As she comes on stage, the stadium lights up, the plastic rubbery wristbands we’ve slipped onto our wrists suddenly alive and pulsating with colour, to the beat of a song I don’t recognize. There is a collective inhale, a gasp, as we prepare for this spectacle, and recognize its announcement, its arrival.
She is here.
She is wearing sunglasses and a jacket and very high heels. From where we are sitting, high up in the highest, remotest seats of this concrete bunker, she is dollhouse-sized, but her face, her stride, is simultaneously captured and broadcast onto two wide screens that flank the stage. I don’t know the first song: Welcome to New York. But she’s just getting warmed up.
The third song is Style.
She strides down the narrow runway, but doesn’t come quite far enough. It’s like she’s teasing the audience, walking forward and back, but never to the end of the platform that stretches out into the audience below, those who must have paid astronomical fees for their tickets. I want her come to the end of the runway. I wait for her to come all the way down, where we will be able to see her clearly. I think that she is deliberately teasing us, and I am impressed that desire can be invented so easily, so strategically, by the simple act of denial. The semaphores in this show are simple and effective, the narrative clean and crisply delineated.
She takes off her sunglasses, she pulls off the jacket, as if now we will see her for who she is—a doll-like creation of red lips and pale perfect skin and arched brows. She is dressed in black, the outfit cutting across her pale skin, sectioning her up into pieces. I wonder how she can stride the stage in such a short skirt with such confidence.
But is it confidence? I think, but do not say to my daughter, that Taylor Swift is not singing. She is not even doing a particularly good job at lip synching. After having heard the first two performers, both young men, sing and play their guitars with flair and emotion and talent, this is disappointing. I admit to initial disappointment, as she whips off her sunglasses and disrobes before us, and holds the mic at an unlikely distance from her lips, her mouth moving out of synch with the words that are soaring through the air: We’ll never go out of style, we’ll never go out of style.
But I will forgive her for this lapse later in the show. Because the singing is the least of what she is attempting: What she is attempting is the creation of spectacular flashing moments, a montage that tells a story—the story of Taylor—replete with fleeting images, shimmering, an illusion of perfection, an illusion of intimacy, as gutsy as it is implausible. Later in the evening, when she is spinning around in the air at the end of the runway, which has been tilted and raised high up on a mechanical arm, later, when she is being whirled counter-clockwise before us, grounded to the platform by thin wires, playing or fake-playing chords on an electric piano, balancing in her high heels, hair swinging and swooping over her forehead, chased by high-wire cameras, projected onto enormous screens, all while singing into a microphone, I will forgive her for singing over a recorded track, singing only partially. I will admire her willingness to be on display in this feat of daring, and to display for her audience only the most idealized version of her experience of this moment.
Even when she struggles to move the microphone from her hand, where it has been strapped, into a microphone stand, she does not comment on the trouble she is having, she smiles and continues to talk to us about friendship, about how she has an easy way with friends, and can feel as close to someone she’s just met as to someone she’s known forever, if this someone (could we all imagine it is us?) is authentic and trustworthy. Finally, the microphone slides into the stand. She has not burdened us with this technical irritation. She doesn’t complain, she refuses to draw attention to it. The show churns onward, making its own pace.
The plastic wristband warms my wrist oddly, in an electrical manner that disturbs me, but I do not take it off. When we arrived, we found that wristbands were taped to the back of every seat in the stadium. When we first slid the wristbands onto our arms, it seemed almost cultish, all of us willingly submitting to the mysterious plastic band, with no concern for what it might do to us. We trusted implicitly the glossy promises of Taylor Swift, her relentless optimism projected onto the screen before the show began, along with her stories about her cats, whose names my daughter knows. “Really, you know their names?” She shrugs. Sure. As if everyone does.
When the wristbands light up and flash and fill the stadium with a pulsating glow, I willingly wave my arm in the air, as instructed, even though my skin gets hot underneath the plastic, and even though I have to wrap the plastic around my palm to keep it from sliding down under my coat sleeve. The woman next to me, who has also come with her pre-teen daughter, dances wildly in her seat, sings breathlessly, gasping and giggling, while her daughter sits rather rigidly; I catch the girl observing us when I glance in her direction. The woman stops herself sometimes, as if embarrassed, but is again overcome by emotion. She knows the words to every song.
I know the words to three songs.
My daughter knows the words to a few more, but not many. We are here because her dad and I thought it would be an exciting and surprising birthday gift; she had written in a school project last spring that this was one of her dreams, to go to a Taylor Swift concert. That’s something we could actually do! we thought, her dad and I. So. We are here for the show, for the novelty of it, and for Taylor Swift whom we both like, if only abstractly—we turn up the radio when her songs come on and sing along, but our admiration doesn’t go a great deal further. We are here together, witness to what the power of money and imagination can create on a vast stage, for the consumption of a broad audience.
“Hi, I’m Taylor,” she says as she marches down the runway, early in the evening. She sounds nervous, swallowing her words, but even this might be an act.
Because I have so recently been so exhausted after performances on a completely different scale, I wonder at her ability to pull out this magnitude of a performance, night after night. I wonder at her willingness to go on, city after city, show after show. But when she stands at evening’s end to receive the applause ricocheting off the closed stadium roof and the girls’ screaming, I think, how could this not be addictive? How could you not believe the stories being told about you? You are a blank slate for the projections of millions of people, and your words are being sung back to you in unison, and your very body, your very flesh and blood is a recipient of this adulation. You absorb the warmth from all these people, here for you, and you become in this moment as near to being one of the gods as a human can get.
When I first heard the lyrics to Style on the radio, I said to my daughter, “I don’t really like this song. It’s not my favourite.”
“I’m doing a dance to it in gym class,” my daughter said.
“She’s kidding herself if she thinks she’ll never go out of style. Style comes and goes. She’ll be old someday too.”
I might have been missing the point. My daughter might not have been listening.
“Also, it’s such a vapid style she’s describing. ‘I’ve got that good girl thing in a tight little skirt.’ Is that what she’s saying? It sounds like that’s what she’s saying.” It is approximately what she is saying. I look up the lyrics later: “I’ve got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.”
That’s a bit different, message-wise, a bit richer.
But I don’t like songs about good girls, because it’s us against them, good girls v bad girls, and who are the bad girls? What do they do that’s so bad? And what do the good girls do that’s so good, come to think of it? Who is telling them they are good or bad? I also don’t like models for girlhood who teeter in high heels, their exceptionally skinny bodies exposed and hairless. But I do like that this young woman is an extraordinarily powerful presence on the stage, and that she talks to her audience in a way that appears personal, promoting messages of trust, vulnerability, no shame, and strong female friendship.
And I do so very much like that the next morning, after the concert, when my daughter crawls into bed with me, and I say, “What do you think Taylor Swift does when a show is over?,” my daughter says, “Well, she probably has to help take down the stage. And she probably needs to eat something. And maybe take a shower and go to bed. I think she sleeps in a trailer.”
She probably has to help take down the stage.
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
Oh yeah, I’m a month late: this guy graduated from grade eight. Here’s how he looked on the big night. In June.
Last week I had a very Carrie idea, the sort that might make my children wish they had another mother, at least just a little bit. Our eldest doesn’t read much. And I’d noticed that some of my children seemed to have forgotten how to spell since leaving school last month. What to do, what to do? The idea came to me and breathlessly I spat it out! I said I would now be assigning a book report, once a week. Yes, they would have to read at least one book a week and write a report on it, which (I was spitballing here) they would then present to the family, every Sunday evening this summer.
I then dropped the mic and excused myself to go work on my Favourite Mother of All Time acceptance speech. Just in case. Because you never know.
(This comes as such a surprise! I’m in shock, look at me, I didn’t even brush my hair — and am I wearing my nightgown? Yes I am and screw it, who cares!! They love me, they really love me!)
Albus wasn’t so keen on the reading part, especially when I specified that the book must be at or near his actual reading level. As an option, I said he could read a magazine or newspaper article, and he made a lame attempt, flipping through a Chatelaine magazine (he was drawn by the picture of an indescribably scrumptious-looking burger on the front, amusingly, the same picture that had inspired me to buy the magazine in the first place). But nothing spoke to him (really? nothing in a women’s lifestyle magazine speaks to you, young man??), and I wouldn’t let him present on a burger recipe. So he requested a special pardon—could he instead write a story rather than read a book and write a report?
COULD HE WRITE A STORY??!
Ding, ding, ding, the judge says Yes.
Sunday evening. We gather round (most of us in pyjamas, me in my nightgown, as it happens). One by one the kids read out their book reports and stories. CJ reports that he likes a certain picture book called The Candy Conspiracy (his original report read, in total, “I like this book,” but he was pushed to go a bit further) because of the tips, and the Juicy Jelly Worm, and the kids. He did write this all down, so the judges give him a high five.
Fooey doesn’t want her report read out loud. It’s on Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, a book that she couldn’t put down, it was like being swept up in a river, she writes, an inventive metaphor that pleases her mother very much. Printed by hand, three pages long, very tidy writing, and hardly a spelling mistake to be found.
AppleApple reads her report off of her Google Drive account: a thoughtful three-page reflection on Jane Eyre, with particular interest in its religious content and pre-feminist qualities. So yes. She did her homework.
Albus reads an entertaining story he’s composed on the computer about a character who lives in the dishwasher, and who is haunted by a tale told to him by an oldster in the midst—a wooden spoon who has visited the back yard and is certain he’s seen a fox chasing a bear. (The comical part is that from the spoon’s description it’s clear the fox and the bear are nothing more than squirrels.) Well structured, excellent comic stylings, and winning characters; I suspect he put more effort into this than he did into the bulk of his school projects all year, but I am nevertheless beaming with pride.
Kevin reports on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was recommended to him by me—he reads out a passage about education, in which Miss Jean Brodie says that she believes education is meant to draw out from the student what is already in her, while the principal of the school believes education is meant to insert information into the student. Draw out or thrust in?
Discuss. (We discussed.)
I finish with the sad story of Wave, a memoir by a woman who lost her husband, two young sons, and her parents in the tsunami of 2004. The book is about her life after this loss, although it opens with an intensely riveting scene in which they are lost while somehow she survives in this massive sudden wave of destruction. I promise the kids we live nowhere near a tsunami-zone. But I can see that the younger two are quite upset at the thought of a mother losing her children, or her children being lost. Good job, Mom. So perhaps not the best note to end on.
But back to Wave: It is a powerful memoir, if you want to take it on. It isn’t as hard to read as you might imagine. Sonali Derayinagala is a lovely writer. And she carries you right into the void of what it would be like to lose all of the people who make you who you are, most fundamentally. Who is she, without them?
It isn’t a question any of us would want to answer.
Oh dear, I’ve reproduced our evening rather too perfectly. I’ve ended on a downer. I do apologize. Now, keep reading, keep reporting. And get back to me on Sunday.
“We do not want merely to see beauty … we want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see.” – C.S. Lewis (as discovered on Twitter; follow @CSLewisDaily for more quotes)
Today marks the second week of summer holidays. I’ve put over a thousand kilometres onto the little car since Thursday morning. I’ve been across the border, stuck in traffic jams, meandering back roads, standing by soccer fields, hauling various bags, buying food that will keep in the heat, making and executing miniature step-by-step plans to get one kid safely to the places she needs to be at the right times. She is now safely at overnight camp with her sister. I am safely at home, in my office. But I couldn’t keep her entirely safe. Her team made the final at the tournament, but she was injured in their third game in a bad fall. This is parenting one doesn’t want to have to do: watching from the far side of the field as a medic checks out your kid, then, after the game, helping your kid understand and accept that she likely won’t be able to play for the rest of the tournament. We need to think long-term, the parent says, and the kid says, I really want to play! Maybe if I rest it overnight and ice it and … Yes, maybe, but, says the parent, taking the long view, knowing that injuries will happen in contact sport and a week or two of rest will pass in a flash, while an injury worsened by poor management could dog a player for weeks, months, more …
So she cheered her teammates from the bench in their fourth game on Saturday afternoon. She woke yesterday morning optimistic, and dressed for the match. Her coach let her play a few minutes in the final game, but she ran like she was stiff and in pain, so he decided, wisely, not to put her back on again. I was relieved. She understood. The long-view won the day.
Here’s part of what I wrote on Saturday morning, waiting for that third game to begin, the one in which she was injured, when I didn’t know she would be; I hadn’t read the C.S. Lewis quote, above, yet, either. But I think I was choosing to write for the very reason Lewis pinpoints: to be united with the beauty we see (if we go looking for it).
In Ohio. I sit in a collapsible chair behind my car in the shade on a warm morning, the fourth of July. It’s Independence Day in the United States, and I seem to be in a quintessentially American scene: wide blue sky, gravel parking lot, trucks and cars lined up, not neatly but askew, claiming space, because there is so much space, and just beyond the short grassy hill, a highway off-ramp. Noisy, constant noise of engines turning as they veer past on the other side of the guardrail. In the gravel lot, dust balloons when a car zooms by looking for a parking spot. I’ve returned to the same spot where we parked yesterday, just under a clump of bushes with pale green leaves flecked with tiny white spots that look like a fungus, an invasive disease, not native to the plant’s patterns. The breeze moves the speckled leaves. Wildflowers have pushed through the gravel near my feet, like flowers that belong in a desert, sparse pale purple blooms with spiked centres.
A man sits in a convertible opposite me, and talks on his cellphone, shaded under a ball cap. I choose not to look too often in his direction, although we must both see each other. Parked to his left is a junked-out abandoned trailer home with the brand-name Tag-A-Long on its faded front above a vented window, which has blue sheet insulation propped against it from the inside. The trailer’s hitch is rusted red and green, deep dirty brown-red, metallic green, a beautiful shade of green richer than emeralds, but what does it mean, to beautifully mark an abandoned object? What does it mean to flower in a parking lot? What does it mean to sit by a highway and write about the gravel scattered underfoot, embedded loosely into the clay-like dirt, pale ochre dirt, pale grey and white stones, some so small they are almost granular, worn down to sand?
“I’m gonna go now,” says the man in the convertible, on his phone, but he doesn’t. This is the way of conversations. You state that you are finished, but you don’t unstick yourself, not quite yet. You laugh. “You didn’t say that,” you say, and chuckle. A large 4 x 4 Ford pickup kicks up dust between us. The rumble from the cars on the off-ramp obscure what might be said, if I were closer and could overhear this half of a conversation.
I see a Canadian flag flapping on a truck down at the end of the lot, near field 14 where my daughter’s team will play their second game today. Beyond that, taller than the trees, are signs advertising gas stations and fast food restaurants. The street lights above the off-ramp look like objects from outer space, as you might imagine an alien spaceship to look, with lights suspended inside bright shiny metal pods like six vast aluminum mixing bowls, upside-down, and affixed around a slender pole, way up high, like cake tins stabbed onto pointy spikes high up in the sky.
What happens when you sit and write? You see differently, you fall down inside of yourself and go quiet and you receive whatever passes by, whatever dust and stray information and overheard conversation passes by, you reach up into the air and pluck it like fruit, ripe or unripe, doesn’t matter, you’re hungry for information.
It’s true. I was hungry. And in a gravel parking lot beside an on-ramp, I found some measure of satiation.
May you be united with the beauty you see.
I know he looks awesome, like a wild child, but he couldn’t see to play the piano, or soccer, and he absolutely refused to wear a headband or a ponytail of any kind–even the kind called a “man-bun” (why?!)–and even though his sister told him he looked “adorable,” after which she privately and with squeaky delight told me “he looks like a sweet little girl!” Anyway. What you can’t see are the snarls and dreadlocks. After his first soccer game, during which he really couldn’t see, he agreed to a summer cut, which he can grow out as long as he likes until next summer, when we will reassess again.
I mean, it’s not like he isn’t perfectly wonderful either way. He just looks a little more clean-cut than we’re used to.
For some reason, I also wanted to write briefly about our funny drive, yesterday evening, to see AppleApple’s play, with a car packed full of children. AppleApple was already at the theatre, and we were ferrying her three siblings, plus two friends, a boy and a girl, who were seated (unfortunately for them!) on either side of Albus, who had decided at the very last minute that he might need a snack to sustain him through the performance, and who had therefore brought along a plastic bag into which he’d stuffed two pieces of chicken/mushroom pizza. The entire drive was a comical, looping exchange, mostly between Albus and me, regarding the pizza-eating plan. Would he eat it now? Mightn’t he get pizza sauce on the people seated next to him, both dressed very nicely? Or even on himself, dressed rather less nicely? Or would he sneak it into the theatre for a mid-play nosh? (What? No!) But look–he’d conveniently brought along a plastic bag for sneaking purposes, he could tuck it under his shirt. Or would he eat it while walking from the parking garage to the theatre? Both pieces or just one? How hungry was he, exactly? Why? Why the pizza? Why now?
I think AppleApple’s friends were at least mildly amused by his antics, which certainly gave shape to the conversation for the whole drive. Something about the scene summed up for me what it means to have a teenager around: kid inventing his own fun out of a situation he doesn’t particularly want to be in, and parents not really getting what’s going on and being mildly amused/mildly annoyed by the whole scenario. Anyway, I wanted to remember it. So there you have it, for the record. He turns 14 in a week and a half. (I also cut his hair on Friday after school, but he doesn’t like me taking photos of him anymore. So that’s a photo of AppleApple mugging for the audience as the play was about to start–with her French horn, which she played beautifully to open the show.)
I’m trying to get more organized, she told me this morning. To which I replied, I think you’re already pretty amazingly organized. Even if you forget your shoes at school sometimes.
She performed three times at the Kiwanis music festival this week, placing in every category. This required months of work to learn, then memorize, then master the intricacies of each song, not to mention to perform under pressure. Yesterday, she handed in a major school project she’s been researching and writing for months (on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the subject she chose). Next weekend she’s performing in a play, representing several months’ commitment to rehearsals. And she continues to play/practice soccer several times a week, and will start refereeing games this month. I think she’s also singing/playing ukulele with friends at a school coffeehouse. How she’s not curled up in a fetal position in a corner somewhere is beyond me. Instead, she seems pretty chilled out. I would swear she’s having fun. If she looks a little nervous in the photo above, it’s because it was taken right before her first performance on Monday. She was a little nervous. (So was I.)
Here’s what I’d like to say to her. Yes, you’re a bit scatter-brained sometimes. Sometimes you tune everything out and daydream. This can be annoying when the bus is waiting for you, or it’s past bedtime. But I think you’re plenty organized. You see the big picture. You know how to get where you’re going, and that it takes patience and steady effort. You also seem to know what matters: all of the steps along the way. So how about this: You keep doing what you’re doing. And I’ll help you remember your shoes.
PS But even I am not so organized as to iron your shirt…
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