Category: Writing

Meditations on This Bright Abyss

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“People who think poetry has no power have a very limited conception of what power means.” – this, and all subsequent quotations, from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

I’ve been sitting, every morning this week, and reading this book, by Christian Wiman. I can’t take in more than a few chapters during a sitting, and even then, I’m certain I’m not taking everything in. The book is mostly about faith and Christian faith specifically. I find myself not looking to those parts, or shrugging them off; yet I know deep down that faith is an intrinsic part of my outlook, that it is where I come from and where I write from. I believe in something bigger than myself. I believe in infinite wholeness expressed somehow in every living thing, and utterly inexpressible. Most of all, I believe in the power of connection, wherever that is found. I believe, in all seriousness, that there are times when I write that I am receiving a gift by grace.

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“A poem, if it’s a real one, in some fundamental sense means no more and no less than the moment of its singular music and lightning insight; it is its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity.”

What does this mean — if it’s a real one? That strikes me as being unfair and judgemental. But isn’t it true? When you read a real poem, you know it. You just do. And isn’t the paradox of writing the need to get beyond one self while staying true to oneself? There is magic in pinning down a moment of singular music and insight; and there is failure, too, because it is an impossible task.

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“… existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.”

And yet, to write a story is to participate, actively, in inventing puzzles to be solved. Somehow to be human is to long for puzzles to solve, to crave them. The solution is never as satisfying as the mystery.

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“Behind every urge to interpret is unease, anxiety. … The trouble comes when the effort to name and know an experience replaces the experience itself.”

How to answer this? Isn’t this what I’m involved in daily, as I blog and photograph my life?

I was thinking again about the movie we watched on the artist Andy Goldsworthy, and my impatience with his observations about time — time like tide that inexorably rises and time like a river that won’t quit its rushing, and how we are caught up in it. His work relies on using time combined with elements from the natural world. I wanted to yell at him: who needs icicles and the sun, when you’ve got children to pick up for piano lessons? My every day is a study on the relentlessness of time.

I want a study on peace within the relentlessness. Or harnessing the relentlessness to make something bigger and wilder and rockier and freer than one could have imagined, given the boundaries imposed. Maybe that’s what he’s trying to do too. I couldn’t say. I have enough washing away as it is. I want to make time expand.

Here’s a small thought that arose this morning, as I sat and read: Restlessness is a gift. It’s a gift to luxuriate in our imaginations, in possibilities unachieved, in dreams that lie before us and that we are still fortunate enough to dream. That is the meaning on which our lives balance. It is our fortune.

And this post is out of time.

I go walking … as I’m writing

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I would like to announce that this blog post is being written while my feet are in motion. I’m going nowhere, but that’s the beauty of a treadmill desk. I can walk while writing. I can’t walk particularly quickly, lest I get all caught up in a thought and forget where I am (dangerous), and also because for reasons of practicality I can’t really type while sweating and moving my arms, as one does while pacing at a good clip. So I’m trying out a conservative pace of 1 mile an hour.

One nice thing I’ve noticed so far: I often drift off while writing, and need to stare out the window and wait to figure out what comes next. Now I can drift off and yet my feet keep moving, so there’s a sense of continuity, of going somewhere. I am a woman who loves motion.

One not-so-nice thing I’ve noticed so far: I tend to feel a little nauseated for the first few minutes after I step off the machine. I do tend toward motion sickness, and can’t read while in the car, or even turn around to fetch drinks or settle disputes, which is why I am the driver on long trips, and Kevin is the mediator/snack-dispenser. The queasy feeling doesn’t last long, so I’m optimistic that I will get my sea legs, so to speak. My treadmill desk legs. If not, this set-up will still work just as well as a standing desk. The point is not to sit all day.

Photos have been requested. AppleApple took these this morning.

It’s surprising how easy it is to type and walk. But I hope that by typing while walking I will not limit myself to typing about walking, if you know what I mean. I do not intend to announce my writing location every single time I get on here to write.

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I want to thank the many people who responded to my blog post on making mountains out of piles of dirty laundry. Seems I’m not alone in my parenting angst. To update you: little has changed regarding the bedroom floor, but it has been nice to talk about other things with said child. And said child did spontaneously remove clean folded clothes from the laundry basket and deposit clothes into their proper drawers without being asked. So there’s hope.

I feel like this blog is kind of a many-headed monster. It roams the court. One day, you check in and it’s nothing but cute photos of my kids. The next, I’m deep into writer-territory. I get philosophical at times, and at other times I aim to entertain. I have no idea what’s going to come out when I sit down stand up to write. That’s the joy of writing a blog, although I suppose it keeps this blog from being neatly categorized as one thing or another. On FB I follow the Canadian writer Richard Wagamese whose poetical and inspirational status updates are well worth receiving on a daily basis. He posted lately about giving yourself permission to write spontaneously on any subject that comes to you for 15 minutes every day: a writing practice, if you will.

That’s what this blog is, really. A writing practice.

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I’ve spent the day doing chores. It’s made me nothing but grumpy. I’ll never be done. And the house will never quite be to satisfaction no matter how much I do. I did cut one son’s hair, which felt like an accomplishment (that he didn’t hate it felt like an even greater one). But the rest of it: changing bedding, vacuuming under things, sorting and discarding and filing and emptying and washing and folding. Argh!!!!! That sums up my feelings on the subject. The day began with the dogs whining before 7am, so I got up and walked them, hoping the rest of the house could sleep a bit longer. Me and two little eager doggies traversing the neighbourhood through freshly fallen snow. I’ll admit I enjoyed it. But I started at 7 with duties and responsibilities and it’s been nothing but duties and responsibilities ever since. Sometimes I don’t feel like an adult at all.

Or maybe it’s that I’m tempted to play the artist card — as in, should I really be spending my precious time on drudgery! Last night, the two older kids and Kevin and I watched part of a movie on the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy (AppleApple is doing a school project on environmental/nature art). The documentary was a bit slow-moving and I fell asleep, but before I fell asleep I simultaneously found myself admiring the art and the process, and thinking: wow, this man is privileged. “Did he remind you of yourself?” Kevin asked this morning, as we were talking about Goldsworthy’s artistic process. “No,” I said. “He really didn’t.”

And then I went off on a (chore-accompanied) diatribe about how there is a reason that women who have four young children don’t go off and stick icicles together in foreign countries in pursuit of their art (in the documentary Goldsworthy has four children under the age of 10). The reason is: we really can’t. I’ve yet to meet a woman artist whose husband takes care of the day-to-day minutiae, the child-care, and the domestic logistics so that she can be free to roam inside her own head, pursuing her vision, and disappearing, even if only metaphorically, for days at a time. Sure, those of us with artistic inclinations, who also happen to be women and the mothers of young children, find ways to pursue our ambitions and get things done. But in my experience, it’s squeezed in. It’s one among a cascade of urgent and important calls. I’m not sure I’d want it any other way, because I’m not over-keen on the notion of artistic privilege. I think it’s good to get my hands dirty with the day to day, and I accept the challenge of learning to alter my focus and not on my own whim; to let go. It keeps me from feeding my obsessive compulsive side, at least over-much.

So, as much as I’d like to play the artist card, I think it’s best that I can’t. It isn’t what got me here. (And while I’m on the subject of privilege, this also got me thinking about the privileges I have that I may not recognize: privileges that I live inside of, quite possibly in daily ignorance of the advantages granted me by birthplace, skin colour, class, religion, education, and on and on.)

Okay, one final observation about writing while walking. I really do go on and on! I just don’t seem to know when to stop! My sincere apologies for this over-long post, which seems to defy tidy categorization, and which has taken me nearly a mile to write. (And I promise not to report that at the end of every future post.)

This room of my own

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It was the weekend of free stuff. On Saturday morning, my dad called and said they were clearing out their basement and had a lot of items to give away, if we wanted to take a look. Sure, I said. I love free stuff! Very little could make me happier than free stuff! Top of the clear-out list was this treadmill. “I could probably turn it into a treadmill desk for you, if you’d like,” he offered. (He reads my blog.)

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I’d literally just given up on the idea of having a treadmill desk — I’d been pricing out the options last week, and come around to the conclusion that it wasn’t feasible in the short-term. I kid you not, I made this decision on Friday. The very next day, I have a treadmill desk.* (*Technically, I don’t have the desk part yet — it will be a simple removable platform to hold my laptop — but it’s coming soon!)

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Yesterday was a very icy day. People were walking in the street to avoid the sidewalks. I was going stir-crazy from a) too much on my mind, b) driving to Mississauga for an early soccer game, and c) lack of exercise. C) was the only factor I could actually actively affect. Forget the ice outside. I changed into work-out clothes, got on my new (free!) treadmill and ran for 50 minutes.

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As I ran, the kids kept turning up in the doorway. When I stepped off, each kid wanted a turn — and then another. I laid out the ground rules: no one is allowed to use it without supervision/permission, and you have to attach the safety cord. Also, after AppleApple’s trial run, we decided no bare feet allowed. Ouch.

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The results were visible: rosy cheeks, sweaty faces, improved moods, happy dinner chatter. CJ even managed to run for half a mile. AppleApple has devised a treadmill schedule, so that kids can sign up for half hour intervals. (Included on the schedule is a note saying that Mom’s schedule can over-ride what’s on the sign-up sheet. Phew. And I didn’t even tell her to add that clause.)

What’s slightly amazing is how perfectly the treadmill fits in the office, as if this space has been awaiting its arrival. It’s a tiny room, but it can accommodate an awful lot. I’ve got my great aunt Alice’s cozy little rocking chair for reading. I’ve got a small filing cabinet to contain current odds-and-ends and another for office supplies, which also holds my reading lamp. The dog beds fit. The treadmill folds up, which means there’s still room for yoga. I would like to think of this as a space dedicated to reading, writing, research, running, walking, and yoga. It’s a space dedicated to quiet contemplation and reflection, and to physical movement and health. Stillness and motion. Mind and body. The ephemeral and the visceral. A room of my own.

New year’s resolution for the unresolved

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We ended the year on a low-key note — so low-key that I spent most of the evening holed up in my office working on revisions. “You’ve been doing this a long time,” observed a kid wandering in to see what was happening. “You know what I’m like when I get going,” I mumbled, adjusting my ear plugs. Kevin brought me two beers and a cup of chai tea to offer sustenance. I didn’t stop till I was through the whole book. I think, I think, it’s ready to send back to my editor. I hope that isn’t the chai tea talking.

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As the evening progressed, I could hear my family playing Settlers of Catan nearby. Later, they retired to the basement to watch old family movies, not to be confused with episodes of Modern Family, which were interspersed when a certain almost-teenaged family member couldn’t stand to watch another video of himself “making sand” by banging two rocks together or whisking down a slide into a wading pool filled, rather oddly one would think, with mud rather than water.

It was 10PM when I removed the ear plugs, shut down the book, and joined my cozy family.

It was a long and peculiar year. It ended as it should have, I think.

With mere seconds to spare before midnight, we raced upstairs. (We chose CBC radio’s countdown, which was swell right up until it got to 3-2-1 and there was a pause of blank air followed by the dum-da-dum musical chime indicating the news was coming up, whereupon a newscaster launched directly into all the bad headlines of the moment without sparing even one “Happy New Year” to help the listening public transition between subjects.) We hugged and toasted with champagne and ginger ale. The energy dwindled rapidly and people drifted toward activities that made them happy. I, for example, took photos.

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CJ played Pokemon.

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Albus sighed that the evening could have been better, had it contained the playing of more video games.

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AppleApple snuggled on the couch with her imaginary cat, Stella, not to be mistaken for her imaginary snake, Norbert.

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And here is the Fooey sequence, which covers a time-span of about ten minutes.

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This post, to launch a new year, seems to call out for reflection and resolve, and I’m not really feeling it today. Here is what my writer friend Sheree Fitch posted on FB yesterday: “This year, I unresolve. I cannot solve nor be resolute. So I will just keep trying to unresolve: to let go in all ways. Yes, it hurts and is soul-scary. A little fear is not a bad thing.”

(I agree: a little fear is not a bad thing. Fear is what I burn when I’m writing. Anxiety is the terrible underbelly of a project underway and … ok, I’m only seeing it now … unresolved.)

Life is unresolved. It is underway. It is unpredictable.

Watching those home movies last night I said to Kevin, “My God, we were living in chaos. How did we stand it?” After I’d repeated this observation several times, he finally replied, “I think we’re actually still living in chaos.” And I had to look around and admit this is true.

So I guess that’s how we stand it. We’re in it. It’s happening. It doesn’t look like chaos because it makes so much sense. It doesn’t feel like fear because it fires invention and change.

I would like to make resolutions this year, but I can’t think of any not already underway. Run more, read more, write lots. Publish. Be ambitious, be humble, be professional, be kind. Take care of my family, my spirit, my body. Be a good friend. Become a better teacher.

I can’t seem to think big, today. I’m thinking daily. I’m thinking practical. I’m thinking waste not, want not. How do I want to spend my time? That’s an important consideration, of course, but it’s not just about getting to do what I want. It’s also about not wasting time wishing I were doing something else, when engaged in activities not at the top of my priority list. (Driving the kids; cooking supper in a terrible rush; standing on the sidelines at soccer practice.)

Use everything.

Okay, there’s a resolution for the unresolved. I’ll take it.

But first I have to ask: Use it for what?

For light. For entertainment. For love. For health. For connection. For being silly. For questioning. For reminiscing. For stories yet to be written. For wondering. For curiosity. For building strength. For discovering resilience. For practice. For learning. For rest. For comfort. For creativity. For silence, for stillness, for emptying out.

This year I will finish some projects and start others. I will forget more things than I remember. I will wax and wane, tired and energetic, up and down, lost and found, certain and uncertain. I begin by rearranging my bookshelves, sending the kids to grandma’s, and forgetting to eat lunch, again, because I’m writing. (This.)

Forget perfection

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chance of freezing rain

More portable office sessions have followed Wednesday’s. I’m loving it. All these years of working amidst the chaos of a busy home have inured me to noise and interruption. I pop in those ear plugs, my cue to check out of wherever I happen to be, physically.

I like that my book is set in the past, and in imaginary places. I like the sense of escape I feel upon  entering that other world. The work feels light or playful, maybe. When describing my schedule to someone at a party last night — working with a new editor, tight deadline over the holidays, hosting family, no oven, two sick kids — he observed, “That’s a lot of pressure on you right now.” Is it? Oh, yeah, I guess so. Funny how it feels so easy compared to the pressure that I had to manufacture all on my own last winter, when finishing an acceptable draft of this same book. It’s infinitely easier to work with a deadline, with the support of editors, with a wanted manuscript. I can’t even describe the difference. The pressure seems like a celebration, like a party to which I’m thrilled to have been invited. I feel like an actor who’s been waiting and waiting to get onstage to perform, and finally my cue has come. Let me out there! Let me at it! Let me do what I’ve come here to do.

That’s what it feels like.

And the sick kids are on meds and appear to be mending, and the lack of an oven gives me an excellent excuse (not that I should need one) to forget about whisking up the perfect Christmas from scratch. Family is here. Everyone’s helping out. I’m letting them (I have control issues in the kitchen, I’ll be the first to confess).

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accidental tree decoration

Maybe I’ll look back on this holiday as the one when I let things go and came out peacefully, blissfully, perfectly fine on the other side.

At home anywhere

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So there’s a lot going on that isn’t fantabulous*, but I’m still flying high after yesterday’s successful plot to turn any-damn-where into my office.

Look at this. I’m editing my book while at my daughter’s swim lessons, laptop on knees, bathed in the ambient glow of the Coca-Cola machine, with students slumping by in their squeaking wet boots, lost, opening the doors to the squash courts, lost, squeaking past again. The one guy went by four times. I know because he was on crutches, so he emitted a special thumping dragging sound in addition to the wet squeak of his boots.

At the next location, I used ear plugs. These are bright orange and not the least attractive, but made me feel even more at home.

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Here, I’m editing my book while at my daughter’s soccer practice (same daughter, same evening), leaning on her giant backpack for support, in a high-traffic zone, peopled with buff sweaty basketball players and exhausted-looking parents dragging young daughters who were dragging enormous hockey bags. We’ve never entered the Canadian world of ice hockey, but its equipment looks more cumbersome and expensive than that required by soccer or swimming.

The other soccer parents greeted me and graciously left me alone. I worked for the entire evening, conquering one problematic scene, and hurtling partway through another, interrupted only when I looked up to see AppleApple coming toward me, holding her soccer ball. “What’s happening?” I said. “Is practice over already?”

“Already!”

She’d been running around a gym for an hour and a half, so fair enough. It was hardly already to her. But it was to me. And that’s a wonderful thing. Best Christmas present ever!

* list of unfatabulous things: sick CJ (strep throat); oven can’t be fixed; therefore, need to buy new stove; therefore, may need to reno kitchen to add range hood; therefore, it’s doubtful we’ll have a working oven before the new year; therefore, holiday menus need revamping; also, house is a disaster and we’re hosting Kevin’s family Christmas with everyone arriving tonight; and tomorrow is a PD day

Actually, this doesn’t sound so bad, now that I’ve written it out. I’ll run the vacuum, make the beds, scale down the elaborate cooking and baking plans, and use the extra time (not cooking and baking) to write — which can happen anywhere, beside any child’s athletic or musical activity! Because my office is now portable!

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