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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:
-churches/temples/mosques/synagogues
-soup kitchens and welcome centres
-neighbourhood associations
-community gardens
-trade unions
-book clubs
-scouts/guides
-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