Saturday, February 16, 2013

Reading Deeply and Slowly

This morning as I was driving in to the university, I couldn't decide whether I found the foggy, hoarfrosty world beautiful and congenial or not.  I couldn't see the Legislature Building from the Albert Street bridge, yet the sky seemed irradiated with light, as if the cloud were also mere fog.  Since I couldn't decide, I needed to take the longer route through the park to gather more data, so turned left at the Legislature and then drove along the lake and then through the trees.  By the time I got to the university, it still wasn't clear to me.  In fact, that was what I wanted:  clarity, but there was all this fuzzy and muzzy beauty around me.

This has been another of those frantic weeks that seem to characterize this term.  Reading like mad so I could begin to teach Gissing's Odd Women.  Grading indifferent and often weak 110 essays until my finite reserve of restraint was used up.  Katherine Arbuthnott tells me that we all have a finite bank-account of restraint, and that when we're getting to the end of it we can find ourselves really exhausted and perhaps not a little cranky.  Except when you are marking, you cannot come to the end of your restraint, no matter what.  Because the moment you express your impatience or your disbelief--how exactly did you get here?--you've lost your ability to be helpful.  And I should say that I've got a generous sprinkling of strong students whose work gives me delight.

On Thursday we celebrated the Saskatchewan Book Awards Shortlist Announcement, which was a treat.  How exciting it is to have one of my former students, Coby Stephenson, shortlisted for her book of stories, Violet Quesnel.  Unfortunately, the shortlist reception was also one of the day's round of activities that included preparing to be the substitute in Susan Johnson's survey class on Friday, having dinner at the Creek Bistro, hearing Diana Krall--and all on 5 hours of sleep.  And of course all these things were wonderful too.  The Creek Bistro never disappoints, and I always remember taking my sister Karen there while she was in Regina for our wedding and being so cocky about having such a place in our neighbourhood.  In Atlanta, Georgia nothing is in your neighbourhood and most things are a pain to drive to.  Diana Krall was remarkable.  I like her live performances better than her CDs (though I like those too) because she takes more chances.  You get the sense that she and her band are playing--being playful, that things could fall apart any minute because they are all taking so many risks, but also that things won't fall apart because they're all consummate musicians.  For this concert, she had a backdrop of archival film footage that sometimes matched and sometimes simply complemented the music:  old Tom and Jerry cartoons, cheesy shots of dancing women and butterflies or of "exotic dancers" (of the clothed variety) and their shocked audience, surreal, futuristic cityscapes, even family movies.

What this all really says--my ambivalence about a delightful round of activities and my inability to decide about the weather--is that I need the February break, perhaps more than I've ever needed it.  I need a break from the angst on campus.  I need to play with fabric and shape and bright, bright colour.  I need to sleep in, since I've again lost my ability to go to sleep when I'm supposed to.  Above all, I need to read.  Except what?  There's quite a bit of new fiction on the shelf at home (which is really a wide windowsill--hey, books are good insulation!) where I keep books before they've been read and then put in their proper place in the library, but I flipped through these last night and none of them quite suit.  It was about 2 a.m., and the cats were bemused but loyal, cuddled together on the end of my bed, Sheba waiting for me to settle down so she could curl up with me.  'Something deep and slow,' I thought to myself before settling down so Sheba could curl up on my back.  Amazing how that works:  a small cat in the small of your back forces you to relax and then you finally drift off.

I want to slow down to think about the poetry I'm writing that's inspired by Veronica's photographs.  One sleepless night, I went back to reading Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries:  Consciousness and the City.  I love Kingwell, and this book is dense and twisty enough to make me sleepy sooner rather than later.  But I also want to layer some ideas into (not over) these poems, and this book promises to illuminate something in Veronica's surprisingly beautiful photographs of back lanes and of complex layered reflections in glass.  So that phrase that came to me--`Something deep and slow"--is not only about what I'd like to read but about how I'd like to spend my time.  I need to think without the frustration of deadlines running around me, nipping at my heels like tribbles.  Craftsmanship, whether you are making furniture or poems, always takes time.

On that busy Thursday when I returned essays to my Literature and the Environment students and tried to sum up what we'd been reading thus far, I realized that, in the poetry and the nonfiction, the authors suggested our experience of time has a profound effect on our relationship with the world and that one of the things we need to do if we are going to experience nature in a way that makes us want to protect it is to slow down.  Brian Peyton, in his essay on the bears of the Great Bear Rainforest, talks about settling into the time of observation, settling almost into bear time.  Charlotte Gill talks about the way tree planters are obsessed with time and often compete to see who can plant the most trees in a day. This sense that time is nipping at their heels makes one of her bosses drive very carelessly and land a jeep upside down in a very icky pond and nearly drown one of his workers.  Trees have another sense of time altogether.  It takes hundreds of years to grow a tree and I doubt they worry about time.  Also, once you've clear cut a forest, it's not simply that you have to wait for the trees to grow back.  The way we log also denudes the forest of its wonderful skin of biomass--the years of falling needles and leaves, the growth and decay of fungus and lichens and smaller shrubs that live among the trees.  We've destroyed the skin that supports the very forest we are trying to replant.

Is there an ethics of time?  Is it possible that we can jam so much into our lives--even things that make us happy and that are good in themselves--that we risk losing our basic ethics?  Because being ethical takes time.  It takes time to reflect.  It takes time to do the kind of deep sustained reading that psychologists say teaches us how to be compassionate.  It takes time to study and fall in love with the beautifully, stunningly complex world around us, to understand how elements of that world--from forests to Safeway cashiers to foggy Fridays--want and need to be understood and treated. 


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