Sunday, August 26, 2012

And now for something completely different

This week, I've been speeding up and slowing down, trying to create a bridge for myself between a sabbatical year with its intense yet flexible demands and the coming academic year which is in some way less demanding and yet less  forgiving if you get behind.  If my discussion of Lily Briscoe's aesthetics didn't flow as smoothly as I liked, I simply revised my expectations (again) and worked away at it until I'd expressed what I was seeing in her work and the relationship she created between that work and the world before her.  Though the publisher wants the manuscript "soon," "soon" hasn't been assigned a date.  On the other hand, I simply can't walk into a class anything less than over-prepared; only if I feel fully in control of my subject can I give up that control to student curiosity and the very different vision of, say, Jane Austen's novels, than the one I have.  So, fast, and slow. 

In the fast lane, you can see that I've finished another quilt, one completely unlike my poppies.  It is meant to go where you see it here, on the spare bed in my workroom.  It is as serene and understated as the poppies are vibrant and raucous.  Once the term begins, there simply won't be time to do the kind of planning and pulling together and searching for border fabric required when you finish a quilt.  I'm hoping to get some piecing done on a quilt for Veronica, but that's about all I'll accomplish, other than picking up hand quilting.

In the "slow" department, I've been taking long pulls at Charlotte Gill's remarkable Eating Dirt:  Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe about her work planting trees, mostly in clear cuts in British Columbia.  It's a curious book, part visceral evocation of the tedium and back-breaking labour of planting trees, part ode to the natural world's variety and wonder.  In between there are sometimes brightly-written snippets of history or biology, like her history of the implosion of Mesopotamian and Roman societies that came on the heels of their exhaustion of their local supplies of timber.  You suddenly see how crucial trees are to the human endeavour of housing ourselves and heating those houses.  The prose is always both clear and poetically exact so that the exhaustion, the weather, the tense muscles, the scent of bear, the feeling of weighlessness when crazy Adam takes a hill so fast that the jeep keeps ascending after the hill has dropped away, become part of the reader's experience.  I've taken the book in  with great gulps, Sheba in my lap making sure my attention doesn't wander.

Gill's book and Sheba's quiet weight and the need to slow down before the term shifts into gear have made me aware of the turning away of August toward September.  In the mornings, I read in the living room, close to my supply of coffee, looking out on our well-treed back yard.  I noticed so many things when I looked up from whatever I was reading (I've also been loping through Ford Maddox Ford's Parades End).  The sun falls quite differently.  The leaves in the trees are just a little dry around the edges so that there's more sunshine in the yard and more whispering when there's a breeze.  In the late afternoon and early evening, the light is golden, probably from newly-harvested grain.  Even if I only glimpse quickly up from the page, I can't help notice that September is coming soon.

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is also building a bridge for me.  It's made me aware why this past year has sometimes been frustrating and exhausting.  Kahneman talks about the two speeds of our brain, which he labels system one and system two.  System one is, of necessity, speedy, taking a quick inventory of threats and opportunities, making decisions based on intuitions--though some of these are the result of our experience and developed knowledge.  System one is pretty cocksure, rather too certain of its conclusions.  It makes up stories and assigns cause with alacrity, but sometimes without the necessary evidence for drawing solid conclusions.  System two partakes of deliberate thought.  It can be a little lazy, a little slow to come on line, and when we do employ it, we often feel uneasy and unsure.  Here's his description of the two systems:  "When you are in a state of cognitive ease [using System one], you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar.  When you [are forced to use system two you] feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you are less intuitive and less creative than usual" (60).  You are also less confident of your System two knowledge, though it's more reliable.

Kahneman's work has taught me that this year has been an intense, deliberate dance between these two systems.  I have enough knowledge of Woolf's work, her diaries, letters, essays, and novels to be comfortable situating her aesthetics and intuiting what she's up to.  But sometimes finding the evidence, structuring an argument other people will find clear and convincing, and thinking through the implications of what I see happening in her texts is hard work.  Moreover, it's hard work involving two handicaps.  One is that the lack of ease prompts you to distrust yourself--even though you're more reliable and thinking more deeply.  The second is that you're less creative, and you need all your creativity for negotiating Virginia Woolf.

Kahneman's work also has implications for my teaching.  I have a sense--just an intuition, mind you, provided by confident system one who likes causes and effects--that students come out of high school having mostly used system one.  Consequently, they're sometimes shocked and intimidated by the way we ask them to think very differently than they have in the past.  I've been thinking about how to put this knowledge to use, perhaps even emphasizing more than I usually do the importance of revision that literally re-sees your argument and the evidence you've based it on.  When you revise, don't trust yourself.  So while Kahneman helps me see why this year has sometimes been frustrating, he's also got me excited about helping my students learn about how they think and helping them to get lazy System two to cooperate.  Because I've missed my students and the daily challenges and reactions and interactions that have filled my life as a teacher.  I want to get back into the fray.  But not too quickly.  Another two weeks before I really begin teaching will be put to good use on The Waves.

The quilters among you should know that this quilt is based on one called "Moody Blues" in Kaffe Fassett's Passionate Patchwork.  It's essentially many two-fabric,  four-patch blocks with little triangles sewn to the outer corners of the lighter of the two fabrics.  When these come together, they make little darker squares on point.  Fassett's quilt is, predictably, wildly blue, edging sometimes toward purple, sometimes toward turquoise.  I chose to work  with colours ranging from yellow green through grey green, blue green, blue, the occasional grey, and cream.  The fabric for the border was the perfect colour to pull the whole together, except if I put it right next to the four-patches it sometimes nudged uncomfortably against a bright yellow green.  So I included a narrow secondary border.  But because I didn't want to buy yards and yards of fabric for a one inch border the longest piece of the tan I had was about forty inches.  So I eked it out with more triangles before attaching the next forty inches.  Working within constraints can make you creative, I find, and I'm happy with the unpredictable little clusters of triangles.


  1. I hope you'll keep blogging after you're back in classes.

  2. I'm hoping that my blogs will be more interesting when the term begins. This has been a year when, as you know, I've been turned inward, absorbed by the work of Virginia Woolf. I'm hoping that my students turn me outward again to the wider world. Thanks for reading.