Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Practice Watching How Light Changes--a slow and tardy blog post



Right outside my kitchen window, which faces north, is crabapple tree.  It was in bloom the weekend I brought my eleven-year-old daughter to Regina to buy a house and was certainly one of its attractions, along with the many, many windows.  It's a gnarly old tree, a kind of grown-up bonsai, and it helps keep my kitchen cool in the summer when I hardly mind the calm greeny light it casts into the kitchen, especially when I'm cooking, however minimally, on a hot day.  But there's a time of the year when it frustrates me.  In late summer and early fall, when the sun has moved south enough to leave most of the back yard in shadow, my kitchen simply seems dark.  And then, at first slowly, and then suddenly, its leaves turn yellow-gold and a golden light enters my kitchen.  And there will be a third kind of light, soon, when all the leaves have dropped.  If I haven't watched carefully, I miss this marking of the year.  (The photo above is of that tree today.  It's taken me a while to write this.)

If I were entirely rational, fall would be just the beginning of the dread I will feel as the days get shorter.  But since one of my mottos is "Be here now" and the other is "Just be curious," I really lean into autumn.  Besides, I never know in advance how bad December and January are going to be, so why dread what isn't inevitable? Instead, I walk and admire.  I've noticed that a row of elms that's lost about half their leaves has a kind of tenderness about it, like a beautiful older person whose skin is translucent.  When I walk on the creek bank, I see colours, particularly the leaves of the wild roses, that I can't name.  How can something be red and green at the same time?  There isn't a green space and a red space:  the leaf is red-green. As the leaves fall from trees, the heroic little cotoneasters turn gold and orange and red.  Eventually enough leaves will fall that I have to actually seek out autumnal beauty on my walk.  But that's a practice that late fall encourages in me.

When I was still teaching, I had a wonderful office with two floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the "podium," a second-storey outdoor space that unites the university's buildings.  If you lived on the third floor of the AdHum Building and taught a class on the third floor of the Classroom Building, you could simply walk down a single flight, go outside, cross the podium, and then climb a single flight to your classroom. I stared out my windows a fair amount, since I also had a slice of Wascana Park and its lake within my view.  One day I watched as a skate boarder sped across the podium toward a small flight of stairs leading down to the library doors.  Sometimes he bailed, pulling up before the stairs.  Sometimes he washed out.  But once he made it.  I tunked on my window; he looked up; I gave him a thumbs up.  Someone had seen his many attempts and his single success, so it was real. All that practice made more sense with an unexpected audience.

You know I love Future Crunch.  At the end of an August newsletter they gave us a link to Hajime Miura's winning performance at the World Yo-Yo Contest, which was in Tokyo this year.  Miura uses two yo-yos to do the most amazing things; I would give you a link, but the World Yo-Yo Contest discourages that.  You can find them easily online.  You will be grinning from ear to ear.  The practice that went into those tricks and the seamless choreography that links one to another--and the young man's obvious humility--are mind-boggling and astounding.  The year I lived in Boston, the first year of my first marriage, grey days sent me dialing up the local Audobon bird line to listen to the birds that had been sighted.  About the time it told me that two yellow-bellied sapsuckers had been sighted in Woburn, I would begin to smile.  You could use Haijime Miura's performance the same way.  Or go to it now and then revisit when needed.

I keep working on Bach's English and French Suites.  It may take me an entire year to truly get one of these under my fingers and to find the dynamics and phrasing that make them musical, but it's a discipline in my week that gives me so much joy.  I love them, love the order, the disorder, the surprise, the bending of music to Bach's ends.  To be inside them, gaining glimmers of understanding of how they work and narrowing the enormous distance between what I can do and what Bach wrote, is a privilege.  Recently, Ken Wilson posted a quotation from sculptor Henry Moore who averred that the secret of life is to devote yourself to a task--every hour of every day--that you cannot possibly accomplish. I disagree with this in part--but then I'm not an artist of the greatness of Henry Moore, so what do I know?  Maybe greatness requires a single-mindedness I am unwilling to pay to my writing.  But I know that I have to pay attention to other things in my life--to people, creatures, nature, culture, art, politics, war, human suffering and human flourishing.  But I agree with Moore's sense that you need to aim for something beyond your reach--or that you believe you cannot do.  That's what keeps us honest about our gifts and our shortcomings. 

I started this post a couple of weeks ago, when the elms were nearly finished but the cotoneasters blazed.  Then the attempt to finish up and polish another chapter of The Frosted Bough:  Essays on Minimalism intervened.  Last Tuesday we woke  up to snow in Regina; I knew it was there even before I looked out the window because the dawn light had changed.  Or was it two Tuesdays ago?  In the furtive stillness, time seems to be hanging out and moving at an uneven pace. People around me averred that this was winter, come down like a curtain on fall's final act.  I disagreed.  We're far under normal lows and highs, and La Nina is afoot, creating warmer oceans and monstrous hurricanes.  

Be here now.  Since last Tuesday, if I'm right, we've had maybe one sunny day.  In the past, I would have been part way down into the catacombs, which is where I seem to go when I don't have the energy to be myself, find myself, nurture myself. Though I admit it took two naps to get through snoozy Sunday. I don't honestly know how I've been able to accommodate my moods to the cloud, to be curious to subtle changes in the the way it envelopes the lacy, empty trees or traces them in blank ink with the rain.  I'm guessing the answer is to be observant, to practice being observant even when it doesn't seem like there's much to observe. 



Happiness Studies, aka Positive Psychology is continuously finding ways of nudging us in the direction of lives that are deeply satisfying.  Dacher Keltner did this with Awe:  The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.  It's essentially a book about paying attention to the moral beauty that happens around us, to the wonders of nature, to our struggling attempts to make sense of the world that result in awesome epiphanies, to that song or symphony that gives us goosebumps.  Take an awe walk, Keltner advises.  Go looking for awe in the natural world and you will inevitably find it, both in nature's vastness and in its attention to detail.  Look for awe in the moral beauty of small acts of kindness or courage--an awe we deeply need to experience in a time when world events are tending toward anything but kindness.  Practice looking for awe and you will get better at seeing it.

This fall I discovered another lovely concept:  glimmers.  Coined by psychotherapist Deb Dana in 2018, glimmers are tiny micro-moments of joy that allow us to feel calm and give us a sense of inner peace.  The more you find, the more  you see.  I am thinking of the poetic collaborationo of Ariel Gorden and Brends Schmidt in Siteseeing.  During a very difficult time--between the pandemic and the threats to the natural world--the collaboration prompted both of them to look carefully and create a glimmer out of whatever the world delivered that day.  I think I'll be writing about them again.

I began this blog post in mid-fall.  Today winter has brought us one of its most graceful beauties:  a tall slice of white on every branch and twig and bird feeder.  When I was coming home from breakfast with Katherine, I even saw a young man walking east with two or three inches atop his toque.  Snowfalls like this make me want to step back and try to grasp the beauty of the whole.  It's a landscape for taking the long view, working to get some perspective.  It's also a time of year when I tend to pull inward; at least it's warm and dry in the catacombs.  It's time to do inner work, time to reflect, time to contemplate and learn more about those close to me.  Oddly enough, that sense of perspective and of pulling inward are connected because that inner work, that stretch for inner knowledge and discernment paradoxically lends itself to wider, clearer views of larger times and spaces.


Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Just Like Me




Bill and I sometimes read to one another in bed.  At this point, we're reading Pema Chodron's Welcoming The Unwelcome, which Bill has heard me talk about again and again.  I discovered When Things Fall Apart several years back and then learned of her more recent book.  Sometimes, when I'm blue or feel ethically and emotionally lost among the vicissitudes of daily life, I find myself reading the books over and over, sometimes just picking one of them up where I stopped reading it a week ago and beginning there. Her advice is very simple and very hard; her books are simple and yet complex. She is Buddhist to the core, but her works contain strong threads of psychology and philosophy. She is wise and kind. As I read and re-read, I think I get closer to the ideals she holds for feeling lovingkindness for others and for myself--one of her favourite words and principles.  Certainly she has made me more patient and more mindful.  

In Welcoming The Unwelcome, published in 2019, Chodron links, with uncanny insight, the unwelcome in ourselves with the people, events, and cultural values that are unwelcome in our cultures and in the larger world.  Even before the threat of the pandemic widened the differences between us, she was attuned to the divisions that have riven our societies. 

The night before Hamas attacked Israeli citizens we read about her practice called "Just like me."  Chodron encourages us to observe the people around us, maybe in the line at the grocery store or as we're drinking our morning coffee in a coffee shop or in a traffic jam to 

"zero in on one person and say to yourself things such as 'Just like me, this person doesn't want to feel uncomfortable.  Just like me, this person loses it sometimes.  Just like me, this person doesn't want to be disliked.  Jut like me, this person wants to have friends and intimacy.' We can't presume to know exactly what someone else is feeling and thinking, but still we do know a lot about each other.  We know that people want to be cared about and don't want to be hated.  We know that most of us are hard on ourselves, that we often get emotionally triggered, but that we want to be of help in some way.  We know that, at the most basic level, every living being desires happiness and doesn't want to suffer.  If we view others from the standpoint of 'Just like me,' we have a strong basis to connect with them, even in situations where it seems most natural and reasonable to polarize." 

She tells the story of the mother of James Foley, a journalist beheaded by ISIS, who said of her son's executioner "We need to forgive him for not having a clue what he was doing." Chodron acknowledges that this kind of forgiveness and acceptance is nearly inhuman.  She goes on to observe that "Those who believe in violence are desperate to get some kind of ground under their feet, desperate to get away from their unpleasant feelings, desperate to be the one who's right.  What would we do if we felt so desperate?" I doubt this understanding is within reach of the families of the Israelis who were executed, raped, and kidnapped by Hamas last week.  And I doubt that Israelis and Palestinians are going to come to this detente anytime soon.  

If you are like me, you have been reading endlessly in an effort to understand and feel the same kind of dread for the suffering that is to come. Of course, we want this situation to be simple.  We want to know who to blame when something so horrific happens.  I liked an essay written by an Israeli soldier who said that he is fighting for Israel but that Palestinians are not his enemies.  Rather, he thought, both Israelis and Palestinians know what has to be done but neither has started the hard work of doing it. 

I felt completely knocked off balance by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  When I described how I was feeling to my empathetic niece, she told me "That's exactly how I feel when I'm having an anxiety attack." Yes, the dread had invaded not just my mind but my body.  I somehow thought we had gone beyond the age of Cold War duck and cover and the smell of pencils and erasers and glue that lingered beneath my desk when I was a child.  The conflict between Hamas and Israel feels worse because it's much more complicated and "victory" will not be something to celebrate. We can celebrate if there's a conversation about how to rid Gaza of Hamas and how to govern it effectively. We can rejoice when there is space in both Israel and Gaza for human flourishing.  

I'm frozen with dread and anger.  But here, again, Pema Chodron gives me insight.  When we cannot find empathy for the Hamas soldiers, we can do something else:

"As a precursor to this level of empathy, sorrow--simple sorrow--is often  more accessible.  For instance, in this case of the violence committed by extreme militants [she's talking about ISIS here, but what she has to say is applicable to Hamas] we can tap into a deep sorrow for the situation as a whole. Along with our sorrow for the victims, we can also feel sorrow that young men find themselves hating so much, sorrow that they're stuck in such a pattern of hatred.  Since things have such complex and far-reaching causes, we can feel sorrow for the circumstances where ignorance or suffering in he past created the hatred that is manifesting in these young men now."

As we hear governments and individuals lining up beside one of the sides, often blindly, with only their own ideologies for evidence, we can appeal to sorrow and the open-heartedness that comes with it.

And maybe we can muster some anger that leaders, rather than seeking the well-being of their citizens, make the increase of their own power their defining principle.

That's where we come in, guided by Pema Chodron.  There are some practices we need to keep alive.  Practicing "just like me," we can keep everyone's humanity in the forefront of our minds.  When Bill and I were in Winnipeg this summer, we went to the Museum of Human Rights.  It was an amazing experience, from the architecture to the exhibits.  There's one floor where you can sit and reflect; there's a reflecting pool and upended "trunks" of basalt for you to sit on, basalt because it's a stone found everywhere in the world.  Sitting on stone isn't that comfortable and isn't meant to be.  But while we were there, I read a panel that said this:  "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." I don't think I've read a more powerful expression of that essential principle--powerful because it's so simple.  And that word "dignity" says so much. Wanting dignity for others is an inherent part of Chodron's "just like me" practice.

And here's a whimsical idea for offering comfort for you and those around you.  Make something.  Let's celebrate the human potential to create, not its penchant for angry destruction.  Make someone an espresso.  Make bread.  Take someone's foot measurement and make socks.  Write your aunt a cheerful email.  Make a meal for someone who is sick. That's one place human flourishing can be found, in our creativity and our generosity.  

  

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

In quest of a metaphor



I'm looking for a metaphor.  For about the last week, whenever I've been doing something brainless like cutting rhubarb up for muffins or picking green beans or hand quilting, I've also bee rifling my brain for a metaphor.  I think it's a metaphor for August.  Or it may be a metaphor for this very moment on the planet.

I want the metaphor to express the coming together of two different things.  I can get my hands to do it by spreading out the fingers of both hands and bringing them together in a kind of basket. At that moment, is it two things or one?  Or I keep coming back to Brownian Motion, though I don't think I've got my head around Einstein's physics.  He was looking at the distribution of pollen in water and observing the way the pollen and water interpenetrated in a very random way.  The two substances plus their energy bounce around and move their respective particles in a way that is unpredictable.  I remember someone in a novel or movie talking about the Brownian Motion of pouring cream into coffee.  On hot days, when I would pour oat milk into a glass of homemade cold brew, I could see Browning motion in action, the creamy oat milk languidly sending tendrils down into the dark coffee.  The point the character made was that you would hit a tipping point where more of the fluid was combined than not, but that in any case, you couldn't undo it.  Browning Motion is a one-way process.

It's an August kind of thing, I suspect.  My Scarlet Runner Beans are still blooming ecstatically, my tomatoes are ripening, and my herbs have hit their stride, particularly the oregano which is calling out to the bumble bees to fertilize it.  But at some point, those oregano blooms are going to tire and begin to go dry.  And even while my beans and tomatoes are happy, the powdery mildew and my zucchini plants are in competition:  who is going to grow or spread more and do it faster?  When I sit on my garden bench in the back yard after giving my garden its evening watering, the Manitoba Maples that keep us cool all summer are dropping yellow leaves, slowly, absent-mindedly, one leaf every five minutes or so.  The edges of some of my ferns, which thrived in the wet spring, are brown and crisp. When I look up at the crab apple tree above my bench, I can see that the apples are ripening; there are blushes of pink on the yellow-green apples that make me want to get my ladder out and harvest them for crabapple jelly.  But the crabapple leaves have gone leathery.  In the spring, the leaves are silky, so moist and new and clear that you can see the shadow a distant leaf casts on the one that's right above you.  There's no such clarity now.  They are leathery and they rustle in the wind in a different way.  Susurration. The word was made for the sound I hear.   

There's a large aspen tree that I can see from my bedroom that has one single branch that's yellow.  I don't know when it turned, but I watch it every day to see if any more has changed. Something's afoot.

Soon, I'll harvest the last of the tomatoes and pull up the pole beans and the cukes and the zucchinis and the carrots.  That will be okay.  I have always loved fall, mostly because, as an academic, I experienced  autumn as a second new year.  There will be new people and new ideas and new books.  In the house there will be the smells of canning and the brilliant colour of jars full of apple tomato chutney and cranberry sauce.  And then there will be a pause of a couple of months.  In its own kind of Brownian Motion, the days will tend to get cooler, but we'll never know when we are going to wake up to a glorious day with golden trees and a hot clear blue sky, demanding that we take a long walk and listen to what Bill calls the "unching" of the leaves.  

For some reason what makes me sad and anxious is an August that's neither one thing nor another, that interpenetrating of ripeness and loss that I can't find a metaphor for.

This sadness and anxiety and, yes, grief, is made worse by this year's fire season.  I've listened, heartbroken, to people showing CBC journalists their burnt-down homes and communities.  Yet I was most stunned at hearing a CBC employee talk about getting out of Yellowknife early and the drive not being too bad or too slow until they got to the area somewhere around Hay River.  His eyes glistened and there was a catch in his throat:  it was just gone.  That word is absolute.  Not a family photograph or a pitcher inherited from a grandmother or a favourite winter coat. How much is just gone for people, some of whom didn't even have time to choose what they took with them?  We can talk about how much carbon was loosed this year when an area the size of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick burned.  But how much grief was loosed?  You don't "rebuild," really.  You start over with nothing.

(And at this moment, grief and sadness be damned.  I want everyone who has slowed our path off fossil fuels--CEOs and provincial premiers and slow-footed politicians and every climate change denier--to look everyone who has lost a home in the eye and say "I'm so sorry for your loss.  But I'm going to wring every vote and dollar out of fossil fuels that I can.  I'm going to make sure there's more and more loss until change is inevitable.  And then I'll leave dealing with it up to someone else who wants to commit political suicide or get himself fired. Yes, we know what to do, but we're not doing it.")

Tipping point.  Is that where we are?  That Brownian Motion thing that can't be undone?  That "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" and forests reduced to stumps and homes looking like sad implosions.  How do you balance those two visions in August?  We should be getting ready for harvest.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Bean Dreaming





We need a new word for the meandering peregrinations our minds set out on while we garden--a flower or vegetable version of wooll-gathering.  Bean-dreaming?

I love weeding.  I know:  I'm on my knees, my seventy-three-year-old-knees, but I have a great kneeler.  So each summer when everything is finally in and the weeds have gotten out of control, I remember the delights of weeding.

I think it partly teaches me perspective.  If I look at the whole garden, which has several entire forests of tiny elm trees, I quickly become overwhelmed.  But down on my knees, when I take the lilliputian perspective, I can concentrate only what's in front of me. Occasionally I'll find a clump of weeds that I can wipe out with my garden claw, but mostly it's just one thing at a time. And that's more or less the way life is, given that human beings are pretty lousy at multi-tasking.

It's also a great chance to practice seeing the trees rather than the whole forest.  Weeds love to germinate in damp places that don't get too much sun and dry out too quickly, so they collect in the places where I've been watering, under my pole beans and the bamboo tents that hold their winding stems.  They collect under the shade of tomato plants or among rows of beans.  The row of carrots doesn't have the same advantage--there's no shade there, just daily watering--but maybe some weeds are sun worshippers from the get go. If you want your vegetables to get all the advantages from your watering and fertilizing, you need to keep them weeded, but it's an exercise in looking carefully, discerning the trees from the forest around them, getting yourself right down there. Weeding gives you the chance to observe I was talking about earlier in June.

(Did you see that rhubarb?  It's a good four feet tall.)  

And then we need to talk about soil.  It includes microbacterium vaccae, a bacteria which triggers the release of seratonin, in turn lifting gardeners' moods and suppressing anxiety.  But let's not stop talking about my mood there.  I am outdoors with the sun and fresh air on my skin, with the scent of tomato plants--which for some reason is really nostalgic--and the scent of the pinks I included in my vegetable garden this year to feed the pollinaters, with the sound of birds at my feeder. My eyes breathe in all the shades of green in my back garden after a very long, very white winter.  Weeding bathes all my senses--except for taste, that is.  I can wait for taste  until I pick the first tomatoes or handful of beans or until I put fresh basil on pasta.

But the bean-dreaming that gives me the most pleasure is the humility of what I'm doing, there on my knees looking for weeds among the tough stems of pole beans. Curious about an earlier time in my life, I'd returned to the reading I'd done then, which included May Sarton's journals and memoirs.  She immerses us in the delights of a life that contained a lot of chosen solitude, a life fed by myriads of friends and her passion for her gardens.  (She should also be given credit for writing frankly about lesbians, which she thought was her duty; because she made a living from her writing, she didn't risk losing her job by coming out.  For this we should be grateful.) Many of the pages, as she attempts to understand the thunderstorms of her own character, are illuminating, human and humane. There are the inevitable writer's complaints about not having not enough time--but those are quickly followed by the reader's observation that she shouldn't go out for so many lunches or dinners with friends, shouldn't go off on so many weekend jaunts!  

But what troubled me was that, by the end of her life, she had published 17 volumes of poems, 13 books of nonfiction, and 20 novels.  Yet she worried constantly about her reputation--worried herself sick at times.  Perhaps she didn't do enough weeding among the delphiniums and phlox. 

When you weed, you are nature's hand maiden.  A servant.  And in return, you are given the all those experiences.  The sound of a bee wallowing in a blooming Henry Hudson rose.  The myriad scents of the garden.  Air on skin that is more or less humid and sun that is more or less hot.  At the end of your life, this is what you have collected--all those experiences you stopped to pay attention to that fed each day's delight in being alive.  It is humbling.  I've simply bumbled around trying to create deep and caring relationships, doing my best to be kind, to think carefully and clearly, to write carefully and clearly, and life has given me all this?  


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

Awe

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

Choices

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

Hope?

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.