artwork by me, concepts by Iain McGilchrist
I will be brief, of necessity.
The concussion is taking its time to heal and screens seem to cause the greatest difficulty. Email is next to impossible, and I cannot compose at length on-screen; please excuse my absence here and elsewhere. In fact, I am approaching this as a gift rather than a curse, and I am writing often in my notebook, and drawing, and reading off the page. I am living offline. This could be a new year’s resolution. But I don’t do new year’s resolutions. Instead, I choose a word of the year.
Last year’s word was PEACE. I loved the word. I used it often. I needed it, but also I lived it. In a sense, my approach to this concussion has embodied my understanding of peace, as I’ve lived it. I haven’t fought what’s happened. I’ve been at peace (largely) with the changes it has necessitated. I’ve been grateful for many small wonders every day. For some reason — maybe concussion-related — I’ve been more sensitive to small changes in light and noise, in ways that I stop and appreciate. Today, I watched as the dim afternoon light that was falling across our dining-room table rippled in rhythm with a helicopter that was passing across the sky, out of my view; I couldn’t’ see it, but I could hear it, and I could see the pattern of its disturbance in the light.
Yeah, that’s probably due to the concussion.
My word of the year for 2017 is STAND. I announce it without fanfare, because the clock is ticking (literally; I’ve put a 10-minute timer on this post).
I’ve chosen STAND because it chose me. Here’s why, I think. This year ahead seems likely to be one that will call for protest, and for taking a stand. I am not brave, as I have said before, and this is not a natural posture for me, but I believe that as a writer and artist my work is to stand for something greater than myself. I believe that my stories, my efforts, must come from a grounded place, and that in order to create I must be solid inside myself “like a plant is solid in the ground.”
artwork by my 14-year-old daughter, words by Rumi
Time’s up. If you’re doing a word of the year, please share in a comment, below.
I am not brave.
All around me, on every side, I see people taking a stand, even against storms of anger and doubt, willing to throw themselves into the fray, defending their beliefs, being harassed and called out and challenged. I see people whose belief is powerful enough to carry them through the storm, they can ride their belief like a winged creature. What would it feel like to believe in something, in anything, with such conviction? I am not brave. I do not have the courage of my convictions. I am ashamed. I stand on nothing, I have no inner core of righteousness, no ballast in the storm, I seem to be blank where I should have rage, faith, outrage, certainty. I have no certainty.
My parents divorced when I was an adult. This was harder than it may have seemed, because as an adult, shouldn’t I have been capable of forming opinions and being strong and rational? I was not capable. I remember pacing in my kitchen, trying to make a very specific decision, and knowing that any decision I made would hurt someone I loved, even the decision to make no decision. Any decision or non-decision, any action or non-action, would be interpreted as taking a side, declaring allegiance, and all I wanted to do was to love both of my parents for who they were, separately, without causing harm to the other. All I wanted to do was to give them both the benefit of the doubt, which is an odd phrase now that I write it out. Pacing in my kitchen, I recognized that whatever I did or did not do, whatever I said or did not say, I could not repair what was broken; I was insignificant, that was part of it, but also, a broken thing could not be put right by the single perfect action of a third party. The realization released me, to some degree. There was no right decision. There was only doing what one must and living with the consequences.
This happened almost a decade ago; but the same paralysis strikes me now whenever I step in between two differing points of view, whenever I become involved in conflict. How can I fix this, how can I help?, quickly turns to, how can I hide myself away from this?
Do no harm. How I long to live by this mantra, no matter how impossible.
Yet I think, I do, that brave people have to be willing to disturb, to trouble, to shake the trees and shout from hills. And maybe this causes harm. Certainly it causes disruption and conflict and pain. It has to, because what else brings about change?
I am sorry. Forgive me. I am not brave.
I am sitting outside on my own front porch.
Every few seconds, a car or truck whizzes past, either accelerating as it speeds away from the nearby stop sign or slowing as it approaches. A few cars ignore the stop sign altogether. Now a large cargo truck wheezes past, white with black lettering. In its deceleration it makes a sound like a human cry. A bicycle, red, passes, with its cyclist turning the pedals at a leisurely pace, face inscrutable as he gazes down, away from the sun.
I can hear the hum of machinery from the nearby construction site that is our downtown core. The steady beep-beep-beep of a vehicle forever in reverse. A neighbour shuffles past and does not see me, screened as I am behind the green lilac leaves, which are shaped like teardrops. A light breeze lifts the leaves, and my own loose hair, and my little dog barks from inside the house, growling and yapping at what I now see is a yellow guide dog, strapped into a harness and leading a tall man, who is wearing a backpack, hat and dark glasses, toward our perilous intersection. The man was smiling faintly and gazing slightly to his right, toward our yard. Behind him, about three paces back, a young woman walked, wearing a bright sundress and a floppy hat. Did she know the man? Was she following to keep him safe or staying politely behind him because to pass him would have been to disturb him?
A rustling of fallen leaves. A fat grey squirrel with bushy white-fringed tail inspects our bed of lavender. Earlier, when I was describing the blind man and the woman he may or may not have known, a friend bicycled past — at least I thought it was a friend, but found myself squinting through the leaves to make out her face under the bike helmet. She was wearing grey flowing pants cut short above the ankle, and I thought, those look like pants my friend would wear; but it wasn’t real confirmation. A girl with bleached blond hair and a stocky upright gait passes, holding a white phone to her ear. And now, a couple holding hands, the girl talking, the boy saying nothing. He rubs his head with his free hand. They are not near enough for me to determine their ages.
I have forgotten how lovely it is is to sit and record for no purpose at all, only to slide more deeply into the moment, to sit as if immersed in a quietness of the self. A stillness amidst all that is moving and passing me by.
A garbage truck stop, redolent with the smell of rot, sweet and persistent, even after it has turned the corner. What does it smell like? Garbage? I stop and think for awhile, but can’t come up with anything but sweet rot and stink. I can see in my mind’s eye a kitchen, a darkly lit particular kitchen that seems to have come from a dream not from a memory, with a crock lined in newspaper, and filled with blackened moist vegetable peelings, beside the sink; sweet stink.
A brittle leaf falls from high overhead, clunking as it passes through the still-green leaves of my lilac, scuffing on the paved path where it lands. A rotund woman in hot pink with a checkerboard skirt eats handfuls of something out of a stiff plastic bag — nuts or seeds? — while she glances at our garden, expressionless. And my dogs set to howling as another dog, a beautiful black lab, tap-tap-taps patiently along the sidewalk in front of our house, leading a young woman with her fair strawberry hair stuck up in a bun at the top of her head, a baby which can’t be seen asleep under a quilt, and strapped to the front of the her chest. The young woman does not hear my dogs’ fuss, because she is plugged into white earbuds.
When the mailman arrives, not long after, I sit perfectly still and wonder whether I should alert him to my presence, but he speaks immediately to the dogs, talking to them through the glass as they bark frantically — “Hello, there, friends! And how are you today!” He flips the lid of our mailbox and is turned and away in an instant, and I watch him walk our stone path, and duck around the back of our truck, his step lively, his manner bright, his form short and plump, jolly as an elf. He has not seen me at all.
I have no voice.
After writing my previous post, I promptly got sick and spent most of last week shivering on the couch, feverish and dizzy. I dragged myself off the couch to coach a soccer game on Tuesday evening, heavily dosed with Tylenol. I’d recovered enough by Friday to embark on our trip to Kingston, with a detour to Sauble Beach to pick up CJ at camp. Kevin and I drove separately; he spent the weekend with AppleApple’s team, and I spent the weekend with Fooey’s team — same tournament, two different teams. Thankfully, we played at the same field, so we could spend Saturday near each other. The boys stayed with their grandma. It felt like we were all dispersed. One of my happiest moments of the weekend was during game two, when I looked across the field and saw a whole bunch of redheads watching from the sidelines: it is the only time everyone has come to see Fooey’s and my team play. Everyone got to see AppleApple play the following afternoon, when her team made it to the semi-finals.
Coaching was fun. I still had a voice, and I was feeling much better. The girls started the day slowly, but played a solid second game, and by game three they were firing on all cylinders. It was exciting to see the team play up to their potential. They played like I’ve imagined they could, with intensity and togetherness, and skill. It was thrilling.
We ended the day with a swim and a pizza party, and some late night goofing around at the hotel.
I woke up on Sunday with laryngitis. I could still speak raspily enough to be understood. But after another long day that included a family brunch, supervising five children (we had an extra child on the trip with us), three more soccer games, dinner out at a pub to watch the Euro Cup final (photo above), and a five hour drive home (many pee stops), my voice was done.
I woke up yesterday with nothing. A whisper.
I picked up the dogs from the kennel using this whisper. The women at the kennel whispered back. I saw friends at CJ’s swim lessons and explained my voicelessness in a whisper. My friends whispered back. The woman at the pharmacy whispered back. The chiropractor whispered back. My kids whispered back. With help from a whiteboard and a whistle, I coached a practice yesterday evening with my whisper. The girls huddled up to listen to instructions. “Why are we all whispering?” one asked, and I told them how everyone had whispered to me all day long, and they thought it was really funny. Tonight I will attempt to coach a game with only this whisper available to me.
I shouldn’t even be whispering, as it’s hard on the voice and will slow recovery.
Oh, how I miss my voice. I miss its command. I miss its humour. I miss its participation and connection. But there’s voicelessness and there’s voicelessness. Mine is temporary.
I want to comment on the way the world is blowing up all over the place. No justice, no peace. That’s the phrase that keeps running through my head. No justice, no peace! But what else have I got to say? I don’t always need to speak. Sometimes, like now, I just need to listen. I don’t know what it’s like to be black. I don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer. I don’t know what it’s like to own a gun, or to live in a country where gun ownership is so prevalent. I don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a war zone, or to lose my home to war. I keep reading articles, watching videos, trying to understand, trying to imagine.
What I’ve been reading
- My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard: A Mother Jones Investigation, by Shane Bauer (July/August, 2016). Long form piece, difficult to read, about the hell on earth of the for-profit American prison system, both for prisoners and for those hired to guard them.
- An American Void, by Stephanie McCrummen (Washington Post, Sept. 12, 2015) Another long form piece, also difficult to read, about the man who killed black worshippers in a Charleston church last year. It’s a window into poverty and disconnection.
- Making a Killing, by Evan Osnos (The New Yorker, June 27, 2016) An article on the reframing of the gun industry from selling guns for hunting to selling guns for “self-protection,” all in the name of profit.
- full transcript of Obama’s speech in Dallas (added July 13, 2016) This speech left me weeping. Then I went and read some of the ugly commentary critiquing it, and I felt more hopeless than ever. The president is saying what needs to be said: that Black Lives Matter is not a movement based on paranoia but on real experience, and also that police officers are asked to contain all the evils caused by systemic poverty, lack of jobs, and a starved public education system. That we are imperfect in our humanity. But I disagree with him on one point, and that is when he says that “In the end, it’s not about forging policies that work …” Yes, it bloody well is! Go on and forge consensus and fight cynicism, by all means, but policies force necessary change. There’s no other way — precisely because we are utterly imperfect in our humanity.
- Remembering Sandra Bland’s Death in the Place I Call Home, by Karen Good Marable (The New Yorker, July 13, 2016.)
What I’ve been watching (too many to list, so here are just a few)
It was the moment when I was on my hands and knees trying to vacuum up every last tiny fragment of broken glass off the kitchen tiles—a science experiment gone awry at 9:38PM—and I was still dressed in my coaching gear after our exciting exhibition game, and I could hear the younger kids upstairs calling for me to come kiss them goodnight, and I saw Carrie-in-France like a ghost haunting the scene, like an ephemeral substance dissolving before me in a puff of breath. I could not be here and be Carrie-in-France. What did it mean, to be Carrie-in-France? It meant being so unencumbered by responsibility that my mind could empty out and be still and I could think clearly, think with a relaxation and peacefulness that allowed for fantastically ambitious plots and schemes and plans. Not just to dream of them but to see how they might be realized.
And here, with the tiny sparkles of broken glass everywhere, glass covered in corn syrup, which was drawing an army of ants—ants! we have ants!!—it was all I could do to keep my shit together, if you know what I mean. I was congratulating myself on only yelling the tiniest bit, on staying relatively calm, and not freaking out completely, on merely with a sense of exhaustion and inevitability getting to the task of making our kitchen floor safe for bare feet while the boy doing the science experiment stood by sheepishly, another glass jar in his hands.
Here is also what I thought: it’s okay. It’s okay because I brought back those ideas from France. I carried them home (and not in glass jars) and I’m working on them now. But when those ideas shrivel up, when their energy dissipates, I need to remember to head out again on a retreat, I need to remember that it’s not a waste of time, it’s a necessity, it’s the path to clarity. I can’t replicate what happened in France here at home. Here at home fills me with a different kind of energy, a different kind of drive—the chaos, the whirling schedule, the stolen moments of peace and stillness (like right now); I don’t begrudge here at home.
I just need the other too. Now I know.
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.