This tangential post is brought to you by an x page exercise, written during last week’s workshop (week 2 of 12), in the company of other women, in response to the prompt word: PARTY. It must have tapped some essential emotion, because I came home and kept writing till it felt done. I’d like to call this fiction, but maybe more accurately it’s a version of poetry, instead. (Where were you at age 20, and what were you doing, and hoping, and dreaming of?)
Phil’s $1.50 drinks
I am at Phil’s, an underground bar where the pipes overhead are wrapped in asbestos and the drinks are $1.50 on Wednesdays, but they must really water them down because I need to drink at least four to feel anywhere near tipsy. I’ve invited everyone I can think of, I’ve telephoned, left messages all over town. Friends are here, some have come, but no one is happy. The bar is too empty, the friends have no money either. Wet salt patches melt from our boots on the floor.
I had forgotten, or wanted to forget, why I used to love this place—because I’d come here during the day when I was a first year student, with a friend, Rich. (Now I’m in third year.) I had a car and he did not, even though I was no more than 17 or 18, and he was 21 or so. I would pick him up in my red Honda Civic, and I’d do my laundry (maybe he would too, but I don’t remember that now), and we’d sit by the pool tables and play cards in the middle of the day, drinking coffee. Gin rummy was our favourite game. It felt like we were the only people there and maybe we were. The good feeling I had on those afternoons seems irreplaceable, now. A feeling of possibility, excitement, tenderness, desire, amiable companionship. Rich was funny and he made me laugh, he never made me feel like I was wrong to be a goofy silly earnest person.
I’d forgotten all of this till exactly now, and now the friends I’m with don’t satisfy me—we’re too much the same in our longings and dissatisfaction—I want different, other, more, but Rich doesn’t live here anymore, and anyway, he never loved me like I loved him, if obsession counts as love, which I seem to think it does. What do I know about it? About love? I’ve mixed it all up with other things. Obsession feels like I think love should—dangerous, exciting.
I’m 20 now and feel so old when I look in the mirror. I finish my diluted drink and go to the gross damp women’s washroom, where one time I saw the lead singer of the Cowboy Junkies washing her hands, and I stand in front of the mirror and check my own eyes—not drunk enough, not interesting enough (as if these were the same thing). I see fine wrinkles around my eyes—could it be? “I’m getting so old!” I go back out and shout to my friends over the music. But they are too. We are so old! And we maybe hardly know each other really at all, we’re just proximate to each other, accidentally revolving around each other. We are so lost. Lonely. Alone.
In this mood, I take my misery to the little raised dance floor, even though no one is dancing, and I dance holding onto a fresh drink, gin and tonic in a flimsy plastic cup with a slice of lime floating in the bubbly mixture. I’ll promise anyone anything to get them to join me at this party that is not a real party. I’ll promise, but I won’t follow through. I can’t drink enough to get myself drunk, so I throw it down on the dance floor, metaphorically, to make myself feel something, anything, in my lungs. I’m smoking, at that time. You can smoke, at that time, indoors. Soon, this will end too, like everything else. I can see all of us dispersing, shot wide into the rest of our lives, fanning out in different directions, toward the parts of our other selves that are drawing us like magnets, while we, we, we, a mere two decades into inhabiting our bodies, prepare to part from whatever this era is, a time of loss, and exploration, poverty, and unrecognized riches.
My coat is ugly and it slips to the floor and gets stepped on, spilled on, but I’ll have to wear it home at the end of the night. I’ve spent my money on drinks, tomorrow I will eat a packet of Mr Noodles and lie on my mattress on the floor of the basement apartment I share with my brother (it will flood come spring), and I’ll read all of Pride and Prejudice, cover to cover, just for fun, laughing and crying and yearning and dreaming. I haven’t met the man who will become my husband yet. I don’t have an email account. I can’t imagine a cellphone and we have no tv. I have my books, a telephone with an answering machine, and enough money in savings to get myself partway to drunk on Wednesdays at Phil’s (I’ll buy cigarettes but can’t afford cheese; I have these priorities).
But every night, even on this night, after brushing my teeth and before going to bed, I sit at my desk and write poetry. I write about the things that happen to me, and the things that I wish would happen to me, and the language, words, images entrance me, as if they were magical forms, and I were a witch casting spells on myself, I were a person from another time come to bring myself back to earth, inside my body, filling all of it with the silly goofy earnestness that is actually my version of joy (though I don’t know it yet), whispering you are enough, you are sufficient, you are alive, you are not alone.
You are a whole person, or you will be; no—you are, you already are.
The secret to writing books is to give yourself a ridiculous expanse of luxurious empty time and space to dream, play, and not do anything that taxes the mind with external cares.
Is this true? Well, I’ve found it to be true.
It means you might not do much else with your day, your hours. You might cook dinner. You might go for a walk, or a run. You might see a friend. You might do a puzzle. You might scroll through Netflix watching the intros to thirty shows as entertainment before bed.
I struggle justifying how much time is spent on staring out the window. Or writing things that don’t turn out, writing draft after draft after draft. So many words assembled tenderly, hopefully, excitedly, only to be discarded.
If this is what it takes to write books, is it worth it? Who am I serving? Just myself?
Well, what if the answer is yes? Yes, I’m serving my writing, at the expense of many other things I could be doing with this one precious life.
What makes you feel purposeful, as you go about your day? What tells you, gut-deep: you are worthy? I don’t know. I’m asking.
It’s a funny thing to be a human, to want to be purposeful, to want to make decisions independently, freely, but to be inextricably embedded in a culture, context, generation, family structure, biology, language(s), place.
I notice that I easily accept the value of tasks or actions that measurably help someone else, like donating blood; concrete chores also have value, and doing them feels valuable, like laundry and cooking; it’s also easy to measure worth by monetary reward, doing X and receiving Y in return. In my experience, writing is generally untethered from any of these logical measurements. But I don’t believe anyone’s worth rests on external evaluation; or on evaluation, period.
You are worthy because you are fighting it out here on planet earth.
You are worthy because you are worthy.
I drew that cartoon a few days ago. I keep returning to look at it. There’s something there that’s whispering to me: peace, and calm, and acceptance, and worthiness. I’ve been drawing daily cartoons again, as a way of journaling. I draw a moment I want to remember, and on this particular day, the moment I wanted to remember was being asleep and dreaming about my new book, which has a tree on its cover — the dream vibe was contentment.
This is a photo of a squirrel eating tinfoil on our fence; there was also a cardinal, but he took off and is the streak of motion in front of one of the blue chairs.
The days have begun to whirl again. After such stillness and waiting, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I’m trying to declare the weekends sacred, and Sundays for meditation, reflection; a worthy aspiration, at the very least.
The truth is that I feel energized after a long quietness. So I’m not resenting an upsurge in activity even as this new stage unfolds and unfurls. But I must be cautious, awake: I don’t want to drift back into the non-stop tumble in which we found ourselves, pre-pandemic.
But, listen. It’s good. I’ll have news to share soon on a couple of creative projects. I’ve got work that feeds my heart and mind, and wonderful people around me and radiating out in expanding circles in whose company I delight, and from whom I am continually learning. I’ve been hanging laundry on the line. My children make music in the living-room. The gardens are bursting and blooming. What more do I need?
(Well, it would be nice if everyone in this house each had a chore they really loved … the way that I love doing laundry… and if that chore could be complementary, say, if someone just loved cleaning bathrooms, and someone loved vacuuming, and someone loved clearing the counters … now that would be heaven.)
But listen, too: our community, our country, our land, the whole world, it is shook up and reeling and in pain and in need, and we can’t fall asleep or wander half-dazed into how it was before, we need to be AWAKE and AWARE and CURIOUS and HUMBLE. I want this place I live in to be a little bit better because I’ve tried, in whatever ways, no matter how small … and that means stumbling, and being quiet, and apologizing a lot of the time too. There is so much to learn, and so much pain that cascades through generations. Every ceremony, every ritual, every practice, every meal I cook food for someone else, every time I stop and listen, pause, listen, pause, reflect, sit, still, breathe, laugh, hug, cry … no action is neutral. This past week in Canada, 215 children were found buried in a secret grave on the grounds of a former residential school, and this is our present. This is not history. This is our now. So much cannot be fixed, must not be forgotten; bad governments, bad systems, hierarchies built to maintain power, no matter the costs. And here we are, human beings, whirling and bumping into each other, trying, trying, trying to figure this out. Individuals trying to look each other in the eyes, to listen, to say, You matter. I’m sorry. I want to help. Help me?
Slow down, sit, listen. Someone is trying to tell you something (not me).
That’s my present, right now. That’s my goal. Slow down, sit, listen. Breathe. Pay attention. Burn something, that too. A candle, a stick of incense. Ego.
Context: A student introduced me to the Hourlies project, wherein you draw a cartoon marking each waking hour over the course of a 24-hour day. I’m going to assign this as our class’s Reading Week homework. Fortuitously, I decided to test it yesterday/today, on what would become a snow day, and therefore essentially useless to me for other purposes.
Observations: I couldn’t do this project while doing any other project requiring sustained attention. But I’m playing around with ideas for how to do it again — perhaps once a month, or perhaps, when I’ve got time to spare, doing a marathon version over a week; and I’m brainstorming about how to do it as its own standalone project. I really really really did not want to stop today, and in fact made an extra panel (there are two 4:00PMs). I learned a massive amount, which you can see for yourself by comparing the first panel to the last.
Feedback: Welcome, please.
I would like to write more here. But it has to come naturally. I’ve been writing in other places; in my notebook, mostly while teaching but sometimes at other quiet moments during the day; on screen, too. There aren’t so many quiet moments. Most of the moments are more like the ones pictured above.
I want to write about heartache and discontent and anxiety and bruising effort. I want to write about not giving up. I want to write about my dishevelled house, and how it reflects my dishevelled life; neither feels under my control. I’m wandering through the chaos, trying to keep track of the bare minimum, whatever that might be. Meeting deadlines? Providing the occasional meal? Showing up on time? Showing up at all — while spreading in all directions are needs unmet, leaves and sticks dragged in and chewed to shreds by Rose the puppy, dirty dishes on every surface, dirty laundry on every floor, dog beds, dog toys, shoes to trip over, and as far as the eye can see, stacks of books and papers and bills and the parts of a homemade car being crafted for a physics project, glue gun, twisted wires, discarded wheels.
I want to write about the quiet moments, so that I remember that they exist. That I can conjure them into being. I want to write about clearing space. What is space? What is this desire to fill it? Is it inertia that fills space? (It’s so hard to keep space uncluttered. I don’t know how to do it.) What would it feel like to walk through this house and not see anything that needs doing? What would I do with more space, more quiet? Would my dreams expand? The breath in my lungs? Would I feel more settled or less settled?
This is a week of transition, of return to routine. Our evenings are relatively quiet for most of the month, thankfully, as the soccer season ends and gives us a respite of a few weeks. This is good, because the kids are tired. And grumpy. (Oh yeah, I’m tired too.) Meanwhile, I want to keep track of what’s working, what’s changed, and what habits we’ve carried over from summertime.
Music practice: This happened quite rarely over the summer, when everyone takes a break from lessons. Lessons started this week, and so did regular practicing. AppleApple makes her own schedule and sticks to it, mostly practicing immediately after school (piano and French horn; no cello this year, as orchestra has been removed from her class’s curriculum, sadly). Fooey and CJ practice before school (violin and piano, respectively). Fooey goes first, and I accompany her on piano when she requests it. CJ is in his second year of piano and needs me nearby to help with finger positioning, musical details, and, mostly, moral support … and the will to continue. Yesterday, I tried combining his practice time with some light exercise (for me) because, frankly, it’s quite tedious to hang around calling out “quarter note!” and “check your hand position” and “sounds like a sharp!” (I am my father, good grief). Anyway, that whole exercise/musical instruction combo didn’t really work. I kept having to drop the kettle bell mid-lift and those things don’t drop well. Tangent alert, post-tangent. Sorry.
Chores: I have a list on the chalkboard of the kids’ chore categories: Dogs; Laundry; Dishwasher; Garbage; Set and Clear Table. Let’s break it down.
Dogs: AppleApple is supposed to feed the dogs. But they’re eating fancy food after a (let’s not talk about) bout of stomach woes, so Kevin has been doing that. She is also supposed to walk them from time to time, which happens occasionally. Fooey is supposed to keep their water bowls full. That happens only when I notice and remind her. She does clean the fish bowls regularly, however.
Laundry: I wash and dry a load or two (or three!) of laundry every day. Each of us have a labelled basket in the basement into which our clean laundry can be sorted. It’s each individual’s job to carry his or her basket upstairs and fold and put the laundry into drawers. Sorting the laundry into the baskets is the kids’ job. CJ is too small to sort effectively, so he is in charge of folding and putting away the leftovers that don’t have individual baskets: dishtowels, napkins, etc. A penalty is applied if the laundry is very poorly sorted: this requires oversight and judgement on my part. After all, even I have trouble figuring out whose underwear is whose. (The penalty is to have to sort the laundry again the next day, rather than it moving on to whoever is next in the line-up.) I also don’t pick up dirty laundry from the kids’ bedroom floors: if it gets in the hamper, it gets cleaned. This takes a great deal of restraint on my part. I hate seeing dirty clothes piling up! But I’m doing it for the team.
Dishwasher: Each kid has a designated quadrant of the dishwasher to empty. In summer, the rule was the dishwasher had to be emptied by 11AM; if you forgot, you emptied the whole dishwasher yourself the next day. I must say this method of setting child v child was enormously effective. Fooey in particular would gleefully announce at 11:01 that so-and-s0 had forgotten. On week days during the school year, the dishwasher has to be emptied before school.
Set and Clear Table: We’d meant for this chore to be shared equally, with the boys setting the table and the girls clearing every evening. But that never happened. Instead, what’s happened is that I ask whichever child happens to be around to set the table, hang the unfairness and griping. And everyone carries his or her plate to the kitchen after eating. It’s not much, I admit, but it’s better than nothing.
Garbage: Albus is supposed to sort the recycling, and carry the bins in from the curb on garbage day. That did not happen much over the summer, and I forgot to remind him about the bins when he got home from school yesterday. Yes, the thing about chores is, people need reminders until it becomes habit.
Breakfasts: We’re aiming for high protein breakfasts to get everyone off to a good start. Kevin is making a giant pitcher of smoothie in the morning: fruit, yogurt, kefir, almond milk. I’m also keeping boiled eggs in the fridge for breakfasts, lunches, or snacks.
Lunches: Albus and AppleApple have been packing their lunches for awhile now — it’s habit. Fooey decided to start this year too. She has been working on her “knife skills,” and can now slice up an apple like a pro. (On day one, the apple looked like it had been hacked apart with a hatchet.) I get the kids to write food requests on our grocery list, posted on the fridge. Anyone know where to find seaweed snacks for cheap? Everyone loves them!
Suppers: Our current routine involves me and Kevin texting back and forth around 3:30/4PM with meal ideas. Kevin can pick up ingredients on his way home. Obviously, these last-minute meals tend to be quick and easy. Last night we made pad thai with shrimp and tofu; it took us under an hour, and that was all we served, literally a vat of pad thai. Side note: Albus is excellent at making meal suggestions (that’s the hardest part of meal planning, IMO: trying to think up something different/healthy/appealing to feed everyone every single gosh-darn day). I also really like the Cookstr website for recipes, and I sign up for their weekly email newsletter, which is frequently inspiring.
Homework: This applies less to the younger kids, but Albus started high school this week, which comes with more homework and tests. He also gets home from school relatively early. I’m encouraging him to take the opportunity to do homework immediately on arriving home: grab a snack, sit at the dining room table, enjoy the quiet house. AppleApple sets her own daily/weekly/monthly homework schedule, and is diligent about making plans and sticking to them.
Exercise: I plan to continue running two mornings a week with friends, and doing one early morning boot camp, and one kundalini yoga class. I would love to swim one morning a week with AppleApple, but I’m not sure either of us can manage the early hour. I’d also like to run on the weekends and do a hot yoga class once a week. AND I’d like to start a mini running club with my kids (and any friends who would want to join), after school, running around our block in a 1-kilometre loop, so kids could decide individually how far they wanted to go. For this to happen, I will need to schedule times and dates.
In fact, for anything to happen, it must be scheduled. Inertia is a powerful force in our daily lives. Advance scheduling is the antidote. (I’m not against spontaneity, you understand; but the truth is that I’m far more likely to spontaneously watch a show on Netflix or scroll through my Twitter feed than I am to, say, go on a nature hike with my kids after school, or catch up on work-related emails, or grab two hours for myself to do yoga. You know? You know.)
And I’ve now spent well more than 15 minutes blogging … a spontaneous blogging spree. This will have to last a few days.