I didn’t do much more than hang out with these folks this summer. Now it is September 7th, and these folks are all in school, on their second day, which is much less exciting than a first day, for reasons we all understand. Never before have I felt so lonely in the house at this time of year. Maybe it’s because I was able to work effectively this summer even while the kids were home, so I don’t feel the same need to protect to my own space and quiet. Or maybe it’s because I need to develop some other social outlets. Our family was a remarkably self-sufficient unit this summer. It’s hard to get lonely or bored when potential companions and playmates can be found in the room next door.
I write the best blog posts while I’m hanging out laundry. They’ve vanished by the time I sit down here.
During our time at the cottage (five days of bliss), we brought little food, as we had been instructed to eat down the cupboards and freezer; we were the final guests this summer. This made meal planning a peculiarly satisfying challenge. The kids wanted to do the same thing here at home, so on Monday I did an inventory of our cupboards, freezers, pantry, and fridge that was astonishing and enlightening, and a little bit shaming. We are storing a lot of food that we’ve essentially forgotten exists. Yesterday, I took on the challenge and made a taboulleh salad out of quinoa, farro, kamut, all found, uncooked, in our fridge or freezer, chickpeas from the cupboard, a lemon and a half from the fridge, and olive oil. (I also bought parsley, cilantro, red onion, tomatoes and feta, so it wasn’t all from our supplies.) Two of four children were unhappy with the salad, but one of those two ate it anyway. “Does anyone actually like this?” said dissenting child # 1, and when everyone else said yes they did actually, dissenting child # 2 stayed silent and spooned the offending grains into his mouth while managing to look both angelic and patiently tormented.
I like the idea of the cupboard challenge, but in practice it requires someone (i.e. me) to do a lot of planning and cooking from scratch. It is a challenge that will be challenged by our fall schedule. And by any non-domestic ambitions I may hold.
What are my non-domestic ambitions? I feel strangely removed from whatever it was I intended to do with my life. When a friend asked, on our morning run together, What are you looking forward to now? I had no reply.
I have no reply. I’m just doing what’s before me (teaching, ferrying children, cooking challenges, possibly more soccer coaching, writing in some form or another), and I’ll do it to the best of my abilities. The good news is that I’m not not looking forward to anything either.
I’d forgotten how relaxed my mind had been all summer. It had so little extra to think about, to hold, to plan for, to juggle, to congregate onto a calendar. I mean, I appreciated that summer was wonderful and that my mind was relaxed. What I’d forgotten was how steep the decline in relaxation, in spaciousness, at this time of year. How does a person ever get anything done in this state? I seem dimly to recall the ability to parcel up time like the squares on a quilt, to do this and not that, or to do this while doing that. I dimly recall it, but I’m not looking forward to doing it; I guess that’s where I’m at on this the second day of the new school year.
A funny thing happened yesterday morning. I started reading old blog posts, from 2009/2010, and F and CJ sat down and read along with me. They loved the photos, but they also loved the snippets of dialogue and descriptions of our daily life — adventures in which they played starring roles as 1 and 4 years olds. We were in stitches laughing and remembering. I mean, I’d almost forgotten about our “cooking with kids” experiment, and how we would hold family meetings using a “talking crayon.”
I’d forgotten, too, how openly I wrote about my own writing struggles. This was a quiet and difficult time in my writing career. I was three years away from publishing The Juliet Stories, and five years from having published Hair Hat, at the time, my only book. Yet I shared when I finished a new draft of a manuscript — even though the manuscript would ultimately be sent back to the drawing board by my kind agent. I shared when I felt aimless and unsure. I shared the small joys, too. I didn’t seem afraid to let others see me fail.
I’m much more afraid now, I understand.
Why haven’t I shared my ups and downs since publishing Girl Runner? Why hold my cards so close to my chest? I would like to be as brave as my former self. I would like to tell you when I’m excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published.
I am excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published. It sprung from out of an abandoned idea, and tapped me on the shoulder, and I worked on it in a torrent of concentrated obsession for the past number of months, in locations that seem woven right into the book, in my mind: beside several different soccer fields, sitting in my little white car, or the camping chair I keep in the trunk, or at a windblown picnic table, and in a cool calm classroom in New York State that allowed me to find an ending. I wrote some of the book by hand. I drew cartoons of the main characters. I drew sequences and storyboarded scenes. It was fun. It was super-fun.
And I want to share that with you, whether or not the manuscript is ultimately destined to be published. Because it’s part of the story.
Because the writing felt like play. Because I’ve had a sense of well-being as I’ve worked on this manuscript, and that is a good, good thing. Because I’ve had a sense of spaciousness, of enough, but not too much, these past few months.
Now to go walk the dogs around the block with my Fooey and CJ, who have grown to the enormous ages of 11 and 8. Wow. I love that I can learn from my former self. I love that my kids have this virtual scrapbook to flip through, if and when they’re interested. And I’m glad, glad, glad it’s still summer.
PS Home again. CJ led us in an around-the block heptathlon. He got gold, Fooey got silver, Suzi took bronze. DJ didn’t appear to have Olympic ambitions, and I blame my sandals for my poor showing. That, and the late-afternoon inertia. We were having a grand old time right up until CJ stepped in dog poo (not ours) on the sidewalk, which Fooey found disproportionately amusing, which in turn put CJ into an even worse mood. “This is just a bad day,” he said, although he did take my hand as I tried to cheer him up, to no avail. By the time we reached our back yard, he was so mad that he took off his hat and kicked it into a small tree. The hat-kicking had a salubrious effect on his system. He and Fooey are friends again, and they are playing at the dining-room table with a craft kit dug up from heaven-knows-where that can be used to make miniature cakes and pastries, and probably, also, a major mess. What is this stuff? “It smells terrible,” says CJ. “Don’t worry,” says Fooey. “We’re using it all up.”
I miss my voice.
There are so many common, every day interactions that just aren’t the same without a voice.
I can’t parent very effectively. “Mom whispered sternly at me,” Albus said on Monday, which cracked me up; but as of yesterday, I’m not even whispering. I’m clapping or stamping my feet to get children’s attention. I’m gesturing and writing notes or texts. But mostly I’m just letting things go by, because it takes so much energy to express the smallest idea. It means I’m not speaking my mind, often.
I can’t coach soccer very effectively. Earlier this week, I made it through a practice and a game using the three whs: whisper, whistle and whiteboard. The girls were great, respectful and helpful and understanding, even seeing the humour in our situation, but I can’t get all of the important messages across without a voice.
I can’t lead conversations around the table that draw everyone in, and bring us together as a family.
I can’t talk on the phone (not that I like talking on the phone, but it’s useful).
I can’t make small talk with strangers or kids or parents by the soccer field or people at check-out counters, or say thank you to a friendly swim instructor, or a person who is holding open a door. I can’t make that connection. I can’t start amusing little conversations, stand up for myself in complicated situations, or contribute to shooting the shit. I can’t make light because I can’t noise.
I can’t have long rambling chats with AppleApple as I drive her to soccer games.
I can’t talk to Kevin. We haven’t been able to have our tea-on-the-couch evening catch-up chats, or our dog-walk chats.
I can’t sing.
I can’t do anything social with friends. I’ve missed both runs with friends this week and will miss boot camp with friends tomorrow, all because I can’t talk, and I don’t want to strain my voice by whispering, and I know that if I go I will definitely whisper, because it’s really hard to be silent in situations that require at least a minimum of conventional social interaction.
It’s amazing how forced silence makes me feel as if my behaviour is rude, intransigent, unfriendly, unwelcoming. I’m not to blame for my silence, but my silence makes me feel that I must be to blame. I feel immense guilt for not being able to respond or reach out.
I have been without a voice since Sunday. Only five days, and already I feel more and more invisible, isolated, lonely, self-pitying, discouraged, and down. I am not myself without my voice. What am I learning? Compassion, I hope. Compassion for those in a new place, learning a new language, or silenced by circumstance. Speech is a gift. When speech returns, I’m going to remember how wonderful it is to CONNECT, to be UNDERSTOOD, to ACKNOWLEDGE, to THANK, to ENCOURAGE, to DRAW OUT, to QUESTION, to LEAD.
These blossoms have already bloomed and fallen off the little apple tree in our back yard. I can’t keep up, that is what I’m trying to say. Today, I went for a run at noon and the word relentless came into my mind. I don’t like that word, I thought, running on, enjoying the run, because it was pain-free. Okay, then, what about the word relent, I thought, and no that word did not suit what I was doing, nor what I wanted to do: continue.
On Wednesday night I visited a book club. I visited the book club after a day that included an early morning walk with the dogs; biking to see this daughter at her school track meet; biking to the university library to work between races; biking home for lunch; driving back for the final race of the afternoon in order to take this daughter to piano lessons; driving to pick up youngest and bring him to piano lessons; home in time to eat and quickly clean up from supper; driving this daughter to soccer practice. By the time we were home again, it was almost 8:30. And then I went to the book club. I did not leave until I’d made sure this daughter was collapsing in her bed rather than on the couch. I texted Kevin, who was at a soccer game with another child, to please check in on the kids when he got home. And then I spent an hour at a book club, a warm, friendly, thoughtful, generous group of women. It was 10 when I got home. Tea, snack, finish cleaning up, last load of laundry, bed. I can’t tell you which of these activities I chose to do because I wanted to, and which I felt responsible for doing and therefore simply did.
Up again at 6AM to run with a friend.
It is puzzling. What is it that I want to be doing? I have no idea. I’m so busy doing things that I don’t really have the need to ask that question.
Last weekend, I was here, on Lake Huron, spending one night at a cottage with girlfriends. Same weekend: I led a writing workshop at a nature centre; and got home from the cottage in time to see my thirteen-year-old in a performance of Macbeth (her second production of said play this spring).
Relentless? Relent? At some point, during longer solo runs, a mantra will enter my head in rhythm with my stride. Here was today’s: Powerful strong. Whispering light. A reminder to keep my stride both strong and light.
Relentless/relent. Dig in. Lightly. Continue.
If I were to write a blog post today, I would reflect on the past five days of utter solitude, days during which I rarely spoke out loud; there were several days when I spoke to no one in English. I read, I noodled, I listened to podcasts and surfed the news, emailed Kevin, ate pretty good food, kept to a reasonably regular routine, wrote and edited the museum piece, and went for several runs and many more walks.
I was not bored.
I was not even particularly lonely, except for the morning when I woke up with a raging bladder infection. Good thing I carry antibiotics with me in case of such an occurrence. Yes, that morning I was lonely and in pain and felt far from home and prone to worst-case-scenario thinking, but even that morning, I understood that I was self-sufficient and knowledgeable enough to cope with the unexpected crisis.
During these five days of solitude, I haven’t been lonely, I haven’t been bored, and I haven’t been restless either, not restless of mind or body. The body has taken care of itself. I’ve gone for long walks, and finally on Sunday felt a twinge of anxiety that whispered — you need to sweat! So I went for a run, and ran and ran and ran on the beautiful trail, discovering only afterward that I’d gone nearly 9 km, the longest and least painful run in many many months. Today, I ran again, pushing even further as I could feel my body beginning to trust that it would be okay: nearly 11 km. How joyous it is to run without pain; I’ve been injured for so long that I’d forgotten the joy of pushing against the ordinary discomforts and limitations of a body being asked to run — breath, heart, muscles, endurance. Running with a chronic injury you feel all these limitations, but you feel also a terrible dread that springs from pain from a different source, pain that whispers, Are you doing yourself damage?
For the month of March, my theme was health. This month, it would seem natural to name my theme: travel. But strangely, I think instead it’s: paying attention. The theme has arisen because I am travelling, and also because I am alone. What I’ve been paying attention to are my own interests, whims, rhythms, appetites, and desires. How often in a person’s daily life does an opportunity like this present itself? I’ve fantasized over the years about going on writing retreats in the middle of nowhere, and someone told me about a retreat where you do yoga and ride horses (not at the same time) that sounded fabulous, and a couple of years ago my mom did a silent retreat that intrigued me. But the risks seemed too great (the risk of it being a waste troubled me), especially given the heavy load of responsibility I’d be leaving on Kevin’s shoulders while away. So I never pursued these ideas.
I didn’t pursue this trip, either. It just landed in my lap, and because it was work-related, I said yes.
I thought I was saying yes, in part, to a writing retreat. I was excited to see what I would make with all this free time. (And I’ve made something interesting and specific related to the Museum’s exhibit, but it belongs here, and will stay here.) Why am I not writing my new novel? I thought, as the week went on. I tried, but the words felt dead. Yet the words, here, in my daily meditations and on my blog, these words felt alive. They interested me. And so I’ve been writing after all, just not the material I’d pencilled into the schedule.
Something else happened as the week went on. I stopped panicking about what I was not doing. I stopped worrying about what I should be doing. I started paying attention to what I wanted to do.
I wanted to read. So I’ve been reading: a David Sedaris essay collection (which has a story set in Normandy, as it happens); Ali Smith’s brilliant novel How to be both that somehow merges the world of a 15th century painter with a British teenager from the now, and weirdly also happens to be a book about sitting and looking at paintings, which I did not know when I chose it for this trip; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, on black bodies in Amercian history and the present, which challenged me, moved me to tears, and has inspired me to think differently about Dreamers and Dreams (and he’s going to be in Rouen THIS SATURDAY at the same bookstore where I had an event on Thursday, and I must figure out how to go, because, honestly, how is that even possible?); and now I’m trucking through Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I wanted to write. So I’ve been writing. Mostly things like this. Scraps. Ephemera.
I wanted to rest. So I’ve been resting.
Most of all, it seems, I’ve been resting my mind.
It’s taken exactly 13 days of rest to recognize that I may already be writing what I’m supposed to be writing. I am writing what has come to me, which is all we can ever do, when we’re trying to make something out of what we love and believe.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ve been anxiously searching for purpose down dead ends, without seeing what is open before me. Wide open, like that field at the end of our street when I was a child in Managua, with its dusty path and matted grass and garbage and crumbling concrete walls — the place my mind travelled to when I wrote the phrase: open before me.
I will probably never be content, exactly, with what I’ve made. But maybe, just maybe, I can be content with what I’m doing.
P.S. Just thought of my word of the year: PEACE. Yes.
There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged.
What I’ve enjoyed about this experience in France is being given something to do, an assignment, a commission. It gives me purpose and direction. In my usual writing life, I am the sole source of my purpose and direction. I have to propel myself toward something no one else can see and when the work is done I have to convince people to care. It takes a lot energy. The pleasure of this commission is that I’ve been asked to do something, and I’m doing it, to the best of my abilities. It’s up to the Festival to convince people to care about what I’m making, just as they invented the goal. It takes so much weight off.
My sense, as I’ve worked, is of being at play, in a playful and free state of mind, digging in, like a child with a wad of modelling clay having just been told: go ahead and get messy!
When I am busy and rushing around, I imagine that what I want is to be still, to do nothing. But here I am, today, with nothing pressing to do, well-rested, in a state of quiet and relaxation, and it is almost as if I’ve come to a stop and can’t begin again. The idea that we will get to do whatever we want in our state of needing-to-do-nothing ignores that it is a state that requires some force to exit. I think I sense this in my every day life, that it is easier to keep going than to stop and recalibrate. Now is my chance to recalibrate, now that I am at a stop, and it’s up to me to decide what that means.
Today, I went for a run on the trail by the river where I’ve been walking almost every day. What a good choice it was to run, as I knew it would be. The air was sweet, the wind was cool, it was sunny, I got a good sweat going, I made myself work on some stretches and let myself go easier on others. I heard songbirds, and saw the green popping out faintly on the trees, and my thoughts came calmly and clearly.
I thought about doing rather than thinking. How important it is to do. To do is to be. I’m proudest of myself and most satisfied with my life when I am active, involved, taking risks, in the public space, using my body, along with my mind. My idlest and least productive times have been when I’ve had “all the time in the world,” or “nothing but time.” During those seasons (winter, age 19; fall, age 23), I tried to write and produced nothing; more nothing than at any other time in my life. For example, as soon as I got a job, age 24, I started to write again. Another example: I started to write Hair Hat as soon as I’d given birth to my eldest, but not during the months of relative idleness before. That says to me something quite profound: that my being a writer is not dependent on having grand expanses of free time. It may even be dependent on the opposite, on being squeezed for time because life is so interesting and full, and I’m doing so much, and then in reverence and thanks can I come to a quiet space and write, in a way that feels crucial, important, necessary. If I could go around the planet working on commissions like this, I would; but this is unique, this is grace.
Something came to me while I was running — running past a ramshackle farmhouse with a red attic door and orange brick outbuildings, running past a field of bright yellow blooms, running under a row of fat-trunked trees with bird-shit splattered on the pavement below them — I thought, in order to write I must have something to say, and I’ll only have something to say if I have something to do.
I need to do.
If I want to be the writer that I want to be, I need to do more … but what? … than write.
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