Tuesday, December 27, 2016

I want to think about light

This has not been a good year.  For fifteen years now, Europe and North America have been at odds with Islamic extremists, and thousands of people, many of them 'soft targets,' have died at concerts, at work, in editorial offices, in busy markets, on their way innocently or curiously traveling from one place to another, going about their daily lives.  The terrorists' anger does not seem to be abating, and nothing seems to assuage it--which I suppose is the definition of 'terrorist':  I won't stop until I get my way.  And of course, we can't let them have their way.  The Syrian civil war goes on, with hundreds of thousands of people leaving the once busy, complex city of Aleppo and joining the parade of refugees.  In turn, the tide of refugees from chaotic places in North Africa into Europe has made a profound change in Europe's political landscape--leading to the success of the Brexit vote and to increasing support for right wing and xenophobic parties and politicians.  This trend crescendoed in North America with the election of Donald Trump, though oddly enough I am comforted by the fact that more Americans--2 million by the last count I heard--voted for a moderate, feminist voice of inclusion.  That comfort doesn't do me or the Americans who most needed Clinton to win any good--those who are poor, those who aren't white.  In turn, we are seeing a disturbing logic emerge in Trump's choice of a cabinet that does not in any way reflect the hopes and needs of the people who voted him into office.  How long will it take them to discover they have been duped--another pawn of the Donald?

This makes me want to think, rebelliously, about light.  I could begin by noting that in my childhood and adolescence little was made of the winter solstice--though of course we took note of the date when winter officially began.  But we didn't obsess about the light.  I think the credit for that goes to my generation, or those slightly older, whose New Age mythology (and I don't use that word derisively, to describe something that is fantastical and nonexistent) tied them more firmly to nature, the earth, the seasons.  I remember my fabulous Chaucer professor at the University of Michigan, Leo McNamara, saying in a moment of extraordinary intimacy between an M.A. student and a professor in his late thirties "This time of year, I notice the days getting shorter and shorter, and blackness comes upon me.  I wonder if daylight is going to disappear altogether."  Professor McNamara had a large dose of Irish poetry running in his veins.  But he explained something I had experienced for about eight years, but had no name for.  Call it what you will:  the black dog, depression, seasonal affective disorder, lack of emotional or intellectual energy, a tendency to lash out to people who were normally helpful and to want them to do the thing that would make this vaguely powerful feeling, this insistent anomie go away.

So it didn't surprise me that so many of my Facebook friends noted, with relief, the passing of the year's longest night, made apparently even darker by an eclipse, and wished their friends well.  Made wiser by middle- and old-age, supported by a set of rules I apply rigorously to my life in December (e.g. don't drink; don't make judgements of others), appeased by a SAD light I commune with almost every morning between mid-October and mid-February, I find the dark days of the year bearable and only occasionally a challenge.  But it doesn't surprise me that, this year particularly, there seemed to much collective anxiety floating about.

I found light in three perhaps surprising places.  One was a Regina coffee shop called "Naked Bean," which I visited a couple of days before the solstice. The cafe was busy, partly because people were having their pre-Christmas social coffees, so I had to sit in one of the  high chairs near the door.  I was immersed in my re-reading of Anthony Doerr's remarkable novel about World War Two, All the Light We Cannot See--which is an odd thing to be reading at Christmas time, except perhaps for its obsession with light--when my attention was drawn by a wriggling dog who had arrived at the coffee shop's door and was scratching at it anxiously, as if his owner was inside and had forgotten him.  When a woman left, the only thing she could do was open the door and let the dog in, who roved down the long room, smelling everyone and looking for just that smell that would be comforting and reassuring.  A young barista followed his progress and, when it was clear the dog's owner was not there, took him to the front of the coffee shop where he examined his collar, asked his fellow worker to bring him a phone, and promptly called the owner to let them know their pet was safe but needed to be fetched.  A sheepish young boy with a leash showed up not five minutes later.

What a simple act.  And how much light it shed.  It took the young man perhaps 5 minutes out of his day to unite a child and his dog.  He had done it, he told me, because that's what he would want someone to do if his dog got loose.  But the event didn't simply cast light into the days of the dog, his boy, and an elderly lady sitting close to the door.  It cast light on the very act of casting light:  how simple it can be, how close to home, how without drama or fanfare, how it only requires--at this time close to Christmas--us to think about how we would want others to treat us and act in the same way towards them.

My second burst of light came in the dark on the road from Saskatoon to Regina.  Every year, the Saskatchewan Information and Library Services Consortium, for which my daughter Veronica works, has its December Board Meeting in Saskatoon.  Veronica and I have for several years made the trek a morning before (necessary because the meeting begins at nine in the morning)  so that in the afternoon we could do some Christmas shopping.  This two-day trip has become its own ritual with tourtiere at Calories, a room at the Park Town Hotel with a view of the river, and several hours at McNally Robinson.  But in between the holiday restlessness, we talk.  In his  Massey Lectures on winter, Adam Gopnik calls the car the "ultimate small-scale combined confessional booth and savannah box"--this latter in relation to his discussion of the wonders of central heating.  So in our moveable confessional box, on the way home we got around to Trump's election, and I had confessed to my daughter that for an entire week afterward I had trouble focusing, and certainly couldn't write.  She said "You said something when I was young about knowing which things you could do something about and which things you couldn't, and that it was important to know which was which.  I can't do much about climate change, but I can keep my footprint as small as possible and walk wherever I can.  I can't do anything about the election of a mean, mouthy man.  But Della (the SPL person who takes care of them while they are in Saskatoon) arranged really nice lunches for us, so I emailed her and told her everyone was talking about the great food.  And I work for an agency that has figured out how to give library cards to homeless people so they can take out books and sign up for computer time."

Yikes!  I had no idea I regularly invoked the serenity prayer.  I certainly had no idea that Veronica remembered it and used it to direct her life, much less that she had found what I sometimes cannot:  the wisdom to know the difference between what you can change and what you cannot.  My daughter has leap-frogged over me into wisdom.  We had talked the day before about the beauty of humility, of simple, humble goals in life and how much happier people are when their goals aren't out of proportion with their lives or their gifts, and I had her in mind when I talked about the research on humility--a way of validating her life and her choices without saying that was what I was doing.  Here her humility does her great good, allowing her to choose to do what she can and not waste her time worrying about what she can't.  

The light here is enormous, and has a lot in common with the light I'd glimpsed at Naked Bean.  Light lives close to home and bursts into being in simple gestures like emailing a colleague about nice lunches.  This light has clarity in an age of terrorism, xenophobia, and general selfish meanness:  if we all do simple kind things we can out-light the bastards.

The third light was in Saturday's Globe and Mail.  Elizabeth Renzetti began her regular Saturday column by talking about a father and son who had read Daniel Rotsztain's book, All the Libraries in Toronto, and were inspired to visit every one of them over six months.  On the TVO website, father Lanrick Bennett Jr. talked about going with his son Jack on public transit to each of the libraries, where they had their copy of the book stamped.  Mr. Bennett talked about how remarkable this time with his son had been, how they'd talked and had become closer.  Renzetti goes on to describe how libraries are underfunded, yet nevertheless remain essential places where "Challenged with the question of how they shape their future--digital or analog--libraries have made themselves indispensable in the present, providing free movies and lectures, ESL lessons, open WiFi for bad teenagers, meeting places for refugees and exhausted new mothers alike."  She cites Michael Sandel's book, What Money Can't Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets, which argues that we need public spaces, like libraries, where we can gather and where everyone is treated the same.

Obviously there's a connection between Renzetti's story and Veronica's life:  libraries.  But in both of them, libraries stand for cultural institutions, for literacy, for communal life, for beauty, for information, for attempts to find the truth in a "truthy" world. So, even if we have made it past the solstice yet still find ourselves surrounded by darkness, kindness and culture can ameliorate a lot.  Writers, painters, musicians, film makers all want to ground us in an intense experience we are having here, now, an experience like and yet unlike our own, human yet not exactly ours.  They want to share their own perspective, and varying perspectives are going to be golden over the next little while.  

So my New Year's wish for you is for light.  I am grateful for your ability to kindle it in surprising places.  I want you to know how powerful you are, even in the face of terrorists and Trumps:  you can give kindness to the person in front of you in line for coffee who discovers he does not have enough change, into the person you make eye contact with and smile to as you walk down the street, in the words of praise you speak to a co-worker.  Even if you do not think of yourself as an artist or as part of some cultural institution, keep writing, thinking, creating in whatever ways seem good in your life:  a letter to a friend or favourite aunt, a photograph of a sunrise sent to cheer a friend.  And throw in a little kindness for good measure.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Finding a voice for a worldview

I've reached a comfortably uncomfortable place in my work on Soul Weather.  I have revised (and drastically cut) the chapters written on my sabbatical in 2011 according to the way I now see the novel.  I have thought harder--though I am not finished thinking--about its structure, and added some scenes that reflect my new thoughts on how it might be built.  I have read my notebooks over a couple of times; only these have allowed me to create the bridge from six relatively brief chapters to over 70 single-spaced pages.  I know my characters better.  During my original work five years ago, I did reams of research on ceramics, including taking lessons throwing and glazing pots.  I'm a terrible potter, but I know how it feels to work on a wheel and can say how delicious it is to have mud growing up through your hands--even it if turns wonky at the last moment.  But two characters who have developed more fully are demanding that I learn a great deal about things I know nothing about.

Briefly put, I follow Lee, a potter with and MFA, and three university students, Samantha, Dana, and Chrystal (who will be replaced in January by an as yet unnamed Ph.D. student doing work on animal languages) through about a year living in the same house in Regina's Cathedral neighbourhood.  I would like to be able to call this a "condition of Canada" novel as I ask what might make these young people "at home" in their world:  What ideas?  What futures?  What weather?  What relationships?  What world views?  What societies?  What technology or lack of technology?  It's set in 2011 because that was the year of the Occupy Movement and because we were only three years out from the stubborn "Great Recession," which seemed to have intractable effects on everything from jobs to the self-discipline of university students to our action on the environmental challenges we face.  

So my comfortably uncomfortable moment right now finds me doing two things:  reading and revising.  Samantha is a history student working on the proposal for her Honours Paper on Simone Weil.  So right now, I'm reading Oppression and Liberty and trying to figure out how she could write about such a compelling but unsystematic thinker as an historian.  I am in essence going to have to come up with a viable research question for her.  At the same time, Dana, whom everyone thought was a girl--but who is a short, hirsute, well-tattoed young man with a gift for barbequeing anything--has shifted from Business in Saskatoon to economics at U of R and has discovered that "neoliberalism is the bully in the room," as he tells Samantha.  I haven't started doing the research that will flesh out his ideas:  I'm trying to do one thing at a time--a luxury that is one of the lovely benefits of retirement.  (That's not entirely true:  I'm working on some poems about nineteenth-century naturalists and am also deep into Thoreau's miraculous journals.)

Because not all of the scenes have the girding of these ideas, I'm writing that material now, very slowly, and then revising both it and the pages preceding it with coarse-grained sandpaper vigorously applied.  This intense revision makes me very aware that every choice I make, from plot to word, is bound up with my worldview and the worldviews of my characters.  

This fact was powerfully and uncomfortably brought home by a novel I read last week--though which book doesn't matter.  Everything went wrong:  mothers died, fathers-in-law were brutal, husbands indifferent, the weather wasn't working in the farmer's favour, pregnancies ended in stillbirth or were unplanned, beloved sons were discovered to have epilepsy. 

I am looking onto the windy back yard, where the birds have come for their afternoon tea.  There is a house finch, ruddy against the wind and snow, at the feeder;  a nuthatch is walking down the tree trunk in front of me:  surely everything in the world isn't entirely fucked?

Between the ages of 16 and 40, I was gifted with regular, deep, despairing depressions.  I was also gifted with a wonderful psychiatrist who taught me to understand myself and those difficult, dark times.  The result is that I have wrestled very self-consciously to acquire the habits of mind that feel "sane" to me:  curiosity, gratitude, generosity, kindness.  I suppose that were I forced to sum up my worldview, I would say "So much goes wrong in the world over which we have no control:  history, weather, physics, chemistry, time.  We can't control the outcome of the war in Syria, nor we can change the result of the election in the U.S.  We can't control storms or earthquakes.  When it's slippery, we might fall and break an ankle, or a car out of control might hit ours.  We may be subject to cancer or bipolar disorder.  And certainly we age inexorably--though there's coffee to spur the energy I don't always have, and aspirin for stiff knees.  If we are subject to all this, we can at least be kind to one another, be curious about one another's challenges, be grateful for kindness or wonder or love, give generosity back to the world and benefit ourselves while helping others."

So I will never write a bestseller, a book that confirms our sense that disaster is waiting for us everywhere.  Which leads me to take yet another leap in this blog.  (Yes, I noticed I was making the earlier ones.)  When Veronica and I were visiting Quebec City, we spent our final day at the Musee National des beaux-arts du Quebec.  We are very slow museum goers, so we chose our exhibits carefully, going first to see the Bonnards, then to study their fabulous collection of Inuit sculpture, and finally to stroll through the gallery to study the "stark, haunting images" of Jean-Paul Lemieux.  At the Musee, they organize his work chronologically, showing his early struggles, his folk-art attempts, his nearly giving up altogether until, in a single painting, he found his voice--the way he saw and spoke to the world.  

The chronological presentation of Lemieux's work shows a skilled painter in pursuit of his voice--almost losing hope, and then, miraculously, finding it.  Seeing the changes in his work, in combination with revising old drafts, made me think more usefully about voice and style.  Perhaps there are enough all-out-disaster novelists out there, and my sense that human beings can strive to be kind, grateful, curious, and generous has a place.  Besides, there's another chemistry of worldview in a novel:  all the characters should definitely not share the author's worldview.  If character X has his or her own particular history, his or her own temperament, his or her own particular set of external influences, what conclusions about the world might character X draw?  That is the question that lies behind all my crazy reading.  I'm not only reading Simone Weil, I'm trying to read it from Samantha's perspective, and so understand that perspective more fully.  Thus the novel becomes a conversation between me and my characters.  Only then does it become a conversation between me and my readers.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Happy are the makers

When Veronica and I were in Montreal and Quebec City last month, we inevitably spent some time in "Old Montreal" and Quebec City's Old Town.  I never quite know how I feel about places where we have restored original historic buildings only to turn them into pubs and souvenir shops selling stuffed snowy owls and wooden boxes decorated with maple leafs.  Yet the buildings retain their charm if you can look past every effort to create a twee streetscape.  In Montreal, for example, we really got off the beaten path by going down a little alley that ended in a courtyard of pop-up artisans' stalls.  And both Veronica and I found gifts for ourselves in a kind of "handcraft house" that carried the work of dozens of gifted artisans--potters, glassblowers, jewellery makers, wood carvers, spinners, weavers, knitters, quilters.  In Quebec City, we found many shops that tastefully combined tchotchkes with examples of craftsmanship.  A shop in Old Town comes to mind where you could buy the aforementioned wooden box with a maple leaf.  Or you could drop $14,000 for the most remarkable rocking (or reading) chair and ottoman made of silken-finished sculptural wood.  In one of Old Town's picturesque squares, modern, woven canoe shapes floated above the old streets and between  buildings.

Our travel habits took us to many places where craftsmanship was in the foreground.  In the Jean Talon Market, we found artisanal honey and cheese, home made pickles and jams.  In the quilt and  yarn shops we visited, we found groups of women sitting comfortably around a large old oak table now painted white, drinking tea and knitting lace.  We found hand-made buttons and quilts.  In the Marche Bonsecours we found hand made clothes, probably designed by the makers.   In Old Town we watched a woman blowing a glass snowflake and I found a glass paperweight for Bill.

Haida carver Bill Reid has observed "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made."  Why else do we collect old quilts and Victorian hair jewellery, or flock to Wintergreen?  I suppose some of us have political motives, particularly at this time of year:  we are trying to avoid mass-produced gifts for the people in our lives who are all so wonderfully individual.  In a mug or a quilt lovingly made, something of the craftsman remains, so that the owner is almost touching the maker's hand or spending a moment inside the maker's intentions each time it is used.  Thus, perhaps, comes Bill Reid's sense that well-made things speak to us.

But I have also wanted to think about makers--people involved in the act of making something.  When I am quilting, piecing, or appliquing, I feel simple happiness that is only equaled by gardening on a glorious day.  (Writing is a much more complex happiness:  there's the frustrated pleasure of getting the idea down in some gawky way, and then the more sublime pleasure of bringing the words into their own--or at least approaching that point.)  Making something is its own pleasure--the tactile pleasure of watching it grow under your hands.  If we're talking about craft rather than art, we don't need to belittle the everyday things that people do to give themselves pleasure--whether it's crocheting doilies or throwing an elegant teapot, maybe because the point is not to embody a profound idea but to do something well.

Let me intrude with an awkward political point.  I love knitting socks.  I love knitting complicated socks and simple socks.  For years, Bill resisted the very notion of handmade socks until, when we were visiting Seattle, he saw some Kaffe Fassett wool in Churchmouse Yarns and Teas on Bainbridge island.  I am now working on his fourth pair of handmade socks, made of Montana wool.  (His new socks are above, photographed against one of my favourite quilts.)  I have often said, whimsically and ironically "When the end times come, my people's feet will be warm."  Since Trump's election, this statement does not seem so far-fetched.  Yet the pleasure I get making socks is described in a psychological model of human needs and motivations called "self-determination theory," postulated by Deci and Ryan.  (Link to their website below.)  They suggest that human needs or motives can be described by three qualities they contribute to our lives and our sense of well-being.  We need to feel we belong.  We need a sense of autonomy.  We need a sense of competence.  Self-determination theory explains, for example, why I practice the piano after a hard day's writing:  my written work only approaches my ideal, but I can measure how much better my performance of a Mozart piano sonata was today than it was yesterday.  I have (some) competence.  (I will never be a truly good pianist:  I make different mistakes every time.  How do you practice to eliminate that?  It isn't a matter of having the discipline to practice the same six bars many times every day--which I have in spades.)

Self-determination theory also explains why I like to knit socks, insofar as making them illustrates not only my competence, but my autonomy--hence my fanciful remark about "my people's feet being warm."  And of course, if I have a group I can call "my people," then I have a sense of belonging. Trump and his voters fail the self-determination theory test.  Competence?  He hasn't a single idea about governing a complicated country.  Unless you call getting mobs to believe your lies competence, he has none.  Autonomy?  Hardly.  His entire life consists of someone else declaring he's the biggest...You fill in the blank.  Belonging?  In TrumpWorld, it's every man (literally) for himself. 

Making things--socks or quilts, mugs or wooden boxes--has another quality I can't quite explain.  But I can tell you a story--two stories, actually.  In 1863, Jane A. Stickle finished a remarkable quilt that consisted of 225 different blocks--many of which are seen nowhere else.  She signed it quite simply:  "War Time 1863.  Pieces 5602.  Jane A. Stickle."  Brenda Manges Papadakis saw the quilt nearly thirty years ago, and wrote a book for quilters that allows us to at least approximate this work of inventive patience, but despite Papadakis's research, little is known about her.  So what might one imagine?  That she identified her quilt as a work made in "War Time 1863" suggests that focusing on the quilt was one of enduring through a very difficult time.  "Pieces 5602" might suggest that she purposefully set herself a very difficult task as a way of distracting herself from the war.  When you are making something, history doesn't go away.  But you feel as if your creation is a kind of counterbalance, a way of keeping alive creativity, joy, inventiveness, and beauty.  At the end of the difficult time, you will not only have something to "show for it," but you will have kept those important human qualities in the world while other people have lost their heads and pursued chimeras.

When Veronica and I were in Paris, I went--of course--to the only quilt shop I could find in the city, which happened to be very close to where we were staying on the Left Bank.  I walked in and was immediately struck by seeing Jane's quilt on the back wall.  The owner, a lovely British woman, explained that she and her mother-in-law had made it (by hand!) while her mother was dying, and that doing so was a source of profound comfort.  Jane A. Stickle would, of course, have smiled.  I don't know how many quilters have a similar story to tell:  how making a quilt at a difficult time created an oasis of sanity and meaning in the puzzling world surrounding them.  After all, death is puzzling, war is puzzling, politics is certainly puzzling.

Jane A. Stickle was born in 1817--two hundred years after Trump's inauguration.  I have decided to make her quilt during his presidency--at least one block every couple of weeks.  And I'll blog about it here, letting the blocks lead me wherever they might--into worlds, I hope, of pleasure and meaning.  And of determination to keep everyday life focused, productive and sane.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trumping Trump

Like you, I am grieving.  I am horrified that the American people--white people, that is--elected a president who is racist, sexist, bigoted, and lies; a man whose "platform" is built on hate, a man with too little intelligence to accept climate change as scientific  truth and who may, indeed, think that scientific proof is for sissies.  The point is that what he says--whatever it is--is true.  This is a model of masculinity that reaches back beyond the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which gave birth to science and human rights, and that is deeply outdated and indeed dangerous in the twenty-first century world.

Like you, I know there will be suffering--that indeed there has already been suffering.  Trump's election is a clarion call for anyone who thinks that women are objects for men's pleasure or who believes they have a right to sexually harass or take possession of women.  Women will have fewer rights, if he has his way:  Roe v. Wade will be overturned--and women and children will suffer for that.  Young girls and women are suffering:  their country couldn't imagine a woman president and so voted for a man whom many describe--rightly--as the least fit candidate ever.  "I don't know what it is about Hillary, but I just don't trust her" is a statement made by people with gender biases and the FBI.  People of colour will suffer--and indeed racial violence on the streets has already broken out because Trump's election says being a bully is all right.  The planet will suffer if he gets his way and stops funding to green energy projects while mining coal aggressively.  Peace around the world will be challenged:  peace is hardly a lodestar for this representative of hypermasculinity.  Do people really not understand that the person they elect is a statement of their values?

There have been many excellent analyses of Trump's victory, but let me turn to ideas I've been exploring over the last couple of years with Katherine Arbuthnott.  In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman identifies two kinds of thinking which he unpoetically describes as System 1 and System2.  I can only give you a quick summary of Kahneman's complex thinking, but I think even that will shed some light on this election.  System 1, which thinks "fast,"gathers "impressions, intuitions, feelings."  "System 1 is generally very good at what it does:  its models of familiar situations are accurate, its short-term predictions are usually accurate as well, and its initial reactions to challenges are swift and generally appropriate.  System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances" (24-25).  That is, System 1 is lazy; it goes for the obvious and the immediate and doesn't think through long-term consequences or implications.  It wants to call on its biased impressions to understand the world rather than taking time to consider evidence.  Donald Trump was elected by a kind of mass hysteria, a System 1 impression that America is not great because their salaries are not as high as they feel they should be, their jobs not as secure as they have been in a union-dominated past. The people to blame for this are the Other.  There was no historical analysis on the part of this electorate, no sense that lives and work have changed profoundly since the nineties, largely because of technology.  They want change now; they are not thinking about the long-term--hence their willingness to elect a man who doesn't believe government should address the challenges of climate change.  "What I want now?" trumped "What is best for the nation?"  And in turn, individualism trumped the collective.

And there I need to evoke Jonathan Haidt's concept of ape brain.  Haidt argues that about 10% of the time, our brains think like bees:  we understand the importance of the collective, of consensus, even of evidence.  (Read Mark L. Winston's remarkable Bee Time to understand how remarkably rational bees are.)   We should certainly be thinking like bees when we cast our vote.  But about 90% of the time our minds are controlled by our inner ape.  The automatic response of the ape brain is "Me!"  And when not me, "Mine.  My Group."  That 53% of white woman voted for Trump, despite his misogyny, tells me we had ape brain going on here, and that these women's in-group was white.  They make me deeply ashamed.

What the election of  Donald Trump has done is to release America's inner id.  This, in part, was why the polls were so skewed:  I suspected some people simply didn't want to admit they were voting for Trump.  This also explains the violence:  Courtney Bates-Hardy posted a heartbreaking link (which, like the other links I refer to will be included below) to Tweets about women and people of colour being threatened, harassed, or attacked.    

But we need to mobilize the better angels of our nature, as many people have been suggesting.  Gloria Steinam argues that rather than grieving we need to organize. Alison Powell, a lecturer at the London School of Economics suggested in a FB post that we need to find ways of creating communities.  I share her list with you with her permission: 

The world of individualized, filtered media's made us forget about all the places that we can come together to talk, work, think and feel together. As we respond to a politics of division, let's remember the role of:
-soup kitchens and welcome centres
-neighbourhood associations
-community gardens
-trade unions
-book clubs
-playgrounds/parks/school gates

Find your people. Talk to them. Be together. Make connections about things you can agree to do for each other. This is how we start to make solidarity.

Since the election, Bill Ursel has been saying that we need to be "human shields" for those blamed, vilified, mocked, or disparaged by Trump's campaign. We need to support groups like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More, groups that teach us that diversity is a strength, not something to be feared.

Jenna Butler wrote on FB of spending election night in the hospital room of her dying mother-in-law and spoke movingly of the various ways we create relations with one another.  She urged us "At this point, this space in time, be more than ever your best selves. Find the energy that lit you yesterday and stay fired by it, no matter what comes. We need your dreaming and your groundedness, your ability to be firm in where you stand, while all the time looking levelly to what arrives."  We need to witness births, deaths, struggles and triumphs of one another.  We need to be witnesses to keep alive something that is beautifully human in us.

Shawna Lemay was working on her blog, :Transactions with Beauty," about Leonard Cohen's "You Want it Darker," when she was surprised by two things:  one was that Cohen's dark vision is startlingly appropriate (particularly after his death yesterday, which Shawna obviously didn't know about on Wednesday) and that her motto, "You are required to make something beautiful" was singularly apposite.  Yale philosopher Elaine Scarry explains why in her remarkable and small book, On Beauty and Being Just.  Here, I can hardly do justice to her argument, so I will only urge you, in the days to come, to read her book.  Because what we are losing with a Trump election is justice, and because Scarry can guide us to the ways we keep justice alive.  Being in the presence of something beautiful urges us to look carefully, at particulars, and it is this careful looking and perceiving that is the first step to justice.  Trump can make the wild generalization that Mexicans are rapists, but what could we do to that argument by telling him the stories of particular people whose beauty, widely-defined, asks us to do justice to their particular stories?  Then, one's attention to the beautiful thing is de-centering.  We are so startled by beauty that we are no longer the centre of the universe--the id yelling "I want!"  We want to become stewards of the beautiful, as we can see in our attempts to protect the planet.  We are prompted to create something, to protect something--a grasslands pasture or a rainforest, a species or a fragile ecosystem.  And here, I can only quote Scarry:  "Because beauty repeatedly brings us face-to-face with our own powers to create, we know where and how to locate those powers when a situation of injustice calls on us to create" (115). 

So Americans and their Canadian cousins need to go to art galleries, listen to music, make rebellious graffiti, sing songs, join flash mobs, read books.  It is that last that I understand most completely:  deep reading leads to empathy, to understanding both the other, who is merely different, and the Other, whose difference challenges our assumptions.  When I experience beauty, I am infused with energy and hope:  we are going to need both of those things in the next four years.

We need to create the beauty of painting and dance and stories and song.  Because here is where we are rebellious, here is where we accomplish three important things.  We partake of creation rather than destruction.  We create, as best as flawed human beings can, celebrations of what we value, what is best in us.  We speak to one another rather than shouting into an angry crowd.
Day 1 in Trump's America
Don't mourn: organize  
Transactions with Beauty 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Daily beauty and joie de vivre

When Veronica and I exited the Jean Talon Metro Station, we knew almost instantly that we were close to the Jean Talon Market.  Young people strolled towards us with granny baskets full of produce, a shock of leeks or the fringed tops of carrots suggesting what was underneath.  Middle-aged women carried African baskets woven of colourful grass and filled with produce.  One lovely woman strode toward us carrying two enormous mounds of chrysanthemums, each pot circled by an arm.  

In his book on beauty, Roger Scruton deals with a topic most philosophers don't consider:  everyday beauty.  He begins his discussion of everyday beauty, not surprisingly, with gardens--with our attempts to bring the world's fundamental beauty, that of nature, into our own lives and into our daily experience.  He argues that "This attempt to match our surroundings to ourselves and ourselves to our surroundings is arguably a human universal.  And it suggests that the judgement of beauty is not just an optional addition to the repertoire of human judgments, but the unavoidable consequence of taking life seriously, and becoming truly conscious of our affairs" (82). That second sentence is a bit of a leap away from the first, but it does reflect the observations of many thinkers about beauty.  Let me offer this example as an illustration.  You're getting a quick dinner ready so that the kids can get to their soccer practice and their music lessons.  Do you set the table just so, or are you simply satisfied with getting everything on the table--the chips still in their bag, the mini carrots hastily poured into a cereal bowl, knives and forks within everyone's reach?  But when you arrange a table for a dinner party--and Clarissa Dalloway can tell you how important parties are for making connections between people and creating conversations that will doubtless delve at some point into what is important to us--the upcoming election, the latest film, the city's plan to bulldoze some houses to create another park--beauty is at the forefront of your concerns.  You understand, without thinking about it, that a beautiful setting is required for an evening when we not only enjoy wonderful food--another everyday beauty--but revel in the chance to have meaningful conversations, to take the culture's temperature, to 'take life seriously.'

The Jean Talon market was full of people who took life seriously.  Veronica and I wanted a couple of apples to go with our baguette and cheese, and approached a table where the orchardist had an enormous variety of fresh, local apples.  I went straight for a Honeycrisp, but Veronica was hemming and hawing about an Empire, a Lady Apple, or a just-picked Mackintosh.  Instantly he had a knife in his hands and was quickly but carefully cutting slices of apples for us to try while also handing out samples to other people who had approached his stand.  We weren't going to be a big sale, shlepping back a bushel to our hotel, but he saw that choosing a single apple was important.  We met the same response later in a cheese shop where we found a dozen varieties of goat's cheese.  The very young woman, not much over sixteen, was happy to describe the special qualities of each creamy round.  Sadly, I don't remember the name of the one we bought, but it was very, very good with the baguette and apple, just as she said it would be.

An enthusiastic sense of joie de vivre permeates Montreal.  On Saturday night, Veronica and I went to hear Les Violons du Roy perform some experimental music--a concerto for strings and electric guitar--as well as Beethoven's Fifth, which I've probably heard hundreds of times.  Yet conductor Anthony Marwood found something entirely new in the score, and the audience leapt to its feet at the end.   Montrealers wear their scarves with insouciance, gather among China Town's gaudy lights on Rue de la Gauchetiere to study the windows of the cheap but excellent patisseries and the tiny shops with their teapots and graphic blue and white bowls.  As we walked that afternoon, we found a lovely wool shop where women collected on Saturday afternoons to knit.  There were lovely tea cups on the table, along with myriad knitting projects.  The shop itself was full of wonderful colours, as well as these shelves of jam jars full of tiny iridescent beads for working into complicated lace.  Montrealers' sense of joie de vivre is infectious.

You can manufacture joie de vivre.  After two or three rainy days, we will eat dinner in front of the fireplace, trying to absorb from the fire the light that our days seem to be withholding.  I make quilts for several reasons.  One reason speaks to the human need to feel competent, so my ability to cut and sew carefully and to skillfully to produce blocks where all the edges meet fills a definite need.  But choosing fabric for a block and seeing the pieces come together gives me a small hit of joie de vivre.  

I have a feeling our pets give us is joie de vivre.  I am listening to my friend Katherine tell the stories of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy who has joined her household--who makes her laugh several times a day, even during difficult times.  I have realized how much I appreciate Twig's undramatic joie de vivre:  as he moves from twining around my legs to his food bowl, I can hear him thinking "Yes, I'm an old cat who sleeps a lot, but life is good."

Joie de vivre, I suspect, is tied to beauty, to the world's willingness to hand us, gratis, a beautiful sunny day or a glorious puddle of golden light that dances around the roots of an aspen.  We can manufacture it with a lovely dinner or a vibrant quilt block, but when nature is withholding, it's harder.  Then, it's culture's turn to kick in and remind us that part of "the good life" is being enveloped in the present moment, in the people and spaces that have conspired to hold our attention with their beauty and vitality and give us an energizing hit of joy.  Montrealers are practiced at this.  Maybe those of us who live on the prairies could learn from them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The ambiguities of nature's texts

"Red sky at night, sailors' delight.  Red sky in morning, sailors' warning."  As long ago as Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, we've referenced this adage.  We now have an explanation of why it's true.  The colour of the sunset indicates that the sun's light is passing through quite a lot of dust and moisture, which indicates high pressure, or stable weather coming from the west.  When the sunrise is red, the high pressure system has already passed, given that weather generally moves, in the mid-latitudes, from west to east.  We have probably observed this since time out of mind, thus creating the little rhyming mnemonic.

In a similar vein, D.H. Lawrence has written "Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly, they reveal the thoughts of the skies," in a prose poem he put at the beginning of the bird section of his book of poetry, Birds, Beasts and Flowers, a passage which Jonathan Rosen has used as the epigraph to his fascinating The Life of the Skies:  Birding at the End of Nature.  But we were reading the birds in the skies long before Lawrence.  One of the ancient methods of divination called augury was first recorded among the Egyptians in the 14th century B.C.  Cicero was one of the early augurs.  The augur marked out a templum and then watched to see which birds flew through which part of his space. 

Weather reports are an attempt to read nature.  We all know about how well that goes.  Apparently if weather forecasters say "Tomorrow will be just like today," they  would be more accurate than they are when they try to predict how fast a storm will move and along which path. 

I was reminded of how we read nature when I spent four days with my oldest friend, Liz Read, on Cape Cod.  Liz, who walks on the beach and swims every day, has the tide charts on speed dial.  Two hours either side of low tide is good for walking; two hours either side of high tide is good for swimming--or at least you don't have to walk a mile before you find enough water to swim in.  The picture below was taken from roughly the same place as that above.  You can see two tiny walkers toward the right side of the picture and can imagine how far you might need to go beyond them to find a place to swim.

When the tide was coming in, the sand looked like this:

I am guessing that these poetic runnels are the advance fingers of the surging tide, but I really don't know what causes them.  Perhaps the tide doesn't only come in at the level above the sand; perhaps those waves are preceded by water below the surface. 
On the other hand, when the tide is out, the sand looks like this.  Liz and Istared at these hiero-glyphics for quite a while until we figured out they were the tracks of sand crabs who were looking for a good place to hide out when the low tide made them vulnerable.

The fact that these marks looked like writing in the sand made me think more carefully about how we should read nature as a text.  But unless we're doing scientific research--on bees for example--and study the way their complex dances give other bees clear information about the location of flowers or a good place to swarm--I don't think we see nature as something we need to read.  Recently, though, scientists have concluded that dolphins have a language that leads to conversations.  Listening carefully, scientists could hear groups of clicks that seemed to be words because they occurred in larger, sentence-like structures that came to an end.  After a small silence, the other dolphin answered with her own spaced clusters of clicks.  Uncovering language in animals, in chickadees or among elephants, encourages us to read nature differently.  If we think we're the big guys with the brains that have led to culture, we need to think again when faced, for example, with an elephant attempting to console and feed a sick comrade or to comfort a baby.  (The American election is seriously making me reconsider whether we're the ones on the planets with the complicated, clever brains.  I'd vote for a dolphin before I'd vote for Donald Trump.)

In fact, we don't fully understand the way our own brains work.  My wonderful psychiatrist, Dr. Stanley Yaren, used to distinguish between brain and mind.  Brain was the hunk of meat with all its synapses and hormones like seratonin, dopamine, or cortisol.  Mind contains experience, memory, and thought. We are just beginning to understand the way these two systems talk to one another, resulting in depression, suicidal ideation, ecstasy, and love.  Can someone who has been safe and loved his whole life be depressed?  Do all people who come from chaotic beginnings become depressed or violent?  Well, no.  We're just beginning to study resilient children so we can understand what allows them to remain hopeful even in the face of adversity.  There's a lot of talking going on in your skull between brain and mind that we don't understand.

Much of nature's mystery comes from the fact that we can't read her processes.  We recognize the beauty of fall foliage, but we don't entirely know what causes it.  The planets in our solar system and beyond are all but unknown and lead to a much larger question:  are we alone?  If so, why?   Much of nature's danger also comes from the fact that we are only beginning to learn to read her.  Imagine how much safer we would be if we could read the coming of earthquakes.  Or simply had reliable weather reports that gave us enough time to protect our homes against torrential rains or flooding rivers.

Reading nature is like learning a second language.  Do you remember the first time you tried to read something in another language that was too hard?  You'd read a sentence and grasp onto the words you knew and the syntaxes that made sense.  Then you'd stop before reading another.  Getting half a dozen under your belt, you might go back to the very beginning with a hint about the passage's context or topic, knowing just enough so that you could guess a few more words.  Second languages widen our world view, give us access to whole other ways of thinking and to other experiences.  So too with reading nature. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Solastalgia and the asynchrony of fall

In the last days of August, I was hammered by the blues, by the sense--created by a vacuum where my diaphragm should be--that all was not well.  I took the usual inventory:  relationships?  All seemed well.  Work?  Well, I was feeling stymied by all the reading I was doing for the Literary History of Saskatchewan essay on creative nonfiction I needed to write by the end of September.  And I wanted to get to my own work.  But that didn't seem enough for the near-grief I felt.  Was I getting enough exercise?  Yes, in addition to trips to the gym with Bill I was also walking.  Fun?  I was into a rhythm with the applique I was doing for a quilt Nikka wants.   

(Here it is with the first two borders; I have two longer borders to do, and am half done with the first of these.  The blocks are called "country crossroad."  The applique is my own design.)

So I did what I do when my mood is at the bottom of the well and there is nothing I need to fix:  I distracted myself.  When the cold water surged over my head, I would look up and find (as I do now) the squirrel hanging by his toes filching seed from my bird feeder, or the chickadees and nuthatches zooming in for their afternoon snack.  I'd see six sparrows hiding from the rain in the lilacs outside my bedroom window in a stillness I didn't know they could assume.  I'd see a whole landscape in transition:  leaves losing their suppleness and transparency, then some of them bleaching ever so slightly while others took the plunge and turned gold almost overnight.

And then I had an odd suspicion.  In one of those moments that makes readers believe that cosmic irony and paradox are an integral part of the human condition, I suspected that the sometimes austere, sometimes brilliant changing beauty that I looked to for comfort was also what was causing my depression.  I found that for the first time since I retired I actually missed the energy burst that comes in early September--the real new year for academics and other life-long learners.  Despite challenges with parking, I found two excuses to be on campus yesterday, and walked through the halls with the eager students, listening to the little snippets of conversation that I have often found were part of my belief that the human race is actually okay--at least when we're not jockeying for power or money. We're curious.  We're excited.  We're making human connections.

But by then the depression had lifted as mysteriously as it arrived, and as I thought about the preceding couple of weeks, I concluded that in part I was not ready for the seasons to change.  Maybe I felt solastalgia--the word that attempts to capture our nostalgia for the way weather and planet used to be.  We hadn't had a couple of dry August weeks that often prime us for the turning year.  It was as if we'd gone from July to September in a breath.  We were outside place and time.

But I also suspect that it was simply change.  Change in the weather and the landscape that I wasn't in tune with.  I still have quite a bit of my essay on the nonfiction written by Saskatchewan authors, and I've realized how complicated Soul Weather is going to be.  I had wanted to start serious work on my novel by now, but circumstances were conspiring, and I felt out of step and frustrated.

Yet change in the weather is one of the things I love.  What keeps us here, with Saskatchewan's weather extremes?  Why don't we move to Florida, where it's hot and hotter?  Or to Vancouver, where it's rainy and rainier?  I find that the changing seasons challenge my visual paradigms or my expectations or my sense that I know the world I live in.  In full summer, we are surrounded by the lushness of trees, particularly in Regina.  The green world embraces us.  In the winter, we need to come to terms with a more minimalist world--with an architecture or a blue print for "tree."  The spareness of our great prairie landscape is inescapable.  The changing seasons, by defamiliarizing our daily world, by challenging assumptions, keep our minds and souls supple. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

September Miscellany

The light is changing.  It's not only that the days are obviously shorter, but that light comes into my house in places I had forgotten it reached.   It is far enough south that it peeks in under the large pine trees in my front yard and streams through my south-facing living room window, irradiating whatever I'm reading for a few minutes every sunny afternoon.  The trees have changed as well:  gone is the supple transparency I wrote about in mid-July.  Now their leaves are a dustier green and they susurrate and whisper drily.  Perennials have nearly finished their second blooming and are no longer using their energy to make seeds or attract pollinators but to store it underground in dark root caves.  We see senescence all around us, as if the summer's sunshine were suddenly translated into the trees that are turning golden.  It is a time of transformation.

For the first time since I retired, I regret not getting back into the classroom.  This is partly because I worry about becoming an old fart without each generation of new students helping me grasp their view of the world.  It is also because (in spite of my tremendous poetry group) writing is lonely, and at the same time you are engaged in making something that is as close to your vision as possible.  That's really the only way it can be, for the first couple of drafts.  Unless you have startlingly generous friends who will read and reread a 450 page manuscript on Woolf's aesthetics, you send the third or fourth or fifth draft off to a publisher for judgment.  The first two years of my retirement were incredibly productive:  Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement and Visible Cities have both gone off to publishers.  I have no idea what readers will think of them.  Yet in that uncertain frame of mind, I'm supposed to start another couple of projects, my next novel, Soul Weather, and some poems that are slowly cohering around a couple of themes.  In the classroom, I got feedback straight away, and if it wasn't enthusiastic I had many other strategies in my pocket.  Teaching, I knew where I was; writing, I have no idea where I am.  But that's the point, isn't it:  that terror and exhilaration of parachuting your mind into new territory. 

Because I'm missing teaching, perhaps, I've been tuned in to thoughts about that radical act.  (At least, it ought to be radical.)  So here's my September Miscellany.

Soul Weather is starting slowly after the revision of the first handful of chapters I wrote in 2011.  Fortunately, I have a lot to learn about my young characters' intellectual lives, so in a sense I am creating some classes for myself.  One of my young characters is writing her honours paper on Simone Weil, so I have begun by reading her biography.  Yet there I ran into another reason I miss teaching in Francine du Plessix Gray's description of one of Weil's favourite teachers whose pen name was "Alain."  Alain thought that doubt was the most direct route to enlightenment.  Part of my job at U of R was to teach "critical thinking."  The first step in the process was always to define what we meant by this oft-touted practice.  It doesn't mean simply to be critical.  Perhaps Alain's belief is helpful:  critical thinking means keeping doubt nearby.  If  doubts don't arise, by all means move onto the next step in critical thinking: figuring out how an argument has been built and what its consequences are.  But starting with doubt is no bad thing--in a classroom or an election year.

Alain's view of what education is is also helpful: "Alain's high-minded view of education... was to turn schools into 'centers of humanity' that could fight against prejudices, violence, and injustice.  The conversations sometimes lasted until the bistro closed down at 2 a.m., and occasionally the friends moved on and saw dawn come up at a cafe in the Halles market" (27).  Only in Paris, perhaps?  If I didn't actually tell my students that their imaginations were their most powerful ethical organ, I at least taught that way.  Our task in reading almost any text is to teleport ourselves into the mind, attitudes, and experience of the writer in order to enlarge our own perception of the world and the myriad humans in it.  One hopes that this experience implicitly fights "prejudice, violence, and injustice."

Education also finds its way into writing about the economy.  As I have said to anyone who will listen, the often discouraging group of students who inspired me to retire came of age in The Great Recession, when their parents told them not "You go to university and get an education," but "You go to university to get a job."  In a parallel response, universities have been emphasizing and giving more support to faculties that turn out "job-ready graduates," like Business or Engineering.  As a result, Faculties of Arts are finding that they are barely holding their programs together.  But not so fast.  The flexibility you learn in the Faculty of Arts is not useless.  It gives students a couple of advantages they might not find elsewhere.  They can frame and solve problems; they can do research; they can write clearly.  And they have learned how to live.

Last year about this time, Atlantic Monthly published an article written by Derek Thompson entitled "Technology Will Soon Erase Millions of Jobs."  Thompson describes the closing down of factories and the cultural breakdown in communities like Youngstown Ohio.  He suggests that the age of union-protected, high-paying industrial jobs is over.  The group of affected people, mostly young men, need a couple of "skills" taught by Arts.  They need to know how to live.  They need to have an idea of what the "good life" is.  When their pay cheque no longer guarantees their status, they need to know how to create meaningful lives, volunteering, or making something.  He witnessed those skills in Youngstown, where one of the factories was turned into a "makerspace":

"You don’t need any particular fondness for plasma cutters to see the beauty of an economy where tens of millions of people make things they enjoy making—whether physical or digital, in buildings or in online communities—and receive feedback and appreciation for their work. The Internet and the cheap availability of artistic tools have already empowered millions of people to produce culture from their living rooms. People upload more than 400,000 hours of YouTube videos and 350 million new Facebook photos every day. The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose."

Karen Schubert, a writer with two master's degrees now working as a cafe hostess, describes the disappearance of traditional work this way:  "The evaporation of work has deepened the local arts and music scene, several residents told me, because people who are inclined toward the arts have so much time to spend with one another. We’re a devastatingly poor and hemorrhaging population, but the people who live here are fearless and creative and phenomenal.”

To end my nostalgic miscellany about education, let me simply tell you this.  People who read books live on average 23 months longer than people who don't.  First, that figure already accounts for things that affect health outcomes like gender or socioeconomic status.  Second, that's books.  Not blog posts.  Not FaceBook.  Not newspapers or magazines.  Books.

You know the writer's fantasy:  that he or she will change a life or save a life with a book.  Now I can!  So back to the loneliness of writing.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The patience of nature; patience in nature

Yellowstone National Park is a busy place. This is partly because of its geography.  At its centre is a giant caldera or basin, part of which  you see here.  The mountains around the basin were created by massive volcanic eruptions that occurred 2 million years ago, again 1.3 million years ago, and then again 640,000 years ago.  After the last eruption, the centre collapsed, creating a plain or basin.  Visitors to the park are treated to the scenery around the caldera, where roads have been paved through the mountains.  So there are very few roads for a lot of people.

You meet a few of these people at the numerous overlooks that allow you to get out of your car and take a longer look.  You meet even more of them at some of the highlights like Tower Falls, where large tour buses stop.  Visitors come from everywhere in the world--you hear a veritable spice market of accents and languages as you patiently wait your turn to come to the railing that gives you an unobstructed view of the falls.  And of course, if they have come from Korea or Eritrea, they want to take a photograph of their family with the falls in the background.  This is where one of Bill's practices came in handy:  seeing a family being photographed by the person who is never included in the family album, he always offers to take a picture of everyone, and is greeted with delighted gratitude.  His gesture takes some of the impersonality out of the crowds:  for a moment, you are part of other people's experience and desires. 

But the crowds themselves are extraordinarily polite.  While for the most part we do not make eye contact--looking instead at the landscape--people did not push or shout or let their children--finally released from the car--run wild.  Interestingly, while I heard some crying children, who sounded frankly exhausted, I heard no shouting or fights, saw no wrestling or impromptu games of tag that used tourists as hiding places or barriers.

Part of it is that we are simply gobsmacked by nature, by its near-incomprehensible sublimity.  Shouting or wrestling or pushing here would be like shouting, wrestling, or pushing in a cathedral.  The calm crowd is doubtless an effect of the kind of people who choose to visit Yellowstone, rather than N.Y.'s Times Square, on a vacation.

But part of it is also nature itself.  My friend, Katherine Arbuthnott, has put together a brief synopsis of the research relating to our relationship with nature.  She notes that "a growing body of research consistently shows that contact with the natural environment improves our physical, cognitive, and emotional health."  Time in nature lowers blood pressure and decreases surgical healing time.  "Two large studies, one in Canada and one in the UK, showed that mortality rates from all causes decrease with more access to natural areas."  Time spent in the natural world has a positive effect on our emotional health, decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression, and, frankly, making us happy and enthusiastic.  Spending time in the natural world also "improves childrens' school performance, reducing ADHD symptoms."  Adults who spend time in nature are more creative.  Now you know why writers take all those long walks. 

So we weren't simply responding aesthetically and imaginatively to the grandeur around us.  Something inherent in nature shapes our response, which can be prompted as much by prairie grassland as by Yellowstone National Park.

 But I also like to think that we were also channeling nature's patience.  On our final day we visited "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River." While the canyon is certainly deep, that fact that Yellowstone consists largely of yellow stone--the colour of the lava--and its much smaller size, makes it less spectacular than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  Yet two stunning, massive, and powerfully noisy waterfalls illustrate a process that has gone on for eons and continues:  water eroding rock.

Here we see something as fluid and elusive as water shaping an environment, like a blind sculptor carving stone over millennia.

I like to think that we were also influenced by metaphor.  In the Norris Geyser Basin or at Mammoth Hot Springs (we didn't drive as far south as Old Faithful), we had a chance to see earth's inner life come to the surface in steam and liquid. 

You can't see it through the steam, but this pool is bubbling at a boil.  Although there have been no volcanic eruptions here for thousands of years, there is lots of activity and pressure under the earth's crust.  Maybe it hasn't exploded because it lets off steam a little at a time--a lesson my mother (and probably every other fifties housewife) could have benefited from.  And maybe all those well-behaved kids jumped on the beds when they got back to the hotel or ran rings around the picnic table while dinner cooked over the fire.  At least I hope so.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


Bill and I have just come back from an intensely wonderful holiday in Montana and Wyoming that ended with two days in the north end of Yellowstone Park.  Thanks to Google Maps, we took one route down and another one back.  The direct route to Bozeman Montana took us along what we kept calling the "ghost road," because although it was excellent two-lane blacktop, we met almost no other cars until we got close to the small rural centres that the road threads together.  The landscape was endlessly interesting on this route (not so much when we took the expressway back), looking a lot like the Qu'Appelle Valley, except there was no "valley" and no "table land" that marked its edges.  It went on for miles and miles.  It was as if some enormous hand had reached down and wrinkled and scrunched and crunched paper or linen into crags and slopes and hills.  Then at other points, there were miles of surreal round hills that looked like a pot on full boil.  Once we came on a literal forest of slowly twirling wind turbines perched on top of hills--I counted at least seventy--serenely aiming north and each turning at its own speed.

I didn't know how to read this landscape, which was often fenced in but shouldered no crops or cattle.  I realized that "readable" landscapes have a purpose that is clear to humans--which is a little anthropocentric.  That use might be to provide examples of the sublime in all its glorious denial of our puny human purposes--but it's still use. As for fencing in the sublime....

Every small town in Wyoming has its brick heritage buildings, and after we had been thoroughly charmed by Bozeman's Main Street, with an artists' cooperate named "Cello," a yarn store called "Stix," and a co-op restaurant, we went to Three Forks State Park searching for the beginnings of the Missouri River--you know the one called "The wide Missouri."  The river begins with three shallow creeks coming together.  It originally flowed north until an ice age turned its route south.  You can see in the photograph above how modest its beginnings are and how it is hemmed in by the gentle hills Gallatin Mountains.  Yet when we crossed it on the eastern side of the state on our return home, it is indeed "the wide Missouri."  By the time it joins the Mississippi River, it has become the longest river in North America.

It made me think of patience, of the quiet, humble determination that flows on in so many of us, suddenly coming to full fruition in a painting, a poem, a photograph, a letter or a garden.  What we wanted to capture--that elusive element of our experience or thought that seemed so far from reach or expression, just at the edge of our imagination, or in the corner of our eye--after drafts and sketches suddenly arises, surprising us with its graciousness, its willingness.  Too often we don't see that it is the creation of our own dogged patience.

I saw patience as well in the stones.  As anyone who has been in my workroom will tell  you, I've brought back stones from a lot of vacations.  I can't do this any longer, not only because I am running out of room (or things would get so crowded that my room wouldn't be serene any more) but because I now see that if everyone took a stone it would bugger up the landscape.  So my answer was to take photographs of stones.  These too make me think of patience.  Each of these was doubtless part of the mountains that cover Montana.  In fact, Montana is so crazy with mountain ranges that they finally called one of them The Crazy Mountains.  Lava explosions; uplift.  Then something violently tears, pounds, or knocks a small piece away from the mountain and gives it to water.  Who knows how much later it is brought back to shore, rounded and smoothed?

After our time in Three Forks State Park, we tried to find the beginning to a circular route I'd planned through the Pioneer, Highland, and Tobacco mountains, but we couldn't find the minor road that was its beginning.  Instead, we found the Lewis and Clark Caverns.  Bill loves caves, so in spite of the fact that it was a two mile hike, the first three-quarters of a mile outside up a treeless mountain nearly a mile above sea level and at 32 degrees, the second 1 1/4 miles underground involving over 600 steps up or down, some of them through narrow passages that forced you to walk up or down stairs bent over, we took it on.  (I was clearly the oldest person on the trek, but not the last one up the first 3/4 mile.  I did just fine on the Beaver Slide, a passage so narrow that you have to slide through it on your bum, turning half way down.)  I don't know what initially creates these underground spaces--more uplift, I'm guessing--but once the space is there it takes time for the minerals in the soil above the cave to dissolve in water and come slowly dripping down, creating stalagmites, stalactites, remarkable columns where the two meet, flows of stone that look like waterfalls.  It takes about a hundred years for a stalagmite or stalactite to grow in inch.

Here, I thought about layers.  How, at its best, our experience of people and the world is layered, how we manage sometimes to carefully peel away peoples' public personas or our own preconceptions about how the world works to see the crystal underneath.  And how we imagine the layers under that, the complexity that has its own order.  How art is layered:  how we build up those layers as we draft or paint or compose an image or a tune, and how the audience or reader takes delight in the complexity we have created. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Violence, kindness, and beauty

Last Saturday, "The National" asked Dr. Peter Lin, a member of their medical panel, to comment on the way the unrelenting stream of bad news might affect our mental and physical health.  Lin pointed out many challenges to viewers watching Philando Castile's and Alton Sterling's deaths, or of the footage that came out of the attack in Nice, noting that where once we might read a small piece in the newspaper about such deaths or attacks, we now get almost instant coverage, making us feel we are there, in that time and place.  This, in turn, triggers the mirroring neurons that normally help us in our lives.  These neurons encourage us to mirror the expression on the face of someone who is talking to us about grief, about loss, about the hundred things that challenge our sense of self in daily life, from our body image to another person's cruel and dismissive treatment of us that makes us feel less human.  When we mirror our partner's, our child's, or our friend's facial expression of joy or sadness, we are reminding ourselves what that hurt or angry or joyful person feels like.  It's one source of compassion.  But when these motor neurons react to news stories, the result is anxiety and anger:  a pounding heart, depression on behalf of a planet gone mad.

And we should be angry and depressed.  We should be angry at the death of Philando Castile, killed by a policeman while he's getting out his "permit to carry," or at the stunned Alton Sterling, when policeman sitting on top of him imagines he has a gun and shoots him to death.  We should also be angry at the deaths of policemen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, at whatever motivated Mohamed Lajouiayej Bouhlel to drive a truck into crowds of families watching fireworks on a holiday in Nice.  Or at the attempted coup in Turkey and the inevitable, brutal backlash.  Erdogan has considered bringing back the death penalty, and certainly freedom of expression will be compromised.  I've even considered getting angry at Stephen Pinker, except it turns out that he's still right, even in the context of the latest horrific news cycle.  The planet is a safer place--for some of us, anyway.

But being angry about anger?  About young men who are angry?--because it is primarily young men, regardless of how politically incorrect it may be to point this out.  (Yet I don't think we'll solve the problem until we say this out loud and acknowledge the way the "knowledge economy" and the robots used in manufacturing give many young men fewer opportunities for work.)  Being angry about anger?  How does that work?

Lin also talked about research that offered people two different kinds of news to read:  good news and bad news.  He said people overwhelmingly chose bad news.  I suspect this choice is motivated in part by voyeurism--that rubber-necking we do on busy highways when there's been an accident--the rubber-necking we do that says "there but for the grace of God go I," even while it makes all of us less safe.  Lin also suggests there are advantages to our interest in bad news.   If we learn about the Ebola or Zika viruses, we can decide to avoid travel to places where there are epidemics.  If we know that there have been attacks in Brussels lately, including to the airport, we might decide to fly in to Europe somewhere else.  African-America mothers report telling their sons that if they are stopped by police, they should do exactly as they are asked and if shoved down to the ground to lie on their faces so there can be no mistake about their intentions.  Bad news lets us feel in control, as if our knowledge will protect us.

I thought about all this Sunday afternoon as I did something I haven't done in years:  lie on my back under a tree and watch leaves and sky and clouds and a trio of robins.  But I didn't think about it very long.  I watched one robin spread out his wings and sun his back while the others groomed themselves, and I wondered about birds and desire, about birds and pleasure.  Tiny brains; so much liveliness!  How does that happen?   I noticed how transparent leaves are, how the light comes right through them, so that if you are staring up through a tree you watch a pas de trois between sunlight, the bright transparent leaves and their shadows falling on other leaves.  Music made by wind and sunlight.  I felt the wind on my skin and thought about how friendly the world could be.  And then I thought again about anger.

Henry James has said "Three things in human life are important:  the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind."  Our response to the anger that is both far away and near by should be kindness.  Kindness is a kind of moral imperative in an angry world.  Who knows what kind of a dent we can make in anger with random acts of kindness?

Kindness to ourselves and to the wider world can take the form of beauty, of noticing beauty.  I had a startling experience on one of my rare forays to the U of R campus.  Because I go so rarely, there are lots of things to attend to, and the time had felt chaotic.  As I was striding through the ground floor of the North Residence on the way to my car, I was stopped by the tiniest white flower put out by a spider plant, a flower about the size of the stem that winds your wristwatch. Who knew spider plants bloomed?  Who knew such tiny flowers could be effective means of creating more spider plants?  I had a swift and sudden sense of order in the world, order that I could see through beauty.  There is much disorder in the natural world, from cancer cells to tornadoes, but nature doesn't get very far without order.

What do we do when there are these tragic deaths?  We light candles and lay piles of flowers.  In doing so, we promise to remember--because I can't imagine laying flowers at the sight of a tragedy and ever forgetting that moment or the tragedy that prompted it.  In promising to remember, we give to the victims' families the only comfort--insufficient as it is--that we can:  we promise to remember.  But we also create beauty.

Our sense of what is beautiful marks us out as individuals as much as our sense of anger at being disenfranchised in the modern world.  But beauty, as philosophers have been pointing out since Kant, has a second interesting quality.  If I am respectful about your sense of what is beautiful, I do not insist that you share my judgments, no matter how powerfully I believe that I am right.  But I hope that you will.  And if you do, I have started a community.  Such communities spring up around a garden, a Leonard Cohen concert, in an art gallery--where you find yourself speaking to someone you do not know because the Monet or the Mary Pratt before you is so astonishingly beautiful, the Leonard Cohen song so deeply moving.  Such communities have uncertainty at their core--unlike any fundamentalism--because its members can neither insist that anyone share their experience nor can they explain exactly what makes something beautiful for them.  Perhaps we lay flowers because they defy rage and certainty, creating among the others who have also been here and laid flowers a sense of community in the shared attempt to create a moment of beauty.