Category: Big Thoughts
reading in bed
I’m sick and in bed. It’s where I’ve been all weekend. I missed our annual Robbie Burns party, in fact. (Not to sound too over-pitying but the photos above and below were taken during the party. I spent the night at my mom’s instead, with the younger kids, enjoying live-text updates from the party by Albus, Kevin, and my friend Zoe, who had baked Kevin a birthday cake, as we still have no oven. It felt ever so slightly like being there, as I tried to help her locate one lousy birthday candle somewhere in our entire house; she did.)
The one upside to being sick and in bed is all the reading I’ve been able to do. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I lay around devouring books at this pace. I love books, but I’d forgotten how much I need them. When I think back on my life, I realize that I remember in specific detail sitting and reading, or lying in bed and reading, in many different rooms and seasons, and at many different ages. The winter after I’d turned twenty, I lived in a basement apartment with my brother, and we had no television, and the internet, as we now know it, had not been invented (or at least wasn’t available in our basement apartment). I used my computer much like a typewriter: to write papers and poems. And I read for entertainment. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice, maybe for the first time, and all of J.D. Salinger, for the millionth time, and Anne of Windy Poplars, which I still read every once in awhile, just because.
This weekend I fell in love with a book: Born with a Tooth, by Joseph Boyden. Well, it’s short stories, and I do fall for short stories. If you haven’t read it, seek it out and do. I’m certain some of the themes that seed his novels are planted here, and perhaps not as fully developed, this being his first book, but I don’t mind, not at all. These are stories that will gut you, and make your heart ache, and maybe take your spirit somewhere deeper too.
I also read an entertaining cowboy-noir tough-guy book called All Hat, by Brad Smith, which got me through a really crummy Saturday.
And now I’m reading Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. More stories. If I find out a writer I like has written short stories, that’s what I go and seek out. I love them. I find it odd that I haven’t felt like writing them, myself, for awhile. It’s almost like poetry. The urge to write a poem comes and goes — goes for years, lately. And then suddenly comes again. I seem to be thinking in novels instead, since Juliet.
shadow of our house
My profound thought of the day is that everything in this world comes down to land and stories. But now I’ve forgotten why I formed the thought. My brain feels muddy and my eyelids are heavy. Land and stories. I was thinking that war is almost always about land, but not just war — conflict of all kinds. What does it mean to possess land? To claim it? To take its riches? What claim do we have on the land we call ours, both personally and nationally? And then stories. I’ve been thinking how much stories matter. They matter in ways we don’t fully appreciate or maybe can’t take in. Stories are alive and changing, flexible, they can answer the questions we hardly dare to ask, and they can corner us, too, and pin us down. The person in control of the stories is the person with the power. Maybe even more powerful than the person with the land, when you get right down to it.
This could be the fever talking.
Outside, winter winters on, temperatures burning cold, snow whirling, wind whipping. Maybe I will remember this time of reading, years from now, and the stories that filled me up.
A little more on Christian Wiman, I think, having finished the book this morning. (I mentioned this at supper and Albus said, “Doesn’t it usually take you a really long time to finish a book?” and I went, huh? And then oh! Finished reading a book, not writing one. Yeah, that I can do in a morning, though this book took me every morning of this week, and I could likely sit down and read it all over again and find all new material that chimes true, and differently, a second time around.
Then I went and looked up Christian Wiman online, to see, rather morbidly, whether he was still alive (he spent seven years writing the book, and during that time was undergoing treatment for incurable cancer, so my compulsion to know wasn’t completely out there). He is. I found an interview he’d done with a very kindly looking man named Bill Moyers, whom I’ll admit I’d never heard of. (On a side note, I suspect I would enjoy watching more of Moyers’ interviews.) (On another side note, this must have been a “watch random videos” day, because I’d started my morning with a lecture by Brene Brown, whom everybody but me probably already knows for her work on vulnerability; and I liked it, too, and her message about how to be with people in need, but it didn’t speak to me in the same way that Christian Wiman’s book did, maybe because I didn’t have to work as hard to claim to understand what Brown was saying. Maybe I like working hard to figure something out, like the insights are more earned and therefore more personal to me, more personally valuable for being more challenging.)
Where was I?
Oh, the interview with Christian Wiman. Two things. One, the interview is worth watching if you like to hear poets read their own poetry. He reads several. Two, the part where he says that he doesn’t feel like a poet. He says it’s only when he writes a poem that he feels like a poet. He added that it’s different to write prose, and maybe that’s partially true, but I know that I feel the same way about writing fiction. I don’t feel like a fiction writer during the in-between times. I don’t even believe that I can do it — except when I am.
Tonight I am sitting beside an indoor soccer field. I can write this, it’s true. It doesn’t feel like a struggle, more like a pleasure. But it’s simply a record of where I’m at. It lacks structure and larger purpose. It isn’t meant to last. But even as I write that, I wonder, what the heck is? Isn’t it presumption to think it, that one might ever work on something meant to last?
“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.
“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.
“… 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.
“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 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.
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.
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.)
A habit I’m reinstating: yoga, once a week. I went to a free class on my birthday, and renewed my commitment to practice more regularly, and not just in my office (although that counts too, and is valuable). I like being pushed, in a class setting, to hold poses longer than comfortable. I like the community feeling, too. And I’ve become excellent at savasana. I’m serious! When I started practicing yoga, four years ago, I hated lying in the final pose, and had to force myself to be still and stay in the room. I was absolutely itching to get up and get going — after all, the hard work was done; what was the point of lying around?
Now I open my eyes and think, Uh-oh, there are only two people left in here, and the next class is waiting to get in. And while I haven’t been asleep in savasana, I have been away. It’s that away-ness, that emptying out, that I’m committing to again this year. I remind myself, again, that I can’t grab for things; that isn’t how it works. The things that are truly worthwhile arrive, alight like the gifts they are. The moments we live for. I’m not saying sit back and relax while the universe takes care of everything. I’m saying, prepare yourself always for these moments of grace, and recognize them when they come. That’s all. Choose work you love, if you can, so that the process always seems to be renewing and refreshing itself, so you’ll always have more to learn, so you’ll stay curious and engaged.
After yesterday’s class, I found myself reflecting on the word “discernment.” (Fellow Mennonites are likely to be familiar with this word.) It’s a word I’ve long disliked. At worst, I suspect it of being code for “refusal to decide” or “failure to take a stand” or “terminal wishy-washyness” or “paralysis of purpose.” (Can you tell I would flunk at committee meetings?) I’m not against reflection or debate or consideration. But at a certain point — and who’s to say when this is? — the discernment must end and the decision-making begin.
Or maybe that’s my problem with discernment. Maybe I don’t like for discernment to be artificially separated out from action. Maybe the way I figure things out is to do, to try, to practice, to hash it out along the way, to stuff my foot in my mouth from time to time and learn the hard way. Maybe I believe less in coming around to clarity, than in going on gut and whim and instinct. I really don’t know. Too many questions, too much guilt, too much worry about being politically correct or causing offence, and I grind to a halt, afraid to do or try or say anything. But the opposite of discernment is Rob Ford: shameless empty entitled belligerent self-pitying posturing. There’s got to be a middle ground. There’s got to be a way to be in this world that is considerate and out-spoken, compassionate and practical, whole and vulnerable, open and strong, clear and welcoming, thoughtful and active.
There’s got to be.
That’s my savasana reflection, from January 9th, 2014. Perhaps this will be the first in a small, ongoing series.
It’s the day before my birthday. I get all contemplative at this time of year, and on this date, specifically. I’ve got journal entries from Dec. 28th (hand-written) going back a decade or more, reflecting on the year past and hopes for the future. Something about reading over these entries fills me with melancholy, though I can’t quantify why, exactly. It’s not because I wish things had gone differently. Maybe it’s the passage of time, generally. Maybe I recognize that I wasn’t always so confident or certain. That shouldn’t make me sad, though. I had to be who I was to become who I am. Today I read the entry from 2005. So much of what I’ve accomplished since then seems improbable. So much could not have been predicted. I had no inkling that I would devote a year to triathlon and marathon training, nor could I have imagined the confidence and determination gained by training and racing. My parents were still together at that point. My father-in-law was still alive, as were both of my mother’s parents. I suspect those losses, yet to come, shaped me, too, and that grief and struggle made me into someone slightly different, someone more open to challenge and conflict and error.
The truth about becoming a better writer is that it’s a long-term process. You start with a flair for language, a love of story and words, as a young writer; you may have a gift for innovation or for structural sense, enormously important building blocks to work with. But it’s patience, only, that will make you a better writer, as you practice the craft faithfully and with hope, while you wait for life to tell you what matters to you, and what it is you want to say, what you want to put into the world. I think about that now. I didn’t used to, so much.
I’m okay with getting older. I’m so much more at ease being me, living in this body, aware of my own limitations and flaws, and comfortable pushing against them, when I feel inspired, or settling right into them, when I’m just plain tired of trying to be better. Sometimes good enough is plenty.
I’ve embraced my own high expectations. I haven’t been crushed by them.
This past year has been an odd one. This is the year that gave me Girl Runner. Wow. This was also the year of employment uncertainty and the stress of financial strain, of unexpected expenses and hits. This was the year I got turned down for virtually every grant and job I applied for. Yet somehow this was also the year of out-of-the-blue serendipity: job offers and book deals. This was the year my writing earned me a good living. Wow, again. This was the year I did not get a hair cut. Yikes! This was the year I applied for midwifery school, got in, and decided not to pursue that career route. This was the year of the concussion. This was the year I taught my first course. This was the year I didn’t can anything. The year we got a dishwasher. The year I drove more kilometres in support of my kids’ activities than I’d ever dreamed possible. The year my green dreams faded to a paler shade.
Here’s what I wrote in 2005 about parenting, and it rings so very true all these years later: “Basically what I want for my kids is the world to be open for them, and them to feel comfortable within it, never excluded or discouraged.”
Maybe I wanted that for myself, too. Maybe that’s exactly what I’ve found and what I continue to try to nurture, for all of us: to be participants in the world around us.
We do a lot of asking for things, searching and applying and imagining ourselves elsewhere, making our requests. It’s part of participating in the world. Maybe getting turned down and turned away is part of participating too. So often what comes to us, when we’re open, is not what we’d asked for or anticipated. We just can’t know. Maybe that’s what makes me sad, on this day of looking back and looking ahead: I really can’t know. There is no way to prepare for what’s ahead. How to let go? How to be open to what the world has to offer, to be determined and ambitious and demanding of ourselves, and also at peace with what we’re given?
I’m a little bit terrified of looking ahead at the year to come. If all goes well, here is what will happen. I will finish Girl Runner and see it published here in Canada. I will get a good head shot (and that long-neglected hair cut). I will research toward a new book, and start writing it. I will consider teaching again. I will play soccer again, come spring. I will return to running longer distances. I will practice yoga blissfully in my peaceful office. I will get a standing desk or even a treadmill desk. I will see my children do wonderful things: play soccer, swim, play piano, do gymnastics, play with friends. I will enjoy their company. I will continue to be blessed in my marriage.
If I write it all down, I fear it won’t come true. I want to knock on wood. Conversely, I want to write it all down and not fear at all what may come, because it’s only by hoping and dreaming for the best that the best can come to pass. That’s what I’ve learned. Forget superstition. The fear of dreaming and possibility is really the fear of disappointment. And tough though it is to accept, disappointment can be overcome. Much more difficult to overcome is the refusal to imagine, period.
So, here I am. December 28th, 2013. Dreaming big, as always.