Yesterday, I drove my eldest to camp and dropped him off. The weather was sunny and hot. The car’s thermometer said it was 30 degrees outside. But as we came closer to our destination, a wall of grey cloud rose up on the horizon. Rain could be seen falling in sheets from a distance, lightning flashing occasionally. Albus took it in good humour—it always storms when he’s at camp. He had to go for cover during a severe tornado warning, several years ago.
We carried his gear to the dining hall along with everyone else who was arriving, and it soon started to thunder and lightning, and rain. After a brief introduction, the kids began gathering into their cabin groups, and the parents were sent on their way. I had brought an umbrella, and walked to the car in heavy rain, feeling chuffed with myself for being so prepared. But the air was cool, and I felt almost chilly in my t-shirt and knee-length leggings. When I started the car, I saw the thermometer now read 17 degrees.
I turned on the radio and found CBC as I left the camp grounds and headed east on the small country road, then south on the slightly larger country highway (Grey County 10) that cuts down to Clifford, through Hanover and Neustadt. But I didn’t get very far. Eleanor Wachtel was engaging three writers in a conversation on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which kept my mind occupied, even as I watched the ominous shelf of heavy cloud to the west, which seemed to be blowing my way. I accelerated to pass several cars, because I had the impression that I could somehow outrace the storm. I was in a strip of clear sky overhead, no rain, no wind, as I drove down the strip of paved road between vast stretches of fields, punctuated by little clumps of thickly treed areas, a few houses, fences, barns, but mostly fields and trees.
I crossed Highway 21, which goes to Southampton, and Lake Huron. I remember glancing to my right, again, to assess the location of the cloud, still thinking I could outrace it, if only I could get past this slow-moving trailer-home in front of me. Only a few hundred feet out the passenger window, I glimpsed a stream in amongst trees, the whole of the scene stirred into a whirl, as if it were being thrashed by an invisible force. I can see it right now in my mind’s eye: a grey force, rattling the leaves and branches, bending the trees, stirring the water, within a rapidly descending fog. It’s that near to me, I thought. I’ve got less than a minute and it will be here. And then it struck the tiny car full-force, a powerful wind, heavy rain. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. I kept driving like an automaton, not sure what else to do, following the trailer-home. We crossed a small bridge that took us between a thick patch of trees planted close to the road, and I could see debris flying, and the car was struck with a branch, the treetops were whirling, and I knew, suddenly, that this was very dangerous weather. But what could I do?
I must stop somewhere with less trees, I thought. The trailer-home pulled into the gravel at the side of the road, and other cars coming from the opposite direction were doing the same, so I pulled over too, coming to stop in an area with a few trees far enough from the road that I didn’t think they could fall on me. I didn’t even notice the power lines overhead. On the radio, making it all the much worse, a siren began sounding, interrupting the voices of the women talking about George Eliot, and an automated voice informed me that the area in which I was driving was under a tornado watch or warning, and that I was being advised to take shelter immediately.
Take shelter? Where? I’m sitting with the car still in drive, my foot on the brake pedal, my body shaking uncontrollably, asking the automated voice where exactly would it advise me to take cover? My new car felt approximately as substantial as a tin can. At moments, the blasts of wind seemed to lift it almost off the ground. I imagined it spinning through the air like a blown piece of trash. I realized that there was no point in keeping the car in drive, and that my muscles must relax in order to stop shaking. I geared into park, and remembered that I had a cellphone.
I began texting Kevin. No response. Here is my series of (completely over-the-top hysterical) texts to him:
I’m in tornado.
Can’t find hazards
Should I leave car and get down in ditch?
How big is storm?please help if you can
The reason I considered abandoning the car and getting down in the ditch was because only a couple of days ago I heard a news report about a massive tornado in western Canada that ravaged an area for hours, and two teens, brothers, recounted how they abandoned the pickup they’d been driving and lay flat in a ditch waiting for the storm to pass—should I do the same? Is this what one does? It came to me that I possessed zero survival knowledge in this situation, and that my instinct was paralysis, essentially: to freeze and fearfully hope for the best. Hope that I wouldn’t be the unfortunate person who finds herself in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
But I could find the hazards! I dropped the phone on the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment to find the manual. The car is new enough that I’d not yet had occasion to use the hazards, and couldn’t have found the symbol if my life depended on it—couldn’t even remember, in my state of mind, what the symbol for hazards looked like. In the index I found the page listing: “Page 176,” I said out loud, which curiously made me feel better, and I turned to the page, and read that the hazards are conveniently located near the radio controls.
Ah. That’s it. I pressed the button and felt more in control. I’d forced myself to behave in a calm and rational manner. The storm was not abating, however, so it occurred to me to phone home. My elder daughter answered, and I freaked her out while trying to sound calm, and then Kevin came on the line. He looked up the storm on the radar. Yes, I was right in the heart of it, but it was one long narrow path running north to south, and should be by me soon. He assured me that it was nowhere near camp, which eased my mind enormously. I kept thinking of how I’d left my kid in a camp dining-hall in what was maybe a tornado.
The trailer-home pulled out. I decided to pull out too.
I stopped once more when the wind got heavy again, parked in the shelter of a driving shed with another woman in her vehicle, both of us glancing at each other but what else could we do? Then I resumed driving again. The sky was alight with flickers of lightning, almost constant. I started to think I was imagining them. The storm didn’t seem to vanish, as promised. A utility pole that had snapped in half dangled over the highway on wires. It occurred to me, as I passed it, that I shouldn’t have parked underneath the electrical lines, earlier. I listened to a call-in show on the newly-called federal election, but I was hardly listening. I was in a dream-state, really. My focus on the road, my emotions pressed down deep. I chased the storm all the way home, kilometre after kilometre of tension and rain and wind—at one point tracking west to try to escape it, only to finish in Waterloo, on the homestretch, under a torrent of hail, and thick rain.
As I drove down Bridgeport, minutes from home, the sun came out and shone in my eyes—but it was raining heavily. The contrast was comical. Then it stopped suddenly, suddenly clear. The street ahead was blocked off by emergency vehicles, so I took a detour, and finally, I was in our driveway, home. On our front steps I leaned down and picked up a piece of hail that was quickly melting, as big as a quarter. I was jelly-limbed. Kevin fed me burritos. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t sit. When I lay down, I couldn’t rest. I felt both drained and wired all at once.
It wasn’t that I thought I was going to die—not really. But it did occur to me that this was a situation in which death would not be a completely unreasonable outcome. “Don’t let anyone publish anything I’ve been working on,” I instructed Kevin over the phone. “It’s not ready. It shouldn’t ever be published.”
“Um, okay,” he said.
I didn’t feel a need to give him last-minute instructions on child-rearing, because he knows what to do and what could I say in a ridiculously cliched phone conversation in the middle of a storm to make a worst-case scenario outcome better? But my publishing legacy—that seemed important to try to control.
Is it sad that I’m in the middle of projects that are incomplete, insufficient, unready? It isn’t that sad. I’ve published some good things, and it would be fine to leave it at that. It also isn’t sad because the potential of the incomplete and unready is good, when a person is around to fulfill it, and here I am, alive and well, sitting with earplugs in, listening to my daughter play and sing a song she’s composed on the ukulele—she’s even printed out the lyrics and chords—and I’m writing something, even if it’s only this. I’m here and I can keep working away at these ideas and projects and can hope, eventually, maybe, to finish something else I’ll be proud of, worth sharing.
When I walked through the door, safely home, I was drained of emotion. I’d spent the last two and a half hours trying to feel nothing at all—or instinctively feeling as little as possible, emotions useless in the situation, because they’d only overwhelm rational action and thought. I felt removed. The sensation was physical—that was why it felt so peculiar, so particular. It was like my eyes and ears couldn’t transmit deeper information to my brain, like there was a fog of rain between my brain and my body. My body was this blurred heavy weight that I was dragging like stone, but it was also me, I could recognize it as me. But this was a me that was blurred, heavy, indistinct. I couldn’t feel myself. And I didn’t care.
And now, let me be a little less melodramatic: passing through the storm was a minor trauma. Had I not been alone, it might not have seemed so dire, in truth.
After devouring the burritos and drinking several enormous glasses of water, I binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine with AppleApple. Later, I played the ukulele in the dark, somehow recalling lyrics and chords to a vast number of Leonard Cohen songs, which made me feel 18 again—exactly 18 years old, when Leonard Cohen songs were my summer soundtrack and longing and love were fresh and his lyrics made perfect and perfectly romantic sense: “I loved you in the morning, your kisses deep and warm, your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm. Many loved before us, I know that we are not new, in city and in forest, they smiled like me and you. But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie, your eyes are soft with sorrow, hey that’s no way to say goodbye.” (Except, I see now, in looking up the lyrics, that I’ve remembered them wrong, and the love or chains line comes in a later verse… but it is a good line, possibly the best in the song, so I’ll leave it as it is, and sing it like that, when I sing it again, in the dark.)
“We do not want merely to see beauty … we want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see.” – C.S. Lewis (as discovered on Twitter; follow @CSLewisDaily for more quotes)
Today marks the second week of summer holidays. I’ve put over a thousand kilometres onto the little car since Thursday morning. I’ve been across the border, stuck in traffic jams, meandering back roads, standing by soccer fields, hauling various bags, buying food that will keep in the heat, making and executing miniature step-by-step plans to get one kid safely to the places she needs to be at the right times. She is now safely at overnight camp with her sister. I am safely at home, in my office. But I couldn’t keep her entirely safe. Her team made the final at the tournament, but she was injured in their third game in a bad fall. This is parenting one doesn’t want to have to do: watching from the far side of the field as a medic checks out your kid, then, after the game, helping your kid understand and accept that she likely won’t be able to play for the rest of the tournament. We need to think long-term, the parent says, and the kid says, I really want to play! Maybe if I rest it overnight and ice it and … Yes, maybe, but, says the parent, taking the long view, knowing that injuries will happen in contact sport and a week or two of rest will pass in a flash, while an injury worsened by poor management could dog a player for weeks, months, more …
So she cheered her teammates from the bench in their fourth game on Saturday afternoon. She woke yesterday morning optimistic, and dressed for the match. Her coach let her play a few minutes in the final game, but she ran like she was stiff and in pain, so he decided, wisely, not to put her back on again. I was relieved. She understood. The long-view won the day.
Here’s part of what I wrote on Saturday morning, waiting for that third game to begin, the one in which she was injured, when I didn’t know she would be; I hadn’t read the C.S. Lewis quote, above, yet, either. But I think I was choosing to write for the very reason Lewis pinpoints: to be united with the beauty we see (if we go looking for it).
In Ohio. I sit in a collapsible chair behind my car in the shade on a warm morning, the fourth of July. It’s Independence Day in the United States, and I seem to be in a quintessentially American scene: wide blue sky, gravel parking lot, trucks and cars lined up, not neatly but askew, claiming space, because there is so much space, and just beyond the short grassy hill, a highway off-ramp. Noisy, constant noise of engines turning as they veer past on the other side of the guardrail. In the gravel lot, dust balloons when a car zooms by looking for a parking spot. I’ve returned to the same spot where we parked yesterday, just under a clump of bushes with pale green leaves flecked with tiny white spots that look like a fungus, an invasive disease, not native to the plant’s patterns. The breeze moves the speckled leaves. Wildflowers have pushed through the gravel near my feet, like flowers that belong in a desert, sparse pale purple blooms with spiked centres.
A man sits in a convertible opposite me, and talks on his cellphone, shaded under a ball cap. I choose not to look too often in his direction, although we must both see each other. Parked to his left is a junked-out abandoned trailer home with the brand-name Tag-A-Long on its faded front above a vented window, which has blue sheet insulation propped against it from the inside. The trailer’s hitch is rusted red and green, deep dirty brown-red, metallic green, a beautiful shade of green richer than emeralds, but what does it mean, to beautifully mark an abandoned object? What does it mean to flower in a parking lot? What does it mean to sit by a highway and write about the gravel scattered underfoot, embedded loosely into the clay-like dirt, pale ochre dirt, pale grey and white stones, some so small they are almost granular, worn down to sand?
“I’m gonna go now,” says the man in the convertible, on his phone, but he doesn’t. This is the way of conversations. You state that you are finished, but you don’t unstick yourself, not quite yet. You laugh. “You didn’t say that,” you say, and chuckle. A large 4 x 4 Ford pickup kicks up dust between us. The rumble from the cars on the off-ramp obscure what might be said, if I were closer and could overhear this half of a conversation.
I see a Canadian flag flapping on a truck down at the end of the lot, near field 14 where my daughter’s team will play their second game today. Beyond that, taller than the trees, are signs advertising gas stations and fast food restaurants. The street lights above the off-ramp look like objects from outer space, as you might imagine an alien spaceship to look, with lights suspended inside bright shiny metal pods like six vast aluminum mixing bowls, upside-down, and affixed around a slender pole, way up high, like cake tins stabbed onto pointy spikes high up in the sky.
What happens when you sit and write? You see differently, you fall down inside of yourself and go quiet and you receive whatever passes by, whatever dust and stray information and overheard conversation passes by, you reach up into the air and pluck it like fruit, ripe or unripe, doesn’t matter, you’re hungry for information.
It’s true. I was hungry. And in a gravel parking lot beside an on-ramp, I found some measure of satiation.
May you be united with the beauty you see.
We’ve been on a whirlwind adventure, and now we’re home, with all the laundry that implies. I am trying to write this with a chatty 7-year-old nearby, who is missing out on his class’s field trip to the African Lion Safari due to an upset stomach (barfed on the bus, apparently; luckily this occurred before this bus had left the school grounds). So, yeah, we’re home.
Where have we been?
On Friday, I drove to Stratford to pick up AppleApple, who had been to see a play at the Stratford Festival (The Diary of Anne Frank). We had a bite to eat, then drove on through ominous weather to London, where she had a soccer game. So, here is another soccer field in my summer 2015 series.
Home, late. Exhausted. Weary.
Up, early. Packing for a variety of activities and adventures: everyone in the truck, and we’re off!
First stop: Innisfil, Ontario. Brand-new library. (Brand-new everything, from the looks of it; this is a fast-growing town.) Reading from Girl Runner. Kids had fun too. All good. Back in the car, headed down the highway.
Second stop: Seeley’s Bay, Ontario. Visiting Kevin’s family, cousin-time, playing soccer and badminton, sleeping soundly, sleeping in! (Fooey appeared at bedside to inquire “Why are you still in bed, Mom? It’s 9 o’clock!” And it was …) Kevin and I even went for a run together, and managed not to get overly competitive (there’s a reason we don’t play Scrabble anymore). Packed a lunch, then back in the truck, headed down some back roads.
Third stop: Brockville, Ontario. I interviewed the son of Myrtle Cook, who won gold in the 1928 Olympics. What a treat to hear his stories about his mother’s career, both as a young athlete and later as a sportswriter, the only woman in the section. The kids were generously welcomed by our hosts, and treated to a swim in a nearby pool, and cookies and juice. It reminded me of my own childhood, when our family was frequently hosted by kind strangers, so often that we almost took it for granted that we would be welcomed no matter where we went. Maybe I still carry a bit of that with me. (This was a two-way street: our family home was also open to strangers and friends alike, and I remember playing with any kid or set of kids who happened along; my siblings and I could mix in with anyone, boys, girls, older, younger, didn’t matter, by dusk you’d have to holler to get us to come inside, we’d be having so much fun. It was an advantage of a peripatetic childhood.) Interview over, we were back on the road, with some pits stops for supper … and bathroom breaks … and more bathroom breaks …
Bathroom break # 542
Fourth stop: Montreal, Quebec! We stayed near the Olympic Stadium for two nights, and went to a women’s world cup match: Canada v Netherlands (which ended in a 1-1 draw). There were 45,000 or so people in attendance, and the place was humming with energy. Such a fun game to watch: cheering, shouting, clapping, oohs and aahs, highs and lows, fresh-squeezed emotions. I do love live sporting events. While in Montreal, we wandered the neighbourhood, and found ice cream at a place with a banner that read: “Cremerie/Sushi.”
CJ at the Cremerie/Sushi spot
We rode the subway. Tried to walk to Mount Royal, but were defeated by a) the distance and b) more importantly, the whining about the distance. So we stopped for poutine instead. We found a bakery selling the most delicious Portuguese-style custard tarts, and visited a famous bagel shop. The kids swam, I went for a run in a beautiful park. It was a holiday. Everyone was so relaxed.
We arrived early. Very early. This makes it look like we were the only people in the stadium, but we were soon surrounded. In the excitement I forgot to take more photos.
And now, home. But despite the sick kid nearby, and the immensity of the laundry pile, I feel that holiday feeling lingering. It was hard to get packed up and leave, but once we were gone, it was easier and easier to be away, to imagine ourselves somewhere else, leaving everything behind. Not that we would, and we’ve got a lot to come back to; just that it’s possible to imagine escape and adventure when you’ve removed yourself from the physical trappings of home. It’s a kind of wonderful feeling, I must admit.
All for now.
Hello there! Just checking in. How are you? You may have observed (as my dad recently did) that I’ve been checking in somewhat less frequently here, as my writing time is quite cramped. I also take way less photos than I used to, relying mainly on the camera on my phone. Your understanding is appreciated. I think this is a good example of how I make things work, generally speaking; it isn’t always perfect, or even approaching perfect, but I try to do as much as I can, in as many of the areas of my life that I can, using the resources available. And with plenty of compromise.
This weekend, AppleApple and I made a trek to Ohio for a soccer tournament. I’d been dreading the long drive and leaving behind my writing work, but it turned out to be really fun. Note to self: stop dreading things! Good grief! Somehow, in my anxiety about crossing the border and having to navigate solo, I neglected to appreciate that I would be alone with one kid, with very few responsibilities other than getting her to and from games, for several days. I left behind the calendar, the scheduling, the laundry, the cooking, the cleanup — well, everything, really. We had beautiful weather, spring had sprung in Ohio, they sell beer in grocery stores there, and everyone was super-friendly.
* lounging and watching Friends on my laptop via Netflix with AppleApple in the evenings
* a social meal out with the team on Saturday night
* buds on trees, flowers blooming, needing to wear sunscreen again
* an impromptu picnic in a Kroger’s parking lot (we know how to class it up)
* taking a detour home through Bluffton, Ohio to visit friends and see the house I grew up in from kindergarten through grade 3
So my kid complained about me singing along to the radio on the drive. So her team didn’t win every game. I can’t think of anything else to complain about, actually. How lucky we were to get that time together. How fortunate we are to travel at our leisure, for fun, for recreation.
Back in Canada, driving driving driving, we tuned into the CBC news at 6 o’clock and heard about the failed efforts to rescue hundreds of migrants, drowned when the boat they were travelling on capsized in the Mediterranean sea; I can’t get that out of my head. I keep mentally juxtaposing the ease and safety and fun of our journey with the desperation of the journeys undertaken by so many.
I can’t make sense of it. So it’s just sitting here with me today.
PS I’ve got some good news on the book front. I look forward to sharing it with you later this week.
Well, this wasn’t what I meant to do this morning, while suffering from a sudden and nasty cold, and lying around the house in yoga pants feeling pitiful. But hey, in my pitiful yoga-panted state, I clicked myself over to Facebook to do one tiny thing — instantly forgetting what that was; still can’t remember! — and saw that a friend had posted the link to Part 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Saga,” which would perhaps be better titled “Travels Through America,” freshly published in the New York Times magazine (I read Part 1 two weeks ago).
Here are two passages that jumped out at me, fitting, as they do, into my land and stories theory about power, conflict, and human connection.
“If there is something to be gained, if it is gainable, no power on earth can restrain the forces that seek to gain it. To leave a profit or a territory or any kind of resource, even a scientific discovery, unexploited is deeply alien to human nature. …
Not only is it alien to human nature to leave a profit unexploited, but discovering, inventing or knowing something without passing that knowledge on is alien to us, too.”
– Karl Ove Knausgaard
Read both parts of “My Saga,” if you like Knausgaard’s work. If you don’t, well, don’t bother; Knausgaard is Knausgaard. Either way, you might be forgiven for reading “My Saga” as close to self-satirizing. I found it at times hilarious, occasionally grotesque, Knausgaard willing to set himself up as a curiosity, as the inscrutable Other passing through an awfully familiar (to me) landscape, which he can’t or won’t even attempt to understand. Except he makes some interesting philosophical and cultural observations, and is himself a fascinating study in contradictions, having constructed his persona on the unlikely combination of personal reticence and abject confession.
Yes, I’m a fan.
I happened to be at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival last fall at the same time as Knausgaard, and he was one of the first people I saw when I arrived at the hotel where all of the visiting writers stay. We stood side by side at the front desk, he with one of his daughters, me with my tiny carry-on bag behind me like a favourite pet, on the very day that a lone gunman attacked Parliament Hill. I didn’t say a word to him. He seemed like a private person who wanted to go on a touristy excursion with his daughter, not someone who wished to acknowledge that the person standing next to him at the front desk of a hotel might have read his own hyper-detailed account of his life (I’d recently read the first and second books in My Struggle). Strange, wouldn’t it be? Or am I doing something similar here — on a much, much smaller scale — writing about my life and offering it up to anyone who happens along, yet also certain that I’m essentially a private person, deserving of privacy.
Anyway. I didn’t disturb him. Later, we took an elevator together. In silence.
I’m convinced “My Saga” is a classic piece of travel writing, even if it doesn’t tell a great deal about the land being travelled through; really, it’s about the human condition. How we’re shaped by where we’re born, and by what were willing to do, but also by what we can’t see or recognize, even within ourselves. Maybe most especially there. Writing is an effort to translate emotion and sensation and experience into shared language. This happens, when it happens best, not by explaining what we want to say, but by inhabiting it. So, in writing, a seeker may have more meaning to offer than a finder. A seeker, who doesn’t know what she’s looking at, exactly, might reveal more than she who is quite certain of what she’s found.
Here are links to Part One and Part Two of Knausgaard’s “My Saga.”
Back to my cold-fighting garlic-ginger tea.
I’m in Toronto, back for one last hurrah for the season — attending the Writers Trust Gala this evening, in my black tie attire, or what passes for such, I hope. Being at home has a way of making a person feel less than glamorous, and at the moment, to be honest, it seems like a stretch to imagine myself into such an event. I’m reading Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger right now, and I’m thinking of the Ayreses turned out for dinner in moth-eaten mismatched scarves and a woollen waistcoat the colour of ointment. I’m wearing black. It’ll be fine.
This is a week of lasts. This will be my last book-related event for awhile. I teach my last class of the term tomorrow evening. And I’m doing my last interview on Thursday for the essay on women’s long-distance running in Canada. December will be devoted to writing, marking, and turning my mind toward family and holiday time together.
View from the train, this morning.
On Friday, I’m going to physio to try to fix whatever is ailing my right leg, and hampering my running. There was one element to the running experience that I deliberately chose not to address in Girl Runner (and which, to my mind, makes the book a romance, of sorts): Aganetha does not suffer injury. This is rare among runners, though perhaps not impossible given an ideal physiological makeup; but I am not in possession of such a thing myself. Interval sprints with my daughter seem to have pushed a nagging twinge over the edge.
I said to Kevin this morning, as he drove me to the train station: Maybe I’m at the age where I have to accept that I won’t be getting faster or stronger, and that I’m exercising for other reasons instead. You know, for fitness, say.
It’s time for lunch. I’m limping out presently into a brisk Toronto wind to seek today’s fortune.
P.S. Coming soon to this blog: an order form so that you can buy signed and personalized books.
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