Thursday, 28 February 2013

Winter Hangs On But Not For Long in Narnia

I was in Narnia this morning, but did not stay long. Alas, sledge parking spaces are scarce.

I knew I was not alone. There were tracks in the snow. A deer—somewhere close.


And crows called to each other from atop the bluff.

But the Queen's evil dwarfs were there, too, and in quite a foul mood they were, for the warm air and weighty wet snow were undeniable signs of spring.

The nasty fellows hid in boughs sagging with heavy snow and, in their bitterness, flung great slush-balls at me from their treetop perches. They had surprising accuracy. More than once the cold wet projectiles landed with a shsloop upon my head. The cowards. I could hear them "shouting and cheering as if they'd done something brave."*

I left them, their jeering soon swallowed by the sound of a river racing itself toward a new season. Spring was coming—evident and omnipresent, but still shrouded in white.

"All round them though out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over."*

* From C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Now You Are One!

I can't believe it has been more than one year since my first post. Time flies. I'm looking forward to a busier year blogging here!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Literary Landscapes Part One

When I think about literary landscapes—that is, a book's fictional setting—Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea comes to mind. It is one of the most memorable "places" literature has taken me.

The slim little novel tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, the woman destined to become Jane Eyre's madwoman in the attic. The first section, told from Antoinette's POV, opens on her childhood in post-Colonial West Indies and leads to her marriage to Rochester. The second section switches to Rochester's POV, and the third is back to Antoinette, but in England now, and leads to her tragic end at Thornfield. It's brilliant. A must-read for any fans of the Brontë classic.

I was deeply affected by Rhys' use of atmosphere, and for many years I've equated the book's atmosphere specifically with setting—the old plantations of Dominica and Jamaica. But when I went back to the book, I realized that there weren't nearly as many references to the physical setting as I'd thought. They were scant, but powerful. A few paragraphs into the opening pages comes this:

"Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched."

There are a few other spots where Rhys lingers over the setting, but my memory of her attention to this literary device was out of proportion to its use in the actual narrative.

From this I've gleaned some important lessons. First, a brilliant writer needs few words to create evocative, memorable settings. Second, setting is but one tool in the writer's toolbox. We use setting to build atmosphere, but atmosphere or mood is so much more than the physical elements. And mood, too, is just one other tool to enrich the story of the lives of the characters. 

Third is something else entirely. It is the magic of literature, it is why I love a good story. It is that alchemy that happens when an author's words are internalized by each reader of her work. No two readers will personalize a work in the same way. That is so rich! It is as though there is not one  Wide Sargasso Sea, but as many editions as there are readers of Rhys' novel. 

How powerful is that? How many lives can each of us live by reading! How wonderful and transformative.

On my first reading, I was entranced and even a little frightened by the lushness of the landscapes Rhys drew (and I mean drew). I felt the oppressive languor-inducing heat. I saw greenery growing with wild abandon, blooming audaciously, heavy scent hovering over it all. And I smelt rot, a rank smell wafting up unexpectedly through the overly sweet air. I even glimpsed the shimmer of stagnant pools through the thick jungle that crept up to a dusty path. And I saw the houses fall into decay as the slave-based economy that had propped them up was dismantled. I saw the land take back its due.

This was my personal interpretation of the setting. Someone from Dominica would have an entirely different experience of Rhys' words. Which led me to think that not only do we experience the setting of a novel through the prism of our experiences, but we do this with actual landscapes as well. Not a revelatory observation, I admit, but fascinating how we take in the world—fictional setting or not. 

Next up in Literary Landscapes Part Two, I will look at how my experience of the natural world shapes the Literary Landscapes I create.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Freedom to Read

Freedom to Read Week in Canada starts Sunday. Yay!

Intellectual freedom and freedom of expression are protected under the Canadian Charter and enshrined in the International Declaration of Human Rights. 

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Does this not sound like a reason to celebrate?!

Read, write, express yourself, posthaste!

Saturday, 9 February 2013

A Cold Love Affair

what swirls of frost will cling
to the windows, what white lawns
I will look out on
- Mary Oliver, from the poem The Winter Wood Arrives

I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.”

      – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future — the timelessness of the rocks and hills — all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.
– Andrew Wyeth

How did it happen that their lips came together? How does it happen that birds sing, that snow melts, that the rose unfolds, that the dawn whitens behind the stark shapes of trees on the quivering summit of the hill, a kiss and all was said. – Victor Hugo

Winter, after the war,
you lie back victorious
stretched and sundrenched
on your blanket blue and gold

If I lie with you
on your bed so soft,
I will surely die.
- me 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Snow Day

Finally! Snow as it should be. Our school is closed but the local schools are open. Poor kids. Why can't they let them play in the snow all day? This is what Canadian kids LIVE for! These are the days they'll remember. What could they possibly learn in school that's more valuable than what they'd learn lying in a snow bank and catching flakes on their tongues?

At this household we are celebrating.

The snow started yesterday, making travel from school to the hockey tournament painfully slow. We made it safely home, but by 9 pm the snow had stopped. The child went to bed, worried. Our nighttime prayer: Please please please let it snow. Let tomorrow be a snow day! 

At dawn it started again! The email arrived: no school! A miracle. 

The sky celebrated by glowing mauve and the fallen snow followed suit. 

Then the clouds closed in and the snow began to fall in earnest. We went out right away, of course.

The day turned to black and white with all its edges blurred. The trees at the park overlooking the lake reached out their arms to their old friend winter. 

As did we. And after a two hours of shoveling, we came in. Happy. We'll be back out for round two after lunch.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Going Home

Home. If there is a word around which my life swirls it is this one. Home spirals down from the outermost shell toward an unseen core, ending at a space so small and personal that it exists only inside us.

Home is not always easy to find. If what you seek is a home for your spirit or soul, you—paradoxically—first must have faith to find it. 

As for our physical homes, sometimes they are lost to us. We try to build new ones, but our minds go back to a certain home from the past. In dreams and daydreams we walk the halls, meeting pets and people long gone, but our loved ones are changed, somehow insubstantial—the houses, too, exist on a mysterious plane.

Yes, these shells are powerful places where we invest our energy, shaping the space to suit us, to keep us safe.

Here is a story that testifies to the place that home—as a place, idea, memory—held in one woman’s heart. It is a true story, as true as a story can be, because isn’t it also true that only fiction tells no lies?

One late afternoon not at all long ago, as January drew to a close, an 87-year-old woman in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disappeared from her seniors’ residence; no one saw her leave.
 She took a taxi to the home where she and her husband had raised their children. Those children are middle aged now; the husband, in a veterans’ hospital; the house, a vacant mansion at the end of a long drive locked behind rusted gates. Pillars flank the roadside entrance to the property; you can see where a plaque was once mounted bearing the estate’s name, “Lakewood.” 

The home is aptly named. The property is extensive, about three acres, almost unheard of in a city. It’s a heavily wooded lot perched on a cliff that overlooks another cliff that overlooks a lake that looks like the sea.

Two years ago the woman and her family sold the place to a developer. The property—prime real estate in a real-estate-ravenous city—is slated for subdivision. Acres of giant spruce and oak and maple trees that stand vigil over the now crumbling Georgian-style house will be replaced by three oversized McMansions destined and designed to overwhelm the semi-wild landscape. 

The place has a lonely feel. The road itself—Pine Ridge Road—is hushed. It is both wistful and gentle, sheltered by century-old trees but also buffeted by winds off the nearby bluffs. A paradoxical landscape.

The gracious old house is emblematic. Its days are numbered. It stands empty, green shutters askew or missing, grey stucco discoloured and damaged. It is barely visible through the bent iron fence, thick trees and bracken gone wild that screen it from the quiet road.

It is here at the old gate that the taxi leaves our lady, who, so the reporters report, is ”well dressed, carrying a purse and keys, makeup carefully applied.”  

Though she had slipped unseen from the nursing home, her arrival at Lakewood is witnessed. A man working at a nearby house approaches her offering help, but she tells him no, she is fine, this was her home for over 40 years and she just going for a visit. He returns to work.

A neighbour sees her, too, recognizes her as the former resident and watches as our lady limps down the long driveway to the front door of the abandoned house. When she reaches the door the neighbour turns away, assumes she is okay, thinks that perhaps she’s just back for a visit, and, after all, help isn’t far if she needs it. 

At 4:30 the next morning, our lady is found dead, lying right outside the faded green six-panel door—on the very threshold of her home.

Police say that though temperatures were as low as -10 C that night, she did not freeze to death, although the cold was a factor. They did not say what was the cause of death.

Her distraught son is interviewed. He talks of his own passion for the area, this bit of urban wilderness. A paradise, he calls it. He talks of his mother’s love for her home and the happy years the family shared there. Of her last journey to the house, he says: “I think it was her last wish. It was almost like a mission. Destiny was calling her and she was going home.”

You’ve guessed, perhaps, that I know the house. I do, but I did not know our lady, though I share her name—Kathleen.

Her road, Pine Ridge, is a favourite walk of mine, a short distance from my own home. Her house has always intrigued me, it is one-of-a-kind, a rare bit of yesterday in a city where shiny and new reigns supreme.

The geography of the ridge on which her home is so prominently positioned has a powerful energy. The massive stands of old trees, the cliff that’s just beyond, the lake so far below, and all the space it consumes across the horizon—sacred. I would dare say so. Hallowed ground.

Had it been my home on the ridge, where the wind whips off the bluffs only to be shushed, shushed by the pines, I would have returned. To those trees, I would go home, and I would not be alone.

Brave woman, wise woman. She lay down under the boughs. Though the door is closed to us, she crossed the threshold and is home at last. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The magic leaf returns

As I searched for images for my next post, which will be up in the next few days, I came across these pics of the little leaf that would not fall.

I remember so well that solitary walk in the woods, yet it was at the end of September. Then October happened and all hell broke loose. Autumn and winter ended up being a challenging time.

I had thought that the fall would be my time again, with the child back at school, I thought I would write, blog, paint and so much more. Then IT happened. Upheaval. Stress. Mess.

These things happen in families. And while I fretted about things that were happening and were really quite unpleasant, and worried about things that could happen and would be much worse, little miracles like this floating leaf continued to unfold every day in the woods unseen.

Things are changing now though. Within a month, we'll know if the light we see at the proverbial end of the tunnel can be trusted.

I believe it can be. Something in the air has changed. A new season is on its way.

...and, hey, I got through the post without punning "I am turning a new leaf!" Well, I almost got through...some things never change, nor should they.