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sometimes jarred when I'm reading a novel and the technology the characters are using is slightly (or significantly) out of date.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

Saskatchewan prairie

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.