Thursday, June 1, 2023

Observation, Moral Beauty, and an untrustworthy world

Early in May, Medrie Purdham and I created a "First Draft" webinar for the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild.  These presentations have their own distinct form.  One writer gives a 15-minute presentation on a chosen topic, and then he or she is joined by a host--someone who knows something about the writer's topic--who will facilitate a conversation between them.  Medrie had chosen me to be her interlocutor, and I was honoured and delighted for the chance to spend time thinking carefully about poetry with her.  Medrie is an an extraordinary poet--there's no one quite like her, no one with her deep and quirky and insightful view of the world.  She is also a person who thinks conscientiously about whatever she does.  I expected that her exploration of the ethics and aesthetics of writing about one's family in "Should there be a 'son' in 'sonnet'?" would be full of insight, and it was. 

When we were chatting about our ideas over coffee the week before, and in the webinar itself, Medrie brought up the issue of observation.  She told me that some of her friends found Little Housewolf, her astounding book of poetry published by Vehicule Press, to be a kind of primer for observing one's children.  In the webinar itself, she considered the downsides of writing about one's family:  does writing about your children strip them of their privacy? Do poets feed off the intimate lives of the people they are supposed to protect? But she also made the point that should they choose some day to read her poems about them, they would at the very least feel seen

Careful observation is one of the foundations of poetry; often shaky or unsatisfying poems lack the kind of resonant detail that would have made the poem richer and more meaningful. But being seen is of another order altogether.  It's existential.  It's a mark that you are complex enough and interesting enough and beautiful enough in that complicated human way that someone decides to pay attention. And perhaps if she is an artist--a poet, photographer, painter, novelist, composer--she will attempt to capture the you-ness of you. As I work on the Abecedarius about my mother and her generation, I realize that one cause of my mother's frequent bouts of despair or depression had to do with the fact that in some contexts she wasn't seen.  She was a role and not a person.  And having written that, I realize that what I'm doing and why I chose the abecedarius form is that it demanded that I have 26 views of her, that I would present 26 facets of her, as if she were a diamond. I knew the poems were a kind of witnessing, but this idea of being seen adds another layer to that.

Perhaps the popularity of social media like Facebook or Instagram has to do with our desire to be seen, though I suspect the medium works against that.  We're more likely to work on our brand and less likely, for good reasons, to let ourselves be vulnerable.  Being vulnerable on Facebook, particularly if you are a teenager, is not a good idea. This might explain why teenagers these days, and especially teenage girls, report shocking levels of depression.  In those years between about 14 and about 28, we need the validation of being seen in a true and significant way, and if our friends and dates and mentors are too busy being on social media, they can't offer the real thing.  Perhaps they don't even know what the real thing is.

But lack of careful observation also distorts our experience of "the real world," particularly since mainstream media gives us a cynical sense of what the world is like and how people conduct themselves.  Please, I beg you--and probably not for the last time--read Rutger Bregman's Humankind.  But today I'm going to talk about cooperation. Led by Giovanni Rossi, a sociologist at UCLA, a group of researchers from Equador, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK carefully analyzed hours and hours of videotape recorded in social situations in widely different cultures.  They found that about every two minutes, one person conveyed--explicitly, with words, or implicitly, with gestures--that they needed help.  It's there in polite cliches: please pass the salt.  It's what my physiotherapist does when he wants me to do something unusual and I simply hand him my glasses.  It's with us when we stop as we drive down Fifteenth Avenue or Thirteenth Avenue because someone wants to cross or is in the midst of j-walking.  There's almost a rule in the Cathedral Neighbourhood that you stop for pedestrians, particularly when it's cold and wet. I was shopping for tomatoes and dahlias yesterday, and a woman with a walker who had explained to me that she'd sprained her ankle and was having trouble moving, managed to unseat all the plants she'd put on her walker.  Without a word, three people moved in to help her gather things up again.

What Rossi's team noticed was that 79% of the time, people will be helpful, and when they can't be, they explain why 74% of the time.  They never explain why they are helping, which suggests that being cooperative is the human default.  Of course, what these sociologists were discovering with their videos was small examples of moral beauty, the thing that most frequently prompts us to feel awe--that wonderful, affirming experience that lifts our spirits.

I almost titled this blog post "Observation, Moral Beauty, and Your Cell Phone," but I knew if I did you would give it a miss.  But first I need to confess that I caved and finally bought a cell phone.  So I'm not in quite the position I was several months ago.  I've learned a bit about how seductive it is to have a combination computer and phone in your pocket. But if you are consulting your cell phone while you are walking down the street, standing in line at the grocery store, pulling it out to answer email from work, you're missing things. You're not seeing the purple irises that are almost black in their evening glory.  You're probably not smelling lilacs.  You're missing the beauty that would feed your soul. And you're not seeing generous behaviour in the coffee shop.  You go on living in the little pod of people who are your social media friends or in the shell you make for yourself while you check emails from work on a beautiful weekend when you should be throwing a frisbee for your dog. If you want to know that the world is basically a good place--especially in this historical moment when wars and autocrats are too too numerous--you have to observe the daily life around you. If you want an antidote to the kind of divisiveness that characterizes political discourse these days, you could do worse than stop to observe the ways people cooperate daily without asking for political credentials.

Simone Weil is right:  "Attention is the rarest and the purest form of generosity."  And Medrie's poems have a truth about them in that they make observation and being seen into the beautiful, generous gift that it is. Being observant is what poetry does--or it dies on the page.  Practice being observant more often. Because it is a practice.


Monday, May 1, 2023

Awe and flash mobs

This has been a hard spring in Regina.  After a winter we couldn't really complain about, we had a March that put paid to any sense of promise.  It was cold, though it thawed just enough to leave our footing uncertain.  You had to look hard to find a sense of awe among the piles of dirty snow and the reticent tree branches, which refused to even think of putting out buds.  They stood stoically, mere grey and brown.  That about summed up the landscape:  grey and brown and cold and dangerous. But the only way to take care of myself was to do that careful observing that Thoreau says, in Walden, is the point of any education: "What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?  Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?" That little shift at the end ties, as does much of Walden, one's flourishing as a person to the carefulness and depth of one's observations and reflections. So I looked more carefully.  The juncos are back and a small flock of them are eating something quite distant from my bird feeders, something on the surface of the snow.  Their yellow beaks cheer me up--but that, you have to admit, is looking hard for one's cheer, and finding it in the very small.  Occasionally the nuthatches would visit the feeders, and would let me come very close because, I'm sure, they have no predators.  What is quicker than a nuthatch?  They are these quick little bundles of joy that make squeaky-toy sounds. Awe-inspiring? Well, maybe, if you realize that much of the earth's beauty lies in what is tiny or even invisible.

I depended on the sky, which seemed to have become even more blue, to have dialed up the colour, if that is possible.  It's impossible to imagine infinity.  The fact that I want to ask the question "What's beyond the universe?" illustrates the limits of my imagination.  But if I study the prairie sky, just stand there and let my eyes sink into it, I feel as if I'm on the edge of understanding infinity.  It's like a Mark Rothko or Agnes Martin canvas in that way, thin layers of colour that, where they are thinnest, gesture toward something beyond the canvas.  I've also noticed that the light has changed, that late afternoon, early evening, the sun's rays are high in the trees, painting them golden.  The light has changed with the solstice.  I feel churlish when I say that's not enough.

Early in March, I wrote about my post-Covid mental health struggles (off the menu for today) and about Dacher Keltner's research on awe.  Brief recap:  he and his team elicited 2,600 brief narratives or descriptions of moments that prompted his subjecs to feel awe.  They wrote to Keltner's team in 20 different languages, which, by  necessity, means that he sought out at least twenty different perspectives.  With this methodology, he sought to eliminate cultural biases.  For example, if he'd studied 2,600 Finns, purportedly the happiest people in the world, his sample would have been seriously skewed.  Once these descriptions were translated, he and his team sought to identify the kinds of things that elicited awe.  

Now I know that when I put a link to a new post on Facebook, it languishes without a photograph.  So last night I roamed through my camera looking for my photographs from our visit to Yellowstone, hoping to find a nice big waterfall. I found a modest waterfall from Waterton Park, though the uplift of angled rock hints at awe-inspiring force . Awe is often thought of as vast:  Keltner writes "Vastness can be physical--for example, when you stand next to a 350-foot tree or hear a singer's voice or electric guitar fill the space of an arena.  Vastness can be temporal, as when a laugh or a scent transports you back in time to the sounds or aromas of your childhood.  Vastness can be semantic, or about ideas, most notably when an epiphany integrates scattered beliefs and unknowns into a coherent thesis about the world. Vastness can be challenging, unsettling, and destabilizing.  In evoking awe, it reveals that our current knowledge is not up to the task of making sense of what we have encountered.  And so, in awe, we go in search of new forms of understanding." 

These kinds of vastness seem in accord with my mantra:  "Just be curious." You trip over a memory, or the hair on the back of your neck rises in response to music or your heart leaps in joy, and your response is to want to stop and investigate your reaction. Or you want to wrap it around you like a cloak. You don't fully understand it, but there it is, surprising and comforting at the same time.

When Keltner and his team started to create their taxonomy of awe, there were some surprises.  Most commonly, awe was inspired by "moral beauty," a phrase I love, a phrase implying an aesthetic different from the one that frequently catches our eye.  Moral beauty is not the reason we post selfies to Facebook or Instagram. Experiencing moral beauty, we're moved by someone's kindness, by the "goodness of intention and action." We're moved when people encounter suffering and find surprising strength within themselves. We find moral beauty in the Dalai Lama's smile because the expression on his face manifests his philosophical cheerfulness, his empathy and compassion.  We saw it in Nelson Mandela's face because he refused to seek revenge for his years of imprisonment.  It is heartening--is that the word I want?--hopeful?--is that the word?--that most of the awe we encounter or feel is prompted by humans at their best. It suggests that some standard--even in an age of wars of aggression and political divisions that make communication all but impossible between people of different beliefs--something still holds. 

The next most common experience of awe is encountered in "collective effervescence." That's an expression of sociologist Emile Durkheim.  Translated into less abstract words, collective effervescence refers to human bodies in the throes of celebrating their physical prowess--together--in a display of communal effort.  You see it in a well-played baseball game and in a ballet.  You see it in flash mobs.  

I rediscovered flash mobs when my physiotherapist asked me to practice my balance exercises while watching something.  Basically, he wants me to distract myself, making it harder to balance and thus teaching my brain some new skills. My ears (my vestibular systems, actually) will never give me reliable information about where horizontal and vertical are, so my brain has to mediate the conflicting information they do give me. I rarely cruise the internet for something to watch, but something about my physiotherapist's directive and my thoughts about "collective effervescence" and the fact videos of flash mobs are around 5 minutes long--about how long it takes me to stand on one foot or pretend I'm on a tight rope--made it a natural.  People seeming to gather casually in Prestwick Airport performed ABBA tunes for a woman who is heading out for a birthday vacation. ABBA tunes are lively--in fact any music chosen for a flash mob is likely to have energy, so I kind of bopped along while standing on one foot. I'm afraid Covid-19 made flash mobs rare as hen's teeth, but they're one of my favourite forms of collective effervescence, because they're generous. I particularly like the ones that film the reaction of the audience because their faces light up with surprise and joy, which we see too rarely.

There's one in particular that moved me deeply.  A tall string bass player in white tie and tails standing in the middle of a European square begins playing the early notes of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."  He is joined by a cellist, and then two violins come out of nowhere as a crowd collects.  Woodwinds come around the corner of one building, brass around another, assembling an orchestra out of nothing. Out of the gathering crowd come more violins and violas.  An observer dressed in khakis and a plaid shirt turns out to be a conductor and the crowd to his right, which includes a father with his daughter sitting on his shoulder, begins to sing.  

Why would an orchestra do this?  What motivated them to rearrange and condense Beethoven's music for a smaller group of musicians playing in a town square?  Then they would have had to think through the logistics, all to play the "Ode to Joy" to a crowd that really might not care. Except I'm sure they knew that Beethoven's music is irresistible, even to a little boy in a red shirt who climbed a light pole to direct his very own orchestra.  There is moral beauty here, as well as collective effervescence, for they planned this performance simply to bring joy.  What human being doesn't need a hit of joy occasionally?  It may be part of the human condition, to have a shallow well of joy, especially when spring is in hiding.  And music--another source of the awe Keltner found in his 2,600 stories--can bring this to us, especially when it's a cheerful surprise. 

So this group of musicians hit three of Keltner's eight sources of awe:  moral beauty, collective effervescence, and music.  I wish our spring could learn something from flash mobs--nature is another of Keltner's sources of awe.  Now I must admit that I began writing this in the middle of April--a dratted ugly April if ever there was one, full of cloudy skies and wind. I couldn't, to be frank, find the energy.  It's not kind to dis mother nature, but there it is.  She could have done a better job, though maybe she's pissed about how we treat her--and who can argue with that? Finally the windy days seemed to pass, the blue calm to reign in the sky.  I've noticed that my Lemony Lace Elderberry, which will be a bright yellowy green, has reddish buds.  Who understand the colours of leaves at the beginning of their lives and at the end?  My rhubarb is tasting the air with red shoots. The evening darkness is staved off until after 8.  Maybe spring is inevitable. Surely warmth and buds and green will eclipse our brown grey world, dropping crystalline petals into the swirling cones of the ferns. I won't have to look quite so hard for my daily awe.  It will be right outside my door and I will be thankful.


Thursday, March 2, 2023


Long Covid is so challenging because it seems to take many forms, some of them physical, some of them affecting the brain.  One of the "trends" that medical professionals have seen is that people with mental illness before their Covid experience find those conditions coming back with a vengeance.  I struggled with depression between the ages of 16 and 40--three or four six- or eight-week trips into darkness each year.  Then when I moved to Regina, I joked that there was something helpful in the water.  During the last ten years or so, they have returned, though with nothing like the virulence of those earlier 24 years.  Either that, or at 73 (almost), I've gotten better at mitigating their effect on my life.  But with Covid in August. they seem to have come back.

A couple of weeks after Covid's onset, I'd get up in the morning, feeling enclosed in darkness, and my first thought would be "How am I going to get through today?"  A day here and there is manageable.  Indeed, James Parker, who writes the back page "Ode" for The Atlantic, says that mood swings are part of being normal in the twenty-first century as a pandemic seems to wind down while people are still dying and we're rescuing nature too slowly and a war in Ukraine hits its first anniversary and political factions have lost all sense of respect for anyone else's experience or opinion.   But then the blackness came three days a week.  Then for a whole week.  These weren't mood swings anymore.

My indispensable therapist encourages my use of metaphors.  So I told him that the days and weeks were like living deep in the back of a catacomb with only a torn map marking my route out and a flashlight that was flickering--a sign the batteries were dying.  It's a decent metaphor because the darkness is pretty extreme, as is the sense of something weighing on you, closing in.  Then one really bad afternoon, I had written in my calendar that I was to listen to Arvo Pärt's Berlin Mass.  Because I was just marching through my days desultorily, I did what my calendar told me to do.  The mass was written for the Catholic Days in Berlin in May of 1990, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I could hear that the choir was singing in Latin, so I got out the liner notes and followed along. The opening Kyrie, asking for mercy, is haunting, full of dissonances made beautiful by the clear voices. Yes, well might I want some mercy right about now. Two alleluia verses, not a traditional part of the mass, spoke of renewal, followed by Veni sancta spiritus. Its cheerful triple meter asked for light, consolation, solace. After a Credo and Sanctus, the mass ended with a plangent plea to the Lamb of God for peace. All these longings, for mercy, light, consolation and peace reach back to the Middle Ages.

By the end, I was  —the only word I’ve found was “lifted,” as if I’d come in touch with something transcendent. The cloud that let me see only half the world was gone. Puzzled, I tried to think where the transcendence came from. I’m not religious, certainly not Catholic, but I’ve been to enough Latin masses and have sung enough of them to recognize the words. Maybe being put in touch with those historical roots had given me perspective? 

Or maybe it was an aesthetic transcendence. Had Pärt channeled the masses that go back and back to Flemish Renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem, through Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky?

Music became the first panel in what I came to call my “transcendent cloak,” another helpful metaphor.  There are elements of my life that, like a cloak, give me at least transitory comfort during days that are, mood-wise, cold and dark.  Urged by my therapist to describe my cloak, I realized it was made of heavy silk, brocade, and velvet.  It had two sides; I could wear the side with whites and creams and tans and greys when I needed gentle, serene comfort.  When I needed energy, I would wear the side made of teal and navy and rose and purple. More importantly, though, I discovered that my cloak was made of my family, my rich friendships, these two cats who seem to believe that the most important task in their lives is to love and to be present.  Nature is a crucial part of my cloak, whether it’s just the sparrows at the feeder or a day radiant with hoarfrost. Beauty of any kind can assuage my sense that I am completely out of tune with the world.  Music was another strand. Stopping to be grateful can jar me into remembering what I have, not what I lack.  These were the resources I had.  They didn't "cure" the depression; indeed, we don't know enough about the brain to cure depression.  But they were a counterbalance, a distraction, a visceral and profound reminder that the world didn't consists simply of darkness.

On one of my particularly dark days, I had lunch with Nikka in her apartment---always a respite, partly because we talk of anything except my mood.  As I went down her stairs, which are outside  (she lives in the second storey apartment of an old house), I slipped down the last five of her snowy steps, losing both my shoes and badly bruising the leg that was behind me when I slipped.  "Shit!" I yelled at the universe, at the clouds, at whoever would listen.  "I can't do this! I've had enough!" In my stocking feet, I stumbled through six inches of snow under her stairs where I found both my shoes.  I got into the car to cry.  You have to realize that falling (again) sets off my whole sense that my body is becoming incompetent, the worst symptom being vertigo that leads people, I am quite sure, to believe I am perpetually drunk. But my little camera was in the cup holder because my task for that afternoon was to take photographs of the startling hoarfrost.  So I drove into Wascana Park and was stopped--pulled up--by beauty.  What is this earth and her nature that gives us such beauty?

A few days later, "awe" turned out to be my word of the week.  The Atlantic, which publishes an evening newsletter, included a link to a brief essay by Dacher Keltner called "The Quiet Profundity of Everyday Awe." Keltner begins "What gives you a sense of awe?  That word, awe--the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world--is often associated with the extraordinary.  You might imagine standing next to a 350-foot tree or on a wide-open plain with a storm approaching, or hearing an electric guitar fill the space of an arena, or holding the tiny finger of a newborn baby.  Awe blows us away.  It reminds us that there are forces bigger than ourselves, and it reveals that our current knowledge is not up to the task of making sense of what we have encountered." Later that day I got on the exercise bike and settled down to listen to Krista Tippett, whose "On Being" podcast has returned--for which I am so grateful.  She was interviewing Keltner.  Was "awe" the word for the week, or was Keltner on a book tour?

I bought the ebook, and it turns out there is a science of awe, a reason Pärt's music and the hoarfrost jolted me out of the darkness.  Keltner and his colleagues asked 2,600 people, who used 20 languages and came from around the world, to write about experiences that led them to feel awe.  Once these small essays were translated, he and his team of researchers could see that things that prompted awe fell into eight categories, which I'll write about in the coming weeks. Following up on this research, Keltner and his team discovered that the experience of awe had all kinds of positive effects on our bodies and moods.  

But here is the main takeaway:  Awe takes us out of ourselves.  It opens us up to new experiences and feelings and questions.  In one of his experiments, he had people go on "awe walks," where they would actively look for things that inspired awe.  He also had a control group that was simply asked to take a walk.  Both groups were encouraged to record their walks with photographs.  Those in the control group invariably took classic selfies.  In the "awe" group they stopped doing that quite soon and simply took photographs of the world around them.  The longer they looked for awe, the more they found.  We can deliberately make awe a practice in our days, days that for good reason are often difficult and dark, bringing a modicum of light to our moods. In the face of this difficult historical moment, there is actually something we can do for ourselves.

Friday, January 6, 2023


I had a meltdown on the way back from coffee on the morning of Christmas Eve.  

We have coffee and breakfast at French Press every Saturday morning, and I had just given them a Christmas card describing how welcome we--and nine other Saturday morning regulars, with whom we now chat--feel there.  For Christmas, they changed their little vases with live flowers for candles, and George often uses quiet moments to put a new tea light on a table and light it.  They greet us by name; George fills my coffee cup with hot water when he sees me come in the door to heat my mug. So I'd tried to describe their gifts tor cheer and friendliness--backed up by wonderful baking--that they give us Saturday after Saturday.  We all need someone to hold up a mirror to our best selves occasionally, and Christmas seemed a good time to do this for George and Nicole.  Still, I was a bit surprised by their heartfelt response.

But the meltdown.  We were on our way home and Bill had turned on his radio to find Handel's Messiah in the middle of Part Two where Handel gets political.  The bass has a lovely solo describing what the "kings of the earth" get up to: "Why do the nations so furiously rage together / And why do the people imagine a vain thing?"  What vain thing do we imagine?  Conquest?  Power? More and bigger and better? The tenor chimes in to suggesting that God or Christ "break them with a rod of iron; / thou shalt dash them in pieces / like a potter's vessel."  Almost without a break, the choir sings the "Hallelujah Chorus."  Were I in a concert hall, I would have stood, as King George II did in 1741.  We don't know why:  was he moved by the music, was he stiff from sitting so long, or was  his gout troubling him? Perhaps the point is this:  we don't accord any other piece of classical music this honour, and we've intuitively kept up the practice for 281 years.  It just feels right.

But I simply cried and sobbed.  I couldn't stop.  Words take time to choose and say or write, but my initial reaction was almost wordless. It took no time at all. We had choices. Breaking or making was the first choice that I felt at all my nerve ends. We could rage furiously or we could make something beautiful, as Handel did.  I felt this with startling force.  And then the words came, because, really, I needed to explain this reaction to Bill. I was reacting to most of 2022, to the rage we saw behind Putin's war, his raging need to punish Ukrainians for not submitting to his will and his army.  We saw it in some members of the truckers' convoy.  We certainly have seen it in American politics, where rage and factionalism are bringing Congress to a halt.  We've seen it in the Iranian government's response to women's demand for more freedom. What is this world-wide rage all about?  I couldn't answer that, and this made me cry harder.  (There's another kind of rage:  the "Me too" rage, the "Black Lives Matter" rage, the Iranian protestors' rage, but that's for another day.)

We could make war or we could make beauty or knit socks or sand down an old table or write a note to an aunt who isn't well.   We could take a photograph of hoarfrost or a sunrise and put it on Facebook.  Have you noticed how many people react to posts that are beautiful? We can choose to create or destroy. When we get up in the morning, we can choose rage or choose kindness and patience.  We can be curious rather than judgmental. 

It's hard being human.  It's been very hard the last three years. Not surprisingly, the new year has brought out all the researchers and columnists writing about our our mental and physical wellness, and it turns out it's pretty simple.  Foster relationships. Tend them and value them.  Having good relationships is the easiest way to be happy; it's also the most direct route to a long life.  Exercise is the second most direct route to a long and happy life.  So work your muscles and your heart--both your hearts--the one in your chest and the one between your ears.  

I know that the mornings are still dark here.  My weather ap tells me that we're gaining a minute of sunlight every afternoon but that sunrise has barely budged. But once you're had your first coffee, you can choose to celebrate the human with your own "hallelujah" a la Handel or Cohen.   Practice guerilla kindness. Open a door.  Buy someone a coffee.  Listen to someone's struggles.  Kindness is not only good for us, though our neurotransmitters certainly give us a lovely glow afterwards.  It's also a chance to change the world of the recipient, who regards a kind act more highly than we'd guess.  It changes their sense of the world for a moment.  They take away a sense of warmth--of your warmth.  And they trust the world a little bit more.  Trust is in very short supply these days, and is probably one of the reasons there is so much rage.  When we don't trust the world, we're more likely to sort people into "us" and "them."  That at least lets us know who we are and what we believe.  

Instead, you could embrace human uncertainty and knit another row, make another quilt block, sow some seeds (or just read the seed catalogue for now), send a grateful email.  And hear the soft "hallelujah!" behind you.  

Monday, November 28, 2022


Yesterday morning, I opened my diary to see how I was going to shape this week.  My head is in too many places, so I needed to have a plan for focusing.  I seriously need to rewrite the cover letter and pitch for Soul Weather.  Plus it needs a new name.  I'm worried that publishers and readers are going to expect something religious and it's not that at all. The best I've done so far is Weather for Recreating Home. Can you help me and come up with a briefer, more mellifluous word for "recreating?"  I'm stumped.  At the same time, I'm working on the sixth chapter of The Frosted Bough:  Essays on Minimalism, and I'd hoped to have it done and fairly polished by the end of the year.  This chapter is a biggie:  it's on Thoreau, whose "Simplify! Simplify!" from Walden is probably a rallying cry for most minimalists.  Also, I've got a volume of poems, Appointments with Memory, nearly ready to go, and thought I'd work on those when I hit a wall writing about Thoreau, who is charming and an old fart in turn.  He built his house on Walden Pond in 1845, when he was 28, and finished revising Walden when he was 37, so perhaps it's not surprising that I hear so many voices in its pages.  I knew I would be coming to grief quite regularly, and so thought that working on Appointments with Memory would be a reasonable, welcome, and productive distraction.  

So I opened my diary, intent on planning a sane week, and read "Blog post on hope."  Who wrote that?  And when?  Well, I obviously did--it's my distinctive handwriting--but which me?  And what on earth did I mean?  Was it the who me was a bit hopeful earlier in November after the midterm elections in the States, wherein we discovered that the average voter does care about democracy and abortion rights, not only inflation?  Voters can think about more than one thing at a time--which is not what pollsters conclude. Is it the one that cheered along with Ukrainians when their army entered Kherson?  Is it the one who got excited when I read that the COP mechanism was actually working?  Even though countries are not punished for not making their targets, most countries are working hard to get there. There seems to be such good will in that collection of people.

Perhaps "hope" was written by the woman who read Krista Tippett's newsletter and learned of biologist Lynn Margulis who argues that life didn't happen on earth because combat was central to creatures' ways of being in the world, but because life cooperated.  We have bacteria happily living in our guts that help break down food and keep our immune system strong.  Trees cooperate with one another via the interconnections of mycorrhizal fungi, who also benefit.  (I know I've told you to read Suzanne Simard's Finding the Mother Tree.  Seriously, do it over the winter solstice if you really want hope.)  Margulis coined the word endosymbiosis, which describes the deep, "radical collaborative creativity" that is at the heart of evolution. Our nature is to cooperate, to work together, not to wage wars.  It's just that wars get more air time. You opened the door for someone today or loaned a cookbook to a friend or just shared cups of coffee to listen to what's challenging her at the moment.  That's cooperation.

Or is it the me that's listening to Beethoven string quartets while I write, and who has written only one paragraph today?  (I chose Beethoven because his life was so difficult and his music is so joyful:  clearly he had something to teach me.)  It couldn't have been the me who was in such despair about what the Russians did in Kherson before they left--the trauma and rape and torture. Or who remains in despair over the bombing of maternity hospitals and of water and power infrastructure.  By any definition, this situation has changed from one of war to terrorism--or so Russian specialist Anne Applebaum, who writes for Atlantic, argues.  In war you kill soldiers who, one hopes, have signed up and believe in what they are fighting for.  (Now even that is questionable.)  Terrorists kill the innocent. What emptiness lives in the deep empty crevasse at the centre of Putin's heart?

My stats tell me that I've written 381 posts here since I began writing in the fall of 2010.  So I'm beginning to repeat myself but hope you won't mind.  If I'm supposed to be writing about hope today, there are two things I can tell you.  

First, beauty. By most measures, we have icky weather in Regina today--a fine, sandy blowing snow that makes roads fairly treacherous.  But if I just look at what this snow does to the landscape, rendering it with the softness of fog, so that the world has been made tenuous, it's beautiful. It's as if the elms have been swathed in something out of one of Mrs Radcliffe's Gothic novels, some fog or muslin or frame of mind.  Clouds seem to hover just above the street.  The world has been--if you will let me use the fancy but precise word--defamiliarized.  So it says "Look!"  That in itself is a gift.  But you also realize that nature regularly gives us gifts, even on the prairies in winter.  What kind of a world do we inhabit if its very fabric is not only cooperation but beauty?

Second, kindness.  It nearly makes me weep to say that the only way I believe I can change the world is to be kind, because (see wars and elections and terrorism, above) it feels so infinitesmal.  But when people react to your unexpected kindness, you have a chance to see that it matters in a way that cannot, like numbers of soldiers, sizes of graves, or tons of bombs, be quantified.  Numbers aren't everything.  (See cooperation, above.)  You're keeping a practice alive every day, asserting that cooperation is infinitely more important than individual wealth or power.  That's saying something.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Easing into change

On October 1, I started spending half an hour in the morning in front of my SAD light with a cup of coffee, a book of poems, and a bird feeder just outside the window.  My days could be filled with dread for the effect the short days could have on my energy and my mental health. But I can't go there. I can take care of today and begin it with a lovely ritual. Some winters have been fine, some have nearly broken my spirit.  But today, I'm fine, and that's all I can be sure of.  That's all that's certain.  

I've been trying to renegotiate my relationship with certainty.  Part of that has to do with my obsession with news:  I could see that I was spending fruitless time collecting as much intel as I could so I might have some sense of what was coming.  Covid-19 made that impossible.  No one could have predicted that, on the two-year anniversary of the Chinese Government's admission that there was a new virus that was killing many people, we would have more cases than ever thanks to Omicron.  How do you 'predict' a virus's mutations? The war in Ukraine also made that impossible.  We know some things:  that the Russian army and their weaponry are not particularly effective.  But I'm not sure even Putin knows what he's going to do when he has to admit he is well and truly cornered. Meanwhile, he continues to lob bombs into Ukraine, often destroying apartments, schools, hospitals and energy infrastructure.  Young women living in Afghanistan under the Taliban are not only forbidden to go to school but are often raped and abused. Is this what religious fundamentalism and all its obsession about purity comes to? Covid numbers are heading up, as they are wont to do in the fall.  My daughter's 16-year-old cat had all but stopped eating, in spite of appetite stimulants. Then certainty fell in on us:  We needed to put Whimsy to sleep.

(No.  Searching for certainty isn't the only reason I watch the news.  Every day when I eat my morning oatmeal, I ask "How is it with humankind this morning?"  See above.  Yet we don't live in a world where cruelty and disaster are the way of the world.  Future Crunch reports that poverty around the world is falling significantly.  India's Supreme Court has deemed that women have a right to choose whether or not to see a pregnancy to term.  We're discovering that Basic Income works as we thought it might--having positive impacts on children's health and adults' search for good jobs.  In the last twenty years, 2 billion more people gained access to safe drinking water.  (Canadians had better get busy.) And today, David Wallace-Wells, the climate emergency prophet who wrote The Uninhabitable Earth, admits he's hopeful that we are on our way to avoiding the worst of what he predicted.)     

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron often convinces me that the very state of being alive is chock full of uncertainty.  If I'm having trouble getting metaphysical with her, I simply think about moving parts.  How many moving parts are there in my body and my mind?  How many moving parts there are in my relationships, moving parts within each of the people who are a glorious part of my sense of well-being? And in the world outside my personal bubble?  All those moving parts add up to profound uncertainty.

Paradoxically, this may explain why I love fall, even when it comes with snow and cloud.

I watch autumn carefully.  There's a lovely mid-sized tree that the city has planted on boulevards, an ash of some kind.  It is one of the first trees to turn and it is the creamiest gold in fall:  the colour actually seems to have a softly silky texture.  Then the plants on the creek bank begin to turn shades I cannot name.  There's the ruddy-green the wild roses turn, the ruddy brown of some weeds.  There's the sound of the grasses with their tall dry stalks.  The humble cotoneaster begins to turn next, but it takes it a while to go from gold to red--and in fact made that final turn into red just as the snow came down. The elm trees are outliers.  Some years they simply give up their green leaves like frightened comic book cats shedding fur.  Other years the colour drains out of them subtly.  This year they have hung onto their leaves for quite a long time, becoming a golden green, like some unearthly metal that suffered a sea change, becoming something rich and strange.  Yesterday I went for a walk and had plenty to study in spite of the snow. There were lilacs that looked like decorative sprays of antique bronze unearthed from somewhere unknown. Bright jack-o-lantern plants glowed in the snow.

All this slow-busy change, I remind myself, is in the service of gathering energy:  plants draw down the energy captured in their leaves to store it underground.  Some of it will be syphoned off to feed the helpful fungi which tangle in their roots.  (If you haven't read Merlin Sheldrake's Entangled Life or Suzanne Simard's Finding the Mother Tree, you must.  They are the perfect books to read in the winter dark.)  When spring comes, the trees drive that energy back up to the tips of each stem, where it turns back to leaves.

So here I am, seemingly poised in the middle of uncertainty, engrossed in watching change happen. It's a matter of how I watch, deliberately and carefully, immersed in the present moment. 

I've been writing about minimalist composers Philip Glass (who wrote the soundtracks for Kundun and The Hours) and Arvo Pärt, whose Fratres or Fur Alina you might know. Some people call minimalist music "going nowhere music" for its tendency to repeat and repeat and repeat--changing your whole sense of time--to suddenly but subtly change.  Because most minimalist music is beautiful, I'm willing to listen closely, waiting for the change to come and appreciating it when it does.

Minimalist music and the acceptance of uncertainty encouraged by Buddhists come together here to explain why I love fall.  I'm encouraged by beauty or philosophy to be patient, to watch or listen carefully.  That is to say that I'm deeply planted in the present moment. The paradox is accomplished:  I'm here right now.  But I'm inside a moment created by nature's changes or uncertainty in the world. Since I'm more than just fine right here in this moment, I will find a way to be fine in other circumstances.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Kindness and goodness

Henry James has said that "Three things in life are important.  The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind.  And the third is to be kind."  I don't know many authors more finely attuned to the quality of our relations with one another, to the ethics of how we treat one another, or to what happens when we cease to treat one another with generosity. If he says that the almost obsessive attention his characters give to their relationships is useless if they aren't kind, I believe him.  

Bill's 27 months working from home during the pandemic only reinforced James's belief.  There were practical things we did to make the claustrophobic days as pleasant as could be.  I would put out a plate of fresh vegetables at lunch on a lovely glass dish given to me by Jeanne Shami.  I would scour "Reasons to Be Cheerful" and "Future Crunch" for good news.  I spent time cooking things I'd never tried before because time was mostly what I had. At dinner there were candles. But what I began to notice was how careful we both were, how patient we were and how patiently we listened to one another.  I noticed how deliberate our generosity and our gratitude were.  One day I summed it up by saying "Kindness lives here."  We stopped and looked carefully at one another.  Yes, that about summed it up.  

I didn't know that was going to tip me into a philosophical quandary.  What's the difference between kindness and goodness?  Why do we have two words that live in different houses but are so friendly?  Kindness can come into those everyday "micro-connections" that researchers are telling us are so important to our baseline well-being. I've witnessed some dispiriting moments when customers treated a barista or a grocery store clerk as if they were badly-programmed robots: the customer had completely forgotten the human connection.  So I'm really deliberate about telling someone who is harried by three customers before she or he gets to me "That's okay.  I'm not the only one who needs your attention."  Or I ask about what they're studying in university this fall.  I hold the door for a woman pushing her husband in a large wheelchair. Or I leave a crazy tip because I don't know how the barista's pandemic has been, and we're not out of the woods yet.  That's not goodness. And it borders on goody-two-shoes virtue signaling. But it's the only way I can think of to change the world. If just one of those people I've connected with or helped stands up a little straighter or settles the tension out of of their shoulders or smiles at someone else, I've done my job.

But kindness isn't hard.  It doesn't require me to make judgments or weigh options the way goodness does.  Rutger Bregman, whose Humankind I cannot recommend highly enough, finds that most people are pretty decent.  Given my experience, I believe him. So I'm not making any judgments about whether the seventy-five-year-old woman is really patient with her husband, in spite of the fact that he requires a lot of care and she has less and less energy every day and her feet hurt.  I'm not wondering whether the traffic jam in the coffee bar is the result of the barista's incompetence. The manager will sort that out. I'm just assuming everyone deserves kindness, and although the Buddhists tell me that is true, that feels a little lazy to someone coming from a western philosophical tradition.

But here's the thing.  The only cases where I can see that kindness and goodness aren't sharing a lot of space on their Venn diagram is when the good thing to do is to call someone else out, insist that they be accountable or take responsibility for their actions. At its most dramatic, I can say that principle of goodness requires us to resist evil or injustice.  Yet those who attacked the U.S. Capitol or the Truckers who settled down in Ottawa thought they were resisting injustice.  Maybe kindness has something to teach our assumptions that we're being good.

The kindness/goodness quandary is particularly hard for me when I see someone struggling to grow and not behaving very well in the process. I overthink whether or not I should call them out, and I'll admit I often decide not to. Which of us isn't striving to grow into a better person?  On whose schedule? At the same time, I'm such a wimp! Often I think the behaviour needs to be named but not necessarily judged.  If they're stuck or lazy, though, kindness be damned:  a little reality check is called for. But the last question I ask myself before I deliver my edict is whether my focus on goodness is at least informed by kindness.  After all, helping someone to grow or see themselves more clearly is kind as well as good.  

Or do I just want to be right!  Do I just need to blow my top because the last four days have been cloudy and my writing is not going well and the construction taking place on the street outside my window is driving me crazy with the constant "beep beep beep"? Am I depressed?  Did I get up on the wrong side of my bed? If I answer "yes" to any of those questions, my temper tantrum is called off. It has taken me a long time to get to this practice, to see that my judgments often have as much to do with my mood as with someone else's behaviour.  But, bit by bit, I'm getting better at it.  The ethics of depression, if we can speak of such a thing, force you to find the real source of your unhappiness and anger.

There was nothing kind about the Truckers or the Proud Boys.  They just wanted to have things their way.  Witness the violence.  Witness the way the Truckers wanted to make everyone else's life miserable.

So maybe asking that seemingly innocent questions, "Is this kind?" has more relevance to goodness than I'd thought when I started to write.

(I was also thinking about kindness and love--whether they're really different--but that's for another day.) 

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Life's broad river

Bill came home from work on a Tuesday in mid-August to declare that he felt like crap.  He hurt everywhere and he was sure he had a fever.  Without a kiss or a hug, he carried everything upstairs to take a Covid test, letting me know fifteen minutes later that it was positive. 

I was not panicked—we both had two vaccines and two boosters.  So my first reaction was to go into problem-solving mode.  My father repaired TVs before schematics were common, and my mother sought to be middle-class on a very tight budget, so I come from a family of problem solvers.  A tray table at our bedroom door would house hand sanitizer and paper towels and would give me a place to put his meals before I backed away (masked, of course) and he opened the door.  (I had to stand there until he claimed his meal so the cats wouldn’t eat it first.) His dishes went straight from their tray into the dishwasher and then the tray got washed before it even touched my counter.

Until I got bleach wipes, he could use the sanitizer—the annoying spray kind, which was why I found it under the kitchen sink—and paper towels to erase his presence in the bathroom.  Meanwhile, knowing I couldn’t ask him not to cough or sneeze in the bathroom, I took everything I use out of the room.  Towels, toothbrush, pills.  We have a single bathroom in the house; I would only use it for basics and he would relentlessly sanitize.  Then I made lists of groceries to get the next day, lists that didn’t look that different from those I made at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns.  Bleach wipes, vitamin C, oranges, orange juice, a bag of lovely rolls and some good cold cuts.  He craved chicken noodle soup.  We had green beans, cherry tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes coming ripe in the garden, along with just about every herb we’d want.

My second reaction was entirely different.  I had seen life during these two and a half years as a wide river, shallow at the edges, swiftly moving and deep in the middle, flowing through every landscape and language.  All over the world, people had been pulled into that river, some only adrift in its swift current for ten days or two weeks, their heads just above the water while they flailed, until they were strong enough to make their way to the shore.  Some people’s lives had been entirely changed by their immersion, at least for the foreseeable future.  Some were pulled into the middle and drowned, families watching from a distant shore, traumatized and grief-stricken, health care workers helpless and burned out from seeing so much suffering and death, from dedicating themselves to healing others which, in the early days, they had to do with so little knowledge or equipment, with so few drugs.  With the appearance of a pale red line, we were promptly swept to that river’s shore, joining a stream of diverse humanity. The water smelled like hospitals and sanitizer and old people’s residences.  I could feel its slippery humidity on my skin, like something left by a fever.

Bill, I suspected, especially by his second day, when his symptoms were a slight fever, muscles that ached everywhere, exhaustion, lung congestion that he coughed out several times a day, would be plashing at the edge, and I would be walking alongside him, with the odd bowl of chicken soup or a plate of his favourite pork chop dish with mushrooms and oregano-infused tomato sauce.  And noodles.  He was hungry—a good sign. 

Perhaps this metaphor verges on drama and cliché, but I can’t find a better one to capture how all of us have oriented our lives, our hopes, our daily habits and decisions and occasional delights by a single…what? What metaphor is large enough to capture how a mass of humanity has been swept up by a single force, like metal filings to an immense magnet?  Because I was not alive during World War II and didn’t experience my mother’s panic about being a lonely single parent, panic that changed her body irremediably, because I didn’t read the newspaper headlines on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, I can’t find a better one.   That little red line made it impossible not to see—no, it made it imperative that I see how our experience connected us to a world-wide community, how it rendered us all helpless and human and frightened—how so many of us felt the same things (until the exhaustion and the blame started).

But there was also a third reaction.  Parts of life were suddenly irradiated.  The next morning when I watered the vegetable garden, a spider’s web in the corner of my herb planter pulsed with light in the morning breeze.  When I drove home from the grocery store armed with cans of chicken noodle soup and oranges and bleach wipes, the local pump track was thronged with kids, their mothers collected in the small shade of a small tree, talking to one another, petting their calm dogs.  ‘Oh, that’s life,’ I thought. While I was watering the roses, our elderly neighbour walked toward his house with a book under his arm.  He had been to the little library down the street and had found himself a book—lucky man! These small human gestures were beautifully flooded with light.

Yes, I caught it, but all our precautions meant that I didn’t get it until Bill began to feel better.  Mostly I tried to ignore it and keep on reading.  And I’m on the mend.

Thursday, July 28, 2022


Something happened last Saturday morning.  It was as if I was breathing in wonder--though I couldn't explain why. True, we had altered our usual Saturday ritual by having breakfast at Brewed Awakenings downtown rather than French Press on south Albert, so I had an entirely different group of people to observe and wonder about.  And I had different things to notice, like all the fish made out of bits and pieces of machinery and gears.  There was one robot figure near the cashier that held up a sign reading "Peace."  I couldn't agree with it more. And the young, energetic barista was a delight all by herself.

Then Bill and I put away our books and got a bag out of the trunk for the short walk to the Farmer's Market for our first visit this year.  I bought fresh peas!  They took me half an hour to get them out of their pods, but every one that went bouncing around on the floor was fair game for my cats, who love peas and scurry for them crazily.  Go figure.  And I found tiny carrots.  Farmers' markets, I learned this week from one of my favourite e-newsletters, "Reasons to Be Cheerful," almost disappeared with the rise of supermarkets.  But it seems we can't resist buying produce--or mead, or doggie treats--from the person who grew or made it.  And I had to think of Farmers' Markets in the context of the time we're living through.  They are really important to our future.  We can't keep on with the high-carbon industrial farming that turns whole hillsides gold or blue--though I can't help admiring the sheer verve of fields of canola or flax.  And canola and flax together in the same landscape!  Still, we can't continue to ship wine from France in those heavy bottles or buy all our carrots from California. Local not only tastes better, it's always more carbon-efficient.  What you are paying for is labour, not an airplane ticket.  I couldn't help but look around and see the people at the Farmers' Market as the ones who will get us through once we really begin questioning what truly needs to be shipped thousands of miles.

Our Farmers' Market has a nice plaza downtown, but the Farmers' Market I grew up with as a child gathered on a huge parking lot we used during the school year for our early drivers' ed classes.  There were holes in the concrete where the farmers put in the legs for the old slanting wooden shelves that held their produce. I have such memories of going there with my mother.  I remember a farmer who happily cut a cantaloupe in half for us to smell, thinking I'd never smelled anything quite so rich.  He taught me to press the end of the cantaloupe that connected to the stem to gauge how ripe it is.  I remember the year--Michigan is known for its fruit trees on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan--red delicious apples arrived in farmers' markets.  Our favourite apple seller showed us the characteristic little bumps on the bottom of a red delicious and cut one to give us a taste.  So different from the softer, more mealy Spartans or MacIntosh that were the apples we usually ate.  Its crispness was a delight, a kind of clarity that echoed the late August sunlight.  Every year, Mother bought a peck of peaches and a peck of pears--so beautiful in their brocade skins--to can.  We would sit in the back yard under our elm tree, in our clamshell chairs, a roasting pan on our laps for the peels, and peel fruit for days and days, it seemed.  

Maybe memory was the source of my wonder?  The memories were rich and the crowds were heartwarming and varied.  There was sitar music, and the all the things people had made and grown created a colourful kaleidoscope. It was a delight to do out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye people-watching. The Farmer's Market was a feast for the senses.  But I didn't quite think the Farmers' Market was the source of my wonder.

When we got home, the groceries put away, it was time to fertilize the garden.  I do the roses and Bill does everything else that blooms.  I do the shrubs that don't bloom and Bill gives the ferns a good watering.  Then I do the vegetable garden.  Regina is greengreengreen this summer, thanks to the rain.  The roses were past their peak--I would deadhead them and the itinerant daisies the next day--but the liiles and the hydrangea were on their way and the clematis hadn't stopped blooming.  Maybe that was the cause of the wonder I felt?  Frankly, after hauling a dozen watering cans with their proper dose of fertilizer in them, I was simply tired.

So I went in the house and opened all the windows.  Saturday began cool and it would stay relatively cool.  We could have all the fresh air we wanted.  No closing drapes against the sun or closing down the windows in the afternoon.  And that was when it hit me.  It was the coolness that I'd been walking through all day that stirred something.  Maybe a hint of fall--my favourite time of year?  I think it was actually that I didn't have to work against Mother Nature.  We were on the same side all day, and the weather forecast, which turned out to be mostly right, though it missed a few periods of rain, projected cool days all week.

Solastalgia is the word we've chosen for the grief we feel as we notice all the changes in our environment, on our planet.  But a summer day that was just a summer day, not an argument about how hot I liked it or about how dark rooms needed to be to keep us cool or about how I would sleep tonight--that summer day rekindled wonder.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Hope: Learn It from the Bees

This morning I was down on my knees, weeding the vegetable garden so my tomatoes, beans, potatoes, cukes, lettuces, and herbs could get the best of the water and food in the soil.  And, to be frank, I love weeding.  I love the look of a garden after a good bout of weeding. I love this acknowledgement that I am merely nature's handmaiden.  After I've put in seeds and plants, I can add water and some fertilizer to my garden, but that's about the extent of my powers.  I can't take away too much water.  I can't do anything about unseasonably hot or cold days, except to see things are watered on the hot ones.  But I can weed.

While I was weeding among the tomatoes, I was buzzed by a couple of bees, reminding me of my last year of teaching.  I'd decided it was important to teach an English 110 class on literature and the environment. (English 110 is the second English class most of the students on campus are required to take.) I remembered telling them that if people disappeared, the earth would thrive.  But if the bugs disappeared, particularly the pollinators like bees, the human race would be toast.  So we're here courtesy of bees and their kindred.  Interestingly, when I read the final exams for that class I noticed that almost every student had found somewhere to include that fact and I remember being rather pleased that I may have shifted their sense that people are the centre of the universe.

It's humbling, isn't it?  Bugs. This humility runs through Jenna Butler's Revery:  A Year of Bees.  Jenna and her husband, Thomas Lock, live off the grid, just at the edge of the boreal forest in Alberta, where they farm and keep bees. The book begins with Jenna up in the wee morning hours on a cold January day to stoke their stove, light a wax taper, and daydream through seed catalogues.  Choosing what to grow in their vegetable and cutting gardens--choosing what will feed them literally and what beauty will feed their souls--has an impact on everything around them, particularly their bees' sister pollinators.  In this scene, two of her book's themes meet.  How we must bring humility into our relationship with the natural world, and how we are profoundly interconnected with it.  Everything we do resonates outward.  

A garden, I tell myself when things aren't going as well among the flowers and shrubs and vegetables as I'd like, is always a work in progress.  Some things stay the same.  For years now I've had Asiatic lilies in my west perennial border.  But the weather has changed.  Last year was appallingly hot, and the lilies didn't flower.  This year it's been cool and rainy, so I think I'll get some blooms, but I'm not entirely sure yet.  When I visit the border, I look down into the Fibonacci swirl of leaves and ask if they're setting a bud.  Some of them are; others, I'm not sure about. As well, the enormous evergreen in my next door neighbour's yard has grown, so my lilies probably don't get enough sun.  There are too many variables!  Similarly, Jenna writes that "As students of the land, we can choose to learn through humility or hardship.  Humility can be a tough path at times.  It often means setting aside the things we dream of doing with the land until such time that we learn a way to make them possible without destroying ecosystems or compromising the many untouched acres of forest."

As Jenna thinks about seeds for the next summer, recognizing that she's just part of the landscape, she arrives at an ethics of husbandry that recognizes that we are interdependent, and that human beings are really only a small part of any ecosystem, a small part with outsized impacts: "One of the most powerful results of working with the land in a conscious way has been coming to see it as a series of interlinked ecosystems, and realizing that what we do to one ecosystem we effectively do to all" (22; emphasis mine).  Yes, she seeks to be careful what land she clears, what seeds she plants, but this involves some granular thinking. If they grow their garden into verges, for example, that will have an impact on the pollinators that have laboriously evolved to thrive on the plants that grow there.  Revery is full of facts about bees and bee-keeping.  Alberta is the fifth-largest producer of honey in the world, thanks in all likelihood to professional beekeepers who cart their bees around the province to fertilize canola.  But bumblebees are joined by 320 different species of bees, and not all of them are doing well.  So Jenna plants for her honeybees and for the others who are also busy fertilizing Alberta's varied ecosystems.

As well, she and Thomas are aware that their bee hives are complex; each kind of bee has its own task; the hive itself has its natural shape of a superorganism: "A superorganism is, at its core, a social unit that's carefully diversified when it comes to divisions of labour and works together as a whole" (24).  I try not to take my honey for granted, and I'm very careful to always buy Canadian honey.  In this sense, Revery is a gift to all of us, an insider's glimpse of how simple and yet complex hives are, particularly given how far north as their farm is, and how contemporary farming practices endanger them.  We learn about the coats the hives wear for about half the year and about how Jenna must order new queens from New Zealand when something hasn't gone quite right.  She and Thomas have two different ways of attending to their bees.  Jenna listens. And Thomas watches from what is apparently the best seat on the farm, one that calms and fascinates just about anyone who sits there.

These superorganisms to which they pay so much attention are natural synecdoches for the human relationship with the natural world, one that informs every decision Jenna and Thomas make on their farm.  If nature is fine, we'll be fine.  If nature is in trouble, we're in trouble--or will be soon. The ethics of husbandry that Jenna and Thomas practice acknowledges that when human beings work with the natural world, we are the beneficiaries.  As I've tried to show in my "Nature's Culture" poems, the complexity and generosity of nature can profoundly benefit us.  First, there's the sensual beauty they bring to our lives.  Jenna writes of harvesting the honey in late August:  "The scent of the kitchen on processing day is a smell as old as memory....The scent of it, and the taste of a stolen teaspoonful on the tongue, releases May's willow catkins and June's wild roses, July's white clover and August's goldenrod  It releases all the weather of a boreal summer in the faint tinge of forest fire smoke or the watery flavour of flooded blossoms" (89).  

European monks are credited not only for their tasty honey mead, but for their recognition that honey is a reliable unguent.  The Egyptians buried their dead with pots of honey.  Manuka honey from Australia and New Zealand can heal skin trauma. An Austrian, Heinrich Huttner, recognized how much he benefitted from inhaling the warm air as he worked his hives, coming to believe it could cure the common cold.  He has opened a bee spa where patients can take afternoon naps among the breath of bees and the scent of honey, which helps with a number of breathing-related ailments.  Jenna herself has turned to the bees as a way of understanding and mending her life-long relationship to pain. 

I've been working on this post for a while.  The vegetable garden is going to need weeding again soon, but right now I am encountering bees in my roses, where they seem to dance in the middle of the flowers.  Whenever I hem and haw about whether we should water the flowers and vegetables again today, I think of Bill saying something so wise and so grounded in his own experience.  He loves watering, especially after a tough day at work.  "Watering our garden," he reminds me "is an investment in our mental health."  It gives us beauty and food, two essentials for our well-being. And because tomorrow morning I'll be heading out to the roses again or watering the pole beans, it gives us hope.