As she comes on stage, the stadium lights up, the plastic rubbery wristbands we’ve slipped onto our wrists suddenly alive and pulsating with colour, to the beat of a song I don’t recognize. There is a collective inhale, a gasp, as we prepare for this spectacle, and recognize its announcement, its arrival.
She is here.
She is wearing sunglasses and a jacket and very high heels. From where we are sitting, high up in the highest, remotest seats of this concrete bunker, she is dollhouse-sized, but her face, her stride, is simultaneously captured and broadcast onto two wide screens that flank the stage. I don’t know the first song: Welcome to New York. But she’s just getting warmed up.
The third song is Style.
She strides down the narrow runway, but doesn’t come quite far enough. It’s like she’s teasing the audience, walking forward and back, but never to the end of the platform that stretches out into the audience below, those who must have paid astronomical fees for their tickets. I want her come to the end of the runway. I wait for her to come all the way down, where we will be able to see her clearly. I think that she is deliberately teasing us, and I am impressed that desire can be invented so easily, so strategically, by the simple act of denial. The semaphores in this show are simple and effective, the narrative clean and crisply delineated.
She takes off her sunglasses, she pulls off the jacket, as if now we will see her for who she is—a doll-like creation of red lips and pale perfect skin and arched brows. She is dressed in black, the outfit cutting across her pale skin, sectioning her up into pieces. I wonder how she can stride the stage in such a short skirt with such confidence.
But is it confidence? I think, but do not say to my daughter, that Taylor Swift is not singing. She is not even doing a particularly good job at lip synching. After having heard the first two performers, both young men, sing and play their guitars with flair and emotion and talent, this is disappointing. I admit to initial disappointment, as she whips off her sunglasses and disrobes before us, and holds the mic at an unlikely distance from her lips, her mouth moving out of synch with the words that are soaring through the air: We’ll never go out of style, we’ll never go out of style.
But I will forgive her for this lapse later in the show. Because the singing is the least of what she is attempting: What she is attempting is the creation of spectacular flashing moments, a montage that tells a story—the story of Taylor—replete with fleeting images, shimmering, an illusion of perfection, an illusion of intimacy, as gutsy as it is implausible. Later in the evening, when she is spinning around in the air at the end of the runway, which has been tilted and raised high up on a mechanical arm, later, when she is being whirled counter-clockwise before us, grounded to the platform by thin wires, playing or fake-playing chords on an electric piano, balancing in her high heels, hair swinging and swooping over her forehead, chased by high-wire cameras, projected onto enormous screens, all while singing into a microphone, I will forgive her for singing over a recorded track, singing only partially. I will admire her willingness to be on display in this feat of daring, and to display for her audience only the most idealized version of her experience of this moment.
Even when she struggles to move the microphone from her hand, where it has been strapped, into a microphone stand, she does not comment on the trouble she is having, she smiles and continues to talk to us about friendship, about how she has an easy way with friends, and can feel as close to someone she’s just met as to someone she’s known forever, if this someone (could we all imagine it is us?) is authentic and trustworthy. Finally, the microphone slides into the stand. She has not burdened us with this technical irritation. She doesn’t complain, she refuses to draw attention to it. The show churns onward, making its own pace.
The plastic wristband warms my wrist oddly, in an electrical manner that disturbs me, but I do not take it off. When we arrived, we found that wristbands were taped to the back of every seat in the stadium. When we first slid the wristbands onto our arms, it seemed almost cultish, all of us willingly submitting to the mysterious plastic band, with no concern for what it might do to us. We trusted implicitly the glossy promises of Taylor Swift, her relentless optimism projected onto the screen before the show began, along with her stories about her cats, whose names my daughter knows. “Really, you know their names?” She shrugs. Sure. As if everyone does.
When the wristbands light up and flash and fill the stadium with a pulsating glow, I willingly wave my arm in the air, as instructed, even though my skin gets hot underneath the plastic, and even though I have to wrap the plastic around my palm to keep it from sliding down under my coat sleeve. The woman next to me, who has also come with her pre-teen daughter, dances wildly in her seat, sings breathlessly, gasping and giggling, while her daughter sits rather rigidly; I catch the girl observing us when I glance in her direction. The woman stops herself sometimes, as if embarrassed, but is again overcome by emotion. She knows the words to every song.
I know the words to three songs.
My daughter knows the words to a few more, but not many. We are here because her dad and I thought it would be an exciting and surprising birthday gift; she had written in a school project last spring that this was one of her dreams, to go to a Taylor Swift concert. That’s something we could actually do! we thought, her dad and I. So. We are here for the show, for the novelty of it, and for Taylor Swift whom we both like, if only abstractly—we turn up the radio when her songs come on and sing along, but our admiration doesn’t go a great deal further. We are here together, witness to what the power of money and imagination can create on a vast stage, for the consumption of a broad audience.
“Hi, I’m Taylor,” she says as she marches down the runway, early in the evening. She sounds nervous, swallowing her words, but even this might be an act.
Because I have so recently been so exhausted after performances on a completely different scale, I wonder at her ability to pull out this magnitude of a performance, night after night. I wonder at her willingness to go on, city after city, show after show. But when she stands at evening’s end to receive the applause ricocheting off the closed stadium roof and the girls’ screaming, I think, how could this not be addictive? How could you not believe the stories being told about you? You are a blank slate for the projections of millions of people, and your words are being sung back to you in unison, and your very body, your very flesh and blood is a recipient of this adulation. You absorb the warmth from all these people, here for you, and you become in this moment as near to being one of the gods as a human can get.
When I first heard the lyrics to Style on the radio, I said to my daughter, “I don’t really like this song. It’s not my favourite.”
“I’m doing a dance to it in gym class,” my daughter said.
“She’s kidding herself if she thinks she’ll never go out of style. Style comes and goes. She’ll be old someday too.”
I might have been missing the point. My daughter might not have been listening.
“Also, it’s such a vapid style she’s describing. ‘I’ve got that good girl thing in a tight little skirt.’ Is that what she’s saying? It sounds like that’s what she’s saying.” It is approximately what she is saying. I look up the lyrics later: “I’ve got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.”
That’s a bit different, message-wise, a bit richer.
But I don’t like songs about good girls, because it’s us against them, good girls v bad girls, and who are the bad girls? What do they do that’s so bad? And what do the good girls do that’s so good, come to think of it? Who is telling them they are good or bad? I also don’t like models for girlhood who teeter in high heels, their exceptionally skinny bodies exposed and hairless. But I do like that this young woman is an extraordinarily powerful presence on the stage, and that she talks to her audience in a way that appears personal, promoting messages of trust, vulnerability, no shame, and strong female friendship.
And I do so very much like that the next morning, after the concert, when my daughter crawls into bed with me, and I say, “What do you think Taylor Swift does when a show is over?,” my daughter says, “Well, she probably has to help take down the stage. And she probably needs to eat something. And maybe take a shower and go to bed. I think she sleeps in a trailer.”
She probably has to help take down the stage.
“We do not want merely to see beauty … we want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see.” – C.S. Lewis (as discovered on Twitter; follow @CSLewisDaily for more quotes)
Today marks the second week of summer holidays. I’ve put over a thousand kilometres onto the little car since Thursday morning. I’ve been across the border, stuck in traffic jams, meandering back roads, standing by soccer fields, hauling various bags, buying food that will keep in the heat, making and executing miniature step-by-step plans to get one kid safely to the places she needs to be at the right times. She is now safely at overnight camp with her sister. I am safely at home, in my office. But I couldn’t keep her entirely safe. Her team made the final at the tournament, but she was injured in their third game in a bad fall. This is parenting one doesn’t want to have to do: watching from the far side of the field as a medic checks out your kid, then, after the game, helping your kid understand and accept that she likely won’t be able to play for the rest of the tournament. We need to think long-term, the parent says, and the kid says, I really want to play! Maybe if I rest it overnight and ice it and … Yes, maybe, but, says the parent, taking the long view, knowing that injuries will happen in contact sport and a week or two of rest will pass in a flash, while an injury worsened by poor management could dog a player for weeks, months, more …
So she cheered her teammates from the bench in their fourth game on Saturday afternoon. She woke yesterday morning optimistic, and dressed for the match. Her coach let her play a few minutes in the final game, but she ran like she was stiff and in pain, so he decided, wisely, not to put her back on again. I was relieved. She understood. The long-view won the day.
Here’s part of what I wrote on Saturday morning, waiting for that third game to begin, the one in which she was injured, when I didn’t know she would be; I hadn’t read the C.S. Lewis quote, above, yet, either. But I think I was choosing to write for the very reason Lewis pinpoints: to be united with the beauty we see (if we go looking for it).
In Ohio. I sit in a collapsible chair behind my car in the shade on a warm morning, the fourth of July. It’s Independence Day in the United States, and I seem to be in a quintessentially American scene: wide blue sky, gravel parking lot, trucks and cars lined up, not neatly but askew, claiming space, because there is so much space, and just beyond the short grassy hill, a highway off-ramp. Noisy, constant noise of engines turning as they veer past on the other side of the guardrail. In the gravel lot, dust balloons when a car zooms by looking for a parking spot. I’ve returned to the same spot where we parked yesterday, just under a clump of bushes with pale green leaves flecked with tiny white spots that look like a fungus, an invasive disease, not native to the plant’s patterns. The breeze moves the speckled leaves. Wildflowers have pushed through the gravel near my feet, like flowers that belong in a desert, sparse pale purple blooms with spiked centres.
A man sits in a convertible opposite me, and talks on his cellphone, shaded under a ball cap. I choose not to look too often in his direction, although we must both see each other. Parked to his left is a junked-out abandoned trailer home with the brand-name Tag-A-Long on its faded front above a vented window, which has blue sheet insulation propped against it from the inside. The trailer’s hitch is rusted red and green, deep dirty brown-red, metallic green, a beautiful shade of green richer than emeralds, but what does it mean, to beautifully mark an abandoned object? What does it mean to flower in a parking lot? What does it mean to sit by a highway and write about the gravel scattered underfoot, embedded loosely into the clay-like dirt, pale ochre dirt, pale grey and white stones, some so small they are almost granular, worn down to sand?
“I’m gonna go now,” says the man in the convertible, on his phone, but he doesn’t. This is the way of conversations. You state that you are finished, but you don’t unstick yourself, not quite yet. You laugh. “You didn’t say that,” you say, and chuckle. A large 4 x 4 Ford pickup kicks up dust between us. The rumble from the cars on the off-ramp obscure what might be said, if I were closer and could overhear this half of a conversation.
I see a Canadian flag flapping on a truck down at the end of the lot, near field 14 where my daughter’s team will play their second game today. Beyond that, taller than the trees, are signs advertising gas stations and fast food restaurants. The street lights above the off-ramp look like objects from outer space, as you might imagine an alien spaceship to look, with lights suspended inside bright shiny metal pods like six vast aluminum mixing bowls, upside-down, and affixed around a slender pole, way up high, like cake tins stabbed onto pointy spikes high up in the sky.
What happens when you sit and write? You see differently, you fall down inside of yourself and go quiet and you receive whatever passes by, whatever dust and stray information and overheard conversation passes by, you reach up into the air and pluck it like fruit, ripe or unripe, doesn’t matter, you’re hungry for information.
It’s true. I was hungry. And in a gravel parking lot beside an on-ramp, I found some measure of satiation.
May you be united with the beauty you see.
Another girl runner in the family.
This morning, I biked to watch my nine-year-old run her first ever race at a track meet: she was representing her school in the 60 metres. She was in the fastest heat and she placed third. She was glowing and proud. Then I sat in the grass and read a book and waited two hours for her next race. She popped by to sit with me a few times. She was nervous, proud, and excited about the meet.
Her second race was the 4 x 100 relay, one of the last races of the day. She was on the 9-year-old girls’ team representing her school against five other schools. All of the girls on her team are friends. She was running the anchor leg. They’d practiced and practiced at school, passing the baton, but this was the first time trying it out on the track.
I texted Kevin so he could be there too. We were standing near the finish line. I hoisted myself up on a railing to see better. Her friends are a speedy group, and when she got the baton, she was already in first place. I can see her running, running, running, arms pumping, up the black track, face shining. She crossed the line and knew she had won. The juniors at the school had walked over to watch the meet, and they were in the stands, all cheering for her: what a moment! Her second race ever. She crossed the line and her face broke wide with the thrill of it, the joy of it, and she jumped with her hands in the air, turning toward us. I won’t forget it. I’ll keep it here in my mind’s eyes, where I can see it anytime. She was shining.
I was crying, a bit.
What is the mixture of emotions that rise when watching your child accomplish something like this? She’s played soccer for many years, but she’s never competed as an individual before. We didn’t even know she could run so fast! Suddenly, I’m seeing my younger daughter with new eyes, seeing her as competitive and spunky and fierce and willing to throw herself into the race. So the emotions that rushed through me (and rush through me even now as I see that moment in my mind’s eye) are complex: pride, awe, joy, love. There is something amazing about seeing a child attempt something brave, something that requires courage, that asks the child to put herself—her effort, her identity, her physical self—on the line.
Were you nervous, I asked her afterward, and she grinned and nodded, Yeah, really nervous!
She was nervous but willing. And her nerves showed she cared.
In parenting, the reward is getting to see your children make their attempts. But it can also be heart-rending. There is a lot risked when we care and they care, no matter what it is we’re caring about—a big race, a tough test, a friendship, being on a team, performing at a recital or on-stage. These are risky moments that make us vulnerable—they are vulnerable and we feel vulnerable too. I don’t talk often about parenting through the experiences in which effort goes unrewarded; but those happen too, and those experiences are among my most gruelling parenting challenges, especially when the child cares deeply.
Yet, I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t change being present to watch, win or lose, because it isn’t win or lose. It’s try. It’s do. It’s be. I wouldn’t wish not to care: them or me. The reward is seeing them present in their moments of effort and risk, pushing themselves, and, occasionally, flying.
This is the parent I strive to be: See the child; respond to the child’s needs and individual character.
See the child. See the child.
From the Anglican Church archives, no date
I’m going to do something I don’t usually do and quote from a Globe and Mail editorial (yesterday’s): “Close your eyes and imagine you are at home with your two children, a boy aged six and a girl aged eight. There’s a knock at the door. It’s a moment you’ve dreaded for weeks. You answer it and there is a man from the government and an RCMP officer who order you to turn your children over to them immediately. The children are led away and placed in the back of a truck in which you see other children crying. The boy and girl are screaming that they don’t want to leave you but, the minute you show any resistance, the policeman steps in to enforce the law. You are compelled to give up your children, because the state has judged you to be unfit as a parent on account of your race. That night, you are alone with your spouse in an empty house, brokenhearted, powerless and without hope, everything that matters from you stolen by the state.”
It goes on to state these facts uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were stolen from their families and communities over the course of 100 years of Canadian history.” (I’ve since heard that residential schools existed in Canada for 140 years.)
I wasn’t taught this version of Canadian history in school. But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hopes to change this—the commission filed its report this week after six years of listening to and recording the stories of indigenous Canadians forced to attend government-mandated residential schools, or whose parents or grandparents were survivors of this system; yesterday the end of the commission was marked with a ceremony attended by the prime minister and other dignitaries, and followed by silence from the current government, which appears to believe it has now done enough. Education is an important part of reconciliation; may this part of Canada’s history be taught in all schools and not forgotten, or worse, deliberately silenced. But what else can we do, those of us whose families came to this country as immigrants, as settlers, without much thought for the people who were here before us; and who have benefitted enormously from the wealth of this land?
I’ve skipped over the part of the editorial that describes what happened to many of the children in the residential schools, not because it isn’t important, but because I found myself, as a parent, stopped dead at that opening paragraph asking me to imagine losing my children. I had to cover my eyes and weep. Because my gut response was, this would end me. I would end here.
Everything that matters to me lives here in my family. When I think about my response to watching AppleApple race earlier this week, and genuinely feeling that it was the MOST EXCITING MOMENT in my life, I realize that all of my MOST EXCITING MOMENTS of PRIDE and PURE JOY arise directly from witnessing my children accomplish what I couldn’t have imagined for them (and it goes beyond measurable accomplishments, and includes the surprise of witnessing moments of generosity, maturity, empathy, thoughtfulness). That’s it. Nothing compares. Certainly nothing I’ve accomplished compares, and I mean that sincerely and absolutely. In fact, I’m convinced that my greatest job right now is as witness to my children’s development. So to imagine them stolen from me, by people who couldn’t even address me in my own language, to imagine them being hurt and beaten or worse by these people, to imagine them returning home months or even years later, terribly altered by their experiences, our mother tongue forgotten or beaten out of them, and being unable through it all to offer them any protection: well, it is too painful to imagine. I imagine that I would run after that truck screaming and yelling, that I would walk hundreds of miles to look for them, that I would find the school that housed them and stand outside demanding to see them, that I would try to steal them back and bring them home; but this is fantasy because even if I could do that, would it matter? If I was wrong in the eye of the law? If the government judged me unfit? Because of my race? It would not matter. And so what would keep me going?
I do not know. My ability to imagine ends here.
And what to do now, knowing that so many families endured this tragedy in our country, and that the reverberations of this policy continue to be felt and lived, and that so much is still so very wrong with the way Canada engages with indigenous communities? I don’t know.
I came across this link on Twitter to a web site that proposes planting a “heart garden” to honour children who died in the residential school system; maybe something like this would be a small gesture our family could offer. Kevin and the kids who were in the kitchen yesterday when I was making supper were all receptive to the idea. We talked about what messages we might want to share, what plants we could plant.
But I also think about how arrogant it was/is of the Canadian powers-that-be to believe that indigenous people needed to learn the white ways—that this would improve their lives and well-being. What if we spin that around and decide that the powers-that-be need to learn the values and systems and beliefs of indigenous people? Is it too much to hope that we could become a real family, sharing the best of our knowledge, changing and compromising for each other? And maybe, just maybe, if I look into my own life more closely, I’ll recognize that it’s my values that need shaking up and changing. Maybe more, more, more at any cost isn’t the answer. I’m thinking of the Lax Kw’alaams band in northern B.C. who recently turned down a deal worth $1.5 billion, offered by a gas export company, because the land that would be spoiled by the project being built has no monetary price. To think of the land as something that can be bought and sold is to think in very temporary, solipsistic, morally questionable terms. This is just one example of an indigenous community leading the way, by looking at the land and at money through a different and maybe unfamiliar lens.
All for now. I welcome your thoughts on this subject.
Waiting for the school bus.
Funny postscript to my last post on my forgetful daughter. Yesterday, the school bus arrived, she said goodbye, I watched her walk across the street and board the bus. A couple of minutes later, the front door slammed open and she rushed into the house. “What’s happening?!” we said. “No time to talk! I just forgot a few things!” “And the bus driver BROUGHT YOU BACK?” “Yes!” Rush, rush, slam.
I ran to the door to see what she’d forgotten — backpack, lunch? Nope.
SHOES. Running shoes.
And the bus driver brought her back. Now that’s a special bus driver.
Here are a few other things we do in the morning, before leaving for school (with apologies for lousy cellphone photos).
Practice piano and violin. Read.
I really enjoy our mornings. Kevin and I both get up before the kids. I run or go to an exercise class. He runs the dogs and does yoga and strength exercises in our living-room. He makes a giant smoothie for the kids’ breakfast (yogurt, kefir, almond milk, bananas, frozen fruit). Various people take showers. Dishwasher is emptied (by the kids; this is a new routine). Big kids pack their own lunches. Kev packs his lunch, plus lunches for the younger two (I think they could manage it on their own, but if he’s willing to do it …). What else? First load of laundry goes in the washer. Musical instruments get practiced. Forms get signed. Dogs get fed. Weather gets checked. Music is played.
It’s a sweet start, and worth the early hour, says the woman who remembers being a night owl, once upon a time.
“There’s a big white flower behind one of the stumps, Mom, I’ll show you.”
Dream: I am at a long conference table set up in my mother-in-law’s back porch. Two women sit at the other end of the table, conducting an interview about art for live national radio, but I’m just here because it’s a convenient place to work. Earlier in the dream I spent way too much time anxiously trying to figure out why my children missed the school bus; the children are everywhere, all around the house, when I know they should be in school. So I’m sitting here, trying not to be too obvious or interrupt the interview, trying to work. I think that my work is writing, but when I look down, it turns out that my work is chopping potatoes. End of dream.
Things I’ve done since 5:30AM yesterday: ran with a friend, helped children practice violin and piano, made supper in the crockpot, washed three loads of laundry, meditated twice, blogged, edited an essay, answered emails, texted with friends and family, picked up and dropped off kids for piano lessons, worked on novel while sitting in car between pick-ups/drop-offs, visited with a friend while at piano lessons, attended a soccer coaching clinic, had tea with husband (talking soccer, hockey, and Fun Things We Want To Do), read books and newspaper, listened to radio (news and songs), slept, did strength exercises. Waited. Hurried. Tried not to fight with time.
I think of time in blocks and chunks and sections. I think of myself as travelling between these blocks and chunks and sections and trying to negotiate the transitions as smoothly as possible, trying to settle in wherever I’m at and not resist what’s happening. But sometimes it feels like what I’m resisting is time itself. These chunks of time, this careful measuring of hours and minutes, calculating these small openings and anticipating these sudden slammings-shut gives me a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency is very helpful when working to complete a big project. But to enjoy being alive, to relish it, savour it, swim with it, you need to be flexible, you need to let go of the sense of urgency in the moments when urgency would only serve to make you anxious or frustrated.
Because life is full of many many tasks and events and rituals that are long slow dreamy, unrelenting, without obvious beginnings or endings, mundane, repetitive, completely necessary, or completely unnecessary, often lovely — not projects. Not artifacts. Just unmarked rivering moments in the flow of time. If there’s a balance I seek, perhaps it’s between these two states of being: the urgent efficient ambitious project-driven state of creating something new; and the flow of life as it unwinds through its time, through its here and now, and being here, present and without the need to make anything of it.