I haven't had a break from studying, writing, or academic reading longer than two weeks since 1976, when I finished my M.A. at the University of Michigan at the end of June and began my Ph.D. in September. It's possible that there was also a break between my first and second years of course work at the University of Manitoba, so maybe the date in 1977. That's still 41 or 42 years. But this spring I turned in the second revision of Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement: Form, History, and the Autonomy of Art--fifty pages shorter than its ancestor--phew! What a project that was--on May 15 and immediately boarded a plane for England. My two weeks there with Veronica were rich and companionable and loaded with art, music, and architecture. But it was not a "break." When I came back, I had the week of jet lag that seems, now that I am 68, so accompany transatlantic flights home (but not, luckily, flights to Europe). I got myself organized a bit to write some poems for the meeting of my wonderful poets' group. Veronica and I went to Winnipeg to read/perform our work there, and then I went to ground.
All I have expected of myself since mid-June is a couple of hours working on poems or reading something that applied to my three creative projects. Maybe it was economics or an excellent book on trolling recommended by Michael Trussler. Maybe it was a couple of essays from Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey, or Don McKay's The Shell of the Tortoise. I took books of poetry to lunch meetings--Wendell Berry's selected, August Kleinzahler's remarkable Sleeping it off in Rapid City--which I've managed to lose twice, the last time permanently, just as I had figured out how his poems were much like Edward Hoppper's severe paintings. I read Whitman's Specimen Days for the section of a book of poems I'm working on that will engage with nineteenth-century naturalists. I read Thoreau's entertaining and endless journals for the same reason.
At night I read fiction: some of the novels I read were creative writing classes in themselves; others were definitely not. Have you noticed a tendency in the contemporary novel to a certain a-temporal bagginess? I re-read A Tale of Two Cities because the times seemed to demand it. I found there were novels I simply could not read: if there was considerable violence or disaster, it went back on the bookshelves. The one exception was Michael Ondaatje's War Light, which I knew would be so beautifully made that its beauty would be an antidote to the horror. I loved the novel, even though the critics didn't. In some ways, I understand their reservations: here is another Ondaatje novel about war, as if only wars challenged what is most human in us. But I think their claim--that it doesn't speak to younger readers--says more about younger readers and their sense of entitlement than it does about Ondaatje's work. His novel made to clear to me how intimate war is. While we're concentrating on large movements of men and materiel, so much damage is being done in private lives, to families and parents and children. The statistics on PTSD should tell us this, but Ondaatje's novel comes at the facts more...intimately. We need--odd as it sounds--to remember how intimate war is--how intimate so many political and social battles are.
I worked in the garden as much as my back would let me. Initially, I simply tried to get my vegetable garden in. My tomatoes didn't mind their late start, but the carrots didn't deign to arise, and the beans are just beginning to give me beans, though I have learned that purple Italian beans (which turn an olive green when you steam them) tolerate our hotter summers better than the old fashioned Kentucky Wonder Pole Bean. I have one enormous zucchini and three cucumbers, but nothing like the haul that the inimitable Brenda Schmidt will get from her garden. But we lost so many perennials from the lack of snow cover--one rose dead, one growing like a weed but without a bud anywhere, the clematis barely blooming, countless hostas dead--that my perennial border was simply too dis-spiriting to spend a lot of time in.
As you kind readers of my blog will know, depression has visited for a couple of days most weeks, and I don't know whether it's Trumptime, or my downtime, or sending a manuscript off again and waiting again, or my back, or my vertigo, or the unusual heat, or the fact that I've given myself a break for the first time in forty-one years (give or take)--or something I'll never understand. Maybe it's just a phase. But those of you who have struggled with your own mental health know that we want causes or reasons because we desperately need to know what we can do to keep this from happening again if we possibly can. Let us just say I also got a lot of nonfiction reading done, and would recommend Yuval Noah Hirari's Sapiens, Martha Nussbaum's Monarchy of Fear, Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, and Michiko Kakutani's Death of Truth. Like me, many readers are turning to nonfiction, realizing there's so much we don't know and don't understand: how can we convince people that climate change is real--and like war--quite intimate? The floods in India and Pakistan destroy homes, just like the fires burning in B.C. And like the trauma of the children separated from their parents by "illegal" refugees, some effects are ever-lasting. (How do you know a refugee is illegal until you have examined their case?) How do we keep hope alive? How do we counter cries of "fake news!" each time Trump or his followers see something in the media that they do not like? How do we make clear that giving up on facts means government by wishful thinking? How do we tell people they are giving up their own power when they hand pick their versions of reality? How do we understand the mania of the current moment, which Nussbaum so cogently argues is based on fear. (More about this next week.)
When I am "working," I keep to a fairly rigid schedule. This accomplishes two things: no matter how well or how badly the writing is going, I have the comfort of having given my work the requisite hours, and of knowing that having done so probably means that the solution to my problems will come easing out of my subconscious in the morning. I can also say "no" to people if I need to because my schedule dictates. Selfish, I know, but to get creative work done, we need to be selfish. But in this hiatus, I had turned from one thing to another only because I felt like it--or because the cats felt like it. With Twig, I read nonfiction or poetry in the mornings, but at that time of day, Lyra and Tuck like to have deep, undisturbed morning naps that have no place for me. In the afternoon, though, I can holler "Nap time, guys!" and they will take their naps with me while I read. So I will be spending more time writing in the morning, and will probably start earlier, and will read in the afternoon.
Drifting in this way taught me some things. I played the piano much less than I thought I would--because, I think, I'm working on repertoire way out of my league. I'm going to have to sort that out in September when schedules arrive again. I didn't walk nearly as much as I thought I would. You know how you say to yourself "If I could completely control my time, I would do more X and less Z"? Don't be so sure. Yet I tell myself there are other issues to deal with--like my piano repertoire. Really, after only four years of official piano lessons, do I expect to learn one Mozart piano sonata after another? As well, I would really like to walk in the late afternoon, when nature and movement can help me sort through all the stuff that's been going on all day in my brain, but the heat made this impossible. So I'll keep at these goals, though with a difference, and see what I'm doing by the end of September.
But there have been more luminous days than not, and a stillness not solely the creation of summer time with its golden-hazed light. One night, Bill and I walked in the gardens in front of the Legislature, and then settled down to people-watch. There was a family from India (how long they have been here I can't say) in full regalia: lusciously-coloured saris and beautifully-wrapped turbans. They walked through the flowers with a graceful, slow ease my vertigo wouldn't even let me imagine. They were both spectacle and instruction, teaching me that I was happiest doing slow things, like an applique quilt I'm working on that has four varied trees of life--each with about forty little leaves. I need something to do with my hands on those difficult nights when I cannot sleep. I also think I need to re-think 'slow.' Certainly this summer's slow times feel very rich, and lots comes welling up out of my memory that reminds me of the richness of my own life. In the midst of slow, I feel gratitude and comfort. These trees get done an 1/8th of an inch at a time, but they unfold in the most interesting way. There is almost a timelessness in not caring how long it takes you to do something well, a timelessness experienced by many people who have turned to "maker culture" to add meaning and pleasure to their lives.
A newsletter I receive on Saturdays called "On Being" talked this week about renowned zoologist and conservationist Alan Rabinowitz, who was diagnosed with cancer 17 years before his death, and who had to make, after the initial diagnosis, some hard decisions about what a good day looked like to him. Mortality does that. Maybe depression does that too.
You can find an earlier blog that describes the process that makes applique so slow here.