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.
At the beginning of this year, I had the idea of choosing a theme for each month, something I would particularly focus on, no matter what else was happening.
January’s theme was daily meditation and writing.
February’s theme is writing, travel and rest. I did no writing while travelling. None. Instead of writing, I rested—it was mental rest as much as physical rest. The time spent driving proved unexpectedly peaceful, as if my mind had been craving space. How often do I let myself stare out the window, how often do I let my mind wander? There are moments, certainly, throughout the day, but these are of necessity brief, fleeting.
Spacious wandering. Staring out the window. Can I do this more often? Can I give myself permission?
I was ready to write again when we got home!
I was also ready for a few changes. In keeping with February’s theme of rest, I am trying to get more sleep. This means going to bed earlier. I managed to be in the bed with the lights out before 10PM all week, and it made the early morning exercise so much easier, and more sensible.
I’m also five days into a two-week experiment with giving up caffeine (especially coffee). I’d been drinking a lot of coffee, and in truth, it seemed to feed my nervous energy and anxiety. Peppermint tea is an okay replacement; I can’t complain (can I complain?). My insides feel steadier. Rest.
As in January, I continue to meditate. This week I’ve been combining meditation with movement because it keeps me awake. It also gives me a chance to practice some kundalini yoga at home.
I haven’t chosen a theme for March, yet.
Other themes I’m interested in exploring in the months ahead include: reading (imagine sitting and reading for a whole month!), research, music (songwriting/recording), photography, yoga and meditation, swimming, writing fiction by hand. What would be on your list?
This morning I hosted the final session in my inaugural, experimental series of Writing Adventures. The feedback I received circled around the theme of welcome, I think. Participants thanked me for giving them space and and a place to write, as well as guidance throughout; the space felt safe; there was something spiritual or peaceful about the exercise, or about the environment that was created in the room. Several participants told me that the writing had been therapeutic. Some found it challenging or hard, while others expressed that they’d had a lot of fun.
Ultimately, the sessions confirmed for me that this is not a writing exercise, although it uses writing as its medium. It’s an exercise about making or creating, about shaping experience, about exploring the unknown. It’s about being led to a place we never meant to go, to find something we didn’t know we were looking for. It’s an exercise that can bring a sense of peace or resolution to a problem that your mind may be working on, quietly, behind the scenes—I frequently uncover an emotional theme, something I haven’t otherwise been able to acknowledge or recognize. That is why the same “map” or “guide” can be followed again and again on these adventures and never become repetitive; there is always another story waiting to be found. We live within ever-shifting emotional states that affect how we interact in ways both profound and mundane.
Finally, I observed again that there is no perfect time to sit down and write. Forget about finding the perfect time, writers of the world! There will always be external blocks rearing up—I’m too tired, my to-do list is too long, I should be spending this time with X, it’s been a long day, I can’t squeeze it in, I just don’t feel like I can go there, not right now, maybe tomorrow, I’m too distracted, I can’t sit still. All legitimate barriers. But these barriers dissolve as soon as I sit before the page and open myself to what’s waiting to be found. Maybe those moments when we are least inclined to force ourselves to attend are the moments when we most would benefit from stopping and listening to the quiet (or clamouring!) voice within.
I arranged the first Adventure as a three-session series because it’s an exercise that becomes easier to do with practice: you figure out what risks you can take, what rules you need to break (interior self-binding rules, mainly), and how to let go and follow where you’re led. It’s the letting go that’s the hardest. It’s letting go of the voice in your head that says, This is not important. It takes practice to learn how to reply to that voice: It doesn’t matter whether or not this is important, I’m doing it. What that voice in your head won’t tell you is that you actually can’t know while you’re making something what value it may have, what necessary step it represents in the piecing together of a larger puzzle, and where this is leading you.
Imagine this. You are crossing a creek in the middle of a thick fog come down to earth. It’s like saying of a stepping stone, the only one you can see right now before you: This is not an important stone. You wouldn’t, would you. You would in humility understand implicitly that you just don’t know. You just don’t know—and it doesn’t matter. To think that it matters is to completely miss the point of what lies before you. So you step on the stone, and you come to another, and you just don’t know. And that is how you find not only where you are, but where you’re going.
P.S. No new Writing Adventures scheduled yet. Please send me a message or comment below if you are interested in participating in future Adventures, and you will be the first to know. Also, I would love to hear, from those of you who participated in the sessions, whether there was anything you strongly liked or, perhaps even more importantly, disliked.