I didn't make any New Year's resolutions this year. Between Bill's convalescence and two kittens, things were simply too chaotic to give me the time to reflect. And if I had time, I wanted to put it into my writing. I didn't think that not making resolutions this year was going to compromise my moral fibre. What I did notice, though, was a longing, a yearning for simplicity. For some reason, it mattered that I should take the most efficient route as I did my errands--taking into account traffic patterns and time of day. It mattered that any room in the house I walked into should tidy so I could see the way the sun's path was changing or the way the kittens' places for afternoon naps had become routine. I didn't want to wonder when I was going to read the six books on my bedside table. If I was writing prose, it mattered that my sentences should be as taut and clean as possible. It's true that Bill's health had signaled the way life could spiral into chaos with unimaginable speed, but I thought my desire for simplicity was something else--something positive, not simply a stay against pandemonium.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the bank to deposit the cash that came from the sales of Visible Cities at our various reading and didn't know if you could deposit it in an ATM. The line was short. It was also steadfastly unmoving. After about five or ten minutes, I thought to myself that I could get impatient or angry, but decided to be curious instead. Looking at the people conferring with the two tellers, I could see two things clearly: the people who don't use ATM's are elderly and want someone to explain something to them, or they are fairly recent immigrants, accompanied by a helpful friend, who want to set up bank accounts. Impatience or anger seemed fruitless, if not unfair or simply stupid. So I people-watched my way through the fifteen minutes it took and tried once again to solve some problems with a poem I'm working on about memory's twists and turns, about how memory can cut in and take over the present moment, like an over-eager dance partner.
Later in the day, when I was telling the story to Bill I asked him "When people get impatient or angry do they get what they want? The line's not going to move any faster. Anger will only raise your own blood pressure or adrenaline, or make other people unhappy or unhelpful. Whereas I want...." I thought for a moment. "Serenity." We were sitting at a red light when I suddenly had the sense that serenity and simplicity were connected.
There's an aesthetic connection, certainly. I'll admit to liking lifestyle porn, so I can tell you how absolutely trendy grey rooms are right now. Pared right down. (I'm not sure I could do a Regina winter in a grey room: the colour would make me colder and my mood gloomier.) In these rooms, there's nothing--to evoke William Morris (who would never paint a room grey)--that isn't either useful or beautiful, and there's just enough in the room to engage your eyes but not to seem confusing, chaotic, or fussy. No Sevres, but a couple of pieces by Jack Sures. No hot pink or turquoise pillows, but cotton and natural wood.. If it's a sunny day, the room probably evokes serenity.
Or think about the people you see day in and day out. How do their simple--or their over-the-top--sartorial choices affect your mood or the way you relate to them? (It probably differs according to your mood or the weather.)
Or think about the novels of Kim Thúy, none of which has a name longer than three letters or scenes longer than 3 pages, or exceeds 140 pages. Ru won a Governor General's Award and the Canada Reads Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, so the consensus seems to be that these are wonderful novels. I certainly loved them and loved the way their simplicity encouraged me to reread sections to find the resonances and the echoes that exist in the form rather than in words. Another part of their appeal is explained by her simple yet poetic language that pulls you into the scene or reflection you are reading. Part of it has to do with how she trains her simple materials to resonate with other scenes in the novel. Thúy has managed to get her simple, evocative prose to resonate down the empathetic corridors of the reader's mind.
I think there's also a temporal connection between simplicity and serenity: it's hard to be serene when you are so busy you can't think. Today's work climate doesn't foster serenity, given that employers are continually demanding more productivity of everyone. Never mind that you can't be more productive if you deal with people or complex systems. You can be more productive on an assembly line, perhaps, or doing something physical, but economist Thomas Piketty notes that teachers, social workers, writers, and artists can't ride the productivity wave. When I retired, the first dramatic change I noticed--and like a frog in hot water I should have anticipated it, but didn't--was that I could concentrate on one thing at a time. I had autonomy. In my retirement, I've found myself reluctant to even multi-task (which psychologists will tell you never works well anyway), because I want to meditate deeply, which just takes time. It's not simply that Rome wasn't built in a day; the Greeks didn't hurry to give us ideas which still often serve us well.
There's also an ethical connection between serenity and simplicity. We all have too much stuff, and making and shipping all that stuff has contributed significantly to climate change. As well, all that stuff crowding our closets and our desks makes us anything but serene. What can I say besides buy less and ensure that what you buy lasts a long time and is versatile? Fortunately, technology sometimes solves our problems. Several years ago, Bill gave me an iPad mini, which I have loaded up with books--free books in the public domain from Project Gutenberg (most recently A Tale of Two Cities), and contemporary books from Kobo.
Along the same lines, James Wallman has written a book called Stuffocation, which describes our sense of being overwhelmed by stuff: "Stuffocation is that feeling you get when you have to fight through piles of stuff you don't use to find the thing you need, or when someone gives you something and your gut reaction isn't “thank you,” but “what on earth makes you think I could possibly want or need that?" Instead of thinking of more stuff in positive terms, like we used to, we now think more means more hassle, more to manage, and more to think about. Overwhelmed and suffocating from stuff, we are feeling 'stuffocation.'"
But before I go all purist about simplicity and serenity, I need to be honest about the fact that two things I love to do are decidedly not simple. The first is quilting. Yes, you can make a quilt out of two fabrics--and in fact some of the most startling quilts are red and white or blue and white. But this is true only if the pieced design is complex. In any work of art there is a balance between order and complexity and perhaps the balance that you like--your taste in art--has much to do with the balance that characterizes the work. I will admit to hating nineteenth-century French history painting. Part of that has to do with the history of painting itself: the French Academy valued enormous, well-populated paintings of historic events, and used these values to attempt to silence (or its visual equivalent) the Impressionists. So I dislike history painting on principle: it became conventional to the point where it made people unable to even see what the Impressionists were up to. But I also dislike it because it's fussy without having impact. Much better, I think, are Monet's late paintings of lilies--which often have sixteen layers of paint--but which manifest the light and air and water of the lily ponds--not to mention the lilies themselves. Here--for me at least--is a complexity that I value, reined in as it is by an over-arching aesthetic purpose.
Quilting takes time. At the top of the blog you saw the Tree of Life blocks I've completed of reproduction fabrics--except for the cream that the tree nestles in: all of the background fabrics have writing on them, since the quilt is for a writer. I want the complexity of a scrap quilt, one that urges the viewer or owner to simply home in on a block and wonder why that particular group of fabrics has been chosen and to note both the harmony between colours and the occasional dissonance. I can't make the quilt simpler: it won't be the quilt I want to make. Each block uses 49 different fabrics. Cutting a single 2 7/8 square out of 49 fabrics and then repeating that process again for the next block (there will be 23 when I'm finished) would be extraordinarily time-consuming. But what I can do is to streamline the process, as you can see in the photograph below. I begin by cutting strips of fabric exactly 2 7/8 inches wide. Moving clockwise from there, you can see I pair dark and light squares, draw a line between two opposite corners, and then sew two seams, each 1/4 inch from the line. I do these in great long strings that look like prayer flags--you see these in the middle of the photograph. Then I cut on the line and press the resulting pairs of half square triangles before I start organizing them into a block. The blocks are built in four sections, so now that I've got all my triangles made, I can simply do a section at a time, and don't need to upend my sewing room--which is also my writing room--every time I want to work on the quilt.
Reading also takes time and it's not a process we can speed up. When Veronica and I were in London, we spent almost two full days at the National Gallery, and we were always the slowest people in the room. We've noticed this elsewhere. When we found an exhibition of Picasso's work in Florence, two groups of people went by us as we took in the art. The same was true of an exhibition of Van Gogh's work in Canada's National Gallery--and when we got to the end we decided to go back to the beginning before our timed ticket expired. We talk and look and compare and try out theories and are often found simply standing in front of a painting--or one of Picasso's drawings for Guernica-- gobsmacked. But you don't have to take the time we take. You can survey a room and home in on a couple of works that really strike you, and move on. You don't have to read every didactic panel; it's perfectly respectable to go to an art gallery for simply the visual delight.
You don't have this choice when you read. I suppose the speediest readers are those who ask the basic question "what happens next?" But if you are reading Lord of the Rings or Remembrance of Lost Time, that's not going to go very fast--and in the case of Remembrance is not going to be very satisfying. Reading paintings or books takes the time to let art's complexity unfold. Here's where we still need the distinction between the words "simple" and "simplistic" that seems to have disappeared. Thúy's novels are simple, but not simplistic. If we peel back to the most basic definition of art, something that is crafted or made and offers insight into what it is like to be human, we can see that "simplistic" isn't on, for the simple reason that being human, being human around other humans, is a complicated undertaking.
And I don't want art to necessarily make me serene. Some art does: Monet's waterlilies immerse me in the wonder of seeing, and I don't think I need them to do much more. But Picasso's drawings for Guernica show him trying out a variety of visual languages to create a painting that is so disturbing that when Colin Powell announced the beginning of the war in Iraq at the United Nations, American officials insisted that Guernica be covered over. There is art's power to disturb writ large. Right now my nighttime reading is Joan Didion's memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, about the sudden death of her husband and the terrifying medical emergencies that clustered around her daughter, Quintana. It is not serene. But Didion, as usual, knows things that I need to learn about death and grief.
And all this illustrates how problematic values are. I'm thinking of the myriad values we hold that give our days and our behaviour and our choices shape. My days are shaped now by my attempt to strive--in some things--for simplicity. (Though I can't get over my maddening habit of parenthetical thoughts--inserting a thought inside the sentence that is already a thought--because thoughts of course are complex.) But I can't prove that simplicity is better, just as we can't prove that people who don't make love until they are married or people who love animals are ethically superior, or that people who are tidy--or messy--are more fruitfully creative.
But when I'm reading Didion's memoir in bed at night and little Lyra sits in my lap and stretches up to put his paws and face against my throat, I put my book down.