Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Butterfly Effect

Our granddaughter M woke up Thursday from her nap with the remnants of a butterfly tattoo on the back of her left hand. Parts of it were missing because she had slept hard, perhaps resting her cheek on that hand, but the wings were still clearly delineated and beautiful. And she was wearing her black t-shirt with pink contrasting ruffles at the ends of the sleeves and a pink embroidered butterfly on the front above the word CANADA done in little plastic jewels. It was a gift we had got her after our tour through the Butterfly Conservatory.

After M got up, Lorraine cut out another tattoo from the little book we had bought at the gift shop and put it on the back of her right hand. Then she put them on our son JE and daughter-in-law S, so that the whole family could be wearing butterfly tattoos. When I read one of M’s books with her, I learned that the name butterfly came from the bright yellow colour of some species, which was like butter, a fact I had never known or even thought about, though now the etymological dictionary is telling me that they also might have been so named because of their habit of flying around butter churns and cream. To me butterflies were butterflies, their own wondrous flying selves, and, unlike buttercups, I never really noticed the presence of “butter” in their name.
The Butterfly Conservatory was a great spot to be on Thursday, which was a cold February morning there on the edge of the Niagara Gorge, with snowy parking lots and crunchy walkways. Inside was a little tropical oasis filled with a variety of palm trees, cascades of water, lilies and false vervain in bloom, and feeding stations with sliced oranges and huge butterflies happily feeding. M loved being able to walk along the pathways checking out flowers and watching the butterflies fly around and land. She was especially impressed when a blue morpho landed on the front of her Nan’s sweater and just perched there for a few moments.

I loved being inside that tropical environment on a wintry day, seeing all the plants, listening to the flow of the water, finding more and more amazing butterflies we hadn’t seen before, checking out the chrysalids hanging in the incubation chamber and the emerging adults, and just hanging out with M and Lorraine and JE.
But what amazed me most were the blue morphos. They flew through the conservatory with a slow flapping and gliding of their large wings that flashed patches of unearthly blue. They were like bright ethereal birds. You could never catch their flight with your camera because they were always moving and changing direction, and when they perched the blue was hidden inside the beautiful mottled brown underside of their wings, so you had to hold the beauty of those flashes of blue in your brain’s memory and not the camera’s.
What else is there to say? These gorgeous creatures that emerged from chrysalids like delicately folded dry leaves flew in front of our eyes, feasted on slices of orange, perched on Lorraine’s sweater, and brightened our day.

No wonder the ancient Greeks called the butterfly Psyche; its ethereal presence and graceful flight does suggest something we might call breath or soul.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Numbered thoughts and David Foster Wallace

Actually my thoughts are not numbered – I am nowhere near that organized – but numbers do figure in my thoughts by times. I am not obsessed with them, like some people who cannot keep themselves from counting almost everything in their lives, but I do pay attention to numbers and do sometimes play with them in my head. Any time someone has a birthday, or even tells me their age, I usually comment on the number, like whether or not it’s prime, and what its factors are if it isn’t, and whether any of the numbers are lucky ones (like 3, 7, or 13), and where it figures on a numerological scale of life’s stages, and so on, because there are always places you can go with numbers if you want to play with them.

When I was teaching in Istanbul, an educator named Bambi Betts, who was much smarter and more astute than her name might suggest, reported on some research she had recently read that indicated that doing mental math exercises at the beginning of a lesson enhanced student learning no matter what the subject of the lesson. It won’t surprise you, I guess, to learn that I liked the idea and that it made sense to me; after all, I sometimes do mental math for no particular reason other than that I like it, and that fact alone could suggest that I am bright and alert and open to learning. So my IB English class always started with mental math exercises, conducted sometimes by me and sometimes by my students. Not everyone loved it equally, but it became a ritual of Mr. Field’s English class that we couldn’t start without, no matter how urgent it was to cover the writing of commentaries or what our latest thoughts of 1984 or Macbeth were.

There aren’t really a lot of numbers in my life, since I am mostly a language person, and I’ve never really got started with Sudoku (which is something I figure I should try), and I don’t have people around to play cribbage with (we’re all too busy, I think, except for in the summer when we rent a cottage at the beach), but I do have numbers in the car, specifically in the odometer.

I am not sure exactly how it works, but my eye occasionally happens to glance at the odometer numbers right when there is something significant going on, like a bunch of zeroes, or a bunch of nines about to turn into zeroes. I think it must be peripheral vision kicking in, though it sometimes feels more like telepathy to me, and there is always a small kick of pleasure at seeing a nice display of digits, like when the car turned over 120000 km not so long ago and a sense of surprise when I do catch it.

David Foster Wallace, whose collection of short fiction, The Girl with Curious Hair (W.W. Norton 1989), I finished a short time ago, paid attention to numbers. I will tell you only that right now, though there is so much more I could say about how his writing seems to be a manifestation of his thinking in action, and how wonderful it is to read his work and find yourself moving through his thinking as it is realized in the text. So he did pay attention to numbers – in fact, in 2003 he published Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity — and odometer numbers figured in the final story in the collection, “Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way” in this way:

“Hey, man, three miles,” the clown says, squinting past the furry steering wheel’s axis. “Three more miles, then the odometer rolls over. To all zeroes. That’s two hundred thousand on this baby. That’s a big varoom, when the odom—“

“Shut up, shitspeck.” p 296


The odometer gets extremely close to rolling over. p 313

and then

D.L. and DeHaven are watching the odometer finally roll all the way over. It’s exciting and gorgeous. There’s a slot-machine feel about it, which they share, together, and know they share it. pp 317-318

As Wallace said, it was “exciting and gorgeous”, and I know what he means. It was, in fact, one of those ephemeral moments that can happen when you’re driving, something you need to be there for and notice, like when our old Subaru turned 100000 km driving up the west coast of Newfoundland, something you can’t go back to when it’s gone.

I am also fond of palindromic numbers, which come around much more often in the odometer than the big hundred thousand rollovers. The last one I caught was 120021, and it happened for a whole kilometre on Purcell's Cove Road between the Yacht Squadron and Williams Lake Road. I had to be careful as I drove, since I was glancing down at those numbers to savour them before they changed. It was not as bad as talking on your mobile while you’re driving, and it’s not yet illegal, but this odometer number thing could be something to worry about if it started catching on and got out of hand (though I think there’s little chance of this small idiosyncrasy going viral any time soon).

I thought I would get the next one, because the odometer read 121120 when I parked in the driveway, and I knew what a pretty palindrome awaited me when I next drove out. You might wonder why I didn’t turn around and drive just one more kilometre so I could catch it, but I didn’t, probably because it would have felt like cheating or manipulating the system, and I ended up missing it. Maybe it was because I headed out in the morning without noticing or else Lorraine was the next to drive the car, but I did miss it. And you can’t go back. Nothing to do but think ahead to the next one, but I also missed it, 122221, which would have been another nice array of digits to look at, so now I have to wait for 123321.

The reading is 123237, so I just need 84 more km to get there. I hope I catch it because it’ll be a good one. But if I don’t there’s always 124421 waiting somewhere down the road. Or I guess I could take up Sudoku.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Decent Storm

It snowed last night -- I don’t know yet the official amount from Environment Canada report and it’s hard to tell because of the drifting that happened around here -- but it did snow enough to close schools and universities, probably 20 or more cm, so it was pretty good, not a “perfect storm”, but certainly the best one we’ve had this season, a decent storm.

Here’s what the snow looks like on the deck outside our bedroom.

And here’s the little thermometer next to my desk.

It would have been a better storm if it was colder, and the snow had stayed dry and fluffy, but it didn’t, and we have slightly sticky snow, perfect for making snow people but not so great for skiing or coasting (sledding, I mean, for those unfamiliar with the term). However, it is white and beautiful and it weighs down the branches and put a nice white roof on the feeder.

And it’s sticky enough to pile high on the deck rail.

After I had done a fair bit of shovelling, something in one of the snow piles, a flash of pale blue, caught my eye. The mind, of course, is always trying to make meaning out of the world it sees, so my first quick thought was that some blue windshield washer fluid had spilled down there. This time the quick mind was wrong in the explanation it jumped to and I (or my mind) soon recognized that it was just the light inside the snow that was so blue.
It doesn’t show up so well in the image but it is there, one of the beauties that can result from a decent storm.

The forecast is not great for our winter activities, other than shovelling, because we are expecting temperatures above freezing for the next six days, and possibly rain on Saturday, but the snow did brighten our landscape.

As my Cuban friend AZ told me when I asked him how he felt about winter here, I like the way the snow transforms everything. And I have to say, So do I!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Love is touching souls

In September of 2006 I met my IB English A2 class, known as 11-J, at The KoƧ School in Istanbul for the first time and for our first lessons together. The beginning unit of our program was poetry, and I was excited to get into it. I introduced them to a poem by Joni Mitchell called A Case of You. Here’s how it goes (in case you don’t know it); it's worth a careful read:

Just before our love got lost you said,
"I am as constant as a northern star."
And I said, "Constantly in the darkness
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar."
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice
Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet
Oh I would still be on my feet

Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I'm frightened by the devil
And I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid
I remember that time you told me, you said,
"Love is touching souls"
Surely you touched mine
'Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time
Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you, darling
Still, I'd be on my feet
I would still be on my feet

I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours
She knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds
And she said,
"Go to him, stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed"
Oh but you are in my blood
You're my holy wine
You're so bitter, bitter and so sweet
Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling
Still I'd be on my feet
I would still be on my feet

If you are interested, you can see and hear Joni perform it here.

Partly I wanted to teach something about effective use of simile and sustained metaphor, but mostly I wanted to give my class a chance to experience some of the wonders of how poetry can work as an expression of love and loss. I can't remember now exactly how it went or how much they got from my lesson, but I still can’t hear the song without thinking of those wonderful kids I met in 11-J and the two years of English classes we spent together.

And I can’t hear the song now without thinking of Leonard. I think the idea was suggested in a blog I read about Cohen where the connection was made with Joni, a connection I had, perhaps surprisingly, never made. Whether or not the song is about the end of her relationship with Leonard, or with someone else (James Taylor may be a candidate), I can’t listen to or read the opening, “Just before our love got lost”, without thinking of the two of them teetering on the edge of breaking up, his assertion of constancy, the clever flip of her dismissal, and her departure for the bar.

There’s nothing much more to say really. I am left with the nostalgic memory of my 11-J/12-J students, now serious and grown up and well into their second years of university study, and of our still wonderful Canadian poets and performers, Joni and Leonard, perhaps still a little in each other’s “blood like holy wine”. And we are all left with the song/poem that says it all and says it so well, whether it's Joni or k.d. or Diana Krall singing it, and the thought that, sometimes at least, “Love is touching souls”.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Risk of Bliss

There is a risk we take by being in this world. Its name and nature has been clear to me for several days now. It is the risk of bliss.

It hit me a few days ago when I checked here. There is an icon on the right side of my Bookmarks toolbar for a site I visit often, though not necessarily every day. It’s a blog site, which you will know already if you clicked on the link back there. It’s called Auto-Da-Fe and is created and sustained by our inimitable second son, JE. When I checked there on February 5 I found a post called Just So. It was already two days old and featured an image of me.

If you take the time to read the post, you will perhaps know what I am talking about. It starts off with a loving tribute to his parents, Lorraine and me, and then proceeds through an account of a series of manuscripts I sent to JE as I prepared a submission for a competition that closed on the 31st. It is this account that brought tears to my eyes and a thickness to my throat, not just for the deep love it embodied, but for the grace and skill of his language and for the engaged intelligence I saw at work in it. This is the bliss you risk.

It is the risk you take when, intentionally or not, you start the process of procreation and intiate the creation of another human, a being who will grow and develop and look at you and talk to you and tell you who you are and who you aren’t and detach herself or himself from you to find her/his place in the world and then, if you are fortunate, describe it back to you. It is ultimately out of your hands, but there is in it the potential for bliss. The risk of it.

There are more risks of bliss.

Like going up to the fort with our incomparable T. and his beloved girls on Sunday afternoon and coasting down the steep hill on flying saucers and plastic sleds fast enough to skid over the bare grassy parts and landing at the bottom next to the birch trees giggling and laughing as we all flip over in the snow.

Like talking to E. last night with her serious beauty shining through the webcam and remembering my first sight of the top of her scalp with its small twist of dark hair as she struggled to emerge into our world and become the wonderful loving force she now is.

Like having A. inform me when I said I would park my boots next to the door, But Rogie, you can't park them, they're not cars.

Like being with and talking to some of the many people I have been lucky enough to have encountered in the world and cannot help but love.

Enough! Mr. Blake admonished at the end of his Proverbs of Hell, or Too much!

And perhaps it is enough, or Too much, as Blake said, but I can’t help myself. I know people, and not just members of my immediate family, who bring bliss into my life, and I must honour them, just as I honour the bliss they bring. There may be risks in it, but they are always worth it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A long time coming

Monday was our granddaughter A’s five birthday, and it was a long time coming. In fact, it has been coming since A. started talking about her five birthday around the time she could first say her numbers and have some notion of what birthday meant (a special day, a day with a decorated cake and candles, a day they sing to me, a day with a number attached), perhaps around her three birthday. A. is the kind of person who thinks ahead, and she could always tell us what kind of cake she wanted for every birthday right up until her ten birthday.

We missed her first birthday, the day she was born, her zero birthday, because we were on our semester break while L. made photographs in the Louvre and the British Museum. So we first learned of A’s emergence into this world of air when we managed to talk to T. from a pay phone in King’s Cross Station in London. It was a huge moment for each of us, tears in our eyes and voices in that noisy train station, as our beloved older son told us of the momentous event of A’s birth, our first grandchild, and of how well her mom was doing after the ordeal. So A. was now out and looking around with her curious and puzzled eyes at the world the rest of us inhabit.

We also missed her one birthday a year later. This time our semester break took us to Egypt, and we thought of A. and her first birthday while we were there. Since we couldn’t be there for the big day, we took a lot of pictures of our trip and made a birthday book for her, A’s book about why her grandparents couldn’t make it to her birthday party.

The next year was her two birthday, and we made sure we were there, even though it was a difficult physical adjustment coming back to Canada in the coldest part of the winter. By this time A. had become a huge aficionado of grilled cheese sandwiches, and her birthday treat was going to Salty’s down on the waterfront where they served her a truly great grilled cheese. It was a fine celebration of a very special girl on a very special day, her two birthday.

While we were working in Istanbul, A’s birthday always landed in our two-week semester break, and the next year, the year of her three birthday, we were travelling again because we knew it was our last year overseas. So in 2008 we were camping in Oman near a turtle beach the night before a strong sandstorm, talking about our darling A. and her three birthday and the fact that once again we were missing it. There are some stories I haven’t yet written for her from that trip, the story of the turtles laying their eggs at night, the story of the little mouse at night, probably a gerbil, jumping up under my camp chair where I was eating a cookie, and the story of the baby turtles hatching in the morning sun and trying to make it to the ocean. I think I’d better get them done while the memory is still so fresh – they can be a late three birthday present, and maybe she’ll be able to read them herself!

We celebrated her four birthday last year, but this year was the big year. Her five birthday meant that A. was old enough to start at big school, and it seemed to be the one where she felt really and truly grown up. She said that what she most wanted was a surprise party, a hard thing to manage when she is already hoping for it to happen. However, T&S did a great job of making arrangements for us all to show up at Hatfield’s Farm for a sleigh ride pulled by two beautiful Belgians, huge and capable horses, with bells on their harness under a blue winter sky. And the other thing, planned by A. for years, was the Barbie cake, which T&S carefully designed and built for her and smuggled onto the sleigh for the party in the bunkhouse.

So A’s had her birthday and it was a great one. Our girl is now five, and T. says she has been a little puzzled the last few days about why being five doesn’t feel more different from being four. She is growing up and she is a thinky girl, and we’re all pretty lucky to be around her for her birthdays and her everydays.