“but the earth is still going round the sun” (George Orwell)

american pillar

It seems somehow fitting that I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Orwell’s Roses, last night. I began it on February 2 (see this entry) just as some of my family were arriving for a winter visit and then I put it aside until they’d returned home to Ottawa and Victoria. Seeing it on my bedside table was a cause for quiet joy, though, because it feels like exactly the book that should have come my way at this point in public and private history. It is a book of the moment, the long moment, that considers what it is to be a person trying to find the best way to live and to write about that. For Orwell, nothing was simple. His was a passionate voice against totalitarianism, yes, and he was a firm believer in social democracy (or democratic socialism, depending….), but he also knew that politics was a complicated thing.

What I love about this book is how widely Solnit ranges in and around the strands of Orwell’s life, his thinking, his writing, and his gardens. Roses? Yes, he planted some, purchased at Woolworth’s in 1936, at the cottage he was leasing in Wallington, Hertfordshire, with his wife Eileen. They kept a kind of shop in a room off the kitchen, slicing bacon for customers, and it was from this house that Orwell departed for Spain to fight against fascism. He famously said that if anyone had asked what he was fighting for, “I should have answered: ‘Common decency'”.

Roses are the leitmotif of the book and they take Solnit to the suffrage movement (“Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.”), to Tina Modotti’s photograph, “Roses, Mexico”, to Columbia to learn something about factory rose production, and to the genetic work done by Charles Chamberlain Hurst on roses after she walked through Cambridge’s botanical gardens and noticed the sign indicating the plants were inspired by Hurst’s hybridization programme.

In a way this is a biography. We certainly learn a lot about Orwell’s life. But more importantly we learn about the interconnections of a life with the the currents of history and movements. That an individual can apprehend the horrors of political systems, the damage done to humans, but can also find room for hope and optimism. For Orwell, this is evident in his essays most of all. I remember reading some of them years ago and finding a voice I was drawn to for its intelligence and its common decency, if I may borrow his own phrase. Whether planting trees for the opportunity to ameliorate harm done in your lifetime or writing in defence of English cooking (“First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets…”), he yokes beauty and attention, care and vigilance. Here he is on the common toad:

How many times have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t…. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

This morning, listening to the news from our nation’s capital, I sort of wish for an Orwell to make sense of this moment in history—the man who could write a letter to the Manchester Guardian to stand up for Indian passengers who’d been treat badly aboard a ship, who could lament our ability to change nature for the worse (“With the aid of the atomic bomb we could literally move mountains; we could even, so it is said, alter the climate of the earth by melting the polar ice-caps and irrigating the Sahara.”), and who wrote about starvation in Europe after the Second World War. That he was also the man who could daydream his way into an imaginary pub, the charmingly named Moon Under Water, with its grained woodwork and stuffed bull’s head, makes him someone I wish I could exchange plant cuttings with, share seed potatoes, and sit with over a pint on the stoop of the farmhouse on the island of Jura he went to ten years after planting those roses in Wallington, talking about gardens and freedom. It’s the beauty of this book that gives him to us with such immediacy and poignancy. Such urgency.

“In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.” (Rebecca Solnit)

not orwell's roses

These are not George Orwell’s roses. They’re mine, cut in early June, some of the petals shaken off to make rose petal jelly (delicious on warm croissants). Most of the roses I’ve planted over the past 40 years are old-fashioned cultivars, the kind that Orwell might have planted in his garden in Wallington, in Herfordshire, in 1936. I know from having just begun Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses that one rose he planted was “Albertine”, a salmon-pink rambler that I don’t have but now of course I’m going to look for.

Does this happen to you, that you settle into your bed (or wherever you like best to read) with a new book, and you are instantly taken wholly into its text, its premise, its intelligent creative world? Last night I’d just arranged three pillows behind me, the sheets were freshly laundered, the butter-yellow cotton ones I love, the curtains were drawn against the dark, and I opened the book.

In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses. I had known this for more than three decades and never thought enough about what that meant until a November day a few years ago, when I was under doctor’s orders to recuperate at home in San Francisco and was also on a train from London to Cambridge to talk with another writer about a book I’d written.

I don’t know about you but this confiding voice, the roses, and the disconnection between what was expected of her and what she was doing—I knew it was the book for me at this point in the year, in history, in, oh, a scattering of other moments. I haven’t read all Rebecca Solnit’s books but I have read enough of them to count her among my very cherished writers.

She is on her way to Wallington, where Orwell lived for 4 years. She has been talking about trees and plants with her friend, documentary film-maker Sam Green, and mentioned an essay by Orwell, “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray”, in which the writer mentions the trees and roses he’d planted ten years earlier, in Wallington, and how he’d visited them and discovered that most of them had thrived in his absence. He wrote,

The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.

I read 42 pages last night and I began to do something I haven’t done in years: I made marks in the margins with a pencil, little lines and a few words here and there, so I can easily find the passages that stopped me, made me think, made me  lean back on my pillows, often with tears in my eyes, grateful for this book, at this time, as an excavator clears an area across the highway from us for a huge telecommunications tower (we’ve tried to keep this from happening but it seems to be going ahead, with a security guard patrolling because he’s been told to expect trouble, which I guess is us), as the news cycle is filled with plague and violence and ugly rhetoric. Orwell was certainly a man of action. One remembers his books about socialism, poverty, capitalism…I read Down and Out in Paris and London in 1976 when I found a copy on the shelves of the institution where I worked in Wimbledon and I remember walking by the homeless sleeping rough on the Embankment on the evenings I went into the City for a poetry reading or concert, thinking that not much had changed. Rebecca Solnit writes that it was Orwell’s essays that were “a foundational influence on my own meander towards becoming an essayist” and in a way I can relate to that. I remember reading “Why I Write”, “Shooting an Elephant”, and “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” when I was perhaps 18, drawn to the plain language and the sense that we shared some common beliefs about nature and humanity and what we do as writers.

I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. (from “Why I Write)

It’s just after 10 a.m. as I write this and already I am looking forward to bedtime, arranging the pillows, and sinking into this extraordinary book.  Solnit’s prose, so bright and vivid and joyous, and her meander into Orwell’s world, rich with roses, with good advice we could all do well to heed:

I am not suggesting that one can discharge all one’s obligations towards society by means of a private re-afforestation scheme. Still, it might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground.

While the excavator down below echoes with the acoustics of destruction (oiled by capitalist greed, small and large), while the trucks maintain their barricades in Ottawa and Alberta, I’m making a note, for all of us, with my little hoard of acorns.

cedar smoke

cinnamon buns

This morning I was drinking my coffee in bed, window open, when I smelled cedar smoke. No surprise. John made a fire when he went downstairs and the smoke rising from the chimney found my window, encouraged by a very light breeze. It’s one of my favourite smells. I’m reminded of warmth (remembering the old adage about firewood, that you are warmed 3 times: by cutting it, splitting it, and burning it), of winter mornings when my children would eat their breakfasts by the fire before heading off to the school bus, of our relative comfort here in our isolated house.

Because I was thinking of comfort, I decided to make cinnamon buns. I had sour milk to use up and although my yeast supply is running a little low, I have baked enough over the past 40 years to know that one can use less yeast if one is willing to wait.

While the dough was rising on the slate hearth, I did other things. I’m tweaking an essay collection in hope of finding a publisher for it, I’m coddling along seedlings in my sunroom, waiting for the right time to plant them out, and they need daily water, I’m also finding my way into new work, and this means lots of reading. What am I reading? Anything I can find about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. I was going to write about this anyway because of family losses but the timing? It gives me shivers to think of the correspondences between the past and now. While I waited for the dough to rise, I did my tasks.

Yesterday I read a remarkable essay by the remarkable Rebecca Solnit: “On Letting Go of Certainty In a Story That Never Ends”. Sometimes the right thing comes along at exactly the right moment. The moment when you are feeling sad or impatient or fearful of what the future might bring. You remember your children coming up from the school bus at the end of the day and you’d made cinnamon buns for them as an after-school snack. The fire was warm and suddenly the house was loud with their voices. The house is not loud now. There is still cedar smoke and the cinnamon buns are out of the oven, glazed and delicious. I don’t know when I’ll see the people I love most again. You don’t either. None of us know. But as Rebecca Solnit says, the waiting is our task now. She writes of the sturdy durability of stories during this time of uncertainty, particularly the stories in which difficult tasks are performed by old women, sisters, young orphans, abandoned children, and an assortment of small but courageous animals.

Those tasks and ordeals and quests mirror the difficulty of the task of becoming faced by the young in real life and the powers that most of us have, alliance, persistence, resistance, innovation.

A series of text messages back and forth from my children in response to the picture I sent them of the cinnamon buns fresh from the oven. I wish you were here, I told them, and they wrote back to say, We never got icing on the buns when we were little! Or, You always left raisins out of some of them, remember? (because at least two thought of raisins as a punishment, one of them reminded me, not a treat…). Memory is selective. What I remember as pleasure is someone else’s annoyance. Or disappointment. But it’s what we need, I think, to help us keep to the task at hand, which is waiting.

We are in the middle and the end is not in sight. We are waiting, which is among most people’s least favorite thing to do, when it means noticing that you have taken up residence in not knowing. We are in terra incognita, which is where we always are anyway, but usually we have a milder case of it…

This unknown place where we find ourselves is also full of reminders of what we’ve always cherished. We need to remember. We need to keep some things sacred even as the yeast runs out, the numbers rise, the rumours of new waves of infections begin to unsettle us again. Remember how we laughed and argued and how a pan of cinnamon buns disappeared just like that as we crowded around the fire and the cedar burned, sending its incense to the sky like a wish.

 

redux: “the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door”

Note: This post from May 2015 referred to the writing of an essay “Euclid’s Orchard” — it came the title essay for Euclid’s Orchard, published in 2017. But here I am in May 2019 working on another collection of essays, pondering the same either/ors. And agreeing with Rebecca Solnit in so many ways, particularly this: “Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.”

_______________________

A year or so ago I began to write something, an essay (I thought), and there were so many things I wanted to include as the pages unfolded before me the way they do, so beguiling in their emptiness, their hopefulness. And after writing about ten pages, I had to put the piece aside. There was so much I knew I wanted to write about but I had trouble finding the language, the open heart (for there was pain in the writing, and damage, and I hoped reconciliation). There was another part to the work which involved a quilt and that too progressed to a certain point and then faltered, stopped. My pleasure in it went quiet.

out the window

But while we were in Europe, I found myself thinking about the work again, not in a new way exactly, but with a new enthusiasm for how I might explore its ideas, its large and mysterious terrain. Part of the problem I’d had was in the fatal habit of comparing what I had done in the past with the work of others. My writing never quite fits the current conversation. I’ve watched and listened as other writers discuss the boundaries and requirements and expectations of something that is being termed “creative non-fiction”. It’s not a term I like. Describing something as what it’s not — not fiction — doesn’t interest me. I don’t find it useful. What if you need to use fiction in a piece of writing which is mostly reportage, mostly investigation? Is it less true? I agree that there are pretty clear requirements about accuracy and verifiable information for journalism but do we need to apply those requirements to other kinds of writing that is (mostly) non-fiction? And creative? Please. As though that is something we can claim for one form and not others? (I’m reminded of those courses in the community education flyers that arrive twice a year: Creative Cake Decorating, Creative Home Decorating.) Anyway, I’m 60 and I’m kind of cranky about a lot of things these days. Politics, our inability as a culture to really deal with the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and how so many are willing to give up citizenship to become consumers.

Anyway, I’ve been working hard on this whatever-it-is. An essay which might just become a book. And I’ve comforted by my recent reading, particularly Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. What a glorious book. I rationed it over the past week because I didn’t want it to end. Because there’s a health crisis in the book, I wanted to be reassured that she became healthy again. (She does.) But where the health issue leads her is so rich and light-filled — and water-filled, too, because she goes to Iceland for a residency at the Library of Water — that the reader realizes the book is a quest in the tradition of the best ones. There is sorrow and loss but also a transcendent trip on a raft down through the Grand Canyon. “The river changed but never ceased, and this temporary life where I was always near that unbroken continuity was an experience of a particular kind of coherence.” And this: “Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end….What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” Yes, yes, what if? What if we wrote a book the way we wanted to, what if we never worried about its coherence, the narrative arc, the hobgoblin fact checker hovering over our shoulder as we worked? It’s worth a try. It’s worth more than that. It’s worth our best effort.

I read an interview with Rebecca Solnit in the Believer Magazine and she is both canny and congenial in how she describes her writing process. “I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labelled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.

I wake up every morning eager to get to work. This is such a joy to me — the prospect of the page, the scraps of paper on my desk where I’ve noted a line, an image (some of them photographs because there’s a particular plant I’m keeping an eye on), a possible equation (because there’s something resembling mathematics in this work), the elements whirling in my heart, my pulse, even my imagination (for some of this is fabricated).

“the life we dream of when we look at houses”

On my bedside table, there are a couple of books I haven’t read from cover to cover but they’re ones I dip into from time to time. One of them is Rebecca Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness and it’s entirely suited to this kind of magpie reading. She’s a writer I return to again and again. Her books about her travels (to Iceland, to Ireland, her deep interest in how we view landscape and climate, her accounts of her walks and raft trips and reading, her intelligent writing on violence and politics — all of it is congenial to my own thinking. I’m always so glad to find an essay of hers in the issues of Harper’s that arrive in our mailbox each month. I’ve been known to start reading one of them as I walk the Sunshine Coast Highway from the mailboxes to our house with ferry traffic whizzing by and I realize that I might have become a story in someone’s repertoire: the woman in the old jacket, barely noticing that one of the cars narrowly avoided hitting her because she was oblivious to the world, face buried in a magazine.

This morning I read “Inside Out, Or Interior Space (and Interior Decoration)” in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness as I drank my coffee in bed (one of the luxuries of life: John almost always brings me a cup to drink while he makes the fire downstairs and does dishes from the previous evening’s dinner). I love the wide-ranging scope of this essay, how it combines nuanced thinking about houses, materialism, furniture and its function as art and anchor, privacy, real estate versus home-making…

We have a couch, more like a church pew, built of cedar; a friend of John’s made it 40 years ago. It’s heavy and cumbersome and now and then I think we might have outgrown it. But then I polish it with lemon oil and realize how beautiful it is, or would be, if I only replaced the covers on the foam cushions. I can sew a bit. Well, I can quilt, more like it. And the covers require something more like tailoring. I’ve made 3 sets of covers for this couch over the years — one set of heavy canvas which I printed with lizards inspired by this replica of a petroglph we saw at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah many years ago:

lizards

The others were cottons of various kinds and eventually they wore out, as the current set is wearing out. A few weeks ago, I found a bolt-end of linen in the fabric store in Sechelt. The fabric is French, I bought the whole bolt-end, 6 meters at 12.99 a meter.It’s beautiful and a little research online made me realize it was a wonderful coup; the linen can be ordered from various high-end interior design studios for hundreds of dollars a meter (reduced on one site from 362 a meter to 138). I bought it because I loved it and now I’m scared to cut into it because I realize it’s much finer than I thought. So it’s in a bag, by the couch, waiting for me to summon courage and patience. A small voice asked me if I was really going to devote so much time to, what, recovering an old couch? One that is only mildly comfortable, though it did serve as an extra place to put overnight guests in the old days when we often had many people coming to parties and limited beds for them to sleep in.

couch

So I was interested and consoled this morning to read Rebecca Solnit on interior space:

There are times when it’s clear to me that by getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, and times when, say, the apricot velvet headboard against the lavender wall of a room in an old hotel fills me with a mysterious satisfied pleasure in harmonies of color, texture, atmospheres of comfort, domesticity and a desire to go on living among such color and texture and space and general real estate. There are times when I believe in spiritual detachment, though there was a recent occasion when I bothered to go take a picture of my old reading armchair to the upholsterer’s around the corner to see if it can be made beautiful again and worry about whether charcoal velveteen would go with my next decor. There are times when I enjoy the weightlessness of traveling and wish to own nothing and afternoons when I want to claim every farmhouse I drive by as my own, especially those with porches and dormers, those spaces so elegantly negotiating inside and out, as though building itself could direct and support an ideal life, the life we dream of when we look at houses.

I’m not sure our house negotiates inner and outer space elegantly, exactly, but it is where we live and where we return to after travels far and wide. It’s where memories and dreams anchor us as surely as the bed in the Odyssey is part of Odysseus’s return — a bed Solnit refers to in this essay as “the best piece of furniture in classical literature.” Part of the pleasure of an essay in general and this essay in particular is following the route a lively mind takes through rooms and literature and the gorgeous specificities of living itself.

“the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door”

A year or so ago I began to write something, an essay (I thought), and there were so many things I wanted to include as the pages unfolded before me the way they do, so beguiling in their emptiness, their hopefulness. And after writing about ten pages, I had to put the piece aside. There was so much I knew I wanted to write about but I had trouble finding the language, the open heart (for there was pain in the writing, and damage, and I hoped reconciliation). There was another part to the work which involved a quilt and that too progressed to a certain point and then faltered, stopped. My pleasure in it went quiet.

out the window

But while we were in Europe, I found myself thinking about the work again, not in a new way exactly, but with a new enthusiasm for how I might explore its ideas, its large and mysterious terrain. Part of the problem I’d had was in the fatal habit of comparing what I had done in the past with the work of others. My writing never quite fits the current conversation. I’ve watched and listened as other writers discuss the boundaries and requirements and expectations of something that is being termed “creative non-fiction”. It’s not a term I like. Describing something as what it’s not — not fiction — doesn’t interest me. I don’t find it useful. What if you need to use fiction in a piece of writing which is mostly reportage, mostly investigation? Is it less true? I agree that there are pretty clear requirements about accuracy and verifiable information for journalism but do we need to apply those requirements to other kinds of writing that is (mostly) non-fiction? And creative? Please. As though that is something we can claim for one form and not others? (I’m reminded of those courses in the community education flyers that arrive twice a year: Creative Cake Decorating, Creative Home Decorating.) Anyway, I’m 60 and I’m kind of cranky about a lot of things these days. Politics, our inability as a culture to really deal with the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and how so many are willing to give up citizenship to become consumers.

Anyway, I’ve been working hard on this whatever-it-is. An essay which might just become a book. And I’ve comforted by my recent reading, particularly Rebecca Solnit’s The Farway Nearby. What a glorious book. I rationed it over the past week because I didn’t want it to end. Because there’s a health crisis in the book, I wanted to be reassured that she became healthy again. (She does.) But where the health issue leads her is so rich and light-filled — and water-filled, too, because she goes to Iceland for a residency at the Library of Water — that the reader realizes the book is a quest in the tradition of the best ones. There is sorrow and loss but also a transcendent trip on a raft down through the Grand Canyon. “The river changed but never ceased, and this temporary life where I was always near that unbroken continuity was an experience of a particular kind of coherence.” And this: “Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end….What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” Yes, yes, what if? What if we wrote a book the way we wanted to, what if we never worried about its coherence, the narrative arc, the hobgoblin fact checker hovering over our shoulder as we worked? It’s worth a try. It’s worth more than that. It’s worth our best effort.

I read an interview with Rebecca Solnit in the Believer Magazine and she is both canny and congenial in how she describes her writing process. “I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.”

I wake up every morning eager to get to work. This is such a joy to me — the prospect of the page, the scraps of paper on my desk where I’ve noted a line, an image (some of them photographs because there’s a particular plant I’m keeping an eye on), a possible equation (because there’s something resembling mathematics in this work), the elements whirling in my heart, my pulse, even my imagination (for some of this is fabricated).