Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Keeping On

Mother to Son
Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor-
But all the time
I’se been a climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Dont’ you fall now-
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I Came, I Saw, I Cantered

I went to art school when I was 28. (It seemed like a good idea at the time, really, it did.)

I remember my first drawing class: a bunch of us in the studios with the huge skylights, a still life set up in the middle, easels on which to rest our drawing boards, pads of paper clipped to them.

"Draw!" said the teacher, "draw what you see."

And me? Oh, dear reader, I was beside myself. I was never any good at drawing (I'm still not, even though I finished that damn art course) and I could see quite clearly how I would frame that still life as a photograph, but had no idea how to draw it, how to capture it in charcoal on newsprint.

Where, I asked myself in dismay, is the book? How can I learn anything at all without a book? What does he mean, "draw what you see?" Somebody point me to the bookstore, I'll learn all I need to there.

Writing school and drawing school are very different: when I was learning to be a writer I was told to put everything down on the page, and edit later. In drawing school, you have to start lightly and build up gradually - the opposite of what I was trying to do.

It was not the first time I would be contrary like that.

I've been taking these riding lessons, even though they're costing a lot, and I love them. I'm pretty proficient at a posting trot, and now I usually only put one piece of tack on the horse upside down, or backwards. This is progress, oh yes indeed.

And a few weeks ago, my teacher said it was time to canter. "It's okay!" she said, "You can do it!" I could do it, in fact, but I couldn't steer or stop, both of which are rather important (at least in my humble opinion). Then she put the horse on a lunge line so I didn't have to worry about steering, (after a near miss with a parked car and a paddock gate) and that made me really dizzy and not much more successful.

I thought to myself, where the hell is the book? Where can I read about this? How can I possibly understand how to do this if I can't consult some kind of text first?

I don't think I can adequately express my disappointment, no, my utter dismay, that there is no book for this kind of stuff. There's no parenting book, either, which is awful! How am I supposed to know how to raise up a boy person, without any kind of manual? And teaching? Don't get me started. (A professor at university, when asked about classroom management, shrugged the question off. "If there's inquiry in your classroom," he said, "discipline will never be a problem." Ass.)

So there's no book. There's no experienced voice telling you what to expect, what to do next, how to make everything work with the minimum amount of damage, to yourself, to other people.

But I've managed so far, I think. I finished the BFA, my boy shows few signs of becoming a psychopathic serial killer, and (best of all) last week I cantered. (Hold the horse to a slow trot, squeeze with the outside leg, lean back, hope for the best. Don't panic.) I'm sure it seems like a small victory to you, but right now it feels enormous.

And I did it without a book, which, to be perfectly honest, is nothing short of a miracle.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Today is Cancelled Due To Lack of Interest

I have lots of stuff to blog about... Sadly, I have a cold (for real this time - last week it was just teasing me, but about 10:30 this morning it steamrolled through my classroom and flattened me) and I am unhappy.

Now go talk amongst yourselves for a while. I'll be drinking tea and blowing my nose.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stiff as a Board and Bright Green

This link is because it's easier than writing a Whole! New! Post! and also because I have called four sets of parents this week, two of them today. Also, I may be getting a cold.

Have a good laugh, on me.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sidetracked, yet again.

What I really wanted to write about today is how September is second only to February as the Official Longest Month of the Year. I mean seriously. It's not quite half done yet, but I'm quite sure that it is never going to end.

Then I slipped and fell while on the internet, and found this, which I provide for your perusalment and enjoyage. (There's some dropping of the f-bomb in this. If that offends your delicate sensibilities, then kindly don't click. There. I warned you.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Fish

She felt like a deep-sea fisherman, like a character in Hemingway who spoke only in the briefest phrases and yet whose motivations were as clear as the fathoms of deep water below. She was fishing for a husband by showing how helpless she was, how much in need of rescuing. She had given a lot of thought to her choice of bait, she had wondered about men and watched her friends as they paired off happily and walked down various types of aisles, coming back paired off, two by two. It wasn’t the independent ones, the unconventional, the difficult who made that symbolic walk. It was the quiet and kind girls she had grown up with, the gentle young women who always took it for granted that they would marry, use the phrase “my maiden name” and have a couple of small blonde children. She chose not to think of what she was doing, of all the implications of helplessness and of how she suspected it could cease to be a ploy and become a real handicap. She thought only of the sun, the waves under her boat (the possiblity of storms), the tension of the line in her hands and the focus of her effort, the sea beneath and all its danger. The possibililty of reward, or renown.

One afternoon, a hot day in summer, no wind, no thunder to clear the air, she strung her hammock up between two elm trees in the back yard and lay back. For once she did not have a book open in front of her, she put a bare foot down to the ground and let her big toe push against the cool grass and rock the hammock gently. She was thinking about this obsession with finding a husband and settling down.

The night before she had dreamed of weddings, she had dreamed that everyone around her (all her friends, her family, the people she worked with) was getting married while she tried desperately to get away, avoid their pity because she was the last one not attached, the only one not loved. In her dream she heard their demands to be a bridesmaid, a caterer, a master of ceremonies, a toast-giver (in the dream the word she heard was “toaster” which dismayed her then and amused her now). She closed herself into a room with a locking door, ignored the knocking from the outside, held her aching head in her hands and cried. Her only solace was her refusal to admit entry. Everyone but me, she thought. Everyone but me.

Lying back in the hammock with her eyes closed in the dappled shade, she felt tired, probably because of the weather, the oppressive heat and the bronze glare of the sun, and because of her dreams, all the running and crying she had done while she slept. I do want to be rescued, she thought. But in a different way. From a different sort of danger.

She realized, in this moment of reflection and half sleep, that had used the wrong bait, thinking he would be attracted by her offer of her body, of all that went along with that, when he was not, it wasn’t a complex need enough to satisfy him, it was (she was) too easy. Wrong bait, too soon, she thought. Shame crawled over her skin like lice. She felt as though there were bits of herself, tiny pieces of a treasure she could never recover, scattered around a beach somewhere, being picked up and turned over and flung away like dull flat stones to skim the waves and sink away to nothing. Wave battered, sand washed, jetsam.

The rocking of the hammock slowed as she thought about the ways she had tried to show her need – the sudden inability to light a match or use a tool, the practical uselessness and feigned helplessness. She thought, why? Why are there all these games; why don’t they tell us the rules so we know if it’s okay to have a toolbox in the cupboard and know how to change a lock, or if only the basic skills (driving, baking) are acceptable? It was like going to the wrong job interview, every single time. She felt as though the basic essence of who she was, a competent woman, a fully formed individual with some small value if only to a couple of people and her dog, was all wrong. She hadn’t got the memo. She didn’t know about the dress code. She was being left behind, waving and calling as the procession moved past, oblivious.

And that’s what it came down to, not really to keep up with her peers, her friends and relatives who had baby showers and wedding showers and bachelor parties and receptions and whose conversations included an awful lot of the pronoun “we,” but just to move on. To let momentum move her closer to the next place in her life, so she wasn’t always living out this same pattern – catch and release, catch and loss, catch and miss.

The hammock swung, the shade dappled her closed eyelids and her unguarded face, she dreamed about catching a fish in the ocean, she felt the weight of it on her arm, aching and pulling, she held it aloft in triumph at the end of the struggle and wondered what she was supposed to do with it, anyway.

The Fish
Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
--if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels--until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Something I Wrote in my First Year of Teacher School, Which Purports to be about Knitting but is Actually About Teaching

I’ve started work on a new knitting project. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done – more so even than the turning of a sock heel, which is spoken of in whispers and legends, but which really isn’t that tough. I’m knitting a shawl, gossamer-like, lacy, made of a single skein of silk/wool blend, hand dyed in a rainbow of colours. The skein contains 1250 yards of yarn – that’s more than a kilometer of thin, soft, colourful yarn. I spent more on this single skein than I have on any other single knitting-related purchase to date. (In my own defense, I bought the yarn before the dog got sick and the clutch on the car packed it in. Clearly I tempted the Gods of Financial Ruin.) I believe to the core of my psyche that the knitting and the wearing of this shawl will make me a better person. When I wear it, I will be the kind of person who has Matching Accessories. My shoes will transform magically from three pairs of Clarks, Blundstone boots, brown Crocs and a pair of Birkenstocks to… well, whatever people who care about shoes wear. I will be a better person in this shawl: kinder, more considerate, less critical of people who misuse the possessive apostrophe.

So I started, as one does, by knitting a swatch to see if I got the guage right. This is important: after the guage swatch, I’ll cast on 112 stitches and knit 110 rows to make one section of this shawl. We ain’t talking about a scarf here, this is the real deal. This is KNITTING. While knitting said swatch, I did several things: I fantasized about the New and Elegant Artsy who will drape herself in this piece of wearable art; I admired the fabulousness that is the wool (some more); and I decided to tackle the dreaded yarnover.

A yarnover, referred to in a pattern as “yo”, is the stitch that makes the little lacy holes in knitting. Apparently (according to my mother, who is not necessarily trustworthy in such matters, because she's been knitting since Jesus was a cowboy and I have not) it’s dead easy. I got out my huge knitting bible and turned to the page (with diagrams) called “yarnovers.” Very carefully, I brought the yarn to the front of my work, inserted the needle, wrapped the yarn around the other needle, and knitted a stitch. Aha! I have defeated the dreaded “yo”! I am worthy of the Elegant Shawl. The transformation has begun, soon I will wear lipstick and go shopping for no good reason!

When I got to the end of the row I realized I now had one extra stitch. Damn. I went back and took that extra stitch out. I re-examined the knitting book. Surely I had done the yarnover correctly – where was the extra stitch coming from? I tried it another way, no joy. I knitted on and attempted another yo in the next row. Still the extra stitch. I thought about calling my grandmother (whose knitting mantra is “don’t think about it too much, just follow the instructions” – clearly she doesn’t know me at all) but it was past her bedtime. It was past mine too, but I cannot sleep with a problem like this standing between me and Elegance.

Fortunately, I have more than one book about knitting. (I know. Control your shock, please.) Off I went to a secondary source. I looked up “yarnover” in the index and turned to the correct page. I had to get my poor sick old dog up to get at the book (bottom shelf of the bookcases in my room) but it was worth it, I thought. And right there, in a neat little box, was the commentary on yarnovers. “The yarnover,” it said blithely, unaware of how long I’d been trying to make a lovely little lacy stitch on my guage swatch, “is a quick and easy way TO ADD A STITCH TO YOUR KNITTING while creating a lace effect.”


So this has, of course, led me to commentary on teaching. This is what I have learned through my struggle with the yo that stands between me and Girly-ness:
1. Consult secondary sources whenever possible.
2. Sometimes a mistake isn’t a mistake.
3. An extra stitich isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
4. Sometimes you have to learn by doing, and no demonstrations by female relatives on imaginary needles (or lectures about imaginary classrooms) can replace the actual experience.
5. Don’t think about it too much.
6. The only zen at the top of the mountain is the zen you brought with you.
7. I will probably never be Elegant.
8. That’s okay.

And for the record, two and a half years have passed since I wrote this piece, and not only do I wear that shawl regularly, but I am the master of the freaking yarnover. I will not be defeated by knitting, oh no I will not.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Person, Place

Dew has soaked everything. I could wash my hands in the ferns, and when I pick a leaf off a maple branch I get a shower on my head and shoulders. through the hardwoods along the foot of the hill, through the belt of cedars where the ground is swampy with springs, through the spruce and balsam of the steep pitch, I go alertly, feasting my eyes. I see coon tracks, an adult and two young, in the mud, and maturing grasses bent like croquet wickets with wet, and spotted orange Amanitas, at this season flattened or even concave and holding water, and miniature forests of club moss and ground pine and ground cedar. There are brown caves of shelter, mouse and hare country, under the wide skirts of spruce.

My feet are wet. Off in the woods I hear a Peabody bird tentatively try out a song he seems to have half forgotten. I look to the left, up the slope of the hill, to see if I can catch a glimpse of Ridge House, but see only trees.

Then I come out on the shoulder of the hill, and there is the whole sky, immense and full of light that has drowned the stars. Its edges are piled with hills. Over Stannard Mountain the air is hot gold, and as I watch, the sun surges up over the crest and stares me down.

Ladies and gentlemen, Wallace Stegner.

I like Stegner for a number of reasons. For one, his family was homesteading about the same time mine was; but while my folks were further north, his were down in the Porcupine Hills. When I read Stegner, I know what things were like for my grandfather, growing up on a quarter section near Cereal, Alberta in the early days of the twentieth century. My grandfather is long, long gone, as are his contemporaries, but the narratives of Wallace Stegner survive, untouched.

Another thing I like about him is how well he writes about place. There are some authors who are just gifted with the ability to make setting leap of the page. To make a spot, which exists only in their imagination, so real that you want to go there. You know how sometimes people will urge you to "find your happy place?" (Yes, actually, I did have rather a trying day.) I must admit that the happy place I choose to go in my mind is often from a book. It's a kitchen, maybe, or a walk like the one Stegner's hero is on in these opening pages of Crossing to Safety.

But honestly - doesn't that seem like your happy place, too?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Plot Thickens

The other day I read a book review that said nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important in a book than character. If you have compelling characters, the reviewer asserted, then you can do whatever you want with structure, with narrative, with plot, and the reader will come along willingly.

That's an interesting idea. It reminds me of what Anne Lamott wrote in her book "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life". (Yes, of course I have a shelf of books about writing. We are very meta here at the Artsy Homestead.) She writes:
...we want a sense that an important character, like a narrator, is reliable. We want to believe that a character is not playing games or being coy or manipulative, but is telling the truth to the best of his or her ability. (Unless a major characteristic of his or hers is coyness or manipulation or lying.) We do not wish to be crudely manipulated. Of course, we enter into a work of fiction to be manipulated, but in a pleasurable way. We want to be massaged by a masseur, not whapped by a carpet beater.
For Lamott, too, writing fiction is about character, first and foremost. Get the main character right and all the rest will fall into place.

I just finished reading The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. (The inside jacket blurb makes one of those annoying assertions so common in literature for teens, which seems to be pulled from a tabloid headline: Compelling Parallels to Today's World! Perhaps the copy writer thinks we are living in ancient Rome.) The Hunger Games is a book which is driven, for the most part, by plot. The main character, Katniss Everdeen, is one of two tributes sent from her district to the Capitol, where she will compete in the Hunger Games, a sort of odd virtual reality Survivor game where the last person alive wins untold riches. The trials and tribulations that accompany Katniss through the Games are the meat of the story, and character, while touched on briefly, is not the driving force.

Anne Lamott has more to say about character:
If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn't really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time. I could watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for about an hour without needing much else to happen. Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds you attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal. When you have a friend like this, she can say, "Hey, I've got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma - wanna come along?" and you honestly can't think of anything in the world you'd rather do. By the same token, a boring or annoying person can offer to buy you an expensive dinner, followed by tickets to a great show, and in all honesty you'd rather stay home and watch the aspic set.

I need to say that, as much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, I would not drive to the dump in Petaluma with Katniss Everdeen.

So, having read both the excellent review that praises the art of characterization, and a novel which is all about plot and story and suspense, I am left wondering: which is better? I have read character-driven novels that changed my world (The Diviners, best Canadian novel of all time), but I can't think of a story-based novel that grabbed me in the same way, although many of them have diverted me for an afternoon or two. I suppose that one thing leads to another - I find it interesting that we are always, in all our interactions with other people, looking for stories. (Who are you? What do you do? Where do you come from? Tell me about yourself? These are all questions we ask when we first meet a stranger; these are all questions that beg for stories as answers.)

I suppose that the two things go hand in hand to a certain extent: once you know all the stories, then you can start to piece together character; and once you know character, all the stories make sense. And honestly, that's good enough for me.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

This is Just To Say...

That I am so glad it's a long weekend.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Language Makes Us Human

Some of my students are not, to put it mildly, thrilled about taking French.

Learning a new language is difficult, it's frustrating, and it makes you want to throw reference materials at the wall, howling about subjects, and objects, and verbs, and how absolutely infuriating it is to not know what someone is saying to you, or how to answer back.

My response to my students is to tell them that learning a language opens doors. It changes the way you see the world, it makes you a better, richer person who can look at things differently, who understands things on a deeper level.

Then, when that doesn't work, I tell them that they have no choice, and they need to suck it up.

For a long time, I wondered if it was just me, if I was the only one who felt this way about words, and language; the only one who cared this much about learning how to communicate in a different tongue. Then I picked up Kate Grenville's book The Lieutenant.

The book is about a young man, an astronomer in the British Marines, who goes along with the First Fleet in 1787 to New South Wales. While there, he forms a friendship with a young aboriginal girl named Tagaran and begins to learn the language of the Cadigal people.

And then, as they say, everything changed.

He had thought himself superior to Silk [another soldier], who was innocent and smug in his belief that there was a precise unambiguous equivalence between words, and that one could exchange them as one might trade a Spanish dollar for two shillings and five pence. Now he saw that he had done the same. He had made these lists of verbs, these alphabets, these pages stretched like a net: other inflexions of the same verb.

But learning the Sydney tongue was not like that. Both the language and the act of learning had burst out of the boundaries he had tried to put around them. Proof of that was what he had just done. The press of the unknown had made him invent a new language, even newer to him than the Cadigal tongue: the language of doubt, the language that was prepared to admit I am not sure.

What he had not learned from Latin or Greek he was learning from the people of New South Wales. It was this: you did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you. His friendship with Tagaran was not a list of objects, or the words for things eaten or not eaten, thrown or not thrown. It was the slow constructing of the map of a relationship.

The names of things, if you truly wanted to understand them, were as much about the spaces between the words are they were about the words themselves. Learning a language was not a matter of joining any two points with a line. It was a leap into the other.

To understand the movements of the celestial bodies, it was necessary to leave behind everything you thought you knew. Until you could put yourself at some point beyond your own world, looking back at it, you would never see how everything worked together.

This is what I try to say to my students. I expect that they're too young, that all they see right now is the brick wall of a foreign language in front of them. I hope that one day they see what the narrator in this book sees: how language connects us as nothing else can, and how making that leap into the other means that we are never, ever the same again.