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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....