reading

It's been an abominable summer for reading. But Thursday night at Tim's parents' house, I picked up Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson's new memoir), read 90 pages, and then had to take it home with me so I could finish it early on Saturday morning. I am now on a Winterson kick. This is why--she says:

"Christ's injunction that his followers must be twice-born, the natural birth and spiritual birth, is in keeping with religious initiation ceremonies both pagan and tribal. There has to be a rite of passage, and a conscious one, between the life given by chance and circumstance and the life that is chosen. 

There are psychological advantages to choosing life and a way of life consciously--and not just accepting life as an animal gift lived according to the haphazard of nature and chance. The 'second birth' protects the psyche by promoting both self-reflection and meaning. 

I know that the whole process very easily becomes another kind of rote learning, where nothing is chosen at all, and any answers, however daft, are preferred to honest questioning. But the principle remains good. I saw a lot of working-class men and women--myself included--living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the Church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work in noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.

A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt and reproduce--we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses . . . 

We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning--it it not yet clear how this will happen. 

But for the members of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Accrington, life was full of miracles, signs, wonders, and practical purpose." (67-68)

And she says:

"There was a person in me--a piece of me--however you want to describe it--so damaged that she was prepared to see me dead to find peace.

That part of me, living alone, hidden, in a filthy abandoned lair, had always been able to stage a raid on the rest of the territory. My violent rages, my destructive behaviour, my own need to destroy love and trust, just as love and trust had been destroyed for me. My sexual recklessness--not liberation. The fact that I did not value myself. I was always ready to jump off the roof of my own life. Didn't that have a romance to it? Wasn't that the creative spirit unbounded?

No.

Creativity is on the side of health--it isn't the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness. 

The lost furious vicious child living alone in the bottom bog wasn't the creative Jeanette--she was the war casualty. She was the sacrifice. She hated me. She hated life." (171)

So much of how she describes her ideas (the human significance of religious ritual) and her upbringing (the results of growing up in a house where a compelling, sometimes comforting religion became twisted together with extreme instability, irrationality, and unhappiness), and her work to become healthy and sane through her own writing (she notes in the book that from the very beginning, she had to pit her own narrative against the narrative of her adopted mother) chimes--almost uncannily--with my own thoughts and experience. Forgive my presumption. It is exhilarating to find a kindred spirit. And also that books are still here.

(If you've got an hour to spare.)

resolute: baking bread

- learn more about baking bread (to begin: read the lovely book Laura got me for Christmas)

120 pages into this book, the recipe section commences. Having read every one of the warnings against industrial bread (some of which I found reasonable, some slightly hysterical), nodded along with the author's defense of the pleasures and advantages of baking bread at home, and closely attended to the sections on bowl material, types of flour, water temperature, and kneading techniques, I felt the only thing to do was to start with the first recipe. 

So I did. "Basic Bread" came out of the oven yesterday, and I have a page of notes on it, and a small knob of dough sitting in the fridge, waiting to be incorporated into the next recipe, for "Old Dough Bread".  I aim to pull a Julie Powell, and, by the end of the year, bake every recipe in the book. (Thereby, I will translate a vague, qualitative resolution into an accomplishable, concrete sort of resolution.) Tim likes this plan a lot.  

At the same time, experiments on my own with the already-established sourdough:


Also: do you see that sun?

There is nothing like pausing every couple of hours to dissolve yeast in warm water, measure flour, punch down a cushion of dough, preheat the oven, pat and shape the loaves, check on their proofing, peek into the oven. (I don't want instant food--I want to coax glue to turn into bread.)

Happy Monday you all! 

a paradigm shift: beauty (in which I make unstylish claims)


"The coats of arms that encrust those South German walls were once as simple as upside-down flat-irons with reversed buckets on top: at the touch of the new formula, each shield blossomed into the lower half of a horizontally bisected 'cello, floridly notched for a tilting lance, under a twenty-fold display of latticed and strawberry-leaf-crowned casques, each helmet top-heavy with horns or wings or ostrich or peacocks' feathers and all of the suddenly embowered in mantelling as reckless, convoluted and slashed as spatulate leaves in a whirlwind. The wings of eagles expanded in sprays of separate sable plumes, tails bifurcated in multiple tassels, tongues leapt from beaks and fangs like flames and inlaid arabesques. All was lambent."

- Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts, 99

Part 2. 

(Incidentally, in composing this post and the last, I seem to have tricked myself into doing some real writing. Having a clear goal in mind, the pressure lets up. Rather than to fabricate, vaguely, a perfect, core-shattering poem, I am trying to communicate a specific event of my recent mental life. With my ducks thus in a row, I can give myself up to wordsmithery; that is, to technique. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I think that--even though (in good writing) the medium becomes part of the message--when the message is clear in the author's mind, it becomes easier to mold it to a beautiful and expressive medium. Thorough understanding and better familiarity allows an author to judge what paraphrasing an idea will stand or be enhanced by, and what first-thought, gut-level words and expressions must remain.)

Reader, I am entranced with technique.

On Monday, July 2, I wrote:

Have, for two days, been reading the blogs of (knitting) pattern designers. I am getting my first glimpse of the techniques and mechanics of more sophisticated knitting (and, partly thanks to the blogs, partly thanks to Laura, of garment construction in general). I am entranced. This may be my equivalent to Tim's woodworking.

The best way to create the crotch seam in a pair of pants is amazing (you put one leg inside-out inside the other). I have just purchased my first sock pattern, and I can't wait to find out how to create a gusset. And fair isle sweaters--why did I blindly assume that a plain garter stitch sweater, like a steel and glass building or a plastic Eames chair, must be intrinsically more beautiful, have greater integrity? Decoration in the material arts is unfashionable, like form in poetry or adjectives in prose. Display of a technique rather than a bare concept is said to be gaudy. But why?

To approach from another angle: this marriage of mine is astonishing. The two years that Tim and I dated were one long, mutual interrogation. We talked philosophy more than anything else. What did the other think of ______? We were delighted to have discovered someone who felt the same way about almost everything, and we both felt that, on the subject of beauty, the mid-century modernists had it soundly and sacredly right. However. 

Maybe it was reading Donne, maybe it was the intricacy of my friend Justina's henna-inspired partial sleeve, maybe it was Patrick Leigh Fermor--his lavish writing and his memorized Latin odes, maybe it was all the lovely old houses in Old Strathcona, maybe it was admitting my love of medieval hymns and carols. By the time I started Hofstadter's book, I was already primed for a drastic change of feeling, but I did not want to bring it up with Tim. 

But I didn't really have to. Before I did, he showed me a seventeenth-century table on a woodworking site. 'Elaborate' is not quite a sufficient word. Then we started watching a three-part BBC series on the history of metal working in England, and by the time we had finished the first episode (silver), it was clear that both of us had been quietly revising our aesthetics for months, along almost identical lines, and simultaneously. 

"When two people live together intimately, each comes to understand the world to some extent in the way that the other does. Each imbibes the other's point of view, and over a period of years, another person's way of looking at the world has become internalized. One can now look out at the world with the other person's eyes, see it with their soul." 
- Douglas Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot, 479


Tim sent me a link to this video about a week ago. Ignoring some of the dubious metaphysical claims, I think it is spot-on. 






from The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

"After their first year or so, Lou's beauty no longer surprised him. He never stopped looking, because her face was his eyes' home. No, what so endeared her now and forever was her easy and helpless laughter. He felt like the world's great wit. She worked, walked, stood, or sat like a mannequin, shoulders down and neck erect, and his least mot slayed her. Her body pleated. Her rusty-axle laugh sustained itself voicelessly and without air. At table, if she was still chewing when the laugh came rolling on her backward like a loose cart, she put a napkin on her head. Otherwise she dropped on the table. If it slayed her yet more, she knocked the table with her head in even beats. Or her long torso folded and her orbits fell on vertical fists on her knees. Unstrung with hilarity, she lost her footing and rolled down a dune. More than once--anywhere--she dropped backward and straight-legged like a kid in diapers.

He fell in love with Lou again and again. Walking, he held her hand. She seemed, then and now, to roll or float over the world evenly, acting and giving and taking, never accelerating, never slowing, wearing a slip of red or blue scarf. Her mental energy and endurance matched his. She neither competed nor rebelled. Her freedom strengthened him, as did her immeasurable reserve. Often she seemed the elder. She opened their house to everyone. Actively, she accepted what came to her, like a well-sailed sloop with sea room. Her face was an organ of silence. That he did not possess her childhood drove him wild. Who was this impostor she sang with in college--how dare he?"


another enormous reading list

This afternoon, it rains and it positively gusts. I am working my way through the last pages of the last book on this list. It took me a year--instead of a summer--to complete it, but it was a good, rigorous way to structure my reading, and I am ready to plunge in to another. Without a deadline, and without further ado:

A Time of Gifts - Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Chocolate Connoisseur - Chloe Doutre-Roussel
Fashionable Nonsense - Alan Sokal
The Maytrees - Annie Dillard
The Overcoat - Nikolai Gogol
The Poetics of Translation - Willis Barnstone
The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Transition to Advanced Mathematics
Poor Things - Alasdair Gray
Darwin's Dangerous Idea - Daniel Dennet
The Better Angels of Our Nature - Steven Pinker
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
Relativity - Albert Einstein
Dakota - Kathleen Norris
The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill
The Tempest - William Shakespeare
Breaking the Spell - Daniel Dennet
The Great Crash--1929 - Kenneth Galbraith
Last Orders - Graham Swift
Anatomy of Criticism - Northrop Frye
The Habit of Being - Flannery O'Connor
A Good Man is Hard to Find - Flannery O'Connor
How the Mind Works - Steven Pinker
The Blank Slate - Steven Pinker
The Journals of L. M. Montgomery
What Einstein Told His Cook - Robert Wolke
Pegeen and the Pilgrim - Lyn Cook
Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life - Nick Lane
The Time Quartet - Madeleine L'Engle
The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
Six Easy Pieces - Richard Feynman
Six Not-So-Easy Pieces - Richard Feynman
Guns, Germs, and Steel - Jared Diamond
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Annie Dillard


Any suggestions?

two things







(the pussy willows were a gift from my Opa)


(this is a late birthday present for my dad)





(this is a thousand-message-long facebook thread, from when Tim and I were dating)


(the ribbon is to keep it closed while the bindings loosen up)


(Tim made the covers)


(I've been trying to finish this for almost two years)



What to do

In our own true way, Tim and I spent the past 20 hours in bed. We were reading. Cereal, journal (mine), laptop (his), sleepytime tea, Carnation hot chocolate, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Le Ton beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter, a beastly math assignment, and a final essay for Philosophy of Language crept in with us. And I left dishes, laundry, post office errand, and flossing. And a swampy state of malaise was the order of our day.

These are the dead days of spring. Roads filthy with dust and gravel, greenery yet to appear. At least once a week, a surprise snow fall that disappears the next day. Exams. Wind. Because Tim is rightfully consumed with school for the next two weeks, all settling-in and home-improvement plans are on hold, and we keep saying that as soon as he's finished there will be restaurant shelving for the kitchen, simple transportation, raised beds built, general supplies purchased, tampers sold, weight lost, grow lights for the plants, lamps for the hobbit hole, knives sharpened, bikes cleaned, picnics taken, manuscripts started, still more daunting projects initiated, order reigning. To be honest, I feel crushed under the weight of our summer plans. I am not taking classes, and won't be until September. Why should I favor plans over action?





felt books



The felt books are finished. Nine good poems - not all of my autumn's work, but the work that came out of the rest of the work. Fifteen copies are already in the mail and in friends' hands--I'm surprised I have to make more so soon.


It is marvelous to have these printed up. They are a semester's final project, something to show. I am still a writer.

a book for Grace



My little sister Grace is a fantastic writer.



And though I feel a smidgen of guilt that the book I've made for her is possibly too pretty to want to mark up,



nothing else will quite do for her Christmas present.



I may have to buy her a practical Hilroy coil bound as well.



But sometimes surely everyone thrives under the pressure of potential and the blank white (peacock blue) page?



Merely agonizing over how to fill a notebook can be a creative exercise.

what's left on the reading list

Le Ton beau de Marot - Douglas Hofstadter
The Bit and the Pendulum - Tom Siegfried
Atonement - Ian MacEwan
The Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking
I Am A Strange Loop - Douglas Hofstadter
The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins
Little Dorrit - Charles Dickens

I've finished these (as well as the miscellaneous non-list books in the column on the right) :

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
Freedom Evolves - Daniel Dennet
Skybreaker - Kenneth Oppel
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Godel, Escher, Bach - Douglas Hofstadter
Godel's Proof - Newman and Nagel
To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
Dr. Zhivago - Boris Pasternak
The Diary of Anne Frank
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

French Women Don't Get Fat

I was brought up to shift uncomfortably in the face of pleasure. There was no place in my parents' house for small, frequent doses of sensuality.

As a child I did not relish my food because I did not relish anything. I was trained to fixate on credit card debt, hated jobs, calories, clutter, splurges, regimens, money, gadgets, junk food, excess weight--not fresh flowers, dark chocolate, cotton sheets, a signature perfume, the flex of my leg muscles, a perfect tomato, a hot bath.

Over and over, I plonked myself down to watch Amelie .

I don't think I realized that at the root of her charmed life was a deep appreciation of everything under the sun I had been taught to ignore or abuse. I did realize that whatever it was that I craved, French women had it. It was all over the pages of Victoria magazine, a constant feature in cinema, and the main attraction of Peter Mayle's Provence books (which I got ahold of when I was nine or ten). I had a persistent feeling that the world could be cracked open like a coconut. If only I could act French enough to become French, I would be given the right hammer.




Now I am reading a book called French Women Don't Get Fat. It is a revelation. I do not need a hammer, after all.

Reading Week



Unbelievably, this is the last day of my last week of sanity until the end of finals. I won't lie. Not everything about the last five days has been fantastic. There have been fights, sickness, horrible weather, homework, stress, meltdowns, poor eating, failed bread dough, etc.. But yesterday was mostly fantastic. Tim and I took a leisurely tour of the used bookstores on Whyte Ave, then bought beets, avocadoes, a smooth and tiny green cabbage, red grapes, lettuce, and three kinds of hot pepper to supplement the shopping trip on which Tim, left with a list and no explanations, bought a litre of sour cream (but no beets to make borscht with), a large bunch of spinach (but no avocados to use in green monsters), and everything for salad (except lettuce). It wasn't really his fault. The term for Superstore's produce section at night is 'ravaged'.




We also went to Chapters - no used bookstore charm there, but an impressive selection of literary periodicals, and me with a notepad and a pen, jotting down addresses.

I have big plans for this last day. They include
a slow pot of soup,
a shirt, altered to fit my new smallness,
an ensconcement on the red couch with my new-used books (Cavafy, Sexton, William Carlos Williams, Graham Swift) and The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker,
the Symphony tonight with Tim (Beethoven's 3rd), wearing red boots,
20th birthday plans becoming concrete,
a redemptive batch of bread,
a pile of drafts,
a load of laundry,
a date with my dumbbells and our apartment's one flight of stairs,
several letters.



I hope your Friday is also full of plans for everything good.

P.S. And yes, yes, you're right. That at the top, my friends, is a new spurt of growth on Matilda the vine. Plant luck is improving around here.

P.P.S. There is no way I can continue my Return to the Pill experiment any longer. I want to eat all the white flour and sugar in sight. So long, calendar-package.

required reading

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
Anne of Green Gables
Arcadia
Black Swan Green
A Clockwork Orange
Cloud 9
The Coral Island
The Driver's Seat
From Russia With Love
The Great Gilly Hopkins
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
The Hobbit
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Lonely Londoners
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Poor Things
Twelve Dancing Princesses and other fairy tales
Waterland
The Wind in the Willows
Doing Grammar
Critical Tradition

This is going to be one sweet year.

Thursday

The plan for today involves blankets, the flannel pajama pants I stole from Tim, a pile of books, a pen, a postcard, and OpenOffice. It does not seem to involve a shower, or a bra, or proper meals. Among other things, I have a postcard from Glynis to respond to. It is hard for me to admit, but as often as not, this outward laziness is my best creative catalyst, and sometimes staying in bed all day is the hardest thing (but the most productive thing) for me to do. What can I say? I come by it honestly. You all know that writers look dingy and haggard when surprised by the media while at work, or else are in the bathtub smoking cigars.

If you are worried, this won't last long. Tim's parents are due for supper here at six, and tomorrow I'm at the deli all day before I fly off to a Metric concert.

Happy Thursday, you all!

To Do

- finish the dishes: done
- wipe the counters: done
- sweep the floor: done
- vacuum: done
- ship a set of envelopes
- clean my desk: done
- laundry: done
- banking: done
- make pizza dough: made stir-fry instead
- write
- read: The Stuff of Thought, American Gods
- run: went for a long walk instead
- gather some flowers: done
- drink at least one glass of wine: done
- water the tomatoes