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 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.
Last night, at Fooey’s dance class I read an article in The Atlantic about the benefits of changing careers in mid-life, or, more accurately, the health benefits of doing something new and difficult and challenging, forcing the brain to learn new skills and patterns. Coincidentally, yesterday I also spent over an hour filling out a career-profile questionnaire at the University of Waterloo’s career site, which asked me to reflect on six “pride” moments in my life, and what skills I’d needed to achieve those; I filled it out thinking I would make an appointment with a career counsellor and get some professional advice on the subject, but the results were so baffling that it stopped me right there. The quiz claimed I was investigative and would be suited to careers like doctor, dentist, accountant, actuary, and a bunch of other jobs that didn’t sound like me at all. I was also entrepreneurial, and careers in that area include sales and marketing, publicity, human resources, which, let’s be honest here, are definitely not me. I scored extremely low in the areas that include work I’ve actually pursued: writer, artist, teacher, and coach.
I had to laugh. The quiz seemed so pointless. The results indecipherable, meaningless. Yes, I’m curious and organized, I’m a risk-taker and I’m logical, I’m assertive and introverted, I’m intuitive and practical, I like helping people and being independent.
(At this point, you may be wondering: why, Carrie? Why are you taking quizzes on mid-life career changes? And for that, I have no answer.)
Upon reflection, the quiz’s results were rudimentary, but the process itself was useful and perhaps revealing. In analyzing it myself (and I do like analysis), here’s what I observe: my “pride” experiences revolve around learning new things. Learning how to swim: I rated learning to swim at age 35 as my highest pride story. Learning how to coach. Learning how to teach. My other pride moments were watching and helping my children learn new things, gathering a group of friends to write together, and when The Juliet Stories was named a finalist for the GG’s, which was a moment that I felt (and feel) I could claim no credit for, yet was nevertheless a moment of enormous pride.
Another theme that I noticed: I love doing physical tasks. I love using my body. I love playing and coaching soccer. I love boot camp. I love walking and running. I love yoga. I loved cycling. I love doing these things alone and with others. Even when I’m injured, I’m physically confident and strong. It brings me great pleasure to move.
I also like helping people, and I like connecting people. I like working with kids. I like being playful. I like shared experiences, such as singing, game-playing, puzzle-making, eating together, gatherings.
In a similar vein, I cherish coming through something meaningful with someone else. It’s what I loved about being a doula. I was able to walk through an intense emotional and physical experience with someone else in a way that was respectful, caring, and supportive.
I don’t know what career these skills and interests are suited to, but I’m quite sure it isn’t an accountant.
My question is: is it a writer?
The Atlantic article suggested that the career change need not be drastic, it may be a matter of adapting one’s career in some way; learning something new but in the same field. The woman writing the article had been a broadcaster, and became a writer: in both, she was telling stories, but in different mediums.
The open doors before me are ones I’ve walked through before, in one guise or another: I’m going to France next week and I will write while I’m there, I will see my work presented, I will do some publicity for the French translation of Girl Runner; when I get home, I’m leading a full day of workshops at an elementary school; and in May, a writing workshop in the woods (click the link and scroll down to find info on “Words in the Woods”). The most unusual door I’ve walked through recently involves coaching soccer.
What I learned when teaching is that I’m a dreadful lecturer, but I’m good at devising hands-on tasks to illuminate ideas or concepts. I like workshops. In a sense, that’s what a coach does: devise practices around themes that get players physically involved in tasks they need to learn and master. I love the challenge of it. I even love the risk of it—that my plan may need to be adapted. That it’s an experiment. That the outcome isn’t known or guaranteed. I feel nervous before practices and workshops, but often elated and consumed while inside of them. And afterward I can reflect on what did or didn’t work; I enjoy the critical analysis.
When I think about doing this kind of work, it excites me.
So here’s my analysis of results.* I want a career in which I get to learn new things, be physically active, help others, experience intense emotions, be creative, and teach through practical and applied means. Writing may or may not be a part of it, from what I’m exploring, although right now, writing is what I know best; I can claim to be an expert because others have recognized my expertise. That said, with enough study and practice, I’m perfectly willing to believe that I could become an expert in another area.
*I have no job matches associated with these observations.
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.
Here we are, day one of a new year. I’ve walked the dogs through gently falling snow flakes. The children slept till 10AM. We have this one last day of our unusually relaxing holiday to do as we please, each of us, before the new year’s schedule clocks in tomorrow morning.
Of course I am thinking about what I’d like to do this year, in addition to what I’m already doing; what would I like to try, what experiment shall I undertake, what challenge, what adventure, what’s calling? And I have a small idea, a possibility I’ve been mulling for awhile that seemed affirmed yesterday by the conflating coincidences of driving across town on an unexpected errand while listening to an interview on the radio with Elizabeth Gilbert, who was talking about the creative impulse. The creative impulse is not benign, she said (and I paraphrase). If it isn’t put to use, if it isn’t acknowledged and fed, if it isn’t set free, it will find its own damaging purpose.
I began thinking about rage, just under the surface.
I was driving along a street I don’t very often take anymore, and it triggered a memory: that I’d stopped for gas, at a gas station that no longer exists, in fact, with two toddlers strapped into car seats in the back of our old red truck. I was enormously pregnant with my third child, and it was hot, a summer’s day, and we’d just gotten a load of groceries. I filled up the truck with gas, and as I was walking around the hood of the truck to climb back in to the driver’s seat, a man approached me. He looked, if not homeless, then close to homeless, and with a rough voice he asked if he could bum a cigarette.
My response shocked even me.
Rage. It was rage that poured out, with no warning, no pre-emptive interlude. “Do I look like I would have a cigarette?” I snapped at him, almost shaking with my fury, indicating my pregnant belly.
“No,” he replied sheepishly.
I got into the truck and slammed the driver’s side door, vibrating with rage.
I didn’t know what had come over me. I didn’t know why I was so very angry. I couldn’t think of a good reason to be feeling what I was feeling in that moment.
But now, I think maybe I understand. Like raging people all over this earth, my wider, deeper emotions were not accessible to me at that time in my life. I was repressing a great deal: disappointment about my career, the sense of boredom and aimlessness as I struggled to be a stay-at-home mom, exhaustion from the drudgery of the day-to-day. There were many things I was not telling myself, or allowing myself to feel, because I couldn’t have borne it. So when tapped or triggered, there was only one emotion on offer: rage. Rage is a defensive emotion. It lashes out so as to prevent us from feeling anything else.
I’ll never know exactly why the man’s question set me off, but I think I was afraid of him, and did not want him near me. I felt vulnerable. I also felt morally righteous. Whatever it was, I was feeling something for which rage was a cover. I was ambushed by my own inexplicable fury.
I think unless we allow ourselves to experience a full range of emotions, including those emotions that indict us for our own failings — jealousy, envy, disappointment, humiliation, fear, uncertainty, grief — we will be at the mercy of that one emotion that is always on tap, always available, a defence against what the world may think of us, and what we may think of ourselves deep inside. Rage rage against the dying of the light. Yes. But rage rage against the accusations that we know to be true, and the terror of being fragile, and the admission of loneliness and failure, and the misery of not knowing everything best.
Rage rage against being human and fallible.
Rage rage against culpability.
Rage rage against knowing thyself, because to know thyself truly is to know some awfully dark truths, is to acknowledge enormous imperfections, and ugly vanities, and moral failings.
Yet I maintain that it is better to know thyself than to remain lodged in clotted rage, railing against the world, and spewing harm and hurt. The hurt your rage will cause to your own self is far greater than any hurt you could bring upon yourself by knowing yourself truly. It is only when we see ourselves as vulnerable and weak and wrong (rather than wronged) that we can see others with compassion, and love too.
And the rage will diminish.
It really will. It will not shock you with its sudden emergence, or hurt those you love most dearly. You will feel its potential, yes, but you will know what it means, and hear what it’s saying: you will feel behind the rage to the emotion that rage is trying to protect you from feeling, and you will be able to name it, and to access it, and to experience it. It is only through experiencing the deeper emotion that you can understand yourself, and get through that emotion.
I am alert now to my own rage. I know it’s trying to tell me something more profound. Why am I so angry? Is this moment deserving of my anger? So rarely it is. Almost never, in truth. And pouring out my rage, pouring it onto to someone else, is unacceptable, always. I believe that. So if it happens, when it happens, I try to name that too. To apologize immediately. Never to let myself off the hook. To reflect. There is always more work to do. Because it is easy to mistake rage for purpose, for fuel. At least it’s better to feel something than nothing, maybe? But the opposite of rage is not emptiness, it’s not nothing, it’s not depression, it’s not powerlessness, it’s not silence. The opposite of rage is connection.
Here is my idea. This coming year, I would like to host writing adventures in my home. It will be an experiment, I confess. The point will be to use the physical act of writing — writing by hand onto the page — to bring us into a meditative state of focus, in which we can access memories, draw them forth. We’ll leap from the intensive imaginative images we’re experiencing in our minds into the adventure of fiction. The exercises will be guided, the space will be safe, and none of us will be able to guess in advance where we might travel to on any given evening. Being or becoming a writer is not the point. The process is the point. Play is the point. Adventure is the point. Discovering and mapping our own inner imaginative space is the point. Anyone can participate. Everyone has a creative impulse. This is just one of a myriad of ways to express it, but it’s the method I can offer, if you’re looking for an opening, if you’re looking for a way in. Or out. Or deep down.
Please send me a message if you’re interested and I’ll keep you in the loop as the idea becomes a plan.
Happy New Year!
PS The title of this post is the first line of a poem by Rumi called “The diver’s clothes lying empty.” Look it up if you don’t already know it. Read it out loud. It will tell you everything I’ve written here, and much more.
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