A heartfelt shout-out to the Canadian medical system. This has been a week of appointments, unexpectedly, and a week of waiting in waiting rooms while trying to meditate (I always choose the word PEACE on which to focus, and inevitably wander off topic; the ubiquitous holiday music piped through various office settings does not, somehow, bring about the most PEACE-FILLED reflections).
On Sunday evening, in my soccer game, I got hit in the head with the ball. Why were you playing soccer, of ye of formerly-injured brain, you might ask? To which I would reply in a querying tone, I don’t know, it was fun while it lasted? I even had a fan along — my eleven-year-old, who was coming to take notes and offer coaching advice (she had lots, although she was wise enough to keep these tips to herself after the ball-to-head incident). I was having a pretty nice game, in fact; I feel compelled to tell you that I’d scored a goal and set up two others, and that we did go on to win.
But it might be my last game, in truth.
It turns out that this weird shadow in my vision, which burst out the instant the ball hit the head, and did not go away, could have been a retinal tear, a quite serious condition, apparently. But I have good news! All of these appointments culminated in yesterday afternoon’s, when I was told that the injury was a bruise on my retina and not a tear, and I will not need surgery (nor the weeks of bed rest that surgery might have required). It was a good thing I knew almost no details about the surgery option in advance. Kevin did all of the medical googling and kept me blissfully ignorant about the worst-case scenarios.
I do have some mild concussion symptoms, and yes, I am taking it easy, and yes, I do need to (and will) lay low for the next week or two as my eye and brain recover … I promise … (as I try not to think about the stack of marking, the dog-hair-infested house ahead of the weekend of hosting, the child’s debut as Puck in her play, the impending season of gift-giving … deep breath, meditate, PEACE …)
End of summer. I haven’t gone to boot camp all summer, and haven’t been getting up early to run, either, at least not regularly (vacation times have not coordinated well with my running friends). So I’ve been sleeping in more, or possibly staying up later, or a combination of both. I’ve also been walking with Kevin and the dogs before the kids are up, then heading off for a solo run through the park. This morning, it was cool and misty, and my skin was damp almost immediately. I recognize the 7AM park regulars now. The man with the big dog who says hello. The older couple who walk to the park together, and then the woman walks around the main loop while the man runs for a bit. The younger man with the huge white fluffy dog. The two young women wearing backpacks and Birkenstocks who, I’ve deduced, are counsellors at the soccer camp that runs out of the park. I see construction workers, and watch for changes at the LRT stop at the north end of the park. Some mornings there are great clouds of smoke and dust, and I have to dodge cement trucks, but this morning I must have been a bit early, because it was very quiet.
I run through the grass immediately after tracking around the construction site. This morning it was wet and my shoes got soaked, but I like how buoyant my stride feels on grass. It’s only about a 5.5 kilometre run. While running along a woodsy-path this morning, I said to myself, this isn’t that hard, really. It’s not that hard, but it’s also not exactly easy, to push myself to get up and go, legs ticking, lungs pumping.
I haven’t been running toward a goal. Or I have been, but it’s not a goal with an end that can be defined, or a finish line to be crossed. I’ve been running for my brain. If you google “exercise linked to brain function, news” you’ll find tons of recent articles on the effects of exercise and memory, exercise and aging, exercise and cognitive function. Interestingly, different types of exercise may have different positive effects on the brain: the kinds of activities and team drills that I run for my soccer team improve visual-spatial processing and attention, while aerobic exercise has been shown to improve memory.
Thirty minutes of daily moderate exercise is an easy goal to set. I’m keeping it simple. Dog walks count. Even jogging around the field with my soccer kids counts. If I gardened, that would count. This summer I’ve been easier on myself. I’ve lowered my expectations, or perhaps simply tried to home in on what matters most, and focus on that … and not worry about what I’m missing or lacking or not managing to do.
This easy-going summer. It’s coming to an end. I’m not really ready to let it go yet.
These blossoms have already bloomed and fallen off the little apple tree in our back yard. I can’t keep up, that is what I’m trying to say. Today, I went for a run at noon and the word relentless came into my mind. I don’t like that word, I thought, running on, enjoying the run, because it was pain-free. Okay, then, what about the word relent, I thought, and no that word did not suit what I was doing, nor what I wanted to do: continue.
On Wednesday night I visited a book club. I visited the book club after a day that included an early morning walk with the dogs; biking to see this daughter at her school track meet; biking to the university library to work between races; biking home for lunch; driving back for the final race of the afternoon in order to take this daughter to piano lessons; driving to pick up youngest and bring him to piano lessons; home in time to eat and quickly clean up from supper; driving this daughter to soccer practice. By the time we were home again, it was almost 8:30. And then I went to the book club. I did not leave until I’d made sure this daughter was collapsing in her bed rather than on the couch. I texted Kevin, who was at a soccer game with another child, to please check in on the kids when he got home. And then I spent an hour at a book club, a warm, friendly, thoughtful, generous group of women. It was 10 when I got home. Tea, snack, finish cleaning up, last load of laundry, bed. I can’t tell you which of these activities I chose to do because I wanted to, and which I felt responsible for doing and therefore simply did.
Up again at 6AM to run with a friend.
It is puzzling. What is it that I want to be doing? I have no idea. I’m so busy doing things that I don’t really have the need to ask that question.
Last weekend, I was here, on Lake Huron, spending one night at a cottage with girlfriends. Same weekend: I led a writing workshop at a nature centre; and got home from the cottage in time to see my thirteen-year-old in a performance of Macbeth (her second production of said play this spring).
Relentless? Relent? At some point, during longer solo runs, a mantra will enter my head in rhythm with my stride. Here was today’s: Powerful strong. Whispering light. A reminder to keep my stride both strong and light.
Relentless/relent. Dig in. Lightly. Continue.
Balance. Is there such a thing? I’ve stopped looking.
This week, I biked to the university library on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, where I took over a carrel on the 9th floor and did research. Personal bliss. But every day can’t be spent zooming through the park and poring over dusty old books. On Monday, I volunteered on a class school trip to city hall, and today I am home with a sick child, who was up half the night, but is now drinking tea and told me I could go and blog. She is reading.
I’m really not kidding when I say that researching at a library is just about my happiest state. Researching, writing. I could do this all day. I don’t even take snack breaks.
Which is why it was odd to find myself, last week, spending a full day as a children’s entertainer at a school, reading my book The Candy Conspiracy to approximately 450 kids, and filling in the space around the reading with age-appropriate activities. I even brought my pineapple ukulele. I was pretty nervous in the lead-up (see happiest state, above). I tested my plan with my live-in focus group before unveiling it to the public: the 8-year-old sang along happily to my made-up songs; the 10-year-old informed me in no uncertain terms that I would be embarrassing myself. Ergo, kindergarten through grade two got to sing and pretend to be Juicy Jelly Worms and Clever Children. Grades three through six got a more traditional author visit, with a Q&A and a make-your-own book project. Each session lasted 45 minutes. At the end of the day, I crawled home and collapsed into dreamless sleep on the couch, like a toy whose batteries have run out. Apparently Robert Munsch did coke. I forgive you, Mr. Munsch.
This is feeling like a randomized news roundup. Let’s continue. This morning I went to boot camp and pulled a muscle in my back. Now I can’t look to the left. I’ve been writing in the car in the evenings when I take my eldest daughter to soccer or theatre, or, like last night, both, back to back. Here is a list of the books I’ve read since leaving France: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin (you must read it even if you’ve seen the movie!); How Should a Person Be, by Sheila Heti (so Canadianly weird); Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; a bunch of short plays; and one more play called Yellowman, by Dael Orlandersmith. None of these are the dusty old books I’m poring over at the university library.
Today marks 21 years since I met my husband. We always remember the buds on the trees busting out overhead. This morning, while he took our sick child at the doctor’s office, I walked the dogs up the street with our 8-year-old to meet his walking-to-school buddies, and he pointed out all the things that were coming to life around us: the tulip in our front yard (only one, randomly placed), the strawberry patch, the buds on the trees. It’s happening! Instead of going on a date tonight, Kevin will be driving our oldest daughter to Oshawa for a soccer tournament. I will be tending a sick kid and prepping for her team’s first soccer festival (non-competitive tournament) tomorrow, which it looks like she’s going to be too sick to play at; but I’m the coach, so I will be there. This is what 21 years has brought. We can do this! From randomized news roundup to randomized positive self-talk. Let’s stop here.
If I were to write a blog post today, I would reflect on the past five days of utter solitude, days during which I rarely spoke out loud; there were several days when I spoke to no one in English. I read, I noodled, I listened to podcasts and surfed the news, emailed Kevin, ate pretty good food, kept to a reasonably regular routine, wrote and edited the museum piece, and went for several runs and many more walks.
I was not bored.
I was not even particularly lonely, except for the morning when I woke up with a raging bladder infection. Good thing I carry antibiotics with me in case of such an occurrence. Yes, that morning I was lonely and in pain and felt far from home and prone to worst-case-scenario thinking, but even that morning, I understood that I was self-sufficient and knowledgeable enough to cope with the unexpected crisis.
During these five days of solitude, I haven’t been lonely, I haven’t been bored, and I haven’t been restless either, not restless of mind or body. The body has taken care of itself. I’ve gone for long walks, and finally on Sunday felt a twinge of anxiety that whispered — you need to sweat! So I went for a run, and ran and ran and ran on the beautiful trail, discovering only afterward that I’d gone nearly 9 km, the longest and least painful run in many many months. Today, I ran again, pushing even further as I could feel my body beginning to trust that it would be okay: nearly 11 km. How joyous it is to run without pain; I’ve been injured for so long that I’d forgotten the joy of pushing against the ordinary discomforts and limitations of a body being asked to run — breath, heart, muscles, endurance. Running with a chronic injury you feel all these limitations, but you feel also a terrible dread that springs from pain from a different source, pain that whispers, Are you doing yourself damage?
For the month of March, my theme was health. This month, it would seem natural to name my theme: travel. But strangely, I think instead it’s: paying attention. The theme has arisen because I am travelling, and also because I am alone. What I’ve been paying attention to are my own interests, whims, rhythms, appetites, and desires. How often in a person’s daily life does an opportunity like this present itself? I’ve fantasized over the years about going on writing retreats in the middle of nowhere, and someone told me about a retreat where you do yoga and ride horses (not at the same time) that sounded fabulous, and a couple of years ago my mom did a silent retreat that intrigued me. But the risks seemed too great (the risk of it being a waste troubled me), especially given the heavy load of responsibility I’d be leaving on Kevin’s shoulders while away. So I never pursued these ideas.
I didn’t pursue this trip, either. It just landed in my lap, and because it was work-related, I said yes.
I thought I was saying yes, in part, to a writing retreat. I was excited to see what I would make with all this free time. (And I’ve made something interesting and specific related to the Museum’s exhibit, but it belongs here, and will stay here.) Why am I not writing my new novel? I thought, as the week went on. I tried, but the words felt dead. Yet the words, here, in my daily meditations and on my blog, these words felt alive. They interested me. And so I’ve been writing after all, just not the material I’d pencilled into the schedule.
Something else happened as the week went on. I stopped panicking about what I was not doing. I stopped worrying about what I should be doing. I started paying attention to what I wanted to do.
I wanted to read. So I’ve been reading: a David Sedaris essay collection (which has a story set in Normandy, as it happens); Ali Smith’s brilliant novel How to be both that somehow merges the world of a 15th century painter with a British teenager from the now, and weirdly also happens to be a book about sitting and looking at paintings, which I did not know when I chose it for this trip; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, on black bodies in Amercian history and the present, which challenged me, moved me to tears, and has inspired me to think differently about Dreamers and Dreams (and he’s going to be in Rouen THIS SATURDAY at the same bookstore where I had an event on Thursday, and I must figure out how to go, because, honestly, how is that even possible?); and now I’m trucking through Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I wanted to write. So I’ve been writing. Mostly things like this. Scraps. Ephemera.
I wanted to rest. So I’ve been resting.
Most of all, it seems, I’ve been resting my mind.
It’s taken exactly 13 days of rest to recognize that I may already be writing what I’m supposed to be writing. I am writing what has come to me, which is all we can ever do, when we’re trying to make something out of what we love and believe.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ve been anxiously searching for purpose down dead ends, without seeing what is open before me. Wide open, like that field at the end of our street when I was a child in Managua, with its dusty path and matted grass and garbage and crumbling concrete walls — the place my mind travelled to when I wrote the phrase: open before me.
I will probably never be content, exactly, with what I’ve made. But maybe, just maybe, I can be content with what I’m doing.
P.S. Just thought of my word of the year: PEACE. Yes.
At the beginning of this year, I had the idea of choosing a theme for each month, something I would particularly focus on, no matter what else was happening.
January’s theme was daily meditation and writing.
February’s theme is writing, travel and rest. I did no writing while travelling. None. Instead of writing, I rested—it was mental rest as much as physical rest. The time spent driving proved unexpectedly peaceful, as if my mind had been craving space. How often do I let myself stare out the window, how often do I let my mind wander? There are moments, certainly, throughout the day, but these are of necessity brief, fleeting.
Spacious wandering. Staring out the window. Can I do this more often? Can I give myself permission?
I was ready to write again when we got home!
I was also ready for a few changes. In keeping with February’s theme of rest, I am trying to get more sleep. This means going to bed earlier. I managed to be in the bed with the lights out before 10PM all week, and it made the early morning exercise so much easier, and more sensible.
I’m also five days into a two-week experiment with giving up caffeine (especially coffee). I’d been drinking a lot of coffee, and in truth, it seemed to feed my nervous energy and anxiety. Peppermint tea is an okay replacement; I can’t complain (can I complain?). My insides feel steadier. Rest.
As in January, I continue to meditate. This week I’ve been combining meditation with movement because it keeps me awake. It also gives me a chance to practice some kundalini yoga at home.
I haven’t chosen a theme for March, yet.
Other themes I’m interested in exploring in the months ahead include: reading (imagine sitting and reading for a whole month!), research, music (songwriting/recording), photography, yoga and meditation, swimming, writing fiction by hand. What would be on your list?