gratitude

Last Friday, in Edmonton, we wandered over to La Boule for coffee and a pastry (the best hazelnut croissant ever) and then to Alhambra, a bookstore nearby. I chose a couple of books for my Edmonton grandchildren and then saw Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks. A year or so ago, I read The River of Consciousness and wrote about it here. I haven’t read all his books but many, perhaps more than half. Recently I went back to his Hallucinations to figure out some stuff about perception and brain function as a result of a retinal injury suffered in November when I fell on ice in Edmonton. I have curiosity and a little intelligence but Oliver Sacks had a truly fine mind. I bought Gratitude and on our second night in Edmonton, sleepless, I got up to read it. It’s not a long book but it’s full of wisdom and beauty. And the prose is so interesting, the way it takes the reader into the writer’s life, into his childhood, into his understanding of his own nature and sexuality, his devotion to, then reliance on, psychotropic drugs (for a time), and his acceptance of his own death.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

It’s a brief book but complete. You read it and you realize that you must do what you need to do. Not wait for the next week or two when you can get away to do your work, preferably in a remote cabin with meals brought to the door in a basket. Not after you’ve cleaned the house or finished reconciling your finances or dealt with the latest fiasco in your love life. Sure, those things take up a lot of space but I agree with Dr. Sacks that we don’t get these years back.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

And the thing is, it doesn’t matter if you have a month left to live or a decade. Or three. These are the years. These are the days. If I had my younger self to talk to, to console (as I wish I had this older self to talk to in the years when I wondered if I’d ever have time to write), to advise and encourage, I’d tell her that the years pass so quickly that she shouldn’t wait for what she might think is adequate time. I am in that river of consciousness now, at this point in my life, deep in its waters, sometimes chilly and in danger of losing balance in the current, sometimes so utterly joyous that I have to pull myself back to the shore by force of will. Everything feels available to me, or worth pursuing if it’s not right at hand:

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past.

A few weeks ago, I woke with a novel (or maybe novella) in mind, a riff on Mrs. Dalloway, and I began to write it. I put it aside because I have some work to finish but I know it’s waiting. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Yes, she will. Or she will grow them.

tulips at home

“I remember the silver light…”

arashi2

Yesterday I was outside by the bench where I do my indigo dyeing in better weather. I was thinking about the long essay I’m current writing on blue, its various incarnations, and visual disturbances. The research has led me into the most amazing areas of scholarship, unknown to me before I fell on ice in Edmonton in November and tore the retina in my right eye. My son Forrest mentioned Oliver Sacks and his experience with indigo and so I read his collection of essays, Hallucinations.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

                          (Oliver Sacks, “Altered States”)

After that I was interested in the idea that the entoptic phenonoma I’d experienced before the retinal tear was diagnosed might be something one could induce. I’m not sure I want to induce them but I found myself thinking about the intense beauty I’d been reluctant to admit was the result of damage to my eye. The blue in particular, the blue of the sky billowing with white clouds: if I was a believer, I might have thought I was seeing heaven.

It hadn’t occurred to me that a person could summon indigo. My own recipe for producing it was pretty tame. Indigo powder (which is sourced from a farm in India, not grown in my garden and fermented in a vat),thiourea dioxide, lye, synthropol soap, and soda ash. I use vinegar for rinsing the dyed fabrics. Some of these are caustic but none, as far as I know, is capable of generating hallucinations.

Would I use a cocktail of hallucinogens to see that inner sky again? Would I mix a little of my precious vial of homemade cannabis tincture (Texada Timewarp buds soaked in Silent Sam vodka) with something else more powerful if it meant I could look upon that cracked red desert beyond my irises? An inner landscape entirely my own. I don’t know. But I would be in good company. Dr. Sacksand those who entered the caves perhaps 35,000 years ago to paint horses, bison, ibex, a gallery of lions, their own hands outlined in hematite.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”, a work-in-progress

Right now I’m reading The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, by the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams. It’s quite a provocative analysis of the origins of image-making, the evolution of symbolic activity, and how certain percepts are wired into the human nervous system. I think of the spirals, the gridwork, the zigzag lines that are part of the complex non-representational patterns we see in cave art, existing alongside the most beautiful and coherent images of animals, keenly observed and anatomically represented. The quartet of horses in Chauvet, the polychrome bison in Altamira. The finger-flutings in mud in the Cosquer Cave. The finger-drawn grids in Hornos, in Spain.

I read, and I write, and I wait for better weather in order to set up my dye vat and pursue my own indigo dream.

I remember the silver light falling beside my face, like the tails of shooting stars, in the dark cave of my bed at night, fearful and blessed, and how I will try to replicate that sensation—not just the visual beauty but the awe—in some way for the rest of my life.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”

vat

redux: “I am haunted by waters.”

A year ago, I was planning a long essay about rivers, inspired by Oliver Sacks. I finished it and am in the process of finding a home for it. As I’m also trying to find a home for my novella about rivers, also completed in the past year. More water, more searching, more finishing…

rivers

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It

Last night I finished reading The River of Consciousness, the final collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. It’s a beautiful book, full of lively, erudite, and humane explorations of memory, illness, and yes, consciousness. I put it on my bedside table, turned out the light, fell into a deep sleep (helped a little, I have to say, by my homemade tincture), and woke with one thought in my mind. Do rivers themselves have consciousness?

I suspect they do. Think of how often we use river terms for our own metaphorical purposes. River of consciousness. Stream of consciousness (that wonderful narrative device so beloved by the Modernists). Time and the river.

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past. — Oliver Sacks

The photograph above is the moment of the Thompson River entering the larger body of the Fraser River, at Lytton. How long before the Thompson is just a memory of green water in the darker water of the Fraser? What does it retain of its essential self? Its origins, its sediments, its particular history, its…yes, its own fluid memory?

My husband’s new book of poetry is due out from Harbour Publishing later this year. Its title? This Was The River. I’m thinking a conversation about rivers and their own consciousness might well begin this evening, by our fire, over a glass of wine. And later this winter or early spring, overlooking the Thompson and the Fraser, a place we stop every time we drive up Highway 1 into the Interior.

I made some notes this morning and I hope to enter the river of consciousness as well as its obverse during these dark days of January. Maybe most particularly its obverse.

blue windows

windows

Yesterday I had a laser procedure to mend a retinal tear in one of my eyes; the other eye is being monitored because of suspected vitreous detachment. This is probably a result of my fall on ice in Edmonton last week. I thought I had a badly bruised and possibly cracked coccyx (my doctor confirmed that either or both are likely) but then developed some visual, well, not problems exactly because the experience was very beautiful but apparently beauty is not a consideration when your retina is torn. You need to have it repaired, and as quickly as possible. I’m lucky.

Yesterday I asked my (new to me) ophthalmologist about some things I’d seen while being examined in the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s Eye Institute on Sunday evening (another lucky thing, because there just happened to be a young ophthalmologist in the Institute who was willing to examine me and who alerted me to the necessity of immediate action once we were back on the Coast) and he told me I’d experienced “entoptic phenomena”, visual effects within my eye. I won’t detail those right now because they fit so beautifully into an essay I am writing called “The Blue Etymologies”, an exploration of the colour blue, my work with indigo dye (the image at the beginning of this post is cotton dyed last year), some old blueprints associated with my grandparents in the 1940s Beverly (then a small mining community just outside Edmonton but now part of the city), some cyanotype prints by the 19th century English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, and some other elements a little too complicated to explain just now.

The world of our senses is extraordinary and profound. We see, and then we realize how that happens. We have intense lights directed into our eyes and we see images so beautiful that we weep. Maybe a little because of the discomfort of a cracked tailbone as we sit on the examining chair and the pressure of the ophthalmologist’s tools. But maybe we have been given something else. When I was trying to describe this sensation to my son Forrest on the phone the other evening, he wondered if I’d read Oliver Sacks’s essay, “Altered States”, in which he sees indigo. No, I hadn’t. But yesterday, before my medical appointment, I found a copy at our library and read the essay last night before sleep.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

His methodology sounds a little more interesting than mine (a hard fall on the butt and a torn retina) but yes, that was it. The colour of heaven. Right before, or rather inside, my eye. He never found it again.

“I am haunted by waters.”

rivers

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It

Last night I finished reading The River of Consciousness, the final collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. It’s a beautiful book, full of lively, erudite, and humane explorations of memory, illness, and yes, consciousness. I put it on my bedside table, turned out the light, fell into a deep sleep (helped a little, I have to say, by my homemade tincture), and woke with one thought in my mind. Do rivers themselves have consciousness?

I suspect they do. Think of how often we use river terms for our own metaphorical purposes. River of consciousness. Stream of consciousness (that wonderful narrative device so beloved by the Modernists). Time and the river.

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past. — Oliver Sacks

The photograph above is the moment of the Thompson River entering the larger body of the Fraser River, at Lytton. How long before the Thompson is just a memory of green water in the darker water of the Fraser? What does it retain of its essential self? Its origins, its sediments, its particular history, its…yes, its own fluid memory?

My husband’s new book of poetry is due out from Harbour Publishing later this year. Its title? This Was The River. I’m thinking a conversation about rivers and their own consciousness might well begin this evening, by our fire, over a glass of wine. And later this winter or early spring, overlooking the Thompson and the Fraser, a place we stop every time we drive up Highway 1 into the Interior.

I made some notes this morning and I hope to enter the river of consciousness as well as its obverse during these dark days of January. Maybe most particularly its obverse.