Ode to Messy Kitchens

Leave the dishes in the sink ma, leave the dishes in the sink, these dirty plates will have to wait, tonight we’re gonna celebrate… Does anyone remember that one? Probably not. Spike Jones, circa 1944, which celebrates Joe coming home from fighting the war.

When I was part of a trilogy of teenage girls, beforeMessy Kitchen dishwashing machines, we always had dishes in the sink. By the time we finished arguing about whose turn it was to do what, we had run out of time.

In those days, as well as dishes, stuff littered cupboard counters and table – balls of string, pens, pencils, erasers, power bills, letters to answer, a stray leftover, homework, pots of grease to be used in a fry up. Elastic bands, paper clips and tacks resided in a bowl of fluffy brown dust.

Well – “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – to call up another famous quote. Certainly the passage of time and the advent of technology have changed kitchens. Dirty dishes can be stashed in the dishwater and kitchens generally have become neat and tidy  places with no chance for anything to grow, not even a random thought.

The point is, those memorable kitchens were a veritable hotbed of raw material to feed creativity. Let’s take a run with bacon grease. The smell of bacon frying might lead to a scene around the breakfast table, pancakes and syrup and how that looked on your plate, the butter melting on the stack and the syrup in an amber stream trickling down the sides of the stack. And maybe it’s a winter morning and the January sun coming through the window so different from  October or March suns and Granny in her wrapper who has come in from the country for the weekend and the fat-cheeked toddler who always wakes up early and this morning had also woke Granny by jumping on top of her and saying fucking asshole and everyone in shock and disbelief wondering where had the kid learned that kind of talk?

How one thing leads to another as those creative urges vibrate forth and, voila, before you know it you’ve written up a scene.

My mother-in-law’s kitchen added plants to the mix, sprouting from windowsill and cupboard counter, mixing with the salt and sugar and flour and half-eaten sandwich, getting lost under a stack of elementary grade lesson plans and assignments on the table where she kneaded the bread dough. Once, we found a twist tie in a dinner bun.

My sister had an interesting kitchen and five children who were free to burn the popcorn (before microwaves), concoct their own pizza, make up a batch of fudge, pots boiling over and the smell of burned sugar thick in the air, i.e., free to learn. They were allowed to experiment and to fail. All five turned out to be creative and self-sufficient.

Thankfully, the messy kitchen is not relegated to the past. A friend’s kitchen is a monument to liberated urges. Along with jam pots and mustard jars and the ubiquitous sink full of baking pans and such are pots of herbs and other mysterious growths. Sending out tendrils, or is it tentacles, to embrace the piles of books on chairs and table and side shelves, bookmarks of notes to oneself, memos and bits of kleenex. Friends who visit are inspired to approach such a kitchen to add their contribution.

I am impelled to confess to my kitchen, which could be the inspiration for the line, “Out of reluctant matter, what can be gathered?” I’m sure Milosz had something more profound in mind when he wrote that but it could apply equally to this subject. Attractive, colour coordinated, and usually neat, but a source of inspiration my kitchen is not. I never go there in my mind to create. For that, I go to my granny’s kitchen, my mother’s kitchen on the farm, all of the above kitchens.

I compare the situation to a child sitting in the middle of a sterile playroom, the toys neatly put away, a place for everything and everything in its place. The cupboards are brimming with building kits of various types, along with diagrams and boxes of pieces so specialized they can be used only to replicate the picture on the box. The more accurately he can do that the higher the praise from a parent. What happened to the old Lego, simply various shaped pieces which allowed the child to create the picture he has in his own mind?

So here’s to you, messy kitchens, with your invitation to pick through the clutter and find straw that can be spun into gold.

 

 

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Shovelling Snow with Buddha

Shovelling Snow with Buddha* entered my life when I needed it. My powers of concentration were at an unequalled low. My brain was like a sloth hanging upside down from a tree – slow and fuzzy. Motivation was nonexistent.

That the poem came through a friend also seems fortuitous. He did not hand it to me directly but left it on a hall bench in full view waiting patiently for the moment in which I would see it and pick it up. Although the title caught my attention immediately and while I have long been a Billy Collins fan (who isn’t?), I chose to, not so much ignore it, screenshot_11as  put it off for another time. Avoidance is the word. Still, it kept putting itself in my way, foyer table to kitchen counter to sideboard and back. Until, finally, “Oh, all right,” I found myself saying, just the other day. I sat down to read.

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok

you would never see him doing such a thing,

tossing the dry snow over a mountain

of his bare, round shoulder,

his hair tied in a knot,

a model of concentration.

 Concentration. Ah, yes, that’s the very word I’m looking for. Let’s see what the poet has to say about that.

This particular Buddha is out of place. It’s unusual to walk down your city street and see a Buddha on someone’s driveway shovelling snow. He is out of character, a change from sedentary to active. He has gotten up (we can just imagine him groaning and heaving a huge sigh) from his timeless meditating position to travel to the snow of America. So what’s he doing here anyway? Well, what does a Buddha do? What’s his job description? The Buddha is a teacher. So he must be here to teach the poet a lesson.

A general impression of a first reading of the poem? Even though out of time and place, even though out of his comfort zone, the Buddha is happy shovelling snow. He is happy in the moment, mindful of the task at hand.

All morning long we work side by side,

me with my commentary

and he inside his generous pocket of silence

For Buddha, shovelling snow is not a chore, not a job, not even a physical activity, not something to get through so that he can get on to more interesting or more pleasant endeavours. Shovelling snow is the point, reminding us that the journey not the arrival matters.

A contrast between the poet’s being in the world and the Buddha being inside himself is emphasized. The poet chatters on about nature and religion: This is the true religion, the religion of snow… so much better than a sermon in church, while the Buddha keeps on shovelling, as if it were the purpose of existence.

Such contrast adds tension to the poem. The poet is in danger of losing focus and thus losing his poem. Near the end, we are taken out of the poem, out of the Buddha’s concentration of the task at hand, by talk of going into the house to drink hot chocolate and play cards. But the Buddha regains control as he drives the thin blade again/deep into the glittering white snow.

 

*For the full treatment, listen to Billy Collins read his poem on YouTube.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The taste of madeleine

And suddenly the memory appeared. So writes Proust in Swann’s Way. Of course, he’s referring to that famous lime-blossom tea-infused madeleine which triggered involuntary memory of the  past and resulted in seven volumes of literary works.

Proust enlarges on the experience. Intelligence is useless when it comes to invoking the past; the past can only be recreated through Screenshot_15the senses (the old creative writing course advice to summon all five and not only sight). Since our senses are connected to a material object, the past is hidden in such objects, that is, in the sensation allowed us by such material objects (i.e., the madeleine).

Proust goes on to explore how such evocation of the senses results in the creative process. “…at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory… filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal… it went infinitely far beyond (the taste of tea and cake).” Although the drink awakened the feeling, “it is up to my mind to find the truth.” But how? he asks, when “…the seeker, is also the obscure country where it must seek.” Not only seek but create. “It is face-to-face with something that does not yet exist and that only it can…  bring into its light.”

Whew! No wonder writing is exhausting.

As writers, we would all like to be able to transport ourselves into this creative state upon command. Is there a method? Proust deliberately tried to repeat the procedure of madeleine and memory but with trials the experience kept diminishing. “Ten times I must begin again, lean down toward it. And each time, the laziness that deters us from every difficult task, every work of importance, has counselled me to leave it, to drink my tea and think only about my worries of today, my desires for tomorrow, upon which I may ruminate effortlessly.”

He concludes that he has to rid himself of distractions, clear away obstacles inside himself and create an empty space. Only then can he bring up from his deepest part the desired result to reach “the clear surface of my consciousness.”

It seems there is an ultimate trigger object, in the case of Proust the madeleine, and it is pure chance whether or not in our lifetimes we encounter this object. All we can do is relax and see what rises to the surface. Proust had the luxury of solitude and staying in bed most of his life, but how about the rest of us? Well, we might hone our meditation techniques. And some people, lucky people, can tune out the distractions around them. D.H. Lawrence, apparently, could write anywhere – under a tree, in a crowded room. And I remember a friend who used to write against the background white noise of the food court at a shopping mall.

It seems to me that the particular sense which has the most power to invoke a past moment is an individual thing. For some, smell is most powerful. Call up the smell of lilacs (for instance). I’ll bet any one of us could write a page about that.

For me, it’s sound. I’ve been accused by critics of trying to do too much with dialogue, of sacrificing narrative for conversation. But that’s how the world comes through to me. As children, we listened. We listened because there was nothing else to do. The radio, the gramophone, the piano in the living room. We learned to make pictures in our heads connected with the listening. Voices (Foster Hewitt’s Hockey Night in Canada. He shoots! He scores! We could see the game before our eyes.) Music of course, certain songs. The sound of my uncle coming home from work after the evening shift, his wheel rim scraping the wire fence, the click of the lock, the snap of his pant clips. In bed upstairs, unable to sleep, all the sounds of a summer night blowing through the curtain at my window, I hear the streetcar on 94th, a dog’s bark, and the voices, always the voices coming up from the kitchen below.

But is Proust’s method of encountering the creative self outdated and irrelevant? The world comes to my grandchildren through electronic devices. Bedtime, the bath, they humour me by letting me read to them. I kiss them, turn out the light, tiptoe out of the room, tiptoe back an hour later to check on them. All is dark, all is quiet, then I discern a strange lump under the covers and then I detect a mysterious green light through the sheet and then, if I sharpen my ears, I hear a faint and mysterious beeping as if a message from a far-off planet.

I wonder, in the future, will their creativity be in themselves or in their devices? It won’t really matter, I suppose. The new animated features in the films are pretty impressive. It will just be different.

 

On the road to writing the Great Canadian Novel

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.* It was the perfect time to start my novel. Between jobs and men, I had a few days at my disposal. I had taken an evening course in creative writing and was chomping at the bit. Life had been interfering in my creative process but finally I  had an uncluttered weekend ahead, a long weekend as fate would have it. I unplugged the phone. (This was before the days of iPads and internets.) I would set the sail, steer the course and lock the wheel. The novel would practically compose itself!

Write about what you know, so said the creative writing instructor. Prairie, then. It had to be Prairie. That was where I was born and raised. But I would turn the traditional tale of yet another lonely misunderstood prairie wife scratching it out on a scrabble farm into… What? Prairie Gothic! I would rewrite the classic gothic tale, wrest it from England’s grasp, and bring it on home to the Prairies. I would call it westering the muse.

I knew my Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by heart. I knew the basic Gothic form and plot like Bre’er Rabbit knew his Briar Patch. All I had to do was plug in the particulars. In place of Transylvanian castles or English moors my setting would be the isolated family farm. God knows it was just as scary – dark and forboding. Travel any prairie road in winter, you were a hundred miles from anywhere or nowhere. At long intervals a farm house and buildings huddled like prehistoric beasts. Not knowing what hostile creatures might attack if you needed to stop, you looked at your gas gauge and prayed.

And we certainly had Heathcliffes, those silent virile brooding men of few words, which perfectly described my uncles. I would have to get real creative here because my uncles were, in fact, gentle creatures. I would have to turn them into monsters made fierce by fate and circumstance. My novel would demand it. As for crazy women in the attic, every farm had one, driven mad by isolation and husbands.

Pencil between teeth I paused. How about romance? The Gothic is a heavily erotic form. I tried to think. Dracula. Love beyond death. Sucking blood becomes an erotic act. Pure innocent heroine, predatory experienced hero. Sexual tension between hero and heroine. Power. Control. How would I deal with all that? I could not imagine attempting a sex scene, conventional or otherwise. Then, I remembered, erotic love in the gothic is never consummated, another similarity between it and Prairie literature.

To work, to work. Enough theory. I must turn my ideas into words. I had already wasted one of my precious days.

The clock ticked on. The minute hand became hours, the sun came up, the sun went down, the pots of coffee disappeared, and I was still staring at a blank page. In my despair,  moaning and groaning, I wandered the rooms of my house. Idly picking up and laying down, as though in a delirium, on automatic pilot I picked up a pile of old papers and headed for the recycling. As I moved  to toss the pile into the bin I looked down. Companion to elderly invalid lady on farm. A Gothic prompt if ever there was one. I knew what I had to do. I answered the ad and to my surprise got the job, likely because no one else wanted it.

That was how I found myself on a Greyhound bus travelling north, writing pad and pen in hand. As I gazed out the window the words flowed. Dawn arrived, casting an ocean of blood on the landCage Farm crouched like the hump of a woolly mammoth on the bleak hillside, its fangs of snow biting into the descending cliff, down to the river winding like a giant anaconda… I wasn’t sure about woolly mammoths having fangs but no matter. I would look that up later.  

Only one other person was on the bus, a man with threadbare coat and valise who made no noise. When he disembarked, I was left with only the driver. I dared not look at him for fear he would have large pointy teeth and funny eyebrows.

As I travelled further and further north, the sun went down and darkness crept over the land like a dark prowling beast. After my burst of creative energy I felt depleted. Fatigue took hold. Self-doubt crept in. I read over my words. They no longer seemed world-shattering. My referencing of beasts was inconsistent. What was I doing alone on an empty bus going further and further into unfamiliar territory? WHAT WAS I DOING? Who did I think I was that I could create a landscape and populate it with people and make them come alive. Only God could do that.

As the bus continued along the highway through the ominous night, I wanted to jump up, scream at the driver, ‘turn around, take me back to what I know’. But I was afraid I would be talking to empty space. I determined that in the morning I would take the first bus going back the way I had come.

We turned onto a secondary gravel road. There is nothing so dark as the country at night dark roadbefore the stars come up. And silent. Have I mentioned silence? Strangely, the tires made no sound. I was too afraid to sleep. I hadn’t even blinked for the last two hours. My eyes were burning in their sockets.

Finally, the bus stopped, not at a town or even a village, but at a gas station, an unlighted  uninhabited rundown gas station in the middle of nowhere. It was starting to snow. I was afraid to get off, afraid to stay on, but I would have if a voice had not come out of the driver’s cubicle. There’s your ride, lady.

The man who met me was tall, dark, brooding and fierce looking, in short, my perfect hero. What else could I do? I stepped off the bus into my novel and never looked back.

 

P.S. Forty years later, I’m still trying to write the great Canadian novel.

 

*I’m sure everyone knows that this is from Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most famous novel starters in the English language.

 

Especially when the October wind*

With frosty fingers punishes my hair,

Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire

And cast a shadow crab upon the land,…

Never an October goes by that I don’t think of these words of Dylan Thomas. And so it is this year. Driving, looking out my study window, but, especially, walking, the physical world assaults the senses. The autumn wind fills the human heart to bursting with words that demand expression.

Some poets speak of spring melancholy (April is the cruellest month according to T.S. Eliot), but I’m with DT on this one – autumn leaf scenebeing the season to challenge the heart’s endurance. The eye is assaulted with fall colours, the nose assailed with smells of ripe vegetation, fallen leaves, damp earth or, conversely, a dry herbal scent. The ear is filled with the sound of birds. Not song birds, however, who, for the most part, have now abdicated, leaving us with crows and ravens, birds traditionally associated with sinister omens and events.

In October the poet becomes the sun’s emissary. On his walk, he is empowered like the ‘crabbing’ sun with a life force that can turn the world of the senses into language. ‘(H)earing the noise of birds,/Hearing the raven cough…’, the poet’s shuddering heart ‘(s)heds the syllabic blood and drains her words.’

In this poem about making a poem, the poet ‘(s)hut… in a tower of words,’ addresses the problem of how to move the inside out, how to give voice to voiceless moods and feelings, how to speak the unspoken, for only in outward expression can nature or the world of the senses be fulfilled. ‘Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,/Some of the oaken voices,…’. The poet as alchemist turns the physical world into language.

But this is not all. The poem moves into a connection between words and time. At the start of the 3rd stanza, ‘(T)he wagging clock/tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning/Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning/And tells the windy weather in the cock.” What was ‘the raven cough in winter sticks’, arrives at ‘(s)ome let me tell you of the raven’s sins’, sinister connotations which were only hinted at in the first  stanza.

The fourth stanza further develops the darkening mood of the poem. While from the first  there is a premonition of winter (and thus death)  – frosty fingers, winter sticks for leafless tree branches – the October wind now  “(w)ith fists of turnips punishes the land,’. autumn leavesWords are ‘heartless’. Blood  once ‘syllabic’ is now ‘chemic’. ‘The heart is drained that,/spelling in the scurry/Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.’ Is the poet thinking here about his own future, did he have a premonition of his own tragic life and death? Or is he thinking about the  future of the planet, the build-up towards war in Europe? Or was he referring to the fury of creation?

The poem appeared in 1934 in Dylan Thomas’s first collection of poetry. He must have written it before his 20th year. What do you suppose brought him to the last line of the poem: ‘By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.’

 

*You can hear Dylan Thomas  read his poem on YouTube.

 

Of Sand Mites and Novels

Last summer, a sand mite entered my world. Lying on my beach towel, head on folded arms, I was trying to figure out the novel I’m currently writing, when my eye opened a slit and there he was,  coming straight for me.

Without the parameters of lake or grass that book & mitewere apparent to my vision, that stretch of sand must have appeared as a vast Sahara without beginning or end. Yet, propelled by some intuitive directive force, he did not hesitate.

Playing god, I reached out my arm and put my finger in his way. He scurried along its length, first one way, then the other. He tried climbing without success. Bored with my play, I scooped up some sand and buried him and went back to my mental torture.

But that sand mite wouldn’t leave me alone. Maybe I should have given him more time, went my thought. Maybe he would have figured it out. Then I thought how writing a novel is a lot like crossing the Sahara without a map and running into obstacles and you have no idea what these obstacles are (you just know something’s not working) let alone how to surmount them, how like the sand mite you try various ways of going around or over, how god sabotages your efforts.

In a matter of minutes I was in total empathy with that sand mite. We had the same job description, troubleshooting an obstacle course. We were both dealing with a larger force that deliberately sabotaged our efforts.

So then I had a good talk with myself: surely you have more patience than a sand mite. You have to keep trying. Rah rah. Blah blah. Maybe if you keep trying, god will become bored with the game and lift his finger.

Hold on! (I must have raised my head with the surprise of the epiphany.) I’m not the sand mite. My novel is the sand mite. I’m just an instrument, a means for the novel to get itself  down on paper. It’s up to my novel to find direction.

What’s wrong with you, stupid novel? I’ve done my job. I’ve written you so many times, from so many different angles. I’ve written to the left and right and over and under, each attempt  ending up like a pile of steaming cow flop. I’m fed up. It’s time you did a little work. It’s time you turned that cow flop into compost. I’m tired, I need a holiday. I need to sleep in the sun on the sand.

Having divested myself of responsibility, I put my head back down and was just dozing off when it came loud and clear: the trouble with you is you don’t listen.

You don’t listen to what I’m saying – I can’t carry the weight of too much complication. Or, I’m hamstrung with these lame brain characters. Or, you expect me to make this plot believable? Or, you expect me to build something on such a faulty, weak, shaky, structure!

The protests mount: I can’t stand myself. I’m confused, I’m incoherent. Nothing here makes sense. I feel like deconstructing.

The novel begs: I need more time. Don’t let me die a premature death by squishing my creative heart.

I opened my eye, and darned if that sand mite hadn’t burrowed himself out of the sand and was bustling toward me again. Full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes. Again, I put down my finger. Again, he travelled its length one way then another. Thinking to put him out of his misery, I was about to pick him up between thumb and index finger and squeeze (take that you stupid sand mite!) when he made a sharp turn and scurried around my towel. The last I saw of him he was rounding nearby towels, a picnic table leg, a beach umbrella, to who knew where. But his course was steady.

I turned over to tan my front and immediately fell asleep.

 

Dog Days

As Sirius the dog star rises with the sun between July 3rd and August 11th, the sultry part of summer is upon us bringing, according to Greek and Roman astrology, heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck.

Dog days of summer in our house, rather, refers to our dogsitting Thumper, a shih tzu/poodle, 21 years of age in dog years which Thumpertranslates into 147 in human years. Barely a foot long, minus tail, weighing in at about 8 pounds, riddled with arthritis, half-deaf, half-blind, the little guy soldiers on. For Thumper has the heart of a lion. Loving, laid back, patient, understanding… oh, if more humans were like him what a beautiful world it would be.

But to get back to writing and the writing life, a certain mood hangs in the air these days, a restlessness that makes it difficult to focus. We could take up Thumper’s solution, which is, when in doubt have a nap. Or, in the famous words of W.O. we could just write, write whatever, whatever random thought may enter your head. So, here it is:

this is love’s end

stagnant

blood pools

stirred

now and then

by the split hoof

incantations and

midnight trysts

 

as Sirius rises with the sun

my poems get shorter and shorter

disappear into heat shimmer

into toad stew

 

i stand at the open door

of my refrigerator

cooling my toes

smelling sour

cottage cheese

think what a great metaphor

for life

nothing can return it to innocence

 

think riddled lungs

hacking up gobs

impelled to the end

to lift trillions

of trillions

of molecules. o the hours

days, years of sodden exchange

give us a rest

they have a right to say

put us on hold

upon occasion

 

yet

predictions for October:

once more Venus will ascend

a sky clean as mint

brisk as new love

Cartoon dog 1