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.