia or desire.  But is a pillow the right place for it? 

"Paris is always a good idea" might identify you as one of the adventurers-in-the-know, except that the piles of mugs suggests that clearly there are quite a number of you out there.  "All you need is warm socks" is certainly heartwarming and quirky--knitters would doubtless agree--but warm socks are pointlessly comforting on a hot day when you have lost the love of your life.

Other examples, like the "Happiness Pennants" seem to be advice.  Once upon a time, I liked the phrase "It is what it is," because it seemed to express a kind of Buddhist acceptance. Then I began hearing it too often and realized that it also expressed a demand:  "It is what it is!  Deal!"  Or it advocated apathy or helplessness.  I soon realized that I had my own version was "Whatever it is, I can probably work with it."

 I should probably delighted that we are adorning our walls and sofas with words, but I'm not.  These all seem too easy, unearned.  I have a sense that we give them lip service and then go on with our lives.  

"Am I a snob?" as Woolf once famously asked?  Am I drawing a false distinction between a popular trend and my own mantras, some of which might be suitable for pillow or plank?  "Just be curious" is rule number one for me.  It speaks of a way of orienting myself to the world and to the people in it.  It's a reminder to be curious before I get judgmental or resort to stereotypes or other methods of avoiding hard thought.  I suppose my second, if I had to put it briefly, would be "Talk.  Listen.  Listen.  Talk."  But that doesn't quite capture the way I think that conversation and dialogue are at the centre of everything from our most intimate relationships and to the more successful civic discourse that helps us negotiate the challenges of living in communities that seek to be fair and inventive.  It also doesn't quite capture the fact that I believe having a voice that is respected and heard is one of our most primal needs--right after love.

"Whenever possible, say something kind.  Give praise where it's earned" might be my third.  Apparently there are parts of my brain that give me a hit of dopamine every time I do this, but I simply feel that being human is hard work and people deserve to be told when they've done a particularly good job of it.  "Be where you are" is probably my fourth, but it is meant to be evoked in those moments when you are with someone else, but aren't quite focused, attentive, or patient, as well as in those moments when you are out walking on a lovely spring evening, but are texting madly away.  It's my old fart's objection to the fact that too much of the time we're where our technology has taken us, not where we actually are.  In my old  fogey's way, I'm worried about what is going to happen to our sense of community, our daily treatment of others, our environmental goals--not to mention our driving--if we're not actually where we are.  If I'm in my device and not out for a walk, what's the point of saving the planet?  It's this maxim of mine that makes me suspect that our little phrases come as much out of the things that bug us as much as out of our own wisdom.

I think four of these is about all I can manage.  (Please let me know if I've left out something earth-shattering.)  And each of them is associated with a particular recognition or "aha!" moment that I can still recall, and then a period of reflection.  Only later did the principle get whittled down to maxim length  for easy recall.  "Hmmm.  I know I got a principle for this kind of situation....Right. Just be curious."  

Dare I say, at the risk of being called a snob, that what these mugs and boxed canvases do is to allow us to feel that we're on the right track--of course, we must be:  somebody's marketing it!--without thinking about what that track really involves.  (Yes, Katherine, it's' all system one thinking.)  You want words:  pick up a book that puzzles you.  You want a graphic image on your wall?  How about a painting that you return to again and again, fascinated, without completely understanding it.  In spite of my own mantras, I think it's puzzles we want and need, not certainties.  Unless you're talking about flossing and flushing.