Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Blooming in August

The American Cliff Swallows fly 10,000 km each spring from their winter home in Goya, Argentina, to arrive on March 19 in Capistrano, California, where they nest in the Mission San Juan, which has been a ruin since an earthquake in 1812.  My mother used to refer to this often, perhaps because it expressed her sense of wonder or because it said that at least one thing in this uncertain world could be counted on.   Bird migration, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is not entirely understood.  The birds may navigate by the stars or by changes in the earth's magnetic field.  They may know it's time to go when the food supply in their winter home runs out or when the sunlight comes from the right angle for the right number of hours.  A new generation of birds can travel in winter to somewhere they've never seen and return the following year to their birthplace.  Knowledge comes into play, but so does instinct.

My mother would be surprised to learn that her references to the swallows is the source of one of my nicknames for myself:  birdbrain.  I've long known that light influences my moods, that when the days get short I become anxious and moody (in the past, I would have simply said depressed), that when I don't see sun for a number of days, the energy drains right out of me, that sunny days with lots of sparkling moving shadows bring joy and energy.  The effect is both mental and physical:  light affects my mood (which I somehow imagine residing in my head), but my body seems to feel its own joy or despair that is visceral, seemingly independent of circumstances.  I may know that I live a charmed life with a husband who sees me as I am and loves what he sees; a smart, companionable daughter with a deep heart; a job that I've always loved; and a new two-car garage in the offing; but my body will tell me otherwise.

So what is this other part of me paying attention to now?  It can't simply be the cooler days, which I've loved.  Perhaps it's the cooler nights or evening shadows that have a different quality.  Are they longer?  More tenuous?  I've been learning all summer, more or less, but learning at the end of August and the beginning of September has a very different mood. It's counter-intuitive, this sense of new beginnings.  Robert Pogue Harrison, in his wonderful book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, looks both historically and fancifully at the sense that universities are gardens.  The ancient Greeks moved their schools to small gardens outside Athens after the death of Sophocles.  University campuses often contain elements of gardens, something like the University of Regina's "Academic Green" or the "Diag" in Ann Arbor.  (And now, appropriately, we have a literal garden behind the library where we're growing tomatoes and peppers.)  The University of Michigan had its enormous Arboretum, a wonderful place to study among the blooming trees for final exams.  I'd like to add my own metaphor to Harrison's thoughts:  teachers plant seeds and then trust that they'll grow.  We assume that the soil--the student's character, and the growing conditions--the society around us, will ensure that the seeds take root, but we do so with a disinterestedness that's crucial to the project of a culture renewing itself, not cloning professors.

I first knew I was in the grip of September-itis last week when I read John Macfarlane's "Editors Note" in the September Walrus.  He talks about their interns who "stay with us for six months--long enough for us to show them the ins and outs of magazine publishing.  We invite them to story conferences and production meetings.  We offer them seminars in substantive editing, copy editing, art direction, and freelance writing.  We find them mentors at other news organizations.  What they do for us is check facts."  Macfarlane goes on to say that they do not fetch coffee and that fact-checking is the lifeblood of a publication's reliability.  The description of the help these young people get, along with Marfarlane's list of where their interns have ended up made me want to begin life all over again.  I remember sitting in the periodical room of the University of Michigan graduate library after I`d taken the last exam for my M.A.,  reading the want ads from the New York Times and the Detroit newspapers, feeling that I could not go back to the life I was living but had no idea how to do anything else.  Last week, I felt the most unaccountable urge to get on a plane for Toronto and beg Macfarlane to give this 63-year-old-woman a chance to check facts.  Never mind Bill, Veronica, Twig, Sheba, and the new term--my last new term.  I wanted to start something entirely different, to see where my life would end up if I`d been able to tie that sad moment  in 1976 to my September mood and follow the thread of the new life I could create.

My second symptom of September-itis came when I read this sentence:  "The argument indicates Impressionism's range:  it begins in phenomenological intensity, then becomes an epistemological question, an existential endeavor, and an ethical good."  This is from Jesse Matz's wonderful essay on "The Art of the Novel:  Impressionism and aesthetes."  She's writing about the changes to the novel that come at the end of the nineteenth century with the work of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, whose characters depend on impressions for information about the world they live in and the people they know.  Woolf of course is one of these writers who focus on the characters' experiences, not on plots with a rising conflict, a crisis, and a denouement.  In that single sentence--albeit in jargon-landen shorthand, Matz encapsulates the subtle shape of these novels.  Intense impressions and perceptions are called into question and become the basis for wondering what the character knows--and hence who the character is.  Such questions, insofar as they are honestly asked, are always ethical. 

I wasn't reading this essay in the enormous 900-page The Cambridge History of the English Novel for my work on Woolf, but for one of two entirely new classes I will be teaching in my final year at the University of Regina. So I'm still blooming after all these years, whether it's anticipating a new term or thinking about a new life when I retire. Perhaps being a bird-brain has its advantages.

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