Category: Big Thoughts
A memorable week that I can scarcely recall lies behind me. Hosting cousins who live far away, playing pickup soccer together, visiting, early morning exercise, teaching, marking, cycling, reading stories, watching feminist movies, coaching practices and games almost every evening. I staggered to my Thursday practice and recognized that I was almost sleepwalking; yet somehow practice went ahead, I was running around the field, instructing, demonstrating, playing. I drove home in a haze, stopped to put gas in the little car, arrived to a houseful of awake children, Kevin racing out the door for … more soccer, I think? I’m not sure. All I know is that I needed to get the children to bed, and myself.
I sat down beside one child and rubbed her back, briefly, and it was enough to set her on the path toward bed. It’s the little things. Yelling, cajoling, ordering — these are mostly useless tactics; or these are tactics useless to me. Patience, empathy, a gentle touch are infinitely more effective. I’m trying to decide whether exhaustion makes me a more effective leader or a less effective leader; logic would suggest the latter, although oddly, the fog of exhaustion can create an aura of peaceful calm through which I gaze, slightly disengaged, but also without the energy for upset.
This is my current definition of balance.
Yesterday, I worked from 8:30am until after midnight, non-stop, to finish all of the things I needed to finish in order to shift my focus to a soccer tournament this weekend.
None of those things were writing.
The questions currently plaguing me are tangled up in my mind … Can we (I) afford for me to be doing so much volunteer work? How could I earn more, more consistently? Is there space in my life to continue pursuing writing as a career, or, when surveying the landscape, should I accept that writing has been relegated to the level of hobby? Do I want my writing to be more than a hobby? If so, what am I willing to change or drop? And finally, should I be prioritizing earning money, or … what’s the or? How does it change my outlook and goals if I were to prioritize earning money? What would I be doing differently, and is that what I should be doing? A person wants to live a purposeful life, a useful life; a person doesn’t want her family to suffer for her choices. We live a life of many luxuries: our needs (and “needs”) accumulate and become normalized. What would we (I) be willing to give up? And for what?
This post was going to be about a bird. Yesterday, I spent an hour working outside, sitting in a lawn chair beside a small grey bird that had flown into our dining-room window. I heard it strike, and saw it fall. After googling “how to help a stunned bird,” I concluded that keeping it safe from predators was the most straight-forward course of action. The bird had righted itself. It did not appear wounded. I sat, reading, taking notes, watching. Gradually, the little bird began looking around. Finally, it startled and ran under my chair, and then it disappeared, and I couldn’t find it. Had the little bird flown away? Or had it kept running, was it hiding in the vines and undergrowth of the house next door?
I could only hope that the bird would survive.
Was this act of witness useful?
Is it for me to judge what is useful? But yes, I think, I must, so that I know how to direct my energies, so that I can be sure and focused and committed, every day. How can I make critical changes in behaviour and priorities if I don’t know? Am I going to keep sleepwalking, sleepwalking, sleepwalking? Here is the poem that comes to mind, and calms my mind. It’s a poem I must commit to memory along with the few that are there now, rattling around my brain — as useful as any tool I’ve found.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The longer I teach, the more I learn.
If I were to write a dissertation, now, my subject would be the short story. I would take a scalpel to the form, carve three-dimensional paper sculptures to show how beautifully various the short story can be. My focus, as a reader and a writer, has long been on Canadian literature, but the more widely I read, the more I wonder what Canadian literature stands for. Where are we right now? What are we lacking? Are we constrained by our Canadian-ness, because our patron is the state? Our violence is secretive and shameful. We don’t dare feast or riot. We would never burn the house down, and if we did, we’d make sure no one knew it was us. Also, outwardly, we appear reasonably satisfied with this state of affairs.
I could be wrong. I could be entirely very very wrong. Generalizations are almost certainly wrong, at least to some degree.
But here’s what I’ve learned, from teaching. For the past five years, I’ve assigned Canadian short stories for my students to read and discuss, and my students’ complaint has been consistent: why are these stories so similar? At first, I was baffled: the differences between the stories were so clear to me; subtle, perhaps, but clear. But as I’ve started to read and assign stories from international writers, some in translation, I’ve come to understand that my students were more perceptive than I. This is not to dismiss my beloved Canadian stories. But I see, now, that there is a world of stories out there that are different and not just in subtle ways, but in juicy, technically audacious ways: stories that are ugly, ungainly, colourful, lawless, unconventional, impolite, rowdy, hungry. Imperfect. Stories that dare to be disfigured, furiously cryptic, ridiculous, structurally untidy, fascinating, open, broken, big. Stories that can take the criticism, because they’re out there doing the dirty work, and they’ve got more important things to worry about.
The world is waiting to be read.
I can’t pretend to know what Canadian literature stands for, nor what it lacks, nor what it needs. I think we are in troubled waters, troubled times, but I’ve been devoted to CanLit for my whole life, steeped in the stuff, and this is my trouble, too. Times of transition are always troubled times. I believe this. Transition is what gets us somewhere new. Truth and reconciliation: painful. It’s painful to be wrong, but how much more painful is it to be a child of 12 for whom suicide is the answer to their pain, how much more painful to be this child’s family, community. This is our country, right now. This is Canada. And somehow, I think it’s our literature, too. Now is not the time to turn more inward, to hide away, to ignore, not listen, not try. It feels imperative — to try. To pay attention.
I want to write stories like the ones I’ve been reading from around the world, and I can try. I may not be able to, but others will. If I’m a very fortunate teacher, maybe my students will. Meanwhile, I can keep learning, listening and reading.
1. I am eleven years old and the stadium is enormous. The track is long and hard and black and very hot. I am wearing beat-up runners, the laces dirty, and I am sure that I am amazing. The sky opens around me. I could throw up. The white lines are chalked in. After the gun goes off, we stay in our lanes until we reach a certain mark, and then we funnel in together. The stands hum with kids, teachers, some parents (not mine), and underneath the stands the light filters in stripes and the ground is wet with spilled drinks. When I run I am not afraid, only that I won’t win; I must win. Afterward, under the stands, a teacher congratulates me in a teasing way, and I am offended by his tone. Why should he act surprised? Did he not see my brilliance? The way I ran down the tall girl in grade seven, the way I opened up a lead with 300 metres to go? The way I could not, thereafter, be caught.
2. It is going to rain. I park my bike and lock it. The underside of the stands is a sticky zone of concrete splashed with soda and dripping popsicles, spilled popcorn, children in pinnies darting, and I am too late. Rushing up from underneath and out into the seats, I see her bright yellow shirt at the finish line. The race just over. I did not see her run! I can’t stop telling people, even though it disappoints them unnecessarily, how I missed the moment. The moment was there and is gone.
3. She is sturdy and wonderful and fleet and strong. She runs so hard she will throw up, crawling off to the edge of the track, afterward. She has run faster than the girls a year old, faster than every girl on the track, and with an ease and power that I am certain I could never match, nor never did match. When she stops running, two years from now, what will I do? She waits in full sunlight beside the stands while I take her picture, her eyes squinting. “Wait,” I say. “Let me take another!” But she is impatient. She doesn’t care about pictures. She is unpinned in time.
4. Last year, in grade six, I was the fastest girl in the school. I won two red ribbons racing the 800 metres (harder for me) and the 1500 metres (I could have run forever, it felt like). What has changed? The stadium is the same, the same spilled drinks under the stands, the same open sky as I step out from under the stands and into the heart of this place–grass field and oval track, little black stones, white chalk lines. I will lose the pace in the 800 metres; I won’t even attempt the 1500 metres; and in my new speciality, the hurdles, I will hit several. I won’t fall, but I won’t win. Everything is the same except for me. I shouldn’t have cut my long, long hair. I shouldn’t have gotten older. I don’t know myself at all. My capacity for suffering is diminished and I will never again win a red ribbon at a track meet.
5. There is no last track meet. There will always be more. The light will always slant through the stadium seating, the canteen will always serve popcorn and icy sugar drinks, the teachers will always tell you where to stand and remain surprised at who you are and what you can do; or surprisingly disinterested, just as irritating. There will always be safety pins to attach the coloured ribbons to your shirt, fluttering, proof of your achievements. You will always feel sick before your race. You will fight the feeling that you can’t bear to lose. You will have to live with it, live with the possibility of losing. You will sublimate your competitiveness, you will try to bury it. You will become a nice person. You will miss the uncomplicated, greedy, gritty child whose cells you have shed, entirely.
Something rather odd about my life right now is how much time and energy I devote to doing things that are outside the realm of my natural inclinations (and, I might add, training and talents). As someone who could happily hole up for hours and days, reading, researching, thinking, writing, completely in my own head, alone, I find myself surrounded by people almost constantly, and often in a position of leadership, influence, or decision-making. Writing is almost about absence, about sublimating the self to the work, but teaching, coaching and parenting require presence — and not only that, they require a presence. I can’t merely observe and reflect, I have to express my observations verbally, often immediately, without time to weigh my words, in response to whatever is happening in the moment. It’s like doing improv. Some people are born to express themselves in this way. I’ve had to learn it. I’m still learning it. I will never stop learning it. I was a shy child, a tongue-tied adolescent, happy in the company of a best friend rather than a crowd, and I’ve always preferred the scripted scene to the unscripted one. I wish I were a bigger personality, sometimes. I wish I liked tap-dancing in the spotlight.
But what can I say? I’ll just have to go on being myself.
One of my favourite professors in undergrad was so painfully shy that you almost had to strain to hear him. He lectured to a spot on the floor, or gazing out the window over our heads, caught up in his train of thought. Yet I remember him well, his gentleness and humanity. So maybe being a presence is inconsequential in comparison to simply showing up, simply being present, being yourself. Why yearn endlessly to be who we are not? Why not, instead, accept, embrace, trust and marvel at who we are, and how even with our limited capacities we are able, nevertheless, to do and be more than we could have imagined?
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing that is more than your own.
I’m trying to write the draft of a new novel, but I’ll be honest with you—I feel no urgency to finish it. What I feel instead is a desire to keep it hidden away, like a secret treehouse where I can go to play and think, and where I feel safe. If I do finish it, it feels like that secret treehouse will vanish. Writing a novel requires time and solitude and there aren’t many moments available to sit and write, due to other things going on in my life; there aren’t many moments when my mind can rest, when I can trust that there won’t be an interruption. So I’m mostly writing at my office on campus, on days when I teach. I write by hand. I don’t seem to care whether the pieces match up, from day to day. I keep finding bits of the story written in random notebooks, forgotten. Who knows what these add up to? The story is a cocoon.
Just because I’ve published books, doesn’t mean publishing more is in my future.*
I’m strangely at peace with this. It is easy not to publish, after all. What would be impossible would be never to write again. I think that I will always write; whether that makes me a writer isn’t my business to decide. Right now, I am someone who tries to teach others how to write. It seems like a way to respond to the insularity and parochialism of Canadian literature—to nurture new voices, to make room for new stories.
The words from an Ann Patchett essay jump into my mind: “People like to ask me whether writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say.”
This seems to get at the essence of something that matters to me. I don’t want to publish unless I have something to say. Maybe it takes years to gather up something worth saying. Maybe it just does. Life has to be lived, experiences accrue, layer upon layer, and with time these turn into compost. A richness is turned over to feed new growth. I’m at a point in my writing life when I’ve got the skills I need. I know how to write a sentence, how to write dialogue, even how to construct a plot. Now I wait to see whether I have something to say; something worth sharing.
I am trying to memorize a poem, but it’s slow going. My mind can’t seem to hold the sequence of these words and images, maybe because my post-concussion brain is not the powerful instrument it once was (this is something I worry about, even though I tell myself not to worry). I would like to embed this poem into my being. Once you’ve memorized a poem, it becomes a part of you, it enters your cells. Lines of poetry flow from me at odd moments of the day, like mantras.
Part One, Sonnet IV
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your forehead
as it divides and rejoins behind you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
For heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.
-Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy (with one small word change by me, because I didn’t like the original)
Whoa—I didn’t think I’d memorized it, but without referring to the text, I typed it out here, from beginning to end. I will check it over now to make sure everything is accurate, especially the line breaks and punctuation.
Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul, / and sings the tune without the words, / and never stops at all. -Emily Dickinson (I haven’t memorized all of this poem … but these are the words that popped into my head as I realized that I’d memorized Rilke, above.)
Hope is the thing with feathers. Hope is the thing with feathers.
This is not a bad time, or a sad time, I want to be clear—being at peace, escaping to my cocoon of fiction. I trust that if and when the season changes, I will recognize it. For now, I give myself to the air, to what I cannot hold.
*My kids’ picture book, Jammie Day, comes out this fall; but publishing a children’s book is not the same as publishing an adult book, for many reasons, which I won’t detail here; a discussion for another time.
On the weekend, I walked to the library with my elder daughter. While she browsed in the non-fiction stacks — the theoretical physics section — I played a little game that has served me well over the years: I wandered a little further (no theoretical physics for me) and plucked titles at random from the shelves, my choices based only on title or subject. In quick succession, I skimmed and rejected two books on Scottish folk and fairy tales, but my third choice had me sitting cross-legged on the floor, entranced.
It was a biography of Rachel Carson, the American scientist who became famous for her books about the sea and the beauty of the natural world, and who is remembered now as the author of Silent Spring, a book that warned the public about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Silent Spring was published in 1962; Rachel Carson died in 1964 of cancer. If you google Rachel Carson, you will find that to this day she is reviled in some circles as a “feminizi ecoterrorist.” The biography, Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear, and published in 1997, is a little more nuanced. It evokes a portrait of a self-effacing, deeply intelligent, patient, hard-working woman who was led by her love of nature and science to become outspoken on conservation issues. Rachel Carson began her career as a government biologist, writing educational pamphlets on a variety of subjects. But she’d always wanted to be a writer. Science became her subject. And with enormous effort and obsessive care, Rachel Carson fashioned a successful literary career; eventually, she became successful enough that she could afford to resign from her government post, in her mid-40s, to devote her life to writing about science in poetical narratives that appealed to a broad audience.
It goes without saying that Rachel Carson was an unusual woman for her era. What strikes me most, however, is how fresh and relevant her message remains today.
Even though the book was an enormous tome, I decided to check it out and carry it home, and I spent the weekend reading it with pleasure. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy biographies, especially of writers. I look for clues, I nod in recognition, or admit to envy for those who have a knack for self-promotion. Rachel Carson’s attention to detail, her push for publicity, her irritation with her first publisher, who failed to promote her first book — all of this impressed me. She had a vision for the entire publishing process and she saw it through, little deterred by criticism, yet open to critique, actively seeking it out, so as to better her own work. She also frequently turned down promotional opportunities, speeches, honorary degrees, etc., to preserve time and space for her research and writing. She knew how to say no. (Is it too late for me to learn?)
Rachel Carson lived with her mother, who kept house for her; she was the main breadwinner for her family, which included at times her older sister and brother, mother and father, and later, her orphaned nieces. She did not marry, had no children. Our lives, in their domestic details, do not much meet and overlap.
But reading about her life has got me thinking about the importance of devotion to a subject; no, the critical imperative of devoting attention to a subject, if one is to hope to learn, to understand, to teach, to share knowledge, to find solutions to human problems large and small. Our lives on earth depend upon it. We cannot be lead by those who would ignore deep, complex knowledge in favour of simplistic superficial fixes. We cannot give power to ignorance. (Too late? Well, then let’s stand true against powerful ignorance.)
Here is Rachel Carson on her belief in the universal accessibility of science:
“We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”
Here is Rachel Carson on the human tendency to focus on egocentric problems, and to fail to see our place in the vast sweep of time:
“Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.”
And here is Rachel Carson on the danger of seeing humankind as separate from nature:
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
Her solution? Wonder and humility.
“Focus attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us everyday.”
Recognize your place in the grand sweep of time. Know yourself to be part of the natural world. Wonder at your participation in the cyclical turnings. In this way, by becoming very small, by being a piece of something much larger than yourself, you will be of the world around you, not against it. I am fascinated by her repetition of the word “destruction” — her insistence that the human belief that we are above nature, not of nature, springs from a dangerously destructive impulse, that it invents and experiments with destruction.
I love when a book finds me.