I usually show photos of our house and yard looking its best. So here’s an alternate view. This is our house and yard (and shed-like garage) looking, well, less than handsome. (The flipped-over wading pool and abandoned sprinkler don’t help).
These photos were taken soon after we cut down several trees in our backyard. I’ll admit that I felt despairing as I assessed the mess. I miss those trees. Taking them down is all part of a long-term plan to bring more sunshine into certain areas of the yard–and next summer, more vegetables. But short-term, let’s just say it looks ugly. The rusty garage is exposed. (Weren’t we going to cover that garage with siding?? It was at the top of our to-do list when we bought the house eight years ago. Funny how priorities change). The house itself looks sort of forlorn and crumbling, an old, shambling, rambling kind of house, like the one I imagine for Meg’s family in the children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. Which isn’t so bad, really; it’s just that I never noticed before.
The photo above, and the next one, were taken a few days later, when I was feeling better about the general state of our backyard affairs. In the interim, Kevin worked really hard to clean the yard. Either things really do look better, or I just think they do. Don’t tell me which it is, please.
Owning a house means participating in a perpetual work in progress. It’s very metaphorical. All the changing, shape-shifting, rearranging, and repairing. You can look at this yard and see who we are as parents, as a family, guess the ages of our children, get an understanding of our priorities, our finances, and our ability to put into action our intentions.
I like where we’re at. But we’re never done.
A few entries ago, I wrote briefly about reading Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours. I would love to type out an entire poem here, but without having permission to reproduce it in full, will give you a link instead (and do read it in full), and quote the final four lines of what is probably her most well-known poem: The Summer Day.
She is writing about prayer. She says she does not know what a prayer is, but she does know how to pay attention: “how to be idle and blessed.” She has spent the day in what might appear to be idleness, strolling through fields, kneeling in the grass, examining the grasshopper. She asks:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everyone die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Yesterday started with unexpected news from my mother’s family: the sudden death of one of my cousins’s spouses, mother of two, only 43. They live in another country, and I can’t say we’ve seen them more than every other year or so. But the day was nevertheless altered by the knowledge of this family, not far removed from my own, suffering an unimaginable shock and loss. What comfort can there be for her boys? Her youngest son is the age of my eldest. There was no preparation, no advance knowledge, just in an instant, one precious life gone. She is no longer in this world with her family.
What waits around the corner? What secret end is hidden inside the body, waiting to reveal itself in time? Nobody knows.
And so, Mary Oliver’s wise and bright words came again to me. No wonder they are quoted so widely. No wonder. Because, yes, everyone dies at last and too soon. And we are all alive, right now. If you are reading this, you are alive. Life is wild. It can’t be tamed, or made safe. It’s all any of us has really got. What are we to do with it? What a question.
Here’s what I did yesterday: hung laundry on the line, made yogurt, smelled my children’s hair, jumped on a trampoline, ran through the woods, cheered from the sidelines of a soccer game, drifted, fought impatience, struggled with my children arguing with each other, and wondered … what more? Or even, what less? What do I plan to do with this one precious life?
Monday night. Twice-stuffed potatoes, sausages, red cabbage salad. Potatoes leftover from Apple-Apple’s supper the night before. Excellent re-use of leftover baked potatoes, sliced in half, emptied out, insides mixed with cheese, crema, and mashed up brocolli and cauliflower. Red cabbage salad recipe from a friend (onion, mayonnaise, vinegar, and maple syrup). We cut each sausage in half, because there were only five. Kevin and I got one half each and the kids divvied up the rest.
Tuesday night. I ate alone. The kids went to a pancake supper at their grandma’s church, with Kevin, while I went to a yoga class. I made a house-favourite, mashed-potato soup, to be served as supper the next day. This “mashed-potato” soup contained quantities of squash. Basically anything goes into this soup, which does contain potatoes, too (though not mashed). Once it’s cooked, I zap it with a submersible hand-held blender, and hurray, instant happiness around the table. But I ate a bowl alone, tonight, and stored the rest in the fridge.
Wednesday night. Wednesday is always a crockpot supper. I tried out a new recipe with underwhelming results: a lentil and rice pilaf, which would have been far superior cooked on the stove. It was mushy, though smelled pretty good while cooking (cinnamon stick). Luckily, there was also mashed potato soup to warm up and serve. We ate together, between music class and Apple-Apple’s soccer.
Thursday night. I ate alone. The family ate pasta with red sauce. Kevin forgot to put out the greens. I cooked up the red sauce from scratch earlier in the day, and Kevin cooked up the noodles. It’s a good meal for the evenings when I’m out at yoga class. Which is where I was. I came home, and devoured a couple of bowls of pasta, along with the greens. That night, our youngest got sick, so we cancelled our babysitter and I missed kundalini yoga.
Friday night. I ate alone. This is starting to look like I eat alone a lot, but I feel like this week had to have been an anomoly. Kevin took the two girls to a pizza supper at one of our churches, Albus was at a friend’s house for pizza followed by the boys’ soccer (lovely parents feed our boy pretty much every Friday), and CJ was home with me, sick. I fried up a package of frozen spinach with cumin and garlic and onions, and ate it over leftover quinoa. Then I ate two pieces of pizza, which Kevin brought home for me. Kevin dropped off Fooey, and immediately left to take Apple-Apple to her goalie practice (soccer, again). Did I mention the pre-supper skating? The kids were all worn out. But also excited, because it was the start of their March break holiday.
Saturday night. Supper out! We went for all-you-can-eat sushi, and ate our money’s worth. Even CJ, who was still sick, discovered a fondness for cucumber maki, and ate at least six. This was such a treat, and it felt like we were on holiday, for real. We pretended we were at Disney (a place I fully intend never to go). I don’t know why, but it really felt like we were in Florida. We stayed for almost the full time limit, and everyone was beautifully behaved, not greedy, and shared the food. When we went home, we had a family drawing time at the dining-room table, and then a short dance party in the living-room. Considering the still-sick child, and the interrupted nights, and the 16km run that took up a large part of my afternoon, it felt like a real holiday.
Sunday night. All I wanted was not to have to cook supper. Yay! Kevin did it. CJ and I took a nap in the late afternoon, tucked up together in a chair. Kevin made tacos with black beans (which I’d cooked earlier in the day), and hamburger, and lots of fixings. It was an excellent meal, but with the time change, we realized it was nearly 7pm by the time we’d finished, and therefore too late for our planned family movie night. The kids were disappointed, but we let them watch part of a Harry Potter movie, while I did the dishes and the laundry. Everyone got to bed late, but slept soundly. I woke up feeling much more like myself again.
Part of me wants to write a blog. Part of me thinks it would be more appropriate to write in a journal and close the pages afterward.
One thing to note: I had an excellent writing day on Saturday. For some reason, focus landed in a heap. Better than focus, it was creative energy, and all I had to do was follow the flow of images and ideas. It was a story that I had not planned to write, that came up the day previous; we’ll see whether or not it holds long-term, but it certainly climbed out of me whole, like it had been waiting to be written. I love when that happens.
In terms of the book’s structure, I am seeing it in a very complete way in my mind, seeing what remains to be written. Today is meant to be a writing day. But I have not entered into the manuscript yet, despite the empty house, and the empty cup of coffee. I feel tired, and contemplative. I am thinking about my grandma, whose body was buried yesterday, and I am thinking about what that means …
And this is where I should get out the journal and write privately. But something in me wants to tell how moved I was to stand beside her body, and to speak quietly to her. It was a moment that may not have happened, had Fooey, five years old, not been utterly fascinated by her great-grandma’s body: she asked me to hold her up. She had questions about every detail: Why was Grandma wearing her glasses when she couldn’t see anymore? Why were her hands folded? Why was she wearing a necklace (I hadn’t looked closely enough to see that she was). As we stood there together, I found myself becoming comfortable with the presence of a body emptied of its spirit self. In the past, in similar situations, I have felt–well, frightened–but instead, I felt … okay, somehow. It wasn’t my grandma lying there, it was her earthly body. It was what remained after a long life had ended. We could say goodbye to her.
At the burial site, the minister said that this was as far as we could walk with the body of (she said my grandma’s name, which I won’t). I found that profoundly moving. We could only come this far.
AppleApple said something that struck me afterwards. She said that she felt like she was trespassing, as she looked at her great-grandma’s body. That was the word she used: trespassing. It wasn’t how I felt, and I’m trying to understand what she meant: maybe that without the self to animate the body, the body is somehow unprotected. That there is a fundamental vulnerability. That she is gone, and just like it would feel like trespassing to walk through an empty house and take things that do not belong to us, everything we take from her is now one-sided, forever after, because she is no longer here to offer these things herself. Or maybe AppleApple simply sensed that we were trespassing on something too private, on the body’s still and silent forever rest.
I don’t know.
Rest in peace, Grandma.
Today was supposed to be the start a writing week, which would include this weekend, and every day of the coming week. Though I’m still not prepared to announce details, I am already working with an editor on the latest draft of The Juliet Stories, and expect the ink to dry on the publishing contract fairly soon, at which point I will shed superstition and tell. Suffice it to say, there is work to be done, and I am glad to be doing it. But twelve hours a week does not feel like enough time in which to accomplish what I want to do. So, Kevin kindly offered to help me make more time. Writing weeks are hard on everyone, require a ton of extra scheduling and planning, and are, frankly, a gruelling way to produce new work. But I’ve found them to be an extremely efficient use of time. The last writing week, I wrote two new stories while spending my days and nights completely lost in my own head. I need that level of focus. Therefore, the planned writing week. But early on in the planning, it seemed the week was already being chipped away at: AppleApple’s eighth birthday happened to fall during the week; there were necessary parties and cakes to be made; then The New Quarterly contacted me about their fall launch–yup, during writing week. But we decided to go ahead, largely because this was the only week that could work before the new year.
Yesterday morning, my grandma passed away. How quickly plans change. How easily they can be changed, when something critical arises. How little the little problems matter. Of course, we will be at her funeral–no matter when it falls. What could be more important than taking time to honour her life?
I am looking at a photograph of my grandma holding Albus. He is six months old, a drooling fat baby, nearly wriggling out of her arms. She is so completely herself in the photograph. A small smile crosses her lips as she gazes down at him. Her hair is done, like it always was. I think of all the ways that she was there for me, even though we lived at a distance. I remember the angel food cakes that she made for many of my birthdays: with strawberry icing. We were frequently travelling on my birthday, which falls between Christmas and New Year’s; I remember on several occasions that we blew out candles and ate Grandma’s specially-made cake for breakfast, before my family set out on a long birthday drive home. Her recipe for sugar cookies (a very unusual cookie that looks and tastes like a muffin top) was the last recipe she gave me: I phoned to get it a few years ago. She was already showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s, but she was able to read me her recipe, which was for a batch twice as large as the one I make (and which is posted on the blog). She had lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren to bake for. She not only produced enormous batches of cookies and other baked goods, pickles, and all manner of canned foods; she also worked outside the home for most of her life. I never heard her complain. She was possibly the most composed person I’ve ever met. She could be relied upon to bring calm and dignity to any situation.
So. This is what this writing week will bring instead: memories, family time, and a batch of sugar cookies. Who knows, it may bring some stories home, too.
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