Wednesday, May 22, 2024


One November, Veronica and I were driving from Regina to Saskatoon, perhaps for what was once our annual trip to do Christmas shopping.  We had stopped at Chamberlain, where I heard an exchange between a clerk and one of the locals, who said "The days are getting shorter and shorter, and I'm solar powered."  I completely got that and loved her way of expressing a psychological fact of winter this far north.  

But it's spring, not winter.  The season highlights the fact that I'm also powered by hope.  Is it an addiction, something I can't live without in spite of the fact that there is very little in our collective human life right now that seems hopeful--from wildfire season to Gaza?  An addiction, then, that damages my ability to live realistically? So many things recently--everything from world events to the cancer diagnosis of a friend to a novel I've recently read--suggest that my predilection for hope represents an addled world view.

Yet while I was talking this over with my sympathetic cat, Lyra--something I often do because animals embody different perspectives--his very being in my household told me my hope wasn't misplaced.  Seven years ago, he and his four-week-old litter-mates were found, motherless, under some stairs in Rollo SK.  We will never know what happened to mother.  But someone knew of Regina Cat Rescue, which in turn had a volunteer who could coax still nursing kittens to suckle from a syringe, and who had time to spare. Being held like a babe in arms to eat led him to think that human beings naturally loved him.  He still likes being held that way, if he doesn't simply sit with one paw on my scapula, one on my throat, and look in my eyes animal to animal. Anyway, I adopted him and his brother into a household that could not be more loving, where they thrived. He makes the world a better place--because he returns me to the serenity and cheerfulness that make me kinder, and being kind is the only way I can change the world. This could have turned out quite badly if the kittens hadn't been spotted:  meals for coyotes or hawks.  But it took a whole sequence of things going right to land him here.  

I've written recently that 

Something about this universe
reveres the beauty
of galaxies and goldfinches
and admires the destruction
of black holes consuming stars,
of time eating itself.

This is another way--more poetic and more philosophical, I hope--of saying something I often intone.  "The glass is about Half."  But it's spring now, and hope looks a little different.

I've found this spring hard, though none of the reasons I give for that experience completely explain how hard it was.  In March and April, I had a period when I felt constantly vulnerable and incompetent.  I was falling on the ice.  I couldn't complete the online forms for my Permanent Resident Card.  My writing was stuck and I was convinced, in any case, that what I wrote about didn't matter a whit to the social or literary world around me.  In an age of rampant consumerism, who wanted to read about the ethics and the aesthetics of minimalism?  In an age when literature is leaning into tragedy, violence, and victims, who wanted to read about a younger generation who greeted their personal tragedies with a determination to be resilient?  In the age of youth, who wanted to understand their mortality?  And then, I think the weather was awful.  I can't explain why windy days trouble me so, but they make me feel that the centre cannot hold, that things are just going to give up and fly off every which way. On windy days, I feel on the edge of chaos. We'd get one nice day and then three cold grey windy ones.  Maybe this is just spring on the prairies.  Maybe this is just spring on the prairies during a climate crisis.  Maybe seasons are simply more unsettled. Whine, whine, whine.

And then we had those wonderful days of rain a couple of weeks ago and things just decided to grow.  In the rain, you could actually see grass turn green during the day.  Then the trees decided to bud and leaf out. I've watched the shift with avid, attentive delight, noting how the trees changed daily, how yesterday the elms on Fifteenth Avenue were tentatively green one day and then turned to tender green clouds on the next.  I've watched my lemony lace elderberry unfold a little more each day.  I spent last Saturday among my ferns, cleaning out some of the leaves I rake over them each year, admiring the mathematics of their emerging fiddleheads.  The five ferns I bought for the bird garden, where I have my bird feeders among plants who will more or less make the seed pods part of their soil, are now twelve.  I've checked on the very old crab apple tree in my yard--it was old when I bought the house 34 years ago--to watch the tiny pink beads clustering at the ends of branches become blooms. Even the rose that was exposed to the cold without its winter coat of snow has put out shoots, albeit right at soil level.  There's a lot of winter kill to trim away, but that little shoot is the promise of yellow roses.  Over the last couple of weeks, it's as if a heavy weight has been lifted from my chest and from my soul. 

I'm not the only one with hope and optimism on the brain.  On Saturday, May 18, Robert Muggah and Misha Glenny wrote in The Globe and Mail about how our "age of  polycrisis" has us doomscrolling, consuming negative news.  Part of that is caused by algorithms meant to be addictive and part by the fact that "the world is objectively more volatile today than any time since the Second World War....By one estimate, there were as many as 183 regional, national, and local conflicts in 2023, the highest number in more than 30 years." Yet they also point out that "Recent studies confirm that overexposure to social media short-circuits the brain's natural self-defences, leaving us disoriented and depressed.  It turns out that optimism is good for us.  People fortified by an optimist mindset are less prone to conspiracy theories and are generally happier, healthier and live longer."  The body of their article explores the myriad challenges we face with a new world order that includes China, anti-democratic populism, and misinformation.  Yet they conclude that "one way we can navigate to a more rational and manageable future is by doing less doomscrolling, and instead shaping a more positive, optimistic future."

I'm feeling rebellious, so I'm going to write some blog posts about hope as a way of trying to revive my blogging while indulging my penchant for hope. I'm not just predisposed to hope; in fact, I can't live without it.  There's no point getting up in the morning.  Let me just end here with an intuition I hope I can make clearer by the time I'm done.  Hope isn't about the future--or it's not just about the future.  It's about how we feel right now.  Hope has to be blooming in this moment in order for us to feel as if we have the energy to cast it forward into the future.  (There's probably a paragraph or two about spoon theory coming your way.)  I can't act in a way that's hopeful and make the changes to my life and practice to create a more hopeful future unless I feel hope right now. The hopeless March and April taught me two things.  Don't beat yourself up if you can't find the spoons to be hopeful, but try to keep doing hopeful things as best you can, like being kind.  But at the same time, we might just learn that armed with hope right now we have more impact on the future than we think.  

Thursday, March 14, 2024

"Witness attends to being"


So Jan Zwicky writes in "The Syntax of Ethical Style," an essay her wise, learned, and mind-blowing new book, Once Upon a Time in the West.  I promise to get back to this.  This is where I want to end up.

But I want to start, perhaps not improbably, with the etymology of "narrate," which comes from the Latin "narrare," with its roots in "gnarus," or "knowing." Intuitively you know this.  Good narrators know what they are talking about and they know how to tell an effective story or joke.  Or you know it in another way when you distrust some narrators, the unreliable narrators like the butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day.  I came upon an unreliable narrator last night when I finished Sarah Bernstein's provocative and yet puzzling Study for Obedience. I suspect that our unnamed narrator is not entirely honest with us.  There were so many inconsistencies between the selfishness the narrator's family accuses her of and her inclination to give herself over to everyone else's will. There can be power in such renunciation. I also suspect that's not the whole story, that Bernstein is exploring a complex relationship between history's victims and its murderous bullies or even those who look the other way while bullies do the dirty work. Who can reliably tell such a story?

You also know about would-be narrators, like your favourite four-year-old, who tells the story of her or his day saying "and then....and then....and then...."  Narrative is not just sequence; it has to know something.  I'm going to look like that narrator just now as I try to pull the threads of the last couple of weeks and find myself in the middle of the night reading Jan Zwicky. But I hope I'll come off "knowing" in the end.

So I've decided to get off the medication for sleep I've been taking for upwards of ten years--well before I retired.  In fact, part of the reason I retired was that I had been sleeping so badly that I envisioned coming into class some day and curling up under the table where professors put their books and notes, and napping while my students quietly left.  Sleep is a huge issue these days--most North Americans don't get enough sleep--and by a series of accidents, I had read quite a few articles on sleep which told me that I was taking 2 1/2 times the usual dose of this medication and it wasn't working. (I also learned later that the med cause "fatigue" and wondered about the logic of prescribing a medication for exhaustion that in turn causes fatigue.  Semantics?)

I also learned that the way to learn to sleep was through CBT-I, or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Insomnia.  You go to work on your sleep hygiene, which I'm already very good at.  No coffee after four, very little tv that goes late, eschewing screens, etc. Then the first step, my wonderful therapist told me, is to answer my panic about not sleeping  by telling myself that "I'll be okay."  He tells me this in a wonderful deep voice that says with certainty, yes, I'll be okay.  I'm not going to die of lack of sleep, not anytime soon, anyway.  Here's the other rule, the one I find harder.  If you are not sleeping, you get out of bed and do something else.  For me, it's always a coin toss, getting out of bed.  The cats are settled in.  It's warm and comfortable.  But it's also very frustrating and aggravating and I can't get comfortable so I'm spinning around like a dervish and pulling the covers every which way.  

All of this is kind of destabilizing.  Who are you in the middle of the night when you are all alone and can't sleep, night after night?  When even the streets are quiet? Your social self, charming as it is might be, is useless.  Memories.  Ah, memories.  They can comfort or sandbag you, so that might not be the place to go.  I've discovered solitaire isn't bad.  I can't get myself organized to work on a quilt.  Can you imagine the scene:  Bill hears this mysterious whirring at 3 a.m. and gets up to find his wife, her white hair wafting as she moves, maniacally sewing? Reading mysteries, even tame ones, only urges  you to keep reading.  Some novels are okay:  I've just finished re-re-reading Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus, which is such a complex historical puzzle that your brain is working while your feelings are disengaged.  Feelings.  Feelings are not good at 3 a.m.

So I've found that nonfiction is often the best reading for the middle of the night.  I found Robert Hass's essays in What Light Can Do to be very helpful.  He has a calm, evocative voice that represents his thinking about poetry and culture very clearly.  I don't need to remember everything he tells me about a Japanese poet whose name I cannot pronounce, but the essay gives me another way to think about poetry.  So, a slightly sleepy public intellectual is a fine identity for the middle of the night.  

That said, why did I move on to Jan Zwicky's Once Upon a Time in the West, essays by a brilliant and exacting intelligence?  I simply knew there were essays that I would come back to; others, like "The Ethics of the Negative Review," which I would just vigorously agree with. Or "Integrity and Ornament," an essay on Adolf Loos and his belief that ornament was inherently decadent, touched on architectural issues Nikka had taught me about.  So I could nod along with Zwicky--though looking back over it, I can see that I underlined many passages on the Loos essay that of course I need to revisit.   

But on a particularly bad night, one when my sense of self had gone walkabout, I was reading "The Syntax of Ethical Style."  A little heavier, that one. But I just persevered until I read a section entitled "Ontological Attention and Lyric Form," which is part of a complex description of what  lyric thought is and does.  (For complicated reasons, she distinguishes between lyric thought and lyric poetry.) Part of what lyric thought does is to bear witness.  Describing the twenty-two days when Vedran Smailovic played Giazotto's Adagio in G Minor at a Sarajevo bomb site where twenty-two people died, Zwicky describes his project (and the italics are hers): "This happened.  See:  a real life.  See: a real death.  See: reality.  That is:  witness attends to being" (129). 

That raised the hair on my arms and confirmed some very odd plans I have for a series of brief poems, perhaps haikus, inspired by Robert Hass's humanistic view of poetry, where I just try to be witness to the everyday, while submerging the "I" as much as possible.  I probably don't need to explain how this is a response to Ukraine, Gaza, Haiti, the 4,000 mile long east-to-west strip of African countries who have experienced coups in the last five years where life is still chaotic.  Or maybe I do need to make that link, which rattles painfully around in my head these days, noisy and unnerving. What do I do with my horror and hopelessness in the face of my own privilege and good luck?  Beyond sending money to Doctors without Borders, I live here

And then Zwicky writes "But concerned with our attunement to the whole.  Positive witness understands that we have a duty to praise, and that it is this duty that underlies the witness of mourning.  Cheerfulness is a virtue not just because it makes us pleasant company for other humans...but because it reflects a genuine grasp of the most fundamental fact of the matter:  things exist.  The witness of grief is the complement of our ability to stand before this fact in joyful astonishment" (129).  

It was as if she had found that self that had gone walkabout, had given it back to me in the middle of the night, in the vulnerable hour.  It was Troni Grande who gave me the word, saying one day over coffee that I'm always cheerful.  I was shocked.  The life that goes on in my head is often not cheerful, is often sickened and grappling with--let's just call it the rage and self-absorption loose in the world, on intimate and national scales, and be done with it.  But I strive to be cheerful because otherwise I am useless.  If I'm glum, I don't raise anyone else's spirits, I can't help anyone else.  Besides, the privileged, lucky part of me knows that complete despair is dishonest. All I need to do is to look at the stones I've collected for the bowls in my office--stones!--to know the world is a miracle. In the middle of the night, Zwicky gave me the existential ballast to acknowledge the grief I often feel but to also to know that it's my job to be attuned to the remarkable whole.   

An ethical, reflective, aware life is undeniably hard right now. But maybe Zwicky has also given you permission to celebrate what is.   

Monday, February 12, 2024

Time--with a dose of irony

Every once in a while, my head wants to challenge physics.  If there's a long line of cars turning left and holding up traffic, why can't the ever-moving molecules in my car move between the ever-moving molecules in that tree on the boulevard so that I can get home sooner?  I don't know why, the moving molecule thing never works. At least it doesn't when there's a cat lounging in the doorway I need to get through to grab my phone. It's over or around the cat, and if my hip slams into the doorway, no obliging molecules ever part their ways like the Red Sea.

But the physics of time!  I know it's variable and yet it's not.  The sleepless hours between midnight and 2:30 a.m. stretch almost to eternity.  Yet a good hour's writing can seem so short, a good hour's thinking even shorter because so few words make it to the page.  Mostly, though, the clock ticks inexorably on, and as I approach 74, there's less and less of it.  Or less and less of the energy to use the time meaningfully. 

I know all the rules about time.  We can't evade its limits by multi-tasking.  Regardless of how our phones summon us like Pied Pipers, we can't really watch TV and doom scroll.  Something gets lost.  We do both things badly.  In Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman--which I haven't had time to read but which has made the podcasts I listen to while I'm on my exercise bike--Burkeman tells us that we need to realize that, in the 4000 weeks given to us, we won't get everything on our to-do lists done. We have to make choices. (I've got maybe 500 weeks left, if I'm lucky.) Multi-taking will only make it worse, will actually steal that time from us because, at the end of it, the time will have fallen through our hands like sand.  I hope this rule doesn't apply to petting the cat on my lap while I write.

I also know that task switching--changing from deliberate time spent doing research, for example, to spending time rearranging the books on my shelves--is counter productive.  And at the end of a morning of evading writing by switching to reorganizing the novels and checking Facebook, I will be more exhausted than if I did those things sequentially.  Yet in the weeks when it was cloudy and cloudy and cloudy, I found that spending an entire morning writing was going to be just depressing.  So I planned to spend an hour writing and then an hour reading for the next chapter of The Frosted Bough:  Essays on Minimalism, which is about the minimalist painter Agnes Martin.  Then, to round my research on the chapter I'm just finishing, on "Making and Making Do," I'd learn about craftivism or read about Sheridan College's commitment to repair cafes.  It was really helpful  I'm guessing I didn't run out of a particular kind of concentration.  And maybe planning blocks of time made me innocent of task-switching.

I know that there are two things I can do to maybe eke out a few weeks after the 500 I'm hoping for.  One is to exercise--including cardio and strength training.  But I haven't found the formula.  If I lose 1 1/2 hours from my writing this week to exercise, how many more days does that give me at the end of my life?  And will I still be writing at 85?  Is there a best-before-date for poets?  I'm pretty sure that longer forms like novels or collections of essays might be a stretch.  I mostly exercise in the late afternoon when I'm too tired to read or write, and still don't manage to get in the recommended 140 minutes per week.  This is partly because the other thing that contributes to longevity is good relationships.  So is there a formula that helps me figure out whether losing a workout because I'm having coffee with a friend is a good use of my time?   I could spend a lot of my life just trying to extend my life.

I also understand what I call the time of craftsmanship.  Making a quilt or throwing a mug take as long as it takes to do it well.  You're not worrying about how long it's taking because you are lost in the pleasure of doing it well.  For me, this requires some discipline.  (When am I going to finish this bloody book!)  Yet lately I've taken on some quilting projects that need to be hand pieced, and I find that time so serene.

I have a handful of mantras that I find helpful.  Just be curious.  Kindness lives here.  It's just a problem to be solved--this last one is especially helpful when "it" is something that is making people in my life emotional or panicked.  The last is "Be here now."  Or "Be.  Here.  Now." So often we're not where we are physically, and we miss so much of life's magic like a smile from a stranger or the woodpecker high in the tree.  That's what Lyra tells me when he climbs on my lap while I write.  He reminds me that I'm not typing away in some mythical future when I finish the book and edit it and approve a cover and get the box of books in the mail and do my first reading.  That's all hypothetical anyway, as the Buddhists tell us.  Uncertainty is everywhere.  Given the last four years, we should know that.  The only antidote to uncertainty is the certainty and pleasure of being here now.

Saturday, January 6, 2024


It's a new year and a new chapter of The Frosted Bough:  Essays on Minimalism.  I finished the chapter on the Voluntary Simplicity movement and am now almost ready to write "Making and Making Do."  My idiosyncratic research has been to visit the quilters at Connecting Threads who gather together every Thursday morning just down the street from me at the Balkwill Centre to make quilts for women's shelters and premature babies.  They are one of the happiest groups of people I have ever spent time with.  I'm talking this afternoon to someone who has taken part in a repair cafe.  I'm heading out next week to visit Zane Wilcox's studio to see what he has to say about minimalism and ceramics.  I also have fifteen pages of notes that I hope to whittle down to 7,000 words or so, but even at a quick mental glance, I can see that there are a couple of things I really want to say about craftsmanship.  One is about hands.  Another is the fact that people who make things seems to me to be happier.  The third is that craftspeople inhabit an entirely different kind of time, one we could all imitate.

So, hands. What have you done with your hands today besides type and wiggle and click your mouse and swipe the screen on your phone?  People who write knowledgeably about craft have noticed that, lamentably, many of us don't do much with our hands.  Yet they've evolved through thousands of years to be flexible and knowledgeable.  Competent crafters probably celebrate the moment, consciously or not, when their tools don't come between themselves and their work, when their tools are not something they are fighting to use effectively but become a mere means to an end.  I saw that when I was learning to throw mugs and bowls as research for Home in Stormy Weather. I certainly didn't see it in myself but it was clear in how my teacher, Randall Fedge, centered his clay and then brought it smoothly up from the wheel to make a beautifully-shaped bowl. In fact, it may have been clearer to me precisely because I sucked. The distance between his craftsmanship and my lack of it was  palpable. He did not think about the wheel, only about his hands shaping clay.  I do experience my hands' knowledge occasionally when I'm practicing the piano and my hands merely shape a tricky passage without my actually thinking about what they are doing. In fact, they are more likely to do this when I'm focused on the music I want to make rather than on the fingerings necessary to get the notes to flow. There is complex neuroscience behind this, but yes, our hands know things.  

Hands are expressive.  Outside the grocery store while I waited for Bill to pick up orange juice for our OJ and prosecco on New Year's Eve, I saw a father stroke his eight-year-old daughter's long dark hair.  So much was said by that gesture. In my reading on craft, I have learned about the early craft guilds and how they became the studio system for artists who had enough commissions that they could employ a cloud expert or a background painter or someone who could capture the folds in fabric.  But the artist who ran the studio often saved faces and hands for himself. Here I think of my mother's hands, which embraced so many competencies, from painting a ceiling to kneading bread to sewing a dart to shaping itself just before she caressed my cheek.  Rodin sculpted hands that pray, implore, struggle to grasp, understand, explain, express pain. The artist painted hands himself because they are shorthand for character, a kind of minimal expression of the sitter's historical and personal situation and frame of mind. Or I think of Michelangelo's Creation on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, the hand of God reaching out to the hand of Adam in a transcendent moment. What Michelangelo created there is the sense that hands bring forth of embodied creation--which is more or less what craft is. 

Hands are also the conduit of other kinds of sensory experiences, I thought to myself Monday morning when I made a lemon meringue pie that I knew would delight both Bill and Nikka for New Year's Day dinner.  My hands held the firm fruit as I grated the fragrant lemon peel, and they knew by the surface of the lemon when I'd gone all the way around.  My hands got little giddy at the feel of lemon peel in their fingertips as I put it into the measuring spoon. How could something as insubstantial as dandelion fluff contain this  powerful fragrance? They pushed down hard when I juiced the lemons. They were competent as I separated the eggs.  They sensed what a magical thing an egg is with its crisp yet vulnerable shell.  And of course they let me eat the pie.  Our hands feel and grasp and throw, but they also mediate so much of our sensory experiences if only we'll let them off the leash of our devices. We actually call the feel of fabric, its drape and texture, from the sheerness of silk to the heft of tweed, its "hand."

Here's where hands and craftsmanship and minimalism come together.  Craft isn't inherently minimal.  Ask my sister, whose quilter's stash takes up a "bonus room" above a two-car garage.  Ask a woodworker about his tools or a weaver about looms.  But once a craftsperson has gained competency, the creative force is a a pair of hands and her or his material. There's a justifiable and complicated debate about how we know whether a glass vase or a quilt is handicraft or a work of art. I think it would be most useful to put craft on one end of a continuum, art on the other.  Craft must be well made.  There's no point to a piece of weaving that unravels every time its wearer moves.  Nor is there any point to a glass vase that can't find its balance or a bowl that can't contain anything.  On the other hand, art needs to be more than an object.  It needs an idea; it needs to say something about our physical, intellectual, perceptual, psychological world and about its place and our place in that world.  The off-kilter piece of glass might qualify as art, reflecting a world that often seems to be transparent but can't find a centre that will hold.  

Or there's a distinction that's even simpler, and perhaps a bit dishonest:  we don't use art.  We wouldn't take one of Cezanne's paintings down from the wall and cover it with bowls of fruit and goblets of wine as if it a tablecloth.  We use craft.  We wear it, drink out of it, pile oranges in it.  In turn, the clay bowl, the woven fabric, the finished wood invite our hands, bringing us back to our physical, sensing selves

I'll write about craftsman's happiness and time in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Just Like Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

In quest of a metaphor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 26, 2023

Bean Dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Observation, Moral Beauty, and an untrustworthy world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, May 1, 2023

Awe and flash mobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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