Write a love letter to someone you do not know.
Dear child playing the piano behind the closed door,
I can’t hear your voice, only your teacher’s, and she accompanies your ragged efforts with a determined tone, as if her words will pull from you the correct notes and rhythms. I stand and casually walk past the closed door, peeping through the narrow rectangle of glass, into a room that isn’t exactly how I would have imagined it: larger, and with more light. It has always sounded like you are playing in a dark closet. I glimpse you in this stolen way. You are older than I’d imagined, a young teen with hair cropped short into a pageboy cut; you might even be a boy rather than a girl, as I’d assumed. How can I write a love letter to someone I cannot see?
I sit again, and listen intently to the music you are making with your fingers. You keep a patient beat, hesitating as you try to read the notes you have failed to practice at home. I know this sonatina, by Muzio Clemente, one of my favourites as a young musician. You start, you pause, you try again. You have a dogged patience to your persistence, a haphazard understanding of what you’re trying to achieve, but a willingness to go on.
As I turn the page, you lose the beat altogether, and your teacher steps in to direct you, her tone not patience but not unkind. She sings along. She claps. She makes counting noises to pull you onward, and for a little stretch, here, it is only her, and you pause as if unable to continue. The song seems to grow longer and longer, and I wonder if you will ever finish it. You were wearing a white and grey t-shirt on this hot day, your face bent away from the door, as you perched on the piano bench and watched your teacher gaze at your music, which she was holding in her hands. On a chair nearby, your school backpack.
You have reached a form of conclusion, though I’m not sure it’s yet the end, and your hands crash out two chords — smash, smash — after which you continue on, your fingers chopping at the keys, dragging yourself toward the end, which requires a trill to complete. “And that’s a sharp,” the teacher reminds you, and you try to trill a second time, then stagger into the real end, the one we’ve all been waiting for.
You whack at the finishing chords. They are not the correct chords.
“What key are you in right now?” asks your teacher, and you are forced to backtrack, to begin to take another crack at this ending, again.
Have you practiced this song, this week? Are you sight reading the notes and hoping the teacher won’t notice? What are your expectations for yourself? Do you enjoy playing the piano? Does this song speak to you, or is it like a truculent closed mouth, a turned head, an impenetrable mystery whose meaning is contained behind the closed door, and which even your teacher cannot illuminate for you, though she tries, a scene you might remember when you’re older, much older, with some fondness, and, even, then, regret.
Write while listening to music.
Sept. 29 Listening to music at half time, Jacob Hespeler High School, to the pounding of basketballs on wood, to the squeak of shoes; Eminem, but I don’t know which song. The music, the moment. Pounding rising beat and intensity. The girls huddle up and shout their little cheer. Music’s over. Game on.
The music is still in my head as I stare into space during a time out. It makes me feel excited, determined, pumped up. Cliches. How to express the whirling sensation in the blood, under the skin, like a flame licking kindling, burning up that dry wood, these old dry bones have life in them yet. I am exactly the wrong age. Not old enough for wisdom, not young enough for spirit.
Write while listening to music.
Oct. 3 At the Beckett school of music. From behind closed doors, a cacophony of voices, instruments, songs, chords, melodies. A piano teacher sings along with her student, “One, two, three, four, One two three four, One two and three four.” Further away, the sounds of a piano being played by expert hands, a fluttering waterfalling of notes rippling over the keys.
From behind the nearest closed door, the one behind which my daughter is playing her violin, a lively piano bubbles up, chirpy in tone, and then her violin bites into the opening bar — a tango. She is slightly off-key. They march together, piano and violin, and suddenly the counting goes awry and they stall out, confused, and I can hear their voices trying to sort it out. Two competing pianos now pound at each other with the violin dancing its sprightly tones. Both pianos stop at once. The pianist behind the other door stumbles and hesitates, chopping out a four-beat march in a minor key, stopping and starting, a herky-jerky effect. At a patch of confidence, the speed increases. Then stops.
I hear again the rippling of notes from somewhere far away, rolling, rolling, effortlessly, decoratively.
On the drive here, I could not countenance the thoughts crossing my tired mind; listening to a song on the radio, a brand-new lively pop song that tormented me with its worn-out familiarity. My eyes could scarcely focus and I said, I can’t be this tired all the time. Because the thoughts wandering into my mind and tapping with some irritation on the bones of my skull, were saying, I can’t bear art. I can’t bear how profoundly it can fail to do its job. I can’t bear the necessity of selling it for survival. I can’t bear to make it. Elena Ferrante has been stalked for months so as to rip her from anonymity and I can’t understand why, can only see the pain of it, and how necessary her invisibility to her work.
All of this music sounds like the cacophony in my head, the crossed wires, and missed connections. The random pairings of discordant melodies and misshapen chords, the staggering array of possibilities that is yet, as yet, and possibly forever, incoherent. I can’t make sense of it. I can’t strip it down and hold its many shapes and piece them together again. I can’t bind it in place. I can’t even hear it. My powers are waning, if ever they were waxing, and I fear what I cannot do and I fear the effort wasted. Yet I can’t stop writing. I’m still writing. No matter the unthreading it leaves in its wake.
I think I was always a little bit afraid of David Bowie. I was afraid of his many guises, his shape-shifting abilities, his restlessness, the enormity, the almost-dangerous energy of his creative fervour. I’m a no-make-up low-key woman who has never quite understood the appeal of punk or glam-rock; I prefer my world stripped down to the bones, rather than glammed up. So, his work made me a little bit afraid, I think, even if I found much to admire in his seemingly infinite curiosity and innovation.
This video, Lazarus, was made while he was dying and aware that he was dying; it was made while he was continuing to be himself — a creative genius — and to inhabit himself fully, as he was, throwing himself openly in to the arms of creation. I look at him in this video and I am afraid, but I am meant to be afraid, I am unsettled, but I am meant to be unsettled, I am in grief, and I am meant to be in grief, I am moved, I am horrified, I am worried for him, I am filled with thanks and sorrow. He lets us see him weak and dying, blind and shackled by illness, he lets us see him afraid, working feverishly until the end, drugged, in the grip of the desire to make more and more and more, and he lets us see him dancing, briefly, and then he goes away and shuts the door. He has to let us see him at his worst, at his weakest, in order for us to know him, believe in him, trust him, come with him.
What is art?
I want to know, and I think about this constantly, and perhaps all the more right now as I invite others to come create with me. How tempting it is to define art by what pleases us, individually, personally; or even to define art by what we cannot do ourselves, but admire.
What is art?
It isn’t that art is anything, it’s that it can be anything. It involves the shaping of life and experience, of image, of idea, into something that speaks beyond itself. For example, walking to meet the kids after school is not art. But if I write a poem about walking to meet them, or a story, or I photograph the small details I’m seeing on that walk and create a collage or meditative post on the blog, or I stop to mark each corner by laying a painted stone, or the children and I create a dance to mark the walk and perform it as we’re walking home from school — this is art. We’ve altered and interpreted an experience. We’ve tried to express how it makes us feel; or we’ve asked someone to look differently at their own similar experience; or we’ve challenged or upset the experience in some way, we’ve caused a disruption, we’ve called for attention. We’ve broken the routine, deliberately.
What is art?
It is comfort. It is disruption. It is an answer, but more often it is a question. It is personal. It is political. When we create, when we make something, we make ourselves vulnerable, there is no denying that risk is involved. If you watch David Bowie’s last video, you see this truth laid bare, and you see how intrinsic vulnerability is to the process of creating art. It is a scary thing to do. Sometimes, it’s a scary thing to watch or witness, too.
I believe it takes practice and discipline to make art; that, too. And those who pursue their art at the highest level of focus and craftsmanship, like David Bowie did, will work enormously hard to learn their craft, hone their skills, test their vision, challenge themselves through professional collaboration, and practice, practice, practice. What is practice? It means to do, doesn’t it. It implies commitment, repetition, but it also means you just show up and do the thing you’re practicing. So, on a fundamental level, I think, what it takes to make art is a simple willingness to try, to experiment, to take what may be a single, tentative step in the dark, into the unknown.
So often, we stop ourselves by judging what we’re doing, and by comparing what we’re doing to what others are doing. Yes, comparison can be instructive; we all learn from those more skilled and knowledgeable. But I think the point of how David Bowie lived his life is that comparison is much more often pointless, and not only pointless, but destructive — creatively destructive. Comparison either diminishes or elevates what you’ve made; and in some strange way, has nothing to do with what you’ve made, why you’ve made it, where it comes from. What pours forth from you? What pours forth from you at this precise moment in time? Nobody but you can create what you can. To create is to embrace what you’ve got inside you, even while you let it out, let it go, let it take shape in the world.
Anyone can do this. In any variety of ways. What you make might not be polished, it might be very humble indeed, it might be raw, it might not make perfect sense, it might not match the vision in your head. But here it is, you’ve made it. You’ve arrived, you’ve departed.
“The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” -David Bowie
Today, I want to write about the little things. Little things that might seem unimportant because they’re not on any to-do list, they’re not responsibilities. Little things that might seem incidental in a bigger picture, not the heart of any day, but the flavour. Little things that give me a little peace. I’m knee-deep in marking and have to stay on schedule, so this is not what I should be doing, but I’m going to make a list of “little things” to mark this particular moment in time. At other moments, I might put other things on this list. But today, now, here is what’s given me a little peace recently.
Playing the piano. Either my own improvised noodling around, or sight-reading cheesy Christmas songs, or accompanying my ten-year-old during her violin practice.
Crafting. I know, weird, right? Not my usual thing. But I’ve gotten into a latch-hooking project, initiated by my ten-year-old (who loves her crafts). Same child also initiated an ornament-making craft-time this weekend, and everyone in the family got involved. My personal fave are the Trudeau ornaments, crafted by my thirteen-year-old (who has a new haircut, very stylish, if I do say so myself; I gave both my teenagers haircuts recently, which is another kind of craft, in a way, I suppose).
Walking the dogs. I’m running very little right now due to injury, but I’ve found surprising peace in walking the dogs before bedtime, or on an early weekend morning when the neighbourhood is quiet. The pace is gentle. The dogs amuse me.
Swimming. To replace the running. Monday was my first day, and I went with my swim coach, who also happens to by my thirteen-year-old daughter. She should be your swim coach too. Our session was as tough as a boot camp. She’s demanding, encouraging and kind, and smart about correcting technical flaws in my stroke. (She also coaches Kevin and her younger sister on Thursday mornings. So this is a little thing many of us in the family are enjoying right now.)
Coaching. Right now, I’m coaching my fourteen-year-old’s indoor futsal team (similar to soccer), and I’m volunteering with my ten-year-old’s soccer team, too. I love working with both groups of kids — the teenaged boys and the younger girls. I’ve been practicing my deeper coach’s voice around the house, and every practice or game is another opportunity to learn something new, or put some new concept into practice (for me, and for them). It’s the perfect activity for a person with a growth mindset outlook. We can always get better! Hurray!
Writing. I haven’t had a lot of writing time, recently, so I’ve been taking my laptop to basketball and soccer practices at which I’m not involved. Earplugs in. Sweet vanishing into another world.
Stretching. My body needs to stretch, loves to stretch. I’ve been squeezing in a few yoga classes.
Reading. A couple of days ago, I thought I had a few free minutes. Ever have those moments? When you think, how strangely wonderful that I should have nothing to do? So I sat in front of the fire devouring Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name. I was so relaxed, so blissful — so blissfully forgetting that in fact I did have something to do. This strangely wonderful moment had been brought to me by a memory lapse. I’d forgotten to pick up my youngest at school; friends had to help out; and I felt embarrassed and somewhat shamed for my parenting lack as I jogged along the sidewalk, late, late, late. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wish for more of those rare “free” minutes for daytime reading.
All for now. Please comment if you have “little things” that give you a little peace, too.
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 is a week of transition, of return to routine. Our evenings are relatively quiet for most of the month, thankfully, as the soccer season ends and gives us a respite of a few weeks. This is good, because the kids are tired. And grumpy. (Oh yeah, I’m tired too.) Meanwhile, I want to keep track of what’s working, what’s changed, and what habits we’ve carried over from summertime.
Music practice: This happened quite rarely over the summer, when everyone takes a break from lessons. Lessons started this week, and so did regular practicing. AppleApple makes her own schedule and sticks to it, mostly practicing immediately after school (piano and French horn; no cello this year, as orchestra has been removed from her class’s curriculum, sadly). Fooey and CJ practice before school (violin and piano, respectively). Fooey goes first, and I accompany her on piano when she requests it. CJ is in his second year of piano and needs me nearby to help with finger positioning, musical details, and, mostly, moral support … and the will to continue. Yesterday, I tried combining his practice time with some light exercise (for me) because, frankly, it’s quite tedious to hang around calling out “quarter note!” and “check your hand position” and “sounds like a sharp!” (I am my father, good grief). Anyway, that whole exercise/musical instruction combo didn’t really work. I kept having to drop the kettle bell mid-lift and those things don’t drop well. Tangent alert, post-tangent. Sorry.
Chores: I have a list on the chalkboard of the kids’ chore categories: Dogs; Laundry; Dishwasher; Garbage; Set and Clear Table. Let’s break it down.
Dogs: AppleApple is supposed to feed the dogs. But they’re eating fancy food after a (let’s not talk about) bout of stomach woes, so Kevin has been doing that. She is also supposed to walk them from time to time, which happens occasionally. Fooey is supposed to keep their water bowls full. That happens only when I notice and remind her. She does clean the fish bowls regularly, however.
Laundry: I wash and dry a load or two (or three!) of laundry every day. Each of us have a labelled basket in the basement into which our clean laundry can be sorted. It’s each individual’s job to carry his or her basket upstairs and fold and put the laundry into drawers. Sorting the laundry into the baskets is the kids’ job. CJ is too small to sort effectively, so he is in charge of folding and putting away the leftovers that don’t have individual baskets: dishtowels, napkins, etc. A penalty is applied if the laundry is very poorly sorted: this requires oversight and judgement on my part. After all, even I have trouble figuring out whose underwear is whose. (The penalty is to have to sort the laundry again the next day, rather than it moving on to whoever is next in the line-up.) I also don’t pick up dirty laundry from the kids’ bedroom floors: if it gets in the hamper, it gets cleaned. This takes a great deal of restraint on my part. I hate seeing dirty clothes piling up! But I’m doing it for the team.
Dishwasher: Each kid has a designated quadrant of the dishwasher to empty. In summer, the rule was the dishwasher had to be emptied by 11AM; if you forgot, you emptied the whole dishwasher yourself the next day. I must say this method of setting child v child was enormously effective. Fooey in particular would gleefully announce at 11:01 that so-and-s0 had forgotten. On week days during the school year, the dishwasher has to be emptied before school.
Set and Clear Table: We’d meant for this chore to be shared equally, with the boys setting the table and the girls clearing every evening. But that never happened. Instead, what’s happened is that I ask whichever child happens to be around to set the table, hang the unfairness and griping. And everyone carries his or her plate to the kitchen after eating. It’s not much, I admit, but it’s better than nothing.
Garbage: Albus is supposed to sort the recycling, and carry the bins in from the curb on garbage day. That did not happen much over the summer, and I forgot to remind him about the bins when he got home from school yesterday. Yes, the thing about chores is, people need reminders until it becomes habit.
Breakfasts: We’re aiming for high protein breakfasts to get everyone off to a good start. Kevin is making a giant pitcher of smoothie in the morning: fruit, yogurt, kefir, almond milk. I’m also keeping boiled eggs in the fridge for breakfasts, lunches, or snacks.
Lunches: Albus and AppleApple have been packing their lunches for awhile now — it’s habit. Fooey decided to start this year too. She has been working on her “knife skills,” and can now slice up an apple like a pro. (On day one, the apple looked like it had been hacked apart with a hatchet.) I get the kids to write food requests on our grocery list, posted on the fridge. Anyone know where to find seaweed snacks for cheap? Everyone loves them!
Suppers: Our current routine involves me and Kevin texting back and forth around 3:30/4PM with meal ideas. Kevin can pick up ingredients on his way home. Obviously, these last-minute meals tend to be quick and easy. Last night we made pad thai with shrimp and tofu; it took us under an hour, and that was all we served, literally a vat of pad thai. Side note: Albus is excellent at making meal suggestions (that’s the hardest part of meal planning, IMO: trying to think up something different/healthy/appealing to feed everyone every single gosh-darn day). I also really like the Cookstr website for recipes, and I sign up for their weekly email newsletter, which is frequently inspiring.
Homework: This applies less to the younger kids, but Albus started high school this week, which comes with more homework and tests. He also gets home from school relatively early. I’m encouraging him to take the opportunity to do homework immediately on arriving home: grab a snack, sit at the dining room table, enjoy the quiet house. AppleApple sets her own daily/weekly/monthly homework schedule, and is diligent about making plans and sticking to them.
Exercise: I plan to continue running two mornings a week with friends, and doing one early morning boot camp, and one kundalini yoga class. I would love to swim one morning a week with AppleApple, but I’m not sure either of us can manage the early hour. I’d also like to run on the weekends and do a hot yoga class once a week. AND I’d like to start a mini running club with my kids (and any friends who would want to join), after school, running around our block in a 1-kilometre loop, so kids could decide individually how far they wanted to go. For this to happen, I will need to schedule times and dates.
In fact, for anything to happen, it must be scheduled. Inertia is a powerful force in our daily lives. Advance scheduling is the antidote. (I’m not against spontaneity, you understand; but the truth is that I’m far more likely to spontaneously watch a show on Netflix or scroll through my Twitter feed than I am to, say, go on a nature hike with my kids after school, or catch up on work-related emails, or grab two hours for myself to do yoga. You know? You know.)
And I’ve now spent well more than 15 minutes blogging … a spontaneous blogging spree. This will have to last a few days.
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