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June 2011

A Quiet Pocket in Queens

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I was recently in New York where I spent three days walking around the city with my mother. It was a landmark weekend, so much excitement in the streets after the Gay Marriage Bill passed late Friday night.

My mother is super social and she must have chatted with a zillion people as we wandered around (businessmen buying chicken shwarma from trucks, girls teetering drunkenly through Koreatown, doctors with conference badges waiting for elevators, folks in security-guard uniforms and fancy women holding chihuahuas…) “Mum, can we please keep going?” I’d finally whisper. And she’d say, “Chotto Matte. In a minute.” It was fun looking at art and eating food in tucked away corners of the city. But the highlight for me was taking her to the Noguchi Garden Museum in Queens. I’ve been several times before. It’s such an unexpected oasis, nested in a gritty neighbourhood, within spitting distance of a giant Costco.

The Museum’s collection is a testament to Isamu Noguchi’s brilliant career but it’s the simple garden that brings me back.

My mother and I spent a long time with this sculpture. The beautiful water feature is hard to capture in a photograph. Imagine water flowing endlessly from the dark hollow center, glazing the stone sides, reflecting the sky and sun, the weather of the garden. (Sculpture is so wonderfully physical and sub-verbal—it’s that feeling of meeting something intimately, body to body, matter to matter.)

Just as we were preparing to move on, a couple walked over. Within an instant, the man was nattering on to his girlfriend about the piece, going into hydraulic detail, explaining that the “best angle for planing stone is…” and “the water is meant to symbolize the…” and “Noguchi’s obvious influences were…”. (Okay, I’m being intolerant but we’ve all encountered him, the know-it-all art expert, squasher of delight, a figure parodied recently in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.)

Anyway, at some point my mother interrupted and started telling the man everything she knows about Noguchi (“He was married to the most beautiful Japanese woman…A spy!”)

The man’s girlfriend and I just smiled at each other, turning back to the sculpture. I realized that the best thing about the water was the way it brimmed, in that way a glass sometimes bears overfilling, forming a lip of liquid that holds for a moment before releasing, sweet and generous.

Move Towards the Complicated

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I could read George Saunders all day and still not get enough of his off-kilter wisdom. There are certainly other witty and satirical writers out there but in my opinion there are few that manage what Saunders does, which is to balance cleverness with genuine emotion and open-heartedness.

As a writing prof, he offers all sorts of great advice on narrative. Here is a nice tidbit, I’ve pulled from an interview in BOMB (keep in mind that Saunders has dabbled in children’s fiction):

The first idea (“move towards the complicated”) is, I think, best understood as a habit of mind generally worth cultivating. Basically: steer towards the rapids. Say we’re writing “Little Red Riding Hood,” and we’ve just typed: “One day, Red’s mother handed her a picnic basket and told her to go see Granny, but not to talk to any strangers along the way.” So—should we have her meet a stranger? Yes. Should that stranger be potentially dangerous, like, say, a wolf? Sounds promising. Should Red engage with the wolf? (What a drag, if, at that point, she takes Mom’s advice and ignores the wolf: story over). Should the wolf she meets be evil, or a gentle, New Age wolf, who gives her some nice poems about daughter/granddaughter relations? Looking at a familiar story like that one, it’s pretty clear: a story is a thing that is full of dozens of crossroads moments, and if we make a habit of first, noticing these, and, second, steering toward the choice that gives off incrementally more power (or light, or heat, or throws open other interesting doors, etc.), this will, over the long haul, make the story more unique, more like itself, more incendiary. (Although even as I type this, I find myself intrigued by the poem-giving wolf. . . . )

Metaphysics for Tots

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Delphine Durand is a favorite picture book maker of mine. She has a hilarious and ingenious way of personifying emotional states. For example, in Big Rabbit’s Bad Mood, the bad mood is literally a galumphing gray beast that stalks rabbit through his house. (“Big Rabbit had a big, bad, hairy mood that stuck to him like glue.”)

In Bob and Co., Durand opens with a simple line-drawn character called “Emptiness.” (“On the blank page there’s a vast EMPTINESSS all alone.”) Our lonely character is soon joined by the characters of Sky, Earth, Water, who jostle and cavort until Emptiness gets pushed off the page.

Isn’t that clever?

The Key to Nature and Attention

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The other day my youngest son was given his first key. (I don’t remember my first key. Hello Kitty diary? Bicycle lock?) My son’s key is to a greenhouse located in Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto. Every member of his school’s “Sowers and Growers” club received a copy to celebrate the end of their first year.

Anna, the parent who started the club, has single-handedly introduced my son to the natural world in a way that amazes me and makes me want to buy her vats of herbal tea in appreciation. The other day I volunteered to help the club plant a native flower garden in the schoolyard. There were dozens of pots of bergamot, echinacea, various grasses, enough to keep us busy through the lunch hour. My small group worked under the blazing sun without complaint. One six-year-old boy—let’s call him “T”— particularly impressed me. He was a great digger and so quiet. When he removed the plants from their pots and loosened the roots he was intent and gentle and he never flooded the holes with too much water. Occasionally he would find a worm and dangle it for me to see. This was not malevolent dangling, so much as horticulturally excited dangling.

All of this would be fairly unremarkable were it not for the fact that T has a reputation for being a hell-raiser in class. He had a “habit” of hitting his classmates without provocation and is generally known for his defiance and restlessness.

As I gardened with T and took in his pleasure and calm, I was reminded of a book I read a couple of years ago called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit. The author, Richard Louv, argues that our children’s diminished connection with nature may be at least partially to blame for the proliferation in behavior disorders and specifically Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (which he renames “nature deficit disorder”). As he puts it, “Reducing that deficit—healing the broken bond between our young and nature—is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it. The health of the earth is at stake as well. How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes—our daily lives.”

Maybe T is just a pent-up farmer.

As for my son, all I know if that he will not be parted with his key, which he wears on a string around his neck at all hours. His pride is gargantuan and I know it has something to do with proprietorship and power but it also has a lot to do with Anna and seeds and the simple act of caring for something grounded and fragile and alive.

He may not be a natural ‘green thumb’ (I’m certainly not, just ask my sad indoor plants) but he has a small copper key and a love of dirt.

Three Things by and about Emily D.

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#1. Maurice Sendak waxing sweetly about reading Emily Dickinson’s works and how she helps him to remain calm in an otherwise hectic world: “I have a little tiny Emily Dickinson [book] that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong. She is such a sexy, passionate, little woman. I feel better.” (PBS interview with Bill Moyer)

#2. Isabelle Arsenault’s cover art for My Letter to the World, a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems:

#3. A Poem from Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson (1830-86).

Part One: Life

THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

The Beauty of Isabelle

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I am working on another collaboration with Isabelle Arsenault. Here is a tiny glimpse…

Isabelle’s art fills me with so much joy. There are so many layers of beauty and so much intelligence. I want to live in her drawings, wear them, carry them everywhere I go.

Mournful Love

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I am finding my feet again after a big deadline, walking and biking around the neighborhood, trying to shed my tunnel focus by taking in the peripheries. I am unplotted and unsprung. It’s catch-up with the world (and reading) time. I spent two hours with The New Yorker this afternoon.

Two pieces really affected me. Both are highly personal accounts of premature death. The first is a passionate and beautifully-written piece by Francisco Goldman titled “The Wave,” which ran in February 2011. Goldman uses intricate flashback sequences to recount the death of his young wife and the talented writer, Aura Estrada, who died from injuries sustained in a swimming accident in Mexico in 2007. Aura was only thirty when she died and Goldman has done such a magical job of conveying her exuberance and offbeat spirit that I ached for having never met her. (Goldman’s book length tribute, Say Her Name, has recently been published to rave reviews and will definitely be on my summer reading list.)

The death recounted in Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Aquarium” (published in this month’s issue) while somewhat less sudden, is no less painful to grasp. In November 2010, Hemon’s nine-month-old daughter Isabel died of complications associated with a malignant brain tumor. The aquarium in this piece refers to that atmospheric and existential separation between the world of the well and the world of the ill. Even as Hemon conveys the feeling of being isolated in his devastating vigil, there is a feeling of tremendous fatherly love spilling over. This is a very soulful and moving read.