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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bittersweet


I have been living inside a bittersweet frame of mind since about the middle of August when Bill was in the hospital for five days.  Why he was in the hospital is his story to tell, not mine, so you can imagine whatever scenario you find convincing, as long as it involves a fair amount of pain and uncertainty.  Yet living right beside the pain which so worried me was the care the nurses gave and the helpful questions they asked.  In my heightened frame of mind, I could see each of them making the world better one patient at a time.  I would drive home from the hospital at the end of the day and notice the sunsets, which were spectacular because of all the smoke in the air from forest fires.  Since two summers ago, when Saskatchewan had its bad run of forest fires, I've been aware of that bittersweet paradox:  that the destructiveness of fires in one place created beautiful sunsets in another.  One Friday evening as I drove home down Elphinstone a worker was putting the final touches on a brick structure made to hold the new sign for the beautiful new Connaught School that would be opening soon.  The juxtapositions were myriad:  beautiful sunset created by forest fires, work on a Friday night, craftsmanship, young students returning to school.

Sometimes I came home for a while in the middle of the afternoon so Bill could nap or zone out on his iPad.  Then I would sit in the dry back garden and watch the sparrows before I got up to start hauling watering cans full of water--again--to my vegetable garden in the back where the beans were languishing, the tomatoes bountiful, and the carrots mere matchsticks because June had been so cold.  I'm trying to write elsewhere about watching the sparrows, so I'll simply say here that after Twig's death that's what I did.  He hated having me outside and would complain at the door or the window, so while he was alive I didn't spend much time outside except to work.  But this summer, I took breakfast and afternoon tea with sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, and house finches, just simply watching them eat or take dust baths about two metres from where I sat.  They had become, over the summer, completely used to my presence.  Chickadees would fly into the crab apple tree not two feet from me, eye the bark carefully, stuff in a seed and begin to crack it open.  Nuthatches flew close enough over my head that I could feel the air their wings displaced.  A pair of adolescent nuthatches--their feathers still rumpled--would play hide and seek with me from the far side of the bird feeder, cracking open seed, and then darting their heads around the feeder to see whether I was still there or had come any closer.

I find it hard to describe the sight of a couple dozen sparrows under the feeder searching for fallen seed or taking dust baths.  There ought to be a metaphor, but if there is, I haven't found it.  It's helpful, though, to note that sparrows move their heads as if they have been designed by outdated cgi software.  Their heads move constantly as they look for seed while also keeping an eye out for signs of danger--but each movement is sudden and jerky.  Then add to this the fact that sparrows do not walk but hop and bounce, and perhaps you get a sense of the bubbling of brown feathers under the feeders.  In a part of the garden where my ground cover has not yet spread, half a dozen sparrows would be taking dirt baths.  In the dry soil they would create visible divots that cupped them and then they would flutter and wiggle with a quickness that made my head spin--faster than any pianist can trill.  Pure joy it was to watch them.

But in the background always was the faint smell of smoke and the dry susurration of trees that had not felt rain for nearly two months.  Sometimes during those days when Bill was in the hospital the wind was unnerving.  In that sound of the wind and dry leaves I heard the march of fall.

Like most academics, I love fall.  It's a second new year.  I was always aware of students starting a new chapter in their lives, and I was excited as well by new classes or new approaches to old classes.  And then the fall season for new books would begin and I would feel there was simply too much excitement in the world for the few hours in each day.  This fall I made the last of the changes to the text for Visible Cities and returned my revised manuscript of Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement, so while I was not even in the classroom, I felt the newness of the year.  I had new ideas to explore, new projects in mind.  I could shift from the disciplined rigor of revision, where you are largely facing what  you have not done well enough, to crafting something new while knowing that it in its turn would need revising.  But something new!  An engagement with a fresh idea or observation!  Yet in some ways it was terrifying.  It sent me spinning again into those questions that always pepper new years with their existential significance (if we choose to give them existential significance, and I do):  What mattered?  Was it just being--what I perceived and experienced in my daily life and how those things made me feel and think?  Or was it doing?  Was it what I wrote?  Was it how I took care of others?

For some reason, I decided to finally read Lark Rise to Candleford, a memoir by Flora Thompson set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  As I read, I realized that it was less a memoir than about life in the rural hamlet of Lark Rise--how its inhabitants managed on thgeir agricultural wages, how they turned or re-made coats sent to them by relatives in service, how they kept bees and dealt with their swarming, how they kept pigs and gardens, expressions pronounced with broad accents, distrust of Laura's love of reading.  It's a book almost without event, an anthropology rather than a memoir.  Yet it seemed exactly the right thing to be reading at the turn of the seasons, perhaps this yearly turn echoed by the turning centuries of Lark Rise.  The minimalist make-do, hard-driven life has something almost autumnal about it, partly because she is indeed writing about waning ways of life and traditions, but also because those lives provide an analogy or a metaphor for what we in the north do emotionally or psychologically at this time of year:  pare back to simpler, less expansive lives as the weather gets colder.  We turn our emotional coats, trying to see how the old patterns of wear can be hidden so we can present respectable selves in the coming months, though we feel neither respectable nor selves. Somehow it captured a fact about myself:  how the waning daylight can lead to Christmas shopping, family meals, parties.  But also how it is for me a walk down a hallway that gets darker and has fewer and fewer open doors.  I feel at its dead end that no one would think me a respected writer, that it  is not possible that people even link the word "respected" with my name.  My self thins.

I love the beauty of autumn--and I'm not simply talking about the time when the leaves begin to change and you can walk down a street of elms under a canopy of gold, but also the time when things are getting bare.  The trees in my back yard loose a sense of depth:  they become like the rather decorative Norwegian paintings that inspired the Group of Seven where the lines and spaces have an exquisite rhythm aside from their representation of late fall.  On one of those later days, Bill and I drove out to Condie where all was gold and grey and brown--mostly gray and brown.  Yet lines of shrubbery outlined the shapes of the hills around Boggy Creek.

We take in summer's green with a kind of entitled glance:  'this is all mine right now' we feel without exactly thinking about it.  We probably spend little time distinguishing one tree from another,  but gulp greenness down whole as a prophylactic against the monochrome of winter.  In fall we see differently, searching out detail and beauty, noticing as I did at Condie that the leaves of the wild roses are a soft red among the pale golden grasses that susurrate around them.  The sere Wolf Willow is decorated with a dozen silver oval coins, looking like something a Japanese brush painter would love to capture.  Birches hang on to only half their leaves showing us their architecture, showing us how each leaf flickers in an uncertain wind.  I feel an uneasiness in autumn that is like living inside bittersweet:  a profound sense of a beauty that demands and rewards my attention nestled alongside an equally profound sadness.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

In Praise of Cats


On a misty October Saturday in Boston, my first husband and I drove to a cat sanctuary we had been told about.  At the back of the house was a large concrete storage building with several large cages, one holding only an old Siamese who was too aggressive to spend time with other cats and who had been given up by its owner.  The other cages held cats of various ages:  there must have been twenty.  We were there for a kitten to keep me company on the nights when Dan had orchestra rehearsals up in Portland Maine or when he had graduate classes.  I was working for a social science research group at Brandeis University, editing articles and books; back then, no one wrote more badly than social scientists.  Nights I was working my way through Russian literature.  We knew one couple in Boston, and most of my colleagues lived in Boston's suburbs, so I was lonely.  Since we lived in married housing, a dog was right out, but we thought we could hide a cat from the super.

The room full of cats was overwhelming, partly because I really knew nothing about cats and partly because so many creatures and their stories had fetched up here and might never leave.  I had wanted a black kitten because I thought the feline shape was beautiful and showed most clearly in black cats.  Our cicerone surveyed the cages before her:  no black cats.  And then she confessed that she had found a small box on her doorstep that morning that she hadn't yet opened.  The string off, the flaps of the box raised, there sat my first cat with a black and white sibling.  We called her Blackberry.  But we had no idea how impish kittens are, and so we were soon using an expression that I'd picked up from British fiction and clearly didn't know the meaning of.  I thought "bugger" was someone who was energetic and annoying, so we began calling her simply "Bugs."  But she had a fondness for War and Peace and Dostoevsky, and was happy to curl up on my chest in the evenings while I read fat novels.  We soon figured out that in a studio apartment with only a single door, there is no way to keep the cat from sleeping with you.  So Bugs slept every night of her life on my pillow, sometimes climbing over the back of the hide-a-bed to watch the pigeons roosting on the fire escape outside, then getting cold and racing under the covers and then back on my pillow.

She remained, all her life, a tiny black fire.  She was particularly fond of attractive men and people who didn't like her or who were frightened of cats.  (She loved Ken Probert.)  She was dangerously fond of me.  When I'd return from school or work, I could hear her meowing at the door.  So once we had settled in Winnipeg, where Dan played with the symphony, we decided she needed company.  But we also realized that she had too much attitude to welcome a second cat.  So we borrowed the un-neutered Siamese belonging to composer Victor Davies, turned the humidifier on high, closed the bedroom door, and let them have at it.  Misty was an enormous cat, but he was also completely overwhelmed by Bugsy's attitude; nevertheless, he got  his job done.  As the birth approached, we did everything the little guidebook told us to do, setting up a nice quiet "queening box" for her to use.  One winter night, when Dan and the orchestra were on a run-out for an out-of-town concert, Bugs started trying to lead me toward her box--meowing, walking a little way down the hallway into the bedroom, looking to see if I was coming, meowing again--a feline Lassie trying to lead me somewhere.  Nothing seemed to be happening, so I climbed into bed with a book, and she climbed into my lap, which was where she had her kittens.  We kept two, naming them Ivy (she was a clinging vine and climbed up my pantlegs--thank heaven they were wide in the 70s) and Niagara (who liked curling up in the sink, watching the water drip on her, or tumbling down the bedclothes).  It is hard to say exactly where my adventure with cats began, in that shed of abandoned animals or with a birth in my lap.  But with three cats, you are committed.  This is no longer a desperate, lonely choice but a realization that, in spite of growing up with dogs, you find cats suit you.

The three black cats lived between 19 and 20 years.  When only Niagara was left of our original family, we took in two young males, Nutmeg--a ginger-coloured long haired cat with eyes like nutmegs, and Ariel, his grey tabby brother who seemed to have the attendant sprite's insights into people's moods and needs.  Ariel, for example, knew when Niagara, who was slowly succumbing to failing kidneys, didn't feel well.  He would follow her around the house, wait for her to get comfortable somewhere, and then curl up behind her and put his arm over her shoulders.

Not long after Niagara's death, Deborah Morrison arrived at my door one summer day with a kitten she had rescued from the murderous Rottweiler who was killing the barn kittens where she boarded her horse.  "Kate, can you take him?" she asked about the kitten already fastened to Veronica.  "We'll see what the guys think," I told her.  Nutmeg and Ariel thought bringing up a kitten was delightful, and so Twig entered the family.  Ariel and Nutmeg died far too young, Ariel of bone cancer and Nutmeg of congestive heart failure, so we soon added another orphan, Sheba, to the household--wild loving Sheba who went beserk after a series of infections that seemed to have nothing to do with the dramatic changes in her behaviour, breaking my heart with the mystery of her death.  Wednesday, Twig, his heart and lungs worn out, Twig the foodie who had stopped eating, was ferried over the Styx and I am catless for the first time in nearly 45 years.  This is not going to be easy.  The house feels like a vacuum, as if there is some immense silent hole at the centre of it.

Cats are a a balm, an antidote; they are guides and nature's comedians; they are philosophers.  They are the perfect companions for reading, especially if you are having trouble concentrating and are tempted to get up and do something else.  You simply don't want to dislodge the warm, sleepy weight from your lap, and so you keep on.  And they are limpid companions for the insomniac.  Niagara was the first cat who understood my sleepless nights, and she would simply wedge herself between my body and my arm, her head on my shoulder, until I went to sleep.  Nutmeg, who was too big to be a lap cat, nevertheless made himself into one on sleepless nights, if I got out of bed to come downstairs.  Or he would simply curl up next to me on the bed and not stop purring  until I went to sleep--and as a large cat he had an enormous purr.  We called him the "insta-purr majesti-cat" for his huge and generous purr.  All you had to do was to walk into the room where he was to set him purring.

Two of my cats, Ivy and Sheba, have fetched.  All of them have thought that I arrange quilt blocks on the bed only as a backdrop for their beauty or curiosity.  Sheba and Twig have been particularly good writing companions, Sheba curling up next to the computer and often putting her head on the back of my left hand as I typed.  Curiously, after her death Twig took over the job of guard of the thesaurus and companion of the order of writer.

Two of my cats have both understood and invented languages.  I took my first sabbatical in 1998, when Veronica was in her first year at McGill.  Until then I didn't know what it meant to be middle-aged and to think hard all day.  So at the end of the day, I'd sing-song my invitation to Ariel and Nutmeg, telling them it was nap time! in the same tone of voice every day.  They cheerfully piled on the bed.  But one day I said to Nutmeg, matter-of-factly, without my sing-song voice "Well, are we going to go upstairs and have a nap?" only to watch him get down from his chair and lead me upstairs.  Nutmeg also recognized questions, and if you asked him one, he would reply.  Otherwise, conversations with him were one-sided.  Twig, in contrast, rarely talked, which made me sad until I learned that cats do not use their voices to communicate to other cats, but only to clueless people, to whom they teach their language.  I wondered if he had so few desires or whether he thought expressing them was pointless.  Then I noticed that he "talked" to me by where he stood in the room or with the expression on his face.  If he stood just inside the kitchen door, he was reminding you it was meal time.  If he looked at you searchingly, he wanted you to sit down somewhere so the two of you could have some quality time.  He frequently tried to herd me onto the sofa or the bed in the spare room by looking meaningfully at me and then walking off, his ears swiveled backward to ensure I was following his lead.

Of my seven cats, two have been philosophers --Niagara and Twig.   Either the percentage of cats who are philosophers is very high or I have been gifted.  After Dan and I separated, I brought home a tall bookshelf, knocked down, in a compact, heavy box.  Apparently when the door caught the long box, I accidentally dropped it on Niagara, because when she didn't come for her dinner, I found her under the bed with a bloody mouth:  I had dislocated her jaw and cleanly broken her mandible.  Back at home, after surgery, she curled calmly in my lap to get well--forgiving me and teaching me that pain is best thought of as something you are enduring now, not something you foresee continuing on into a faraway future.  She was also attentive to my moods, and in my dark times she would sit crosswise on my lap, not facing away from me as she usually did.  Though small and black like her mother, she was slender and long, almost the shape of the cats found in Egyptian art.  She would look at me meaningfully:  "See how beautiful I am?  Stroke me.  Isn't that better?  And if I am beautiful, you will be fine in a little while."  In many ways, she taught me the calm that becomes endurance.

Twig was also a philosopher cat.  His whole life and demeanor reminded me that happiness doesn't require drama or excitement, but is made of daily habit and love.  He was the antithesis of the drama queen.  "The good life," he taught me, is created in part by attention to the life we are living.  The slowly reflective moments of stroking a purring cat and stopping to look up and notice how full of love and joy your life is both create and appreciate the life you are living.  As well, he taught me gratitude after I thought I had lost him 18 months ago to pancreatitis, but which he and his wonderful vet, Dr. Jinx, managed to subdue.  Since then I thanked him almost daily for gracing my home, for simply being beautifully alive.  Such a practice has resonated through my life because its reminder was fully, affectionately alive.

Philosopher cats?  I don't know if they do indeed experience the wisdom I ascribe to them.  But I do know that when you open house and heart to someone so entirely different from you, you are bound to learn something.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Open Letter to Neo-Liberal Politicians

The Saskatchewan 2017-2018 budget handed down by Finance Minister Kevin Doherty on March 22 is cynical and short-sighted. It makes the assumption, which is broadly challenged by economists, historians, and social scientists, that successful societies gather as much as possible of the their privileges, goods, and services in the hands of individuals and corporations. That unexamined Neo-Liberal agenda led to the 2008 meltdown, and we all know too well how that worked.

I'd like to take some of the assumptions behind your budget, particularly your cuts to schools, universities and libraries, along with your decision to sell the PFRA lands, to their logical conclusion.  While the portrait I create of a future Saskatchewan may seem fanciful, it nevertheless follows logically from the ideology that dictated your budget.  Much of my vision is based on sound science and wide reading in economics.

First, attracted by the lowered business taxes, businesses will indeed have moved to Saskatchewan.  But in two or three years they will have left again.  This is because an anti-intellectual Saskatchewan government, like those in the deep southern United States, will not have an educated workforce for the knowledge economy.  Moreover, new industries dedicated to renewable energy sources, industries that provide good jobs, will have left because the government continues to put all of its support behind expensive carbon capture and storage facilities. 

Lacking a bus service, small towns become unproductive silos and a drain on health care dollars when people can no longer get to the larger urban centres to manage their health conditions and only go when they are in crisis.

There are three simple things that seniors can do to stave off dementia:  read, ensure that they can hear and interact with the world around them, and exercise.  As an unintended consequence of the budget you tabled in March, a future Saskatchewan will have more demented seniors in institutions because the government has cut subsidies for hearing aids and local libraries.

The landscape will be dominated by roads, Global Transportation Hubs, and football stadiums, which will have the whiff of scandal about them with respect to the buying and selling of land, interspersed with enormous agribusiness fields of grain that are not doing very well.  That is because the government's failure to establish an informed policy on climate change will have numerous unintended consequences.  Selling off the PFRA pastures to agri-business and oil and gas companies means that the province has lost one of its fountains of biodiversity.  When the grains that farmers grow are buffeted by extreme weather, we will have no hearty grasses in the Palliser Triangle to help us develop new breeds.  As well, the amounts of fertilizer necessary for agri-business will have killed off bees and other crucial pollinators.  As a result, food production will plummet.

The Saskatchewan Government will have felt morally compelled to accept refugees from Syria and other hot spots around the world.  Those refugees will have quickly migrated to Alberta, where even the Medicine Hat News notes that cuts to Saskatchewan libraries have a disproportionate effect on immigrants.  

...Leading me to a digression.  Clearly Education Minister Don Morgan spent no time in libraries before he cut their budgets, and didn't consult with anyone in the library system who knew what the modern library looked like or who could tell him about the current circulation patterns in our beautifully-integrated and envied library system.  His ignorance is patently clear.  He also didn't know that the Provincial Government is indeed currently not in the brick and mortar business of housing libraries; municipalities provide that space. His solution for many small communities, to meld the collections of the public library and the school together, was clearly not thought through:  he didn't realize the cost of such a project nor the danger to students if strangers were roaming through their school on the way to the public library.  Nor does he realize that e-resources, while important, are not a panacea; in any event, these are only available to people whose families earn enough to pay for internet access.  So cutting libraries cuts services to the most disadvantaged among us.

This year the Regina Public Library hosted 7,000 programs that involved 130,000 participants.  (I would recommend that the Education Minister read the RPL fact sheet that can be found at saskla.ca.)  Library use has increased 13% over the last five years and RPL had 1.5 million visits in 2016.  While their circulation statistics are impressive--they checked out over 2.2 million books, DVDs,eBooks, eAudiobooks, and magazines--they are much more a place to take out material.  

Back to the newcomers.  Libraries help them acquire literacy and update their resumes.  There are after-school reading programs that immigrant children can attend, letting them develop their English at the same time they become more familiar with Canadian customs and values.  Libraries help people apply for citizenship.  When those immigrants have migrated to Alberta,  you will find many of the basic services they kindly and patiently provide for us have fallen off.  The kind of intellectual and economic innovation you get when cultures collide won't occur.

I've got a lot of complaints about your budgets, but I keep coming back to libraries.  Why?  They welcome everyone, regardless of age, race, religion, social status, and wealth.  They provide support groups for breast cancer survivors.  They link a lonely woman from Afghanistan who was a skilled weaver with the Saskatchewan weaving community.  She has made a meaningful connection and now her English is coming nicely.  They provide career coaching.  Seniors knitters meet in libraries, knitting scarves and toques they festoon Victoria Park with in early winter, so that everyone who needs a hat can have one.

Libraries are at the centre of our democracy and our well-being.  They are where we learn to manage the planet better.  (No avid reader would tell you climate change is a hoax.)  They are where we connect with one another on equal footing.

Neo-Liberalism emphasizes the individual--the individual's accomplishments, the self-made man.  But it does so in a vacuum, as if he stands entirely alone, proudly tall in the midst of the prairie.  But it manages to ignore all the crucial things we share in common:  air, water, sunshine, roads, greenspaces, educational institutions.  Much of the land that individual stands tall on would not be as healthy as it is but for all those things we share in common.  

As a writer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the "good life" is.  I'm thinking of good ethically and psychologically.  What good actions do people take to make good lives for themselves?  What elements of their lives feed and nurture their inner sense of well-being?  I suspect that if you think about those questions, one of the first things that comes to mind is relationships you have with other people.  Your wife or husband.  Your children or grandchildren.  That old friend you have coffee with every couple of months who reminds you who you were as a teenager or a young adult.

So why are you building economic policy on the shoulders of the sovereign individual and not in the hands of two people in relation, shaking hands, giving a hug, sharing a story?


Here are a couple more things you might like to read:
http://saskla.ca/advocacy/cuts-to-budget-information-page

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/saskatchewan-should-take-note-libraries-are-sanctuaries-of-civil-society/article34644158/

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What is the good life?


I suspect that any artist will tell you that creativity has its rhythms. The first is that of creativity itself:  the spark of an idea, question, query, insight.  Then the playful fleshing out until you feel sure enough to begin drafting, drafting, drafting.  Then revising, revising, revising.  And the process isn't linear:  as you draft, you accidentally-on-purpose or unconsciously put in something unexpected and find that it resonates beautifully.  So you have to re-think, re-draft, re-revise.  You have to be willing to go around in circles if you are going to be a creative person. 

But the projects themselves have their rhythms.  I'm circling around in a little whirlpool right now.  Not an unpleasant whirlpool, mind you.  It's simply that most of my energy must go to revising my book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics.  And I've found that undertaking to revise and cut a book that would be 500 pages if typeset today means diving in and staying underwater as long as you can.  You develop momentum, your principles remain at least partly coherent, more of your complex argument stays stuck in your brain so that (let's see if I can stay with the water imagery) you aren't swimming upstream all the time.  But that doesn't mean that other creative projects, like my work on another collection of poetry I'm calling Aides Memoire for the moment, and Soul Weather aren't on my mind.  It's that two things happen.

First, you can't stop thinking about them, so you are constantly scanning inward and outward horizons for ideas, little touches of the human you can use, for new perspectives, new details, things you had never noticed before.  I suppose it's like living on high alert.  Second, you realize that this hiatus from your creative projects can actually be good for them.  When you are drafting, it's easy to get caught up in an entertaining scene and not realize that while interesting it has nothing to do with the core questions you are asking.  So trying to see the landscape you are studying from a mental hilltop is quite useful.  And of course, almost everything you read is put to this purpose in one way or another.  You learn a bit more about characterization.  You consider how effectively this writer has exploited a plot with extreme highs and lows, twists and turns, and consider whether it's something you want to do--which of course will mean completely rethinking your project.  Hiking a little higher, you wonder what it is you are doing and why.  Why are you driven to create?  Why has this project stuck to you like a burr through half a dozen years already (although those years were very full of almost everything but work on this project)?

For me, the most successful art asks questions, explores questions, provides themes and variations on questions, opens up a whole world of questions.  I don't need art to tell me one thing about the world--no matter how wise or powerful it is.  I want the artist to be my co-conspirator, someone who is willing to guide me through the labyrinth of a particular question by marking some of the intersections, some of the surprising turnings.  In turn, each culture at any given historic moment has questions that are so extraordinarily pressing that many artists find themselves immersed in them.  How do we construct and view a post-9/11 world?  How do we rediscover freedom and ethics after Nazism and the Holocaust?  What does a world look like when young people suddenly have a disposable income and a voice--the question of the sixties and seventies?  What is freedom--also the question of the sixties and seventies?  What does the working world look like after the 2008 market meltdown?  How can I be safe?--the question asked by women everywhere, by civilians and soldiers during any war, and by Muslims and Jews in far too many parts of the world.

But there's one question that writers keep coming back to.  George Eliot asked it, as did Jane Austen.  Virginia Woolf pondered it for much of her life, as did Henry James and Ernest Hemingway.  It is at the centre of a handful of extremely varied novels that I've read in the last little while:  Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Jonathan Safran Foer's Here I Am, Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time.  Two American novels, one Canadian novel, one French novel, one British novel.  One novel by an American Jew and one by a African-Canadian.

What is the good life?  And how many meanings of "good" are there?  Perhaps I have been drawn to see this question everywhere because, at bottom, this is the question my four young twenty-somethings and one newly-separated forty-something are asking themselves.  And its corollaries:  how do I get there?  In the context of racism, sexism, capitalism, in the context of poverty and wealth, in the context of a world that is heating up all too rapidly because perhaps we were sold a concept of the good life that's not very good--for the planet, anyway, how do we achieve the good life?  What...?

Here I came to grief.  There were just too many questions, while at the same time I thought my question was simply too big, too general to have any meaning.  Because I keep the house cool when I work, I crawled under a quilt; Twig piled on, made a nest, and began to have a bath.  As I watched him wash behind his ears, I thought.  How hard it is to be human!  A bundle of contradictory inner needs at the crossroads of innumerable social forces.  And let's not think about genes and physics.

I need to work this out, so I think I'll let it be my puzzle while I'm revising Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement.  Next time, I'll think about those novels and see what they have to say about this question of questions.  Until next Tuesday....




Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dear Jane III: Quilts and converstions; Art and conversation


When I posted Veronica's nearly-finished Country Crossroads quilt on Facebook just before Christmas, gifted ceramicist Jeannie Mah kindly wrote "Lovely! Your border is especially wonderful and flowing, a wonderfully exuberant touch to frame the detailed geometrics in a subtle range of red! and then some stitching on the white (which I always love!!) Well done, Kathleen.  Beauty!"  

The quilt is in conversation with itself:  the simple but heavily quilted white blocks balance the geometric, busier blocks, and as Jeannie noted (though I'm not entirely  happy with it), the border's flowing vines and rounded shapes, like the pomegranate at the centre of each border, contrast the geometry of the piecing.  As well, for each block to work, the contrast between colours, but even more between dark and light, has to be dramatic.



One of the reasons why I have long admired the "Dear Jane" quilt but never made any blocks was that each block seems a little lonely.  All of the blocks use a single fabric and muslin.  There's no conversation going on within the block as there is with my Country Crossroads.  But as I make more blocks, I can see that they are in conversation with one another.  Some of them largely involve calm squares, while others are made of triangles bursting off every which way. Some are made of dozens of tiny pieces, while others are made only of a few (I'm thinking of the blue and gold X here).  Muslin dominates in some, where others give a fanciful nineteenth-century reproduction fabric pride of place.  Some are busy; others are calm. 


I'm not sure I'm going to make all the blocks; it can take an entire afternoon to cut and piece a single block, like the brown one in the top right corner.  Each of those 8 little "flying geese" sections that radiate from the central square are a mere 3/4 inch by 1 1/2 inches.  You need to make them a little large and painstakingly cut them down to get them accurate.  I may simply make a handful and put them together in a small quilt.  But I'm getting the drift of Jane's aesthetic, though it's not entirely balanced in my photograph.  When you put the blocks together, it's like the perfect party.  You've got your clown, who keeps everyone cheerful and entertained.  You've got your introspective soul who breaks in with the most extraordinary observations about life, the universe, and everything, so that she always leaves you shaking your head.  There are the good souls (read a bit square) who are the foundation of any community or party, and the slightly manic people who go off in all directions but are so creative, so innovative, so out there that they inspire all of us.

I don't know whether you have noticed, but the words "conversation" and "dialogue" have become part of our political discourse.  This may in part be a product of the Trudeau government, which has from the beginning said they wanted to know what Canadians were thinking about as they go about the business of governing.  I can be appropriately cynical; Trudeau's latest cross country tour was clearly designed as a kind of distraction, and I'm not sure that the 'conversation' around how we would elect our leaders--hard as that committee worked--was given the hearing it deserved.  But still, I think conversation is good.  

Only this week, in the Globe and Mail, the organizers of "Growing Room,|" A Room of One's Own's fortieth birthday party note that some of the people they had invited to come some time ago have shown up on the "wrong" side of the Stephen Galloway firing at UBC.  (I use 'wrong' ironically; we haven't given enough information by either UBC or its Accountability person to come to a conclusion.)  In this case, two sets of rights seem to conflict:  those of the women who--and here as I am about to use verbs, I myself am in trouble--told of being sexually harassed by Galloway, and those of an academic/writer who deserves a clear explanation of the reasons for firing him.  And since this case involves the rest of his career, he has the right to have those reasons made public if he so chooses.  Yet the organizers of the Room birthday party thought that bringing all these disparate perspectives together and creating a dialogue would be helpful.  A Room of One's Own's publisher, Meghan Bell says that "I think conversation is the best antidote to conflict....I hope the festival will get people talking in person."  Festival director Arielle Spence says "It's somethiing we expect people are going to want to talk about....We hope that that event will create space for discussion, for potential ideas of ways that we can move forward."

Similarly, in this month's Literary Review of Canada, reviewer Naheed Mustafa reviews two quite different books about feminism, Jessa Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist:  A Feminist Manifesto, and Erin Winkler's Notes from a Feminist Killjoy:  Essays on Everyday Life.  In her review, which is very much worth reading, and which I cannot possibly do justice to, Mustafa identifies five kinds of feminism which occasionally, though too rarely, intersect:  the feminism of white women, the feminism of women of colour, the feminism coloured by women's religious loyalties, the feminism of class, and the feminism of age.  I admit to experiencing a lot of inner conflict even typing that list. My first response is to say "Yeah!  Wow!  All those perspectives!  We should be able to come up with something really good if we see ourselves are learners rather than experts and just listen and remain curious."  That's my inner idealist.  The realist in me realizes that the distinction between--and I'm being provocative with my use of language here--brown feminism and white feminism is as old as feminism itself and is deeply disturbing.  Mostly disturbing, frankly, is "white" feminism with its rather naive and narcissistic concern for glass ceilings and power structures.  Yes, we have to change things at the top.  We know that until the very nature of power is challenged--I myself would rather have autonomy than power:  wouldn't life be rich?--women are going to have to continue to fight.  But let's give some support to the women in the trenches.  I would really love to just listen to a Muslim woman help me understand the meaning of her headscarf and the meaning of her feminism.  Thankfully, Mustafa too foregrounds the conversation, ending her essay with this wonderful image of Brownian motion exemplified by "a piece of pollen moving around in a glass of water that is "erratic and kinetic":  "I find myself recalling that speck of pollen in water as I observe--again, I am the observer--bobbing along, bombarded by a multitude of opinions and arguments.  The motion of these conversations is constant and unstopping.  Like the pollen, they will never settle.  Perhaps that is the point."

But conversation isn't simply an important part of our political discourse, it's crucial to our aesthetic and ethical lives.  I have just finished reading Michael Helm's novel, After James, which is really three slightly linked novellas, each told in a different genre--the gothic tale, detective fiction, the apocalyptic narrative.  The novellas share some images, the name 'James,' and an overwhelming sense that our twenty-first century world, with its technology and its science, is  slipping off its moorings.  Few authorities are to be trusted.  The only solution is, in a sense, is to go off the grid.  The reader's task at the end of the novel is to consider how these three narratives inform one another, how they work together as a novel, how they establish a conversation with one another and with the reader.  Helm's view of the present moment is very dark, but the structure left me with enough space--enough of a part of the conversation--that I can decide how I relate to or believe in the malevolent forces abroad in the twenty-first century.  He respects me enough to let me do that.

I have also just finished re-reading Julian Barnes's biographical novel about Dmitri Shostakovitch.  The very label "biographical novel" raises eyebrows.  Clearly Barnes has done his research and can exploit the wonderful details of Shostakovitch's life when Stalin led the Soviet Union and Shostakovitch didn't write the "realist" (what does realism mean when it's applied to music?) work that would exemplify Lenin's notion that "art belongs to everyone."  Sure that the KGB were going to come for him, he spent every night for quite a while standing in the hallway of his apartment building next to the lift so that when the police came they wouldn't disturb his wife and daughter.  The 'novel' has very little in the way of plot; rather it's a meditation on how an artist keeps his integrity in the face of threats and blandishments offered by his government.  Barnes explores this question, but never answers it.  We need to provide that answer for ourselves.

Virginia Woolf famously loved conversations.  After all, that was what Bloomsbury was built on.  At the same time, she begins A Room of One's Own with that famous opening--"But, you may say, we asked you to write about women and fiction.  What does that have to do with a room of one's own?"  ('Autonomy,' I slyly answer.)  Those first two words, though, establish her sense that her words are simply part of a conversation, as does her instruction to her audience at the end.  Observing that while she has been speaking "you no doubt have been observing her failings and foibles and deciding what effect they have had on your opinions.  You have been contradicting her and making whatever additions and deductions seem good to you.  That is all as it should be, for in a question like this truth is only to be had by laying together many varieties of error."  Noting that the reading of books makes one see "more intensely afterwards," she of course suggests that they write books.  But there is a caveat: "Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted.  Think of things in themselves."  She and Mustafa would have a lot to say to one another as they compare what they see to what the other sees in a friendly and curious way that Woolf has.

But how am I going to get back to Jane's quilt, having come by way of novels written by men and articles on feminism--with a detour through public discourse and the policies of the Liberal government?  I suggested that my "Dear Jane" blogs, given that Jane was born two hundred years ago, would be a kind of anti-Trump meditation, because she made beautiful, useful things while he only has made money.  But I am tired of Trump.  I am going to reduce him to Tweets and innuendo and government by executive order, and merely point out that he is not interested in conversation.

Elaine Scarry, in her wonderful, brief book,  On Beauty and Being Just, argues that qualities of beauty, like the unity of the work of art or the overarching beauty of a sky that stands over all of us, keep ideas of justice alive when justice has withdrawn.  I am going to suggest that works of art, whether they are quilts or novels, have something of the same function.  They show respect for us, giving us the freedom to come to our own conclusions.  They keep conversation and dialogue alive. They keep our curiosity alive.  In the face of government by Tweet, innuendo, and executive orders, we are going to need reminders of such respect, such curiosity, such dialogue.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Juxtapositions and questions

Like many of you, I have spent last night and this morning in front of the TV, like a person watching, in slow motion, a railroad train approach a school bus stalled on the tracks.  I have been waiting for someone to tell me why.  What wounds or vicious extremist lies or precarious mental health prompted a young man to kill six Muslims who were praying.  These were people engaged in one of humankind's most profound acts:  thinking and speaking across the distance between our flawed humanness to some meaningful force larger and more capacious than our daily lives.  That force could be anything:  a belief in kindness, a commitment to the well-being of our communities, a dedication to the exploration of ideas, or any of the many gods we have conceived of to represent the best of ourselves.  

An explanation is not forthcoming.  So I think I will offer instead some juxtapositions.  

First, about sixteen and a half years ago, the west's ill-advised meddling in Middle Eastern religion and governance came home.  We have a long history of intervening in Islamic countries; the attack on New York City and Washington D.C. on September 2001 was a response to those ill-conceived interventions that has been followed by terrorist attacks at home and abroad.  Then George Bush invaded Iraq and executed Saddam Hussein, giving birth to Islamic State.  The Department of Homeland Security now has a workforce of 240,000 people and in 2011 was given funding of $198.8 billion. 

On the same day when 6 people died in the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre, Donald Trump was signing yet one more executive order beginning his ban on Muslims in the United States. Once again, he was not paying attention to details, but simply indulging in whim, probably violating international law and the American Constitution in the process.  He has created chaos for families who are living apart and has given the Muslim world one more piece of evidence that the west has declared war on Islam.  Why he has done this escapes me.  First, as I will tell anyone who will listen, more people die of weather than from terrorist attacks, yet we invest much more in Homeland Security than we do in building a green economy.  So this act isn't about the safety of Americans.  Perhaps it is about appealing to the darkest desires of the people who elected him so they won't notice when he and his billionaire cronies make poor Americans even poorer.   Perhaps it's part of his disturbing narcissism:  anyone who is not like me deserves what they get.  I think in some ways it is the response of a deeply unsatisfied man who drank the high-test capitalist kool-aid, and didn't find it satisfying.  Both psychologists and economists will tell you that if your goals are extrinsic--money, power, status--there is never enough of these things to allow you to feel nourished.  He has done exactly what he wanted--placing a ban on Muslims coming to the United States--but do you see him smiling?  If so, does that smile look like the grin of an alpha-male chimpanzee?

I want to name those six men, whose biographies provide a kind of United Nations of Islam--men who were fathers, husbands, uncles, sons; men who worked for universities and the Quebec government, men whose raison d'etre was to welcome and to help other, men who created the foundations of their communities:  Azzeddine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Mamadou Tanou, Ibrahima Barry, Abdelkrim Hassane.

And then I want to juxtapose September 11, 2001 and our reaction to it with our outpouring of sympathy for these men, their families, and their communities across Canada.  Did you think, in your rage and fear after 9/11 that you would be pouring out your grief for 6 innocent Muslims?

Something has happened, and I do not think it has merely happened in Canada:  there have been similar demonstrations of sympathy for these men and their families in London and Paris.  

Us versus them.  Since the days of our simian ancestors, this worldview probably accounts for much of the evil we have done to others.  We saw, with horror, that Donald Trump aroused that outlook in people who feel they have been left behind and who sought someone to blame that fact on.  They can't blame a changing world--one that has shifted from the creation of steel to the creation of technology--because it is impossible to turn back time.  Time is a moving target, much too huge to be brought down by puny human effort.  Much easier to blame the Mexicans, the Muslims, African-Americans.

But at the same time, countless people participate in the human effort to make the human rights umbrella protect more and more groups.  In the time since 9/11, Gay Pride parades have grown to mainstream events and gay marriage legalized.  The Truth and Reconciliation Report has been accepted by the government.  And there are Canada-wide and world-wide vigils for these six men.  It seems to me that despite the efforts of Donald Trump and Alexandre Bissonnette, humanity is determined to continue working ethically and imaginatively until all people of good will are under that protective umbrella with fellow members of the human family.  And like most families, we are laughing and hugging and telling our stories and singing our songs.

We mustn't congratulate ourselves prematurely.  Until this attitude is extended to Indigenous Peoples, until they have clean water, sound and meaningful educations, decent housing and economic opportunities on and off reserve, until the suicides stop, until missing and murdered aboriginal women are a distant memory, we are not finished.  

But we can keep on the way we began.  Be curious rather than judgmental about others.  Keep asking why.  And when you meet resistance, ask why not.




Thursday, January 26, 2017

Dear Jane 2: details matter

The block on the left is the second block I've made for the Jane A. Stickle quilt.  It's a block I've never seen before:  she has managed to create a kind of sunburst out of triangles.  There are forty pieces in the 4 1/2-inchh block.  I've tried to imagine her creating a pattern, and I am frankly baffled.  In order to produce my blocks, I have an extraordinary set of twenty-first century tools, including clear rulers that help me create any angle and are thick enough that I can use a rotary cutter (think of a pizza cutter--only dangerously sharp) to cut my pieces exactly.  I also have a foot on my sewing machine that gives me an exact 1/4-inch seam.

Jane, in all likelihood, would have had a pencil, a school-girl's ruler, an old newspaper, needle, thread, and thimble.  Remember that blank paper was so precious that letters were written from top to bottom, and then that the paper was rotated 90 degrees to write in the spaces between the lines. In that context, I'm not sure where she would have found enough blank space in old newspapers to lay out her marvelous designs (which could have been drawn much smaller), but when it came to making the pattern pieces to show her the size of triangle, rectangle, or square she needed, she would likely have drawn her design to scale on an old newspaper and cut the pieces out to mark around them on her fabric.  That would be the finished size of the piece.  She would then have to add a quarter of an inch, which she probably did by eye, sewing along the pencil lines--and matching them up exactly.  It is a painstaking process, much more difficult than it would be today.  Were she making a one-patch, like the Ocean Waves below (alternatively entitled the "Tents of Armageddon"), a single template, perhaps made from something more sturdy like cardboard or butcher's paper, would have allowed you to make the whole quilt.   Jane, in contrast, must have made hundreds of templates.  But she did it--and did it accurately--because it mattered.

You will have noticed that my photograph of Jane's blocks seems to be taken at an angle, but it's not.  Rather, the first block I made is about 1/2 inch too small.  Now I'm a "measure twice (at least) and cut once" kind of girl, so you can be sure that my pieces were originally the right size.  So I read Brenda Papadakis's instructions again, only to note that she tells you to make your seam 3/16ths of an inch rather than the usual 1/4 inch.  A seam takes up space--not only where the seam threads join the pieces, but where you lose fabric when you open out the pieces and fold back the seam.  That's true of all quilt blocks, but if you have only 3 seams over a space of 6 or 9 inches, as you do in the nine-patch blocks in the Amish quilt below, that small difference doesn't really register. But when you have multiple seams over 4 1/2 inches, you can lose quite a lot. 
"Details matter" must have been one of Jane's mantras as she worked on her quilt and figured out how to translate her vision--each of those complicated and original blocks--onto fabric.  Or perhaps "details matter" might have simply been part of her temperament or her work ethic--a way of being she brought to everything she did.

Details matter, no matter whether you are building or creating or organizing.  If you are going to suspend all the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency, it helps to know that the EPA doesn't simply do research on climate change, but it helps to get lead-free water to Flint Michigan and helps to build water treatment plants.  If you are going to call coal "clean and beautiful," it would help to know that the World Health Organization estimates that burning coal claims 1 million lives annually.  If you are going to come out in favour of torture, it would help to know that experts believe they very seldom gain reliable intelligence from someone who is tortured--and that in the process of the torture, both the torturer and the tortured lose their humanity.  And in the meantime, you have lost your moral credibility and perhaps made the world even more dangerous.  If you are going to dismantle public education in the country, it would helps to know--as economist Tomas Piketty has taught me--that the best way to ensure economic equality is to give people the educations they need.  If you are going to unfund any agency who raises the issue of women's reproductive health, it would help to know that by so doing you condemning that community to poverty for a longer period of time than necessary--in short that allowing women to control their lives and giving them educations is the best way to lift the whole community's standard of living.

It is easy, outside the provenance of detail and truth, to claim and plan anything you want.  Jane could have said, every morning of her life, "I am going to make one of the most imaginative and inventive quilts ever," but until she gets down to planning the blocks and ensuring their accuracy--that they will all fit together--such plans are simply a convenient fiction.  If you want to create the quilt or the country you need to get your hands dirty with newsprint and ink, with truth and detail and fact (not alternative facts), with evidence, knowledge, information.  Not simply wishful thinking.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dear Jane 1: The Jane A. Stickle Quilt in the Time of Trump


Jane A. Stickle (nee Blakeley) was born two hundred years ago this coming April 8.  We know little about her that cannot be inferred from her father's will or various nineteenth-century censuses, except for the remarkable quilt she designed and made during the Civil War.  She signed her quilt "In War Time 1863.  Pieces 5602, Jane A. Stickle."  When Donna Bister and Richard Cleveland were working on their book of historical quilts, Plain and Fancy, they visited the Bennington Museum after hearing that it had a collection of quilts.  The Stickle quilt was subsequenly chosen for the cover of their book, and travelled to the Vermont Quilt Festival, the Quilt Market in Houston, and was subsequently hung in the Vermont State House exhibition celebrating the state's quilters.  Brenda Manges Papadakis, who fell in love with the quilt on the cover of Plain and Fancy, who was a math teacher, and who began drafting quilt blocks from the photograph, finally went to Vermont to see what she could learn about its maker.  Very little, aside from where she is buried, where she lived for a time, that her father's will made note of a quilt that constituted part of his inheritance, and that several census records raise more mysteries than they solve.  Why did her husband move away for ten years, leaving her in charge of the farm?  What happened after his subsequent return in 1870 to force them to declare bankruptcy in 1877?  What did she do after his death, during the long time when she lived as a boarder until her own death in 1896?  

It could be worse:  at least she signed her work, something many quilters (I'm one of them) did not do, thinking it was merely "craft."  The fact that there are no children, no letters, no diary makes her a little unusual:  these resources are the staples of quilt historians' research.  It has occurred to me that she might have been illiterate.  But math and geometry presented no difficulties to this inventive woman.  We see this first in the most disarming place:  her choice to make her blocks 4 1/2 inches square.  Many quilt blocks are built on a grid of 3 or 4, meaning that the block is composed of squares three across and three down or four across and four down.  Sometimes that grid is supplemented with triangles or rectangles, but the grid itself forms a framework for your math. 

I don't have any simple examples around, but if you stare at this photograph for a few minutes, you can see that it's a 3-grid.  The size of the square in the middle of this churn dash block is the same size as the square made by the two triangles and the square made by the two rectangles.

The Puss in the Corner block is a four grid.  You can see that the rectangles are twice the size of the squares in each corner.  Taking the squares as your basic unit, you can then see that the block is easily divided into four.

 Jane Stickle's decision to make her blocks 4 1/2 inches square means that she can divide it into either a grid of 3 or a grid of 4.  If she's using three, the squares will be 1 1/2 inches; if she's using a four grid, they will be 1 1/8--a very unusual size.  This first decision gives her enormous flexibility. 

The signature on her quilt tells us something about its composition:  that she is purposefully highlighting her quilt's relation to the Civil War.  As I have said in an earlier blog, I can easily imagine her using the challenges of this extraordinary quilt to distract her from historical cataclysm.  Her practice informs mine.  I have decided to make this quilt during Trumptime as a way of meditating on something besides Trump's presidency and keeping alive a set of values antithetical to his.  Whereas he is all carelessness and bluster, Jane's blocks are ordered and inventive.  Where he stands for extrinsic values--money and fame and power, she represents the intrinsic values of delight in invention and craftsmanship.  He makes money and hate; she makes quilts.  How different can they be?

We can have no idea which block Jane made first, but the first block in Brenda Papadakis's book is a variation on the pinwheel.  I have put my block next to a conventional pinwheel block from another quilt I'm working on.  The first thing you notice is that she's got some very tiny pieces if you consider that each square in the grid is a mere 1 1/8 inrches.  You also see that hers suggests a pinwheel almost exploding, pieces flying off from centrifugal force.  If you are a poet or scholar or reader, like me, the block prompts you to intone the opening lines of Yeats's "Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


Now I don't think it's always a problem when the "falcon cannot hear the falconer" and when the centre does not hold.  There are times in history when revolutionary change is desperately needed.  When apartheid finally crumbled.  When the Berlin Wall was taken down.  When the Soviet Union once again became merely Russia and stopped imposing its ideology on its satellites.  Maybe even the French Revolution, bloody as it was.  In fact, I have a character in a story who finds she needs time to rebel against the centripetal force of motherhood that threatens to reduce her to a single point:  her identity as mother.  So she tells her husband "Maybe the falcon would like lunch for a change.  To eat slowly, not rush back to the falconer."  This desire for centrifugal force in her life also leads her to rebel against the rituals and timetables of her domestic  existence:  "Instead of filling up on Saturday, I want to run out of gas and meet my spiritual teacher on the road, who just happens to have a full jerry can in the trunk."

But making Jane's complicated and exploding pinwheel block gave me a chance to meditate on circumstances when change is not going to be helpful to the majority of people in a country.  The first occurs when language has gone wonky, when we know that a leader's words reflect only his desired version of reality, his self-interested, egotistical version of reality.  The second occurs when that leader is the centre, rather than his ideas about improving the lives of the community he leads.  

Barack Obama's wonderful farewell speech on Tuesday night was an example of how important words are to the act of leadership.  I suspect most of you were enthralled by the clarity and inclusiveness of his ideas and words:  the beauty of the speech caught our attention.  We could also see how effective it is when the words of a leader that mean what we all think they mean and when the intention of those words is to touch us, not simply provide the cloud of fiction for the president-elect to hide in.  We could also see in those words the fact that leadership is meant to  unite, not divide.  Obama's meditation on citizenship did not focus on the individual but on what we can bring to the collective.  

Language is at the centre of the social contract.  We can't even have a social contract without words.  But when words lose their meaning and are employed to elevate the leader, not to rally the citizens behind a nobler vision we can all pursue, we know we are on the edge of a dictatorship, loosely defined.  We are at the edge of the same kind of crisis that prompted Jane A. Stickle to create a quilt block that reflects centrifugal force:  what happens when the centre is empty of meaningful words.