Sunday, August 30, 2009

Do not try this at home.

I was walking the dog this morning when my very strange neighbour roared up in his car.

Remember his car?

He pulled up in front of his place (no, silly, not on the driveway, right in the middle of the road, of course), revved the engine a few times, popped the hood open, and then got out to do some kind of mechanical adjustment that will keep the thing gasping for a few more months.

Which is when I noticed that he had decided not to wear shoes that day. For reasons known only to himself, strange neighbour was driving around the neighbourhood wearing rollerblades.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

All is lost

One Art
Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Yet Another Short Post....

This one to tell about one of those crazy teacher moments, when my grade 8 French class walked in (they were my grade 7s last year) and I knew all their names, and they knew me, and they were ready and eager to get started, and I looked around at all of them (taller, more mature, grown closer to the people that they are really meant to be) and felt this surge of something that could only be called love.

Someone (Iris Murdoch?) said that you shouldn't get married until you can't believe your luck. These wonderful kids are all part of my life, and I quite simply cannot believe my luck.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How can you tell?

Sign at the camp site I visited last weekend (without my camera, alas):

"Before check-out, all fires must be distinguished."

I am proud to say that my fire was extremely distinguished. It looked rather like this:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Aaaaaand.... the knitting goes on

This is the next thing I'm knitting. Because, seriously - a sweater and a poem? A poem by Charles Bukowski, no less? It simply does not get any better than that.

I shall call it my Bluebird of Happiness Sweater and it shall be mine and I shall love it, my precious.

In other news, I went back to school today - kids are back later this week. Now I know that this makes me a complete geek (and some of my work friends read this blog and can now mock me mercilessly) but this is the best job ever and and I can hardly wait to start a new year. For one thing, the French department has doubled and I really like my counterpart. For another thing, a teacher from last year has returned, and I am thrilled. Also, I'm going to be so much better now - after all, I'm twice as experienced as I was this time last year.

And there's no marking yet, so really everything is ideal.

Forget what that sappy Christmas carol says: people, this is the most wonderful time of the year.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Enough with the angst, already; what are you reading?

I suffer from intermittent bouts of loneliness, which I stubbornly refuse to treat, but which leave me absurdly sensitive to all mentions of my condition in books.

I was reading "Iris and Ruby" by Rosie Thomas, which is about a granddaughter (Ruby) and her grandmother (Iris) who are in Cairo (where Iris lives and to which Ruby has run away) when the middle generation, Ruby's mother Lesley, appears. The three women are in the courtyard of the house in Cairo, talking about the upcoming Christmas holiday.

It was a winter's day. The parallelogram of sky overhead was pewter grey, but the garden offered shelter from the cold as well as the heat of summer. Iris sat wrapped in blankets, her stick laid beside her chair.

Lesley bowed her head. "I understand. But you see, Mummy, I have to go home to Andrew and Ed because we do have Christmas; Ed's still a little boy, really. But I am torn because I don't want to go and leave you when you are not strong, and I don't want you to be lonely."

Ruby looked quickly away, up at the needle points of the minarets that now seemed almost to pierce the heavy clouds.

"Lonely," Iris repeated, in a voice that sounded as cold as frost.

Lesley persisted, unwisely. "Yes."

Iris's fingers tapped on the wooden arm of her chair. "It takes some initial determination to be alone. After that it is easy."


"Perhaps you are the one who is lonely."

Ruby drew in a sharp breath and stole a look at her mother. Lesley sat very still. There were tight lines drawn from her nose to the corners of her mouth. "Perhaps," she agreed.

No one said anything else and raindrops suddenly scattered on the tiles.

"Let's see you indoors," Lesley murmured and went to help Iris to her feet.

Two things strike me as interesting about this passage: first of all, it's how loneliness is perceived, as the worst possible outcome. What is it about our society that we think being by yourself is the worst thing? It isn't; but being seen as a lonely person is pretty awful. The sickly pity, the refrain of "Eleanor Rigby" hummed along in the background. (Ah, look at all the lonely people! Where do they all come from?)

The second thing that made me notice this little scene in what is, after all, a pretty big and very engaging novel, is the difference, shown by language but not pointed at explicitly, between being alone and being lonely. It is, I have often believed, quite possible to be alone and not at all lonely. The opposite is also true: I have been in several relationships where I was gasping from loneliness, when I wasn't supposed to be and couldn't admit it. ("You couldn't possibly be lonely, now that you've finally got yourself a boyfriend!" people would have said, refusing to see what is apparent if it doesn't fit with what they believe.)

I also believe quite firmly in what Iris says: It takes some initial determination to be lonely - although sometimes, like greatness, loneliness is thrust upon us.

After that it's easy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I suppose I do have a grudging respect for copyright laws, after all

I wanted to put the whole poem up (High Windows by Philip Larkin) but I really love the last bit best, and I do keep posting poems in flagrant disregard of copyright, which is even worse seeing as how I too am a writer and don't like it when other people put my stuff on the interwebs without asking me.

So here it is, anyway, and sorry, Philip.

I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Monday, August 17, 2009

And all manner of things shall be well.

That was Julian of Norwich's picture on the last post, by the way. She was a British mystic-type person who is credited with the line I ended on: "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." While the picture and quote from a very religious person like Julian of Norwich might, at first glance, seem odd on the blog of a very dedicated atheist, let me just say that I believe in finding comfort wherever you can, and I have always found that quote to be profoundly comforting.

The teacher dreams have stopped. I'm on to dreams about losing my house, which are still disturbing but which frequently accompany anxious periods in my life, so at least they're familiar. The devil you know and all that.

The sun came out again after all. When I walked the dog last night the stars were incredible - dippers (big and small), milky way, all manner of constellations which I cannot name. It was stunning. I thought that, if you looked at the stars long enough, surely all your worries would go away.

And sure enough, this morning was bright and clear, and then I learned that my cousin had a baby girl today, and now I know for sure that everything is well, and that Julian of Norwich was quite right, after all.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Intro, with Whining

I have been having Teacher Dreams. Last night's were particularly vivid: I was late for every single class, and I hadn't prepared a single thing because I was busy chatting with the other teachers, catching up on our summers, et cetera. So in I would wander, late, to a class full of bewildered adolescents. Then I would try to get a seating plan in place, but the kids weren't interested because they were already sitting where they wanted to be sitting, and since I was late anyway who the hell was I to tell them where to sit? In one dream I was in my old high school, where I did a stint as a student teacher, but they had given me a storage cupboard as a classroom and it didn't even have desks.

Then (strange how all these different dreams were one) my grade 9 French class came in, with a textbook they got from the teacher before me, which I didn't use and had never seen. They were complaining about what a crap teacher I was last year, and when I looked around, there in the back was a man I taught ESL to a few years ago, who was one of the most difficult people I have ever known. (To be fair, he had been a doctor in his own country, and when he came to Canada as a man in his 50s, not only did no one recognize his achievements and general wonderfulness and the superiority of his gender, but he had to take English classes from some woman who thought she was the boss of him. Damn, he was irritating.)

So I wake up all edgy every morning, thinking about how I'm not ready for this year to start, how I'm running out of money and how long it is until pay day, how the sun hasn't shone in days, how there is a social occasion approaching which I positively dread, the arguments I have had with people who absolutely refuse to acknowledge that, right or wrong, this is how I feel, and the absolute impossibility of keeping going like this, all alone, with 250 students ready to start depending on me and all the while there I am, late, in a closet.

But... the sun will come back. The days will pass and I will be paid again. The money will stretch as far as I need it to stretch. Being alone has not killed me to date and so will probably not kill me now. I will be organized on the first day of school, because I am, deep down, an organized person.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Two by Freaking Two

The world is made for pairs. Everywhere you go, there are two of people: a co-signator, a partner, another. An other. There are no cars made for one person, no restaurant tables, not very many activities. There is a huge group of people who think that going to the movies by yourself is the height of social failure.

The things I do are meant for individuals. Knitting, for instance, requires only one person (albeit a person with two hands, which may bring me back to the “world is made for pairs” thesis, but nevertheless). Riding, as I was thinking yesterday, is for one person. You would look really silly with another person sitting on the saddle behind you, clinging on for dear life, while you do all the things you need to do on a horse (post a trot, shorten your rein, stretch out through your heel, lift your shoulders). Likewise walking, although certainly an activity that can be enhanced by the proper companion, is something that I would just as soon do alone, at my own pace, with perhaps a dog to keep me company.

I would rather do things for singles.

Ballroom dancing is something that can only be done by pairs. If there’s one of you, and there’s been one of me for every day of my thirties, then you are the wallflower, you are the extra, you are the pity dance, you are the one who came without an “and guest” because you couldn’t find one. (Or because the hosts realized that you would be alone anyway and so didn't even offer you the choice.) You make polite conversation instead of inside jokes. You concentrate on your feet because you know that everyone is watching that person, that freak who walks with only a shadow, who isn’t connected to anyone. You have to be really sure not to screw up, because there is no one who will ever, ever catch you. Everything you do depends on only yourself. You are awkward in every single (hah, there’s that word again) thing you do because the world is set up for two of you, and you are only one.

Only one.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Little Larkin for when Things are Difficult and There Is No One to Talk To.

Aubade by Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

In Which the Generation Gap Rears its Ugly Head

The boy was watching Season 2 of the Muppet Show on dvd this morning. I loved the Muppets when I was a kid, and I'm pleased to report that the show is still very, very funny.

So it starts out with the signature Kermit line: "It's the Muppet Show, with our very special guest star, Elton John!" and there comes the Piano Man himself, with much more hair, and some crazy flamboyant costumes, much slimmer than he is now. His first number was "Crocodile Rock" and after a while he sang "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," (in the picture above he's singing "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" with Miss Piggy) and I had to sing along because I had the Greatest Hits on tape when I was in high school and listened to it on my walkman all the way from Chicoutimi to Montreal on a train (9 hours), with Simon and Garfunkel on the flip side of the tape. (No, dears, I was not cool even then. I know; it's shocking.)

And then my son, my darling child, the hope of the future, says to me:

"Hey mummy, have you heard this guy before? Does this dude have a CD out?"


Monday, August 10, 2009

It has come to this.

Today at the used book store, I bought a book I already have.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Excruciating Dilemmas of Daily Life

As the countdown begins to the new school year (only 17 more days of vacation - sob!) I have paused to reflect on the terrible, agonizing decisions I have had to make over the past few weeks.

Should the boy have swimming lessons at 9:30 or 10:00? IPod on Shuffle, or on a playlist? Library before swimming or after? Riding lessons on Tuesday or Wednesday? Clean the house today or tomorrow? (Actually, the answer to that one is tomorrow. Always tomorrow.) And the most difficult, the one that has caused me the most lost sleep and mental anguish, is this: reading, or knitting?

It is a matter of constant sorrow to me that I can't read and knit at the same time. There comes a day in a person's life, though, when they have to choose: Peanut butter or chocolate? Fixed rate or variable? Rock or country?

I believe that, while my plan for world domination has not yet come to fruition, I have solved the reading/knitting dilemma to certain extent.

I have chosen to read about knitting.

The other day I went to a little knitting/weaving place not far from here. It's run by this teeny tiny leprechaun-type guy, who used to be a teacher, with a bluetooth thingy stuck in his ear, big round glasses and long flowing grey hair. He has a small shop that is full of yarn, and spinning wheels, and equipment for weaving and spinning and knitting, and books. (He has all of Barbara Walker's stitch dictionaries in stock. I am not thinking about that right now.)

Here's the thing about the books, though: you pick out the one you want, and then he goes and gets you a brand new copy from the depths of his stash. One that has never been touched by human hands. One that is pristine. He does that with knitting needles, too - it's very interesting.

So anyway, the other day I went in search of yarn - mitten madness has begun chez Artsy, and I needed a couple of skeins of worsted weight in nice colours. Of course, being me, I browsed for some time among the books, and found this one: "Two Sweaters For My Father" by Perri Klass. I have a previously undisclosed fondness for books about knitting: essays on the noble art, personal reflections, funny anecdotes. They're not exactly thick on the ground, but a couple spring immediately to mind: one edited by Annie Modesitt called "Cheaper than Therapy"; and one at the local library (whose title escapes me) about knitting through sorrow and change. It seems to be a universal theme: knitting is more than just knitting, it is soothing, it is solace, it is creation, it is warmth, it is challenge, it is everything you need it to be.

Perri Klass's book was full of essays she's written for knitting publications over the years, and includes an essay she wrote for the New York Times Magazine back in 1992, about knitting through meetings and lectures and classes when she was a medical student, intern, resident, and finally a fully qualified pediatrician. The quality of writing is fabulous (turns out she's won a boatload of prizes for her writing) and the stories were all excellent. I couldn't pick a favourite if you asked me, but I did appreciate one essay about how knitting goes well with murder mysteries - in particular, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. "The scarf [knitted by Miss Marple during the investigation] after all, we might imagine, is rather like Miss Marple herself: feminine and traditional and even maybe just a tiny bit ditsy to look at, but strong, well-constructed, warm, and highly serviceable." I like the idea of being strong, well-constructed, warm and highly serviceable. Seems like a good thing to be.

She goes on to write "Knitting goes perfectly, in so many ways, with books that are themselves constructed as sophisticated puzzles, complex patterns full of twists and turns. When you come to the end of such a novel, you look back and appreciate all the most elaborate zigs and zags, all the places where the pattern turned inside out, or where the individual twists suddenly wove together into a remarkable braid that you hadn't been expecting."

So you see? Sometimes you can combine your favourite things: raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Mint and chocolate. Warm woolen mittens (in red Lamb's Pride bulky) and the stories of Perri Klass.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

People And The Odd Things Up To Which They Get

I have a secret fascination with people who do weird things. (I spent the August long weekend knitting a pair of mittens - I know about people who do weird things.) I particularly love it when people do peculiar things and then write books about the experience. A timely example, of course, is the book, about to be released as a movie, about the lady who decided to make all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. If you haven't read the book, please do. It's hilarious. (Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell)

Only slightly less well known, however is a book I bought in Victoria: Reading the OED: One man, one year, 21,730 pages by Ammon Shea. Yes, you guessed it, it's about a dude who read the entire Oxford English Dictionary (the 20 volume, 150 pound version) over a year.

It is very, very funny, as one would expect a book about reading the dictionary to be.

Although I laughed many times while reading the book, I marked this page, where the author is talking about why he does not choose to read the OED on a computer:

You cannot drop the computer on the floor in a fit of pique, or slam it shut. You cannot leave a bookmark with a note on it in a computer and then come upon it after several years and feel happy you've found something you thought you had lost. You cannot get any sort of tactile pleasure from rubbing the pages of a computer. (Maybe some people do get a tactile pleasure from rubbing their computers, but they are not people I have any interest in knowing anything about.)

Reading on a computer screen gives you no sense of time or investment. The page always looks the same, and everything is always in the same exact spot. When reading a book, no matter how large or small it is, a tension builds, concurrent with your progress through its pages. I get a nervous excitement as I see the number of pages that remain to be read draining inexorably from the right to the left. The fact that this will happen twenty times over as I read the OED does not in any way diminish its appeal.

I've never sat down at a new computer and, prior to using it, felt a deep and abiding need to open it up and sniff it as deeply as I can, the way I have with many a book. To me, computers all smell the same, and their smell is not a nice one. And though a computer will inarguably hold far more information than even the largest of books, sitting down at a computer has never provided me with that delicious anticipatory sense that I am about to be utterly and rhapsodically transported by the words within it.

I've never looked across the room at my computer and fondly remembered things that I once read in it. I can while away hours at a time just standing in front of my books and relive my favourite passages by merely gazing at their spines. I have never walked into a room full of computers, far from home, and immediately felt a warm familiarity come over me, the way I have with every library I've ever set foot in.

And to that, my friends, I have only one thing to say: Word.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Boy is Back in Town

He came home! He's an inch taller, and he came home without his hat, without his toothbrush, and with someone else's underwear in his bag, but he is home now.

I know because yesterday morning as I slept soundly away, he put his face close to mine and said, quite clearly: "Mummy, we don't have any more apples. And I have a cold!"

Then he added "and also, I love you."

I'm so glad he's back.