Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Winter torpor and light

A gentleman I see regularly in Naked Bean once told me that the part of winter he hated most was Canadians complaining about the weather.  (His accent tells me he's from away, but I don't know where.)  But we do this for a reason.  Weather is the great equalizer.  We may be driving a car with heated seats, as Bill does, or an seventeen-year-old Honda with a barely adequate heater, as I do, but we all have to get out of the car to get ourselves a cup of coffee.  We may be wearing the latest down gear or a pair of mittens made of old sweaters, as I do (Recycled sweaters!  They are so warm and comfortable.) but you still have to get the shopping cart from the store to your trunk. We're all equally helpless before the weather, all in this weather thing together.  So why not use it to make a little warm contact with others.

During this winter's week of extreme cold, Katherine talked about how she thinks of bears in the winter, how much sense their hibernation makes and how torpor is, perhaps, a natural response to winter, particularly in bitterly cold weather.  Cold makes me tired.  Grey days make me tired.  Not getting to sleep until 2 a.m. makes me tired.  So perhaps giving into that tiredness, creating for myself a kind of physical and psychological torpor is adaptive behaviour.  So I've been reading Sara Paretsky mysteries and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, books that have great plots that urge me on, but prompt me, when I'm re chopping vegetables for a stir-fry, to think about what the plots are saying.  I can think about plots with a knife in my hand, whereas I can't really meditate on language clusters or thematic motifs without flipping through a book and getting the juice from the ginger I'm peeling and chopping all over the pages.  The two Rachel Cusk novels I've read since that bitterly cold week are not clarified by thinking while I'm quilting and cooking.

Last winter was difficult for me.  So, as a canny depressive, I took matters into my own hands, finding myself a better SAD light.  I started sitting with it for the obligatory half hour in the morning in October, when I also read poetry and watched the birds at the feeder out the window.  Birds that my cats were eager to eat--I could hear their little predatory smacking noises.  I created a ritual of light along with some others that were helpful:  Bill always lights candles before dinner.  I'd been reading about Hygge for an essay on minimalism and learned how the Danes cope with their long season of darkness.  The Danes, says the European Candle Association (who knew?) burn more candles than anyone else--about six kilos per person.  Candles, they say, give off a spectrum of light rather like sunlight.  As for Hygge--the pursuit of comfort and homeyness that puts the Danes first or second in the list of the world's happiest people--it turns out to be quite simple.  Begin with light.  Add a hot drink.  Focus on your thoughts or the person you are with:  Hygge is always mindful.  You can add other people--not too many--and food, but candlelight, a hot drink and mindfulness are the basic recipe.  I think in Denmark Hygge is an end-of-day kind of thing, but my morning ritual has been working fairly well for me.

But there was something else implicit in Katherine's idea of torpor that I found helpful.  I finished a draft of my second novel in mid-August and resolved to put it away until the first Monday in 2020.  So I worked on poems and this essay on minimalism that quickly got out of hand.  Then I worked on trimming it down, giving it shape.  I let myself enjoy Christmas shopping.  At the beginning of January, I started revising Soul Weather.  Unlike some writers I know, I actually like revising.  A draft is just something you can make better.  You've got a vestigial structure and some motifs and, in my case, characters I'd been living with for quite a few years.  You know what question you're asking, what element of the world confuses you in an intriguing, maybe even obsessive, way.  As well, you've got this self-contained thing, a chapter, that you can read as many times as necessary for language and syntax, for the narrator's voice, for the relationship between incident and the questions you are preoccupied with, for the way the characters (whom you've gotten to know better as you wrote) unfold in all their wholeness and brokenness, in their kindness and selfishness.  You can keep in mind Henry James's credo:  "What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"  You can work on your weaknesses; in my case, this involves getting enough tension and conflict into the events to keep the reader interested.

As I've tried to teach my students, revision is something you do not do quickly.  Unfortunately, the writing they do in university always has a deadline, so I'm never sure if the advice takes.  When you are drafting, you need that little voice in your head that says "Yeah!  This is so great!"  But when you are revising, you need a slow, firm voice that says "Okay, let's fix what's not working here.  All of it.  Everything you can find."  Katherine's idea that January and February are naturally times of torpor has meant that when noon comes, I'm happy with whatever I've accomplished.  I can have my afternoon nap with the cats who always join me; I can run errands or work on a quilt.  I can huddle down and read, as I wanted to do when it was cold.  I can spend an afternoon reading Thoreau's journals, hunkering down into the wonder he experiences and conveys when spring comes to Concord.  About the only rule is no screens.  No TV or Netflicks.  Above all, no news.

I don't really need to tell you that this is a confusing, disturbing, even depressing time to live in.  I only need to say the words "Brexit," "Impeachment," "drone attack," "Iran shoots down Ukrainian airliner with many of the world's best and brightest on board," Democratic primaries in chaos," and you know what I'm referring to.  But there's another reality living alongside this one.  It has a new library in Edmonton in that reality--all of the world's public libraries stand against this dark time.  It has random acts of kindness.  It has music and books and hoarfrost and gardens in it.  There are animals in that world--Orca whales who, besides us, are one of the few species who live past their capacity to breed because they have lore to give the younger generation.  There are teenagers and twenty-something like Greta Thunberg.  One of the things that art needs to do is to keep alive the light, the candlelight, the SAD light, the search light, the street light, that shines on these other realities.  And, when you are revising, trying to kindle that light, admitting that you're slowed down by torpor can be a very good thing indeed.

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