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 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.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Delights and Ethics of Going Slow


 Last week as I turned up my back lane, I spotted a father with a herd of children and a large dog about half a block away.  Three kids were on tiny bikes, and there was a baby in a stroller.  Seeing me driving toward them, the father tried to get their attention--I should say there's a small hill on this part of my back lane and they were enjoying gravity--to get them to scurry into a small space behind a garage. I turned off my car, opened my window, and waved.  I was just going to stop here until they passed by, I told him.  Yay! one of the kids said, pushing off and going downhill with her feet off the pedals, her legs swung out like the wings of a bird. Another waved to me:  "We didn't know you were going to stop!" she said, going by.  Dad and I talked briefly about how people who think Regina is flat obviously don't get on their bikes enough.  It was just a lovely moment:  there were no masks and it was a beautiful day, giving us a chance to make one of those micro-connections that give us a sense that we belong to the human community.

Back when I was still teaching, when I had to get Nikka to school for "Theory of Knowledge" by 7:30 a.m., or had to get her from school to her ballet class, I probably groused about slow drivers, though I've always been good about pedestrians when the weather is cold or wet--because, after all, I was warm and dry.  And on Thirteenth Avenue, with its small shops, there's almost an ethic of stopping for pedestrians, even in the middle of the block.  Especially in the middle of the block. But I've seen enough impatient, erratic drivers in my day, and been one of them often enough, to know that when we rush impatiently it's because we're thinking only about ourselves.  When we're in a hurry, we're the centre of the universe.

And because I'm an old fart, of course I think there are more hurried, rude, impatient drivers than ever.  After all, our cell phone does things instantly.  Why can't traffic do the same?  And our expectations are driven not only by our technology, but by the emphasis on productivity we hear from our bosses and our governments.  If we're going to 'grow the economy,' we just have to be more productive, more available, work longer hours.  We've been given this wonderful technology that connects us to work 24/7, so we can be more productive.  Except that after about 7 hours of hard work NO ONE is productive, even the boss haughtily working 14-hour days.  Iceland has just finished the world's largest experiment on a shorter work week.  After a five year trial, they've discovered that shortening the work week by about four hours improves workers' productivity and their mental health.  Economist Thomas Piketty also notes that there are some professions that can't be more productive, usually because they deal with concrete human beings and not abstract things or, worse yet, people who have become abstract to the worker.  You can't hurry a doctor or a teacher.  You can't hurry your therapist. "Give me the answer to the meaning of my life!  Now!" Did you expect that to work?

The scene in the back lane was so delightful, hanging around in my consciousness for several hours, that I began to think about things that can only be done slowly.  Craftsmanship takes time.  You can't hurry the turning of a table leg or the piecing of a quilt or the revision of a poem or novel.  If you try to, your work too often ceases to be craft or art.  As I've written elsewhere, craftsmanship has its own kind of time:  the time it takes to do something as well as you can. We can certainly see this sense of time in the bead work of Vanessa Hyggen and Beth Cuthand because you can't ignore the fact that each bead is put on one at a time; each bead contributes to the overall effect of their beautiful and visionary work. (There are links to their current work below).  Ruth Chambers, whose beautiful and serene porcelain flowers were shown at the Art Gallery of Regina, and an example of which is above, talked to me about time and her work.  You can't have time breathing down your neck if you want to get into the state of flow that allows your mind to speak to your hands.  In turn, the sense of flow you feel when working timelessly on your craft is, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a source of deep happiness.

Both trust and friendship take time.  Trust builds slowly. Your early conversations with a new acquaintance stay light until you have a good idea of what you share, what your different perspectives are. You talk about the weather or about your boss or your kids or pets. Then there may be a moment when you share something tender and private about yourself, only to see a raised judgmental eyebrow or hear it has hit the gossip circuit.  Trust broken takes even more time to repair. 

To keep a friendship alive over time and space in our busy and peripatetic worlds, you must, at some point, have put in the work.  And what is friendship but an adventure, a discovery that is never finished?  Take it slow and explore deeply.  Still, you need to know your friend's history, his or her vulnerable places, what gives their lives joy and meaning.  You have to have developed a special kind of compassion for this person, a compassion that's quick to take note of her or his joys and sorrows, triumphs and losses. That's the only way you can be there when you are needed. 

About five years ago, I found my days flooded with memories, particularly when part of my mind was working on something else, something simple, like chopping vegetables to roast last night or going for a walk. So naturally, I'm working on a book of poems about memory--about how important memory is to our individual identity and to our understanding of our culture and our historic moment.  One of memory's gifts is that memories are always viewed through the prism of who you are now.  With more human experience, with more patience and curiosity--rather than anger and reactivity--I have more generous lenses through which I view past events, even when it comes to people who have hurt me. When I take time to remember, both my life and the world glow a little.

Sometimes it's just life's riches that show up. Just last week I was reading dee Hobabawn-Smith's wonderful Bread and Water, and her mention of the cold room she used to have reminded me of the cold room in the house I grew up in--which led to a whole cascade of memories of my mother making fruitcake and aging it in the cold room while it absorbed the brandy she poured on it every week.  And the huge jug of maple syrup that came from my grandfather's farm.  That brought up memories of seeing the sugar shack my grandfather had built in the woods and my mother telling me how when her dad and the kids set out to boil down the maple syrup their mother gave them eggs and potatoes.  The eggs were cooked in the pans of syrup, while the potatoes were nestled among the embers of the fire below.  And that, oddly enough, reminded me of one winter day when my mother decided to roast marshmallows over a stove burner, and I could experience again her playfulness and her capacity for joy. But here's the thing.  Making and reliving memories take time, so slow down!  

If I'm writing poems about memory, you can bet I'm reading books about memory.  The most recent was Veronica O'Keane's A Sense of Self:  Memory, the Brain, and Who We Are.  The science is pretty clear:  we are our stories, our experiences, plus a bit of DNA or a modicum of temperament which no one can quite explain but which parents recognize during the first days of a child's life.  O'Keane is a psychiatrist who is knowledgeable about neuroscience, and explains how we make memories.  First, everything we remember comes into our brains through our senses. But we don't remember everything.  If we did, the cacophony of a single moment might just trip our brains up like the centipede who is asked how he gets all his legs to work together.  So we already edit or filter what we remember and there's a lot we don't even pay any attention to.  

When we're making memories, experience gets shunted to the part of our brain that codes our senses and then it's sent to the hippocampus where neurons fire.  There's a saying among neuroscientists:  neurons that fire together wire together.  This is a magical moment when energy becomes matter. Those firing neurons create dendrites that allow you to remember something--the zeros and ones of your brain.  The hippocampus is very plastic, but it has little RAM, so it sends your memories back to the cortex, or even the prefrontal cortex if they're important.  "Going cortical" happens during sleep.  By day, the sensory areas of the brain zap the hippocampus; at night, the hippocampus sends things back out to the cortex for storage. 

While your brain does all this with lightning speed, you have to have noticed something to start the process.  And you need to leave enough space in your days to be prompted to retrieve it.  If you're busybusybusy, neither of these things will  happen. Or if you're spending large parts of your day fishing in the past, you won't notice what's going on around you.  Ditto if you're planning your future--which, in good Buddhist fashion I will tell you is uncertain.  And your mind certainly won't store memories if you're going around being the frustrated centre of the universe and honking at every driver who is slow.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you will know that one of my mantras is "Just be curious."  Rather than making judgments or assumptions, be curious.  Bored?  Be curious.  Stymied by your own powerful feelings?  Be curious.  Curiosity is deeply pleasurable, firing off dopamine hits. Arthur Brooks, Harvard professor and "happiness correspondent" for Atlantic Monthly, recently interviewed Ellen Langer, also a Harvard professor and the first woman in the Harvard Psychology Department, for one of his Atlantic podcasts on happiness.  Langer studies mindfulness, which she says she's detached from its roots in Buddhist meditation.  Like Pema Chodron, though, she observes that the world is profoundly uncertain, changing all the time.  Curiosity--or perpetual curiosity, as she calls it--makes sense. It's the appropriate, functional response to an ever-changing world. As well, it makes us happy.  That buzz you get when you're on vacation? You're being curious. You're taking the time, slowing down, to store the riches of  your curiosity. O'Keane tells us that we are our memories.  Who are you going to create by slowing down?

Beth Cuthand's COVID mask

Vanessa Hyggen's River Mask 

Arthur Brooks' Happiness podcasts

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

On Habit

This morning, as I tunked my coffee filter against the side of my compost pail so I could make a second cup of coffee, all my senses told me it was autumn.  My bare feet against the cool bricks, the smell and sound of crisp fallen leaves, the empty trees lifting their naked branches aloft all said it was fall.  We've had a very strange autumn in Regina:  it's often been as hot as summer days, even while the trees shed their leaves.  We haven't yet had a frost, so my garden still needs to have beans and tomatoes gathered in.  I'm not complaining:  we needed a beautiful month after our very stormy June and devilishly hot July and August.  Around the world, this was the summer that yelled "Climate change!  Time to get on the bus and do something!"  

But the upshot is that I'm still in a September mood and only now doing some of the things I usually do in September.  Okay, I started my fall book buying on time because that's what gets one through yet another wave of COVID-19.  But I haven't chosen another Bach French Suite and Mozart piano sonata to spend the next year learning.  And I haven't finished tweaking my habits.

I've probably told you often enough that Annie Dillard tells us that how you live your days is how you live your life, but it's good to be reminded of that.  The privilege I have in retirement is the ability to take that advice seriously.  For at least the last ten years before I retired there were few choices about how you spent your days:  there wasn't much left over once you'd finished marking, preparation, teaching classes, going to meetings, and seeing students.  This, by the way, is something that we are just beginning to challenge.  Should work take over our lives?  COVID-19 has shown that all the "productivity" of long working hours isn't actually productive.  We can hope change is on the horizon.

In September and early October, which is to say before the marking starts, I often used this de facto second new year to do a bit of stock taking, mostly to adjust habits.  I hated it when students defined simple things in their essays, but I'm going to do exactly that.  A habit is, according to Merriam Webster, "an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary."  It's the tension between "acquired" and "nearly or completely involuntary" that I probe in September.  Or you can see your habits through the lens of "the traditional fallacy," which points out that just because you've always done things a certain way doesn't mean you should go on unthinkingly doing that.  What worked in one context or time frame won't necessarily still work in another. I think the "involuntary" part of habit disguises the fact that because they're "acquired," we can change them if we can just see them, not assuming they are an intrinsic part of how we live.

I think I chose September for this exercise because going back to school, even as a prof--maybe especially as a prof--was always an invitation to have your assumptions upended.  What is learning besides taking knowledge, anything from a simple fact to a philosophy of life, and adding it to your repertoire, your world view, and then seriously seeing what happens when you apply it to your daily life?

That compost pail I put my coffee grounds in was the first of the habits I changed.  I have a lovely metal compost pail that never gets stinky, though I keep it just outside the back door because the kitchen is rather small.  I've known for years that I needed to be better about composting, and I've been merely resting on my laurels, using the lovely compost I made years ago.  But that's running out and I simply can't ignore any longer that the responsible thing to do is close the circle.  What parts of plants I can't eat--the last stalk of celery that's gone yellow, the peels of potatoes and carrots, the rinds of a melon--should go into my compost bin so that it can go into my garden and feed me next summer or the summer after that.  (It takes a bit longer to make compost here because of Regina's cold winters.)  Tea leaves and coffee grounds are great for amending the soil, and egg shells provide important calcium for tomatoes.  (If you have blossom end rot on your tomatoes, put crushed egg shells underneath the plants you put in next spring.)  When I've got a cutting board full of things for the compost bin, I am so tempted to cheat and just put it in the trash because I'm in a hurry to cook dinner, but I know that when I start doing this, the habit will be compromised.  So I quote Nike:  just do it. 

I have vertigo, which may account for the time you last saw me and thought I was drunk. There are some things I can do to make it better, I've discovered, among them a simple set of exercises that don't take long.  But I had trouble working them into a day that, by 10 a.m., was running headlong through a forest of ideas that threatened to escape before I collapsed into my nap.  I have discovered, though, that while I cook my oatmeal --another habit--I have just enough time to get through them.  Doing so gives me a sense of being grounded, of taking care of the whole woman, and they turn out to also help the mobility of my arthritic knees.

 We can make some time in the turn of the year to ask questions small and large.  It's one way to transform the dim days and lower temperatures into something of a treat--very hygge.  Have a cup of tea, invite your critter to cuddle if you are lucky enough to have one, and simply take stock--the way you would take stock of your pantry if you had been making jams and chutneys.  Are your social media habits feeding you or making you hungry?  How do you take care of yourself when you are stressed or down or frustrated?  Does it work, or do you need a reset?  Do you look back at a day--do you take time to look back over the day--and feel vaguely unsatisfied? 

I've also noticed, for example, that my reading habits have changed:  I simply can't tolerate too much uncertainty.  Funny thing, that.  I think I'll just let this one go for now, since reading is one of my ways of getting through the uncertain days.  If I read more biographies than novels right now, so be it.   I've missed my friends terribly, and, given our case counts in Saskatchewan won't be seeing them soon, but one habit I want to cultivate is to listen more carefully, allowing a little silence into the conversation.  So often, we're so eager to contribute that we're not hearing half of what our interlocutor said but preparing our own witty response.

Habits can be little pot holes in our day or they can become rituals that make our lives better, both by giving us comfort and allowing us to think of time differently.  Watching too much news fell into the little pot hole category:  it didn't make my life any better and it might even have made it worse, all the while stealing time from doing things that sustain me. Rituals, though, connect us to our past, perhaps to a tradition; they let us see time differently.  I begin every writing day by reading and perhaps editing what I'd written the day before.  It returns me to the flow of thought.  It's a ritual that keeps revision top of mind:  a draft is something you make better, this practice says. And it ties me to my own writing life and to the writing lives of everyone who's given me wonderful books to read and to sustain me.  There.  I'm in a grateful mood, which is always helpful. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Beauty and Egolessness

Understanding the three principles of Buddhism--that impermanence is a quality that pervades our lives, that suffering and all its lesser cousins are part of the human condition, and that we should all strive for liberating moments of egolessness--has been helpful through the beautiful summer the prairies have decided to grace us with.  It will be 30 degrees today in Regina, so it doesn't feel that summer and its embracing delights have left yet. The days have been still, as if time also wanted to slow down. It's often windy days that I find difficult because it's as if I can see time fleeing.

But being able to name something doesn't mean you can simply pull it on like a T-shirt.  So last Thursday I had one of those bittersweet, aching moments, so full of beauty and deep sadness.  Knowing that my sadness came from my struggle with impermanence didn't shift my feelings much.  It's not my mortality I'm worried about.  Like many people who have contemplated suicide, I know that there are worse things than dying.  It's time.  I can't remember when I had enough time to do what I wanted to do.  Certainly not as an undergraduate or a graduate student.  Certainly not once I began to teach.  Even now, with my diminished energy, there's not enough time. There are so many things I want to do, poems to write and quilts to make. Or am I splitting hairs here?  Give me enough time and then I'll be okay with dying?  Maybe.  Who makes good bargains with death, anyway?

Usually I can talk myself out of counterproductive feelings.  Self-pity?  I think about what I'm grateful for, starting with the room where I'm sitting, which undoubtedly has cats in it.  Then I circle out from there  Bill.  Veronica.  My wonderful friends. Then larger:  I love my neighbourhood.  (I'll give Saskatchewan a miss right now, given the way 'vaccine hesitancy' has filled the hospitals and shouldered aside the other kinds of care people need.)  I have an immensely privileged life in Canada.  It's hard to pity yourself when you feel grateful.  Or if I'm angry at someone or something but can do nothing about it, I smile.  I just paste a smile on my face.  Pretty soon this feels silly, so I look around for things that make me smile and usually find them. Anger quickly abates. 

But dealing with the complex emotions around beauty and impermanence eludes me.  So I decided to be disciplined and simply go for a walk.  For a long block, I only found more things to reinforce this bittersweet and unmanageable sadness.  Trees that have become flames of yellow.  Cotoneasters that turn a bronzy red.  Even just the air, hanging out inside time.  Soon I came to the brick wall at the front of a yard on Leopold Crescent where some children have painted rocks to thank essential workers and to make a wonderful collection of faces with googly eyes and goofy smiles. My mind went off like a beagle chasing...whatever it is beagles chase. Squirrels?  Cats?  I remembered the early COVID walks that were so liberating.  I thought of creative parents--one of whom seemed to have collected the most interesting little things that could become part of a rock face and who happened to have a supply of colourful paint that would withstand a Regina spring...and winter..and spring again.  And happy kids home from school with something fun and useful to do--kids with a purpose and some very bright colours of paint.  And glue.  Kids and glue.

Then I began noticing how people's gardens were faring during this frostless September--how it brought out nameless colours.  Then the canopy of golden elms further along Leopold Crescent.  And the light:  just enough leaves have fallen and grasses dried that everything remaining is cast into clearer light.  It's as if autumn makes leaves and grass individuals, not just part of a tribe. Somehow this simplifying change brings a clearer mind.

I suddenly realized that Harvard professor Elaine Scarry and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron saw something similar. Aesthetics met Buddhism.  In a book that started the last twenty years of interest in beauty and the aesthetics of daily life, Scarry says this:  "The structure of perceiving beauty appears to have a two-part scaffolding:  first, one's attention is involuntarily given to the beautiful person or thing; then, this quality of heightened attention is voluntarily extended out to other persons or things.  It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level" (Beauty and Being Just, 81).  Chodron says this:  "Egolessness is the same thing as basic goodness or buddha nnature, our unconditional being.  It's what we always have, and never really lose....[It] is like regaining eyesight after having been blind or regaining hearing after having been deaf....Egolessness is a state of mind that has complete confidence in the sacredness of the world.  It is unconditional well-being, unconditional joy that includes all the different qualities of our experience" (When Things Fall Apart 61).  

Mindfulness has just been made part of aesthetics.  And maybe I am coming to understand why Ken Wilson walks. ;)  Because walking is the perfect pace for unfolding those small daily beauties that might give us "complete confidence in the sacredness of the world," all while body meets mind. So this will be my new prescription:  when that feeling overtakes me, I'll simply go for a walk.  I don't have to do anything besides be in the world.

That night, Bill and I were out after dinner, watering the garden in the still evening.  The light was a dusky gold, the clouds nearly amber, the trees golden and bronze.  It was like being inside a golden orb or censer.  Inside a Russian icon or a Mediaeval alterpiece. Inside a Rembrandt, perhaps his "The Philosopher in Meditation," held by the Louvre.  I have always loved the Escher-like staircase in this painting, where we can see both the steps and their undersides. It is as if Rembrandt created a visual  metaphor for the paradoxes and complexities of thought and feeling that the philosopher seeks to understand and maybe reconcile.

Rembrandt's philosopher

Friday, September 17, 2021

Changing light

I've been wondering whether being 71 is changing my emotional relationship with time.  Even writing those words--"my emotional relationship with time" would have been unthinkable a decade ago.  I either had enough time to get things done, in which case I was calm and in the moment. Or I didn't have enough time and I frantically struggled to be more efficient, to simply put the things I needed to do on a priorized list and start at the stop--the best strategy I ever found.  I got calmer about that toward the end of my teaching career, but never really blasé. (Apparently happy workers have just enough work to fill just enough time.  Never too much work and too little time.  Something needs to change, beginning with our ideas of productivity when we're supposed to be available 24/7.)

For three years now, I've had two- or three-week depressions in the middle of the summer.  I would sit on the bench in my backyard, studying the stillness of the day, and struggle to name or place this overwhelming mood.  There was nothing wrong.  Nothing I could fix that would create a ladder out of the abyss.  Then one day, just as I had shut down the computer and planned to move on to something else, Tuck climbed from the bookshelf down into my lap.  

These two cats are among the most loving I've ever had.  Lyra is insistently affectionate but Tuck has quieter ways.  When I wake in the middle of the night, Lyra is likely to be on my pillow with his paw on my hand or his head tucked under my chin.  Tuck is likely to have wiggled his way under the covers and curled up next to my belly, where I've cradled him like a teddy bear.  When I'm working, Lyra will climb ecstatically into my lap, arrange himself like a babe in arms, purr loudly, and then take off after three minutes.  Tuck stays quietly for half an hour. So when he climbs into your lap, you stop what you are doing and simply enjoy him.  After about five minutes of petting, I just reached into the bookshelf and took out Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart and began reading a chapter that didn't have any underlining in it.  I can't claim to be Buddhist, even informally, but When Things Fall Apart is a wise book and captures the long and wise tradition of Buddhism. 

The chapter was called "Curiosity about Existence," and listed three truths of Buddhism. The first is impermanence, and you can imagine how she caught my attention when she wrote "Impermanence is bittersweet, like buying a new shirt and years later finding it as part of a quilt." All things change, and we are wise to accept that. The second is suffering.  Chödrön critiques the common myth that life will be full of lovers and parties and buying sprees: that's a pretty trivial idea of life.  "Pain and pleasure go together," she argues.  "Inspiration and wretchedness complement each other," she explains.  "With only inspiration, we become arrogant.  With only wretchedness, we lose our vision.  Feeling inspired cheers us up, makes us realize how vast and wonderful our world is.  Feeling wretched humbles us.  The gloriousness of our inspiration connects us with the sacredness of the world.  But when the tables are turned and we feel wretched, that softens us up.  It ripens our heart.  It becomes the ground for understanding others."  The third truth is egolessness, which I actually do quite well.  It's that state of curious observing and celebrating the world that has nothing to do with your identity or your desires.

We often suffer, Chödrön explained, because we don't accept life's impermanence.  Yes, I know, I'm supposed to be writing about light, but please be patient.  I won't stay in the Buddhist key forever.

I took the memory of Tuck's easy, sublime weight in my lap out to sit in the garden and think about impermanence and suffering.  I want summer to hold time still.  Some days it does, when the wind is down and you imagine you can hold the present moment in your open hand like a hummingbird. But I also realized that my summertime sadness is brought on because I occupy a contradiction.  I want summer to hold still, but I know at the same time it can't and that reminds me of my mortality.  Counter-intuitively, I feel frighteningly mortal during those still moments.  Next summer, I'll do what I usually do about intractable problems or difficult people:  I will cozy up to them and be curious. I think there's more to be understood about my blue weeks, but this will be a good place to begin.

But in the meantime, fall has arrived, as I know by the light.  The light outside is different.  In spring and summer, you can almost look through a leaf to see the shadow of the one above it.  In fall, leaves get thicker, stiffer, and cast a thicker atmosphere into my heavily treed back yard. Trees have turned from the generic shade of summer green to their own shade for welcoming the colder days, so landscape is made of rich textures--browns, ochres, golds, grey-green, rusty reds, olive green. When I climb to the top of the creek bank, I simply stand and take in the wealth of a landscape that's more three-dimensional, the way humans take on complexities as they go through life.

It's darker in my kitchen, partly because of the crab apple tree outside my kitchen windows, partly because the sun has moved south.  I catch the light coming into the house differently, opening up corners I hadn't seen for a while.  The space I live in becomes three-dimensional in a new way. Sunshine even hits the chrome on my office chair and casts an arc of white light up my walls and across my ceiling. It's dusk when we eat dinner, so Bill has taken to lighting candles again--light arriving differently.

The light turns gold from something besides forest fires.  The sky becomes an almost improbable blue.  Trees are already turning gold, adding yet another kind of light.  In a few weeks, leaves will begin to fall leaving puddles of light beneath the trees, but also opening up the sky.  Intellectually, I know that fall simply marks the inevitability of winter, but I can't convince myself not to be gobsmacked by the beauty that's here right now. I'm welcoming impermanence in a way I don't during the summer. That's partly because fall has always been a second new year for me. As a student, and then a professor, fall always brought new adventures, new ideas, new people.  I celebrate change in a way I don't in the summer. Maybe on some level, this beauty is sublime, with mortality....? With mortality partnering with beauty in a way that makes impermanence inviting.