Category: Big Thoughts

What’s precious

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We spent the Easter weekend on the farm where Kevin grew up, and his mom still lives.

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We helped her begin to sort through and organize the rooms, the closets, cupboards, drawers, nooks and crannies. This is no small project in a house that’s been home for nearly forty years.

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I boxed up books to give away, many of which had been bestsellers at some point in the past four decades, already out of date, out of style; some were too musty even to donate. It was an odd conflation of realities, having just spent several days at the British Library, where I pored over printed texts that were four or five centuries old. By what random chance did those books survive? Nothing I read in the BL would be considered great or lasting literature, though some was popular in its time; survival over the centuries was a matter more of being kept by generations of someones who were not like me, I guess, as my instinct is to purge, rather than to cling to, at least in a general sense.

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The work got me thinking about how transitory and brief are our lives on this earth. Consider my files of manuscripts in our attic. I wonder, should I burn them now so as to spare my children having to decide what to do with them, some day? What’s precious, after all?

I come home thinking that what’s precious is today.

But today is also ephemeral, which is why we keep so much, trying to keep what can’t be kept. We’ve all got our means and methods, our junk drawers, our shoeboxes. I say this as an inveterate collector and curator of the daily now, in the form of this blog, knowing that what I’m compelled to do is only fractionally more lasting than the day itself, and then only because it freezes and distorts the complicated layers of each beautiful breath and heart beat into a small, glancing story.

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I come home thinking that it’s really really important to pay attention to what you’re pouring your life into. I think: don’t worry about whether or not you’re making things that will last. Don’t worry period, actually. Make and do the things that bring you and those around you some daily sense of being loved and cared for. Be as alive as you want to be, while you’re here.

Larger than life

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After this morning’s run (-24 with the windchill, again!), I felt inspired to post photos comparing the weather today, March 6th, 2014, to the March 6ths of previous years. Easier said than done. I’ve just been scanning through the past few Marches, as recorded on my blog, and it would appear that in those years when it was simply grey and dreary and melty, I didn’t take a lot of seasonal outdoor photos.

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March 4, 2012

Here’s one. Looks like there was still some snow two years ago at the same time, though not nearly in our current volume. Photos from later that month show the lilacs starting to bud, and lettuce and chives coming up in the back garden beds, but that hasn’t been the March-norm, according to my blog. It was odd enough to remark on.

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not all photos are flattering

This is me, this morning. I have a moustache! And a beard, kind of. This photo was taken around 6:45AM. The light was beautiful. The cold was not. My toes were frozen.

I have a sick child home again today. Not the same sick child, either. We’ve cycled through sick children this past week, with the three eldest taking their turn. March break begins tomorrow. I shake my head. This winter.

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AppleApple finished Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story before I did. It was a very readable book, we agreed, although odd to be reading in book-form such recent news events; and of course the story remains unfinished.

I’ve been thinking about tyrants and celebrities. Larger than life. That seems to be how we want our leaders. That’s why the most impossible-seeming characters wind up in power, despite being bumbling fools or ruthless autocrats or outright sociopaths. The gods and goddesses had outsized appetites and were obviously flawed, too, but we never said we wanted perfection, we the people. We are awed by enormity, by behaviour on a scale we can’t imagine of ourselves, whether it be idiocy or tyranny.

Vladimir Putin is larger than life. He may appear bizarre to the Western eye, posing shirtless while conquering a variety of wildlife, but he knows what he’s doing: he’s creating a potent myth of himself. What an oddly self-inflated little man, we might think, while he smiles like the Mona Lisa and crushes his opposition. And on a scale of far less global importance, Rob Ford is also larger than life. His appetites are renowned, his body enormous, his inability to speak the truth unstoppable, his buffoonery legendary. When we laugh at him, we forget that he still has power. In some ways, it’s an odd trick common to many a corrupt leader: their pretensions are so absurd, we can’t believe anyone’s taking them seriously.

We should. We take them as seriously as they take themselves, or else we’re the fools.

Imagine your way to success

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DJ is posing for the camera, which we’re all finding hysterical

Somehow, last week’s brief thaw fooled me, despite knowing better, into thinking that spring-like conditions were in the offing. I keep stepping outside and registering the cold as a shock — as a personal affront — as if it weren’t absolutely to be expected at the end of February. The windchill registered at -21C on my run this morning, for heaven’s sake! AppleApple has told me that on April 1st, she is wearing a sweater to school no matter how cold it is. I was just glad she didn’t set that particular deadline for March 1st.

To further gather my thoughts regarding yesterday’s post on fear and unwinding, I would like to observe that there’s a fine line between acknowledging and reflecting on one’s fears, and becoming mired and stuck in an introspective feedback loop of one’s fears. I feel like I’m atop a small hill that I’ve been climbing for awhile, and this is a good place to pause and acknowledge that it was hard to trust my brain post-concussion. It was hard, and it was scary, but I don’t want it to colour my life. I’ve got other hills to climb.

That’s why I played soccer a few weekends ago. That’s why I write every day. That’s why I meet friends. That’s why I want to go out dancing and do kundalini yoga again and get a decent pair of snow pants and maybe some cross country skiis so I can play outside whatever the weather — take that, February! I’m a huge believer in imagining your way to success. You have to know where you want to go or you’ll never get there.

Writing and meditation and reflection are expressions I’m naturally drawn to as an introspective person. It’s why I’m a writer, I am sure. But life is lived concretely. It’s hands in bread dough. It’s running as the sky grows light. It’s vacuuming the dog hair (or teaching the five-year-old how to vacuum the dog hair).

Here’s what I’m visualizing. And doing.

My big (overarching) goals for the year:
* write the first draft of a new novel
* promote Girl Runner
* create a solid curriculum for my creative writing class

My small (everyday) goals for the year:
* read
* write daily meditations
* run, weight lift, yoga, spin, bike, dance, play soccer
* help and support my family
* give the kids more responsibilities around the house
* bake
* offer and accept invitations to spend time with friends
* play the piano and sing

I could go on. But that’s a good start.

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two Saturdays ago: this was taken after we all pitched in to clean the house together; I hope to blog more about this new plan, if all goes well

A total side note that spoke to the fitness guru in me: I read in yesterday’s newspaper that sprinting is more beneficial to the aging body than distance running (the caution being that you need to be a strong runner, and probably a distance runner, before attempting sprints, because non-fit sprinting an excellent way to injure yourself.) No wonder I love soccer so much — it’s basically sprinting, except you get to chase a ball.

I also read that going for a walk has an almost medicinal effect on the mind and body. Why don’t we build our cities and communities around that simple concept? Imagine the health benefits. Imagine how we’d all be walking off the edges of our worries. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

Land and stories

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reading in bed

I’m sick and in bed. It’s where I’ve been all weekend. I missed our annual Robbie Burns party, in fact. (Not to sound too over-pitying but the photos above and below were taken during the party. I spent the night at my mom’s instead, with the younger kids, enjoying live-text updates from the party by Albus, Kevin, and my friend Zoe, who had baked Kevin a birthday cake, as we still have no oven. It felt ever so slightly like being there, as I tried to help her locate one lousy birthday candle somewhere in our entire house; she did.)

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The one upside to being sick and in bed is all the reading I’ve been able to do. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I lay around devouring books at this pace. I love books, but I’d forgotten how much I need them. When I think back on my life, I realize that I remember in specific detail sitting and reading, or lying in bed and reading, in many different rooms and seasons, and at many different ages. The winter after I’d turned twenty, I lived in a basement apartment with my brother, and we had no television, and the internet, as we now know it, had not been invented (or at least wasn’t available in our basement apartment). I used my computer much like a typewriter: to write papers and poems. And I read for entertainment. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice, maybe for the first time, and all of J.D. Salinger, for the millionth time, and Anne of Windy Poplars, which I still read every once in awhile, just because.

This weekend I fell in love with a book: Born with a Tooth, by Joseph Boyden. Well, it’s short stories, and I do fall for short stories. If you haven’t read it, seek it out and do. I’m certain some of the themes that seed his novels are planted here, and perhaps not as fully developed, this being his first book, but I don’t mind, not at all. These are stories that will gut you, and make your heart ache, and maybe take your spirit somewhere deeper too.

I also read an entertaining cowboy-noir tough-guy book called All Hat, by Brad Smith, which got me through a really crummy Saturday.

And now I’m reading Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. More stories. If I find out a writer I like has written short stories, that’s what I go and seek out. I love them. I find it odd that I haven’t felt like writing them, myself, for awhile. It’s almost like poetry. The urge to write a poem comes and goes — goes for years, lately. And then suddenly comes again. I seem to be thinking in novels instead, since Juliet.

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shadow of our house

My profound thought of the day is that everything in this world comes down to land and stories. But now I’ve forgotten why I formed the thought. My brain feels muddy and my eyelids are heavy. Land and stories. I was thinking that war is almost always about land, but not just war — conflict of all kinds. What does it mean to possess land? To claim it? To take its riches? What claim do we have on the land we call ours, both personally and nationally? And then stories. I’ve been thinking how much stories matter. They matter in ways we don’t fully appreciate or maybe can’t take in. Stories are alive and changing, flexible, they can answer the questions we hardly dare to ask, and they can corner us, too, and pin us down. The person in control of the stories is the person with the power. Maybe even more powerful than the person with the land, when you get right down to it.

This could be the fever talking.

Outside, winter winters on, temperatures burning cold, snow whirling, wind whipping. Maybe I will remember this time of reading, years from now, and the stories that filled me up.

It isn’t meant to last

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A little more on Christian Wiman, I think, having finished the book this morning. (I mentioned this at supper and Albus said, “Doesn’t it usually take you a really long time to finish a book?” and I went, huh? And then oh! Finished reading a book, not writing one. Yeah, that I can do in a morning, though this book took me every morning of this week, and I could likely sit down and read it all over again and find all new material that chimes true, and differently, a second time around.

Then I went and looked up Christian Wiman online, to see, rather morbidly, whether he was still alive (he spent seven years writing the book, and during that time was undergoing treatment for incurable cancer, so my compulsion to know wasn’t completely out there). He is. I found an interview he’d done with a very kindly looking man named Bill Moyers, whom I’ll admit I’d never heard of. (On a side note, I suspect I would enjoy watching more of Moyers’ interviews.) (On another side note, this must have been a “watch random videos” day, because I’d started my morning with a lecture by Brene Brown, whom everybody but me probably already knows for her work on vulnerability; and I liked it, too, and her message about how to be with people in need, but it didn’t speak to me in the same way that Christian Wiman’s book did, maybe because I didn’t have to work as hard to claim to understand what Brown was saying. Maybe I like working hard to figure something out, like the insights are more earned and therefore more personal to me, more personally valuable for being more challenging.)

Where was I?

Oh, the interview with Christian Wiman. Two things. One, the interview is worth watching if you like to hear poets read their own poetry. He reads several. Two, the part where he says that he doesn’t feel like a poet. He says it’s only when he writes a poem that he feels like a poet. He added that it’s different to write prose, and maybe that’s partially true, but I know that I feel the same way about writing fiction. I don’t feel like a fiction writer during the in-between times. I don’t even believe that I can do it — except when I am.

Tonight I am sitting beside an indoor soccer field. I can write this, it’s true. It doesn’t feel like a struggle, more like a pleasure.  But it’s simply a record of where I’m at. It lacks structure and larger purpose. It isn’t meant to last. But even as I write that, I wonder, what the heck is? Isn’t it presumption to think it, that one might ever work on something meant to last?

And yet.

Meditations on This Bright Abyss

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“People who think poetry has no power have a very limited conception of what power means.” – this, and all subsequent quotations, from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

I’ve been sitting, every morning this week, and reading this book, by Christian Wiman. I can’t take in more than a few chapters during a sitting, and even then, I’m certain I’m not taking everything in. The book is mostly about faith and Christian faith specifically. I find myself not looking to those parts, or shrugging them off; yet I know deep down that faith is an intrinsic part of my outlook, that it is where I come from and where I write from. I believe in something bigger than myself. I believe in infinite wholeness expressed somehow in every living thing, and utterly inexpressible. Most of all, I believe in the power of connection, wherever that is found. I believe, in all seriousness, that there are times when I write that I am receiving a gift by grace.

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“A poem, if it’s a real one, in some fundamental sense means no more and no less than the moment of its singular music and lightning insight; it is its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity.”

What does this mean — if it’s a real one? That strikes me as being unfair and judgemental. But isn’t it true? When you read a real poem, you know it. You just do. And isn’t the paradox of writing the need to get beyond one self while staying true to oneself? There is magic in pinning down a moment of singular music and insight; and there is failure, too, because it is an impossible task.

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“… existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.”

And yet, to write a story is to participate, actively, in inventing puzzles to be solved. Somehow to be human is to long for puzzles to solve, to crave them. The solution is never as satisfying as the mystery.

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“Behind every urge to interpret is unease, anxiety. … The trouble comes when the effort to name and know an experience replaces the experience itself.”

How to answer this? Isn’t this what I’m involved in daily, as I blog and photograph my life?

I was thinking again about the movie we watched on the artist Andy Goldsworthy, and my impatience with his observations about time — time like tide that inexorably rises and time like a river that won’t quit its rushing, and how we are caught up in it. His work relies on using time combined with elements from the natural world. I wanted to yell at him: who needs icicles and the sun, when you’ve got children to pick up for piano lessons? My every day is a study on the relentlessness of time.

I want a study on peace within the relentlessness. Or harnessing the relentlessness to make something bigger and wilder and rockier and freer than one could have imagined, given the boundaries imposed. Maybe that’s what he’s trying to do too. I couldn’t say. I have enough washing away as it is. I want to make time expand.

Here’s a small thought that arose this morning, as I sat and read: Restlessness is a gift. It’s a gift to luxuriate in our imaginations, in possibilities unachieved, in dreams that lie before us and that we are still fortunate enough to dream. That is the meaning on which our lives balance. It is our fortune.

And this post is out of time.

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