I’m reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonia for the first time. I like Ántonia just fine so far, though I haven’t yet reached Jim Burden’s level of fascination with her. What I like best at this point is Cather’s writing, which is graceful and evocative without being at all fussy, and is full of marvelously specific and sensual details about the land and the landscape of the novel. My two favorite bits so far:
I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There were some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps it feels like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
I’m the opposite of a country girl by experience and inclination, but that passage made me want to find a vast field of tall grass, lie under the sun, and dissolve into its warmth and life.
This next excerpt is more melancholy–it takes the proximity of peaceful sleep to death more literally–but it is just as delicately splendid:
Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed action lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence–the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.
I don’t personally believe, as a matter of fact or faith, that it matters at all to the “sleepers” where they lie, but I do believe it can matter a lot to those who hold their memories close. The happy dissolution imagined in the first passage is a comforting way to think about a final resting place, isn’t it? In these passages Cather prepares us for that inevitable return to the earth. It doesn’t seem so sad or scary if we think of it as becoming part of a place that we have loved.
There were farm-buildings which elms and chestnut trees and birches snugly encompassed and Hobbema-like avenues of wintry trees which ended at the gates of seemly manor-houses–the abodes, I hoped, of mild jonkheers. They were gabled in semi-circles and broken right-angles of weathered brick bordered with white stone. Pigeon-lofts saddled the scales of the roofs and the breeze kept the gilded weather-vanes spinning; and when the leaded windows kindled at lighting-up time, I explored the interiors in my imagination. A deft chiaroscuro illuminated the black and white flagstones; there were massive tables with bulbous legs and Turkey carpets flung over them; convex mirrors distorted the reflections; faded wall-charts hung on the walls; globes and harpsichords and inlaid lutes were elegantly scattered; and Guelderland squires with pale whiskers–or their wives in tight bonnets and goffered ruffs–lifted needle-thin wine-glasses to judge the colour by the light of the branching and globular brass candelabra which were secured on chains to the beams and the coffered ceilings.
Imaginary interiors . . . No wonder they took shape in painting terms! . . . For if there is a foreign landscape familiar to English eyes by proxy, it is this one; by the time they see the original, a hundred mornings and afternoons in museums and picture galleries and country houses have done their work. Those confrontations and recognition scenes filled the journey with excitement and delight. The nature of the landscape itself, the colour, the light, the sky, the openness, the expanse and the details of the towns and the villages are leagued together in the weaving of a miraculously consoling and healing spell. Melancholy is exorcised, chaos chased away and wellbeing, alacrity of spirit and a thoughtful calm take their place.
Like many readers I know, I have been struggling with my concentration in these pandemic days. This has happened in other, less extraordinary circumstances as well, of course, and usually the cure is as much about finding the right book to break the slump as it is about anything else. With that in mind, I have been casting about for the right book for this moment, and it occurred to me that I should re-start A Time of Gifts, which I had begun long ago and, for no particular reason, put aside. This passage on the happy congruity between the art and the reality of the Dutch landscape was one of the ones I had earmarked before, and I loved it just as much when I came across it this time. It is bound to remind any reader of George Eliot of her wonderful tribute to Dutch paintings in Adam Bede:
It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise. I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence, which has been the fate of so many more among my fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence, of tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions . . .
All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children—in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy. Paint us an angel, if you can, with a floating violet robe, and a face paled by the celestial light; paint us yet oftener a Madonna, turning her mild face upward and opening her arms to welcome the divine glory; but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world—those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this world there are so many of these common coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore, let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things.
I was thinking that another way to break up the inertia I’ve been experiencing in my reading and writing would be to approach my blog at least some of the time as more of a commonplace book, to take the pressure off having to say something organized about my reading every time. So there may be more posts coming like this one: just an excerpt or two from whatever I’m reading, maybe with a bit of commentary, maybe without. It’s nice just to share the good bits, I figure–and A Time of Gifts is sure to have many of them.
I’m having a hard time keeping track of what day it is, mostly because under the new work-from-home protocol–and the more general stay-at-home order–there’s not much difference between one day and the next. I’ve also stopped doing grocery shopping on Saturday mornings (which had been my routine for more than two decades): now I go mid-week, usually Wednesday, as early as I’m allowed in the store, which means I’m home by 9 a.m. and so, aside from the gradually receding adrenaline from the stress of the outing, it too then becomes a day like every other day.
As these days become weeks and months, I am trying to find a rhythm that brings a bit of order to the passing hours without adding unnecessary pressure, something in between just drifting and trying to enforce a fixed schedule when really there’s no need as long as, bit by bit, the things that need doing get done. Most mornings I spend puttering way on online teaching: reading, experimenting with tools in Brightspace, trying to imagine how else to do what I’ve always done, working through the modules for the online course I signed up for on online course design. Being a student in this course is probably as valuable as anything they are directly teaching me about online learning: I feel first-hand, for example, the importance of engagement, or the discouragement of its lack–so many people enrolled, so few people contributing to any of the discussion boards! I’m trying hard to sustain my positive attitude, or at least to stay practical about what lies ahead even if sometimes my heart just sinks when I think about it or I get swamped with doubt about my ability to do a good job, to make the experience anything like what I think it should be and hope, on my better days, that it can be.
Afternoons are (more or less) for reading. I haven’t posted about any books since The Glass Hotel but that isn’t because I haven’t read any. In fact, I have read four (almost five) books since then, all by P. D. James, because I am rereading her complete works (or all of her mysteries, at any rate) in preparation for writing a piece for the TLS in honor of her centenary. I was really glad that the editors liked this idea: it’s a perfect project for this haphazard summer. I have a lot of ideas about James from having read (and taught) her for years, but I have not had a reason to put those ideas in good order before, and it has also been a long time since I read most of her back catalog. It’s very interesting reading through the books all at once and in order: you quickly notice recurring themes and habits, strengths and weaknesses, and also the way her scope and themes expand. I think (I hope!) that this is a kind of essay I’m reasonably good at, collating and synthesizing across a range of examples; this is also an approach that I think works well for crime series, which are interesting both in their individual parts and as enduring creations that are more than the sum of those parts, often (as in this case) through the story they tell about the central detective that unifies them. My previous essays on Dick Francis and the Martin Beck books were in a similar vein. I won’t want to anticipate too much of the final product here, but I will probably report back occasionally, partly to keep holding myself accountable! Maybe when I’ve finished my reread I should do another ranked list. My post on the top 10 Dick Francis novels has been my most-read post of all time! 🙂
I do have some other books on the go or in the queue. I am about 100 pages into Andrew Miller’s The Crossing, which is the last of the random pile of library books I brought home shortly before the lockdown. It’s good so far in the way his other books were good: meticulous, quietly and a bit ominously atmospheric. I ordered Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian from Bookmark, and it looks very tempting; I pulled Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts from the shelf because I’ve never read it and if there was ever a time to travel vicariously in excellent literary company, this is surely it. My book club “met” on Thursday to discuss Detective Inspector Huss (mixed feelings all round) and there too the idea of being mentally somewhere else appeals: Turkey somehow came up as a preferred destination, so we may do something by Elif Shafak next. I am still struggling a bit with concentration, so although I have John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy still to read from my Christmas stash, I think now may not be the time for something intricately plotted. On the other hand, maybe now is exactly the time for a book that will insist I really pay attention!
We have certainly been watching a lot of TV: the new season of Better Call Saul, The End of the F***ing World, Little Fires Everywhere, The Stranger,Ozark … If we’d known what lay ahead, we might have rationed some of the other shows we watched over the winter–season 5 of Line of Duty, the latest season of Shetland–that we knew to be engrossing. It is a good time to be watching Parks and Recreation for the first time: its gentle, goodhearted humor is a tonic. Sadly, the channel that carried the Great British Sewing Bee and various other painting and craft shows has dropped suddenly from our cable package, just when such low-key distractions would be more welcome than ever, and a lot of the videos on the Youtube channel where I had found the Great Pottery Throwdown are now blocked, which I guess is legitimate but it’s still sad. It was March 8 that I wrote about how “gripped and soothed” I was by shows highlighting creativity and making things: little did I know that would be the last blog post of the Before Times.
So that’s how my week is going–how my weeks are going, as they blur together, weirdly ephemeral and indistinct but also somehow relentless, a foggy procession through time. I continue to be really grateful for Twitter and blogs: reading and talking about reading and knowing that the rest of you are out there too, all of us getting by as best we can and hanging on to the things we care about, including books and ideas and each other.
I’m not sure whether I’m surprised that it has already been three weeks since we began extreme social distancing here or surprised that it hasn’t been even longer — normalcy itself seems so distant now! It seems remote in both directions, too: hard as it is to think back on the relative simplicity of ordinary life before, it is even harder to look ahead because there is so much uncertainty about when and how those conditions will return. That’s as good an argument as any for trying to take this massive disruption one day at a time, which is certainly what I have been trying to do. My success varies, as does my ability to get through each day with anything like the (again, relative) equanimity and focus I used to have.
I have done a decent job (I think and hope) at sorting out my classes, at least. Over time it has gotten easier to let go of the plans and expectations that originally shaped them, which in itself is a necessary kind of progress, I guess! I chose the simplest way possible to deliver additional material: rather than recording lectures or trying to wrangle synchronous or interactive components at such a chaotic time, I’ve been making up PowerPoint slide sets in which I have tried to balance information and explanations of my own with questions, pointers, and suggestions for how to keep thinking about the class material. This has been primarily a finishing-up exercise, focused on texts we had already begun work on in class, which helps: the overall direction of our inquiries had been set. It has taken a lot of work, though, partly because I ordinarily use PowerPoint (when I use it at all) to supplement or illustrate or outline our classroom conversation, not as a stand-alone component: I’ve had to think very hard about how to use each slide, how to shape the overall presentation, and of course how exactly to say everything, as I’m not there to clarify, correct, or elaborate. Now I’m moving on to review materials for the students who have opted to write the take-home final exam, and of course I also have to make up the exams themselves — and I have papers to mark, too, an activity that seems a lot more attractive right now than it sometimes does because, unlike almost everything else, it is exactly the same process as ever.
One of the many ways I feel very fortunate right now is that neither of my classes this term is very large. If my teaching load were heavier (as was the case last term, and as is the case for some of my colleagues now), this would all be much harder. Although I am trying not to look too far ahead right now, it is impossible not to be conscious that there are no guarantees that our fall term, including my large first-year writing class, won’t be at least partly online as well. I would not want to teach any class, never mind a writing class, entirely through slide sets, of course! What we have been doing this term is handling an emergency situation as best we can, which (as many people have reiterated in online discussions) is not the same as a purposeful transition to online teaching with due diligence around best practices for learning, engagement, assessment, and accessibility. Everything I have read about online teaching tells me that it takes more time and more planning (and more resources) to do effectively than face to face teaching. Much as I hate the thought of it, because I love being in the classroom so much, it seems foolish to put off learning more about those best practices in the hope that I won’t need to, so I’ve signed up for a course we’ve just been offered through the university (itself asynchronous and online) on ‘online design and delivery.’ Part of the appeal (besides the professional obligation to keep doing my job as well as I can) is taking at least a bit of control over the situation: maybe I can approach the possibility of taking my classes online as a creative opportunity, albeit an unwelcome and unsought one!
I haven’t been able to do much really attentive reading since I finished Threads of Life last week. There’s not really any good reason for this: it’s mostly lack of willpower as much as nervous distraction! But my sister thoughtfully sent me a selection of tempting lighter reads for my birthday (along with a lovely assortment of other treats!) so I’ve been making my way through these, including Grace Burrowes’ The Captive (she’s a new-to-me historical romance novelist, and I enjoyed this one enough to put some others in the series on hold at the library – ebooks, of course, since the physical library is closed!) and Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (which is charming, if almost too much so – its premise and plot are cute enough that I think the book would actually be better if Waxman didn’t try so hard to be funny–or ‘bookish,’ which inevitably means, among other things, lots of handwaving to obvious fan favorites like Pride and Prejudice – see also You’ve Got Mail, for example). I also read a short book I’ll be reviewing – Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders – so that was not just distracting but also productive!
Like most avid readers, I always have a good selection of unread books on my shelves, but like Colleen I’ve been finding them somehow not quite what I want. In some ways this is a familiar problem for readers: sometimes you just have to wait for the right moment to read a particular book! I’ve had books on the shelf for literally decades that one day just suddenly leapt into my hand, or at least into my awareness, as if at last they were perfectly ripe for reading. But right now it may also represent the difference between choosing books just because they look interesting and choosing books to read when the world is in crisis. Thanks to the King’s Coop Bookstore, whose lovely manager is doing home deliveries by bicycle, I now have Miriam Toews’ Women Talking and Emily St. John Mandel’s Glass Hotel to hand, and I’ve also just sorted out my copy of The Mirror and the Light, which had been stranded in a closed Coles but is now en route to me by mail. I feel that familiar readerly tickle of excitement just naming them here, so hopefully I’ll be deep into one of them soon and that will help my one-day-at-a-time coping strategy feel less grim and more grounded. After all, reading has been the one constant through all the changes in my life, good and bad. It’s not going to let me down now.
So, that’s where I am: trying to keep my head in the moment and not let myself spiral into frantic ‘what if’ or ‘what next’ scenarios, and trying to appreciate the good fortune that means I still have my job, even if for now I can’t do it on the terms I’d like, and to focus on all that we have, rather than what we can’t do. I continue to be grateful for the community of readers I belong to through blogs and Twitter: as so many of our relationships have always been at a distance, in this at least I feel the comfort of continuity.
Like everyone else in the world (and how odd for that not to be hyperbole, though our timelines have differed) I have spent the past week adjusting to the unprecedented risks and disruptions created by the spread of COVID-19. Friday March 13 began as a more or less ordinary day of classes: the cloud was looming on the horizon, reports were coming in of the first university closures in Canada, and we had been instructed to start making contingency plans in case Dalhousie followed suit. But my schedule that day was normal almost to the end: I had a meeting with our Associate Dean Academic to discuss my interest in trying contract grading in my first-year writing class; I taught the second of four planned classes on Three Guineas in the Brit Lit survey class and of four planned classes on Mary Barton in 19th-Century British Fiction. The only real break from routine was a brisk walk down to Spring Garden Road at lunch time to pick up a couple of items I thought it might be nice to have secured, just in case: Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good for my book club, which I knew had just come in at Bookmark, and a bottle of my favorite Body Shop shower gel (satsuma! it is such a sunny fragrance)–hardly essential, but potential pick-me-ups for hard times to come.
Just before my afternoon class, however, we got the news that classes were being suspended as of Monday March 16: it’s a measure of how distracted I actually was, despite the veneer of normalcy, that I didn’t quite process the details and thought for a while that we would still be in classes at least until Wednesday (which is the date the memo told us to have our detailed plans ready for the rest of the term). The first scheduling casualty was the department talk scheduled for that Friday afternoon: I was supposed to be introducing what I’m sure would have been a very interesting talk from Tom Ue on ‘Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing,’ but though Tom had come out from Toronto already, the decision was made not to go ahead with it. I suppose it’s true it would have been hard for people to settle down and pay attention, under the circumstances, not to mention inconsistent with the escalating imperative to ‘social distancing.’
So I packed up and went home–but still, I realized later, without having quite focused on what was happening. For example, I brought home not just the books we were in the middle of but the books that are (were) next on the class schedule, because it still seemed plausible that we would be doing something like actually finishing the courses as originally planned. And I did not bring home a stack of books that it might just be nice to have copies of at home–any of my Victorian novels, for instance. I own around a dozen copies of Middlemarch, and right now every one of them is out of reach! We are still allowed into our building, and I’ve been thinking I should go get one, and maybe some Trollope. I can’t tell if this really makes much sense, though. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have a lot of books to read right here with me, and I also have e-books of a lot of 19th-century novels because when I bought my first Sony e-reader, years ago, part of the deal was a big stack of free classics to go with it. So what if I don’t like reading long books electronically: I could get used to it. It would be a pretty low-risk outing, given that the campus is basically a ghost town at this point, but I think it’s really psychological reassurance I would be seeking, not reading material, and what are the odds that seeing familiar places I can’t really go back to for who knows how long would actually be comforting?
Anyway, it quickly became clear that the right strategy (and, to their credit, the one our administrators have been urging) is not to try to replicate electronically all of our plans for the last few weeks of term, including the final exam period, but to smooth students’ paths to completion as best we can: dropping readings and assignments and giving them options including taking the grade they have earned so far but still also allowing another chance to do better in as painless a way as we can think of. I think the options I came up with for my classes are pretty good, in these respects, but it may be that they don’t go far enough, because this is all turning out to be so much harder than it sounded a week ago–and of course however we might (or might not!) be managing, our students have their own specific circumstances which may make even the most “reasonable” alternatives too much. I have been feeling a lot of regret about the books we won’t get to, especially The Remains of the Day, which I was increasingly excited about as the capstone text for the survey class–what a good book to read right after Three Guineas! As for Three Guineas itself, I was so excited about teaching it for the first time. It’s definitely going back on my syllabus the next time it fits the brief. Sigh.
One of the most emotionally painful parts of all of this has been the abrupt severance of personal relationships, which is what teaching is really all about. I have put course materials together to get us to the end of our current texts, but it is much less rewarding scripting them than it is taking my ideas and questions in to meet them with and seeing what comes of our encounter. Sure, it doesn’t always go swimmingly, but that just means you try again, or try something different. I know there are ways to include more personal and “synchronous” interaction (as we’ve quickly learned to label it!) in online teaching, and of course as someone who spends a lot of time online I already believe that you can cultivate meaningful relationships without meeting face to face. There just isn’t time for that now, though, and also the demands those tools put on everyone to be available and attentive at the same time are all wrong for our immediate circumstances. It isn’t just about finding ways to get through the course material together either: there are students I have been working with for years who it turns out I saw in person for maybe the last time that Friday without even knowing it. I have been thinking about them, and about all of my students, so much since that hectic departure from campus and hoping they know how much I have valued our time together and how much I already miss them!
And now, I guess, it’s time to settle in to what people keep euphemistically calling “the new normal.” Here in Halifax we are under strong directions for social distancing; I’ve heard rumors that something more rigorous might be coming, in the hope of really flattening that infamous curve. There are lots of wry jokes and memes about readers or introverts or others whose habits and preferences mean they have been “preparing for this moment our whole lives.” We live a pretty quiet life ourselves, so to some extent this is true of us as well (though not of Maddie, who like many young people is going to be very well served by the various ways she and her friends can stay in touch virtually). It’s pretty different having to stay home, though, and also worrying whenever you go out, even if it’s only for essentials. It’s also not spring yet here–I envy my family in Vancouver the softening weather that makes walks and parks and gardens good options. I am grateful, though, that we are comfortable and together and, so far, healthy. I am also glad I did pick up An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, because I finished reading it this morning and it is a nice bit of twisted fun…about which more soon, I hope!
I’m thinking about all my blogging and Twitter friends a lot too and I am so glad we have these networks to keep us connected. May we take strength and comfort from each other even from our usual distance!
Lately I have found myself both gripped and soothed by a particular genre of television, and happily for me there turns out to be a lot of it–in fact, since I brought it up on Twitter I’ve learned of many more options, which means that even at my current rate of consumption I won’t run out for months. The shows I’ve been binge-watching (as much as I can binge-watch anything in this busy time of term!) are all examples of what you might call ‘gamified creativity’: shows in which dedicated amateur practitioners of some art or craft compete through a series of challenges in the hopes of being recognized as the best of the bunch.
The well-known Great British Baking Show is one such show; over the past few years I’ve greatly enjoyed both the original series and the Canadian version. I didn’t initially think about it as showcasing creativity because in some ways baking is such a practical and also such a non-negotiable skill: the cake either rises or it doesn’t, the bottom of the pie is either soggy or it isn’t. Watching Blown Away, Next In Fashion, and some of The Great Pottery Throw Down, however, has clarified for me that a big part of the appeal of TGBBS always was the combination of that practicality with ingenious concepts and creative designs and decorations. That’s what these other shows highlight as well: it’s not enough to be able to sew a hem (or a whole jacket), or throw a pot–you also have to come up with a concept for the project and execute it in a way that (if all goes well) sparks both admiration and pleasure. “Fit for function” is an essential standard on the pottery show, but if all your teapot does is pour, it’s not going to make Keith cry!
I’ve been wondering what it is about these shows (which have been around for years, after all) that is so appealing to me right now. Certainly part of it is that they are not particularly demanding to watch, and also that overall they are quite cheering: the very idiosyncrasy of the participants combined with their shared passion for their craft is just so heartening, so humane, at a time when there seems to be so much anxiety and inhumanity going around. These shows also celebrate qualities that are often devalued in the wider world, including not just creativity but also beauty, originality, and mastery outside the domain of the relentlessly technical and utilitarian. Sure, there’s something artificial about the competitions themselves (must everything be turned into a game show?) but I actually find the judging process fascinating: speaking as someone who recoiled from Elizabeth Gilbert’s “all that matters is that you made anything at all” pitch in Big Magic, I embrace the idea that it is worth striving to do something well, and that people who themselves have achieved excellence are entitled to weigh in on what that means. I feel that I learn something about the technical skills they are evaluating by listening to their comments, which in turn helps me appreciate related artifacts in my own world (such as my own modest pottery collection), and while aesthetic judgment is inevitably more complicated, here too I feel I learn from how the experts carry it out–much as I think we all, as readers, can learn from reading analyses of books by experienced critics, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.
I think too that I am engaged by these shows because I have been feeling restless in my own work. What I feel, often, watching the participants demonstrate their plans and then do their best to carry them out, is envy. I think it must be wonderful to be able to do the things they can do–and also to be passionate about doing them, so much so that you never question why you are doing them and are happy to keep trying and trying and trying again to do them better. I especially envy the leap of imagination that takes them from “here’s the task” to “here’s my idea for that task”: bread that looks like a lion, a toilet that looks like a turtle. (That turtle toilet filled me with such irrational joy when it turned out so well! Who would ever think of such a thing? Who would ever make it? And yet isn’t it just delightful?) By comparison, my relationship with my own work is often much more uncertain, and the work itself–whether it’s teaching, grading, researching, or reviewing–doesn’t really feel creative, or at any rate it doesn’t really satisfy my vague desire to be creating something. That’s one reason I took that drawing class a couple of years ago–it was an experiment in bringing more creativity into my life, which I guess to me means bringing more art into my life–and it’s also the reason I still sometimes wonder why I gave up so early in my life on the idea of writing, rather than just reading, fiction.
And yet there are creative aspects to my job. As I was starting to write this post, for example, I was also working on my class notes for some new (to me) material I’m teaching next week, including Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” and Three Guineas, both of which I’ve read before, of course, but which I’ve never assigned. This means that I have to come up with a teaching strategy for them, which means figuring out what story I’m going to tell about them: where I’ll begin, what background exposition I’ll include, what plot (for want of a better term) I’ll try to shape our experience of them into. I also think of book reviewing as a kind of storytelling: what might look to a reader of the review “just” like a bit of plot summary, for example, is actually a highly selective retrofitting of the book’s own elements in order to tell my story of what the book is about. The hardest part of writing every review is spotting that story and figuring out how to tell it (and one of the freedoms I most enjoy when writing blog posts, by comparison, is being able to discover it as I go along rather than having to shape the piece around it from the beginning).
Is it because the building blocks of these particular processes are someone else’s stories that, for all the pleasures they really can offer, they don’t quite satisfy the craving for creativity in my own life, the underlying hunger for it that I am feeding with the vicarious experience of it offered through these shows? Perhaps. So what to do about that? I don’t particularly want to change up my approach to either criticism or teaching: I don’t much like criticism that crowds out its real subject (as I see it) with too much other stuff, and though I know my approach to teaching isn’t the only one (I have colleagues, for instance, who incorporate creative writing and other activities into their classes), it is one I believe in and feel comfortable with. I do have some hobbies–crochet and quilting–that give me the satisfaction of actually creating something, but it’s interesting that they are both (for me, anyway, at my limited skill level) pattern-following crafts; my self-expression in both is limited to choosing a pattern and choosing the materials. That’s not nothing, of course! (Also, crochet in particular is perfect to do while watching TV shows of other people making amazingly creative things. 😊)
Will I ever find the courage (not to mention the time) to try something else? What would it be? Would doing it badly–as I am bound to, at first and perhaps always–actually be rewarding at all? Could I ever shut up my inner critic long enough to just enjoy myself while I was doing it? (Here is where I wryly acknowledge that if only I could join in with Gilbert’s celebration of the “disciplined half-ass” I would no doubt be bolder and maybe have more fun!) The only way to find out would be to try, I guess, as I did with drawing. Maybe I should get back to that — or maybe at some point I should try a pottery class. Or try writing something that isn’t about someone else’s writing…
My fall classes start exactly three weeks from today. I’m pretty well prepared already: both of them are repeat offerings, so although I have changed up the readings (quite significantly, in the case of Women and Detective Fiction, and just a bit in Pulp Fiction) I’m not starting from scratch in terms of either course concepts or course materials. I have been working on the syllabi, schedules, and Brightspace sites off and on for a while, because that’s the kind of task I don’t like to do in a rush and also because when other things I’m working on start to feel too amorphous, it is a relief to do a concrete task that can then be crossed off my to-do list. There’s only so much you can do in advance, though, I find, or you sap the first class meetings of the spontaneity that gives them energy.
I am well aware that I use class preparation as both procrastination and comfort in the summer. I’ve written before about the way my mood often slumps in this season, and though it has been better overall this year — thanks in part to the work but also fun of preparing for and then attending the George Eliot conference in July — I have still sometimes felt the same dreary listlessness coming over me. One factor this summer has been that I haven’t been able to settle into a writing project that excites me. I have nobody to blame for this but myself, which just makes me feel worse about it! I have been experiencing crippling indecision about what to write — a strange inability to commit to any project beyond the immediate demands of whatever book I’m currently reviewing. That I have not been finding reviewing very rewarding recently only compounds the problem. I have really enjoyed someof thebooksI’ve been assigned over the past couple of years, but this year, not so much; also, I have been finding the space constraints I’m typically working within frustrating, although of course if the book I’m writing about is not particularly exciting it is a relief not to have to spin 2000 or more words about it.
I thought it might help to write for some places that do run longer pieces, so I wrote a review “on spec” for one such venue but they didn’t want it–in the end it maybe wasn’t a great fit with the place I sent it, although the book I chose (Téa Obreht’s Inland) is getting a lot of coverage, as I anticipated it would. I suppose I could (should?) keep trying to branch out. It’s a bit frustrating to feel I’m still relatively invisible as a critical presence, even after writing regularly for the TLS for 4 years, but then except for the piece I wrote on the Lymond Chronicles in 2017 I haven’t really had much room to stretch out there and show what I (think I) can do. I suppose here too I have only myself to blame, though it’s hard to think of what I could do in 600 words that would be particularly notable. There was recently a letter to the editor about one of my TLS reviews–a sort-of correction about an implication (not even a direct statement) in an “In Brief” review of a scholarly book about malaria and 19th-century fiction. That is its own kind of irksome, especially considering there’s basically never been any feedback or conversation around anything else I’ve published there.
Anyway, the question that has been much on my mind is, if not (only) reviews, then what? I am running out of time to answer that question this summer, never mind to have any significant result to show for it. The possibilities go round and round in my head (and in my notes). I can’t even decide whether it makes more sense to just work hard on something and then worry about where I might try to publish it or to focus on a particular publication, or type of publication, and then work up the kind of piece that seems likely to fit there. I am thin-skinned about rejections so it is hard to motivate myself to write towards uncertainty rather than a definite goal, but I’m also terrible at pitching. Further, my sense of pacing has been confused by the years I’ve spent doing writing that can be conceived of, executed, and published in a fairly short time; if I’m not working to a fairly immediate publication deadline I feel unproductive, but writing for and then submitting to the kinds of places I think I might like to appear in requires both confidence and patience.
This is why I keep returning to class prep! It’s so straightforward, and after all, it does have to get done. Maybe I should think of it this way: the better prepared I am for the term, the more likely it is that I can keep working on some kind of writing project even after classes start. My colleagues and I often talk about the way teaching expands to fill however much time you can (or are willing to) give it: this is something we advise TAs and junior colleagues to guard against. Good, detailed course planning is part of a strategy for achieving better balance between my various professional obligations; it’s not just a diversionary tactic when your other commitments are getting you down. Right? RIGHT?!
I do have some time left, though, before the day-to-day demands of teaching become pressing, as they inevitably will, and I am determined not to spend it all fretting and second-guessing myself. I have one review underway (my mixed feelings about the book lie behind some of my current angst about the reviewing process) and a couple of other things I particularly want to wrestle into shape, not as finished pieces but as plans, before September. One of these is the work I was doing during my sabbatical on Woolf’s The Years and related questions about the “social” novel. I felt really good while I was reading and thinking about that material but so far I haven’t figured out what to do with it. Three weeks: that’s enough time, surely, to do at least that much, especially if I stop brooding and complaining. Here goes!
The George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was the main reason for my recent trip to England, but of course I took advantage of having crossed the pond to do a bit of sightseeing. I spent a couple of days in London on either side of the conference, and I also traveled to Leicester a day ahead of time so I could visit the Richard III Visitor Center and Richard’s new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.
My 2012 essay “All the World to Nothing” in Open Letters Monthly explains my longstanding fascination with Richard III and includes a delightfully (or mortifyingly) geeky photograph of a much younger me beside his statue in 1986. I could not quite recreate that picture on this trip, but I did take a selfie next to the model of his head made by experts in facial reconstruction after his skeleton was discovered under a parking lot and then confirmed as his. (It’s a remarkable story; the documentary about it is available here if you’re interested.) The excavation site was protected when the parking lot was repaved and you can see where he was actually found, under the floor of the long-gone Grey Friars Church. Even the intrusively chatty volunteer stationed by it could not completely dispel the haunting feeling of actually standing where his ruined body had lain for 500 years. (Bless her heart, she was just enthusiastic, but she would keep telling me things I already knew!)
I expected to be moved by seeing Richard’s grave, and I was. It has been a long time since I felt the warm partisanship on his behalf that Tey’s The Daughter of Time once sparked: it wasn’t fervent Ricardianism in real time that made this visit emotional so much as being reminded of how ardently I was once involved in it all and feeling connected, through these remarkably concrete (no pun intended!) links between past and present, to my own history. Walking through the exhibit, viewing the burial site, visiting the Cathedral–I was paying my respects to Richard’s memory but also to the person I used to be. It renewed a kind of personal continuity that can seem, living as I do far from my family, away from the sites and landmarks of my own past, disconcertingly fractured. “Where did she go, that girl?” I sometimes wonder; perhaps oddly, there among the stones and relics of a place even further from my old home, I felt sure she was still there.
That sense of reconnecting with my former self is part of what always makes time in London feel so special to me. After my trip there in 2009, I also remarked that I felt “renewed” by the experience. This time too I was, as I wrote then,
most moved by those [sights] that most vividly reminded me of Carlyle’s words about Scott, that he had “taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men.”
On this visit I returned to some of the same places I went to in 2009 and also in 2011, when I was in England for a conference in Birmingham–including (of course!) most of the same bookstores. I especially enjoy wandering the streets and squares of Bloomsbury, which in their shabby elegance feel strangely homey to me: it’s easy to imagine not just Woolf and her cohort but Brittain and Holtby striding along or settling on a shady bench deep in conversation. I visited Windsor Castle for the first time on this trip, and it is grandiose and impressive; it was thrilling to walk between the towering walls that housed so many historical icons and breathtaking to look down in St. George’s Chapel and see that Henry VIII was buried below my feet. But it felt more personally meaningful just to sit in Gordon Square and be myself for a while, temporarily unencumbered by external obligations or expectations about who I am or what I should be doing, now or next. That freedom is one of the great luxuries of any holiday, of course, and it’s as risky as it is easy to fall into the fantasy that if you could only stay somewhere else, you could magically be someone else, someone you might like a little better, someone who lives (and writes) better than the person you are when you’re at home.
One of the repeat visits I made on this trip was to the Dickens Museum, which I had visited with my mother in 2009 but not since. I wanted to go back because in the intervening decade I have spent so much more time reading and thinking about Dickens’s novels. In the meantime, too, the museum has acquired the writing desk Dickens used in his house at Gad’s Hill Place:
Seeing this desk was the first of what turned out to be several occasions when I found myself unexpectedly tearing up. Another was when I stumbled across some original monthly issues of Bleak House at the V&A:
Another was as I strolled the lovely grounds of Arbury Hall, the manor house on the estate George Eliot’s father Robert Evans managed:
We visited other places on our George Eliot tour–a highlight of my trip overall–but for some reason this was the one I responded to most emotionally.
But why? Not just why did seeing Arbury Hall move me so much but why was I so emotionally susceptible to seeing those bits of Bleak House or standing next to Dickens’s desk? I am used to feeling excited when I see things or visit places that are real parts of the historical stories I have known for so long, but I have not previously been startled into poignancy in quite the same way. Is it just age? I do seem, now that I’m into my fifties, to be more readily tearful, which is no doubt partly hormones but which I think is also because of the keen awareness of time passing that has come with other changes in my life, such as my children both graduating from high school and moving out of the house–an ongoing process at this point but still a significant transition for all of us. Also, as I approach twenty-five years of working at Dalhousie, and as so many of my senior colleagues retire and disappear from my day-to-day life, I have had to acknowledge that I am now “senior” here, and that my own next big professional milestone will also be retirement–it’s not imminent, but it’s certainly visible on the horizon.
Perhaps it’s these contexts that gave greater resonance to seeing these tangible pieces of other people’s lives, especially people who have made such a mark on mine. Though I have usually considered writers’ biographies of secondary interest to their work, there was something powerful for me this time in being reminded that Dickens and Eliot were both very real people who had, and whose books had, a real physical presence in the world. People sometimes talk dismissively about fiction as if it is insubstantial, inessential, peripheral to to the “real world” (a term often deployed to mean utilitarian business of some kind). But words and ideas and books are very real things, and they make a very real difference in the world: they make us think and feel differently about it and thus act differently in it. Another of my London stops this time was at The Second Shelf , where I held first editions of Silas Marner and North and South in my hands (very carefully!). I described this on Twitter only slightly hyperbolically as the closest thing I could have to a religious experience. In the presentation I gave at the conference, I quoted from George Eliot’s poem “O, may I join the choir invisible”:
O, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence …
There’s no question that she lived up to this wish. It’s hard for me not to feel a bit as Dorothea does, though with a more deserving object: “what a work to be in any way present at, to assist in, though only as a lamp-holder!”
Even so, I’m still not entirely sure why it kept making me cry to be in proximity to what one person I spoke with about it aptly called the “materiality” of these writers’ lives. But it seems right to give Dickens the last word on this: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”
Our flurry of excitement is over: Jesus Christ Superstar had its brief but glorious run, and my parents are back in sunny Vancouver after 5 days of pretty relentless cloud, fog, drizzle, and just plain rain here on the other coast. Damp and chill notwithstanding, we had a lovely time visiting, eating, drinking, and of course applauding.
And now it’s back to our regular dull routines, though with a welcome easing up of pressure now that they don’t include rehearsals. This is a big change and relief especially for Maddie, of course, but her schedule had lots of implications for us one way or another. It has been sinking in that as her school year draws to a close, so too do our years of parenting kids in school: as of September, both she and Owen will be at university and living in residence, which will change a lot of things about our day to day lives. For the first time since 1999, just for example, I won’t be dropping anyone off in the morning before heading to work–which among other things means I hope to walk in a lot more often. I definitely have some anxieties about the emotional repercussions of an empty nest; it helps to know they won’t be far away. I might even run into one or the other of them on campus sometimes–and if I’m very well behaved, they might even acknowledge me. 🙂
That’s all still in the future, though, and in the meantime Maddie has exams to get through and I have a bit more time on my sabbatical to make the best use of that I can. Now that everyone else is also done teaching, being on leave feels a bit less special, but I remind myself that May typically fills up with administrative commitments, so I can still enjoy not being part of that. I will write up a post soon reflecting on my sabbatical so far. Before too much longer, I may also actually finish reading a book, and then I can post about that too! I have three in progress: The Break, which I am rereading for my book club, Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage, which I am enjoying so far, and Lucy Parker’s The Austen Playbook which to be honest I am not really loving. I am not currently reading anything on assignment for a review: I’m not sure if that’s good or bad! (It does mean I’m available, if any editors are reading this…)
The other thing I’m doing is a bit of physiotherapy for a sore shoulder, which the PT said is suffering from something called “impingement.” It is likely related to strain from activities such as using my computer mouse and crochet, neither of which I would like to give up, so here’s hoping a proper regimen of stretches and strengthening exercises plus better attention to form will make it stop hurting and let me carry on.
Dull, as I said, but today the sun is finally shining and it seems plausible not just that spring will finally arrive but that summer will follow, with all its languorous pleasures, so I’m feeling pretty good, all things considered.
I won’t be reading or posting much for the next little while. After much anticipation (by us) and a much greater amount of work (by the cast and crew), Citadel High School is presenting Jesus Christ Superstar, opening tonight and closing Saturday. Maddie is playing Mary Magdalene. Rehearsals have been intense the last few weeks! Everyone’s dedication is so impressive–not to mention their stamina.
We are very excited to see the show at last: we’re going tonight and again on Saturday. My lovely parents are flying in from Vancouver so that they can see it too. I’m always happy to see my parents, but this visit is particularly meaningful to me, as it has always made me sad not to be able to share these big events with my family. Since Maddie is graduating this year, this will be her last school musical, so I really appreciate that they are coming all this way for the occasion–leaving behind Vancouver’s beautiful spring for our barren mud and snow flurries! I’m sure we will all manage to have a good time despite the unpromising weather.