In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.
There are different forms of progress, or so it seems to me.
Incremental progress is like this quilt: you follow a progression based on certain necessary steps, you keep at it, a little bit every day, or every week, over a long time, and eventually you arrive at your goal. It's like a long walk from here to there, or the slow action of water on rocks. Sometimes it's arduous and more uphill, with twists and turns; sometimes easier and more linear, but you usually get somewhere close to where you thought you were headed if you are dedicated and steady. Maybe the goal is a project, or a degree, or some sort of change you want to achieve, like getting in better shape or becoming a kinder person. Whatever it is, you aren't going to get there overnight, but by a long series of small steps.
Then there's another kind of progress that's more like an earthquake; the whole mountain shifts, a faultline opens, the view changes, and suddenly you realize you aren't where you were before, or maybe that the you who is here now isn't the you that was there, then.
This second kind of movement may not feel like progress as much as upheaval, transition, turmoil, major change or even disaster, but when the dust settles - which can take years or even decades - you finally see more clearly what's happened. Life, whether we wanted it to or not, has pushed us into a new place.
My life has held hundreds of the first kind of processes: incremental projects that have resulted in something fairly concrete or tangible, or have taught me something important or changed me, even if the goals shifted a bit during the process or I encountered surprises or difficulties along the way. For the most part I've sought them out deliberately; I've put myself on those paths, or agreed to them more or less consciously, and then tried to see them out to a conclusion, or as lifelong commitments. It's one thing to make a quilt, another to take up the piano again as an adult, another to embark on a marriage or parenthood -- but they all involve decisions, persistence, and faith that the process itself is worthwhile, even if we encounter great difficulties, even if the end result isn't always what we hoped for or looks an awful lot like failure. Actually, with some practice at these projects, and at learning from them, you come to accept the failures as part of the path itself -- as teachers in their own right -- and you stop disliking them (or yourself) so much.
But the other kind of movement is very different. These major shifts have happened to me every decade or so: life takes a certain direction, both because of choices and external conditions or events, and then follows a kind of arc as that particular combination of choices and circumstances plays itself out. Then something changes, and a new, different reality announces itself, sometime suddenly, but more often quietly at first, and then with more and more insistence. At the same time, I sense that something else is ending or coming to a conclusion. Sometimes I don't notice the signals as positive promptings, but instead I notice resistance. That resistance can be to something old that I don't seem to want to do anymore, or it can be resistance to something new that feels unwanted, or represents loss or too much change. Pretty soon, it becomes clear that I'm at a crossroads, like it or not, and I'm going to have to look at it squarely in the face and do the work that the major change represents and calls for.
It's a lot easier to see these things in hindsight.
Loosely speaking, my twenties were about figuring out what I wanted to do in life, and ended with moving to New England, starting my design business, meeting and falling in love with J., getting married, and then combining our businesses into a partnership.
My thirties were about building that marriage, our home, and our professional career, and ended with a personal crisis about my own creative and spiritual life: in other words, I felt the need to step back a little bit from the intense coupledom with which I'd been consumed, and reconnect with my individual self -- to figure out some more about who I was, and pick up some important threads that I'd dropped.
My forties, then, were about becoming a serious writer and working on that very hard; studying piano and voice again; exploring my spirituality; and beginning to confront my deepest fears about mortality and loss - and trying to balance all of that with my marriage, our busy professional career, family relationships, friendships, community work and social activism.
In the next decade we faced the decline and death of three of our four parents, and moved to a new country, giving up our home, rural life, and many of our possessions. My fifties were about actual illness, loss, death, personal change and upheaval -- but they were also about writing a book, the internet, blogging, and a whole new realm of possibilities for sharing one's creative life.
That period of time has resulted in a new home, new friends, a large body of work, a new publishing business, and new responsibilities and challenges (the choir, the contemplative group I facilitate, bilingualism, travel to different places.) These years have felt chaotic and difficult but also richly rewarding, and probably represent the greatest period of change and growth in my life. It's only in the last two years that I've felt like I was actually settling in up here, feeling pretty comfortable and relatively adjusted to urban life in a foreign place - which Quebec really is - where I will never fully "belong" and have to find that sense of home within myself, instead.
And now I feel the ground shifting yet again, two years into my sixties...
This picture is for my friend Leslee in Boston, who writes, "The snow here is all bunched up (and dirty) between buildings, as I imagine it is in Montreal." Yes, you're quite right, Leslee. Today is still frigid - minus 14C - but I did go out to Little Italy and the Jean-Talon market yesterday to do some shopping, and managed to take my gloves off long enough to take this photograph. It was OK in the sun, but the wind was straight from the arctic and very strong, blowing my furry hood off my head whenever I turned to face it and sending clouds of dry light snow whirling off the roofs of buildings.
Some of us are still pouting, curled up in wool and fleece...
But others, like me, are starting to feel the pull of outdoors and the increasing intensity and healing power of the sunlight. The lack of light up here is really no joke. Canadian are all urged to take Vitamin D because we tend to be deficient simply by virtue of our latitude, and a lot of people suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and are helped by special lamps. Nearly everybody is affected one way or the other by the sheer length of the winters, let alone the extreme cold like we've had this year. I just begin to go stir-crazy with what we always called cabin fever in New England, and no matter what, I have to get outside and moving. I miss downhill skiing, and wish my knees had held up so that I could have continued!
But in the studio, our plants are clearly telegraphing the message of lengthening days:
That's not just a forest of avocado plants, but a batch of cherry tomatoes that came up from seed that must have been hiding in the planter, a gift from my gardening friend Eric F. back in October, and are now spilling over. I've thinned them and am pinching them back. On the left, the four-year-old lantana is bushy and vigorous after I cut it way back around Christmas. On the right is a geranium I rescued from a neighboring studio after they moved, along with this massive cactus:
And the bougainvillea is still pumping out its gorgeous blooms, delighting me up every morning when I walk into the studio...
...and reminding me that soon, I'll be here:
And when we return, it really will be almost-spring.
How are you holding up, if you're in the north? And if you're in a warmer climate, what are your first signs of spring?
Mid-February, and the winter doldrums have finally hit. It's been so damn cold up here, for so long, that the throngs of people moving through the transport system feel sullen, withdrawn, silent. At least it doesn't seem like as many people are sick as last year; when you get on a bus everyone isn't hacking away. Swathed in our layers of sweaters and fleece and down and fur, we slog through piles of snow, under which is slippery ice, hard as concrete. All the floors of public passages and entryways are muddy and wet, so you have to be careful not to slip both inside and outside. Today was bright and sunny and I checked the thermometer before leaving home, thinking maybe it was a bit warmer -- but no, it's -23C! (-9.4 F) You've got to be kidding.
Something I love, though, and find hard to describe to people who've never lived in the north: the clarity of the air. On a morning like this, absolutely clear blue and extremely cold, it's as if a sharpening filter has been applied to everything in front of your eyes. The distance has no atmospheric perspective, no haze. And the air doesn't feel like anything except coldness: there's no moisture to give it thickness, just your breath which condenses the minute it leaves your body. It's almost...as if the air isn't there. And yet, what else is it that hits you the minute you walk out the door? So it's quite strange, this double sensation of an invisible wall of coldness, and its utter clarity, so that you feel you can walk through it and see through it and hear through it with perfect transparency.
On the unusual mornings when we leave the island and drive over the Jacques Cartier bridge and the frozen St. Lawrence, and the air has this quality, I love to look at the city: the glass and steel and stone gleaming in the sunlight, every church spire and skyscraper tower a cut-out punctuation against the sky. The far becomes near, and of more equal importance with the close and familiar. Of course, there is steam rising straight up from heating towers, but wood fires have been restricted in recent years, so there is much less smoke.
From the height of the bridge, you can see the monadnocks of the Montérégie above the flat floodplains of the great river, where the productive Quebec farms lie sleeping under their white duvets, and the mountains of Vermont in the far distance. Somehow it is like looking back across my own life with bright dispassionate vision, and a surgical clarity that's so sharp it doesn't hurt at all.
Well, this is how it is right now! We can dream about summer, but there's hardly a decent tomato to be found, and lettuce is selling for $3 - $4 a head.
We only got the tail end of the snowstorm that hit Boston, and I'm glad for some fresh whiteness to cover the soggy grey. This is the long slog now, through February. So far, I'm coping all right. The key for me is to get enough light (our studio is really bright all day and it helps so much), keep busy, see friends, be amused at the absurdity of living in this climate, and indulge in a few treats now and then -- fresh raspberries today for our breakfast.
We attended a Christmas Day service at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, many years ago, and as soon as it finished, one of the ushers (formally called "sidesmen"), in a red waistcoat, stood in the center aisle and began -- in a quite rude and perfunctorial way -- to shoo people out. A woman in front of us was still looking around and lingering and he bent from the waist, hands behind his back, looked down his nose, and intoned, "I am sorry, Madame...Christmas Is Over!" and then turned on his heel and strode off. We were both horrified and sort of amused by his manner, and the phrase has become one of those repeated lines in our house.
Individual Montrealers, as well as city neighborhoods responsible for the main thoroughfares and shopping streets, tend to leave their trees and lights up longer than we used to; the lights cheer us all up during the dark days of January. We took our tree down last weekend, and the house is back to normal, but I wish we'd put up outdoor lights that could be left on for a few more weeks. The city comes around and picks up the trees on certain, pre-announced days, and then chips them for mulch that's used on public gardens, and distributed to community gardens like ours. Still, I always find the discarded trees rather forlorn but photogenic, in the alleys and on the curbs.
Rue de Lanaudière, 7:30 am. The picture doesn't show the wind that was howling around the buildings at the time. Today is warmer than it's been: about -10 C when we left the house. A heat wave! Yesterday it was -25. Even so, people are riding their bikes, and going around without hats on. Complètement fou.
This is a "brigadiere scolaire": a crossing guard. Her sign says "ARRÈT," and she holds it aloft when helping school children cross the street. The reflective vest is important: it's still pretty dark and low-contrast in early morning, and when the kids come home from school in mid-afternoon.
Underneath that snow is a solid coating of ice. The snow has made it a little easier to walk, but it's also deceptive. Driving is hazardous. I can only imagine how difficult it is right now for the elderly and people with disabilities. Just before I took this picture, a tractor came up the sidewalk pulling a trailer spreading road salt. The salt helps some, but it can also create water that simply freezes again.
In case you're curious, that vertical structure above is the machine where you pay for parking. They all have solar panels on the top: not too effective when covered with snow!
There was an ice storm a few days ago, setting the trees glittering and clattering, and making it nearly impossible to walk. Fortunately the ice came off quickly and the wind wasn't violent, or there would be many more trees down than there were, but the result has been a concrete-like snow, covered by frozen rain, that cemented parked cars in place, and is so rock-like that it challenges even the heaviest snow-removal equipment. Yesterday was bitter cold. Today is warmer, but it's as if we're living in a black-and-white film. I find it quite beautiful, but my patience will begin to wear thin after another couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I have stretch crampons on my boots, and pick my way across the ice fields.