Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Bit by bit; drop by drop
If three people walk into a Regina elevator, and one of them is interviewing for a job, one of them suspects he or she is in trouble with a boss, and the third is a harried student during exams, what do they talk about? [No, this is not a joke--or only partly a joke.] For if they live in Regina (and doubtless other places as well), they do talk. And as you have anticipated, they talk about the weather; but why? Since the novel I will start to write again next month, Soul Weather, is at least partly about how we can be at home in a climate that has changed--about solastalgia, in short (though I began the novel before the word existed), I've often thought about this question. I have three hypotheses. First, none of us have control over the weather. In our hyper-controlled, hyper-connected, instant gratification lives, the weather is beyond us. We are flummoxed, so we talk about it. Second, the weather is the great equalizer; few of us can escape this uncontrollable thing we share. Third, Heidegger tells us that mood is our primary interface with the world: it shapes how we read the world's complexity, its intentions and limitations, its generosity and challenges. And when you go out your door in the morning in one of those "I don't know yet because I haven't had enough coffee" moods, a sunny or rainy day can shape your mood and your experience quite quickly.
But I also suspect that seasons as a whole have moods--or maybe predominant themes or outlooks. Spring comes so gradually and yet so ecstatically to us that it pulls us out of winter's emotional and mental and spiritual hibernation and turns us into seekers and doers who can appreciate things changing bit by bit.
Drop by drop. Yesterday I drove out to Wascana Trails to walk. I was in search of prairie crocuses which Shelley Banks tells me are up, but didn't find any. Spring has barely come to Wascana Trails, though the tributary of the Qu'Appelle river is doing its gradual thing, eating away at its banks with the spring run-off. I did see a single caterpillar and was dive-bombed by a couple of flies; I gloried in the air and sunshine. I heard birds, but didn't see any. Nevertheless, staring at the top of the tributary's banks, I could see that the trees had changed slightly. They were no longer the architectural filigree of deadened winter trees. Some presence had arrived to make them lacy with young, tentative green buds that will fatten as the trees' roots take up water and nutrients.
Bit by bit. I think it is the changing of the trees that has given me the patience to do bit-by-bit things, like getting out my fingering exercises or taking on a new Mozart Sonata and working diligently at the fingering on the difficult passages. I am not bored at all as I try a tricky, fast passage ten times and hear it getting ever-so-slightly better. I have nearly finished Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement, and am now at the point where I make sure all the references are in the bibliography and all of the commas in their Oxford-don appropriate places. I don't mind this at all. Nor do I mind working on a quirky story I've written in my spare time and querying every verb. dee Hobsbawn-Smith taught me to avoid what Douglas Glover calls "copula spiders"--sentences where the subject and direct object are linked by the verb 'to be.' (Doubtless this is the academic's bad habits arriving at the front door of story.) But as I have learned, everything in a sentence gets better if you look at your verbs. You see the sentences whose syntax is twisted, almost as if it wants to avoid active verbs altogether. Then you see that those twisted verbs have subjects that aren't clear or interesting....Looking verbs has a domino effect, but one that occurs only when you are patient.
By installments. I see lots of this gradualism around me, mostly in the runners and skateboarders who have rediscovered their bodies, their energy, their balance, along with the freedom of running or skateboarding outdoors. Early this spring I dropped by the skateboard park near Wascana Lake to see what was up. I love skateboarders. When my mother was in serious cognitive decline and couldn't be taken many places, I could always take her to get an ice cream cone and then drive to the nearby skateboard park where she watched their acrobatics with delight. Earlier this spring, the young people didn't skateboard much, but stood around talking, catching up, and then tentatively tried out a trick or two. I admire skateboarders for their discipline, for their willingness to do something over and over again and imagine that when they are 40 and watching their own children on skateboards they will understand both the joy and the self-discipline of doing something over and over to gain a competency.
Note by note. Sunday afternoon, I heard Angela Cheng's magical performance of Haydn and Beethoven Sonatas and Nocturnes, a Ballade, and a Pollonaise by Chopin in the Cecilian Chamber Concert series. It has doubtless been decades since she learned anything note by note. I could almost say that her performance so unfolds or discovers the spirit of the music itself that notes are nearly inconsequential--simply a means to an end. But she said something about the late Beethoven Sonata that made me imagine each note to be a crucial node in a web of connections that we call 'music' and that is never finished, but is simply pursued joyfully: "It is a privilege to study this sonata." In spite of her moving performance of a piece of music that encapsulates Beethoven's despair at his deafness and his musical transcendence of that despair, she is not finished with this piece of music. Like all beautiful things, this late sonata invites you to return again and again to see what you can find there.
Piecemeal. We all hurry too much and work too long and too hard. How wonderful a season, then, that unfolds piece by piece, that not only demands our attention but reminds us that there are entirely different time frames in the universe. That it is an unfolding of beauty only strengthens our joy and our attention.
at 10:15 AM