Last night, I read the news that Leonard Cohen had died. Immediately, I wanted to call my college roommate, who introduced me to his music and poetry. She was the one person on earth who I wanted to talk to, to say, have you heard the news? I feel so sad. When Carol Shields died many years ago, it was my mom who I wanted to call. It is as if relationships are embedded with art, or art is embedded with relationships, intense, personal relationships. A song is more than a soundtrack to an experience, or some songs are. Some songs are experiences.
I learned to play piano by ear by playing Suzanne and Bird on a Wire.
That’s an experience.
I’m writing this while listening to CBC Radio Two’s special on Leonard Cohen. So my thoughts are scattered. I’m listening to Leonard Cohen sing Suzanne, in fact.
Yesterday, I went to two movies at a feminist film festival playing town. Both movies were labours of love, the filmmakers following their subjects for years. The first movie, called Driving with Selvi, was about an Indian woman who became a taxi driver; but it was also about child marriage, and forced prostitution, and the precarious existence as a young woman unprotected by her family or the law. Through it all, Selvi’s radiant personality shone like a beacon of joy and gratitude, for all that she had. The second movie, called The Apology, told the story of three women, known now as the grandmothers, who had been forced into sexual slavery in World War Two by the Japanese military; all were teenagers when they were kidnapped, two were 13 or 14. I watched this movie with my mom and my almost-14-year-old daughter, and we wept. A lot. The grandmothers carried so much pain, decades of hiding and shame, and yet here at the end of their lives, as they protested to publicize this hidden chapter of history and supported each other, it was their dignity that shone through. They were tired. But they had a vision for peace and healing.
Both were Canadian-made films, by female directors.
Both were an antidote to the despondence I’ve been feeling. These were not perfect stories about perfect people with perfect endings. These were stories of perseverance and injustice and work and hope and love. These women, in both movies, were so loved.
I went for a run this morning, a pathetic wheezing run into the chilly wind, and I went with a friend, because I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. My friend told me that she wished her work involved making things; to which I replied that I wished my work involved doing things. We laughed. We wondered if we were on the right track, in that general way that people wonder; is it too late, am I locked in, now, now that I’ve devoted myself to a single pursuit?
I think, way back when, that I wanted to be an artist, the way the Leonard Cohen was an artist; I think this is what I imagined, along with my college roommate, when we listened to his songs and read his poems. We imagined ourselves immersed in ideas and emotion and symbolism and significance, which sounds abstract, but felt, in the moment, intensely real, like we would be swimmers in a great universal ocean, like we would be poets.
Wherever I was going with this post, it’s gone. I’ve lost the thread.
I think we have much to struggle against now and going forward. Art is where I’m turning for comfort. Art is what I’ve got, and so far it’s the only answer I can give.
I am walking into Waterloo Park through the entrance by Father David Bauer Drive, my bag heavy over my left shoulder, filled with everything I will need for class tonight. It is cold but I’m starting to sweat under my pink jacket, which I bought on sale two and a half years ago, when I spent some of my earnings from my book on cross country skis, and this jacket, now a bit dingy and dirty.
It is the first day this fall that I have worn the pink jacket to teach.
I walk through the gravel parking lot and past the skateboard park where two young men are showing off their tricks. They’re pretty good. I admire their focus and their bursts of energy followed by relaxation. I notice that the trash I stopped to pick up last week has not been replaced by more trash, and I feel satisfied; perhaps I feel self-satisfied.I look to the swing sets and I am so happy when I see him, there again. Last week, he wasn’t here, and I wondered if something had happened to him, or even if perhaps I’d invented him or imagined him — he is a teenager, an older teen, who sits on the swings every Tuesday afternoon at 4 PM. He doesn’t just sit on the swing and look at his phone, he swings, pushing himself into the air, pumping his long legs. His bicycle is parked nearby. My heart is happy to see him — I feel this literally, a little popping of happiness under my ribs.
And then I’m on, not stopping to watch him, of course, not stopping at all, only glad to know he is there, a grown kid, swinging back and forth, faithful to some impulse only he can know.
I cross the bridge over the little creek. And through the trees on the little dirt path to the vast parking lot.I forget and step onto the pavement, rather than walking the narrow strip of grass along the edge of the parking lot, like I always do. Quickly, I step back into the grass, but is it too late? Too late for what. You’re being obsessive compulsive, I tell myself, the universe does not care whether you step on pavement or grass. Your habits and rituals are here to serve you, not to ensnare you. I know, I know; I don’t stop until I reach the road, the long line of cars stretching in both directions like a fast-moving river.
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.
How to sum up an experience like Omega, you ask, sitting in your office, once again, with a dog curled alertly at your feet? A child has just rushed in to tell you that she has gotten to 7 juggles (of the soccer ball, with her feet) in the “summer juggling camp” organized by your husband, to keep your children active and entertained, while you were away.
You were way for six days, but it could have been months. It could have been that you fell down into a different world, unrelated to your own, as vivid, as real, but somehow without connection to your own. You crossed a drawbridge that let itself down, into a small, contained universe which you inhabited almost like you’d become a child again.
You drew pictures. You wrote by hand. You went to class. You ate meals provided for you, and you compliantly accepted the food that appeared, eating something called “chickpea scramble” for breakfast every morning, almost obediently. You napped on pillows under a table with your fellow classmates. In the evening before bed, you went to tuck shop and bought a snack. You swam in a swampy seaweed infested lake. You laughed till you cried with your friend. You had a camp name. You were, in fact, a child at camp, again.
There were marvellously awful moments, such as when you struggled in full-on sun, sweat pouring off you, to erect an enormous, ridiculous tent, while the campers nearby reminisced about recently hiking the Appalachian Trail, popping up their compact tents in mere minutes. You almost cried, running in the heat to seek out duct tape—for the love of God, duct tape!—to repair your ridiculous and broken tent. And then you slept in luxury on a queen-size mattress, inflated with a motorized roaring machine that irritated those hardier neighbours who had recently hiked the Appalachian Trail.
There was the morning you rose at 4AM to attend a two and a half hour kundalini yoga class, that consisted largely of sitting cross-legged whilst chanting under the instruction of a tone-deaf guru.
There was the heat, the thunder storm, and the morning you had to take the rain-soaked tent down and pack up in the mud, only to be confronted by a breakfast of turmeric-soaked lentils immediately afterward.
But this was bliss.
It was blissful to spend hours every day writing and drawing. You didn’t know you could draw. You didn’t know you had characters inside of you, their faces waiting to be seen, their hidden emotions so certain on the page, present in a few quick lines you’d sketched there. After class, you would find your way back to the classroom to work—writing and drawing, drawing and writing. Determined as a child. Delighted as a child. You would want to thank this genius teacher, whose genius is her delight in the process, and her generosity. There was no waste in Lynda Barry’s class. Time was honoured. It was honoured with work, and it was honoured with rest, and it was honoured with delight in what you were all making, individually and together.
You went on this adventure, and you came home again.
But you’re still there, you think. Half of you is still there, safe and bewildered and surprised and elated.
Thank you, Lynda Barry.
Last Sunday, I posted this photo along with the following caption on Facebook: I have been given these two notes and told to wait in my bedroom while the gifts are being hidden. Meanwhile in the bedroom across the hall, the eldest child is still asleep; and down the highway, the second eldest child is playing a soccer game in Oshawa. I’ve already walked the dogs, fed a neighbour’s cat and planned today’s soccer practice, and I’m wearing running gear in hopes that it will inspire me to go for a slog/run in the sunshine later this morning. What are you doing for mother’s day?
Here’s what happened next:
Daughter opens bedroom door, hands me a note, which instructs me to look for a remote control toy car in the bedroom she shares with her brother (oh yeah, we mixed up the bedroom configuration again: the two eldest get their own rooms, and the two youngest are sharing; I agreed because they came to the solution together and everyone agreed).
Anyway… I walk to bedroom, find remote control car, which has note affixed to it: Follow me!
Son proudly but silently picks up remote control car and heads to the front stairs.
Daughter: (admonishing tone) Those are the wrong stairs!
Son looks confused, drops remote control car, car tumbles as if in slow motions down to the bottom of the wrong stairs, breaking into pieces as it goes. Moment of shocked silence.
Me: It’s going to be okay.
Daughter: (to her brother) You’ve ruined everything!
Me: We can fix the car!
Daughter and son: searching for lost batteries, can’t find last one.
Me: Can I help you look?
Daughter, downstairs, closes door to area that may contain secret surprise. I find missing battery, put into car. Car doesn’t work.
Daughter: This was his idea!
Son: (silently trying to get remote control car to work)
Daughter: We should go with Plan B! That’s my plan! Not his plan!
Me: (tapping car, shaking car) I think the car is working now. (car moves several inches, stops dead)
Daughter: (retreats to nearby room where the secret surprise is waiting) It doesn’t matter anymore. Everything’s ruined.
Me: (quietly to son) What was Plan B?
Son: (whispers) I don’t know, but I think we were going to use string.
Me: (louder to daughter) Should we come down the other stairs instead?
Daughter: It doesn’t matter!
Me: (smacking car a few more times) It’s working again, let’s just keep going.
Son: (silently maneuvers car through doorway, I follow, into room containing secret surprise)
On the table is a jar of freshly picked tiny spring wildflowers from our backyard, and a paper bag with a gift that son has carefully carried home from school on Friday. It is a clay bowl, the fourth one I’ve now received for Mother’s Day. Apparently there is a kiln at school, in the basement, it is reported to me. The clay bowl is full of notes detailing all the things I can now get for free: 1 free help clearing the table, 1 free walk the dogs, etc.
Me: But this is lovely! (sits down)
Daughter: (bursts into tears) I don’t even have a gift for you! Because I wasn’t in school on Friday! [she was sick] And then he had to do his plan.
Me: But you picked these flowers! And these notes are from you, aren’t they? Or is your brother supposed to give me all this free stuff by himself? (joking tone)
Daughter: (wiping tears) No, they’re from me too.
Me: All I really want for Mother’s Day is to see you having fun together, and it sounded like you had so much fun planning this….
Son: (a bit miffed) You already have four of those clay pots?
Me: (shouldn’t have mentioned it) Now I have four. I only had three before. (pause) I guess this will be my last clay pot.
So … the construction of the above scene may give you a hint as to what I’m working on now, perhaps foolishly, definitely without provocation. I just want to do it! I’m writing a play. It is not a play about Mother’s Day, it is not autobiographical, and I have no idea what will happen when I’m done writing it (assuming it’s any good), because a play is meant to be seen and performed, not read like a book. And what do I know about that?
In unrelated news that my brain wants to make related, the Canada Council has just announced a juicy one-time grant in celebration of Canada turning 150 next year. The grant is called the New Chapter. I would love to figure out how to participate by pitching a project that would “encourage public engagement in the arts” and “promote outreach locally, nationally, and internationally.” (Not sure I entirely get what that second clause means in practical terms.) I want to be a visionary, but my strength is doing stuff, not making stuff happen, not pulling together a bunch of disparate pieces and spinning them into something like the amazing Terres des Paroles arts festival I participated in while in France (which would be an example, to my mind, of what a New Chapter grant could and should be used for here in Canada) … where X artist from discipline A works with Y artist from discipline B: i.e. writers and actors collaborate to create performance pieces in small Canadian museums; or actors perform readings from books; and it all happens in small towns.
Is anyone out there applying for this grant? I’m curious to know whether artists even know about it. It sounds like an opportunity for collaboration. And just thinking about it makes me feel a little bit lonely and disconnected, in all honesty. I can’t seem to imagine who, what, where, when, and most of all how …
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