Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Summer of Abundance*

No explanation needed.

First, some quack etymology. Abundance. What a good word. Split it apart, and you get a-bun-dance. You know that Raffi song? The one that goes, "All I really need/Is a song in my heart/Food in my belly/Love in my family"? I've found myself singing that a lot lately. I think he knew what happiness was, and I think I'm finding out. I have a song in my heart. I make it up as I go along, and I'm singing it with a lot of gusto. I don't really know what it's about, or why I'm singing it, but for now it's enough that it's there. I can hear it, and I know other people can too. Sometimes I can't contain it, and my song just radiates out from me. The food in my belly part? Just read the garden blog. 'Nuff said. My family was up a few weeks ago, and there's definitely love there. It helps you to feel more loving when you only see each other once in a while :) But I can feel the love, and I know it's always there, and it's something I can take refuge in when I need to.

Me and my sistah.

And I also have a family of friends up here in Waterloo, made up of people who come and go. The strands that bind us are elastic, they can stretch across long distances and periods of time, and snap back surprisingly fast. I have an abundance of joie de vivre, food and love. So I see the word abundance somewhat along the lines of the Raffi song. If I had a bun (a delicious multigrain one that I baked myself with sesame seeds on top, ooh, and maybe some real butter)and a dance (be it a swing dance with a charming partner or one of those dances that happen at home when no one else is around and you crank up the Shania Twain really loud), I would be happy. A bun and a dance would be abundance. What else do you need?

Tricia and I riding the cannon at Fort George.

My life this summer has been abundant in so many ways. So much so, in fact, that today has been my designated rest day - no social engagements, no yoga or dance. I've only left the house to run to the grocery store for essentials (an orange and soy milk) and to lie on the grass reading my book. I've turned down a date and watching a movie with a friend. What have I done? A lot of baking, sleeping and reading. And blogging. I find that I need these days once in a while. My life is so amazing that I have to take a break from living it and step back and appreciate it. Isn't that a wonderful reason to take a day off?

I love the beach and I love Sarah. What could be better?

So, to slightly plagiarize Elizabeth Barrett Browning, how is my life abundant? Let me count the ways:

I don't even remember the occasion for this gathering of food and friends. I don't really think there needs to be a reason.

1. Yoga
The name of this post came from a yoga class I went to on Thursday with my dear friend and favorite yoga teacher Leena. She teaches a style of yoga called Anusara, and one of the major distinguishing factors of Anusara yoga is that each class involves a theme. Leena's reflections were about the abundance of summer heat that we've finally started getting here in KW, and about the abundance of summer produce that I've already raved about in the garden blog (so I'll spare you here). Our intention for the class was to open up to and embrace all of the abundance that we are receiving. I feel like this is a very apt description of my life this summer, which has been abundant to the point of being overwhelming at times. I have an unlimited summer pass to the studio where Leena teaches, and so I've been going to yoga classes up to 4 or 5 times a week (usually more like 2 or 3). It's lovely. Yoga is such a grounding activity for me, one that stretches and strengthens my body and my mind. It's been good to be so immersed in it.

2. Gardening
I'll say it again: Read the garden blog!

I've discovered a love of my life this summer: gardening. I already know I want to have a garden next summer. Gardening makes me feel like I'm part of a large and fast flowing cycle of energy, one that involves the sun, the earth, the air, plants, animals and other people. It's invigorating.

Mmmm fresh food.

3. Dancing
Another love of my life that I've discovered this summer has been dancing, specifically swing. I was always that girl who watched Dirty Dancing and wished desperately that I could dance. And now I can! I wrote a post earlier this summer on swing dancing, but my relationship with it has evolved since then. I've gotten to the stage where I sometimes feel like it's taking over my life. Other dancers assure me that this is normal, but honestly, as much as I like dancing, I like the rest of my life too! Let me elaborate: Last weekend was the Kitchener Blues Festival. Friday I helped with a swing demonstration, went dancing at a bar, and attended a late night blues party. Saturday I went to the dance at a studio in Kitchener, complete with live band and great dance partners. Sunday I was at the festival with a friend, just taking in the ambiance (I didn't actually dance, although I chatted with swing people). Monday I went to the usual swing night at Caesar Martini's. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I was at a balboa workshop with Nico and Sandrine, two great dancers from Toulouse, France. That's SEVEN days in a row of being with the swing crowd! See what I mean? I'm not saying I didn't love every minute of it, just that the rapidity with which it takes over my time is quite astonishing. There is definitely an abundance of swing dancing.

Balboa workshop - I'm in the green shirt (and the sexy heels). Guest photographer: David Trinh

4. Boys
My life these summer months has been a little bit like a soap opera. Honestly, I can entertain my girlfriends for an hour with just my stories of male attention. That kind of sounds like I'm bragging, but it's true, and I swear, I'm not consciously doing anything to attract said attention (I deign to speak for my unconscious). I think it comes from spending so much time in bars swing dancing. I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of my friends who introduced me to swing dancing. They quickly point out that they have been dancing for two years and have not encountered anything like what I've encountered in the past two months. This is true. At times this attention can be awkward or even creepy, but mostly it is flattering, and in certain cases very much anticipated.

5. Friends
I have been spending so much time with my friends this summer that when some of them move away in a few weeks (you know who you are, Sarah Connors!), I know I'm going to go through withdrawal. But that time is not yet upon us, so I choose not to think about it. And besides, in a few weeks I myself will be moving into Butternut Manor, where there will be an abundance of good friends, good food, and good times to be had. I love my friends - the ones whose bums I can test for freshness, the ones who fix my bike lights time and time again, the ones who steal my maple syrup and give me clothes, the ones who ask me to dance over and over again, the ones I don't see much but when I do we have amazing heart-to-hearts, the ones who love me despite my ditching them to go stargazing with boys, the ones who say such ridiculous things to me that the only response I can come up with is, "I love you." You all know who you are.

An early joint birthday party just calls for ice cream cake.

And, apparently, a lap dance from Tricia.

6. Work
I also feel like I have an abundance of work, even though it's really only supposed to be about 30 hours a week. I like my three jobs. Although it takes an abundance of planning to keep them all straight, I don't get bored. At the beginning of this summer, I had too much free time and not enough work, and that doesn't make for an abundant life. Somehow I need the work to remind me how sweet all the rest of it is (and to finance my abundant life!). I need structure and routine, which work provides for me. I'm very grateful for the work I have, because I know people who don't have any.

I have loved this summer. I have thrived in it. Like everyone, change is not something that I immediately welcome. My life is fabulous, why can't it just stay this way? But fall is coming, along with school, and moving to a new place, and being surrounded by new people. I'm pretty sure it will be good. But for now, I'm not thinking too hard about it. I'm going to make the most of the summer abundance that's left (especially after this rest day)!
*Those of you who also follow the groovy roots kw blog will notice that I have kind of plagiarized. I say: who cares? I'm plagiarizing myself, and anyway, there's no copyright on the words summer and abundance - not until Monsanto decides that Summer Abundance would be the perfect name for its new GM soybean.

Monday, August 3, 2009

What do I have in common with a Russian aristocrat born in 1828?

Maybe more than I think. Leo Tolstoy surprised me with Anna Karenina, in more ways than one. Some reasons for this involve the plot, so if you haven't read it yet and don't want to find out what happens, read not on! Otherwise, by all means, please do.

First of all, the book is named after Anna Karenina. Therefore, it would be logical to assume that she plays the main character, the heroine if you will, of the story. But in typical long-winded fashion, we don't even meet Anna until page 64, and then she dies at the end of Part 7, leaving Part 8 and Constantine Levin (the other main character) to finish out the novel without her.

Secondly, I expected Anna to be racy. You know, the woman that leaves her husband and runs off with another man should have a devil-may-care-attitude. But she doesn't. She's worried about everything: what people will say, not being able to see her son, living "in sin" as a woman separated from her husband but not divorced. She's actually quite miserable for most of the novel. I found myself first excited for her to be happy with Vronsky, then I pitied her when it didn't turn out the way she'd planned, and then I became disgusted and saddened as she sank lower and lower into jealousy and depression. When seen with others' eyes, Anna has a special quality, almost magical, a touch of je ne sais quoi. But when we enter her mind, she's tormented and afraid.

The third reason I was surprised was by the ending. After Anna threw herself under a train, I expected the novel to go downhill from there. I've read other Russian literature, and I steeled myself for the worst case scenario: Vronsky shoots himself, Levin and Kitty's baby dies, Levin is caught up in his faith crisis and hangs himself, Kitty falls apart from grief... etc. But no: Anna and Levin's brother are the only casualties. Levin has a revelation in the end and sorts himself out, and he and Kitty and baby are all set to live happily ever after. True, Vronsky does go away to war with the intention of being killed, but at least he's noble about it.

But the biggest reason I was surprised was because of the connection that I felt at times to Tolstoy and his characters. I was reading the book as a project. I'd picked it up for a dollar at a thrift shop and decided that it was about time that I made my way through it. It felt good to be able to tell my writing group that I was reading Anna Karenina, especially when I learned to say her name right.* That's why I started reading it.

I kept reading it because I wanted to know what happened, because I wanted to say I had read it, and because I never knew when I might find a sentence or two that really clicked with me. Sometimes, in the midst of dense description of what was being eaten at a dinner party, what the table settings were like, what kind of cigars the men were smoking, conversation about Russian farming or some such thing, would be a little nugget of gold, one that Tolstoy nailed home to make a brilliant point about human nature, or the way the world works. Then I would get out my pen and note that passage, shaking my head in amazement at how this Russian nobleman who's been dead for 99 years and I could share something so closely, no matter how trivial it might be.^

Some of my favorites:

[Oblonsky explaining why he sees women on the side]"All the diversity, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shade" (44).

I think that's a very true and very wise statement, although I'm not sure it applies to Oblonsky's situation as well as he thinks it does.

[Levin on his brother's charity work]"... the thought came into his head that this capacity of working for the common welfare, which he felt himself to be completely devoid of, might not be and was not so much a quality as the contrary, a lack of something. It was not a lack of kind, honorable, noble desires and tastes but of some vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse that forces a man to choose, out of the countless ways of life presented to him, just one, and to desire that one alone" (255).

This passage says two things to me: First of all, I often say "In another life I'm a neuroscientist," or a photographer or living in a cabin in the woods or whatever. This is a good reminder that I can't do everything that I want to do, so I have to pick carefully where I decide to spend my time and energy. Secondly, for the past year I've really worked hard at making taking care of myself my first priority, and this quote somehow makes me feel like that's not such a selfish thing to do.

[Levin's thoughts on taking communion in order to get married] "For Levin, as an unbeliever who respected the beliefs of others, being present at and taking part in any church ceremonies was very tiresome. Now, in the softened mood he was in, sensitive to everything, pretense was not only tiresome to him but seemed quite impossible. Now, at the moment of his glory, just as he was bursting into flower, he was supposed to lie or blaspheme! He felt incapable of doing either one or the other. ... he tried to look on it all as an empty formality like paying calls; but he felt that he couldn't do that either.
Like most of his contemporaries, Levin had the most indefinite views about religion. He could not believe, while at the same time he was not completely convinced it was all false. This was why, being incapable of believing in the significance of what he was doing, or of looking on it indifferently as an empty formality, throughout this whole period of fasting he had a feeling of awkwardness and shame, since an inner voice told him it was false and wrong to do something he didn't understand" (468-9).

Levin's feelings about church and Christianity here mirror mine pretty closely. In the past year I've stopped holding onto the faith I grew up with, and although in some ways this has been the best year of my life, it's still disorienting. Being in church often puts me in a situation that I'm not ready to be in at the moment, for precisely the reason that Levin describes: I can't believe, but I can't dismiss it, and so I'm left in an awkward place that I don't understand.

[during a fight in Levin's early days of marriage to Kitty] "It was only now for the first time that he clearly understood what he had been unable to when he had led her out of the church after the wedding. He understood that she was not only close to him but that now he no longer knew where she ended and he began. He realized this because of the agonizing feeling of cleavage he now underwent. At first he felt offended, but that same second he felt that he could not be offended by her, since she was himself. During this first moment he had a feeling such as a man might have when after suddenly receiving a powerful blow from behind, he turns around angrily with a desire for revenge to find his attacker, and discovers that he has unwittingly struck himself, that there is no one to get angry with and that he must endure the pain and soothe it....
Like a man half-asleep and wracked with pain he wanted to tear out and cast away the aching part, and on recovering himself he felt that the aching part was - himself. All he could do was try to relieve the ache and endure it, which is what he did" (515).

I've never experienced this feeling of being one with another person, so much so that I can't be angry at them. But I have felt that way about myself. When what is agonizing you is inside of you and you are incapable of removing it, you feel like you just want to jump out of your skin and run away - but you can't.

[Kitty caring for Levin's dying brother] "There was an excitement and alertness about her which men show before a battle or a struggle, in the dangerous and decisive moments of life, those moments when a man shows his worth once and for all, and shows that his whole past has not been in vain but has been a preparation for such moments" (532).

I've had a few of those moments, and it makes you very glad for all those regular days when you just kept at it. Most importantly, it's good to remember this when you have those uneventful days: you're just storing up your energy and knowledge and resources for the day when you need them.

[Levin explaining why a friend of his couldn't propose to Varenka] "...he's so used to living a purely spiritual life that he can't reconcile himself to reality, and Varenka, after all, is a reality" (598).

I've known people like this. We have to find a way to hold onto our ideals while still engaging in the messiness of life. (Maybe sort of like holding onto a big red balloon while splashing through a mud puddle in rain boots? That sounds like it could be delightful.)

[on the tea time conversation] "Not only was there never a moment it was necessary to hunt for a topic; on the contrary, there was a feeling that one didn't have enough time to say what one wanted to oneself, and one gladly held back to hear what the other was saying" (746).

I've experienced this more often at sleepovers than during tea, but there you go. That is an experience that probably most people can remember having at one point or another. It's this sort of thing that makes me feel like Tolstoy and I would get along.

[during one of Levin's crises of faith] "If I don't accept the answers given by Christianity to the questions of my life, what answers do I accept?" (835)

This is exactly what I am working at figuring out at the moment. I don't think I will come to the same conclusion as Levin, but you never know. Or, it may be a similar conclusion, but explained in different language. I find that the vocabulary one uses is key to understanding thoughts and ideas.

You'll notice that there were no quotes from Anna. I guess her and I don't see eye-to-eye on too many things. I underlined some of what she said, but it didn't make the final cut. I'm glad I don't really find much in common with her, because I actually really pity her. You'll also notice that I talk about these characters like I know them. After 868 pages together, I feel like I do. I've probably spent more time with them than with my own family in the past few months (although, if you've read my last post, I did have some quality time with my family, and it was wonderful). I haven't actually done the calculation on how many hours I've spent reading Anna Karenina. Okay - I just did a rough calculation, and if you don't count the time when my family was here but we were sleeping, I did indeed spend more time with Tolstoy's cast (because I was generally awake while reading the book). One observation I had about those crazy Russians was that every single one of them should have gone to counselling. If they had, the book would have been less tragic, and probably less interesting. But if only Anna had talked to someone before committing suicide, she might not have done it, and actually gotten the support she needed to take charge of her life... I know, sometimes I talk like a counselor. I guess it comes from long-time exposure to them :)

So far, I've only discussed things that you could verify for yourself by picking up any copy of Anna. But part of the reason I love books (and, by extension, working in libraries) is that they're so material. There's something about holding a book in your hands and knowing that everything inside its covers will be revealed to you in good time. Books are so concrete; I like their aesthetic on the shelf, the way they have character, the stories that the stains and spots and tears on their pages tell. So to end off, I want to share a little about my specific copy of Anna Karenina. Being old and crotchety and full of character, at one point during the reading it decided to split itself in half and give me Vol. I and Vol. II. This actually made it considerably more convenient to carry around, but also left me without the distinction of the cover as I read Vol. 2. It split at page 520, not halfway, and not at any particular turning point (Levin and Kitty are simply having a little quarrel over tea).

My very unpretentious paperback copy has been my constant companion for a good chunk of the summer, and I sometimes miss its weight in my hand. It has entertained me, amazed me, bored me, taught me, and most importantly, made me think. Thank you Anna.

PS. I am now reading Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Critchley. Don't worry, I read less intense books too, like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Richard Scarry's Best Little Word Book Ever! (I rescued them from the side of the street and took them home because they remind me of my childhood.) I think I might have to balance all that philosophy out by reading a little Chocolat by Joanne Harris concurrently.

*For the record, it's Anna Ka-REN-in-a. At first I pronounced it to rhyme with "ballerina," but then I was informed by a good source (well, actually on the authority of my source's mother)that this was incorrect. Sometimes I like thinking of Anna as a ballerina though.
^What's even more amazing is that this all comes through in translation. I think translators have a pretty demanding job, and that we don't give them enough credit.