October 2nd, 2014
This will be my last post for a while. I began this blog, when my children were not-quite-7 months old and 3 1/2 years old, out of a desire to catch some of what I wanted to think and write about in those days that would otherwise pass through me and leave no trace. At that time, writing a blog post was better than writing nothing. But now, nearly three years later, I find myself often on the far side of that feeling, wondering if I’ve rushed something into form that should have been given its time in the dark to accrete and grow and become a thing forged by craft and time and effort into something less ephemeral. An essay, more than a post.
So I’m going to take a break from showing up here, and see what comes of this. I’ll have to let more of the perishable gifts go. I’m okay with that. It’s lovely to see what’s accumulated here in the last couple of years that otherwise wouldn’t have been nudged even this far into form. And now I want to see if I can take certain of the gifts that arrive and nudge them a bit farther.
As Flannery O’Connor said, “No matter what form the dragon may take, it is the mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will be concerned to tell.” To write less, perhaps, to collect fewer of the gifts that arrive, but to do justice to the depth of the passage past, or into, the dragon’s jaws. This is the part of the path I have found myself on lately, heading toward my mountain. I’ve been thinking a lot this past year about pilgrimage. About exile, and setting out, leaving one’s former home. About intention, sacredness, danger, purpose, accident, injury, rest, perseverence, companionship, ascent and descent, steadiness. Beginnings, destinations, journeys. Our companions arrive and we walk with them for a time, then we part ways. Some are guides, some are fellow pilgrims, some are not the right travelling companions for us at all. Sometimes we walk alone.
One day I want to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James, perhaps with a dear friend, perhaps on my own.
Maybe next year, maybe once my children have grown: who knows.
Who knows! The pilgrim’s mantra. Make it a hashtag, a T-shirt, a prayer. Spray it on the bridges you cross over, or under, as you stand there doubting, or ecstatic with hope.
You can walk wounded. You can heal as you go. This is what pilgrims do: they put their feet on the path. They go.
August 29th, 2014
Today is the last work day of the summer months for me. It’s been a strange, amazing, unexpected, inimitable summer. Rough and exquisite. I’m ending it with Seamus Heaney at my favourite public workplace with a great cup of coffee. The last poem in Heaney’s 1996 collection The Spirit Level is called “Postscript.” I ordered my copy of this particular collection entirely on the strength of this one poem. Some day, I will “make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / In September or October…” In the meantime, I’m reading Seamus Heaney at the approach of fall, and considering my own postscripts to summer. This season has been nourishing and difficult, as ephemeral in its beauty as “the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.”
When I was a girl, writing letters to my distant grandparents, for a time I wrote P.S. at the end of each letter, faithfully, as they did in their letters to me. Since I hadn’t noticed that their P.S.‘s were used to introduce hastily appended messages, I left my P.S.‘s hanging, scriptless, an unwitting irony. I thought the letters were meaningful in themselves–like xo–a valediction in their own right. At that age, I was in the habit of reading beyond my level, in more ways than one. I knew how to run, quite happily, with only a provisional understanding. If pushed, I would have said the “P.S.” I pencilled at the end of each letter to my grandparents meant something like “Please write back.”
Until the day my mom looked over my shoulder and pointed out I had forgotten to add a message, my postscripts to my grandparents went out blank–intending one thing (desire for reciprocation), but implying another (forgetfulness).
Now I think this childhood misunderstanding–or pre-understanding–is an excellent metaphor, especially at this change of seasons, for everything we do not yet fully apprehend. And how okay that is, how lovely, and how we should treasure it. The way my daughter’s father and I refused for years to correct her misnomer for “hornets.” She called them “hormorants,” a charming conflation of hornet with “cormorant.” With our children, we treasure each incremental, partial understanding for its particularity, its ephemeral beauty, its own strange truth. Why not with ourselves?
How I would love to lose my adult anxiety, apprehensiveness, about the unknown–to exchange it for my childhood enthusiasm for each provisional experiment. Or at least to split the difference. I want to get curious, excited by what I discover, even if part of what I find is that I’ve been making an embarrassing mistake.
For everything that falls away, that we lose, what do we gain? What gain in this loss? What now? Aren’t these the questions the forced resilience of the lifelong relentless changing of seasons ought finally to teach us to ask elsewhere, and anywhere, of anything?
Seamus Heaney writes: “You are neither here nor there, / A hurry through which known and strange things pass”.
How lovely and sad to think of all the things that have passed through this summer, some known and some strange. All of the things that could have been added but weren’t, and won’t be. I’ve been mourning these things, in my way, but perhaps only to pry myself loose, like a leaf, to turn toward the fall.
For every provisional misunderstanding that will one day prove inadequate, what do we now know that we will then forget? And what might we celebrate in our failure to know? What might we enjoy in our beautiful errors?
I’d like to find a way to love what’s been left undone, what’s been partially understood, the mistakes that have been made. To hold onto the beautiful ephemeral evidence of a mind still working its way toward an understanding of the world, in ways that will be soon again be totally changed.
I’d like to learn to love each season’s unwritten postscripts. To appreciate in its own right whatever error of apprehension–whatever fraught hypothesis–underwrites the space opened up within a silence that would otherwise be totally undifferentiated. P.S.
It’s easy this time of year to fall into the making of ambitious, unachievable lists, to begin writing anxious pre-scriptions for the next season, as much as appending nostalgic post-scripts to the old.
But I like the possibility I knew of, for a short time, as a child, before I was corrected and gave up the habit of leaving my postscripts blank.
We could leave some spaces open. We could leave some silences to bear the freight of what we are not yet able to know, or say.
Please write back.
August 21st, 2014
I have been thinking, for years, about pain. Trying to tell myself a story about it. Writing a novel about it. Every poem, every essay, every walk along the river, is a part of the conversation I’ve been having with it. I have known the wrenching pain of grief for loved ones, the positive but annihilating pain and pressure of labour, the entirely different pain-as-jubilation of birth itself. I have known migraines, loneliness, the vicarious pain of witness, the tenderness of compassion, the misery of demoralization, despair. And this is what I’ve come to. Each pain is its own intelligence of the world.
In recent weeks, I have been undone by private pain and by reports of pain from other places, other people. Lately I’ve felt like pain is the whole story, or most of it, instead of seeing the spectrum along which pain sits as one (but only one) form of essential information about what life is, who we are as creatures. Will I ever learn—though each time I think I have learned—to trust the necessary, tidal work of grief? To believe that what sweeps me up and carries me away from myself, what wears away the ground, will also bear me to the only home that is possible now? To the present? What’s given?
After each shipwreck, we build a better boat, or drown. Pain is the blueprint for the better boat, but it’s etched in a braille of nerves, a scrambled code we might never manage to read. I want to build the boat, tell the story. I don’t want to be with the pain. So it goes. So each pain is made worse by the effort to escape it. So compassion begins, but not until we learn to touch, first, what is untouchable in ourselves. Then others. That’s the way this goes. And so gratitude begins. For in our pain we are at the mercy of everything.
Humility begins when there is no boat, no story—not yet.
There will always be times when we are undone by our circumstances—perhaps by a single, devastating blow, or by its aftermath, or else by trivial accumulations, cumulative weight. Often the unmooring is sudden, perplexing. Pain, like any other natural phenomenon, does not always behave in predictable ways—though I do think how pain behaves (and how we behave in pain) is often intelligible after the fact, and the effort to understand and learn from pain can offer hope of change, improvement in the circumstances. But as anyone who has suffered severe pain of any kind over any length of time knows, sometimes it’s just not possible to get there, to that place of hope. In these times of unmooring, of deep destabilization, in these precious but brutal times, we truly are at the mercy of everything else, of what is not in our control.
Recently, I’ve struggled in ways that remind me of what, in labour, is called “coupling.” Contractions that land one on top of the other, without rest—the last ditch effort of a uterus to unstick something that has become perilously stuck. (If you can’t get something loose by applying reasonable effort, you might panic and start yanking.) So, in an effort to improve the affect of my circumstances, I’ve been taking myself walking. Though I should know by now how restorative it can be to be so close to nature, to return oneself to habitat, I’ve still been surprised by how profoundly and immediately my truculent misery has responded to the simple adjacency of the river. The dried-mud paths, the shrubs and trees that grow along the paths and whose summer incarnations are beginning to blush, to shrivel, to darken—to turn toward fall—these are all medicinal in some profound way that is the opposite of self-medication. None of this anaesthetizes the wound. Rather, it restores health to the organism as a whole.
All the heads of the fireweed have fallen down now, been blown away, so there is no trace anymore even of the white puffs of seeds that appear after blossoms go. I know August in Alberta like I know August nowhere else on earth. I have walked here with my grief, in this season, time and time again. Among wolf willow and red osier dogwood, the trembling leaves of aspen, yellow sow thistle, triune leaves of sarsasparilla, black-pointed eyes of snow berries. The seasonality of things here is an embodied consolation. Reliable recurrences, natural cycles. I find these things reassuring in the way of family rituals sustained over generations, which I see in the lives of others and find beautiful, imagine to be deeply nourishing.
If culture—family culture, the broader culture—lacks continuity—as it does for many of us—if it lacks sustained and sustaining rituals that help us absorb and survive all the discontinuity—all the private untimely death and public avoidable but unaverted disaster—if we have nothing to do with our pain other than suffer through it alone—what will we do with our increasingly uninhabitable lives?
From the Latin root habitare, to dwell: Inhabit. Habitat. Habituate. Habit. Uninhabitable.
To live here. To be where we are. How?
Summer is leaking out of things. Even the goldenrod has passed its prime. The rosebushes are empty even of the dried remnants of their blooms and many of the rosehips have begun to shrink and darken. The chlorophylls in the long grasses are no longer being replenished, so their splayed blades are streaked with red and purple, but not yet with yellow. To walk along the river now is to witness the turning of the season, to be present to the arrival of survivable changes. Changes we can live with.
Though the grasses glow with their own undoing, nothing need be mourned.
Where, in our cities, is the comparable art? What artifice exists to remind us of what we, in nature, know?
To live in a culture separate from the rhythms of nature, from rituals that encode a collective response to these rhythms, is to be deprived of basic consolations. What would a culture more attuned to loss, and pain, and death look like, at the street-level? A culture that puts pain back into the spectrum of things we might reasonably expect to experience, even sometimes at length, instead of pathologizing these things and the people who experience them? A culture more adept at living with pain, inhabiting it, and co-habitating with it, when it inevitably arises. A culture too robust for nihilistic aversions to whole aspects of the life cycle.
What is this pain saying, in its deep intelligence? What kind of a pain is it? What does it feel like?
What does your pain feel like? What do you think might help?
August 16th, 2014
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
and weep, but not all of your tears.
I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about love and fear–how both love and fear are places to stand. Anne Lamott, in her classic book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, quotes an old man from her church who booms in the middle of service “God is your home.” This is one of my favourite takes on that thorny question–What is home?–and like any good metaphor this one is better and more resonant than a more explicit formulation. “God is your home” kind of cuts through the whole question, changes its ground. I’ve been thinking a lot about love as a home in this world, a kind of shelter. Not a bomb shelter, by any means. Maybe even the opposite of a bomb shelter. But a place to live, nevertheless. A form of habitat.
This fall and winter, thanks to the support of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, I’ll be busy writing the first draft of a non-fiction book about habitat. So I’m thinking a lot about what we need as creatures in order to flourish, what we need as artists in order to create. Thinking, too, about what those of us who are mothers and artists need, as far as supportive conditions go, in order to get the work done. Single mothers, especially.
In my Grade 12 year, I had an extraordinary English teacher who pulled my best work out of me through a combination of inspiration, intellectual/ethical rigour, and encouragement. I wrote an essay for him about Alan Paton’s beautiful novel Cry, the Beloved Country. I would give a lot to see a copy of that essay again, as I’m sure it would amuse and embarrass and impress me, probably in equal measure. What I do remember is that I wrote about fear, and love. I quoted 1 John 4:18. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment. [S]he that feareth is not made perfect in love.”
When my daughter was very young, I first realized how difficult the concept of “opposites” is to explain. I used to sit on the floor with her and read, over and over, a lovely little board book by Tad Hills, The Book of Opposites. Duck and Goose and Bird illustrate what I found difficult to articulate: that part of the work of coming to understand the world is inherently about reciprocity, relationship. Up; down. Happy; sad. Heavy; light. It is easy to lift a feather. It is hard to lift a friend.
As everybody but me already knew, children come to understand opposites not by way of conceptual explanation but by the accumulation of examples. So my daughter can now pair the classic oppositions along with the best of us. Meanwhile, my ability to pair oppositions is deteriorating. Are happy and sad really opposites? What about brokenness and wholeness? Doesn’t true wholeness include brokenness? What is the opposite of anger? The working title of my (recently completed) poetry manuscript for years was a rip off of Tad Hills. The Book of Opposites. An interrogation of thresholds.
I suppose at the root of my thinking about love and opposites all these years is the implicit claim made by John the Apostle in the verse quoted above: that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. I’ve been tuning in, more, to the way that fear displaces the generosity of love–particularly the kind of fear that comes up as a self-protective reaction between individuals. I’ve been trying to learn what it means to live in love instead of in fear. I think it has something to do with the lilies I sat beside in a community garden a few weeks ago, the way they didn’t change their posture at all when the hard, sudden rain began to fall. Even though, had I stayed long enough, I’m sure I would have seen that rain tear some of their petals from them. Love, I think, has something to do with being that open: alive, tender, defenseless.
Beautiful–now!–like lilies–and not for long. Seeing everything in this way. As my sister often reminds me, quoting Jeff Foster, “Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.”
To be like the lilies sometimes, unafraid of being open, even though the hard rains will fall. I aspire to this. I think this is love. I think this is a way of being with each other. I think this is a way, even when all the other ways have vanished, of going home.
To live in love that has no fear in it. An impossibility, like peace, but one worth heading toward and navigating according to, anyway–as Aung San Suu Kyi has said of peace–like a star in the night sky. Not to make one’s home merely by being “in love,” infatuated (you don’t need to be an etymologist to spy the fatuousness at the root of that word). But, instead, no matter where we are–in love or out of it–to make the effort to learn what a more robust love might be, as a habitat.
Not an Eden. Not a place without predation (and hence–sometimes–legitimate fear), but habitat nevertheless. A place with nourishment, a way of being there that supports flourishing. Not a place, only, of peace and pleasure–as Khalil Gibran says, in the quote above, with aphoristic clarity.
June 29th, 2014
When I was a teenager, a not-very-intuitive psychologist I briefly saw thought I might have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Perhaps I did, but if so it was the pea buried beneath twenty down quilts and twenty feather beds, and I did not at that life moment have the necessary stillness to discern or listen to anything so minute. There were too many definite torments in the room for me to start dealing with the indefinite ones.
Now, gratefully, all that has changed. For the most part I have the freedom and peace of mind to attend to the indefinite, to intuit the presence of peas under mattresses and to go down looking under each layer, each quilt which is different from the last.
And here is what I’ve found in the last little while. It has something to do with seasonal affective disorder, which feels like a beautiful metaphor. Clinically, SAD is understood to be related to lack of light in the winter–specifically to a lack of full-spectrum light. Sunlight is full-spectrum light. Most artificial light is not. Some of the symptoms of SAD can be alleviated by sitting under a full-spectrum light bulb in the winter. (This is all anecdotal, and poorly researched, but that is okay because I am mostly interested in the figurative implications at the moment). I’ve been thinking about what happens to us, to our bodies, to our souls, when we are missing part of the spectrum. I recently watched a commencement speech given by Jim Carey, a surprisingly insightful talk in which, at one point, he asks his audience, “What, you didn’t think I could be serious?”
This question illuminated something for me: the inverse. My life and work have been dedicated for decades to the intuition and articulation of peas-under-mattresses, those large and small fragments of grief that bruise us in our sleep, but that are also the source of every story, every art. And suddenly I think there is so much more going on in the room. So many other curious, illuminating, nourishing things.
So the extraordinary shift that is taking place in my thinking right now is this: even this amazing thing, the intuition of peas, to me right now, seems–for all its mystery and necessity–like only a part of the spectrum. Can this really be me speaking? / “What, didn’t think I could be (less) serious?” But it is me speaking. I’m opening up to the rest of the spectrum in a way I have not since, probably, I was a child in my parents’ garden, the garden of my living parents.
Children come full-spectrum. They come up to their knees in soil, still rooted in what nourishes them and unconcerned about where future nourishment will come from. They are open to what they feel: laughter, tears, anger, delight. And they need to be consoled! They are not little Buddhists, sitting in their pain without wanting to move away from it. But they are amazing at letting it go, once it subsides. We grown-up children live in exile, for the most part, from this creaturely inheritance: presence with the energy that comes up and buffets and nourishes, and humanizes, us.
When my son was only a few weeks old, I used to lie in bed with him and play and watch his face, how quickly he moved from distress to pleasure, from smiling to squeezing his face up in pain, and back again–and I thought to myself: this is resilience, he is teaching me resilience, how not to stay unhappy, how to just let something go.
And now I realize, too, though it should have been obvious at the time, that I was teaching him resilience. I was teaching him to trust that someone would love him no matter what he felt, that someone would mirror pain and love and happiness, so he could know what they were, and that none of them would last forever, and that each one would return.
So now I’m thinking so much about the other halves of things, how reciprocal everything is in this creaturely, natural world which is full of emotional processes that are also natural, and have phases, and spectrums which will be as full, I think now, as we are willing to make them. I’m thinking these days not only of resilience, of how to let something go, but also about openness: how to let something come. How to let it all arrive and depart like the sun. Or — more accurately — like the weather and the orbit and the phase and the tilt and the direction and the openness that make up our relationship to something that is, on its own, fundamentally unchanged.
Because, if we know anything, we know this. We know it’s not the sun that turns away.
June 17th, 2014
When I first began this blog, I wrote my initial post on the topic of perishable gifts. I had a six-month-old and a nearly four-year-old. My posts were brief, with an emphasis on imperfection. Somehow I made time for them, then, when there was less time objectively speaking. Now I have more time, so expect more of it. I miss the ability I had then to relax (sometimes) into the ephemerality of days and time and thoughts and words.
Now my oldest is six, my youngest is not-quite-three, and the tidal pull of early parenthood, the unavoidable submersion of everything I wanted to hold onto, is mostly history. The waters have (mostly) receded. And though many gifts in the meantime have perished I’m not so worried about this perishability anymore. Maybe because it’s clearer to me now that the gifts just keep on coming.
I am, however, still extremely interested in the whole idea of the gift, and the given. I’m especially interested by the idea of the given as a way to acceptance, to reconciliation with what is. What is given? We could do worse than to spend our lives in earnest pursuit of answers to this question.
All of our rituals around gifts honour the reciprocal quality in them, the importance of acknowledging not only what is given but also the one who gives and the one who receives. Anything received with gratitude as a gift is a kind of blessing: If it’s an object given or made with care, the object can be a kind of talisman, radiating love, or hope, or courage.
Lewis Hyde, whose excellent book The Gift I read years ago, writes with a lot more rigour about the economy of the gift than I’m capable of bringing to the table in the evening after a day of being with little people (speaking of giving…). But for me there’s something even more primary in all of this, something that goes all the way back to childhood: the offering basket passed down the rows of chairs, over people’s knees, the way it felt to be a child placing coins into the basket.
We all want to have something to offer. Though I stand now on very different theological ground than my parents did then, I have retained many of the basic impressions they made on me with their wild faith, including this: the implicit idea that giving and receiving are not so much opposites as phases of one another. My dad used to sing a song that went like this: “Give what you have and the Lord will give you more.” My parents believed in this fundamental generosity: the more you give, the more you are able to receive.
Maybe they were right. Maybe giving and receiving–like ice, water, and vapour–are different phases of the same substance, whose basic identity does not alter despite changes in its physical form. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we always had something to offer, if what we needed was always waiting to be received?
This year I have run on empty. I have survived the perishing of gifts and walked through that dark place where it seems the giving and receiving of gifts has ceased. For a long time I felt I had nothing to give.
But now I find myself ready to give again. Able to host friends, prepare food, offer care. Writing poems like a house on fire. I’m giving what I have, and it is enough. I’m open to receiving more.
Listening is everything, I increasingly think. Admitting where we are, in whatever cycle we’re caught up in, accepting what’s given. Listening is the ground of artistic practice, the ground of self-knowledge, also the ground of care, of generosity, of all relationship. Lately I’ve been aware–if imperfect in the application of this awareness–that listening to the given, to what’s given, and letting it be what it is, as it is, is perhaps the first duty, the core generosity. Perhaps it is the whole thing.
The novel I’ve been working on for a shocking number of years now is deeply thematically invested in thinking about care and harm, about dereliction and responsibility. And since I’ve also been caring for little children for the past six years, I’ve been thinking very concretely about care, what it is, how to give it, etc.
It occurred to me a few years ago that care, like harm, involves the crossing of boundaries. It’s just that care crosses boundaries gently, carefully, in attunement to the Other–while harm crosses boundaries selfishly, perhaps angrily, but certainly for the wrong motives, and always without the requisite attunement. Harm is not always intentional; care is. Though, of course, we are responsible for outcome regardless of intention.
Generosity–giving what it is in us to give–and gratitude–seeing what the gifts in fact are–both depend on listening. And listening means accepting what isn’t given, what the gifts are not, no matter how we wish it could be otherwise.
I remind my kids often of the importance of accepting what’s offered, what’s not offered. “What’s offered?” they often ask me now, when they’re hungry for something to eat. It’s a practice, not always an easy one, for them and for me too, to accept the answer, whatever it is.
Very recently I’ve also been learning something new: that as much as we might wish to offer care, if it isn’t invited, that’s something we must listen to. I’m learning to listen with greater attunement to what is and is not invited, as well as to what’s offered. What’s wanted. As Wendell Berry says, “The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.”
To listen to and accept our limits, and the limits of those around us, is to learn. It is also, perhaps, the first act of generosity.
To attune ourselves to others sufficiently to ascertain whether the gift is apt. That’s stage two listening. More practice will be required.
Maybe we have a gift but it isn’t the right one. Maybe sometimes we are empty handed, even when we aren’t.
I think this is ok, even good, to accept.
February 17th, 2014
with my friend and co-conspirator, Jessica Hiemstra (left)
I’m so pleased with this piece on How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting by the Edmonton Journal’s books columnist, Michael Hingston. Speaking with him about the book was a great pleasure, and I’m quite pleased with his representation of the book in this piece (not to mention with the space the Journal devoted to our little book–a full page of Friday’s print edition of the Books section!).
Hingston writes: “How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting…is, at heart, an attempt to normalize miscarriage, and thus locate it as just one part of the larger narratives of pregnancy and parenthood.…For moms and dads alike, it opens up a space to grapple with a kind of grief that remains extremely difficult to put into words.” Yes! I’m so glad to see the book given room to be itself–a book for diverse audiences, about a subject matter that is larger than the gender of either its readers or its writers (several of our authors are men, but I still notice a strong tendency for people to see women as the book’s target audience). It’s also interesting to see that bookstores have for the most part been filing the book under “Parenting.” In fact, the book is full of extraordinary literary essays. Period. They appear together in one book because they happen to be essays about a particular species of loss. But this does not diminish their excellence as essays, and I hope that in addition to readers who find the book because of their own experiences with the kinds of loss the writers here explore, How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting will also prove to be a book worthy of the readerly attentions of those who have not experienced this kind of loss themselves.
As Kim Jernigan writes in the book’s Foreword, “We all belong to the country of the bereaved.” This is true regardless of our private biographies. How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting is one of many books published every year that aspire to add something meaningful, and yes perhaps in some way alleviating, to the store of what has been said about our perplexing and sometimes painful embodiment. Yet, despite its explicit topic, as I said to Michael Hingston, How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting “is a very optimistic book. It’s a take on loss as not the end of the story. There’s an important balance between giving loss its due — not minimizing it — and also giving it its ecological place inside of a life.”
December 30th, 2013
Okay, this is for all of the poets out there sparring over negative reviews and negative reviews of negative reviews and the entrenchment of prejudice and power and the importance of the canon and whatever whatever (it matters, I know, it definitely matters, and we’ll need to come back to it, but can we just blow the whistle a minute and think?). Saying something publicly is not always the best course of action at times like these, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway. So I guess this is also for those of us who haven’t said much out loud about all of this but who have been listening.
I want to say something about principled argument, about its basis. Literal vision, as we know, is an amalgam of two points of view—what is seen by the left eye merged with what is seen by the right eye. The brain reconciles two slightly-incompatible images and the effect on vision, for those of us who have this doubled/reconciled view of things—because not everybody does—is 1) depth and 2) the ability to navigate with greater accuracy.
Principled argument, as a process, can be to understanding as the brain’s visual reconciliation process is to literal vision. Principles, which guide discernment, matter. But we do not share principles. Enter conflict, the human condition, the Canadian poetry “conversation.” What do we do?
Well, first, as philosophy majors and advocates for freedom of expression know, we have to be able to say and consider and come to understand and say and consider again—to revise both privately and publicly—what we in fact think. For this process to be most effective, we must have the opportunity to do so in the presence of others who disagree with us. Conversations in absence of agreement are indispensable. Arguments with ourselves and with one another—including negative evaluations of work, whether of critical work or of creative work—are essential. Without these, we are impoverished. At their best and most exciting, these conversations have the potential to change our minds. In the course of disagreeing articulately with someone else, we (or they) might let go of, or modify, ideas we’ve held for most of our lives.
But what makes these conversations possible? One word: charity. To the disappointment of brilliant undergraduates everywhere, philosophers have something called the principle of charity. The idea is simple: before you start shooting down somebody else’s bad idea—as tempting as that is, and as clever as the sentences are that you’ve already started composing in your head—before you begin constructing your counterargument, which will blow your opponent’s shoddy metaphors right out of the…well, out of the potty he’s been training on, ahem—you put in some real time and your best philosophical efforts and you work to understand your opponent’s argument on its own terms with as much charity as you can muster.
You want to do a very good job of this, because otherwise you’ll look bad: you’ll look like your vision lacks depth. And it will lack depth. But there’s also this: the more persuasively and charitably you restate your opponent’s argument, the more precisely you work to understand your own objections and the more astutely you articulate those objections, the better—and more persuasive—your thinking will be. The more people will agree with you, including those who didn’t already agree with you before you ever sat down to think and write. And this is, if not the whole point of conversation, at least a very big part of the point. Or am I missing something? I often am—it’s a hazard of vision.
Here’s another thing philosophers do: they locate the crux of an argument. They train themselves to sniff out the viscera, and—if they’re going to gut anything—gut that. They don’t seize upon the weakest, most frivolous, carelessly appended sentences in an argument. They locate the crux, and let it have its weight. Then they skillfully cut what’s legitimate, as far as they can see, free of its illegitimate ligature, its invalid conclusions. Interlocutional theatre! Surgery at its finest! Philosophers know that your antagonist is your helper: look, he’s showing you where the gold is, just by standing there with his knife drawn guarding it.
Let’s see if we can learn something from a discipline with a long history of generative conflict. Let’s be wary of logical fallacies: straw persons, red herrings, and the like. Here’s the thing: principled argument isn’t actually easy. You have to get past all the knee-jerk stuff, like thinking somebody’s an asshole or an imbecile. But here’s the thing about charity: it might actually change you, or at least your mind. Or maybe it’s your antagonist who will be changed by the process of being charitably understood, yet rigorously disagreed with. Who knows what great change might occur?
So here are some questions: what role might criticism (pushed by charity toward heightened precision and clarity) play in sharpening the wits—instead of the knives—of poets and readers and future critics? In what ways do pre-existing power structures and imbalances control the conversation and decide who is included? How do our choices as critics participate in and help to reproduce these structures and imbalances? What is the proper relationship, if any, between this kind of political question and the work of attending to what poetry, in its essentially specific and atomic way, is saying or doing? Finally, how can we individually and collectively write criticism that serves the vitality of the poetry being diversely and divergently written and read and talked about in this country?
Here’s something pro-visional—what if we could, by extending the olive branch of charity to one another’s arguments and choosing to see the crux instead of getting snagged on the branches, create a new criticism? Okay, not that new criticism. A Canadian polyglot criticism, in love with language and the history of poetic form, and, yes, with charity as the ground of generative conversation. Criticism that, if it “wins,” does so because of how finely wrought its understanding is. A criticism, while we’re designing it, of compound eyes. We could be the mantis shrimp of poetic conversation. We could let the complexity of our vision be the thing that distinguishes us from the blunter creatures.
We could be in love with our own private rational and irrational principles for evaluation and with the demanding work of externalizing these in language. But, oh, is it too much to say we could simultaneously be in love (i.e. in charity) with otherness, with trying to imagine all those ecstatic forms of rational and irrational thought not our own?
Too much, yes, it is certainly too much to say all this. I will certainly be reproved. But, if so, let it at least not be done reflexively, let it not be decided before I even began writing this, determined by some primitive cognitive sorting process that identifies pre-conceived differences. Let’s see if we can elevate our conversations so they are more than a crude form of pattern recognition, a variant on that old arcade game, alligator whacker, or whatever it’s called, the one where you earn points for standing guard with a mallet and swiftly hitting on the head whatever unfortunate creature shoots out to try its luck with your attentions.
December 21st, 2013
This year for me the winter solstice seems a significant marker, a waypoint on the path, a useful cognitive lever with which to flip the storyline–to say, hey, maybe the worst of the darkness has passed. Here’s hoping. For we must, always, keep hoping, no matter what–though there will always be reasons to stop.
To all of you who are also hoping in the darkness that the worst has passed, to those of you hunkered down and awaiting more, to those of you who have lost all faith in the return of light, I’m wishing you whatever grace you need to weather the darkness, to inhabit it, to be where you are.
Some of us are flickering in the darkness. Here’s my hope for this longest night. That we imagine one another grieving. That we celebrate joy and love even when they aren’t our own. That we open up our imaginations to make room for one another. That, as we grieve our losses, we know that in this we are not alone.
C.S. Lewis famously said “We read to know we are not alone.” Many of those of us who write do so because reading once shattered our alienation. Here’s a new, brief piece I wrote for Huffington Post this week. They asked me to write something on motherhood and loss, and I am pleased to have been able to have taken the chance to also write something about making room for loss this time of year. (Read it here.)
Warm wishes for bright days, for hope in darkness.