on practice, on weekends

It's Saturday morning again. I started drafting this post last weekend--I got as far as the title. Oh irony.

I was thinking about what is now vogueishly called 'practice'. I define practice as anything important to do for its own sake. It's related to ritual and to routine; it's often (not wrongly) deemed religious. Or spiritual--we really do need a better word for the care and feeding of our Selves that we rationalist-materialists do.

I made a list of my practices. (Many of them started out as "survival techniques".) They include writing, reading poetry, reading fiction, reading non-fiction, reading math, baking bread, stretching, powerlifting, cycling, tending plants, making the bed, intuitive eating, knitting, blogging, sun bathing, hanging laundry out to dry, sleeping, lying on the floor, drinking water, fixing things.

I quickly realized that with regard to practice I am a staunch weekend warrior. You say I have an empty house and two days off at my disposal? Why sure I'll start a loaf of sourdough and spend twenty quiet minutes stretching and connect with my blogosphere darlings and drink 2 L of water and then plunge into that short story I'm working on. Why sure I'll relax with a thick novel in bed. Please excuse me if by Wednesday evening I'm playing 2048 by the hour and drinking more than I wanted to. Please excuse me when my precious Self feels crazy, abused, and neglected and lashes out at everyone around.

on being a tourist

I was not an exotic specimen in Iceland. The Middle-Aged Tourists From Florida (forgive me) thought I was a local; the locals thought nothing of me at all. Though tourist season hadn't started yet, with our DSLRs and backpacks, we were everywhere. Almost every morning I saw someone walking along the street with a rolling suitcase, just in from the early flight. 



There was a great deal of construction going on in downtown Reykjavik. Whole new streets of shopping and new hotels. At some point, a bus driver told us that old houses were being knocked down to accommodate more tourists. I was uncomfortable. I was even more uncomfortable when I saw this graffiti next to a new building site:

Eerie, how it seemed all of Iceland had so successfully and completely branded itself. I saw lopapeysur on everyone. Much like cowichans here, a piece of more-or-less traditional clothing morphed into a hipster uniform. But these were the realest hipsters I had ever seen. In the one third-wave coffee shop I visited, they were playing records, changing them regularly. If that shop had been in Edmonton, the record player would have been there, but they would have been playing an iPod, or streaming Songza. All of Iceland seemed tinged with this kind of postmodern mash-up of old with new, new made to seem old and old made to seem new. (I suppose the biggest difference is that, in Canada, there isn't much visible that is traditional or old. Our slow, steady progress has been erasing the past as it goes. It was as if Iceland's sudden leaps forward had cleared large swaths of the old, and left them intact.)

On the one hand, a culture much more visible and entrenched than Canadian culture. Young Icelanders who seemed to have a kind of national pride and identity I've never witnessed in Canada (and certainly not in Edmonton, which people who live here tend to refer to as 'Stabmonton', 'Deadmonton').  On the other hand, a country which built its first paved roads less than 60 years ago and which has since become one of the most modern and progressive countries in the world. 

Hannalisa, a wonderful Icelandic woman I met on my last day, explained the difference between the "old ice cream" and the "new ice cream". The old ice cream was made with milk, was colder, and was more traditional and thus preferred by everyone. The new ice cream was made with cream. I admit that this dichotomy confused me a bit, as both old and new ice cream were forms of soft serve. 

On a whim, I tagged along with a lovely guy from the hostel and attended the university LGBT group's meeting. I asked about surrogacy in Iceland (BC just passed legislation to allow for three or more parents to be listed on a birth certificate, and I was curious about how this issue was being managed in left, progressive Iceland). They told me that, due to worry that women would be exploited for their reproductive capacity, surrogacy wasn't being encouraged. This is the same country that outlawed strip clubs on feminist grounds, that had the world's first openly lebsian prime minister. 

Was it cultural ignorance or observational cherry picking that made me wonder whether there wasn't a certain level of wariness or antagonism between the men and women I saw? I rarely saw couples or mixed groups of Icelanders. I saw intimidating groups of boisterous, fashionable men and intimidating groups of cool, glamorous women. Was it my own position that made me sense the same reserve between men and women as between locals and tourists?

Everything seemed local, a product or a consequence of the place. Iceland the island. There was nearly ubiquitous geothermal heating; there was hardly any produce in the grocery stores. (I saw cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, and two kinds of apples, nothing else.) Everyone was white. My friend from the hostel gave me the locals' version of social life in Reykjavik for a twenty-something: Because the population is so small and interconnected, everyone knows everyone and the dating scene is less of a dating scene and more of a hook-up scene--perhaps to avoid the drama of making and breaking stronger connections. Apparently the weekends were wild, the streets downtown covered with broken glass by the time everyone went home at five or six in the morning. When I went out at 8 in the morning, someone had cleaned it all up. There was lots of graffiti, but no obvious attempts to cover it up or discourage it. I didn't quite understand. 

Hanna gave me a list of Icelandic bands to check out. She also gave me the CD in her car, and this is one of the songs on it: 

On returning to a house you expected not to return to

In January, we moved back into our house instead of moving to Germany. The plan fizzed out in November or December and it was my fault. Everyone here knows almost exactly what went on between the end of summer and Christmas: the drama, the sex, the ugliness between Tim and I that started to affect everyone around us. Forgive me, but I am not prepared to write all of that. Looking back, less than two months later, I already feel that I became unhinged in a completely characteristic, devastating, and embarrassing way; there is a sense of tragic inevitability about everything that went wrong, even as I complained (to everyone), bewildered and raging. I don't know what to say.

I do know that it would be a cop-out for me to write it off as a passing bout of craziness. Since I have been back here, basking in privacy and normalcy, there have been uncomfortable daily doses of self-realization. (Maybe moving to Germany was a way to try and run away. If I've managed to come back to myself, it's been to find a charming house that is falling down.) I have been thinking about my own anxiety, fear, anger, mental health. I've been examining memories of myself and my parents. I have seen patterns emerging in the events of the past 6 or 7 years--ways I have continually sabotaged myself and others, mistakes I keep making, ways I have of thinking about the world as an enemy, ways I have of thinking of my own life as something terrible that happens to me, my life as something I must make up or apologize for. 

I like to call myself a writer, and the stories I like to tell myself are profoundly unhelpful, even damning. 

That sense of tragedy, for instance, is a double-edged sword. Do my own personality, habits, habits of thought cause a set of predictable problems? Yes. Is it productive to view myself as a plane flying futile and unstoppable into a tower? No. Tim and I were talking this morning about family- and self-narratives. It is so important to take on the role of a wise and and wry and hopeful storyteller in relation to your own life. It is so hard to do that. I tend to sing the songs of disappointment, helplessness and thwarted expectations. When I became an atheist, I threw away the convenient (often hopeful, comforting, and stabilizing) narrative of liberal Christianity and cobbling together a replacement has been a discouraging business. (Interestingly: I have realized that the process of reading and writing itself constitutes what comes closest to a religious rite for me, and that literature grounds me the same way that Christianity used to.)

I would like to stop living in a post-modern crisis mode which I recite into existence. I started by trying to deal with the panic attacks--I've mostly stopped having them, and now I am taking L-theanine for anxiety. Every morning, Tim weighs me out a dose on a cute little drug scale and mixes into a shot glass of water. For the first time in five years, I don't feel at all times like a hunted antelope. Other changes are coming. I am writing again, and with any luck, I'll soon be able to share some poetry and at least one short story. I hope to start adding content to my Tumblr project this week. It's good to return. 

journal excerpt: solstice

Ancient people must have understood rate (speed/time) before understanding bald time; time must have been accessed only indirectly as it lurked on the underside of a ratio. Perhaps they determined the summer solstice by counting how many torches it took to get through a night, assuming, however vaguely, that the duration of one torch burning from end to end represented something regular, a measurement. Clearly, they wanted to measure and mark things; aren't the two solstices the occasions for the earliest festivals--perhaps along with planting and harvest?

The summer solstice is so much more conflicted and melancholy than the winter solstice, which demands only desire and hope. Christmas marked the beginning of a long slow increase of light and time. Now the shortening of days begins. We feel we should devour the summer at the same rate at which time devours it. 


I brought our jalapeno plant home from Superstore already over a foot tall, ensconced in a plastic planter with a built-on cage. It was ten o'clock at night; we'd been running errands all day; I had to work in the morning. In the dark and in my rush to get the pepper and the four new tomatoes into the ground immediately, I snapped the crisp fifteen-dollar main stem on the jalapeno while I was trying to wrestle it out of the plastic pot. I swore. I ran inside for scissors and tape. I scrounged a stake from the pile of scrap wood on the other side of the fence. I made a splint and set the bone.

That was two weeks ago, and the plan is still alive, flowering like all get out. It is amazing how similar all things are. How a plant stem can heal like a femur, while the heart surgeon is essentially a plumber of tiny pipes. How, on their respective ends of the pH scale, baking soda and vinegar apply themselves to issues from the tweaking of lentil curry, to the removal of a stain to the treatment of a mosquito bite, to the fertilization of a plant, to the banishing of pimples, to the removal of mineral residue. How the cooking--the making-edible--of food foreshadows the metabolic process. (How I find plant metaphors almost all-sufficient.)


On Ravelry, one's 'stash' of yarn is a major fixture. It can be photographed, catalogued, looked up, and organized by weight, colour, fibre content. Some members have thousands of skeins ready and waiting. These are pictures from my own little 'stash'. For the first time, I have yarn for more than two prospective projects.

And it is beautiful yarn. Some of it was hand-dyed in France. The green skeins above are from an Irish spinning company; I'm going to knit Tim a cabled sweater out of them. Once I learn how to work cables, that is.

I have yarn for Christmas presents, for mittens for myself, for my first attempt at fair isle knitting. But this wool-hoard--with a wee bit of silk and alpaca and nylon thrown in--makes me uncomfortable. 

Buying this yarn, which I've done in a frenzy, all since August, has been as easy and pleasurable as sharpening my pencils or buying new notebooks. Or, for that matter, buying interesting ingredients from Superstore. Is there anything more appealing than provisions and supplies? It's easy to forget that the point is the writing and knitting and cooking, and afterwards, the reading and wearing and eating. 

And it's easy to get caught up in "learning", too. It's easy to spend hours reading forum posts, self-help books, lovely blogs. But it can be an ordeal to practice a new technique, to scribble shitty first drafts, to try to live some kind of good life. 

Mostly, I want to spend more time doing than preparing. It's quite hard.

on casting on

My sock pattern is 15 pages long. 

I assumed I would be casting on the same day my yarn arrived; but I was so daunted, it was two days before I even wound the skeins into balls. The first lines of instruction informed me that, to begin from the toe up, I should cast on using the Turkish method. Undoubtedly so. But I had no experience with this exotic-sounding technique, and as I read on, I became more confused. Further down the page, reference was made to the "instep and sole needles". What? Two sets of stitches that remained separate on two double-pointed needles? Presumably a working needle was also required . . . but how could one possibly knit in the round on three needles, and without moving the stitches along in a circle? 

I had uneasy thoughts about my prospective First Socks for a couple days more, then finally just googled 'turkish cast on double pointed needles'. Voila. 10 youtube tutorials at my disposal, including this one, wonderfully clear and narrated in a confident and soothing tone:

Watching this video, I couldn't stop squeaking. How ingenious! How perfectly simple and elegant. And how marvelous that I was able to benefit from a virtual lesson taught by a skilled knitter I've never met, for free. Even ten years ago, in the internet's earlier days, I would have had to comb through a stack of knitting books from the library, or search out someone to demonstrate the technique. The size and generosity of the communities I benefit from, even from the furthest fringes, is truly astonishing.

All this to say: I am casting on tonight, and I can't wait to start. 

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. 

a paradigm shift: rhyming poetry

The external life is quiet and (quite literally) homely these days: If, on any given day at the bake shop, you happened to ask me what I did on my days off, you would learn that once again I watered and weeded the garden, baked a loaf of bread, baked a pie, bicycled over to see my friend Adam perform in a Shakespeare play, wrote in my journal, knitted, hung the laundry outside, watched a BBC documentary, and worked my way through a novel, some math, a few more pre-emptive pages of honours thesis research. I am not complaining. And I have to tear myself away every time I go to work, because meanwhile the internal life has been fascinating and deep and rewarding.

Back in May, finishing up Le Ton beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter's book on poetry translation (you may remember the exercise I posted here), I was flabbergasted to find myself helpless in the face of Hofstadter's arguments for the primary importance of formalism, particularly rhyme and metre, in poetry:

"Thus the act of looking at a poem in print or reading it aloud should be directly tangible to a reader engaged with the poem, as opposed to being merely a covert intellectual fact."
- Douglas Hoftstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot, 524

"The need for sensuality of sound in poetry, as well as its analogue in music, was taken for granted until not all that long ago. But around the turn of the twentieth century, a wave of change started rippling throughout the arts. In poetry, free verse starting taking over, and in the world of classical or "serious" music, tonality was dropped, at least in some quarters, and replaced by a severe, austere, unhearable cerebrality; thus did poetry and music together start down the sad slide from being sensuous and visceral to being solely intellectual. And in the course of that slide, they lost more and more of their mass appeal, in the end becoming esoterica appealing only to tiny coteries and cliques of people who listened with humorless scholasticism and pretension."
- Douglas Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot, 526

Though I haven't written explicitly about it here, my poetry-loving career has been almost exclusively  devoted to British, American, and Eastern European modernists--not the most rhymey company. Up until my first year of university, I actively shunned formal poetry, though I began to come around to it during our class study of Beowulf (and by the time we'd gotten to John Donne, I was won). But I remained unwilling to declare formal poetry anything special. 

Reading Le Ton beau, I was bombarded with memories of poems that had struck me hard and slain me. These poems were not prose-with-line-breaks, nor were they poems based on complex, but invisible, math.   They were kissing cousins to every one of human history's ceremonies, rites and traditions. They were not only beautiful messages, but beautiful mediums. And sometimes--oh infidel!--function followed form. 

My scattered reading in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology has been enough to convince me of the existence of a universal (though not Platonic) human nature. Isn't this what I have always held that great poetry speaks to? To ignore the innate appeal of rhythm, rhyme, and repetition would be to ignore a major aspect of beauty in poetry--and, in fact, to ignore the nature of beauty and the human desire for it in the first place. 

I am surprised at this swing-around in my own opinion; I have always thought that I loved only the intellectual in poetry. All of this is not to say that I am abandoning blank- and free-verse, that Milosz and Hughes are dead to me. It is only to say that I think there is an unmysterious reason why Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle" cuts as close as it does. How on earth will I incorporate it into my own work? Where much of contemporary poetry demands only unfettered feelings or salty descriptions, formal poetry demands technical skill. 

And I must continue later in a second post, because I am also recently enamored with technical skill, and from there a host of other issues open up. Bear with me.