Issue #22: Times of distraction and distance

Comfort for the Apocalypse, September 2021

These past few months I’ve been having trouble with attentional focus. It’s made it hard to write for any length of time at all. 

That includes putting this newsletter together which is why there was no Comfort for the Apocalypse in July or August (though I did manage to send some Small Comforts). 

There is no straightforward reason for why this is happening. I get enough sleep, I take my B12 supplement religiously, I exercise with some ferocity most days of the week. By all measures I am healthy and have no external stresses of note. At my age however, I have been told to expect such episodes. The perimenopausal decrease in hormones can apparently create havoc in the years leading up to “the change”. My mother told me recently, “I couldn’t read a book for five years during that time.” 

Fortunately I haven’t lost my ability to read a book yet. I find myself gravitating towards women who make incisive connections in their non-fiction work. Elena Ferrante’s letters and essays for example, which glide coherently between modern criticism, Greek myth, novels and plays from across the 19th and 20th centuries, and the politics and history of her country. Olivia Laing whose latest work explores the socio-political dynamics of the body over the last hundred years or so. Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Zadie Smith, Jia Tolentino and so many other brilliant women model the kind of writing I most aspire to, drawing me in with their abilities to cogently connect big-picture with everyday experience, and use simple language and structures to describe complex ways of being. And yet these days, when I attempt to write beyond my boundaries, I feel like I am standing at the bottom of the swimming pool and my thoughts are floating on the surface far away from me. 

Somewhere I read that people assume the act of reading is linked to the act of the writing, that if the reading is joyful and effortless, the writing must have been too. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I remind myself of this when I read the sparkling writing of others.

*

Writer Matthew B. Crawford says “Attention is a resource, a person only has so much of it,” and I wonder if my problem is more existential than physical. The pandemic, the heat dome, the fires, the constant news cycle reminding us that the end is nigh. Perhaps if one’s whole attention is taken up with the apocalypse, it’s difficult to focus on anything else, especially when the “anything else” includes writing about said apocalypse. 

Over the  summer I experimented with silence in my studio. I have a tendency to fill every minute I am working with my hands (at the loom, sewing, knitting, etc.) with podcasts, audiobooks, and Netflix. I wondered if this was the root of my problem, remembering a course I took in the 1990s with Barry Truax who spoke passionately about the need to preserve non-constructed soundscapes, to be aware of how much we fill up our space with background noise. For a long time after that, I never so much as turned on the stereo while I was doing dishes, allowing the ambient noise of my house and neighbourhood to provide the soundscape instead. Over the years, I have forgotten how I took this lesson to heart and how it changed my relationship to the places I lived back then. How I could listen to the recordings of my classmates and identify where in the city they were collected, so distinct was the imprint of local sounds on my recognition of place.

In the intervening years I have grown fearful of boredom though, and I wondered what would happen if I removed the extraneous noise from my studio work. Would tasks become tedious? Would winding a warp become a horrible chore? Or would it be like a long drive alone in my car in the Interior of BC, big sky in front of me, red rock rising up on either side of the valleys, my mind untethered from the need for productivity? 

*

A few years ago I was in Toronto and I went to the Textile Museum to see an exhibition of Japanese textiles. On display was a twenty-minute documentary about long-held textile practices still alive in Japan, and in it a very elderly woman sat on the floor of a house spinning a bast fibre into some very fine thread for weaving. The whole village was involved in the creation of this particular cloth they were famous for, the design was so intricate, the fabric so fine. Each person had a job to do and this woman was spinning the fine threads. This task would have been endless. Depending on the fineness of the cloth, hundreds or even thousands of yards of thread are required for a single yard of fabric. I remember wondering about how this woman could stand the repetitive work hour after hour, without even a radio playing in the background. The silence in the room seemed impossible to me. How could I work in those conditions? 

Of course, there might have been some artifice at work in the documentary. Who is to say the woman did not listen to the radio, or that she wasn’t in a house where the sounds of children or her daughter cooking in the kitchen reached her in the room where she spun all day long? We know that much of textile production is communal or done side by side with others. But as it was presented, I reflected on my own need to fill every working minute with information, noise, and distraction from the task at hand. 

*

Working in silence, is of course, not silent. There is noise in everything around us and it forms our impressions of place as much as smells or sights do. The sound of my studio in the absence of entertainment media is the hum of lights and a small refrigerator, the dogs barking next door, the birds shaking the branches of trees as they hop about, a distant chainsaw from a neighbouring property, the thump of the beater and the squeak of treadles on my loom. In early September it was the sound of the cheeky ravens come to steal the ornamental plums off the tree outside my window, right now it’s the Steller’s Jay who appears seasonally and hops around on the roof. On a stormy day it’s the sound of the ocean hitting the shore below us, and rain against the skylights above. 

But these noises do not occupy my creative mind in the way constructed sounds do. They are simply present, occupying my aural space without diverting my attention. Even the chainsaw comes and goes from my conscious awareness, at times telling me an aggravating story before receding entirely from the frame. For two months, I turned away from mediated sound and towards this more natural auditory environment, resisting the urge to turn on my phone or computer while I worked.

*

The first thing I noticed was I was much more relaxed overall, particularly when doing complex tasks like counting threads or figuring out a sewing pattern. By removing distraction, I could focus with much greater precision on what I was trying to accomplish. I felt more patience and less mental crowding when I wasn’t hemmed in by attention-manipulating sound. Additionally, without a podcast or show regulating my time, I became lost in the flow of my work in a new way, passing hours without realizing it until Brian would text to ask if I was coming in for lunch. I noticed an increase in playfulness and flexibility of mind, particularly at the weaving loom, where the sometimes rote work allows the mind to wander. During these times I noticed a part of my thinking I had been unaware of previously. This side of me allowed for a kind of listening to my intuitive and intellectual self in a new way. My thought path was more expansive and fluttering; funnier; stranger.

But while this newfound space gave me greater focus for the texture and colours of my textiles, and gave me new ideas to work with in other areas of my life, I did not find it leant itself towards greater writing output. Every time I sat down to write an essay or a blog post, I found myself literally wandering away from the words every five minutes or so as I got up check the dye pot or throw a few shots on the loom. I might get as far as writing out a single paragraph, only to realize on re-reading that the words did not make sense in the way I had arranged them, and I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to say.

I am still practicing silence in my studio most of the time because I do think it’s beneficial to give myself a break from constant input, but what I hoped for in my experiment did not fully materialize. Having eliminated so much distraction, I do think my problem with focus for writing is a combination of existential and physical: a dying planet and an aging body meeting somewhere in the middle to create an unfocused mind. Which means there is no simple fix and I am resigned to the painful process of one word after the other, no matter how slowly they arrive. In the meantime I have discovered a greater pleasure in my textile studio, which at least gives me a creative outlet when I can’t spit the words out.


September recipe: Greek meatballs and orzo

The return of cooler weather has me in the kitchen making heartier fare and meal-planning. To make this a quick weeknight dinner, you could pre-make the meatballs and put them in the fridge overnight raw or cooked. It’s exactly the kind of thing I want to eat during these transition days: comfort food that isn’t too heavy.

Meatballs

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 pound ground lamb or beef

  • 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs

  • 3 tablespoons grated red onion

  • 1 clove garlic, grated or minced

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 1 egg

  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

  • 2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

Pasta

  • 2 teaspoons olive oil

  • 1 clove garlic minced

  • 1 cup uncooked orzo

  • 2 1/2 cups chicken broth

  • 1/2 cup roasted red peppers cut into strips or diced

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 1/4 cup chopped Kalamata olives

  • 1.5 cups thinly sliced curly kale

  • Extra feta cheese for garnish

  1. Make the meatballs: Add all ingredients to a mixing bowl and combine ingredients using your hands. Make meatballs by scooping up tablespoon (or slightly larger) amounts of meat and rolling in your hands.

  2. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, making sure the oil coats the pan. Cook meatballs in the skillet for 8-10 minutes, turning them for even browning during that time. Take them off the skillet once cooked and set aside.

  3. Using the same skillet, add 2 teaspoons of olive oil, garlic and the orzo. Toast the orzo for about a minute before stirring in chicken broth, red peppers, lemon juice. Bring to a boil.

  4. Cook until the orzo is al dente, stirring often - about 8 minutes. When the orzo is mostly cooked, stir in the Kalamata olives, and kale. Put the meatballs on top of the orzo and put a lid on the skillet. Heat for another couple of minutes at low temperature to ensure the kale is lightly cooked and the meatballs are heated through. Serve with feta on top.


In the workshop

I spent part of my summer learning about natural dye materials and techniques which has opened up a whole new world of design exploration in the weaving studio. The result is a ton of interestingly-dyed fibre for use in some projects over the winter. Learning to use natural dyes has been an unexpected obsession and although I must pack up my outdoor dye kitchen for the season, I have many plans for next year.


Three things

  1. Everybody: A Book About Freedom, Olivia Laing - This book astonished me with its connective power. A statement about how everyday bodies are sites of both oppression and resistance, a history of the body in the twentieth century, and an exploration of the fascinating and bizarre life of the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Such a good read.

  2. Islands of Abandonment, Cal Flyn - What does the world look like when humans disappear? Flyn travels around the world investigating these landscapes - some so toxic almost nothing remains, others where domesticated species have fully taken over, and a few where a handful of humans still live. This is no Pollyanna narrative about what the future might look like, but it is a testament to the persistence of life.

  3. Dancing & Digging, Shaun Day-Woods - A book of proverbs on freedom and nature, accompanied by the woodcuts of Rick Herdman. Written and published by a small press on Gabriola Island, this is a charming small format collection of brief philosophies. Poetic and profound, Day-Woods invites us to sit for a moment and reflect on the world we are living in and what we would like it to be. Provides a jumping-off point for meditation, or a respite in the middle of a hectic day; I keep it on my desk for when I need a “break” from the bullshit.


And finally

I love the transition to autumn, and after a particularly hot summer I’m finding the cooler days and intermittent rain a relief. Even though we haven’t emerged from the pandemic like we thought we might have a few months ago, widespread vaccination has made a few things easier and I am looking forward to a few more community-based activities than we saw last year at this time. I hope that wherever this finds you, the days are feeling okay, even if a little bit uncertain.

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If you want to hear more from me, find my blog at Red Cedar or follow me on Instagram @birdsongworkshop - otherwise, I’ll see you here again in a couple of weeks.