Wednesday, October 18, 2017


I have been living inside a bittersweet frame of mind since about the middle of August when Bill was in the hospital for five days.  Why he was in the hospital is his story to tell, not mine, so you can imagine whatever scenario you find convincing, as long as it involves a fair amount of pain and uncertainty.  Yet living right beside the pain which so worried me was the care the nurses gave and the helpful questions they asked.  In my heightened frame of mind, I could see each of them making the world better one patient at a time.  I would drive home from the hospital at the end of the day and notice the sunsets, which were spectacular because of all the smoke in the air from forest fires.  Since two summers ago, when Saskatchewan had its bad run of forest fires, I've been aware of that bittersweet paradox:  that the destructiveness of fires in one place created beautiful sunsets in another.  One Friday evening as I drove home down Elphinstone a worker was putting the final touches on a brick structure made to hold the new sign for the beautiful new Connaught School that would be opening soon.  The juxtapositions were myriad:  beautiful sunset created by forest fires, work on a Friday night, craftsmanship, young students returning to school.

Sometimes I came home for a while in the middle of the afternoon so Bill could nap or zone out on his iPad.  Then I would sit in the dry back garden and watch the sparrows before I got up to start hauling watering cans full of water--again--to my vegetable garden in the back where the beans were languishing, the tomatoes bountiful, and the carrots mere matchsticks because June had been so cold.  I'm trying to write elsewhere about watching the sparrows, so I'll simply say here that after Twig's death that's what I did.  He hated having me outside and would complain at the door or the window, so while he was alive I didn't spend much time outside except to work.  But this summer, I took breakfast and afternoon tea with sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, and house finches, just simply watching them eat or take dust baths about two metres from where I sat.  They had become, over the summer, completely used to my presence.  Chickadees would fly into the crab apple tree not two feet from me, eye the bark carefully, stuff in a seed and begin to crack it open.  Nuthatches flew close enough over my head that I could feel the air their wings displaced.  A pair of adolescent nuthatches--their feathers still rumpled--would play hide and seek with me from the far side of the bird feeder, cracking open seed, and then darting their heads around the feeder to see whether I was still there or had come any closer.

I find it hard to describe the sight of a couple dozen sparrows under the feeder searching for fallen seed or taking dust baths.  There ought to be a metaphor, but if there is, I haven't found it.  It's helpful, though, to note that sparrows move their heads as if they have been designed by outdated cgi software.  Their heads move constantly as they look for seed while also keeping an eye out for signs of danger--but each movement is sudden and jerky.  Then add to this the fact that sparrows do not walk but hop and bounce, and perhaps you get a sense of the bubbling of brown feathers under the feeders.  In a part of the garden where my ground cover has not yet spread, half a dozen sparrows would be taking dirt baths.  In the dry soil they would create visible divots that cupped them and then they would flutter and wiggle with a quickness that made my head spin--faster than any pianist can trill.  Pure joy it was to watch them.

But in the background always was the faint smell of smoke and the dry susurration of trees that had not felt rain for nearly two months.  Sometimes during those days when Bill was in the hospital the wind was unnerving.  In that sound of the wind and dry leaves I heard the march of fall.

Like most academics, I love fall.  It's a second new year.  I was always aware of students starting a new chapter in their lives, and I was excited as well by new classes or new approaches to old classes.  And then the fall season for new books would begin and I would feel there was simply too much excitement in the world for the few hours in each day.  This fall I made the last of the changes to the text for Visible Cities and returned my revised manuscript of Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement, so while I was not even in the classroom, I felt the newness of the year.  I had new ideas to explore, new projects in mind.  I could shift from the disciplined rigor of revision, where you are largely facing what  you have not done well enough, to crafting something new while knowing that it in its turn would need revising.  But something new!  An engagement with a fresh idea or observation!  Yet in some ways it was terrifying.  It sent me spinning again into those questions that always pepper new years with their existential significance (if we choose to give them existential significance, and I do):  What mattered?  Was it just being--what I perceived and experienced in my daily life and how those things made me feel and think?  Or was it doing?  Was it what I wrote?  Was it how I took care of others?

For some reason, I decided to finally read Lark Rise to Candleford, a memoir by Flora Thompson set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  As I read, I realized that it was less a memoir than about life in the rural hamlet of Lark Rise--how its inhabitants managed on thgeir agricultural wages, how they turned or re-made coats sent to them by relatives in service, how they kept bees and dealt with their swarming, how they kept pigs and gardens, expressions pronounced with broad accents, distrust of Laura's love of reading.  It's a book almost without event, an anthropology rather than a memoir.  Yet it seemed exactly the right thing to be reading at the turn of the seasons, perhaps this yearly turn echoed by the turning centuries of Lark Rise.  The minimalist make-do, hard-driven life has something almost autumnal about it, partly because she is indeed writing about waning ways of life and traditions, but also because those lives provide an analogy or a metaphor for what we in the north do emotionally or psychologically at this time of year:  pare back to simpler, less expansive lives as the weather gets colder.  We turn our emotional coats, trying to see how the old patterns of wear can be hidden so we can present respectable selves in the coming months, though we feel neither respectable nor selves. Somehow it captured a fact about myself:  how the waning daylight can lead to Christmas shopping, family meals, parties.  But also how it is for me a walk down a hallway that gets darker and has fewer and fewer open doors.  I feel at its dead end that no one would think me a respected writer, that it  is not possible that people even link the word "respected" with my name.  My self thins.

I love the beauty of autumn--and I'm not simply talking about the time when the leaves begin to change and you can walk down a street of elms under a canopy of gold, but also the time when things are getting bare.  The trees in my back yard loose a sense of depth:  they become like the rather decorative Norwegian paintings that inspired the Group of Seven where the lines and spaces have an exquisite rhythm aside from their representation of late fall.  On one of those later days, Bill and I drove out to Condie where all was gold and grey and brown--mostly gray and brown.  Yet lines of shrubbery outlined the shapes of the hills around Boggy Creek.

We take in summer's green with a kind of entitled glance:  'this is all mine right now' we feel without exactly thinking about it.  We probably spend little time distinguishing one tree from another,  but gulp greenness down whole as a prophylactic against the monochrome of winter.  In fall we see differently, searching out detail and beauty, noticing as I did at Condie that the leaves of the wild roses are a soft red among the pale golden grasses that susurrate around them.  The sere Wolf Willow is decorated with a dozen silver oval coins, looking like something a Japanese brush painter would love to capture.  Birches hang on to only half their leaves showing us their architecture, showing us how each leaf flickers in an uncertain wind.  I feel an uneasiness in autumn that is like living inside bittersweet:  a profound sense of a beauty that demands and rewards my attention nestled alongside an equally profound sadness.

No comments:

Post a Comment