Time is never wasted

So there’s all this river of life stuff of course, all the creek metaphors I’ve flogged over the years, but who can help it, the creek being the way it is? Freezing, thawing, flooding, the torrents and quiet pools on its way to the river, to the ocean. The ducks, the dippers, the pea boat races.

A little forked root I’ve tossed pops into an eddy and circles the same ten inches a dozen times. Around and around and around. A tiny snag of current almost catches it. Drops it. Back it comes. Again and again and it’s hard to not to throw the pebble that would send it on its way.

If you happen to think of that root as a metaphor – idle, stuck, aimless, adrift, wasting time – well, the sun was at just the right angle to light up all the dark branches holding out the new green leaves in the way that happens only in spring. The Pacific wren flooded the bush with its whole kit and caboodle. The creek, well, it rushed and warbled and pooled and waterfalled and cooled the heat and chased away the flies. And, my god, there were sticky cottonwood buds littering the air with the smell of fresh beeswax in a spring-sprung hive, that smell of the nurseries that give us the self-same honey we drip onto still warm bread. The little root spends time this afternoon like time is nothing to get hung up about. That same old time is setting aspens all a tremble, giving them a little twirl, each cluster in its turn.

So who’s to say what’s a wasting? So what if we forget for just a moment to think about what comes next? Who cares if the skin falls slack from our arms as we bend to take a drink beside the old dog, to lap the water together? Yes, when we think to look again, the root is gone. Who cares? We’re still squatting, quenched beside the creek.

Punto en Aria


Outside mlace hoody pattern side 1y window, the snow hangs in great swags from the eaves. The bottom edge of the bunting dips into ruffles and finally, where gravity has exerted the most pressure, into a lacy frill. Sunlight shines through the intricate tracery – punto en aria.

Lace comes in many forms and dates back, they say, to the 1400s. There’s needle lace and bobbin lace, where threads are twisted into complicated patterns, there’s cut work or drawn thread work where threads are removed to reveal the design. But true lace – punto en aria (stitch in the air) stands alone, literally. It is its own unique manifestation of absence and presence.   It is the yin and yang. It is light and shadow.

I believe the fundamental nature of lace goes much further back than Renaissance Venice, back to nets, which have been made for tens of thousands of years and are essential markers of our divided nature. We want some things to be contained, others to be set free; we want some things to be seen, other things to be hidden; we need silence between the notes.

In the early eighties, when I started knitting and writing in earnest, lace was for babies, old ladies and soft core porn.  It was for old fashioned tablecloths and doilies stored in your grandmother’s cedar chest. It was for a certain kind of lingerie. It was not for feminists. It was silly, frilly, and frivolous.

Things have changed. Lace is now everywhere. As I write this in my chilly office, I am wearing fingerless mittens with lace cuffs and delicate picot edging. People are knitting lace scarves, lacy sweaters and vests, toques, and stockings. (Now that I think of it, perhaps lace has made a comeback because soft core porn has become mainstream. Cables are big too – probably for those interested in a little S&M).

Knitting lace is what I know, and it is very much like writing. Establishing a pattern out of single stitches strung on a needle or out of the single words strung together on a page can be daunting. It’s one after the other, again and again. Like writing phrases, lines, or sentences, knitting lace is a matter of ordering the components. Joining them, separating them, dropping them, picking them up again. Deciding what to put in, what to leave out. Often, while the work is in process, the fabric looks like a ratty old dishrag, rumpled, crumpled, rucked up and wrinkled. You just have to trust in the process and keep going.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get into a rhythm where the pattern begins to feel organic, something emerging from your heart. Your fingers fly and your mind is elsewhere. Other times you have to stop and count every stitch. Then there are the mistakes you notice much too late, mistakes that especially hard to fix in a lace pattern. As in writing – when you’re building something so interconnected, built word upon careful word to create a seamless whole – well, it’s both difficult and unnerving to have to go back and fix it. Sometimes you have to unravel the whole thing.

Lace is an especially apt metaphor for writing. When you’ve done the clunky work of putting a story or a poem together, you must step back and take a good look to be sure you’ve created openings in the fabric, openings through which your readers can enter, cracks where the light shines in.

Metaphor

After a rough start, the summer here has blossomed into one of amazing richness. Hiking up a dappled alpine trail in the Babine Mountains, we came out into a small opening, the sun striking a cluster of arnica all turning their bright faces toward its light. Looking at those fragile stems emerging from the rocks that had themselves only weeks ago emerged from a long winter’s snow, my heart thumping from the climb, all sorts of vegetative metaphors took root in my oxygen-starved brain. The ways in which life expresses itself so vividly and abundantly in the most rugged environments is here made concrete, literal. The fragility of life and the random nature of death are enacted moment by moment when you can’t take a step without crushing something beautiful. The mosquitoes are, of course, Satan in paradise.

Metaphors enrich our concrete experience of the world. We unconsciously make connections between the present physical moment and our emotional responses to past events at almost every step (especially when we go into the zone induced by physical exertion). This trick we do is so embedded in the way we learn from each other and the way we try to share our experiences that language is rife with it. Rising to the occasion (we’re so used to this one, we don’t imagine, for example, a child rising to break the surface of the water clutching the dropped keys); seeing the light; we wake up but fall asleep; we smell victory, we feel rough.

Which is one of the metaphors used in a study published in Brain & Language. It found that literal descriptions (I feel sick) activate the language-processing parts of the brain; throw in a metaphor (I feel rough) and the sensory part of the brain, whether it’s touch, smell, sound, taste, or sight, is also engaged.

Writers know this. We use metaphor as a way of enriching readers’ experience of language itself, but also at deeper level where the characters, settings, and narrative arcs of our stories or poems create all sorts of possible interpretations for our readers – they create vivid ambiguity – which I suggest is not an oxymoron. It is always fun to hear a reader give a detailed interpretation of your work that has little to do with your intention, however conscious that intention was, but makes perfect sense.

People who don’t or can’t process metaphor are often impaired in some way – it can be an indicator of autism, schizophrenia, or dementia according to an article in The Humanist: “Mapping Metaphor: This is Your Brain on Figurative Language.” While people with dementia can still process the old standbys, they can’t find hide nor hair of sense in new ones. This, the author states, shows that “Figurative language is surely more than an intellectual extravagance. It is as much a fiber of our very being as each of the countless neurons contained in our big, beautiful brains.”

This is, I suspect, what makes me so nervous about literal interpretations of the Bible. When celebrating a book so full of metaphor and parable, it makes little sense to deny that richness to its original author(s). Why else do we tell each other the old stories over and over again? It’s not for the history lesson. And that’s not why we write the new ones.