Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rebellion and the minimalism of pain

I've decided not to go out today.  I'm skipping the gym, and am trying to pretend that it isn't the 7th of April and that we didn't get more snow last night.  I'm sitting in my blue-grey-green workroom with my back to the south windows, trying to pretend it isn't snowing, except I can hear that the world is a little quieter--except for the sound of tires on wet pavement.  The word you are all using is "relentless."  This weather is straight out of Doris Lessing's The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, from her Canopus in Argos:  Archives series.   Planet Eight has a temperate climate where, under the guidance of the Canopeans, the mixed races develop a peaceful culture.  This is brutally interrupted when "interstellar rearrangements" bring about an ice age.  They attempt to hang on while the Canopeans prepare another home for them. But disaster strikes the new planet, and the the ice age will not slow.  At the end, they become mere being and join in a single consciousness that preserves the lore, wisdom, knowledge, joy, and struggle of everyone on the planet.  Will we all be freeze-dried into mere being before May?

I have another motive for my rebellion.  A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of intense marking, I realized I hadn't been sick since I returned from the Woolf conference last June.  Couldn't I come down with a minor cold or a quick bit of stomach flu?  I wanted a day in bed with cats and without responsibilities.  Our uncanny bodies often have a way of fulfilling such perverse wishes:  last Sunday, after a day of grading, I found that someone had been twisting a red hot corkscrew just under my left shoulder blade.  Rather than gaining the oblivion of a sleepy sick day, I was perfectly capable of marking and indeed had trouble sleeping.  Two massages and an awful lot of muscle relaxant later, I'm just a bit better:  I don't want to scream.

When I was writing about minimalism, Katherine Arbuthnott talked about the minimalism of pain, something she knows a good deal about.  So I decided on a kind of minimal day today, absolutely in line with my desire to go nowhere.  I learned a new provisional cast-on and started a blue raw silk sweater that will look springy when it's done.  I finally finished reading Blithedale Romance, which has been totally charming (and is relatively brief--225 pages), but which seemed to open out into extra pages behind every one of Zenobia's secrets.  (One of the oddities of the academic year is that just as you are bringing the winter term to a frantic close, you are asked to plan your fall classes and order books--hence my reading of Hawthorne's novel, which will introduce students to the way the novel has some roots in the romance--mediaeval, not Harlequin.  Tonight I'll begin Great Expectations as a sample of the Bildungsroman.)  I managed, accidentally on purpose, to take my second dose of muscle relaxants an hour early, and so settled down for nearly two hours of sleep with Sheba curled up on my belly, keeping watch.  Bill must have caught on to my desire for a sick day, because when he got back from his workout he came upstairs with a glass of ice water and watched me drink it, as he always does when I'm sick.  Then he suggested we had plenty of leftovers for dinner. 

When you spend a day in bed, you can manage to do quite a lot because you're only doing what is necessary.  Wayne Grady wrote a lovely essay "On Walking," in his book Bringing Back the Dodo.  It's a peripatetic piece that tells us about different kinds of walking--from Thoreau's sauntering to Bill Bryson's hiking the Appalachian Trail, about how our knees and backs aren't quite suited to walking, and about the differences between city and country walking.  But the essay's still point--literally and figuratively--is that walking slows down time because it has a human pace that allows us to notice the world around us.  In this weather, it demands we notice the world around us, watching for puddles and slick spots.  Is it too paradoxical to say that the minimalism of pain and a day in bed similarly slow time down to reflective dimensions?  I not only thought about how I'll teach the layers of Blithedale Romance, and learned a new cast on; I found memories that hadn't bubbled up in my mind for years.  None of these was particularly significant:  for some reason, I recalled the narrow shallow cupboards with beautifully carved wooden doors that every room in Stockwell Hall had for our toothbrushes and toothpaste, our Cleopatra eyeliner, our wash cloths and towels. Sheba seemed to be channeling my first cat, so I thought for a while about Bugsy's own brand of devilish sweetness.  Perhaps because I was reading Hawthorne, I thought about my long bus ride from central Boston to Brandeis, where I worked for a year.  I thought about the book on Japanese sand gardens I'd borrowed from the Brandeis University library.  Ordinary as the memories were, they affirm something of one's humanity that might get lost in frantic grading and unending winters and the ways we cope now with being overwhelmed. 

Tonight at dinner, we listened to recordings Art Tatum made in Hollywood in the early 1950s:  his fingers on the keys sparkle, perhaps with California sunshine.  Even though Tatum was a child prodigy who could play by ear by the time he was three, he was also nearly blind.  Long considered one of the jazz piano greats for his spectacular ornament and his subtle chord progressions, by the time he made these classic recordings he had been outmoded by bebop.  After that, I put on "Ella and Louis Again," for the remarkable musical partnership and the witty lyrics. Their first song began "Don't cry.  Oh honey, please don't be that way.  Clouds in the sky will bring the violets of May.  Tears are in vain.  O honey, please don't be that way."   Do you know how much weather there is on this album?  Not only rainy springs (which I suspect we'd be grateful for at this point), but "Autumn in New York." Then Ella tells Louis she "can't remember a worse December.  Just watch those icicles form."  Bill put on the Tatum for the sparkling cheer.  I added Ella and Louis because to a young woman watching the civil rights movement in the sixties (and who knows exactly where she was when the news came that Martin Luther King had been killed), this great jazz is never without an undertone of struggle.  So it gives you a kind of balanced perspective:  heartbreak and joy, whimsy and realism, great songs brought alive by musicians who playfully ignored the score.  But I didn't expect to get more complaints about weather.


  1. I know how you feel; I had an inflamed nerve in my back last month and all I could do to stop the pain was lie flat on my back. Lately, I've been trying to pretend it's spring by wearing "spring" clothes but still layering.

  2. It's a bummer--back pain--isn't it? My day in bed seems to have helped, as has finishing my first-year grading. I'm holding out on my spring clothes and opting for red instead.