Sunday, 13 December 2020

Low-tech: The long view

Snowy road near my house
As a reader, I'm sometimes jarred when I'm reading a novel and the technology the characters are using is slightly (or significantly) out of date. 

I confess that, in spite of having read several excellent novels lately with texting in them, I can't help feeling that five or so years from now, maybe fewer, that's going to seem quaint and a touch old-fashioned. 

It may be hard to believe that texting won't always be a thing, but once the telephone was seen that way. When I was a teenager, telephones -- the kind with dials, or maybe push-buttons if your family was a step ahead -- were the main way friends and I communicated. The fight for phone time in a crowded house, "party lines" where your neighbours could pick up the phone and listen in on your conversation, "extensions" in other rooms where your brother could pick up the phone and listen in on your conversation, that seemed like it was here to stay. So did record albums.

As a writer, I often face the question about what to do about technology in my novels. It's easy enough if I want the novel to be time-specific, like Shelter was -- set in the 1960s and 70s. But in Red Fox Road I wanted the time to be more or less now. That is, now, whenever now happens to be for the reader. That's why I go for the low-tech option, as much as possible. Unless it's important to the story, I want to keep the technology in the background.

 The number of Keurig cups in landfills could circle the
 planet ten times. Don't get me started on tea K-cups!
Also, one of my themes in Red Fox Road and in the novel I'm working on now, Green Mountain Academy, is about the failure of technology. It's not that I'm anti-progress, or anti-innovation, quite the contrary. But I see, especially in the context of climate change, that we've used technology in many cases for cheap tricks, for junk that's literally messing up the planet. We could do so much better as humans. In Red Fox Road, Francie says "Not everything new that humans invent is better than the thing before it." Coincidentally, I agree with her! I think we need to be more responsible about how we use technology.

Getting out in nature, away from the noise of my various competing devices beeping, ringing, pinging and chastising me -- seeing the long view, literally, reminds me of how important it is.


Thursday, 5 November 2020

Don't side with yourself

Saturna island, BC
Stand firm. Don't back down. Stand up for what you believe in.  This was the kind of advice I heard when I was growing up. And to be sure, for a timid girl like me who was likely to back down whenever someone with a louder voice (which was just about anyone) spoke to me, it was helpful advice. I learned not to be a doormat and not to follow wherever someone else wanted to lead me.

But at some point -- maybe this point -- conviction and certainty begin to seem less useful than they once were. What would it be like to loosen my grip a little? 

"Don't side with yourself," said the 17th century Zen master, Bankei. I heard this expression the other day from Joseph Goldstein. It hit home. 

Maybe because the world is in a state of flux like I have never experienced in my lifetime. Maybe because the older I get, the closer I feel to the girl I was who found happiness sitting on a rock beside a little creek, counting the yellow leaves that drifted down from a cottonwood and landed softly on the water to be carried off gently down the stream. I didn't have to worry about being right or wrong. They are still my happiest moments.

I thought about the idea of not siding with myself this morning. Two days since the election in the US and the world is awash in side-taking. Opinions, fierce views -- what would it mean to let go, just a little, and see the other side? It's humbling to recognize how hard it is.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

A normal four a.m.

Full moon at 4 a.m.

Next weekend, BC is going to start relaxing isolation restrictions. We can gather in groups of six or less and maybe even hug each other. Or is that just family members in a closed group? I don't know. Meanwhile I have a fear that things are moving back to some kind of normal and I still haven't found what I'm looking for (to quote U2). Somehow I expected, if not enlightenment, at least illumination. Spring is here and the maple in the front yard is in lime green full leaf, casting shimmering patterns against brilliant blue. This morning I woke suddenly at 4 a.m. with a sense of urgency and I had to get out of bed and walk through the house, checking for -- what? That my son was where he should be, that everything was still where it should be. Everything was, except the full moon, which was shining in the pale early sky like it was still night. And I felt a longing to understand something, but that, too, was still where it's always been, just out of reach.

I'm not unhappy. I spend my days in the garden and feel very grateful to have these squares of dirt to dig and plant hopefully with beets and carrots and kale and arugula. Yesterday I transplanted tomatoes and bok choy and I took a ride on my bike and I felt like the day had been productive. Productive and relatively normal, but that's what feels wrong. Shouldn't it be extraordinary? Instead of washing my floors with a light solution of bleach and detergent while listening to Bruce Springsteen, shouldn't I be packing a few essentials and scaling a mountain I've never climbed to spend the night close to the stars and the moon and some kind of answers?

The experts say we'll have a "new normal," but in this new normal, will a dark-skinned man my son's age be able to run through his neighbourhood without fear? Will people in some of the richest countries in the world live in tents in a park in December and barter grocery cartloads of junk on sidewalks? Or will their new normal look suspiciously like the old normal? Will the most vulnerable among us still die before their time while others plan gardens and demand haircuts? Where is my part in this? I eat my avocado toast while hundreds of species continue to die out. Thousands sicken and some die so people can eat steak. Is this really the best new normal that the human race in the twenty-first century can manage? 

I cut tulips and sew face masks for my family. I believe I will come through this crisis relatively unscathed. I'm just not sure that's enough.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Isolation revelation

I feel like there's a violin lodged in my ribcage.

My spouse has suggested it could be anxiety. Or maybe grief. Week six of The Covid isolation, as we've come to call this time, and he's sending me links to things to read about what I might be feeling. But none of these ring exactly true.

For a long time I've thought of myself as control-obsessed. I also know that I crave solitude. This morning, I realized how these two things go together. When I'm around other people, including and especially my beloved family members, I have an irresistible desire to meddle in their business. I'm going to blame this on being a writer, because it sounds better to suggest I'm driven by curiosity about the human condition than to admit that I'm just opinionated and bossy.

The Buddha said that "those who grasp after views and opinions wander about the world annoying people."  I first heard this from Jack Kornfield and I immediately identified with it. When I'm around others, I can't help but form opinions about the rightness or wrongness of their actions and their thinking, and to worry about it. Not only does this presumably annoy others, it sucks up the space in my soul where my peace and creativity reside. It is almost a physical occupation. I can feel it, like having too much caffeine -- a jumpiness of the heart, a jittery, fingers-in-too-many-pies feeling. And then I am overwhelmed by a desire to escape alone somewhere, preferably into the woods or down some lonely, windswept road. 

I think I now also understand why my spouse has always been so supportive of my retreats into solitude. It must also be exhausting for him that I, to put it nicely, care too much about what he's doing. Not exercising. Spending too much time at his computer. Not getting enough fresh air. Why can't I mind my own business? 

And yet when I do get away on my own, my ability to not care is profound. I care only about that birdsong that I always thought was a chickadee. Is it? The way the shadows fall in the afternoon. Where exactly the moon will rise. How long my tea has steeped.

Of course I only had this revelation this morning when my beloved and son left for Vancouver to empty son's apartment for month-end. The house is quiet and peaceful and the long, quiet day stretches before me. I feel the calm returning to my ribcage by slow degrees. I am resisting the urge to meddle in their business digitally. (When I began a text using the word "emptying", my phone helpfully supplied the word "soul" as the next word.)

I'm aware of how ungrateful this might sound, given that, around the world, people are suffering real loneliness in their isolation. But I can't be the only one having trouble coping with the opposite. Can I?

So I've decided to begin each morning with a simple vow: not to meddle in anyone's business today. My new mantra will be "It's your call." (I will try to mean it generously, with true goodwill and no hands-thrown-in-the-air undertones).  Wish me luck. This won't be easy for me.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Small steps

Lately, whenever the weather is warm enough and the day ahead is free, I've been trekking into the rocky bluffs just outside of town with two or three friends. We take water, salty snacks, maybe some fruit and hot tea, and gear: ropes, carabiners, harnesses, shoes and helmets. The gear dangles from our backpacks as we hike in on one of the numerous trails that snake between the cliffs and crags.

It's beautiful to hike in here among the fragrant bent pines stretching into clear blue sky, to hear the tattoo of woodpeckers, and see hawks wheeling overhead. But we're not here to hike.

In the parking lot, we've pored over our climbing book and picked a rockface that the sun will warm throughout this crisp fall day.  We're beginners, so we've picked a couple of climbs that aren't too difficult, but offer us a bit of challenge.

At the crag, we rig up our climbing anchors and ropes, paying careful attention to the knots -- double fisherman's, figure eight, girth hitch. Our lives literally depend on getting these knots right. We dial in and focus. The outside world drops away. Dimly, I'm aware of carabiners clinking musically like bells on a donkey in a sleepy village. Sunshine and wind. The cool rock beneath my fingers.

Each time I begin to climb, stepping onto a tiny swell of rock that I'm going to call a foothold, running my fingers hopefully over the cliff to find something, anything, my fingers can cling to, a voice in my head says, "You can't do this."

My stomach roils a little and adrenaline quakes through my limbs. It is possible that the voice is right. I should have started climbing thirty years ago.  Not now, when I'm closer to 60 than 50. The thing is, it may have taken me this long to realize that in every beginning, there is the potential for failure. And failure isn't the end of the world. It's not even the end of the climb.

Every time my toe presses into an indent the size of a cashew, I take a chance at failure. When I choose a path for my climb, there's the chance I'll have to re-think my decision partway up the rockface when I can't find anything to hold onto.

I recently heard a climbing instructor tell a group of climbers to take small steps instead of looking for one big one. It's good advice, I found. I take a small step and the rock looks different. What seemed impossible suddenly becomes possible.

I'm learning how a small step can open up a bunch of new possibilities.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Is only trouble interesting?

Chilcotin mountain meadow
My students complain that I never teach any happy books. Last semester, totally by accident (are there any accidents?), I had a cannibalism theme going (The Odyssey, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and a documentary film called Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains). I tell them that only trouble is interesting, or so, in various ways, say many writers with a dim view of human nature. For the most part, I've found this to be true. Only trouble is interesting. When everything is going smoothly in a book, I ask myself, when's the story going to begin?

But I recently read Heidi, and I thought, maybe this is the kind of book my students mean when they ask why I don't teach happy books. It's a delightful book; that's the word for it. And yet it starts with trouble and more trouble. Heidi is an orphan who is being deserted by her aunt -- left with her grandfather who lives alone on a mountain and has a reputation for being an ogre. Everyone in the village thinks it's cruel to leave her there and that the grandfather will have no idea how to care for a little motherless girl. The reader expects big trouble. But Heidi is so sunny and positive and curious and warm that she opens her grandfather's cold, closed heart and the two turn out to be kindred spirits who love nature and solitude. The book is heart-warming from the start and it's a gentle reminder that most people are essentially good, or at least mean well, and that the natural order of things is probably not to (The Road spoiler alert!) roast your newborn child on a spit over a fire. Most relationships have at the core some spark of tenderness and goodness, however clumsily expressed, and a book like Heidi captures that. I think that's what I love about good children's books. Not saccharine, they admit hardship, but they don't stop there.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Slow writing

My 1975 notebook
When I was twelve years old, I wrote a novel called The Mystery of the Secret Passage. Much of it I wrote in our wartime house on a leafy Winnipeg street, where we had a crawlspace that was sun-warm in summer and furnace-duct warm in winter, smelled of old insulation and dust and had a small slatted vent where I could look out into our front yard and the sidewalk that ran past our house. I set up a makeshift desk with some boards, and in my memory, I sat on the floorboards and wrote. Having the desk made me feel like a real writer; it lent a certain commitment to what I was doing. I wrote the novel, suspiciously like a Nancy Drew novel, which I loved, in Hilroy exercise books. Word by word, sentence by sentence, I sank into the private world I was creating, not caring where the story was going or who might read it.

A page from Red Fox Road.
For my most recent novel,  Red Fox Road, I decided to allow myself this same luxury. I wanted to return to the simplicity and joy I found in writing when I was twelve. I wanted to close my ears to my own inner critic, and write something slowly, happily, word by word, just for the sheer fun of it. I had an idea that had captured my imagination: a girl on a family vacation becomes stranded alone in the wilderness when the family's GPS leads them astray. The idea was based very loosely on stories I'd read in the paper about mishaps with car's navigation systems. Also, my own little family had had a close call one day when we headed off on an off-road driving adventure, got lost, and couldn't retrace our steps because we didn't have enough gas.

I took out one of the notebooks I usually use for a journal, and began with the first sentence. It came easily and I didn't worry too much about whether it was the right sentence. It took me somewhere. And in writing this novel, I learned to pay attention to that feeling. Does this sentence take me somewhere? Is it where I want to go?

"In each act is the seed of the next." I'm not sure who to credit for that sentence; it's not my own, but it became my guiding principle. If the sentence I wrote took me somewhere I didn't want to go, I backed up, crossed it out, and wrote a different sentence. The wrong paths were usually ideas that I had imposed on the story, rising from some sense of obligation to include something. Apparently Warren Buffet has a tray on his desk labelled "too hard" and he puts ideas that he doesn't understand or has to work too hard at into that tray. My principle was similar. I wanted the story to roll along, to unravel like a road I was travelling down. I didn't want to impose too much of my vision on it in advance. I wanted to watch, almost listen for it. For me, the fun is in following the story, not having the story follow me. If I've set it up well enough, the story takes on a life of its own. It has its own intelligence, which is smarter than me.

In Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck writes, "I sometimes feel that when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness." I would say that about the way I wrote as a child, and I'd say that it's when writing is at its best for me now. I feel a physical change in my body when I find that, a sense of inhabiting the world I've created. I dream about it, it's the first place I find myself if I wake in the night. I can hear my narrator's voice, I watch what she does, what she feels and thinks.

Writing by hand seems to help me find that. Slowed down, I'm both more careful, and less constrained. Maybe the slower, physical act of handwriting, the pen drawing letters on a thick new loaf of paper, helps me pay more attention. And in writing this novel in notebooks, I remember the twelve-year-old girl that I was, on an adventure without a certain outcome, just for the joy of it.