The way of the book and the way of the wild: a review of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake

I loved The Wake–neither modern English nor Anglo-Saxon, but a recognizably adapted “Shadow language” with a vocabulary purely Old English and Old Norse. A fascinating look at language and how we find ourselves comprehending beneath the conscious level-with the heart, you might say.

For the Wynn

there is ways to see this world i saes.  there is the way of the boc and the way of the wilde there is the god of the boc and the gods of the mere there is the way of the crist and the eald ways of this land

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, p. 334

Be you whole, earth, mother of people, may you be opened in God’s embrace, filled with food for humans’ use.

Eleventh-century field remedy,  London, British Library Cotton MS Vitellius C. viii

The Old English word for ‘library’ is ‘boc hord’ – book hoard.  And I’m something of a book-hoarder myself: I have a tendency to buy them second-hand and hold onto them for a long time before they rise to the top of my to-read list.  And then, very often I enjoy a book so much that I wonder why I didn’t read it…

View original post 3,014 more words

Advertisements

Bits of Bede. Or: Why Bede deserves his own museum

If you have any interest at all in intellectual history and the English language, Bede is someone to know! Also called Venerable…not unlike Yoda.

Dutch Anglo-Saxonist

The news of the closure of Jarrow’s visitor attraction Bede’s World was disheartening. It was one of England’s very few museums solely devoted to the Anglo-Saxon past and I fondly remember visiting the place several years back (one of the highlights of my visit was adopting Hilda the pig via the animal adoption then still in place). I have always promoted Bede’s World in my lectures and I am happy to say some of my Dutch students visited the place (at their own initiative!) in early 2016. (update: In August 2016, it was announced that Bede’s World will be relaunched as Jarrow Hall (more info here) and rightly so!). With this blog I just want to share one of the many reasons why the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede (672/673-735) deserves his own museum: the man’s theological, exegetical and mathematical works are filled with interesting tidbits!

Bede had…

View original post 708 more words

Controlled Chaos – Art Imitates Life

It all started when I brought home Peaches. Tonka the best-companion-dog-or-cat-a-girl-ever-had Lynx Point Siamese and I had been living on my third-floor condo alone together for over a dozen years blissfully happy in our own self-contained, magical world. (The personal trauma that led to my withdrawal from humanity has been touched on in another blog.) Though I was the condo Pres I could escape to my top-floor retreat above the fray. Not much dirt or salt ever got tracked all the way up the stairs; it was clean and bright. Everything stayed where Tonka or I put it and we were settled in our ways. And she was truly my partner in life from the moment I saw her in the shelter, and the rainbows arced and birds sang and butterflies soared all around us and it was meant to be. We walked everywhere with her leash, she rode around in the car with me to Tim Hortons then the park on weekends, she always greeted me at the door, talking. Life was well-ordered.

Then I had to go and start volunteering for the cat-cuddling program at the local shelter. You go in a few times a week and play with your adopted cat(s) to help socialize them. Tonka was very much a single-cat-in-the-house cat so I didn’t see any danger in my becoming attached; what creature could ever be as smart and communicative and bossy and bold and fearless as my amazing Tonka, anyway?

TonkaCradleTree

A Sheltered Cat

Peaches the timid calico dilute wasn’t even “my” adopted cuddle cat. She always seemed to be one of the cats let out when I was there; not fighting with the other cats, but not paying any attention to them either. Neither did she seek out human companionship; she just went away and did her own thing. I held her sometimes and she let me, but she rarely played with the toys as the other cats did. She would never make a move that called attention to herself. In retrospect I realize she was probably a bit shell-shocked; at two years old, she’d been found outside during the bitter cold Polar Vortex, then had a stint with a foster while she recovered from a very serious upper respiratory illness. Who knew what demons ran around in her little head to make her so cautious?

She was cute, for sure: there were definite over-tones of Grumpy Cat in her big, limpid blue eyes. But I was a cat snob; raised with Siameses because of my dad’s allergies, I knew from long experience that they were clever, and all other cats were pretty airheads by comparison. One day, though, Peaches did gain a bit more respect from me when a boisterous tom tried to hone in on her spot on the cat tower and intimidate her out of it. So quiet that only the other cat and I heard her, Peaches gave a low, solid “Grrrrr….” –and held her ground. So shy, timid Peaches had a tiny, little core of steel in her backbone after all!

For two months I visited the shelter several times a week and Peaches was still there. We have a pretty animal-friendly community and I was growing more and more amazed: she’s so incredibly cute, why hasn’t anyone taken Peaches home yet? I began to worry that her reticence was being mistaken for coldness and that she’d never find a home. Then one day lightning struck–just not as soon as with Tonka: I awoke and sat straight up in bed and realized: the reason no one’s taken Peaches home yet is because I’M supposed to take her home!

Pulling a thread…

Tonka didn’t agree, of course, and it took my installing a screen door on the spare bedroom during unsupervised times for several months before they adapted to each other. For the first six months Peaches was happy to live under the bed. I could only get her to play at first with a shoe-string: it was a victory when she moved her paw. To her, that was already bringing too much attention to herself. But after patient coaxing and several months she became the cat she was meant to be, playing with more joy and less self-consciousness till the day she took a flying belly-whopper leap through the air then hunkered down, shocked, when she hit the ground: was that really me? did anyone see me? Always a little chunky, she was that much cuter as she became more active: the amazing Peaches even once did a somersault off the bed, catching the ribbon in her teeth mid-air, and stuck the landing perfectly.

20160506_192252

Tonka was getting older and after awhile seemed happy to watch someone else play most of the time. At night we all piled into bed together, though they each kept to their own sides. I had done the unthinkable: I had brought another cat into our lives and we had survived the change. And something else happened after the shake-up of my self-induced escape-from-the-real-world: I began to write again. NaNo kick-started me, and soon I was in a community of real, like-minded folks for the first time since grad school. And they were nicer.

Breaking all the eggs

Just as the three of us finally reached our stride all living together, the economy and chance brought me to find and buy my dream house. Tonka had a back yard to play in; she’d been getting too old and tired for actual walks anymore. She just liked to sit. (Peaches’ demons keep her inside.) This past year in the house has been one of real upheaval: I had to take on my sister and another renter to afford it, and my sister had another elderly alpha-female cat–and this time the screen-door was permanent. My cats and hers had a time-share arrangement out on the main floor; Tonka and Peaches lived with me up in my bedroom loft the rest of the time.

I had to get used to sharing a bathroom–with people not as fastidiously clean as I tended to be. Don’t even get me started on the kitchen: my sister and I are absolute polar opposites. I have trouble breaking a few eggs to start a project; breaking eggs is all she can do. I’ve had to work my tail off on home-repairs and keeping up the half-acre as I prepare to convert that huge, back shaded lawn into a cottage garden, and do most of the physical work and cleaning inside. Suddenly money-management has become a myth as home projects constantly blow cannon holes in my credit (but what was I building all that great credit for anyway?) Rent doesn’t always come in on time and creative financing has become fantastical.

I went through the trauma and winter depression following the death of Tonka, who as I said had been sick for some time (her elegy is the unwritten blog…) I drudged through a second NaNo to try to keep the horrible pain and emptiness at bay. Several family members were hospitalized for this and that, and my older niece has become pregnant. Then my sister’s cat also passed away, and then, some weeks later. . .George arrived.

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece

I thought I’d become used to chaos already. We were told the big, male Siamese was a two-year old, something more settled we needed for Peaches’ avoidance personality, but the vet revealed he was much closer to one: actually kind of a relief, when you consider his behavior. He’s wild and energetic and playful, of course, but he also has no impulse control, no seeming ability to learn (the word “no”, for example), and–even more than the usual Siamese but perhaps not unlike your average adolescent male–always needs to be the center of attention. Lots of attention. He’s chewing on my ankle right now.

20170503_211511_HDR

So he may grow out of it. But until then, it’s a miracle how different my life is from one year ago in the condo with my two girls. I wouldn’t recognize myself. Not only is life chaotic now–I don’t even wince when I hear a CRASH somewhere in the house, or Peaches screams, or George tears past me up the stairs at breakneck speed while I balance a laptop and a hot cup of tea–but I don’t see it changing much in the future at all. There is always going to be gardening to do. The sheer limits of money mean that the home-repair and -improvement projects will stretch out for years. Face it, this is a whole new world, and I may never be “settled” inside my perfect little Ivory Tower ever again.

Breaking eggs is something I’ve very much needed to learn how to do, and now it’s getting applied to my writing revision: most of my writing-block paralysis comes from needing, out of fear, to leave well-enough alone. Pull a thread, ruin the sweater. Break an egg, have to clean it up. Add people to a household, learn to compromise. Tighten up the plot, lose the great feeling I had after finishing the first draft.

All of us wild, all free

It’s amazing and more than a little jarring when I look back now and realize that when I met Peaches, well, I WAS Peaches. I was in my own little world, and it was nice and even necessary while it lasted, but it couldn’t last. Trauma doesn’t ever completely go away, but neither are you ever as disconnected from the world as you think. I have a voice, and writing was always that voice, but there was no way I could use it again without leaving the shelter behind. Time to come out from under the bed and play.

. . .What happened to kick start you out of a too-lengthy complacence? Was it dramatic like a blockbuster film, or as quiet as pulling a thread and bringing home a shy, wounded calico?

Big, Deep Thinking and Writer’s Block

Have you ever been writing a story for which you believed you had a nice message or moral, all under control, you knew just what it was you were trying to say with the story, just like you’re supposed to, but at some point THIS happens: suddenly you realize you’re writing about a whole lot more than you realized, you’re writing about world events and oppressions you’ve witnessed and the nature of civilization–and now. . .you’re filled with a paralyzing dread?

Yeh, me, too, all the time. Sometimes it begins to hit a little too close to home: my story stirs up anger I thought I’d dealt with logically, or it brings to light the embarrassing fact that my political views aren’t as well-established as they should be at my age, past the half-century mark. Sometimes I realize I’m writing about someone else’s pain I’ve witnessed first-hand–and how dare I speak for them, how is it even possible?

As if we needed another reason to have writer’s block

Of all the writer’s blocks I’ve ever experienced or talked students through, this is the Whopper. My biggest personal demon. It’s the fear of Thinking Too Much.

Something happens when I start to Think Too Much–and like an invisible mine field, I can stumble on it any time, but I’ve learned the most likely terrain: reading about the way the human mind works and thinks and communicates (something I must do from time to time in light of my own neurological peculiarities), reading really mind-blowing science fiction, and writing out of pain.

Most of the time I fancy myself a gentle guru when I write, much like the teacher I once was: the approachable grad student sitting cross-legged on the desk asking questions, discussing the answers, poking the young folk where their concerns were and waking them up to connecting with the written word. Well, surely I’m experienced enough a teacher to know what I want to say and write neatly-packaged messages in my stories that gently teach the lessons I’ve learned in life.

Then comes the reckoning: the story’s too dull or too distant, and I have to explore more deeply what it was that prompted me to begin to write it in the first place, so I look at the parts I’m passionate about, and. . .you know the rest. Here opens the can of worms, here releases the floodgates–a flood of wriggling, wayward worms shooting out over the dam, glistening for a moment in the sun before crashing into the roiling depths below. It’s not neat, it’s not pretty, and it’s certainly not controllable.

This is the sort of thing I have nightmares about!

And I can tell you exactly why it’s so frightening, why it’s enough to cause writer’s block: it’s because suddenly I feel the terrible weight of responsibility that comes with Big Thinking, the responsibility not only to think it through but to translate it into something of use to others.

Of course, that’s not always the way we thinking humans respond to new insights into our own power–our creative power to make connections, to appeal to readers or listeners. There are plenty of folks out there who only see that they have a grain of intellectual prowess, and now they’re going to use it–for their own good, even if it means using their abilities to manipulate how others think, without actually teaching them, or to manipulate how others act–but only with the intent to separate them from their money.

But then there’s the rest of us, people with halfway-decent hearts who are compelled to see our new-found connections all the way through to the truth, however frightening or demanding that truth might be. In this sense, such moments of writer’s block are far more than that: they’re those moments in life when the enormity of a task paralyzes us, even as we’re tortured by the need to act and make things better.

Guru Gabriella:  approach and be enlightened

I suppose now I should tell some great guru secret, how to learn to strike while the iron is hot and seize the moment of passion to write about something without succumbing to the fear that “one solution will only lead to two more problems and there will be a whole lot of ontological angst I could really do without along the way”; there’s just too much work to do out in the garden. But I don’t have that answer, except to say: yes, undoubtedly and in my experience one solution WILL lead to two more problems and yes, sometimes you do just have to suck it up and suffer as a writer.

However, I do know that the one thing it’s in your power to do is–and this will sound fairly trite and pseudo-zen–to focus on your bigger goal: your honest will to preserve and protect what’s good in life as you know it. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, don’t merely obsess over counting the trees; look up once in awhile and revel in the sky.

How I know that the pain can suck, it can REALLY, REALLY SUCK

DCFC0009.JPG
Tonka, 2000-2016

Six month ago I lost the best friend I ever had. And don’t be fooled, just because it was a bold and fearless and loud Siamese cat who went everywhere with me like a dog on a leash or in the car, it was a LOSS of the very last magnitude; I still feel empty, like half of me was ripped away, losing this companion who saved my life when I was at my lowest and feeling cursed with learning the immutable, medical explanation for why I had always been a freak in my own head and there was no cure. But it all comes back to that maddeningly glib question: if you had to do it all over again, would you think it was worth the pain?

Fifteen years of life as magical as anything I ever knew in childhood, living in the moment, seeing through the eyes of a miraculously purposeful creature who never backed down from anything–yes, I’m thinking it was worth it.

So it is with your writing. Some days the anger and pity and hurt and fear can be too real, and you certainly don’t want to expose more of it. Some days you just want to shut down and watch a House Hunters marathon while curled up in your favorite Hobbit blankie, slamming back tea and cookies. Or whatever you do. Avoiding the six o’clock news.

But then an example of an injustice or of some wrong-thinking will creep into your radar–some totally heinous plot twist in your favorite show or something the President tweeted or something, and you’ll have that irresistible urge to open your mouth and your laptop again. And watch out, world.

. . .So am I all alone in this particular kind of writer’s block? What things have tail-spun you into a real metaphysical impasse, and how did you get back out of it again? I’d love to hear about it, thinking human to thinking human.

Intense Emotional Flux–or, the Virtue of “Let the Draft Sit”

The Right Writing House — Part III

Apparently underwriting a mortgage these past couple of years is one step less involved than landing a man on the moon, and the exercises in repetition are just as rigorous. AARGH!

But at last, within two weeks I’ll be ensconced in my shade-wreathéd oasis, the little town bungalow with the secret half-acre garden hidden behind, and a bright and airy writer’s loft.

20160603_134221

Too bad I’ve completely stopped writing since the whole spectre of home-ownership first shimmered into view some six weeks since.

I’m not certain if Intense Emotional Flux even is an excuse to stop writing, though that’s somewhat more legitimate than the fact that I’ve had to bury my writing laptop (and other valuables) deep in dresser drawers during this time my condo has been shown to potential buyers.  (But it’s so inconvenient to retrieve it and have to hide it again!)

However, this longest-hiatus-since-I-began-to-write-again has afforded some writing benefits in the form of insight into the Let-It-Sit phase that is supposed to follow the parturition travail of the First Draft.

The longest month of your life

The gestation period for this First Draft was three months with final delivery achieved on January 31st. I dutifully avoided cracking open the file for the entire proscribed “one month “let-it-sit” (albeit the shortest month, even in a leap year). It was difficult not to be pre-occupied with the development and nurturing of my “baby”, but I amused myself drafting scenes for a sequel, so the traumatic separation from the world I’d created was not exactly absolute.

March came in like a lion, and so did my First Revision phase. I went at my draft with all the fury of a turkey buzzard first on scene for road kill.  I considered my First Draft fairly polished because I had had an OUTLINE.  I was so on top of things.

So of course it didn’t worry me one bit that my changes were minor, the tweaks grammatical and a few for continuity. Some of the dialogue was spiced up a bit.

Until about halfway through when I realized what a boringly mundane pile of lake pebbles I’d constructed. You know the fun of rock hunting along a shore? A single pebble can be amazing, a microcosm of Creation–for a time. But by the next day you just want to fly a kite or go skinny-dipping again or something different.

My first draft went from beginning to end according to the outline but there were no twists and turns–of the sort one can only insert after seeing what one has written. HAH ha HAH ha HAH!  Who was I to believe that, after a decade of scarcely putting pen to paper, I could spit out a draft in three months, wait a month, and know everything there was to know about polishing it up?  Warning signs to look for (Karl Popper wisdom* aside):  if your own draft bores you, it needs more than tweaking.

Emotional flux–or just the gears grinding?

So along came the house of my dreams and a GENUINE Let-It-Sit phase, and perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, because that Draft has never really been far from my mind. I don’t know if it will ever make it all the way to Polished Final Draft phase, fit for public consumption, but I’ve had all kinds of genuinely creative ideas about what’s missing from the story, ideas that never could have developed while I was bent over the draft tinkering away.

I could have been writing these past few weeks, working on other things, keeping the flame lit even as I considered my Draft from a distance, but still, the point has been made:  there’s more to writing creatively than Draft 1, Draft 2, Draft 3. . .What worked for me in grad school doesn’t cut it for novel-length fiction. That sucker can always be more complex.

Here come some more lame excuses, but I still have one giant relocation ahead of me, cats to hand-hold and placate, new roommates to get used to (I’ve chosen to leave the ivory tower), and time for writing will continue to be erratic for about another month. The Right House to Write In had better pay off, though. Emotional flux is no less and no more interesting than a new pebble.

 

* ‘No book can ever be finished. While working on it we learn just enough to find it immature the moment we turn away from it.‘ –Karl Popper

Save

Save

The Right Writing House–FOUND!

Small town in front, private park in back–couldn’t be more perfect.

I didn’t mention my hopes last blog but this was the “impossible house” I was imagining as I outlined my wish list for the house search:  it was on the market, but for a variety of reasons I couldn’t make an offer YET, I didn’t have my ducks in a row. My heart was broken. Forget the house:  this was everything I ever wanted in a yard.  It stretches WAY back–to include a little wooded area.  I dreamed of English gardens on the back half with a path winding through.

And a white gazebo.

But sadly it came on the market before I was anywhere near ready! My radius of search was SO TINY–what were the odds I’d find another that fit every desire?

THEN, with a little help from friends and family and a great realtor and mortgage broker who did magic, and after I had given up all hope, darned if those ducks didn’t line up like first-rate soldiers.  Straightened up and quacked right. It was a mad race in this seller’s market to make that offer before anyone beat me to it.  And here I am, over my head financially perhaps, but a half acre of my own to live out and retire in my second half century on earth.

I’m normally fiscally cautious:  head down, move along, play it safe.  But the few times in my life I’ve taken that leap of faith into the abyss of financial uncertainty, it’s been SPECTACULAR.  It’s not like I have any innate intuition, and my timing sucks more than anyone you’ve ever met, but I seemed to have it when it counted.

Such as the day my dad kept asking me in disbelief, “Why are you PACKING? You don’t have the tuition!” –for grad school, well, had I not pushed on in a kind of delusional trance I’d never have gotten that full-ride assistantship and fellowship the day before classes began.

I keep waiting for the spectacular leap to fail me. . .Check back in a couple years when the dust settles.  Because it’s all or nothing now.

Here’s the blank canvas, a writer’s retreat in the middle of town.  I know I’m lucky, but just like always, it’s going to be a lot of work to make luck stick.