Thursday, April 1, 2021

Why? Why write? Why quilt? Why beauty?


I have just finished listening to the report from Ontario about how much more virulent and deadly the B.1.1.7 variant is.  This is only the most recent evidence of what we are all experiencing if we live west of the Maritimes.  We had no idea, during last year's surreal lockdown, which in retrospect seemed oddly calm, that we would curtail our lives for over a year and then watch it get worse. 

Samuel Johnson said "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”  I think the same could be said for a pandemic--at the outset anyway.  Then ennui and boredom and the exhaustion of being continually subject to the threat; then the COVID dreams and the bad nights' sleep; then the drive to scream at politicians that, no, it's not a matter of the economy vs. the mental and physical health of the people who are looking to you to do the right thing--a drive you quickly suppress because it's pointless--make it impossible to concentrate on anything. Except in the middle of the night when you feel like a two-year-old and simply want to ask "Why?"  We're experiencing a world-wide trauma, that's why.  We're moving into the ecosystems of animals who, as retribution, give us their viruses, that's why. We don't belong there, that's why.  We're greedy, that's why. And then somewhere, deep inside the undergraduate in all of us, we know we've been experiencing an existential threat for over a year, and "why?" is exactly the right question.  At the very least, all the enforced isolation of the last year gives us time.

 I don't have any answers to the big question "Why?" except to say that under normal circumstances the very shape of my day answers the question.  Random acts of kindness.  Conversation with a friend.  Cats taking a nap with me, treating me daily as if I'm part of their tribe.  Lunch with Bill--one of the few bright spots in my day--where we talk about the most surprising things.  (At dinner, there is candle light but we're both more tired.) Walks without a mask or a tape measure.  Compassion and empathy.  Writing.  Learning a new Bach Suite.  Spring.  The beginning of any season.  Because life is itself a meaning often infused with joy.

But I have part way puzzled out three answers.  First, why write?  I have just finished working with an editor on Soul Weather, and a query package has gone out to several publishers.  I spent three weeks writing a cover letter and a "pitch"--easily the hardest writing I have ever done.  And the question "Why?" buzzed around my head in a particularly wasp-ish way.  Why was I trying to convince publishers that I'd written a wonderful novel?  Oh, I came to the egotistical answer about fame and fortune quite quickly, but decided to press on.  The first real answer is that I understand the world much better if I write about it.  At least once a week, I spend time with my journal, but I don't subject that to the pressures of fiction--which is, ironically, being as truthful as one can be.  A poem or the conversation in a novel has to sparkle with reality and you only get there if you can work with two things in tandem:  your vision of the world and your craftsmanship.  A lot of digging goes on.  A lot of sanding and drilling and filling in with rocks and taking the rocks out and polishing the empty oval.  Putting a single rock, now the size of your hand, that you've carefully lined up with the horizon and seen its truthfulness, gets  brushed off and put in alone among the words just so.  But, by godfry, there's this little scintillating tremor of meaning. 

Why quilt? The piecing is easily explained. It's curiosity and playfulness combined. What happens if you put this colour next to that one? This pattern or texture next to that one? What happens if you use this as a background, that as an accent? There's a long and wonderful history of quilting, and you want to respect that history while making something unlike what anyone else has made. There's the delight in craftsmanship, getting seams and points to line up just so, the conversation you make with the past and the future that Bill Reid attributes to things that are well made. But it's the hand quilting I'm curious about right now. It's clearly inefficient. I make quilt tops faster than I quilt them, and this is becoming a problem. Before COVID is over, I hope to baste up a couple of quilt tops so that when I spend more time in the garden this summer I can quilt at the end of the day and watch the dusk slowly fall. Hand quilting centres me, the way knitting centres a lot of people. Again, there's the sense of craftsmanship: my stitches are tiny! It's meditative; my mind can wander through memories and make surprising connections. It's almost part of my creative practice the way walking is for other poets. Hand quilting also connects me in a comforting, sustaining way to centuries of women for whom this was their art. I celebrate that by keeping up the practice rather than sending my smaller quilts out to be machine quilted.

 Why beauty? How long have you got? Okay, let's just talk about beauty during a pandemic. The order that you usually comprehend in something beautiful--the balance, the unity--deliver little hits of meaningfulness that we badly need. Surely, if tulips come up every spring, all of nature is not as disordered as the pandemic. Beauty stops us in our tracks, offering respite. Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, writes "It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level."  We need exactly that wake-up call from the sameness of lockdown.  Alexander Nehamas notes that beauty seems to reward our attention.  There is something about a beautiful painting or landscape or flower that is just beyond us, so we keep returning to it.  There's a joie de vivre about engaging with something beautiful that is not present in our daily lives right now.  Finally, we can't define beauty:  we can't come up with a definition of beauty that includes everything everyone believes to be beautiful while eliminating those things which someone believes are not beautiful.  So beauty is personal.  When you stand before something beautiful, you are in some ways standing before one of the most inexplicable things about yourself.

I can't give you either a quilt or a novel today.  But you can give yourself beauty.  Don't forget to appeal to all of your senses.  That perfume you bought to wear for special occasions?  Wear some today.  That piece of heavy jewellery you never wear?  Feel it against your skin.  Feel it when it's cool and then heavy with your warmth.  Wear that wisp of brilliant silk your dear mother-in-law bought you.  Buy flowers with your groceries.  Follow Kew Gardens of the Museum of Modern Art on Instagram.  Read Shawna Lemay's blog or look a the photographs of a former student of mine on Instagram, Lara Stoudt.  Read a sonnet out loud.  Put on some jazz at dinnertime. Chocolate, obviously.

There.  I think I can do tomorrow.

The photographs above are of quilts waiting for my needle.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Simple Pleasures, Spontaneity and Serendidpity

 Here in Canada, we might well feel as if we're looking at the beginning of the end of the Coronavirus, though last fall's overwhelming second wave and the threat of "variants of interest" should have taught us not to get too cocky or too comfortable.  Still, vaccines are on their way.  It's probably time to start thinking about what elements of our pandemic lives we want to keep. Many people have said that they like the slower pace of life that the limitations of pandemic life brought into play.  Lately I've been noticing that people have been celebrating "the simple pleasures" we found in our homes and neighbourhoods: families having time (too much time?) to hang out and binge watch movies, baking bread, going for walks, eating meals together. 

Then there are the simple pleasures we miss.  Hugs.  High fives.  I've longed to sit in a coffee shop and read while listening to the music of other people's conversations. It occurs to me that coffee shops are one place where we are our most convivial selves and being convivial is exactly one of the things we've missed. When Saskatchewan's numbers were down (before the "variants of interest" showed up), I spent an hour reading W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz in Brewed Awakenings.  I'd turned to Sebald, even to this grim and disturbing novel that uncovers the trauma experienced by someone put on kinder transport and who spent the war safely in Wales, because I needed the comfort of reading something I'd read before.  I needed an antidote to the uncertainty that began every day:  how were our "numbers" doing?  How was the vaccine roll out going?  I also needed a novel about one of life's other big traumas--World War II and the Holocaust--to lend myself some perspective. 

Most of us are navigating, I suspect, between uncertainty and boredom, trying to use what agency we have to make the days more bearable and even more pleasurable.  It's been a kind of forced practice of hygge:  how much cheer and pleasure can  you make as an antidote to uncertainty and a shrunken world?  And hygge has much to recommend it in the pleasure one might take on a dusky spring evening sitting under a task light and reading with a cup of Earl Grey green tea while looking up occasionally to watch the fading light.  Or the pleasure of sitting for a while after a meal because the conversation has been so rich.

An article appearing in Atlantic Monthly's evening newsletter explained what's happening to our minds:

'“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” said Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine. “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.” Living through a pandemic—even for those who are doing so in relative comfort—“is exposing people to microdoses of unpredictable stress all the time,” said Franklin, whose research has shown that stress changes the brain regions that control executive function, learning, and memory.' 

It was that word "novelty" that caught my imagination and perhaps was behind my visit to Brewed Awakenings. Spontaneity, I realized suddenly, is right out.  There's very little we do spontaneously these days.  "Hey, let's catch a movie this weekend?"  "How about lunch?"  "How about an afternoon of window shopping?"  The words are hardly out of our mouth before we either say no, unequivocally, or do a quick risk assessment that involves calculating the average number of COVID cases where we live because the week's stats had unpredictable spikes and lows.  (There's the unpredictability again.) But even the time we take to make our responsible and practical risk assessment takes the shine of novelty off anything we might decide to do.

It's not that novelty is impossible.  Veronica told me earlier in the week when I was thinking about this post that her novelty has been cooking.  I gave her Ottolenghi Simple for Christmas--an amazing cookbook--and she's been making food she's never made before.  I started a new quilt.  Well, I didn't start it.  I'd conceived of a double wedding-ring quilt made of green and gold Japanese fabrics, but didn't like the size of the block pattern I had.  So I shrunk it on a photocopier.  When I got to the point of putting the arcs together, I choked, not believing that my shrunken pattern would work, and put it away.  A couple of weeks ago, I just decided there was nothing to lose, and the blocks went together just fine, though I have to take a few stitches out here and there to get corners of those plain green and gold squares to meet perfectly.  Seriously, I didn't need to start a new quilt.  Except that I did. 

I'm trying to get back into shape as a walker, and so thought that I could walk different parts of Regina's extensive path system.  But that doesn't have the effortless novelty of looking for a new blouse to wear this spring, though it's much safer.  Novelty these days forces us to plan, to invent, to go looking for something new, and to do that with energy we sometimes just don't have, given the pandemic's cognitive load on our brains. 

So I've come to prefer the word "serendipity."  Things that happen by accident or happen just because they do and we happen to be there to witness it. It's a kind of uncertainty that isn't threatening. One of the reasons we're feeling better and more optimistic right now is that spring brings all kinds of serendipity with it.  The rabbit has been back eating the wheat the birds leave under the feeder.  I've been seeing more chickadees. I'm looking longingly at the trees to see when they'll decide it's safe to begin to put out buds.  Easter, which is actually a solar holiday--the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox--is quite early this year, and I've noticed that when Easter is early, so is spring. I may see tulips up in borders soon. I should go looking.  What new birds will show up at my feeder to join the sparrows, who definitely aren't novel?  Except when one observes them carefully, watching their interactions, their startling flight east across the yard in squadron formation to turn with precision and startling speed south between my house and my neighbour's.  How do they do that?  That's the lovely thing about serendipity.  You just have to be there, on the lookout.     

Friday, February 19, 2021

Plagued by Pandemic Boredom? Slow down.

 Last Sunday, Bill came upstairs where I was at work on finishing the quilt above and said--delighted--"You were singing!?"  Indeed, I was.  Singing an old Simon & Garfunkle song:

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
Ba da-da da-da da-da, feeling groovy
I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep
I'm dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morningtime drop all its petals on me
Life, I love you, all is groovy
Putting this quilt together has been a challenge.  There are all these little points that need to come right to the edge of a block.  Sometime I was joining six points together.  I've watched people put together quilts and just slap their setting blocks (the brown) on top of the pieced blocks and go with whatever comes out, trimming here and there as needed.  And I could probably have done that about half the time.  But the other half of the time, if I want those blocks to sing with the care I'd given them, from choosing the fabric to the initial piecing, I needed to pin them carefully.  As well, blocks like this create many "ears," extra little bits of seam that stick out from the blocks, that keep the whole quilt from lying nicely when it's quilted.  So I was taking time.  I was pinning each block and then checking as soon as the seam was sewn that the points were pointy.  I was trimming ears and threads that might show through when it is quilted.  I was ironing each row of blocks in a way that would make putting the rows together yield more neat little points.  I'm certain that my mood was boosted by the sunshine, but really, taking care cheered me up no end, prompting me to...well, I won't call it singing.  My voice has lost its flexibility.  But I was warbling happily.
One of the things I did this Christmas to add something to our holidays in the face of all that was subtracted was to buy both Veronica and Bill gifts we would share.  So I went to Indigo, sanitized my hands, trolled the cookbook shelves, and came back with Ottolenghi Simple, a cookbook Veronica and I are sharing, reading together and talking about.  Veronica has noted that "simple" has many meanings in this cookbook.  It's not necessarily that there isn't a lengthy list of ingredients.  And the dishes aren't necessarily fast, though some of them certainly are.  She observed that mostly it's stress free.  The instructions are precise:  saute this for eight minutes while you cut that up.  There's a clear progress to making the eggplant with bulgar and yogurt.  And if you know you have eight minutes while the eggplant is roasting, you can use some of that time to clean up the kitchen.  
I've noticed a change in how I make meals as the pandemic goes on.  I used to be able to multi-task.  I'd head and tail fresh green beans while I watched (and listened to) sauteeing chicken breasts and waited for the brown rice to come to a boil before I put the lid on.  I can't do that any more.  I simply give myself an hour to make a meal.  I am my own "entremetier," according to kitchen  hierarchy.  I'm likely to begin meal prep by pulling everything from the fridge that needs to be cut up, getting out my large cutting board and my little white dishes, and chopping parsley or ginger, cutting up vegetables for a salad, then, at the end, doing whatever needs to be done with the meat before I cook it.  Yes, this takes more time, but I'm more relaxed when I sit down to eat the meal.  In the face of a pandemic and the brain fog that sometimes rolls in of an evening, I'm not sure multi-tasking is all it's cracked up to be.

So much of life is a process.  Building a relationship.  Raising kids.  Writing a poem or a novel.  Learning to play the piano.  Gardening.  Becoming, daily, stronger and more human--more empathetic, more curious, more patient, more yourself.  Understanding this complex and boggling world that we are living in right now.  Understanding our societies and our cultures.  Most of the things that are truly important take time.  Most of the important things that take time can't be rushed.  And why would you want to, if things seem to be unfolding as they should?  It would be like pushing the river or pushing string. It would be short-circuiting the spirit of discovery, making its nerves jangle.
In fact, in 2009, economist A.B. Krueger edited Measuring the Subjective Well-Being of Nations:  National Accounts of Time Use and Well-Being.  The economists he worked with--Krueger was considered one of the world's fifty most influential economists, and Daniel Kahneman has won the Nobel Prize for Economics--concluded that money is not the real currency of our lives.  It's time.  It's how we spend our time.
The pandemic has shifted that.  An article in last week's Globe and Mail indicates that we're commuting less and spending much more time at home with our families.  We're watching TV or Netflix.  Not surprisingly, we're spending more time caring for children, often at the expense of caring for ourselves or keeping our jobs.  But there are also some signs that the pandemic has had some positive effects on our use of time.  We're spending more time outdoors, often with our families.  We're spending less time in traffic jams--which make us profoundly unhappy--and it's unclear whether we're willing to go back to the pre-pandemic status quo. 
Quilting asks all kinds of questions about how you spend time.  There's my patient but delighted construction of the quilt top.  Then, I could drive to Moose Jaw and take the quilt top to Shelley at Half Yard Quilting Studio, and we could pick an overall design for the quilt--rows of twining leaves, for example, and then I could drive back a week later and pick it up. Shelley does beautiful work.  Or I can baste it up myself and spend several months quilting with a pattern that's attuned to its design it while I listen to music or an audiobook or simply daydream.  Hand quilting is a lovely invitation to daydream, even while it connects me to the past, to all the women whose only option was to hand quilt their own quilts or organize a quilting bee--a wonderful use of time!
Annie Dillard, whose wisdom is seldom questioned, has said that "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives."  I suspect she's right.  Even the economists--those practitioners of 'the dismal science' --think so. 


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Theory of Mind: What Makes Us Human


I've been working on this blog post off and on for nearly three weeks now.  It keeps morphing.  My original idea was to be cheeky about shaming people who are behaving badly in COVID time, whether it's people who gathered with extended family over Christmas, people who don't do  the social distancing thing in pubs, the demonstrators outside Dr. Shahab's house over the weekend, or those breaking the curfew in the Netherlands, looting and torching cars.  I was going to do this by illustrating how smart animals are, how they have theory of mind and can be empathetic, and then comparing their intelligence to those who believe their essential freedom lies in not wearing a mask.  But if you are reading this blog, you are almost by definition not one of those people, so what was the point?  Also, all that information was scattered around in different books and it always took me a while to find what I wanted.

Like you, I'm truly sick of being in semi-lockdown.  Mostly, I'm hungering for human connection, even the little microconnections with a barrista or a clerk at the grocery store.  I find being masked is frustrating on a human level.  You can't read people's expression quickly and easily, nor can they see you are smiling at them, telling them, in your muffled voice, to take their time when you are both heading down the cookie aisle and you know choosing exactly the right thing is important.  Yet I am also very privileged in the terms of my lockdown.  I don't have children who are pining to go to school.  I have enough to eat.  So after listening to a podcast with Mary Catherine Bateson yesterday while I was working out, I thought I'd take what I had and put it to another use, to amuse you with bits of wonder.  Hey.  We're avoiding every unnecessary contact with another human being.  Everyone needs to improvise.

As Frans de Waal point out in his groundbreaking book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are, biologists, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and slightly drunk dinner guests constantly consider what makes us human.  It used to be that it was our opposable thumb that let us make and use tools. Except we now know that primates, macaques, elephants and even male digger wasps use tools.  Corvids of all kinds are quite adept at this, with the New Caledonian crow being the most sophisticated.  They rip away at the edges of leaves in a pattern that existed well before we began to study them, and they pass that pattern down as a kind of cultural practice. 

Is it that we use fire?  Australian kites not only come to the sites of fires to feed on fleeing creatures, but they pick up smoldering sticks and drop them in dry grass, setting secondary fires to flush out more food.  

Is it that we are so inventive in responding to changes in our world?  I think the sparrows are beating us on this one.  They are champions of innovation.  They have learned to scour our radiator grills in parking lots for food.  They fly to the observation deck of the Empire State Building and capture moths drawn by the lights around the perimeter, having discovered this food source 80 stories above NYC, not their natural hunting grounds.  But the best story comes from New Zealand, where sparrows have learned how to set off the sensors that open doors to a bus station and use their knowledge to get in and out and to scour for food. 

One unexpected ability both humans and animals have is theory of mind.  Somewhere between 18 months and 2 or 3 years old, babies develop theory of mind.  Try to think back to it; try to think back before you had it or before your children had it.  On the one hand, you're pretty well locked inside your own experience, your own consciousness, at least until you have the language to ask questions or describe your own feelings and have someone understand them.  But somehow you intuit that other people have consciousness like yours.  You can see they desire something, that they want the same thing you do.  'I have a mind and other people do too,' is the upshot of a recognition that continues to gain subtlety and nuance throughout adolescence and that is the foundation for two important social skills: taking someone else's perspective and feeling empathy.  Those skills are bolstered by experience, by listening, by going to movies or plays and, perhaps most intensely, by reading.  Those black and white squiggles on the page mean nothing unless we assume we have been given access to the mind of another person.

Why have we all grown misty-eyed before the photograph of Dr. Joseph Varon, who was on his 252nd straight day at work, hugging a COVID-19 patient at the end of November?  We see little of the old man aside from his mussed hair and the hand he has wrapped around Varon's back.  Varon himself is covered with so much PPE that we wouldn't recognize him if we saw him on the street. Yet after two hundred and fifty two straight days of work, Varon remains empathetic, knowing the old man simply needed to be held and comforted, and we respond with our own empathy, moved both by the old man's need and the doctor's gift.  Works of art, like that photograph or like a movie or a novel or a piece of music slip us effortlessly into the viewpoint of another, allowing us to laugh out loud or burst into tears. Except we need to remember that our effortless understanding of another required a fairly effortful process in the creator.

Theory of mind should--and I'm being provocative here--give us the perspective-taking skills that allow us to imagine what it would be like to be over eighty, locked away from the people you love, and then hit with what may be for you a deadly illness. Empathy should evoke an even stronger response.  What does it mean that over 2 million people have died of COVID-19 and have left mourners--husbands, wives, sons, daughters, and friends behind them?  How much fear and grief is loose in the world right now?  How can I say that my needs for--whatever--do not need to consider those facts?  I know, I know, I've gone way farther than the yahoos have in the line of thought.  Probably, they begin by dissing experts and end with a single word:  "want."

I have a terrible habit.  Too often I say "I don't understand how he/she/they can think/do/believe that."  Once I've uttered the words "I don't understand," I am relieved of the human obligation to do so.  Except one of the delights of being seventy is that I realize exactly what I'm doing.  If I utter the words "I don't understand," it's a signal to stop and attempt to do just that.  Even trying to understand is ethical and brings us much closer to saying, with the Roman playwright Terence ""I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me."  Most of the time, after I've pulled myself up short, I can trace something like a strand of motivation.  While I seriously don't get Trump, I do understand the fear and rage that got him elected.  But try as I might, I can't understand someone standing outside Dr. Shahab's house swinging an effigy of him.  What, exactly, is he guilty of?

Oh, let's do change the subject.

It turns out, though, that theory of mind is not the express purview of humans.  I could cheeky and say that some of our pets have theory of mind.  Dear old Twig could spot--or smell is perhaps the right word--someone in distress from two metres away and would move into action with whatever comfort he could give.  When I asked Katherine whether he simply smelled something that worried him, she asked me what the difference was between sight and smell.  Both are senses.  Humans have access to other people's frames of mind through mirroring the expressions on their faces and then asking ourselves what might have caused that particular expression.  We do this without even thinking about it, though people who have had too many botox injections lose that capacity and become less empathetic.  (No, I didn't make this up.)  What is the difference between reading a mood on someone's face and reading a mood in someone's smell?  In either case, the senses mediate between us and the world.  

You've got a story about a dog or a cat or a horse that knew something about your frame of mind.  My two young cats, Tuck and Lyra (yes, please, more cat pictures!) are so close to one another that I'm sure from all the grooming and cuddling and fighting that they understand the other to have a mind just like theirs.  It's a small leap from there to understanding that Mom got up in the night, sad about someone, and that comfort might be in order.  (Veronica's best friend lost her mother on Monday and I was up in the night wondering how Jenny was doing her first night as an orphan.  Lyra climbed into my lap and looked soulfully at me with his grey-gold eyes.)

But back to the animals.  They make me quite hopeful.  Here I must thank Jennifer Ackerman for her two excellent books, The Genius of Birds and The Bird Way, both of which I recommend along with de Waal's. If chickadees who live in extreme climates, like Saskatchewan during a normal winter, can evolve larger brains so they have more strategies for finding and hiding food, then once we've fouled our nest and left the planet to the critters, perhaps in a million years or so we'll find a culture of extraordinary musicians with feathers.  The nesting habits of bowerbirds and the tool creating of New Caledonian crows to a pattern used for years suggest proto-cultures.  Jennifer Ackerman points out that humans have been creating cultures for 100,000 years.  But birds have been creating musical cultures for millions, many of them, like the mockingbird, working against the constraints of their vocal cords. Many of the great apes demonstrate empathy.  De Waal tells us that Capucin monkeys freely share food.  Pregnant females don't like to come down from their perches in trees, so several monkeys will take more food than they need and bring some to her.  If a Capucin is separated from food by a mesh fence, another monkey will take more food than she needs and bring it close to the fence so they can share. Heck, even ravens, who have a 'wild west' culture, express empathy for others who have lost in a fracas with another raven, and will groom and snuggle up next to the loser.

So if birds, hearing a "mobbing cry" of one of their kin--which is essentially a call to arms--can throw themselves at a nest being attacked by a raptor, regardless of potential harm to themselves, why can't humans stay at home in the midst of a pandemic at no risk to themselves?  Yes, we all have social needs, but if New Zealand sparrows can be inventive and figure out how to use the censor on an automatic door to get into a bus station, we can figure out how to meet our social and emotional needs without putting someone else at risk or without increasing the risk for the whole community.  Each person who gets sick gives the virus another laboratory for mutating and finding a more virulent strain. We've seen in England, South Africa, and Brazil how this can play out. The virus's ability to mutate makes not getting sick a civic duty.

This was where I'd fetched up when I listened to a podcast in which Krista Tippett interviewed Mary Catherine Bateson, who was the daughter of early anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.  Bateson is enamored of the fact that most humans continue to grow throughout their lives.  She notes that once a fish has learned how to be a fish or a rabbit understands the skills a rabbit needs to survive, learning stops, more or less.  But not in humans.  We keep playing and we keep growing, facts she thinks are intertwined. Bateson, who died at 81 earlier this month, is particularly attuned to the way people over sixty continue to grow and demonstrated her own growth throughout the interview.  So I listened especially carefully when Tippett asked for her most profound thought.  Bateson said "We have to use the word 'we' to encompass all of life on earth and to see that 'we' in all its tender beauty."


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A Discipline of Pleasure--or advice from a divorcee


It's been thirty-four years.  I could see my marriage unraveling in December and my husband moved out in early January.  My life has gone on--wonderously so--with rich relationships with Bill and Veronica, with the start of a new life here in Regina, with a life in the English Department that was warm and welcoming.  Bill has taught me the impulse of gratitude; I think it's part of his DNA.  So most days I'm grateful simply to be alive.  Still, my memory vividly brings back that first Christmas, post-divorce, which I spent alone while Veronica was with her father.  It wasn't as bad as you might have thought, largely because over the year I'd developed some rules.  Maybe a divorce is rather like a pandemic:  you are lonely, frightened about the future, feeling under threat.  (I won't go into details about that one, but no, he wasn't abusive.)  The dark of the year is just outside the door of one's house and one's psyche.  So maybe a handful of those rules will be helpful now.

Consider what you do have, not what you don't.  Poet Brenda Riches, who died way too young, said we look at our world as through the viewfinder of a camera.  We don't see everything.  Keep that in mind.  But we can move the camera and find a "better composition" for our view.  I would later learn that psychologists call this cognitive reframing and it's a skill that's gotten me through some tough times.  Our default frames are often media driven--social or unsociable, news or gossip--and right now they're offering us an even  more contradictory Christmas.  Christmas is supposed to be perfect--and be seen to be perfect.  This year's Christmas is going to suck.  It's true that this year's won't be perfect, particularly if you focus on what you don't have, whether that's family, parties, a trip somewhere warm, tons of presents gathered at risk in crowded stores.  Focus on what you do have or what you can make yourself or learn to make yourself.  That box of decorations you never open because they're from another era?  Put them on the tree.  Put up outside lights like so many people have this year.  Go for sparkle tours.  Learn to make shortbread.  Collaborate with a mother or an aunt over Google Meet and learn to make that fancy dish that she serves every year.  Teach your daughter how to make meringues filled with chocolate mints.  (Sorry, guys.  You'll have to provide your own advice here since I'm neither a father nor a son.)  Set up a roster of phone calls or Zoom meetings with friends or relatives you haven't talked to in years.  Hey!  We've all got more time on our hands, unless we have kids.  But kids are exactly the inspiration we need to create a different kind of Christmas.

Here's the hard part about this:  it takes discipline.  It's easier, but only in the short term, to whine. Once you get the discipline going, you'll find it more or less goes on its own.  That's because you've reframed your life to focus on the riches you do have. If we're not a doctor or a nurse, a patient in ICU, or living on minimum wage, we have riches.  If you're not sure about this, read the essay in The Paris Review by a doctor on the front lines.  The link is below.

The second rule is give.  Give to the Food Bank, whose users need all the help they can get.  Take cookies to a neighbour and leave them on the doorstep before phoning or texting.  Or do guerilla giving.  I have terrible vertigo, and the people in my favourite coffee shop have always been kind enough not to fill my cup too full or to bring around the container of cream so I don't have to walk so far trying to balance a cup of coffee.  Two years ago, I started taking them a bag of 100 Lindt truffles.  I'm going by there today, with chocolate and a thank-you card.  Startle someone with an unexpected act of kindness.  I know; we've all got masks on.  You will have to look in their eyes for a thank you that says the world is, at this moment, a slightly better place than it was a few moments ago.  Give hope, in whatever form that might take.  We need it, and you'll create hope in yourself by giving it.

Rule three:  do something different.  Learn something new.  One of the things about Christmas that I love and that I've written about often in this blog, is that decorating the Christmas tree is a kind of archeology.  Every year, I unearth my past, all the way back to the very beginning of that first failed marriage.  I'm thinking about memory a lot these days and find that, at seventy, memory often reaches over the shitty times and pulls up something joyful that is an intrinsic part of who I have become.  That's to be celebrated. 

But this year, think about what you're going to put into that memory box that's new.  Oh, yes,  The COVID-19 Christmas.  That's the year I watched Jacques Pepin's video of making an omelet four times and finally mastered it.  That's the year I learned to make socks, though the first pair wasn't gorgeous.  Embrace imperfection.  Embrace process.  That's the year I cooked up a batch of clay from water, salt, flour, and vegetable oil.  My kids shaped it into decorations and painted them.  (While the clay is soft, embed a straightened out paper clip in the back so you can hang it.) If you want to know how to do it, someone on the internet wants to teach you how to do it. 

I know there are readers out there for whom this advice is--well, why not say it?--a slap in the face.  Your memories are of trauma.  Your present is a life of isolation or abuse.  You may be--it is the dark of the year, after all--struggling with depression or other mental illness.  Take one of these "rules" and make a little progress on it.  It will give you a sense of agency.  All around the world right now we are in the grip of an event that has been called a world-wide trauma.  Even if we're not in full lockdown, we live in uncertain times and have little control over our lives.  So maybe it's even hard to get a grip on rule number 1.  But we can still give and learn.  Therein lies our hope for this season.

Anna DeForest in The Paris Review

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Commons during a pandemic (with a tribute to libraries)

You all know we're at a difficult moment.  We've seen people being vaccinated but most of us won't get our own until April at the earliest.  As General Hillier put it, "It's not the light at the end of the tunnel, but someone's lit a match."  The winter solstice is upon us, and I for one am losing a couple of hours' sleep each night.  Then follows the Christmas like no other.  A time that brought us together in celebration of close human ties and all they add to our everyday lives will be characterized by smaller celebrations, many of them moderated by Zoom or Google Meet.  

It's become a gambit in the media and in conversation:  talking about what parts of the pandemic should remain in our lives.  Frequent nominees are our smaller carbon footprint, the birds we're seeing and hearing for the first time, our changed relationship with retail therapy, our recognition of our mortality and all that implies about the importance of the present moment and spending that moment with the people we love.

I'm voting for Christmas lights.  Have you noticed how many more light displays there are this year?  It used to be that I went to Regina's crowdsourced Sparkle Tour map and worked out a careful route for Bill and me to take to see the best of the lights, but I probably won't need to do that this year.  We've put out more Christmas lights because we have time and because that's the way we can share the season with others.  They are a recognition that right now "the commons" has become important to us, and we've turned our front yards into a link between ourselves and others on the street, hoping to share some cheer. Can you be patient with me for five paragraphs?  I need to explain the age-old concept of "the commons," which essentially rose alongside private property when homo sapiens shifted from hunter gatherers to farmers.  Only then can I talk about why, during a pandemic, it's folly not to think about what we have in common.  Only then can I point out how much the commons is doing for us right now and perhaps to suggest that our thinking about "the commons" ought to shift after the pandemic is over.

There is a large park at the centre of Boston known as "Boston Common" that dates back to 1660.  It was "common" by virtue of anyone's ability to graze their cows there.  Inevitably, it became overgrazed; as a consequence, the users of this common resource made some rules to mitigate the overgrazing.  Even 400 years later, Boston Common continued to be a shared space.  In 1969, it was the site of numerous peace rallies protesting the war in Vietnam.  More recently, Boston's version of "The Women's March" decrying Donald Trump's attitudes toward women took place there.  So did a protest against hate speech and white supremacy reacting to the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville VA that ended with 32-year-old Heather Heyer being killed by a white supremicist.  Common grazing morphed into common and free speech, as it tends to do. Think of Speakers Corner in London's Hyde Park, where anyone can mount a soapbox.   Recently Atlantic Monthly, founded in Boston in 1857 by abolitionists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others, underwent a redesign.  Atlantic's page of letters from readers is now called "The Commons."

You may know "the commons" from another tradition:  nineteenth-century English literature.  Novels like Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles record the more intimate effects of England's "Enclosures Acts," whereby a large landowner could appeal to enclose the common land that his underpaid farm labourers had been working for themselves to supplement their meager diets.  The industrialization of agriculture meant that farmers could now exploit these small spaces for their own profit, and labourers who did not suit the landlord, like Tess's profligate father, were sent packing.  Trying to find a safe place for her family throws Tess into the arms of Alec D'Urberville, which ends in his death and her hanging.

In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin wrote a piece for Science called "The Tragedy of the Commons."  He argued that resources held in common inevitably fail because each user puts his or her own needs and desires first and takes more than his or her share, leaving less for others.  That essay became, according to Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind, widely reprinted and read, providing one of the foundational beliefs of Neo-liberalist economics.  Neo-liberals essentially argues that only the market can prevent organize our lives adequately.  Only if we price goods, like blood donations, for example, will we keep them from careless overuse.  (Actually, putting a price on blood ends up making it more scarce because it's ill-managed--but that discussion of altruism is for another day.  Or you can read about it in my novel, Soul Weather.) You will doubtless be familiar with instances when governments attempted to put common goods into private hands or when governments deliberately undervalued the resources we  hold in common.  Several years ago, the Saskatchewan Government attempted to radically cut funds to libraries and closed down the Saskatchewan Transportation Corporation that provided bus service to rural communities.  Any of you watching The Crown will know--or discover--that Margaret Thatcher attempted to sell publicly held companies, like railroads and mines, to individuals or private corporations.  

But Hardin's isn't the whole story.  Elinor Ostrom, whom Bregman describes as "an ambitious political economist" questioned Hardin's hypothesis and, along with her graduate students, compiled a list of over 5,000 examples of commons that worked well.  Her groundbreaking book, Governing the Commons, led to her 2009 Novel Prize in Economics.  Yes, 2009:  the year after our attempts to privatize everything that moved led to The Great Recession--a moniker I resist, by the way.  There was nothing great about it.  Among other things, it led to a generation of students whose parents told them to "go to university and get a job" rather than "go to university and get an education," a difference I saw in students' attitudes towards their own learning.  Learning became a means to an end, not an end in itself. Learning was monetized. What Ostrom points out in Governing the Commons is exactly what happened in Boston Common.  When people who benefited from a commons found it misused, they made rules that governed its use.

What do Canadians hold in common?  Our parks.  Interestingly, we tend to protect land we hold in common, turning it into a safe haven for nature and her species. Our libraries, our streets, our health care system, our schools.  Our drinking water and our air.  Our health:  how many times have we been told that our individual practices have an impact on the health of others?  The number of vaccines developed in record time was made possible by the fact that scientists collaborated on an unprecedented scale that has possibly changed science forever.  (I've pasted a link below to an excellent article in The Guardian on this collaboration.)  "We're all in this together," has been the consistent messaging of governments.  

But as we can see from the continually rising numbers, too many have ceased to see their own individual health as something held in common. COVID-19 has also revealed the fact that in a time when provincial governments tend to lean right, toward Neo-liberalist belief that "the market" or "the economy" trumps health or education, we discover that we've been under-investing in those common goods.  Too many schools, for instance, have faulty ventilation, but improving conditions for childrens' learning is at the back of the budget bus. Some longterm care facilities run for profit have put their patients at risk in order to cut corners and increase profits.  Other statistics point out that our failure to invest in people also creates risks for all of us.  The statistics are clear:  the people who are disproportionately affected with COVID-19 are the poor, many of whom pack up our take-out burgers or wash floors in hospitals.  And when they cannot afford to stay home from work, they will inevitably infect others and overwhelm the health-care system.  Perhaps COVID-19 will teach us to realize universal sick pay for everyone who works, or that a Universal Basic Income, or a reasonable minimum wage actually benefits all of us.  COVID-19 erupts in places where homes are crowded.  Perhaps it's time to formulate a national housing policy that will, in effect, benefit all of us?

But the news on the commons isn't all dire.  You've been reading your way through the pandemic, haven't you?  Yes, I know you have.  In November, overwhelmed by decision fatigue over what to read next, I read all of Trollope's Palliser novels downloaded free from--another commons--The Gutenberg Project.  All 6,000 pages. Although libraries were initially closed during the lockdown, they've been creative.  The Saskatchewan library system "checked out" over 1,200,000 ebooks in 2020. In smaller communities where the library is too small to allow for social distancing, you could call ahead for an appointment with a librarian who would help you choose books.  If you tell the Regina Public Library what your favourite genre is, a librarian will pack a bag of books especially for you, and you can pick it up curbside.  

And then there were the truly heroic efforts.  The Spokane Public Library opened a temporary homeless shelter.  And the St. Louis and Columbus libraries provided free lunches for children when the schools closed.  The Miami-Dade Homework Help project linked 100 teachers with 800 students who needed help with their homework.  

Other moments when the commons stepped up?  When we closed streets for safer pedestrian traffic or to allow restaurants to extend their outdoor tables.  City infrastructure as a commons--sidewalks and parks--became essential to our mental health as we spent much more time walking this year. Nature, that greatest of all keepers of the commons, has been delighting us with birdsong and changes of seasons.  The vaccine is a commons--both something made collaboratively and something that has little meaning unless we all share it.  What I'm hoping is that this new ethos, this recognition that what we hold in common is truly valuable, will stay with us after the pandemic....well, it will never be "just a memory."  The world has been traumatized and shaken.  But if we're going to get through this, it will be by sharing our resources. 

Scientific collaboration on COVID-19 testing and vaccine

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

COVID-19 Musings

 This morning I could tell, even from the north windows I look out as I scan the day's news, that sunrise was spectacular.  So I went upstairs to my study, which faces east.  The windows there don't give me the clearest view; there are too many tall pine trees for that, but I can fill in the blanks. The southeast sky was apricot and amber and saffron, and I simply leaned on the window sill to watch it subtly transform to everyday sunshine.  But before it did, I would see pale peach clouds swiftly drifting east as if to see how much of the colour they could soak in.  And then, pale by pale, it became an air-blue sky with a slash of topaz at the horizon:  ready for the day.

*     *     *

I broke a cat's jaw once.  I was bringing a long, heavy box holding a broken-down bookshelf into the house, but before I got it completely in, the door closed hard and brought the box down hard.  Niagara, my first philosopher cat, had come to greet me as she always did.  Not knowing the box hit her, I fed the cats and when she didn't come, I found her under my bed with a bloodied jaw.  We immediately went to the vet, who said that I'd neatly broken her mandible and dislocated her jaw. But she was back in my household the next morning, her jaw back where it belonged and her mandible neatly wired together.  She simply and calmly curled up in my lap and purred while she healed.  I call her a philosopher cat, but that's perhaps not the whole story.  "Reflective" and "profoundly caring" might be better words. "Intuitive"?  Seeming to know I was an insomniac, she never left my side at night until I was asleep.  Attuned to my moods, she rivaled more than one suicidal meditation by sitting on my lap. She was black, the shape of ancient Egyptian statues of cats, and her fur was extraordinarily sleek.  During bad times, she would sit sideways rather than with her head facing away, and calmly study me as if to say "Aren't I beautiful?  Stroke me.  Isn't that comforting?  Now you can endure."  How could I hurt her?  But it was exactly that endurance she taught me that characterized her recovery.  The vet gave her no meds, and in my anthropocentric way, I imagined her simply saying to herself not "when will the pain stop?" but "can I stand this right now?"  That is perhaps when I came to call her my philosopher cat.  Many times I have used what I imagined to be her strategy.  We humans are too apt to ask, tersely, "How long is this going to go on?"  Whereas the real question is about right now. 

*     *     *

 In the Saturday, November 21 Globe and Mail, Alex Hutchinson wrote about a "brilliantly sadistic format" of competitive running called the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, a virtual race in which runners had to clock 100 miles every 24 hours.  The person who wins is the last runner standing.  There is no known finish line, only runners hitting their physical and psychological wall and dropping out.  People who study athletes know that a runner's performance at any given moment is influenced by teleo-anticipation:  their sense of where they are in the race.  Most runners have their best time a kilometre from the finish line.  (For many others, the first kilometre is their best and the last their second best.)  In other words, runners pace themselves by where they are in the race.  But what if you don't know where you are in the race?  How do you judge how much longer you can go on?  The answer is that you don't.  You consider what's happening now.  That's all you've got to go on.  If you ask yourself, "Can I keep going?" rather than, "Can I make it to the finish?" you're far more likely to answer in the affirmative

*     *     *

I feel, frankly, like a fraud writing to you about mindfulness in the midst of a pandemic.  In some ways, poets are already into mindfulness, into that receptive presence in a moment that is often the prompt for a poem.  But I'm terrible at meditation.  Well, not always.  But often my mind is just too busy thinking about half a dozen things, as if it's a large pool table on which a whole pack of cranky Tolkien dwarves are playing at once.  Some part of my mind is working over the fingerings of a Bach Gigue while another part of my mind is replaying episodes of "The Queen's Gambit" while I'm also thinking about getting the Christmas baking done and considering the structure of the novel I'm reading.  Madness.  

In other ways, the pandemic has made me even  more mindful.  Half a dozen times each day I take my "temperature," reminding myself that in spite of the chaos and uncertainty and illness and death all around us, I am fine.  Once I've stilled myself, I just try to think of what I can do, which mostly comes to giving outrageous tips and thanking people who clean carts or explain how the new hand sanitizer gizmo works or sending donations to the food bank.  Another half a dozen times, my mind gets really angry at provincial premiers who have been too slow to respond to the second wave, who have seen it as a health VS economy paradigm, which is a "faulty either/or"--one of the basic logical fallacies I taught my undergraduates.  Sick or frightened or dead people don't promote a very robust economy.  (Or there's the even more stupid dichotomy between wearing a mask and being free.  Don't get me started discoursing on leadership.)  And then, well, we'll just let that viral photograph of Joseph Varon, a doctor who had worked 252 straight days be our synecdoche for those moments when we all feel enormous, amorphous grief.  When one of his patients got out of his bed in tears, just wanting to be with his wife, Dr. Varon simply held him. The rumpled white hair tells the story.  There's too much suffering right now, not all of it inevitable.  Suffering without meaning.  How can a pandemic mean?  The COVID pandemic is meaninglessness on an unimaginable scale.  

I have found two things to still this whirlpool of uncertainty and grief and angst.  One is to stop and be in the moment.  To ask not "how long can we keep this up?" but "can I manage this right now?"  Well, of course not; there's still too much death.  But right here and now I can cope.  And then I stop and find a narrative I can watch unfold.  My innocent cats giving one another a bath.  Bill lighting the candles for dinner.  A conversation with Veronica about anything.  The body language of two friends trying to talk with their masks on while knowing their friends are getting only half the message.  There are narratives going on all around us that have little to do with COVID, and we must celebrate them or we'll never get to that invisible finish line.

*     *     *

I'll finish as I began, with a snippet from the media.  In an online article in Atlantic, "Galaxy Brain Is Real," Marina Koren writes about the perspective created by the Hubble Telescope orbiting in space, which is kind of a ginormous version of what we feel standing at the edge of prairie or at the edge of the Grand Canyon or at the top of a skyscraper.  "The experience of awe, whether we’re standing at the summit of a mountain or sitting in front of a computer screen, can lead to 'a diminished sense of self,' a phrase psychologists use to describe feelings of smallness or insignificance in the face of something larger than oneself. Alarming as that may sound, research has shown that the sensation can be a good thing: A shot of awe can boost feelings of connectedness with other people."  Perhaps that's because we know we can only manage our insignificance with the support of others.  Not knowing about this article, Bill took me on a search for a clear shot of sunlight after our Sunday walk and drove down a dirt road (something he never does if he can help it) west of Grasslands, and stopped the car.  The prairie was looking gentle that day, the fields pocked by melting, revealing the white-golden grass.  The air was prairie-clear.  We could see a long way, and we both exhaled.  Even there, we could see that while we might be the centres of our own perspectives, we--and our anxieties--aren't the centre of the universe and that the human is very small.  Views of space from the Hubble so dwarf us that we realize that our present historical moment, in its own yin and yang, is both unprecedented and insignificant.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Where beauty is found


Yesterday it was 18 degrees in Regina--not the brilliantly blue sunny day we might have hoped for, not a still, but yet one more day with high winds.  Nevertheless, snow storms are coming from Alberta on Sunday, so it was the day for Veronica and me to have our annual end-of-fall walk along the chain of islands in Wascana Creek that are west of McCarthy Boulevard. One of the islands is more or less planted like prairie, though along some of its edges you might find prairie plants like wild roses with verdant hips still glowing in the solemn light. Here we sometimes simply stopped to listen to the dry grass and nod to one another when I said "That's susurration," one of my favourite words, onamatopoeic as it is.  The others are planted more like boreal forests, and here we found occasional cover from the wind.  Of course, small birds also found cover there, so we simply watched the chickadees and nuthatches and juncos flit and chirrup.

In a moment that was unaccountably magical to me, Veronica said she thought one of the birds we were watching was a junco, and pulled her phone out of her pocket, opened Merlin Bird ID, Cornell University's site for birders, and played me the song and call of a junco.  No, that isn't unaccountable at all.  I love my daughter and I especially love those moments when she is so wondrously different from me--like having Merlin in her pocket (I still don't own a cell phone) and being so conversant with birding websites.  And I love the fact that nature undergirds her life. Spending time in nature is one of the best protections any of us has against the vicissitudes of life, and god knows we are living through a few vicissitudes. She still has tomatoes and eggplants and herbs growing on her window sills and she's rightly proud of all the potatoes she harvested--all this on her stairway and a couple of areas close to the foundation of the old house where she lives.. 
So it wasn't a "classic" fall day on the prairie:  all the leaves have fallen, it was windy, and the sky was hazy, though I rather liked the light.  Something about it was more interesting than just clear blue sky. But I was ecstatically happy.  Joyous to the point where I could not imagine being more joyful than I was then.  The natural world was just hanging out doing what it does when we let it:  being beautiful, sharing its beauty with us. This seemed like an enormous gift.

I almost titled this blog post "Where beauty is found or what I learned from the Trump Presidency," but, while true, that seemed too cheeky.  I didn't want nature and beauty to share billing with that *#$^%#*.  But if he has taught us anything by his example, by the example of his chimp smile that never expresses true joy in something as unsellable or unwinnable as beauty, it is that things in our daily lives like beauty and nature and spending time with family yield a joy he will never understand.

This walk was part of a more deliberate effort to just get out and walk.  Yes, cardio workouts on my exercise bike are important, but just the human functional thing like walking and looking and reflecting is also important.  Last Thursday we had a still, cloudy day, but it was my day to walk, so I went along the bank of Wascana Creek on the northwest side near Elphinstone and Regina Avenue.  There was a skin of ice on the creek, but it looked like Florentine marbled papers because, I suspect, it had frozen while it was moving or was being moved by the wind.  The banks themselves have been planted--on purpose or by accident--with things that will help  hold the creek bank in place should we experience flooding.  They are so full of disparate textures and tones.  Yes, it's a sparrow world out there:  most of the colours in the landscape are soft bleached golds, browns, greys, and grey-beiges (known in the quilting world as "greiges"), but there's something so essential, so restful about this palette.  I didn't have my camera with me, but I did wonder whether a photograph would do it justice.  Would it capture the deeply-riven bark of elm trees, now that we notice their trunks rather than their leafy crowns?  Would it see, as my own eyes did, the beautiful shift from the texture of grasses and rushes, gone soft gold and springing along their straight stems, to the tangled texture of Cotoneasters?  You needed to be both close up and very far away.  Close to appreciate the textures, far enough away to understand the juxtapositions.
I began to harbor a theory.  What if beauty isn't something "out there," but something in our minds, something we intuitively search out in the natural world because it is always happy to oblige us?  It's a bit harder to see beauty, at least on the prairies, in very early spring when we are seeing winter's mud and reluctant growth in the March cold, just as it's harder to see in late fall when the wind is blustery and nature has stripped down to her most basic palette.  It's easily grasped in spring and summer, in early fall and winter.  But we go looking for it anyway.  And it's that search that is the real beauty.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Imbalance and ballast

Synechdoches fall into my days like little fragments of a poem.  Fragments of a despairingly joyous poem or one that is joyously despairing.  Like photographs that leave you uneasy because the brightly-lit foreground just manages to distract you for a moment from a threatening background.  Or the threatening background nearly overwhelms the smiles in the foreground.

This morning.  Up at 6.  The dawn light was so golden that our back lane--full of the leafless skeletons of volunteer trees, trash cans, garages and garage doors in various states of peeling disarray--looked like a Rembrandt.  A miracle of light and perspective  until I remember that this autumn's unusually golden light is made from wildfires on the west coast.

 Or this.  Two days ago, I was working with my windows open--in October!.  Now that the lilacs out my window have lost most of their leaves, the eastern sunlight casts shadows on my walls, not of lilac in the mass, but of rhythm and beauty in the singular as the few leaves are tangled in the wind.  And then there, in the background.  One fire truck.  Several tire trucks, moving very fast.

A week ago, that golden morning sunshine lit up an enormous tree that had gone unproblematically golden.  Not greeny-golden.  Not bronzy-golden.  If you could have tasted the colour, it would have been a pure flavour like orange or dark chocolate. Two days later, the leaves on the northern side of the tree were gone; next day the tree was bare.  What it said was clear:  "Watch with both eyes!" as the troll Fafner tells a desperate Wotan in Wagner's "Twilight of the Gods."  And I have been watching with both eyes.  The fall of those gold leaves marked a subtle shift in the changing of colours.  No longer are the velvet ashes serenely golden, assuring us that fall is a gift for our eyes, the perfect gift before winter's minimalism arrives.  Now it is the elms' turn, and their colour is more variant, more subtle.  Their beauty and their melancholy are one and the same, and we can't have one without the other.

Here are the other things that drop into my day--and probably into yours. Children are back at school, where they should be.  When it's very quiet, I can hear them chatting animatedly to one another as they walk down the street--something to celebrate.  On the downside, children are back at school and we really don't know whether the preparations we've made are going to work or whether they will bring COVID 19 home to their families.  In how many other ways do we live on the teeter-totter of uncertainty?  Parents working from home are probably so relieved to have a quiet house and their full concentration--but do they have their full concentration?

Some good has come from this pandemic.  It has provided a reset for societies that worked too much and that spent more money on goods than was sustainable--in either financial or environmental terms.  We've slowed down.  We've made bread and learned new crafts and read to our kids and taken long walks.  Our air is cleaner and our carbon emissions are lower.  But the price has been too great.  Too many have died or have had their lives changed forever.  Too many people were unemployed.  Too many little businesses that create a rich ecosystem in our neighbourhoods have gone under or will not survive the latest shutdowns necessitated by the rising number of cases in Ontario and Quebec.  After we flattened the curve and returned to relative normalcy, the rising curve of uncertainty plagues our days.

Trump is, day by day, losing more voters, most recently the grey vote who can see his callousness his inability to care who else he infects.  But are the Proud Boys getting ready to intimidate voters?  The New York Times has endorsed Joe Biden, pointing to his humility and his empathy with people in pain and his ability to work with others.  But will Trump ever leave the White house?  I can't even think about this.

As I have said here many times before, the glass is about half.  You decide if it's half empty or half full.  Recently, in Rutger Bregman's wonderful book, Humankind, he argues persuasively that the glass is more full than we'd like to believe.  It has been an evolutionary advantage for us to be on the alert for danger and disaster, so we're primed to pay more attention to bad news--especially right now.  But he tells us, for instance, that the group of real boys who were alone on an island for 15 months were incredibly cooperative.  So don't believe the worldview of Lord of the Flies.  He tells us that, if you dig in the archives of Stanley Milglram's experiment that showed how willing people were to follow the instructions of the white-coated scientist and give screaming human beings another electric shock, you find that most subjects didn't believe the situation was real.  On the other hand, if you are a psychologist who has mice in your labs and you arbitrarily put a sign on two cages of mice who are being put in mazes, labeling one group smart and the other group slow, the smart group will be smarter.  That's because your grad students doing the experiment will treat them more nicely.  Since that experiment, the positive effects of believing the best of people have been proven time and time again.  Hint to teachers:  expect the best of each of your students, and that's what you'll get.  Hint to CEOs and manager:  ditto.

But even knowing these things, I can't find my balance right now.  I feel like I'm on a ship in a wild storm, and I just can't find vertical.  We're teetering on the edge of so much uncertainty, and I can too easily see that there will be more death and loss of all kinds. So I need to find some ballast--which I looked up in the OED to make sure it was the word I really wanted.  Ballast refers to the heavy material placed in the hold of a ship to ensure its stability.  But is it also "something providing stability or substance."

Thanksgiving may be a time to be grateful for that ballast.  Is it your partner?  The playfulness of your children or their smell at night when you put them to bed?  The uncanny and perceptive intelligence of anyone under twenty?  Friends?  Nature?  The enormous dog you have to walk twice a day?  The cat who sleeps with his head on your shoulder?  Just as we are looking carefully at the natural world right now, finding that balance of beauty and melancholy, so does this time of uncertainty prompt us to celebrate what gives us ballast.

But there are at least three other things that can give us ballast.  One is kindness--whether it's kindness we receive or give.  An act of kindness radiates into people's days--a kind of anti-virus or anti-politics.  A second is gratitude in and of itself.  When I have things to be grateful for, it's hard to feel sorry for myself.

And then there's beauty.  Kant's right:  the beauty of the world on some days does seem to be made just for our delight.  We feel more like ourselves in some numinous way when we are in the presence of such beauty, if we stop to admire it.  Yes, the remarkable light we have had in September and October--light that irradiates everything with its attention--has come from forest fires.  But that's what's here right now.

Monday, September 21, 2020

On Listening 2

Gordon Hempton, who calls himself an acoustic ecologist, first became aware of the rich world of natural sound when he was driving--all night, as young people do--from his home on the west coast to his master's program in the midwest.  He had decided to sleep in his back seat in the middle of cornfields when a thunderstorm hit.  There was so much sound--so much unexpected sound--not only from the storm but from the fields around him.  He realized, in the words he offered to Krista Tippett, that listening for him was really screening out the unimportant before he heard it.  He also told Tippett that we're much less likely to help one another in noisy urban environments.  This is because we're not really listening.  We may be trying to sort out the few relevant words, but we're not paying attention--perhaps we're not able to pay attention--to tone of voice.  We're not picking up body language or facial expression.  We're not of a mind to make a connection and understand what our interlocutor really means or needs.  When we really listen, we're engaged in perspective taking, trying to take in the speaker's frame of mind, mood, needs, griefs, joys and playfulness.  Real listening allows us to stand in someone else's shoes. 

Hempton, who now lives near Olympic National Park in the rugged northwest of Washington State, has been around the world three times to record our sound world.  He describes the earth as a "solar powered jukebox."  The closer to the equator you record, the noisier it is.  Moving either north or south, the sound world gets quieter; in winter it get quieter still.  He has also said that "silence is the think tank of the soul," perhaps explaining why artists often engineer quiet, monastic places to work.  This has led him to argue for the protection of spaces around the world that are silent--by which he means free of human sound for at least twenty minutes.  Given our ears can hear much farther than our eyes can see (there is an unseen person with a weed eater who is interrupting my morning quiet), that's a challenge.  He's only found twelve in North America, and none of them are protected.  

Hempton is attuned to the extent to which our listening is part of our socialization, and thus to the extent to which there's a lot we don't hear.  If we really want to hear, we should go for a night time walk with someone under five and ask them to describe their sound world. Their childlike curiosity highlights how much we simply dismiss as background noise, the white noise of our life.  He also highlights the horizon of our hearing.  Using one of his recordings to take Tippett along with him on a walk through Olympic National Park, he lets us hear the sounds of mating elks, which up close are powerful and gutteral, but heard from a distance sound almost flute-like. 

But I find I'm put off by his resistance to the music of human noise.  Asked to chose a kind of human sound that he doesn't drop into the category of the extraneous and unnecessary, he admits that he's fond of trains.  Their whistles all bear the signature of the conductor as well as the physics of their location.    Tippett tries to nudge him toward music, but he stalwartly will not go there.  I don't want a world where I do not hear how the dryness of August and September changes the sound of leaves in the wind, which is an important part of immersing myself in fall, along with the changing birdsong and the colour of the light.  But I also don't want a world without Ella Fitzgerald or Bach or Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  Music, Craig Minowa tells us, has been "medicine" for humans since time out of mind, soothing us, inspiring us, moving us, providing us with connection us to the spiritual because there's some element of it that refuses to mean but simply is.  This organization of sound, along with its complexly mathematical physics, is beyond everyday understanding.  How can certain chords or melodies speak so directly to our feelings?  Natural sound is also--I was going to say 'otherworldly,' but it's very much of this world.  Once we needed natural sounds for information about our environments.  Now it's a much-needed reminder of nature's beauty and richness--about as necessary as art, in other words. 

Both Hempton and Bernie Krause, whom I wrote about in August, point out that we can close our eyes but not our ears, as if hearing were our most important sense.  Partly, it's that adaptive thing:  we can hear many threats coming when they are too far away to see.  But what does that tell us about being human, about being alive, being animal?    That perhaps the most essential thing about ourselves is not our appearance, but our voice, its timbre, its emotional music, the words we choose.  The visible body is mute without its voice to appeal, to command, to converse (unless one is a great actor). Conversation--one of the great delights of being human--is difficult without voice.  (I find myself in a conundrum here, noting that sign language certainly has a 'tone of voice.'  For Helen Keller, tone of voice must have been tactile.)  And we are back to perspective taking, to listening.  

In Pauline Holdstock's charming novel, Here I Am, the six-year-old boy who has stolen on board a cruise ship with nothing but the clothes on his back is not discovered by any of the people in the children's play room or the movie theatre or by anyone who can see that his clothes have not changed in days and he's getting a bit ripe, but by a blind man whose dog the boy seeks out.  Because Gordon Knight must be more deliberate about collecting information about his context, he discerns that six-year-old Frankie is alone, lonely, and possibly traumatized.

 The COVID-19 lockdown certainly taught me how much I love the sound of a coffee shop, and now that we are allowed to stay to drink our coffee and eat our scone, I am more attuned to its sound world, more appreciative of what it offers.  A coffee shop's sound is full of theatre.  Good Earth on south Albert, where we go  on Saturday morning, has two groups who are there at the same time that we are.  One is a group of women ranging in age from 35 to 70--and what I love is the rhythm of their conversation and the sound of their listening. There might be four small conversations all going at once, but when something wise or needy or smart is said, there is a sudden silence in which you hear the sound of listening.Then there are four men from the Balkans, I suspect.  I can hear the deeply-throated sound of a Slavic language, but can't make out any of the words, so that's just my best guess.  They are all experts in everything!  Can men mansplain to one another?  There is the high, flute-like sound of a child having the privilege of morning coffee alone with dad or mum, or a couple with one chirpy voice, one sleepy drone.  I don't have to look up or stare or reveal my human curiosity.  I just listen to the human music.