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.
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.
I realize, coming into my office this morning, that my reading life is a mirror for my actual life, and at the moment both appear scattered, reflective of broken or partial attention. I have never in my life had so many half-read books stacked all around me, on my bedside table, the dining-room table, a stool in my office, in my purse (the big one), on the staircase. Here is a list:
On the stairs, with the intention of being carried up to the bedside table (already totteringly tall): Elena Ferrante’s My Days of Abandonment, abandoned early on; American War, by Omar Al Akkad, which I started yesterday while sitting on these very stairs.
On my bedside table (this includes only the books at the top of the pile): Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which I was enjoying, but that was last month, and I’ve only just remembered that I was reading it; Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, of which I read the last few chapters, then tried to start at the beginning, probably a mistake. Both of these are buried under the Rachel Carson biography, not yet finished—my interest waning, perhaps unfairly, with her growing success.
Beside me in the office on my rocking chair, we find Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. The folded-down page corner informs me that I’m mid-way through, but as I skim through chapters apparently already read, I realize how little I’ve retained and long to read them again, as if gazing upon fresh material. Also on the rocking chair, tucked into my purse (the big one): The Middleman, by Bharati Mukherjee.
Over here on the stool, on the other side of my desk: Monstress, by Lysley Tenorio; In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniel Mueenuddin; Etger Keret’s Suddenly, A Knock on the Door; and Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes.
Out there on the dining-room table: Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, with a pretty red ribbon repurposed as a bookmark, denoting where I stopped in the middle of story (almost impossible to manage, given that so many of her stories are breathtakingly brief). Also on the table, Destination Unstoppable, by Maureen Monte, bought after hearing her interviewed on a sports podcast, thinking it might make me a better soccer coach; but it’s a self-published book with the obvious self-published problem of not having been edited, a flaw that kills the transmission of most decent ideas, at least those presented in book-form.
Is that all? I also have some re-reading to do for my creative writing class, and 125 poems to read, comment on and somehow apply marks to, as of tomorrow at midnight.
In the bathroom, there are New Yorker magazines with many half-read articles marked with folded pages. On my phone, I have access to even more articles, including in-depth ones that I want to read, such as an interview with Lydia Davis in the Paris Review (see book waiting on the dining-room table).
Rare photo evidence of this child reading a book.
What of this is my addled brain retaining? I dip in, with pleasure and surprise, images flicker through my brain, some hold, briefly alight; and I am interrupted, pulled back out. What am I accumulating to use, to inform, to enjoy?
Where is the through-line in this mess of partially digested images and voices? What am I keeping? What does this tell me about my life, right now?
The deeper I get into this current phase in my life — call it middle age, maybe — the closer I come to an understanding of what it means to be at peace with all these elements and circumstances within a life that cannot be changed. So much that envelopes me right now can’t be shifted. Some things are consequences of choices I’ve made and responsibilities willingly adopted. But others are like the weather — unpredictable and impossible to alter by will or imagination or self-deception.
If it’s raining, it’s raining. You can bring an umbrella and wear rain boots, and that will help, but you can’t by prayer or wishful thinking or desire alter the fact that it is raining. Sometimes you didn’t know it would be raining and you don’t even have an umbrella. This happens too. So life is often about rolling with what’s coming at you — the unexpected — and often it’s the hard kind of unexpected, not the exciting kind.
People you love will suffer, do suffer — and you will suffer when someone you love is hurt or sick or struggling, especially when you feel responsibility of care. There isn’t a solution to this. You can’t not love just because you will suffer too, in loving others in their suffering. Love is love. You have to accept that you can’t fix everything. You have to know what makes you feel comforted, what brings you peace and hope and even joy, and you have to do those things as often as you can. And you have to be prepared to change course quickly, to let the shape of your expected day be shifted by what is happening before you. Resistance in this regard is worse than futile — it will become resentment so fast.
If you can do this, even at the end of a challenging rainy day, you may find yourself saying, This was a good day. Because it was.
Blank. I sit before the screen, blank. My thoughts are with people I care about, people I love, people who are facing an illness that everyone fears: cancer. Cancer is so much more prevalent than it once was, it seems. Or maybe cancer existed in greater numbers than was spoken of, once; there was a time when cancer marked a person with shame, though that makes no sense to me. Cancer used to be like Voldemort: a word too terrible to speak. People hid it, kept it secret. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Now, everyone knows someone who has cancer. Most of us probably have close friends or family whose lives have been changed by cancer. It’s a presence in our landscape, it’s almost a place. It has its own geography, its own language, its own time zone.
In my own life, cancer has visited people I love, people very close to me. One of my brothers survived childhood cancer. You’d never know it, now. But I’m sure he knows it. We know it. When he turned forty, it seemed like a dream, a wonderful ordinary dream. I thought about how many other children, treated in his era, were not so fortunate. I thought of the loss to their sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends.
Cancer opens question marks in a life. The unknown looms. What will happen? How long do I have? What do I need/want to get done here on earth? What’s urgent, what matters, and what’s superficial, what can I cast off? But the question marks are always there, have always been there, we’re just not thinking about them. I want to think about them. Life is precious. This is a statement both banal and cliched; and completely absolutely heartbreakingly true. Life is always precious. It seems all the more precious when we’re made aware of how fragile life is. Tough, but fragile. Because life isn’t ours to hold onto. Life is a gift. I think of this New Yorker story about super-rich tech men who are building bunkers in the American desert, preparing to survive nuclear war or some other human-made disaster, and I think: What arrogance, to imagine that you can control what will happen to you; what a waste of resources, splurged on the self. This is how you want to spend your numbered days? All the money in the world can’t buy you immortality. You are mortal, as we all are, you are made of flesh and blood.
So, what to do? What to do, sitting here, feeling blank, feeling angry, feeling afraid, staring at this screen, knowing most piercingly that life is precious, that today is precious, that this hour is precious? I don’t know, any more than anyone else. It is not only life that is precious, it is time, our measure of life. Time is a luxury. Time passes, and we pass through time. Today, I will bake a birthday cake for a nine-year-old. I’ve already wrapped a few carefully chosen presents for him. I’ve walked him partway to school. We hugged at home, but he did not want a hug when we said goodbye on the sidewalk. Today, I will write for awhile and draw for awhile. Today, I will play on a soccer field with a group of lively eleven and twelve year old girls. Today, I will eat cake and watch an excited boy blow out candles, make a wish, open gifts.
I will wish for presence given to the task at hand, each one in turn. Every minute, poured into the task of love and care, patience, devotion, hope, joy, even grief, even that. Whenever I am discouraged, I take a really deep breath. Whenever I am afraid, I take a really deep breath. Life is precious. Breathe deep. Life is a gift. Breathe deep. Right now, today, this hour, life seems like a wonderful and ordinary dream, for which I give thanks.
P.S. I want to add to these reflections after reading two obituaries in the Globe and Mail newspaper today, one about Penelope Reed Doob, a scholar of dance and literature, the other a personal memory about Richard Wagamese, a Canadian-Ojibway writer. Penelope Reed Doob was not only a scholar, but also did medical research, founding a company involved in finding a cure for HIV/AIDS in the late-1980s/early-1990s. “I wanted to save lives,” she is quoted as saying. “However, I eventually wondered what I was keeping people alive for. I thought that dance was one reason why people should enjoy life.” The piece about Richard Wagamese recalls his story about a librarian who helped him when he was homeless. “She opened the world for him. He told us that the librarian taught him to read, see, hear and feel through everything she introduced to him.”
What connects the dots between these thoughts and my reflection, above? To state that life is precious, that it is a gift, is the most obvious of observations. It’s almost too basic. Life must also be worth living—a worth that is felt and experienced. What makes life worth living? For Penelope Reed Doob, it was dance, it was art. For Richard Wagamese, it was also art, music, books, education. For me, it’s play, art, words, creating, sharing, good food, the list goes on and on. There is surviving and there is living. Living should not be a luxury, available only to the privileged or the lucky.
That is all.
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