Friday, May 13, 2022

A Hard-Won Spring


 

We have no flooding or forest fires in Saskatchewan, so perhaps I shouldn't be whining so much.  But this has been one of the most unpleasant springs ever.  Our days have been very grey and cold:  tulips are behind their normal budding about a week after Easter.  My crabapple tree, which always blooms on May long weekend, has no more than tiny little leaves on it.  And even the sunny days, which I drank up eagerly, getting out into the garden to start the spring cleanup, have often been windy.  Windy days make my vertigo act up, probably because they come with changes to barometric pressure.  But they also make me edgy. It's as if the wind threatens to sweep away parts of who I am.  I can't look out a window without seeing chaos moving through the landscape or walk without feeling chaos on my skin. A single cloudy or windy day doesn't bother me, especially if it comes with rain.  But a whole streak of rainy or windy days in a row--which we've often had this spring (calling it "spring" gives it too much credit) leaves me feeling like a deflated balloon.  

On Wednesday about ten days ago, I woke up to such a morning after several similar mornings, and said "I can't do this."  I seem to have an inner voice that only has two options when faced with a challenge:  either "I can do this.  No problem." Or a whining "I can't do this." It doesn't even deliver an explanation, though there are obvious candidates, with a few extras during Covid.  Loneliness.  Dismay at how greedy our "leaders" have been to lift mask and passport mandates in order to get the economy moving again and to please impatient voters. (That certainly hadn't worked here in Saskatchewan; we have the lowest GDP in the country and one of the higher death rates.) The after-effects of insomnia.  Feeling that my writing is pure shit. Feeling that my writing makes no different in a world where a bully just decides to invade a neighbouring country.  I'm supposed to be standing up for humanity, for beauty, but what good do humanity and beauty do in a world where a single person can say "I want...." and mobilize thousands of others to meet his desire and in the process kill and be killed?   All those blasted apartment buildings we're shown on TV are people's homes and lives, and I can't stop thinking about that and about the needless deaths and trauma.  These are glass half empty days in the life of someone who has fought hard to see her glass as half full.

How can the weather do this, tipping me over into helplessness?  It's just weather.  Unless it's thirty below and my furnace has to run full time just to keep the house warm, or unless it's thirty-five above (and we don't have air conditioning), weather has little effect on my comfort. What is weather all about if it isn't about comfort or the lack of it--unless you're a farmer and need rain or unless you're a farmer and need the rain to stop? 

I have this sense that my moods are a heavy cloak.  I don't mind holding it up for a while as I try to adjust my relationship with a magical and maddening universe so I can find enough hope to be a productive person. But at some point the arm holding my cloak off the floor gets stiff and then very tired.  You wouldn't want to sully such an essential cloak; where would we be--what would we be without our moods?  I count on the beauty of the natural world to hold my cloak for a while on those days when politicians don't care about human lives or tyrants have a good day with their bombs.  Or those days when I have slept badly or can't find the words for my thoughts.  Or the days when the people I love are struggling.

We had an unexpected nice day last weekend, so I got out into the garden to begin the spring cleaning.  I rake my lawn fairly carefully in the fall so it can go on photosynthesizing even in the cool weather.  But I rake most of those leaves onto perennial beds where they can decompose over winter and in the spring serve as cover for insects that the robins come looking for.  So my first spring job is to lift the leaves off the things that bloom early:  my two bleeding heart and the iris in the front yard.  This is such a pedestrian thing to do.  Nothing is particularly beautiful besides the air on your skin or the sounds of birds.  But lifting decaying leaves off the bleeding heart and finding little white sprouts below--the layer of leaves prevented photosynthesis--was inexplicably joyful.  I had uncovered a miracle. The week after that Sunday was nicer than expected--continuous rain had been forecast--so I tried to get out most days and work at turning over my vegetable garden.  As I told the young man who shovels our snow and who offered to borrow a rototiller so he could rototill my garden, the one thing standing in the way of seeing myself as an old woman is the fact that I can still turn over my vegetable garden.  At the end of an hour of digging, I'd roam the yard to see what was putting out buds--what, in effects, had made it through the winter.  The hydrangeas, much to my delight had.  The mahogany nine bark had, but I suspect the silver dogwood I'd planted as a companion hasn't.

All this spoke to the voice that said "I can't do this" with reassurance that in fact I could.  That reassurance came in two ways.  First, I know when I rake leaves over my perennial beds in the fall or lift them off in the spring, that I'm nature's handmaiden; nature's midwife. That's a small role that gives me joy.  I'm also reminded of the fact that when the universe goes pear-shaped, but best thing is to look close to home--to look closely--to appreciate what it's just as easy to miss otherwise.  My lemony lace elderberry turns bright and vivid green when spring really gets under way, but its buds are a wine red. My cats--another part of nature--are remarkably intuitive. My friends and family are the best.

Here's the thing that makes me curious, though.  When we're in blue moods, we're inclined to pay attention to detail; happy people tend to see the big picture, something that makes them even happier.  But during a rainy spring maybe paying attention to detail is all you have.  Best to be mindful about it, to see its small miracle and to understand the place of the small in a universe that is constantly expanding.



 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Beauty and kindness; war and despair

Last night I stood looking out the window at the dusky skyline; Lyra had joined me. The view was quite simple:  the cloudy sky put the naked trees and the row of full evergreens into sharp relief.  Lyra examined my face carefully, his expression changing, as if he were trying to read my mood.  'What's up with Mom?" he seemed to be asking as he turned his head and widened  his eyes.  It was simply this.  That the world was so beautiful, even on a cloudy evening in raw spring; that Russian soldiers had committed atrocities in Bucha. Lyra purred and leaned into me the second I began to pet him.

I'm never sure what we mean this time a year when we say that a day is beautiful.  A careful look reveals that it really isn't.  While we can see the tree buds stretching and plumping every day, the overall effect is that the stark lace of tree branches just looks a little fuller at the top.  There are dirty snowbanks everywhere.  Where our lawns have been revealed, they're a sad green.  But all this is visual.  Our sense of touch is glorying in the warmer days, the softness of air on skin--on our faces, on our hands if we've decided to tough it out without our gloves. The sound of birds has changed as robins come north and add their liquid song to the staccato of sparrows.  If I'm patient, I can smell earth and leaf mold, which I leave on the garden to provide cover to the insects the robins will seek as they return. I can't quite explain it, but the blue sky on a spring day says "Hang in there.  You can do this."  A blue that seems infinite promises that the future is there, waiting for us to join it--though it doesn't give us permission to ignore the fact that this moment is the only one we have right now. 

As Russia built up its forces just outside of Ukraine, I still didn't think that Putin would invade--that he would risk starting World War III.  I thought it was male posturing.  Unhappy male posturing.  One thing we need to remember is that Putin is a profoundly unhappy man, an unspeakably rich man who is not satisfied with what he has--riches from a large country that he's not really governing.  He's just taking their riches for himself and other oligarchs.  There is no satisfaction for such an unhappy person. No satisfaction in wealth and land and power because there's always more out there for the taking.  But we also need to admit that such men are unpredictable.

The invasion sent me off for a philosophical talk with my therapist.  Distraught, I simply didn't know how to see the world.  I knew it was an important ethical task for me to witness what was going on.  But what did I do with that knowledge?  If I didn't do anything with it, did I still have to sit quietly with my horror and take in more every day?  The answer was yes, but I didn't know why, though I knew that it had something to do with being honest to history.  But that honesty threatened to erase the beauties of the present moment:  my relationships with Bill and Veronica, wonderful friends, two cats who are the most affectionate and intuitive that I've ever had, and spring on the way. An earth, despite all we've done to her, who just doesn't stop being beautiful.  

I imagined the present moment as the scales of justice.  Putin was putting war, destruction, death, the loneliness and disorientation of refugees--and now unnecessary atrocities--in the left-hand pan.  Going to war, I suppose, means that you will kill people.  But it doesn't mean you have to rape, torture, and execute. What could I possibly put on the other side of the scales that would not be dishonest?  The beauty of a spring day, a remarkable marriage, a daughter that's just an astonishing, loving person--how did I teach her that?  Think of that miracle:  that people can teach one another to be loving. Two cats who, from the beginning of the war, know that Mom is troubled and who stay close by?  I was stopped briefly by that:  my cats have  figured out what Putin needs to know: that the meaning in our lives comes from the relationships we build, the care with which we build them, and from our mindful presence here and now.

All that on the other sides of the scales seemed, for all its wonder, inadequate.

And then, I realized I had the wrong metaphor, the wrong paradigm.  In my blogs, I've often included links to the Future Crunch newsletter that comes out of Australia.  The people who create Future Crunch are swimming upstream in the current media environment.* They write about the improvements human beings are making to health around the world, the latest tech wizardry, the creative and disciplined ways we are actually making progress on reducing our emissions and protecting ecosystems like forests and oceans and grasslands.  Each newsletter ends with the story of an everyday person who has made a significant difference in the world. Last fall, Angus Hervey, its director, wrote about "the rope of history" after he gave us two starkly different views of the present moment.  It isn't just horror that makes up the rope of history.  It's also good things we do together and good things we do as individuals.  From time to time the rope of history is dominated by wars and cruelty and hunger.  But the creativity of individuals and cultures working toward progress is always there too.

Right now, it's kind of like looking at spring struggling to unfold.  If we choose, we can see the beauty alongside the grittiness. Spring sunshine lights up the bark of trees and the feathers of sparrows, falls gently on our faces, but it also creates tangles of shadow. Except that spring goes on without us.  It's not the same with humankind.

Rather than understanding my astonishment as dishonest, I have come to see it as necessary.  What happens to that rope when we give in to despair and all the lack of care for others and the planet that follows close on the heels of despair? To keep the rope of history strong during this time, we need to celebrate the beauty and the goodness that threads through each of our lives. We need to realize that our lives matter.  The attention we give to our lives matters.  Every act of kindness and creativity adds another thread to the rope of history.  


The quilt above is a hybrid.  The block is distinctly American, and is called a log cabin.  The subtle fabrics are Japanese.

*Whether you agree with how mainstream media covers what's happening in the world--if it bleeds, it leads--thank them, please.  Putin can only get away with this war because he controls Russian media with an iron hand and the threat of jail.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Writing about cooking is not always just about food: Bread and Water



 I  have just finished re-reading dee Hobsbawn-Smith's luminous Bread and Water, and the second reading was worth it. Our lives are infused with food and drink, so the spine of dee's book immediately captures us and underscores what is important:  our relationships with others, with pleasure, with the planet.  And, oh, the writing about food!  The metaphors!  "Summer flows from spring like a butterscotch sundae." The fragrances and colours!  When dee writes about food, it's a sensuous experience; she brings her poet's eye and ear to everything within her purview.

In some ways, this book of essays is a memoir.  Were she not happy with the incisive Bread and Water, her title could have added that this was a book about family or a book about finding oneself.  A book about taking risks--whether it's jumping with a horse or leaping into a job she wasn't ready for.  But the essays, not arranged in any chronological order--not, indeed, subject to chronology--balance self and subject carefully.  Memoir, as I understand it, differs from autobiography in that it doesn't even attempt a full accounting of one's life, instead using one's experiences as a lens on another topic altogether, albeit a topic that is central to the writer's life, curiosity, or passions.  The architect Philip Johnson built himself a completely glass house--a simple but hardly livable structure--it had no library or sewing room.  There's a story about the first night he spent there and actually inhabited the structure with the lights on.  He phoned a friend to say "You've got to come over.  I've turned on the lights and all I can see is me me me me me!" Autobiographies can be a bit like that.  Memoirs are as curious about the world as about the self.

Dee links cooking and caring for others through the way family and food intertwine in her essays.  We learn about her grandmother, who was generous with her time in the kitchen, teaching dee to make transparent strudel dough and showing her a central paradox that's almost existential:  "Time has no meaning in the kitchen.  Time means everything in the kitchen."  Like all craftspeople, dee's grandmother knew that when we're cooking we commit ourselves to taking the time to do it right.  But when we're feeding a large family, getting the timing right so every dish meets perfection at the same moment marks the cook's devotion to her or his craft.

We learn about dee's peripatetic life as an air force brat, at one point fetching up on the Vancouver Island coast and often gathering oysters for dinner. We learn about her father's cooking career, begun after dee's Mom could no longer cook, and about how his spread sheets showed the way he experimented with a recipe.  We learn about her teaching her sons to cook and their choice to become chefs.  We are invisible guests to the times when she cooks with these now adult children and how that brings back whole wafts of memories along with pleasure in the present.  Some nights after I've had a rough day, Bill might ask me whether I really want to cook.  I know he's being attentive and helpful, but he doesn't love cooking, so he doesn't quite grasp the fact that those are the very times to cook. The physical and sensuous experience of making pleasure for someone else perfectly balances with an intensive day writing.  I've always thought that cooking combines basic yet pleasurable self-care with our drive to be generous to those we love and to give them pleasure; dee profoundly shares that belief. 

Dee also links cooking with care and gratitude for the planet by writing about her commitment to slow food, a commitment to knowing your local farmers, cheesemakers, and vintners.  Dee comes to the prairie version of the 100-mile diet via learning to cook with Madeleine Kamman in France.  Madam began her days with her students by taking them to the market to see what was fresh, a practice dee translated to her Calgary restaurant, Foodsmith. There are points when the 100 mile diet severely limits what one can eat or drink--the thought of a morning without coffee terrifies me, and dee was saddened by the loss of the spices that can make a lovely Moroccan or Indian stew out of a bit of meat, some beans or pulses, and a few vegetables.  Without olive oil, she learned to cook with rendered duck fat. She uses local vinegars and home-grown herbs to give her dishes panache. "What grows together goes together," she tells us.  But she also teaches us that the fresh, intense flavours of local food make simple cooking into something remarkable. Here is dee's "bellweather moment.  My reconnection to a local diet came with unexpected benefits.  A deeper sense of immediacy and place meant I ate what the moment and the weather rendered possible....Casting this net created a symbiotic network.  I knew the people who grew my food and they knew me."  She pleads with us to make time for good food and the relationships it builds with growers and family and friends, and to realize that "locally grown will feed  us better than what has travelled thousands of miles."   

The pandemic has made many of us leery about eating out.  Dee gives us insight into what goes on in the backrooms of restaurants:  the sexism, the physical demands of coping with the heat of a kitchen and staying on your feet for hours on end.  And high-end restaurants are hardly the worst:  dee's first job in Fernie B.C. involved buses "parked like ghostly mastodons," unloading hungry tourists at ten and four everyday, where dee was expected to organize the many moving parts of a kitchen.  It was a lonely, exhausting, isolating job from which she fled.  Essays like "Cooking for James" and "Love Affair with a Wolf" (a riff, I suspect on M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf), she gives us the insider's view of restaurants.  You know what?  Maybe we should occasionally tip more generously.  And maybe, when we've really enjoyed a dish, we should send a comment back to the chef.  They are unsung heroes and only get complaints, I'll bet. 

Dee has certainly had experience with water.  Her Calgary house was flooded in June 2013 by the Bow River.  Her prairie farmhouse was graced by an ad hoc lake in 2011, the result of record-breaking snow fall which came swift on the heals of a summer of unprecedented rain.  She made lemonade of lemons when she and her husband Dave held mid-winter bonspiels,  feeding them, of course.  But the essay called "Floodplain" is the occasion of some of dee's most poetic and insightful writing.  I think I'll just end my casual review with her words.  They will show you what a treat you have in store:

"Water is light, mirror-glass physics, angle of incidence equals angle of refraction.  Is mercury droplets.  A sheet. Ice/steam/fluid.  Invisible.  A rock-chipped diamond.  A skater's agony.  A skier's liftoff above the T-bar.  Raft supporter, life raft.  Float.  Inhale, and death to all but fish.  Life and death.  Water is blue green aqua emerald azure cobalt sapphire cerulean indigo.  Sea of Tranquility.  Sea of despond.  Sea of heartache.  Water is in.  Out.  Fashionable bottles, stored, iced, jugged, poured, hoarded, squandered.  Water is hip. The arctic, tamed and bottled, icerbergs with olives and a twist.  Tankers, plastic bottles forming floating islands of post-industrial despair in the oceans.  Glasses.  A mattress.  Water is eternal. Evanescent. A desert. An ocean."  

Monday, March 7, 2022

Being Grateful

At the end of February, my brain uttered a couple of sentences that were initially surprising.  Once, it observed that I was grateful to be doing the dishes.  The second time, I was grateful to be able to play Bach, albeit on a very old and out-of-tune piano. 

That first sentence told me how startling and violent and shocking the first images of women and children fleeing Ukraine were.  Doing the dishes, even before locking up the house they hoped to return to, was utterly beside the point.  When they were on the road, it was the least of their worries.  What could they actually take?  What could they carry, along with the two-year-old who would sometimes need to be held?  What on earth were the logistics of spending days in your car waiting to cross the Polish border?  How could you have enough food and water?  I remembered a moving photograph by Dorothea Lange, who documented the dirty thirties in the U.S.:  an unending road reaching the vanishing point, open fields with nothing in them but dust, and a young couple pulling two children in a wagon.  It has always stood for me for those moments in history when people must turn their backs on the known world and turn their faces to the unknown, and the unspeakable number of times people have had to do this. 

Feeling grateful to be doing the dishes acknowledged how even the most ordinary labours of my life marked me among the fortunate and reminded me of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which I'd begun to read a week before.  In the concentration camps, he tells of being grateful for the smallest things, like getting a bowl of soup from the bottom of the pot, where there are actually a few vegetables.  Any act of kindness was worthy of gratitude, no matter how small.  And he found he could get positively excited when he was being transferred to another camp, a smaller camp, one that didn't even have a chimney.  

If being grateful for doing dishes was "ridiculous," being grateful for playing Bach was the "sublime."  I hoped that their days would have some beauty in them; a smile on an unfamiliar face, the bright purple of a child's hat, the calm grey before dawn arrived.  Frankl tells of being dead tired at the end of a day and having one of his fellow prisoners rush in to call them to beauty:  "Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors from steel blue to blood red.  The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky.  Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, 'How beautiful the world could be!'"  That the universe simply drops such revelations of beauty into people's hands in a concentration camp is an affirmation that there is some meaning for which we can hold out a little longer.

Beauty remained life-saving.  He tells of working at dawn in a trench and of having an inner conversation with his wife about whether he would give in to hopelessness.  And just at that moment when he might have decided hopelessness was more powerful than the will to survive, "a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria."  There was often music in the camps which highlighted the difference between sublime beauty and the greys of brutality.

Well might Frankl have wondered whether there was freedom in a concentration camp.  Even when he was in a slightly better situation as a doctor in a typhus hospital, the utterly arbitrary rules of the concentration camp--even forgetting the barbed wire for a moment, if one could--shaped his days.  When his field hospital was being "inspected," the inspectors cared more about how the patients' feet were tucked in among the blankets and whether there were any wisps of straw on the floor than whether the patients had the medications they needed.  Being both rule-bound and arbitrary gave the Nazis the psychological edge.  Yet Frankl tells us that there were men who often did something kind, comforted others, gave away a precious piece of bread.  "They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

This is what we are so admiring of the Ukrainians now as they are led by a defiant Volodymyr Zelensky.  In their heroic defiance, they are maintaining their freedom--and ours. While the Russians, like the Nazis, have a tactical advantage, one they exploit by announcing cease-fires around humanitarian routes--and then shelling them--the Ukrainians refuse to be dehumanized or cowed. They have already inspired North Americans and Europeans by their vivid example of maintaining one's freedom in the face of might. 


Monday, February 28, 2022

Finding ways to act in times of uncertainty

In this startling and dismaying year, three things have happened that I could not have predicted.  The first was that Omicron, arriving nearly two years after the Chinese admitted that there was a pandemic loose in Wuhan, would cause higher levels of illness than we had yet seen.  Watching the numbers skyrocket was surreal, especially since so many Canadians were vaccinated.  When Dr. Bonnie Henry said "There's always a second wave," I believed her.  But I thought that in a year's time--by spring of 2021--we'd be done.  COVID-19 has changed our world in ways we can barely begin to see.  I worry especially about what it has done to the performing arts and universities. And I am grateful to libraries  for dispensing quick COVID tests and showing their patrons how to access their health records for proof of vaccination.  I don't know about you, but libraries and bookstores kept me sane--or as sane as I've managed to be.

The second was the freedom convoy to Ottawa, where some Canadians were unspeakably rude and violent and others woefully misinformed about how democracy, and Canadian democracy worked.  Did they really think they could protest and honk their way into a government coup?  I try to think about each protester imagining they had the power and authority to undo a democratic election, and my mind boggles.  What role did hot tubs and bouncy castles play in their efforts to change Canada's constitution?  What has happened to the limits on the words "I want"?

The third of course is the invasion of Ukraine.  I knew, just as you and world leaders knew, that Putin was lying about the coming and the going of troops on Ukraine's borders.  But one of the things I've learned about the powerful from Rutger Bregman is that shamelessness of the powerful is unlimited, as is  their ability to lie shamelessly.  Nevertheless, I was a victim of what Viktor Frankl calls "the delusion of reprieve," something that Jews in the death camps felt in order to keep the will to survive.  "This is not really going to get as bad for me as I think it might," is an infinite loop in the mind of someone whose right to exist and whose humanity is under erasure.

Yes, the powerful are different from us.  Bregman identifies their disability as "acquired sociopathy." It arises, he tells us, "after a blow to the head that damages key regions of the brain and can turn the nicest people into the worst kind of Machiavellian.  It transpires that people in power display the same tendencies.  They literally act like someone with brain damage.  Not only are they more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and ruder than average, they are more likely to cheat on their spouses, are less attentive to other people and less interested in others' perspectives.  They're also more shameless, often failing to manifest that one facial phenomenon that makes human beings unique among primates.  They don't blush."  Blushing is the human tell, out there for everyone to see, that we know we're being evil and unreasonable.  Pasty-faced Putin doesn't blush.

If this seems like too much to take in a mere two months into 2022 (Omicron identified toward the end of November 2021), that's because it is.  So I'd recommend that you visit Shawna Lemay's comforting blog, Transactions with Beauty:  "It's Hard to Concentrate right now."  The link is below.  I'm in more of a "Don't let the bastards get you down" mood.  In the face of such profound uncertainty, it helps if there are things we can do.

Putin has threatened every Russian journalist with fines up to $60,000 if they publish any thing about the war that they didn't find on official Russian sites.  They've shut down Facebook as much as they can so people can't gather or share accurate information.  Yuval Noah Hirari tells us that nations are built on stories.  (A link to his essay in The Guardian, "Why Vladimir Putin has already lost this war,"  is below.)  So you can support a thriving journalism culture in Canada.  You can support free speech.  Buy newspapers.  Join PEN Canada.  We know from what happened in Ottawa and what is happening next door, justified by the shout "fake news!" that the truth has become vulnerable in the cesspool of conspiracy theories and personal desires. Do what you can to keep it alive.  Support libraries, another form of literacy, the only public space where everyone, whether they have money or a roof over their head or not--is welcome.

What we see acted out by the Freedom Convoy and Putin's war is a belief that individual desires are sacrosanct, not to be questioned, debated, or thwarted--under threat of nuclear attack or attempted coup.  We need to call rampant individualism into question by celebrating "The Commons." What do we share that we can't do without?  Paved roads and traffic regulations. Public transit.  Clean air. Clean water. (Though unfortunately this isn't available to all of us. It's a file we seriously need to work on.) Health care and hospitals. Libraries, Schools and all post-secondary institutions.  Parks and other places of respite.  What we need, especially in Saskatchewan, is to shift the conversation away from individual wishes and actions toward a recognition that the things we hold in common--like information about how many COVID cases there are in a province with no vaccine passports or mask requirements in place--are crucial to our health and well-being.  

We can keep alive beauty and hope in our daily lives.  They lighten our hearts and nourish our souls and give us the energy to fight "the bastards."  We can keep kindness and tolerance alive.  Think of every act of kindness or smile of tolerance as counterweight to Putin and our homegrown protesters.  Anne Applebaum wrote in December's Atlantic about the fact that democracy is under threat and that the autocrats are winning.  It used to be that one in every two people lived in a democracy.  Now it's one in five. Beauty and hope and kindness and tolerance won't directly allow Canadians to effect the war in Ukraine, though we're hearing stories about people in Poland who are driven by exactly those values to help those fleeing the war.  We have to support their generosity and altruism by keeping those qualities alive here.  And who knows  how such ideals spread in the real world?  But they sure as hell don't spread if we aren't practicing them. 

And there are donations.  UNHCR is gearing up to give respite to Ukrainians fleeing the war.  Donations to the Canadian Red Cross, which is already at work, will be met, dollar for dollar, by the Canadian government. 

UNHCR in Ukraine 

Canadian Red Cross

The Commons during a pandemic

"It's hard to concentrate right now"

Why Vladimir Putin has already lost this war 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Imperfect metaphors

My large work table takes up far too much space in my little workroom.  I've been meaning to get it downstairs for a while, but wanted to get a few quilts basted up for hand quilting before I did so.  So I've been going through my unfortunately large pile of pieced tops to see what I wanted to work on, and came across the one above that Lyra is admiring.  In an incongruous way, it reminded me of attending the post-sabbatical show of a Winnipeg painter nearly forty years ago.  His enormous canvases were mostly painted in dark greyed-out colours with floating abstract and jagged shapes articulated in charcoal.  A naive graduate student at the time, I asked what I was supposed to see, and he explained his work to me patiently and carefully.  What I was supposed to see was quite interesting, but I couldn't quite see it.  For me, that incident has always stood for the gap between conception and finished work of art.  Theodore Adorno talks about that magical moment when the work of art is the equivalent of itself.  Since I read his Aesthetics in English, I feel I can't be exactly sure what he means, but I suspect most artists have felt it occasionally:  your poem or painting or photograph actually comes close to what you wanted to achieve. Conversely, we all know art, sometimes our own, sometimes others', that fails that test.  We know and can articulate what we want to do but can't quite pull it off.  I should say that moments ago I found his paintings online and was quite moved.  That adds another variable that frustrates many of us:  some people can see a work that is the equivalent of itself.  Some can't.

As a quilter, I try to evoke a mood.  As well, I want to make something visually engaging, something that makes you want to look at it carefully and begin to see the juxtapositions of fabrics I've made. Perhaps it even prompts you to look at the way my tiny little points--sometimes eight at a time--meet up exactly.  Craftsmanship is often as important as conception.  But when I looked at that little quilt, well crafted though it was, my reaction was "Meh."

I haven't been sleeping well lately, so a couple of days after I looked at those nice block in their unexciting setting, I spent my insomniac hours taking it apart, rescuing the blocks.  As I did so, I found myself considering the challenges I'm facing as a writer.  It isn't enough that the work is well-crafted.  At the ground floor of literature lies the challenge of word choice and sentence structure, rhythm and sound. I'm good at that.  In my teens, I was a champion at sentence diagramming, and given a single sentence, I can still probably come up with three or four other syntaxes.  Then out comes the old thesaurus--I handle it gingerly because it is falling apart--where I consider word choice and the kinds of sound and rhythm that might undergird the sense.  In other words, my hands told me as I wielded my seam ripper, I can make good blocks.  But do I have a vision?  And here is the question I think many writers are asking themselves today: do I have a vision that other people will care about or consider significant?

The quilt above is put together in one of the traditional ways quilters use:  pieced blocks alternate with plain blocks.  Sometimes, as in the quilt on the right that I made for Nikka some years back, the plain blocks contain lots of quilting.  There are some advantages to this structure.  First, you don't have to make so many pieced blocks, which takes quite a lot of time.  In the finished version below, which is thirty inches square, there are 433 pieces. They all had to be sewn together.  Plain blocks can also calm a quilt down.  But I could see that no amount of quilting was going to make those 4 1/2 inch blocks interesting, while blocks pieced together can yield secondary patterns.  In the original version, I'd added a playful touch:  I used a toile for the plain blocks, in the order in which I cut them, so a viewer could actually put the toile back together mentally.  Clever, eh?  But cleverness is pointless if the quilt is boring or doesn't make a statement.  Convention plus cleverness only gets you so far as an artist. 

Taking the quilt apart also made me think about revision.  When I taught students to write, I would urge them not to revise until they had a whole, partly because they could spend an hour revising a paragraph they might later cut.  That advice is meant to save them time, which is at a premium when you are taking five classes and each of your professors wants a research paper at the end of term.  I now don't follow my own advice, instead revising in two ways.  I start each day revising what I wrote the day before; that gets me into the flow of what I'm creating.  Then I go back to drafting but can make more intimate and subtle connections with what has gone before.  And then, of course, there's the big structural revision where you cut what isn't working and reshape what remains. That's the point when I bring my big worktable up from the basement and spread chapters and pages and poems out to see how the whole thing can best be built. That's the point I'd gotten to with the original quilt.  To make it the equivalent of itself, I had to be willing to take the whole thing apart.

In the same way, I took four of the blocks from the original quilt and sewed them together to see if they worked or were too busy.  Instead, I found they created some echoing patterns; you could see the architecture of the block.  Then I sat down to choose fabrics for new blocks--twelve more--cut out more tiny pieces and began putting them together.  I had hoped to keep the original borders, so added more blue.  It also needed a dash of black here and there for sharpness.  I bootlegged the toile I'd used for the plain blocks into one of these.  It's turned out to be a cheerful quilt, a bit funky, even though all the blocks are made of reproductions--fabric designed to look like it was made in the nineteenth century.  I might even say that the original version is polite; this one isn't.

Here's the part of revising that no quilting metaphor will help with.  How do you reveal what's important without getting out your hammer and tacking up a sign?  How do you hold your readers, making them what Virginia Woolf called her "co-creators"?  How do you find those moments in a draft that are easy and clever but need you to stop and stare at them for half an hour, finding ways to dig more deeply, to push your understanding of the human condition and this magical planet we all inhabit?  I think I get there after a while--after a long time.  More insomniac nights than it took to take this little quilt apart.

It's clearly Lyra's quilt.  When I put it on the floor to photograph, he ran right over and begin posturing.


 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Snow Days and beauty


 There is nothing more boring than basting up a quilt.  The fun stuff is done.  You've pulled fabric out of your stash whose colours and styles embody the mood  you want for your quilt--because for me, each quilt is a mood.  I'm not an artist; I'm happy evoking a mood. Then each block was an adventure as you chose fabrics that go with one another and yet contrast, so that they sing.  Then you decided how you will put those blocks together.  Did they go together edge to edge, almost vibrating with busy-ness?  Here's mood again, on another level.  Or did you use lattices or plain blocks of fabric between them to calm them down?  You've decided whether you'll have a border and what you'll do with that border.  One of my weaknesses as a quilter is that I can never "see" the next stage until I'm ready for it.  I make some blocks I love and hope it will work.  This process is both exciting and fraught with anxiety.  Right now I'm taking a quilt apart because the way I put them together was so 'meh.'  But I've got new plans I'll write about in a couple of weeks. 

When you've got the quilt top together, you get to shift into another gear altogether.  I find hand quilting meditative and soothing, and since I'm starting a new writing project I thought I should get some quilt tops ready to hand quilt.  When I get into the rhythm of the tiny stitches, my mind wanders--sometimes quite purposefully, sometimes waywardly.  I wanted to baste up a couple of small things I could just pick up.  And I wanted to make some progress on the quilt tops that are collecting in my study, so I basted up  two lap size and two small ones.

But between the exciting anxiety and the meditative work, there's frustration and boredom.  First, you have to convince your top, your batting, and the backing you've chosen to line up straight without a wrinkle anywhere.  Then you find a large, sturdy needle, a spool of white thread, the thimble with a little edge around its top that will catch and push a large needle, and  you begin to baste.  Every three or four inches top to bottom and side to side.  

It should have been boring, except I think we've learned something about boredom during the pandemic.  That there are worse things.  That there's lots you can do to ameliorate it. I knew that once I got my basting rhythm my hands would know what to do and I would be able to let my thoughts wander.  The cats came to see what I was up to.

I listen to two Radio Three weekend jazz programs, one of old standards that readers write in to request, and one of very cutting edge work that I'm not sure I understand and appreciate fully, but that's okay.  You can still hear the creativity hitting the air, and that's why I listen.  Besides, there are worse things than being bathed in the unfamiliar.  In fact, I feel like two women at once.  One is a conventional boring woman in Regina spending a sunny winter day inside basting up quilts.  She's a fuddy-duddy, my mother would have said, doing something so last century--and the century before that.  And the other is a woman who just loves the unpredictability, the uncertainty of jazz, who admires the way the musicians have these very complicated conversations with the the song they're playing and with their instruments and with one another.  This woman was in a jazz club somewhere, hearing the invention of music unfold.  So there's lots to get excited about when you are basting up a quilt and listening to jazz.  And, paradoxically, there's some common ground between how I make a quilt and how a group of musicians brings all the threads of a jazz performance together--leaving some loose, perhaps, for another time.  Under the influence of the jazz, I could even admire the blocks I'd made, some of them not conventional or even proper.  At one point, I was short one small equilateral triangle for a block, so I just picked up another fabric.  I'm wondering whether anyone will ever see my "mistake."

It was, seemingly, a day for paradoxes, because listening to jazz and basting up a quilt, I completely forgot the  pandemic, the surreal spread of the Omicron variant.  I guess I'd chosen my quiet day, my isolation, rather than having it thrust on me.  I had just finished reading a book by Jerome Segal called Graceful Simplicity. Segal finds it difficult to define gracefulness, though he argues that we know it by its absence.  I came to think of it as a matter of time and space.   Essentially, he means our surroundings are simple enough to give our thoughts space;  it is apparently difficult, researchers tell me, to think Great Thoughts in a cluttered room.  Think of the artist retreats you've been on. One of the reasons they are so productive is that someone else takes care of the shopping, cooking, and even cleaning.  But the other, I'll warrant, is that you are detached from all your stuff.  Packing, you realized how little you really need.  And that cleared some space in your head.  Or think of vacations you've gone on when your mind seemed so much clearer, ready to take in what you saw, ready to record your experiences.  Part of that you might simply call "vacation mindfulness."  But part of it is being in a time outside time.

We need beauty in both our spaces and our schedules. The value behind my obsessive quilt making is beauty:  I hope the quilts drop an element of beauty into a life and that they remind us of the importance of what Roger Scruton calls "everyday beauty."  Aesthetics don't get into this area much, but what's the point of a beautiful piece of ceramics or a beautiful photograph is it's surrounded by space that shows its owner doesn't really value beauty? Or who thinks beauty is confined to art galleries and gallery shops?

But the other element of my quilts is time.  I hand quilt most of my work unless it's going on a bed--and is simply too big for me to hand quilt.  I don't rush.  When I first sit down to quilt, I take a stitch at a time.  Only once my stitches have settled into the the size and regularity that makes me happy--and I pull out a fair number--do I try to get two or three stitches on my needle.  And here Segal helps explain what I'm doing:  "To live well means giving things the time they deserve, be it time for children, one's spouse and lover, one's friends, or the garden....[Or basting  up a quilt!] When we act in haste, whether it be at work or with friends, our activity and ultimately our very being becomes a mere means to some intended outcome.  When this is our general way of being in the world, we have failed in what Thoreau identified as the great enterprise--to make living poetic."

This is what snow days are for--or cold snowy weekends.  We've been handed this time out of time so we can make something beautiful--a meaningful conversation, a photograph, a letter, or a quilt.  Snow days and jazz make the boredom of basting up a quilt a pleasure.  No one will ever see how carefully you basted up your quilt except indirectly through the quilting that is even and that doesn't shift around wrinkles in the batting or backing.  But there is a gracefulness in giving this task the time it deserves.

 


Monday, December 27, 2021

Embracing Grey

I think of those days beginning five or six months ago as the "before times."  No, I'm not referring to one of the myriad phases of the pandemic, which seems to give us a glimpse of "afterwards" or "new normal" just as it ramps up its attacks.  I'm thinking of British Columbia.  Before the drought.  Before the wildfires.  Before even more clear-cutting. Before torrential rains that sent mudslides down mountains faster than a sprinter can run.  Before Lytton, B.C. went up in flames, seemingly in spontaneous combustion. Before the heat domes that killed nearly 600 people, the most that have died of weather in Canadian history.  In fact, more people die of heat worldwide than from hurricanes or earthquakes.  

Even in Saskatchewan we felt B.C.'s plight.  The sun at end of day was as coppery-pink and hard-edged as a penny.  There was smoke in the air.  And the heat!  We had, if memory serves, three long hot spells, the second liberally flavoured with humidity. We don’t have AC, though our house sits among trees which transpire cooler air, allowing us to cool off at night with our ingenious use of fans.  The secret, my father taught me, is to have at least one fan blowing out and to open windows only in the rooms you want to cool. We put that fan in an upstairs bedroom and augmented it with a second fan on the ground floor blowing in.  It worked surprisingly well. But one night toward the end of a week of heat, the power went out just as we might have been turning the fans on, so we sat reading by flashlight near windows that might exhale a wisp of breeze. Book in one hand, flashlight in the other, I lacked a third hand to wave one of the tourist fan party favours kicking around the house.  I felt trapped in humid air and helplessness. My distress was more psychological than physical as I asked myself the most banal and useless question:  how long can I stand this?  It’s much more sensible to ask if you can stand this right now. 

In part, I was experiencing solastalgia:  the grief one feels when one's natural environment has changed dramatically, perhaps irreparably.  It's not hard to imagine that a lot of solastalgia is drifting around the flooded parts of B.C. as people look at their surroundings and at their lives, which have been either destroyed or completely transformed. The only silver lining, it seemed to me, was that the torrential rains came shortly after COP 26, which accomplished some things but wimped out on others.  In British Columbia, we could see that our surroundings were our lives.

In the before times, I hated grey days.  Rainy days were fine:  there is purpose in that--when there isn't malice, I suppose.  We have so much to rethink.  Anyway, string of grey days could make me tired, perhaps a little grouchy, more than a little blue.  But this fall I found myself leaning into the grey days.  They weren't hot.  I never suspected that one kind of weather would completely change my relationship with another, but it seems to have done so.

I find that a grey day changes how I see.  I'm suddenly aware of the bark of elms.  Older trees have great cracks in bark that has been riven by the tree's growth.  I'm curious.  Why do the branches of elms--most trees, really--look like lace while hedges seem like tangles?  Each species of tree has general architectural principles.  The elm was beloved by cities for the ways its branches arched over the streets they were planted along.  Maples are rounder balls of leaves.  But inside those general principles, each tree is different.  Just as there are no two identical snowflakes (apparently:  I don't know how anyone has proven this) there are no two identical elms. Hedges, on the other hand, are largely tangles, maybe even more complicated if their owners have been trimming them and they've grown away from the monthly threat of the trimmers.  On grey days, I go all metaphorical and see the human condition in both. Trees are ordered yet individual, like so many people.  Hedges speak to those times in our lives when we can't find any order, any through line, any sense. 

I appreciate sparrows on grey days.  I'm reading Richard O. Prum's The Evolution of Beauty, about how female sexual selection of mates has nudged the males of their species toward ever more beauty--sometimes to their detriment. Prum calls these adaptations, away from survival and toward beauty, decadent. Club-winged Manakins, for example, can sing with their wings, which the females seem to like, but it's made their flight awkward.  The sparrows seemed to have missed this chapter.  Yet on grey days, their tan, rufous brown, grey, and black markings seem to me workmanlike, practical.  I pay attention to them on a snowy grey day when they queue up on tree branches to take turns at my feeder.  They penetrate the grey weather with their swift, purposeful flight across my yard, navigating the neighbour's fence with the skills of the Millennium Falcon. Like the Millennium Falcon, they don't look like much, yet they seem to thrive. That's hopeful--realistically hopeful.

Grey, I think to myself, is the colour of reflection. Of honest reflection that melds one's highs and lows, one's strengths and weaknesses, one's wins and losses. It's a colour with a slow music that can't quite decide whether its key is major or minor. A dove grey music.  A mourning dove's beautiful yet mournful song. But it's the kind of reflection that leads to seeing how such disparate parts of our lives fit together in a modest way.

 

Monday, November 29, 2021

Making Do

Supply chains, everyone is ready to tell us, are a mess.  Sometimes it's caused by shutdowns at plants that make the computer chips that are embedded in just about everything we own.  Sometimes it's China's crummy relationship with the rest of the world.  Sometimes there aren't enough truckers or workers in ports.  It seems that, though the economy is humming along again, people don't want to return to exhausting and dangerous working conditions.  Catastrophically, it is sometimes because there's been way too much rain in British Columbia; apparently the TransCanada highway is closed again. But if Christmas really depends on consumerism, we're already....em...well....  You only need to look at the mudslides in B.C. to see the effects of consumerism:  in many cases, those forests and the mycorrhizal layer of fungus that permeates and stabilizes the soil were destroyed by clear cutting.  In a sense, those mudslides are a double metaphor:  they represent our hunger for white toilet paper (not the ungainly grey of recycled TP) or newer, bigger houses.  They also represent the destruction of many peoples' lives.

But the pandemic taught us to make do.  Particularly early on, we baked, knitted, sewed, renovated, painted, gardened, and canned our way through the boredom of lockdowns and the freedom that came from our simplified lives.  Many of us languished our way through restrictions.  But we also found time to learn to knit or bake complicated desserts we'd never attempted before, or grow our first vegetables.  It gave us autonomy--something that's crucial to a good life. 

Last year, I got the best Christmas present ever:  four large frozen containers of carrot lentil soup and a ziploc bag full of homemade biscuits that could be baked just a few at a time. Veronica asked herself "What can I do to give Mom something  she really values:  time?"  The answer was quick lunches or dinners in the freezer.  And, frankly, it was the thought that counted--or was at least as delicious as the soup and biscuits.

Last Friday, Veronica and I were spending pre-Christmas time together in a more normal way:  shopping at Crocus  & Ivy and then going across the way to French Press for tea and the wonderful Greek Christmas cookies they bake.  In spite of their beautiful clothing and housewares, we struck out at Crocus & Ivy, partly because neither of us needs anything.  But then we sat down next to the fireplace at French Press and had an important conversation:  was Veronica going to go to Winnipeg for Christmas?  Well, not a conversation, exactly:  I mostly listened.  She was leaning towards not going.  She's concerned about omicron, and the problem she's had with her back for the last three years means most chairs aren't comfortable.  Getting sick or being in pain didn't sound very Christmas-y to her. She doesn't talk to her dad a lot, she confessed.  So I suggested that if she decided not to go, she could be really deliberate about calling him.  She nodded. We left it there.

But what was also important was how we were spending our time just then:  talking about what matters.  And really listening. This was underlined by the sociable conversations going on all around us. I suggested that Christmas was not going to be the explosion under the tree that it's often been in the past.  Partly, that's because none of us needs much:  I've been spending the last few Christmases ensuring that Veronica, who is an excellent vegetarian cook, had all the cooking equipment she needed to make that easier.  Last Christmas I got her a mandolin and Bill found a tiny food processor for making pesto or chopping nuts.  There's not a lot more her kitchen needs. 

The shorter and shorter days that lead up to the winter solstice are difficult for many people.  For others, the holidays are replete with loneliness or family squabbles. What if we turned those days leading up to the solstice into Christmas:  taking time to take care of the people we love, to engineer surprises and delights like a batch of early Christmas cookies or tea at Le Macaron?  What if we listened?  When I proposed this Veronica, she thought it was a good idea.  

In 2016, "hygge" was the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year.  It's a rather minimalist Danish concept, so I read quite a bit about hygge for my minimalism project.  In some ways, it's a hard word to define.  Meik Wiking, an influential happiness researcher, boils it down to coziness. But in my reading, I found only two absolute requirements for the Danish art.  One is something warm to drink. The second is the focused attention you give to yourself or your companion while you drink it.  Be reflective.  Be here now.  (And please leave your cell phone in another room. Just having it in the room, even if it's turned off, compromises your concentration.) Candles are helpful, partly because they mimic the kind of light we're hoping the sun will return to give us and partly because they help create intimacy.  So you could make the days leading up to Christmas, leading us past the solstice, hyygeligt. Take joy in the simple things you can make, like a wild pair of mittens or an hour of intimacy.


Tuesday, November 16, 2021

November moods

November is a moody month, an in-between month.  Thanksgiving has passed and the only holiday we celebrate in November is Remembrance Day, its very name calling forth the spirit of introspection.  After our glorious long autumn, we've turned abruptly to winter in Saskatchewan, and the days have been grey--and will continue like that for a while, according to the weather reports.  But our three encounters with very high temperatures last summer have surprisingly flipped a switch in my brain, so I don't feel so blue when we have a string of them.  They're a relief, rather. Maybe the possible freezing rain will change my opinion of grey November days, leaving me with fewer and fewer days in the year when I find the weather congenial.  That's the essence of the adaptable part of climate climate change:  we feel less at home in the world, and so need to rethink our relationship with it.  But solastalgia doesn't even come close to the effects that the heat domes and mudslides and forest fires that climate change is delivering to us.

While we could see the cold and snow coming in the forecasts, we had a few nice days.  Because I've been trying to turn myself back into a walker and because walking is one "exercise" for my vertigo (though I can return home very dizzy), I got myself out to walk on those few last days.  What I love about November, both here on the prairies and in the Cathedral Neighbourhood, is the subtlety.  I live not far from Wascana Creek; its high banks are a good place from which to see how fall is progressing, a place where you can still be up in the light even late in the afternoon.  

 It's the texture that I love and find so beautiful.  When the trees drop their leaves, I am oddly grateful--both for the extra light during the dark months and as if they are giving me a lesson.  I'm afraid I personify them, imagining them allowing themselves to be seen in all their strength and vulnerability and honesty.  They let us see how they have grown, how their bark has responded to the ways they've grown, as if bark were a record of the good years  and lean years, of bark's need to stretch in order to accommodate the seasons of their lives. They are like us:  their age is written on their bodies.They are also strong in their individuality:  have you ever seen two trees whose growth is exactly the same?  They have general patterns:  an elm reaches upwards and then arches out and down.  Maples confine themselves to roundish profiles. I know that physicists get excited about the fact that there are no two identical snow flakes, though I don't know how they've established this.  But I think trees and clouds should be included in the list of nature's distinctive creations.

 
The textures of November evolve over time.  The willows and Russian Olives seem reluctant to give up their leaves. They're eager to grasp the last of the setting sun that irradiates them.  Along the creek bank, the wild roses reveal their tangled lives and maybe suggest that our own tangled lives--especially in the middle of a pandemic--aren't that unusual. As I was turning homeward after my first November walk, late sunshine also lit up a ragged line of sea gulls returning from lure crops north of Regina to Wascana Lake. The light caught them from beneath so that they looked, in the dusky sky, like a diamond bracelet casually dropped on velvet.

 I love people-watching as I walk.  The clearly retired people who still hold hands like young lovers.  Those who are going to be comfortable, no matter how they look, who pile on colourful layers, toques, and scarves.  My next door neighbour, a former kindergarten teacher, still walks at 81.  She wears her parka when I'm still in a heavy sweater and raincoat, putting on ear muffs and tying her scarf at the back of her hood, like a kindergartener.  But my favourite sighting this year was a very tall, well-tanned man sitting on a bench with what Bill and I usually call a "dust mop."  Except that this was a very well groomed and brushed little fellow who wanted to flirt with me.  His owner explained that he's a "complete suck."  When he stood up, I could see he was wearing a Janis Joplin sweatshirt.  I wonder how old it is?

We have a rabbit who regularly comes through our yard because I haven't replaced fences and gates that have fallen apart or been knocked down by the new garage.  Partly I don't believe in fences, partly I don't have a lot of light in the back yard--enough to grow tomatoes but not carrots--and I don't want a high solid fence to block out any more sunshine.  We feed the birds and the rabbit comes by from time to time to dig in the fallen seed and eat, I suspect, the wheat the birds leave behind in their eagerness for millet.  He too is in between:  a chalky brown that still contains the vigour of spring and summer but that is getting ready for winter's shroud.  Maybe he's mapping out his meals during the colder weather, establishing his supply chain. 

Yesterday it was foggy, but water drops clung to the branches of the lilacs outside my study window--round beads of glass or balls of mercury. The outside world was distancing itself, giving me permission to reflect on what matters as we narrow our lives down for the solstice. Tomato apple chutney was simmering on the stove, and I'd  just wound up a hank of wool to do a gauge swatch for a cabled pillow cover I'm making for Veronica for Christmas.  Winding wool and listening to the jars bubbling in their final hot water bath, I felt as if I had walked through a portal to the past. Yet the foggy day had muffled the outside world and the smell of chutney lingering in the air, the sounds of jars in the tin canner, the feel of wool on my fingers made this moment immediate, demanding.