Category Archives: Writing

“Time, time, time…

See what’s become of me” (Simon & Garfunkel 1966). The things one remembers, the things one forgets, in the quick-quick-slow foxtrot of life. Wondering at 30, when the brain feels too full already, how memory can still be possible at 50, but somehow at 50 managing it with ease. And wondering at the selectivity of memories that pop up over and over, when others are forgotten—like the last time I felt truly affronted at being treated like a child. In the hallway of a Spanish hotel, my Dad quickly responding to my choking on a hardboiled sweet going down the wrong way by bodily upending me. The indignity! I was, after all, eight years old, and well past the stage of being picked up by a parent, this stance perhaps embellished by my being surrounded by adults; my parents and older siblings, then about 13 and 15, so adults to an eight-years-old’s mind. This fall, I’ve been reflecting on time quite a bit, and thinking about other writers’ reflections on time too.

I came to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics only in the last few years, although they were published in Italian in 1964-65, and English in 1968. Each of this series of twelve stories begins with a scientific fact, or at least something understood to be scientific fact in the mid-1960s. Narrated by Qfwfq, a reincarnated Being who morphs from shape to shape, retaining memories from the inception, the stories follow the development of the Universe from the beginning of Time. Although each conscious form is true to its own nature, the stories offer very human reflections on love, complicated relationships, evolution, extinction, the search for signs, writing, and the urge for immortality.

I read physicist Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams when it was published in 1992. Told as a dream diary of the young Albert Einstein as he works out the theory of relativity, each of the thirty brief chapters explores a unique conception of time, and its impact on day-to-day life and being. Similarly to Calvino’s work, Lightman brings scientific concepts into his imagined time conceptions, although some may be pushed beyond their known limits. If time stood still, for instance, parents would forever hold fast to their children; if time were circular, we would be fated to return to our successes and failures ad infinitum.

Most recently, I enjoyed psychiatrist Francois Lelord’s Hector and the Search for Lost Time (2012, translated from the French, Hector et le temp, 2006). I stumbled onto the Hector series after watching Simon Pegg as Hector in the 2014 film, Hector and the Search for Happiness, based on Lelord’s Le voyage d’Hector ou la recherché du bonheur (2002). Hector’s examination of time takes him on an adventurous trek across continents, as did his previous searches for Happiness and Love. While Calvino and Lightman based their imaginative explorations, however loosely, on scientific constructs, Lelord focusses on lived and cultural perceptions of time. Lelord counters our current cultural anxieties about pressured time, our sensed lack of time, with alternative cultural constructs of time that encourage an expansion of our perceptions of time, allowing us to take a breath.

At this time of year, when Father Christmas “Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” (or some such, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, 1872), as we ring in the New Year (at least on the Gregorian calendar, 1582), and “settle our brains for a long winter’s nap” (thank you Clement Clarke Moore, 1822), this is a time of reflection, when memories stir. Tonight, I hope you’ll join me in reflecting on the past, as we move into a bright new future. 2017. Bring it on!

Nearly Midnight

©Catherine Jenkins this last day of 2016 all rights reserved

Creative and Academic Writing: Animals of Different Stripes

I’m a writer and have been for decades. Over that time, I’ve written poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, a thesis, a dissertation, academic articles, book reviews, reports, case studies, etc. etc. I can switch gears as required, fulfilling the demands of each style and format, but I’m always aware that different types of writing impact me differently, have different working demands, and different after-tastes.

I started in poetry, and am closing in on finishing a new collection. For me, poetry was and always will be the purest, most visceral form of the drug. This is the writing that starts from pure inspiration; it’s a tickle in the back of my brain and I have to hold my breath and gently pull the thread for it to spill out on the page. This is writing that wakes me at three in the morning, that likes me to carry a notebook (the kind with pages, not electronic).  This is the form that brings me the biggest buzz, that unmasks me utterly, that leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak in the knees. But also fiercely able to stand by my words, and to take on the world. This is my tiger form (my Chinese year, by the way).

amazing-tiger-wallpaperIncreasingly, my fiction has a comic edge; I have one book nearly complete and another about a third written. I get in the flow and giddily write pages and pages, slowing only to research often really obscure facts, like what was the world population during Alexander the Great’s reign? This sort of minutiae fascinates me, but when I come up for air, when my critical brain kicks back in, it can seem somewhat ridiculous to be asking such questions and putting in hours to get answers. This is, it would seem, the way my mind works. I’m the curious sort. I get a huge kick from writing fiction, creating self-contained worlds, but somehow making them real by connecting them to reality. This is my young tapir form (kind of goofy, but cute).

baby-tapir

In creative non-fiction, I have one book in process; it’s about my Dad’s death. Whenever I try working on it, I end up weeping full-bodied sobs. I set it aside for years at a time, in the hope that one day I’ll be able to finish it. Because it’s so raw, it’s impossible for me to get any critical distance, to tell whether it’ll be as powerful for a reader as it is for me. At some point, I’ll have to show it to an editor or six who will be able to tell me. Regardless, it is a book I will need to resolve for my own sake. Striped, yes, but more somber and regal, more endangered, like an okapi; or horned, like a bongo or a kudu.okapi

bongokudu-bull1

 

 

 

 

The academic and business writing fall into a similar category in terms of process. This is just work. Purely rational. Although I get very excited about ideas, it’s still somehow seen as inappropriate to express this through academic writing. The odd time when inspiration strikes, when I get into the flow, and become more creative in my word use, some other academic comes along and tells me to knock it off. I am hopeful, that as I gain my professional stripes in the academic world, I’ll be able to get away with more. But this style of writing, using only intellectual process and not creative, is purely black and white. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I don’t get quite the same invigoration from it as I do from the creative work. It takes a lot of time and energy, and doesn’t give as much back. The satisfaction derived is purely intellectual, not emotional.

zebras

When I started my PhD, I felt very schizoid, with my creative side effectively amputated, focussing purely on the academic. As I’ve progressed, I’ve begun to see these two halves reunite. I’m learning how the creative and the intellectual can coalesce quite nicely, how I can write academically appeasing work that also fulfills the creative urge, how I can bring a creative spark to my academic writing. I also think that academic rigour brings a greater depth and richness to the creative work, as well as a necessary sense of discipline. Between the creative and academic work, I have a lot of exciting ideas on the go. Now I just have to create the time to write them all!

Catherine Jenkins 2016 all rights reserved

All images public domain

Update from Dr Jenkins

In the last year, I’ve seen nighttime overhead highway signs cautioning drivers not to stop due to high crime risk, and overhead highway signs cautioning drivers to be aware of moose. And I don’t feel like I’ve done much travel either. I did, however, take my first trip to South Africa. I lost a friend, attended a wedding, helped a friend celebrate his first birthday, and gained a cat. I built cat shelters and traps at Toronto Street Cat, attended a series of Graphic Medicine reading workshops, and went to the first Canadian Writers’ Summit and Taste of Little Italy with my long-time friend and fellow writer, Kathy Mac.  I went to Shaw Fest where the 2015 highlight was Peter and the Starcatcher, and this year’s highlight was Engaged. I went to Stratford for the first time in years, where I saw an amazing production of Shakespeare in Love. I attended a lot of concerts, with tickets both bought and shared by friends. I caught up on a lot of quality TV and some movies I’ve missed on DVDs from the Toronto Public Library. I enjoyed some non-academic reading for a change.

I taught a lot (and I mean a lot) of students, did a lot of grading, and had the joy of watching a few of my students gain awards or entry into grad school. I presented papers at conferences in Kingston (Queens) and North Bay (Nippising). I submitted a few things to peer-reviewed journals. I defend my PhD dissertation and convocated, so now it’s official and school truly is out.

This last year I breathed out, I walked, I observed, I took photos, I pondered, I cottaged. This fall, I’ve signed up for a wine course and an Italian course, because I finally can. I’m back to working out and I’m decluttering my apartment. I’m writing inventive academic work and applying to conferences in more exotic locales. And I’ve got six non-academic book projects to pick up again, now that I actually have the time and energy and focus. Stay tuned…

Old Friends and New Transit

This is my update for Marpril (March and April), even if that does sound like an Agatha Christie heroine. It was an overly busy winter and between an out-of-town reading, researching and writing two articles for peer review, teaching five classes—oh, and trying to write my PhD dissertation—I kind of ran out of time to post anything in March. So this post, on the last day of April, will have to do double duty.

On March 10, I was in Ottawa. I was invited to read at the Carleton University Art Gallery for an event celebrating the work of Dennis Tourbin. I was flown in, put up at a hotel overnight, flown home, and paid a reading fee. Poets don’t usually get treated like that. I felt like a rock star.

The flight left from the Toronto island airport. Calculating transit and the half-hour buffer requested by the airline, I figured that leaving 90 minutes to travel the maybe 40 minutes to the airport, was ample. The subway, which had been closed for signal upgrades the previous weekend (I was travelling on a Monday morning) moved painfully slowly down the University line. I waited 20 minutes for the airport shuttle that runs every 15 minutes. I waited 15 minutes for the airport ferry. I arrived at the island airport as my flight was gunning down the runway. For the first time in my life, I actually missed a flight. They readily re-booked me, and another passenger, on the next flight to Ottawa. But seriously, there’s no way it should take 90 minutes to get from the Annex to the island. That’s longer than it takes me to get to Pearson International airport. It just shows how truly broken Toronto transit is.

My old friend Michael Dennis picked me up in Ottawa. When I hadn’t arrived as expected, he wondered if we’d missed each other, if we’d failed to recognize each other after so many years. But in fact, we recognized each other instantly. He drove me back to Kirsti and his house where we spent the afternoon talking. Their house is full of art. It made me realize that I need to get the art back up on my walls. I took it down to repaint a couple of years ago and still haven’t gotten around to putting most of it back up. I realize that this is part of why I feel somewhat dislocated these days. We picked up Kirsti from work and went for dinner, then on to the main event.

More than fifty people packed into a gallery full of Dennis’s work. I got to see folks I hadn’t seen in decades, folks from Ottawa and from Peterborough too. There was John and Terri and Billy the K, Grant and Rob, Gilles and Larry. I was only in Ottawa overnight, so wasn’t able to see Peter or Sandra or Stuart, but so happy to see the people I did see.

I hadn’t done a reading in a while, and it felt good. Mostly, I read Dennis’s work, adding a couple of my own poems about his death. Being there, reading that work, to a largely familiar audience, was incredibly moving. I was also humbled that Nadia, Dennis’s wife, enjoyed what I did and said that my reading of Dennis’s work gave her chills. That got me thinking about how we are, in sometimes unexpected ways, products of our mentors. I learned cadence and a lot more from Dennis, embodied it without realizing. I felt privileged to be part of this event. Thankful to Dennis for pulling us all together once again; he always did have that kind of magnetism, that light, that pulled people together, that ignited the room with joy. In addition to the artwork and the words, he also left behind a strong sense of community. Thank you.

Waiting to hear about the two articles I submitted. Just received proof pages for a peer-reviewed book chapter being published this fall. More on those happenings as news comes available. As of this morning, I’ve finished this term’s classes, grades are in, and I can relax about teaching for a while. I’m presenting at three conferences in May, two in Toronto and one a day-trip to St Catharines. Mostly, I’ll refocus on the dissertation over the next few months. Some events in the offing for late summer, but if I tell you now, it’ll spoil the fun.

© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved

Recovery, Reflection and a Bright New Year

In mid-August, my head cleared. One morning I woke up feeling normal again. Just like that.

In September 2012, the car I was driving was T-boned by a cabdriver on his cell phone. In seconds, I had a complicated whiplash involving my neck, shoulder and pelvis, and I had a concussion. I didn’t hit my head; I wasn’t knocked out. I had what I have come to refer to as brain slosh. My brain, one of my favourite organs, had been bruised against the inside of my skull. The injury wasn’t immediately apparent. In retrospect, I used the language people use when they have a concussion; I said I was shaken up, dazed. I was able to function, but I wasn’t fully functional.

I kept hearing that it would be a year before I fully recovered. I kept not believing that. I kept kidding myself that I was fine, although I wasn’t. Recovery from the physical injuries took some time and work, with physiotherapy, daily exercises and massage. Of course, healing takes energy, so I was chronically exhausted.

I didn’t have time to be injured, so I carried on. Of course, trying to do something challenging, like a PhD dissertation, is that much more challenging with a brain injury. I did the best I could, but every time I sat down to work on this rich and complex document I’d started, what came out was at the level of a first-grade reader; Dick and Jane visit Vesalius for a lesson in medieval anatomy. Even though I was the only one who saw that work, it was embarrassing.

And there was the terrifying thought that this was it. That I wouldn’t recover, that I’d never be able to write again, that the books planned in my head would stay trapped there, unable to get out. After a few months, I was able to write more successfully, but it was much harder work than it had ever been.

I couldn’t think clearly. It was as if there was a cloudy veil over my brain. I could detect the thought, but had to tease it out of a haze. I was working through some kind of early film dream sequence gossamer fabric special effect. The work seemed to float. It never fully clarified. Even now, when I edit sections written through that haze, I can’t quite grasp them. They’re blurry and I’m still unsure if they work.

My memory was also affected. Routine information would suddenly evaporate. I spent three days trying to remember the name of someone I work with, someone I know. Bass lines I was relearning for the band reunion would quietly dissipate, even though I’d nailed them with practice. I said things that I couldn’t recall later. Someone would kindly follow up on some concern I’d expressed, and I would have no memory of verbalizing it or even thinking it.

But forty-nine weeks after the accident, three weeks shy of a year, I awoke one morning and my head was clear. By then, I’d come to accept the murkiness of my thoughts. I’d accepted this new normal. I’d accepted that I was never going to be fully functional again, that I would never function as well as I had. To wake up suddenly feeling normal again is a wondrous thing. But I couldn’t quite trust it at first. I didn’t know if it would last. To my relief, it has.

Last fall, it was as if my brain was re-checking its circuits, or maybe rewiring some connections. I experienced intense, lucid memories. Things I hadn’t recalled in decades would suddenly spring up with great clarity, sometimes with associated sensory cues. I recalled the taste of cocoa quickies from grade school home ec. I inhaled the scent of the bath beads I used to get in my Christmas stocking. I recalled, with great longing, the red mohair sweater my Mum knitted me that I practically lived in through high school. I felt the impact of reading the two column inches on a back page of the Examiner about Jim Croce’s death. These recollections didn’t have the faintness of normal memories; it was as if I was reliving them or verifying their veracity, checking that they were still intact.

The fatigue I’d been carrying had also become my new norm. I often felt too exhausted to work, like I was dragging myself around. I managed to stay on top of things, but not get ahead, and the bare minimum seemed an inordinate effort. I often felt swamped and overwhelmed, like I was barely managing my life. Again, I’d adjusted to this new reality. I rationalized that because I was getting older, I should expect to have less energy. I’d accepted this new state, telling myself that I just had to hang on a little longer, work a little harder, to get through the PhD.

It wasn’t until the Christmas holiday that I bounced back, again having assumed that I wouldn’t. I started the New Year with a renewed energy and vigour that I hadn’t felt in about fifteen months. And that’s exciting!

People often say that they have a good feeling about a New Year, but I’ve rarely felt this ecstatic in January. Although it had some wonderful moments, I’m very happy to put 2013 behind me. It was one of the tougher years I’ve lived. I felt like I was treading water, trying not to drown, rather than making progress. Now I feel fully recovered, as if I’m back on top of things, as if I can move forward in my life. And what an exciting life it is! I’m making good progress on the dissertation and expect to finish this year. Once that’s done, I can resume revising the new novel. I’m enjoying teaching university communication. I’m back into music and knitting (more on that in a future post), I’m using my time and energy efficiently, I’m sleeping well, I’m socializing more, etc. Life is good.

© Catherine Jenkins 2014