20 February 2010

Something Smart

I once knew a guy who was wise in many ways. He said something incredibly brilliant to me during one of many long and fraught philosophical discussions.

"Your oldest friends are not the best representation of who you are. They are a product of who you were when you met them. You've changed, you're a different person now. You can't possibly be the same as you were so many years ago when you thought that forming those attachments was a good idea. Your most recent friends, they're the ones who represent who you are now."

I'm paraphrasing, of course. It was probably much more gorgeously phrased at the time.

True? Maybe not. Fascinating? Absolutely.

(Going straight from this post and into my novel? Probably!)

14 February 2010

Invisible Runner

Go and try Invisible Runner by David Ferriz. An aesthetically gorgeous game with a here-and-gone-again protagonist.

12 February 2010


Unlike practically everywhere else in North America, winter has been gentle and kind to Southern Ontario. We've seen almost no snow; there have been a few bitter days but not too many in a row; we've had our fair share of sun.

Sometime just before Christmas, I was out in the woods with the dog. There was a light dusting of snow on the ground. We had just passed the winter solstice. There was sun sparkling on the snow. The sky was blue. I thought about how great it would be to take some photos.

Then the snow melted and the woods were a pleasant but boring brown colour for a long time.

Finally this week we got a few inches of the white stuff. We are just past midwinter / Imbolc / Candlemas / Groundhog day (yes, these holidays all occur on the same day!). In other words, we're on the downhill slope toward spring. So before there's a giant thaw and we get into some serious growing and sprouting, I bring you my midwinter photo essay (2010 edition), starring a bunch of trees and Dizzy the Boston terrier.

These were taken between 2:30pm and 4pm. I just love how even though it's relatively early in the afternoon, the sun makes long shadows all over the place.

Any Boston terrier will tell you that a walk just isn't meaningful without a really big stick to chew on.

Of course you must practice proper chewing technique at all times.

Make sure you spit out any wood chips as you go. You don't want to know what happens if you swallow them.

Proper chewing technique = pure bliss.

These trees are perched on the edge of a deep gorge. A waterfall created it over time. It's not much to look at right now because it's covered in snow, but the trees do look lovely against the blue sky.

I just love the way the sun is backlighting this tree and shrubs so that it looks like the tree is radiating light.

Lots of people use these woods all year round, so the path is well stamped for us.

This used to be an apple orchard. The trees have grown pretty wild, but they still produce apples. Hawthornes have grown in amongst the apples.

You have to search around a bit but there is the occasional touch of green in the woods. This moss is growing on a hawthorne tree.

You can tell by the spikes!

If you take too many pictures, Dizzy gets a little bit impatient.

Now we're out of the old apple orchard and heading into the wild forest.

There are a lot of huge old oak trees growing up on this hill. They always seem to me to be having a conference.

My favourite oak.

If you stand at the base and look up, you can see how imposing this tree is.

Some kind of large gall or growth has formed partway up this tree's trunk. It's almost perfectly spherical. I didn't notice it until after the leaves fell, so I'm not sure if the tree is still living.

There's a secret stream bed under all this snow. In a couple of months, water will be rushing through here.

At this point in the walk, the wind was blowing through the upper branches of the trees and making some pretty loud squeaking and squealing sounds. Dizzy sensed a disturbance in the force.

More noises.

What is it?

There are a few different types of woodpeckers in these woods. I once even saw a pileated woodpecker. Compared to the sparrows and chickadees that I usually see, it was huge! It seemed like a pterodactyl. Pileateds leave this kind of large oval hole when they drill into trees looking for food.

When you leave the woods, it's important to take a souvenir with you!

In the field, I found these tiny footprints. Each print was about the size of my thumbnail. Mouse? Rat? Some other hopping rodent with a skinny tail?

His future's so bright, he ought to wear shades.

Next we entered the bird garden. An ornithologist who I ran into on a walk told me that birds created this scrubby brush area by defecating here and leaving seeds behind. Almost all of the bushes that grow here bear some kind of fruit. This area has an amazing concentration of this kind of plant, and is next to an open field where there is very little of this kind of growth. I guess the birds knew what they were doing! You can find all kinds of different birds in here all winter long.

The path home awaits!

Very, very patiently.

Sort of patiently.

The sumac is beginning to look a little worn around the edges. I think the birds have been eating the sumac berries because I'm finding them scattered on the ground around the bushes. My friend Wendy tells me that sumac is edible for humans, too. You can nibble on it while you're on the trail if you rub off the tiny hairs that grow on it. You can also crush it, soak it in water, strain out the berries, and enjoy a drink that tastes a little like pink lemonade.

The white spots in this picture are gulls. Although there was no breeze to speak of close to the ground, there was clearly a lot of wind activity high up in the sky, because this large group of gulls were playing around in the sky. As I watched they flew higher and higher, appearing only as tiny dots like the ones you see here. They seemed to be swirled around by the wind, changing their positions and configurations with amazing speed.

Homeward bound.

Don't forget your stick!

Happy second half of winter, everyone!

09 February 2010

Time Part 2

One of the trickiest things about time is its weird subjective flexibility. We’ve all had the experience of concentrating on something we enjoy, and looking up at the clock to find that it’s much later than we could have guessed. Good conversation can be like that. Good writing can be like that, too.

(And there's the opposite scenario, the experience of doing something you hate and watching the time drag.)

Because I meditate regularly, I am familiar with how easy it is to sink so deeply into an altered state of consciousness that time has almost no meaning at all. It’s always surprising to look at the clock after meditation. Sometimes I’ll feel like hours have passed, and it’s only twenty minutes since I first sat down. Sometimes I’ll feel like I was only down in a meditative state for a few brief minutes, and I’ll find that it’s been forty-five minutes or an hour.

So: time is a slippery bastard. Ultimately, our idea that time is something to be measured in steady, regular increments is one of our most delusional notions.

I guess one of the questions that got me into trouble* when I was at a career crossroads was getting into the habit of asking not whether I’d gotten good value for my time, whether I’d been “productive” or “used my time well”, but whether I could look back at the end of the day and feel satisfied. Some days, I noticed, just felt right.

How much time does it take to achieve this sense of satisfaction? If you have to ask, I’d like to propose that you’re thinking about satisfaction in an entirely wrong fashion.

For me, whether a day is good or bad depends entirely on how I feel. And how I feel is in turn dependent on a number of ephemeral and non-ephemeral things: did I write something that made me excited about writing? Did I drink the right amount of coffee? Did I get to play with the dog and cat? Did I do something to make me think more deeply about my art? Did I get outside and clear my head at some point? Did I manage to fit a really good stretch into my day? Did I learn something new? Did I imagine something outrageous?

When asked years ago, I defined a good life as getting into a state of flow and staying in it as much as possible. A concept that was co-opted by western psychology in the early 1990s, flow could be characterized as one of the core methodologies and goals of eastern meditation practices. When you’re in flow, you’re riding on the cusp between focus and relaxation. You’re totally engaged in what you’re doing, and everything else falls away. The question is not how much time you have, but how fully engrossed you are in the task at hand. This applies to doing dishes as much as it does to putting words on the page. In flow, there’s an escape from the pressures of time. In flow, there is access to the essence of joy.

*made me decide to stop doing almost everything else and make a major publication effort

04 February 2010

Time Part 1

I’ve been thinking lately about time: how we use it, how it uses us. How it continues to move, even if we don’t use it. How we think about it in terms of bankability: I’ve got two hours, therefore I can do x amount of actions. As if having time were the only factor involved in our capacity to get things done.

All of these concerns about time and how to get things done are of essence to a writer. If you don’t spend some of your time putting words on paper, then it’s pretty difficult to lay claim to the name. At least it feels that way to me.

But I guess one of the most relevant questions about time and writing is, how much time do you need to write?

There are many writing advice guides that will tell you that all you need is fifteen minutes or half an hour of writing every day. This advice is helpful at the beginning. Indeed, an academic version of one of these guides, Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker, was one of the golden keys that allowed me to get through my PhD.

These books all sing the same song: just begin. Do one page of writing. Three pages of stream of consciousness whatever. Squeeze it in between laundry and making dinner, between dinner and bedtime. Get up half an hour early, get into bed fifteen minutes before your usual time. Grab a notebook: any modest spiral bound will do. You don’t need a special pen. Just whatever you’ve got lying around.

The thing to realize about these guides is that they are lying to you. Fifteen minutes a day is not enough time to write, if writing is what you want to do.

You know what fifteen minutes a day of writing is? Or half an hour? Or three pages first thing in the morning?

These little scraps of time spent writing are the gateway drug to wanting to be a writer. Start with your cute little journal pages. Get into the habit of writing your stream of consciousness here’s-what-I’m-thinking-about stuff every day. The next thing you know, you’ll be scrounging around for an hour to spend with your writing. On the weekends, you’ll start thinking about Sunday afternoon in a whole new way. You’ll shift your responsibilities around. You’ll cut back on sleep. Maybe you’ll do what I did, and start thinking about whether you can quit your job.

And worse yet, before you know it, the ideas will start to come, because writing daily – no matter what you’re writing – will call down the muses. They’ll start fluttering by your ear when you’re doing other stuff, “important” stuff. They’ll wake you up at night. And they’ll demand that you tell their stories. To tell them well, you’re going to have to practice writing. You’ll have to practice hard. For that, you’ll need more time.

Great oceans of time that you can dive into and swim around in. You’re going to need all the time in the world so you can dream and think and plot and plan. And space – you’ll need that too. You’re going to need to tell everybody to back off.

You’ll do what you have to do. You’ll find the time. Great oceans of it, or at least small lakes. And you’ll make a space for yourself, somewhere in the world, whether it’s a room in your house or a corner of the library or a table at a coffee house.

Once you have that, once you give yourself time, let me tell you, it gets so good. You can relax, because you know that in the course of a day you’ll be sitting down to do some writing. Whatever issues you’ve got with your story, you’ll be working them out. Whatever questions you have about how to proceed, what makes good writing, how to make your writing better, or the mechanics of a good novel, you’ll start to figure out. Because the only answer to these questions lies in sitting down and writing it out. If you want to be a writer, you have to give yourself time.