Corduroy road excavated in uptown Waterloo

20160423-_MG_9541

Last month construction workers in uptown Waterloo uncovered a corduroy road beneath King Street. According to archaeologist Charlton Carscallen it was probably one of the first roads in the region built by European Settlers. He suggests it was constructed before 1816 by Mennonites who moved from Pennsylvania after the American Revolution.

Corduroy roads are made of rough logs laid down at right angles to the direction of travel, then covered with sand. They were used to prevent horses and vehicles from getting mired in mud through wet, swampy areas. Such roads were used in Europe since at least 4000 BCE. They could be a hazard to horses if the logs shifted. In this case not only felled logs but also tree stumps are visible.

King Street is being excavated to make way for a new light rail transit line. The project is not without controversy, particularly due to the heavy toll on local businesses.

Construction halted in March when the historic road was uncovered, as required by law. Archaeologists have now finished documenting it, and removal of the logs is expected to begin in a few days.

I wanted to glimpse this piece of history before it disappears forever.

Earth Day: get a jump on spring planting

20160422-_MG_9529

My neighbour disapproves of me gardening before the end of May. He doesn’t say so directly, but makes sidelong references to inevitable cold weather and the threat of frost. I don’t argue but carry on like the ant in the parable, hoping the outcome will prove me right. Early planting can extend the season considerably.

Some vegetables can be sown in the garden as early as the soil can be worked. That means when the frost is gone and it’s not so wet that digging harms the structure of clay soil. To test it, try making ball out of a handful of soil; if it won’t stick together it’s safe to dig.

Vegetables that can be grown at this time include many leafy greens:

  • lettuce
  • spinach
  • kale
  • broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  • arugula
  • Swiss chard

Thanks to a southern exposure and raised beds, my garden became workable during mild weather in late March. I sowed kohlrabi, kale, arugula (photo above) and spinach.

I like to cover the seeds with a sheet of corrugated cardboard for a few days. This keeps the warm, sun-drenched soil evenly moist and provides protection against the harshest weather. I check under the cardboard every day and remove it as soon as seedlings appear. But don’t try this with carrots or lettuce: they need sunlight and won’t germinate under cover.

Square foot garden 1

Then we had some more cold weather, hard frosts, ice storms and persistent snow. You might expect all that severity to nip my seedlings in the bud, but it didn’t. Fast-germinating seedlings in the cabbage family simply stopped and waited for the weather to warm up again. Spinach, on the other hand, takes several weeks to germinate. It did its preliminaries under the snow. Now this week it’s cropping up happily.

I like to garden slowly: not too much work all at once. It’s easier on my body and lets me spread out the pleasure of planting things. Each day I undertake a few tasks. Unfortunately I lost my chance to plant Swiss chard and beets before more snow flew. Instead they went into the ground today, to mark Earth Day (April 22).

Carrots can handle frost but I’m cautious about planting them too early. The seeds are small, they need to lie exposed on the surface and they take about three weeks to germinate, so I don’t want to expose them to the ravages of late winter storms. I deliberately saved them to plant now. About a month before last frost is right. Early varieties could be sown much sooner under clear plastic row covers, but I’m not that technologically advanced.

Peas can rot in cold, wet ground. Save them too until winter has done its worst. Then be prepared for them to germinate and grow quickly.

You must wait until after last frost to plant:

  • tomatoes
  • peppers
  • beans
  • squash
  • melons
  • cucumbers
  • corn

Hardy perennials can also be planted and transplanted early. I decided to move most of my perennial herbs out of the square-foot garden to make more room for a succession of vegetables. In March I moved French tarragon, sage and thyme into a big barrel for the season. Some of the herbs, particularly the tarragon, got frostbitten by the late winter storms, but it was quick to recover.

20160422-_MG_9535

If you want to plant trees, Earth Day is a good time. It will give those saplings time to establish their roots before drought hits. In fact, trees will do even better if they’re planted in the fall. Their roots continue to grow in winter, searching out new sources of moisture and nutrients. Spring is alright but make sure to give that sapling lots of watery attention through the coming summer.

Once the weather warms up it’s too late to transplant trees and shrubs. Sure, people do it, but you’re making an unfair demand on the plant to establish its roots in summer. It’s unkind. Be patient and wait until next fall. The tree will become better established and grow more quickly anyway.

Ontario’s growing season is so short we must do our best to extend it. Last year thanks to early sowing I harvested spinach, leaf lettuce and arugula in May, peas and kale by mid-June. Maybe if the neighbours are envious enough, they’ll try it too.

Men’s knitting retreat: an act of creativity

20160417-IMG_9522

The idea of creativity invokes arts, crafts and design. We usually use it to describe an individual or small group of collaborators who create something with sensual impact like a musical composition, a knitted shawl or an innovative ad campaign. Tangible creativity blossomed during the first Canadian men’s knitting retreat, which took place this past weekend, April 15 to 17, 2016.

Social interaction can manifest another kind of creativity that’s less tangible but equally rich. We often experience this when people meet. Diverse talents and ideas create an unexpected outpouring of emotion, thought and inspiration that wouldn’t happen otherwise. When conditions are right, the sum can be significantly greater than its parts. Extended time together multiplies the effect. This is why people like to hold conferences, conventions and seminars.

20160416-IMG_9464

I have experienced this in a particular way with men’s knitting retreats. And yesterday (Sunday) morning, when the 19 men met for a final time, as their thoughts and impressions unfolded in our midst, I knew something remarkably good had happened. I might have known earlier in the weekend as I saw the men knitting together in the sunshine, sharing meals, embracing a friendly baby goat and gaining inspiration from workshops. But I had had a hand in organizing it this time and it’s difficult to inspect one’s own creations objectively. The feedback confirmed my belief that the retreat had impacted everyone in a positive, lasting way.

Interesting fact: The 19 men in attendance included nine Ontarians, one “lapsed Canadian” from Long Island, one German and eight Americans who had traveled from as far as Florida, Texas and Colorado.

 

Carol Lloyd’s book Creating a Life Worth Living describes the kind of creativity that involves human interaction. Certain creative types express themselves in intrinsically social ways, for example healers, teachers and directors. Lloyd calls the kind of person who organizes events a realizer. He or she relishes problem solving, provides driving energy and has good communication skills to build community.

20160417-IMG_9509

I think a realizer is also someone who senses commonalities, likes bringing people together and gets satisfaction from seeing them interact.

When Jaye Crawford, Danny Ouellette and I coordinated this event, we had the benefit of advice and support from other men who had realized similar events elsewhere: Joe Wilcox of the Men’s Spring Knitting Retreat, Brady Robinder of the the Rocky Mountain Men’s Knitting Retreat and Barry VanderWeele of the Great Lakes Men’s Knitting Retreat.

But the spirit of these retreats comes much more from the diversity of men who attend them. It’s like a patchwork quilt where everyone provides a square.

20160416-IMG_9496

Here are a few things we did together:

  • A choice of workshops including knitting a moebius cowl, shawl design, adapting sweater patterns for personal fit and knitting toe-up socks two at a time.
  • Visited Wellington Fibres goat farm, toured the spinning facility, bought a lot of gorgeous yarn and enjoyed the love of a baby kid born earlier that week.
  • Showed off our proudest recently completed knitting projects.
  • Raised money toward two scholarships to make our next event accessible to men with limited financial means. We did this by donating stuff from our yarn stashes to a silent auction where our friends then bid and bought the stuff.
  • Spent a lot of time just knitting, telling tales, sharing knitting advice and gaining inspiration from one another.
  • Sometimes, especially in the evening, the community room would fall almost silent as everyone focused on their work. It was an unusual but comfortable silence unlike anything I’ve experienced at other weekend events.

20160416-IMG_9482

The group collectively expressed great appreciation for Loyola House Retreat Centre, our accommodation. The rooms were particularly comfortable and the meals got rave reviews.

As the group said its goodbyes, they left with strong support to repeat the retreat again next year. Most raised hands in support of starting a day earlier (on Thursday). So we have something bigger and better to look forward to.

Loyola House has room for 30 to 50 people. We didn’t achieve the minimum, but Loyola House kindly charged us only for the number who registered. Our challenge for next year will be to get 30 registered. Based on the enthusiasm from all who attended this year, I don’t think we’ll have trouble spreading word and generating enough interest for Men’s Knitting Retreat North next time.

 

The first Men’s Knitting Retreat North unfolds

20160416-IMG_9456

Something remarkable happens when men get together and play with fibre. The first Men’s Knitting Retreat North kicked off yesterday afternoon with an informal meet and greet as guys arrived from as far away as Germany, Texas, Florida and Colorado. Ontario put on her best spring weather as if to show off to our international guests.

Old friends greeted happily and new ones forged quickly. Conversation ebbed and flowed, usually most lively around our friend Jeff Cohen, a champion of men’s knitting retreats. But everyone settled down quickly to knit or spin. It was a diverse group as shown by the wide range of projects people had brought: practical socks, splendid shawls, fluffy cowls. And there were several new knitters, too: guys who have only been knitting for a few weeks. We paired them with mentors in hope this weekend will help launch illustrious creative careers for them, too. Others here have been knitting 40, 50 years or more.

This is the first such retreat to take place in Canada. It was largely inspired by the Men’s Spring Knitting Retreat, which takes place at Easton Mountain near Albany, New York, each spring, and has spawned several other annual events around the world.

The photo above shows designer Leo Pola starting a shawl in flame colours, and my pal Benn Brisland (this is his first knitting retreat) preparing yarn for the workshop I’ll teach later this morning: how to knit a moebius cowl.

With weather so fine, undoubtedly we’ll take frequent breaks from structured activities to enjoy the sunshine and landscape at Loyola House Retreat Centre. AJ Young and Han Jacobs Meadway had the right idea within a few minutes of arrival yesterday.

20160415-IMG_9448

Still, I especially look forward to seeing how creativity and friendships unfold over the course of the weekend. Men’s knitting retreats are good at building community. People who have attended different ones around the country tell me each has its unique flavour. I don’t want to anticipate too closely what ours will be like, but this weekend already has a restful, reflective feeling to it.

After this morning’s workshops and lunch, we’ll head on a field trip to Wellington Fibres to view a lot of baby goats and probably buy a lot of colourful mohair yarn and spinning fibre.

Bringing a men’s knitting retreat to Canada

IMG_9033(1)

Next weekend, April 15 to 17, 2016, the first Canadian men’s knitting retreat will take place. I’ve had a hand in organizing it and can hardly wait. This is the realization of a long-held dream.

Men’s knitting retreats started in May 2008 at Easton Mountain Retreat Center near Albany, New York (group photo shown above). My partner Danny Ouellette and I happened to be there and we’ve been lucky to attend more at the same location. Retreats have spread to other areas, so that several now take place every year across the United States. They have also occurred in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

At a men’s knitting retreat, people who identify as male get together to relax, spend time knitting together, teach and learn new skills and come away inspired. These retreats continually overcome my cynicism about human nature. They make me want to participate more in human community. And they provide an opportunity to do so.

What makes them so special? All the retreats in different places keep themselves deliberately small, less than 50 individuals. You get to know one another. By the end of the weekend there will hardly be any strangers.

IMG_8997

There’s nothing new about men knitting. The Vikings did it. Fishermen did it. Now bankers, lawyers and artists do it.

But in our culture I think it’s fair to say men who knit often do it in solitude or in the company of women. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m fortunate to have many women friends who are fibre crafters. I’d never choose to give up their company. It has enriched my life.

But for me something different happens when a roomful of men knits together. I suppose I let down my guard in a way I don’t around women or other men. Being creative is an essential, essential part of who I am. I don’t have to act more or less manly than I am. And even though a lot of men like to knit in macho tones like brown, blue and grey, I don’t feel compelled to hide my passion for colour.

2009 04 26 Entrelac scarf

Several years ago I wanted to bring a retreat to Canada. However, it would never have happened without Danny and our friend, Jaye Crawford, who helped organize it. We also had extensive practical, tactical and even financial assistance from Joe Wilcox, an original founder and perennial organizer of the Men’s Spring Knitting Retreat at Easton Mountain. Others have helped, too. After wanting to do this for so long, I couldn’t be happier than to see it come to pass.

For this event we’re using Loyola House, a retreat centre at Ignatius Jesuit Centre on the north edge of Guelph. It provides all the meals. We have single private rooms and the run of a large community room with a fireplace and windows overlooking the countryside. We’re planning a field trip to Wellington Fibres angora goat farm and spinning mill, a yarn crawl, two workshop sessions and hopefully a bonfire, weather permitting. I expect everyone will also take advantage of unstructured time to simply sit, knit, talk and laugh.

Loyola photo 8

We’re calling it Men’s Knitting Retreat North. So far 19 men have registered, which would be a perfect number, just as perfect as 35. But we still have room and time to register (April 12 at the latest). So guys who knit, if you’ve been undecided or have only just heard about it, sign up. Spinners, crocheters, weavers and other fibre crafters are welcome. So are those who don’t knit but want to learn.

Go to Men’s Knitting Retreats and click scheduled events then. 2016 Men’s Knitting Retreat North is still at the top of the list for a few more days. Click the link to the registration page for more information. And it’s a good buy: $310 Cdn for the full weekend, meals and room included.

Symbol of hope

IMG_7991

There was a rainbow outside my office window a minute ago. I don’t mind taking it as a symbol of hope. It disappeared before I could take a photo. Some things we see are for our individual eyes only.
 
I’ve had a difficult spell of depression this year, starting sometime in the summer. It was frustrating and maddening after having such a good year with no depression in 2014. I think I’m feeling better now but improvement, like Andromeda Galaxy, is harder too see if you look too closely.
 
I’m used to it. I know what to do to make things better. It calls for hard work at a time when I lack the necessary energy. Usually it doesn’t scare me, except on a few bad days. Mostly it makes me listless and nonverbal, a hard thing for a writer.
 
Maybe that’s part of why I am a writer. I didn’t try to contact new clients while I was depressed, but continued to take work assignments from anyone I knew. Everything I wrote was an affirmation of life. Unfortunately, when you’re depressed you overlook and forget the triumphs.
 
Some of the challenges have to do with our new home. There’s nothing I dislike about it, but I need to be more creative about giving myself the gift of daylight. I miss having a large vegetables garden, which took me outside every day all summer in 2014 and was largely responsible for preventing any depression that year.
 
I’m practically the opposite of many people with seasonal depression. It starts with the dog days of summer. The radiance of early autumn seems piercing and terrible. November is a hard climb. I start to feel better in December when the trees are dark and skeletal, and a low midday sun shines in the windows. By January I’m well again. It’s a serious time for new beginnings, routines and hope.

Delightful chanterelles

_MG_9059

Wild mushroom season has become something we look forward to with particular delight. Around the cottage, autumn always delivers some culinary surprises and this Labour Day weekend was no exception. On Sunday afternoon my partner and I found this cluster of delicious and exquisite chanterelles.

In Ontario, wild mushrooms may appear throughout the growing season, but the greatest diversity appears with the onset of cooler, wetter weather. The holiday weekend was one of the hottest of the summer, so I didn’t expect to find anything spectacular.

We did however go mushroom hunting. I’ll be giving a talk on fungi in February so I wanted to find some specimens to populate my slideshow. Quite a few species volunteered to be photographed, like little people standing in the woods: some deadly amanitas, some edible but confusing and unremarkable boletes and a variety of other characters.

We also found three black elfin saddles, Helvella lacunosa, growing beside the roadway. These were new for us. They’re edible, so we brought them home to sample (they were too small to provide a strong impression, but seemed to have an intense flavour).

_MG_8772

I took hundreds of photos. I’ll post some more in the future, but my working laptop has gone for repairs so I won’t be able to process all those images until it comes home.

I spent an hour or so lying down and scrunching up my body to get good shots of the mushrooms. I call it this exercise macro yoga. I was nearly exhausted so we had turned around and were heading back to the cottage when Danny spied a clump of yellow, deformed mushroom caps near the road. They seemed ugly where they grew amid the moss but, overturning one, I found the striking wide gill ridges and recognized the mushroom immediately as a chanterelle. On closer examination we identified it as the most sought-after species, Cantharellus cibarius.

Our previous forays around the cottage have turned up oyster mushrooms and the beautiful, delectable comb tooth, but this substantial gathering of chantarelles was our best find yet. They supposedly smell of apricots but to my nose the fragrance was more evocative of pumpkin. Sautéed in butter, they had a subtly sweet and fruity taste, quite tender and delicious.

As always, I must encourage caution with wild mushrooms. They can be confusing and some are deadly. Foraging is best learned from someone experienced. Always use a good field guide and don`t take chances; never eat anything if you can`t identify it definitely and know that it`s edible.

Chanterelles turned up when we went foraging with Patrick Louch last year, but as I recall we found only a few small ones, not enough to enjoy the gastronomic effect. In the future, I`ll keep a keen eye open for this delicacy. For more information read the Fall 2014 issue of Edible Toronto magazine; my article is online, Trumpets, hedgehogs and chanterelles: tracking the elusive mushroom.

Oliver Sacks who popularized science of perception dies at 82

Oliversacks

Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks died this morning at age 82. He was made famous by the movie, “Awakenings”, based on one of his books, but more importantly he popularized science of how the mind works, particularly its eccentricities, with works like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”.

He has said, “My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

Sacks came out late in life, due in part to his powerful shyness, ending many years of celibacy in 2008 and writing about his homosexuality for the first time in a 2015 autobiography, “On the Move: A Life”. His life is an inspiration for what introverted or socially anxious people might accomplish.

An unusual, lifelong condition, prosopagnosia, impaired Sacks’ ability to recognize faces. In 2001 he lost depth perception due to treatment for an ocular melanoma. He discussed these experiences among other oddities of visual perception in “The Mind’s Eye”.

In January 2015 he learned that the original cancer had metastasized to his liver, and determined to live his last few months as fully as possible.

From Oliver Sacks: ““Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

 

From Islam, lessons on nature, beauty and believing

September morning dock view

Seyyed Hossein Nasr blames environmental decline on “the divorce of our understanding of nature from the sacred and the spiritual.” The Islamic philosopher argues that Christianity in Western culture has failed to protect nature; and that Islam is a green religion. He believes God will judge individuals on their stewardship of the environment, while society as a whole will be punished for abusing nature. We must learn to live in harmony with other creatures or face suicide as a species; there is no third alternative, he says.

Tonight on the CBC Radio program Ideas, Paul Kennedy aired an interview with Dr. Nasr interspersed with parts of lecture he gave in Burnaby, British Columbia, last year. I caught part of it driving home in the rain from a meeting and found the entire episode online. When I first tuned in, I didn’t know what the program was about. At first I was disappointed to hear a cleric dismissing any effort to reconcile religion with science, which he considers a human construct.

Of course it’s a human construct, but so is religion. At least science is based on observations about what we know, while religion arises from what we fear and cannot know. What place has it, teaching us about climate change and environmental protection? – I thought. Religion has caused incalculable harm to the world we live in. Christianity today finds itself mute, divided and in denial about our pressing environmental questions.

However, I was attracted to examples Dr. Nasr gave of traditional nature poetry from the Middle East. For him, love of God can’t be separated from love of the natural world. By contrast, he says both the Catholic Church and Protestantism have failed to develop an environmental legacy. Theological conversations in North America have ostracized the most inspired thinkers about nature. Emerson was considered a heretic and Thoreau (who admired Indian spiritual writings such as the Bhagvat-Geeta) a pagan.

One frigid February day in 1998 I had an epiphany on the bank of the Eramosa River in Guelph. My relationship with religion had been disintegrating for a while. Annie Dillard‘s remarkable book about God and nature, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, had helped keep me alive and believing in something during a traumatic period of my life. I had already stopped calling myself a Christian because I could no longer identify myself with the hateful, violent and murderous things multitudes of people have done in the name of Jesus.

But that day beside the river I realized I no longer believed in the god who threatened absolute punishment for lack of allegiance to him, to a faith, an idea. This self-centred divinity represented a mirror image of human narcissism, created by men who believed in their right to control the minds of others. Claims of unconditional love failed to hold up against the record of history. Such religion had nothing true or good about it. This feeble-hearted divinity could not have created the universe. It had nothing to do with the complexity of nature.

Since that river epiphany, I haven’t looked to any god but to nature, which has nourished and protected my physical, emotional and inspirational well-being since earliest childhood memories. We don’t need sacred texts to know that nature gives life. But more recently I’ve become aware that, for some people, nature and god are practically the same thing.

During tonight’s program, I was surprised by a distinction Dr. Nasr made. He said both Islam and Christianity traditionally value beauty and love, but Christianity holds love slightly higher, while Islam does beauty.

In the years since I became an atheist, in the struggle to find meaning without a religious framework, I’ve often considered what things I value most. Love, community, integrity and creativity come to mind (all part of nature), and beauty always places high on the list.

In my past experience with religion, beauty wasn’t important: whether a flower or a face, all beautiful things were considered transient and meaningless compared to God’s grace and plan for salvation – things utterly abstract. That faith pinned its hopes utterly outside the here and now. This contributes to radicalization of religion. Its followers assert that their truth is the only one, and no one can see anything to disprove their faith.

It’s impossible to relate to nature without encountering and appreciating beauty: the profound complexity of a forest ecosystem, the mathematical perfection of cosmology, or the fragile sufficiency of our own bodies. Atheism began to fit my way of thinking as I escaped ugliness, reaching for wonder.

Tonight I’m intrigued by this idea from an Islamic teacher about placing metaphysical value on beauty. Tonight it occurred to me I don’t need to continue being an atheist. We all take a certain pride in what we believe, and this pride is useless. Certainty is subject to change in perspective. I had to stop believing in the wrong kind of god. Perhaps (and I acknowledge this only hypothetically) it was necessary to step back before I could begin imagining a better kind.

But this line of thinking stops itself, for now. God has always been and can only be something in the imagination. People imagine God because they can’t face their own solitude or the grim nothingness of death. Faith might overcome fear, but I prefer to acknowledge and live with my dread of the uncertain, making the most of my time in thoughtful integrity.

I remain unconvinced that anything supernatural exists, or that we need to believe – or invent a belief – in order to live meaningful, responsible lives. Lack of faith doesn’t destine us to depravity; rather it should drive us to cherish everything and every living moment as much as possible. We must choose to build meaning for ourselves as long as we can. I still see a hopeful, co-operative path, finding a better future than the one we’re currently bent upon.

Uncertainty about what we know is almost as scary as dying. I accept my ambivalence and remain content. It’s a good place to be.

Creativity: surprising lives of the wise and wonderful

Daily Rituals

For many creative people, the only useful impetus to work comes from within. They must become skilled in the use of their own minds, and in structuring their time.

A few years ago, in my quest to establish useful working habits as a writer, I came across the blog Daily Routines by Mason Currey. It documents the sometimes mundane, sometimes bizarre lifestyles of artists and thinkers. Recently I discovered Mason has turned the blog into an engaging book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which I’ve duly and voraciously read.

I began learning about creative habits in Carol Lloyd’s admirable book, Creating a Life Worth Living. She discusses “ecstatic task,” a brief morning ritual designed to ground a creative person in their essential activity, along with many other valuable psychological and organizational tools. I first read it long ago and have revisited it many times over the years. To Lloyd, an artist’s career takes shape partly from inspiration but mostly as a series of deliberate choices.

Creative rituals

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work illustrates how humanity’s most productive minds thrive on routine, but usually these habits are unexpected. Only a very few work long, long hours on their primary output. Even noted workaholics like Stephen King devote only a few hours. He starts his work day around 8:00 or 8:30 every single day of the year, and writes until he reaches his quota of 2,000 words, sometimes by 11:30 but more often by 1:30. In many cases like his, the rest of an artist’s time is taken up with other jobs to pay the bills, going for walks, fulfilling annoying or obsessive tasks, or (in King’s case) simple leisure: napping, walking and reading. Many successful artistic people do their best work only three or four hours a day.

Eccentricities are widespread, of course. Beethoven often spent mornings in front of the washstand, bellowing, humming, striding up and down, and repeatedly pouring pitchers of water over his hands so much he often flooded the floor and became an unpopular tenant.

In the 1920s, Carl Jung built a tower where he lived in spartan conditions more suited to the 16th Century, lit only by oil, hauling and boiling water from the lake. It reminds me of our cottage, with no electricity except for a generator to pump lake water for washing, only propane for lights and cooking, no access to internet. I love the simplicity and seclusion.

First snow at Fletcher Lake

Drugs

What’s stunning but not unexpected is how many great minds depend on drugs for productivity. Frequently coffee, often amphetamines furnish energy and concentration, or barbiturates for sleep. Alcoholism appears widespread, though seldom contributing to creativity. Ernest Hemingway, a noted alcoholic, would rise and begin working at first light regardless of how late he had sat up drinking; he always looked great and seemed immune to hangovers, his son noted.

This interests me, because I too use substances – in moderation – to bolster creativity.

Early last year, at the age of 50, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It came as a surprise because I was a good student in grade school – not so surprising considering numerous minor car accidents I had as a young man, difficulty processing stress and trauma, and trouble sticking with traditional jobs. It’s clear to me now that the endless hours I spent alone as a boy in my room writing involved over-focus associated with ADHD. However problematic it may be for me socially, writing remains my choice vocation, a skill in which I can achieve excellence.

In my early 30s trauma, severe depression and anti-depressant medication disrupted my sense of comfort in solitude, and my ability to daydream. This devastated my creative output. I couldn’t maintain focus, in fact for many years I couldn’t write fiction at all. But I needed to. I kept trying.

Concentration

When I began working as a freelance journalist again in 2012, it brought back an important, lost piece of the creative puzzle. Deadlines motivated me. The process of developing a story idea, pitching it to an editor, working out the details, interviewing and researching, writing and turning in the assignment on time all provided a process that felt natural and achievable. It would take about three weeks from start to finish, the length of time I could comfortably maintain concentration before moving onto something new.

After the ADHD diagnosis I began using a small dose of Concerta most work days. It’s not an amphetamine, but another kind of nervous system stimulant. It facilitates close concentration for more hours of the day, more days of the week, helps shift focus from one task to another without loss of energy, and makes it easier to set aside problems that cause anxiety and distract me from work. Over time it has increased my confidence in being able to accept more tasks, responsibility and activities. As we all know, confidence matters a lot.

I’ve even felt some progress in the relentless effort to write fiction. It felt like I had writer’s block for a decade, reworking the same characters and plot lines, unable to move forward. But recently a positive shift began: a few grams of satisfaction that the groundwork is beginning to make sense, that I can move beyond chapter three and four. It’s a hopeful time.

Perhaps lack of concentration is normal. But distraction can defeat people who depend on an organized mind to achieve their ambitions. It’s an interesting question, whether medication might help or hinder their efforts.

Moderation

For my entire adult life I’ve been wary of the abuse of alcohol. Caution is a good thing. I’ve survived some traumatic periods when the only thing I wanted was to escape the pain, but knew alcohol would only make it worse. I’ve never used it to medicate depression, and never more than an occasional drink to medicate anxiety or insomnia at the end of a day.

But there remains a connection between creativity and alcohol. When I write fiction, a glass of red wine can provide a classic release from inhibition. Ideas, dialogue and plot lines move in unexpected directions. The story takes on a life of its own. That’s the essential, spicy broth in which many writers love to stew.

My doctor, therapist and psychiatric specialist all look askance if I mention using any alcohol in combination with an anti-depressant and a nervous system stimulant. Alcohol is, after all, a depressant.

However, I subscribe to the motto, “Moderation in all things.” I only have four or five drinks a week, and never when revising or working on a paid assignment. At those times I need good judgment and attention to detail.

Time to rethink

In hindsight, many of the rituals I’ve prescribed for myself  have served as a way of getting through the hard times when inspiration is scarce and productivity low. Most creative work is simply work. It doesn’t come easily, but with discipline we can keep at it and achieve satisfaction. My journalism is proof of this.

But when ideas start flowing more freely, as recently, my routines begin unraveling. I find I must work on fiction whenever I have time and feel inspired, not only in the late afternoon time slot assigned to it. I rush through (or skip) my morning ritual because I’m eager to start work. I often forget to eat lunch. Lately I’ve been reading into the early morning hours and sleeping late. I exercise, garden or bake when the whim comes over me. All these threads of chaos seem vaguely and superficially unhealthy.

In good company

Many artists in the book live nothing like this. Some are habitually driven, others slaves to extravagance.

But in a few like Umberto Eco, who claims to write erratically during interstices of time throughout the day, I find reflections of myself. René Descartes slept late, awoke to daydream, and “believed that idleness was essential to good mental work.” For years Charles Darwin led a quiet, leisurely, secluded life in the country, content in his family’s company, writing about other things, while keeping the controversial theory of evolution secret.

The book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work suggests I’m in good company. It’s light, amusing reading for anyone, but an affirmation for anyone seeking traction in the creative impulse. We can all find something to relate to in this range of obsessions and uniqueness.

It also persuades me to trust my own eccentricities. I might stop struggling to become an early riser or enforce a predictable structure on my days. Many, many artistic people, perhaps writers in particular, are insane. They have to be.