Life. It’s bigger. It’s bigger than you and you are not me. The lengths that I will go to. The distance in your eyes. Oh no I’ve said too much. I haven’t said enough.
Fellow Gen Xers probably recognize that song (REM’s “Losing My Religion”). I don’t know why exactly it came to me as I sat down to write about Life. Maybe because it’s bigger. It’s bigger than it’s been, anyway, even after weeks of recovery (or maybe especially after that). I’m making plans, though they may change last-minute. My plans are mere sketches, a few chords on which to improvise; they delight me.
Last week, I took a spontaneous trip to Toronto on the train. Got me some vocal cord physio and an intensive on how to use my voice, in preparation for reading the audiobook version of my new novel (!!!!). Reading the audiobook goes on my bucket list (I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did …). Recording in studio is set to start next week. While in Toronto, I also visited my sister and her delightful pup (pictured below). I saw a man dance with a pigeon on the subway (not pictured). My eyes were overwhelmed by the sights out the train window. I was in bliss. It was exactly what I needed. Good medicine.
This weekend we hosted family. I didn’t feel like cooking, so I asked my eldest to make the scalloped potatoes — and he did! On Monday our second-eldest kid moved back home from residence, so the house was fuller when we woke up this morning. And our Open House for the 2022 X Page Workshop is tomorrow evening. In person! I feel myself buzzing with energy and new life. It’s not anxiety, it’s excitement. It’s a desire for connection that’s leaping out of me, off my skin, I can almost see it flashing from me in pinging waves, or like antennae reaching out. I don’t think I’ve turned into an extrovert during the pandemic, but I’ve clearly built up some extra space for social interaction.
Something I’m noticing about myself, as I return to life, bigger, is that I love being the still centre of a whirl — the ringmaster at the circus. Does this mean I enjoy stirring things up? I don’t know. I hope not. It isn’t conflict I’m after, but contact, connection, a performance that’s almost entirely improvised and feels natural because it relies on mutual trust, and self-trust.
This reflection came from a recent 100-day creativity prompt …
A list of things that are true about me.
I’m on day 2 of listing things. Here’s day 1 —
1 I love being the still centre of a whirl — the ringmaster at the circus
2 I am happiest when I am with people
3 I am trying to become less controlling
4 I love relating to teenagers — I think it’s an especially beautiful, searching, changing, vulnerable time of life
5 I experience big swings of emotion
6 Writing fiction is a form of therapy, for me
7 I love the feeling of trusting myself, it feels like a safety net into which I can fall
8 Discovering I’ve hurt someone is incredibly painful news and I resist hearing it, and/or respond defensively, and/or torture myself for it
9 I can be very self-pitying
10 I am oddly comfortable at the front of the room
11 I love learning new things and challenging myself to leave my comfort zone
12 My first instinct isn’t always right
13 I value strong relationships built on mutual trust, and care
14 I am not perfect at all
Week three of intensive revisions. It will take as long as it takes; but also, the work somehow needs to fit itself into the deadline. When I last revised this novel, it was pre-pandemic, and I had a ten-day window to overhaul the whole thing, and somehow I shifted into what in retrospect seems an improbable state of mind, in which I worked twelve hours a day or more, writing brand-new material, sometimes as much as 10,000 to 15,000 words a day. By the end of the process, I was pretty sure I was in an altered state, that I’d driven myself to the brink of madness, and that what I’d accomplished had been a feat of stamina and focus that seemed impossible (and unwise) ever to put myself through again.
So this round, I have more time, and I’m taking it.
I find that I can write for about 6 hours maximum, before my focus begins to wane, or my mind just shuts down, weary, out of gas, the errors and typos beginning to multiply. So I figure it’s best to stay within these limitations (which feel physical as much as mental). I’m trying to stay patient, I’ve got a solid road map to follow, and I keep assuring myself that the work will get done, it will get done. I just have to give myself space to rest, when I hit a tough spot, and time to relax in the off hours: I have to go for walks, runs, see friends. And I must use the golden hours of maximum attention for nothing but this work.
To this end, I’ve set up a vacation message on my email account, naming what I’m doing as a writing sabbatical. I’m at my desk, the message says, but I’m not available. The power of creating this message can not be understated. Why? Because it names what I’m doing as important, it outlines in simple terms my priorities. I think it’s a message to myself as much as to anyone who might be reaching out via email. The message says (to me): It is my responsibility to protect what matters. No one else will do it for me.
These photos are from this past weekend, when my daughter and I visited a friend’s new farm. It was a holiday, but I also took my laptop and worked in various locations, mostly in the car, while chauffeuring my daughter and her friends around.
When I got home yesterday evening, I finally turned down a volunteer opportunity that I’d been weighing, and really wanting to say yes to. But I realized that to say yes to this would be to squeeze my writer self. And she can only be squeezed so much before she begins to fade, to waver in her belief in herself, but also in her basic ability to get her work done. I am trying to take the lessons I’ve learned during the pandemic, which has been the most productive writing time of my entire life, and continue to apply them as the world opens: lessons about the cost of accepting (even seeking!) responsibilities atop responsibilities, commitments atop commitments. Lessons about the cost of squeezing out my writing self. Which is, at core, my fundamental self: the self I am that is not attached to anyone or anything else.
The pandemic freed me, quite a lot; it forced a change in long-held patterns. It jolted parts of me to life again. It reorganized my priorities.
I’ve seen this happen for many others, too, including my friend at the farm who until very recently was my neighbour; the leap she’s made is bigger and more challenging than the leap I need to make, to protect my space and time for writing. I watch her meet this amazingly brave and heart-led challenge and think: I BELIEVE.
Being tourists outside Notre Dame cathedral in the old city of Montreal.
We’ve been on holiday. A real holiday! Away, not checking email, not doing any work, not cooking meals, no laundry. Just spending time together, exploring landmarks and historical sites, walking long distances, eating at restaurants, staying up late, sleeping in, and reading for pleasure.
We went to Montreal and Quebec City, with stops in Kingston to visit family on either end.
First lunch in Montreal: Vietnamese subs in Chinatown.
My pilgrimage to Leonard Cohen’s house in Montreal. Imagine “So Long, Marianne” playing on my phone to get the full atmosphere.
Mount Royal in Montreal. We climbed all the way to the top, despite several of us (me and CJ) suffering (dramatically) from fear of heights.
Montmorency Falls, outside Quebec City.
The two of us stayed on the lower end of the falls, while the others climbed to that bridge up there and waved at us.
Picnic lunch on the Ile d’Orleans.
Soccer on the Plains of Abraham.
On the walls of the old city, Quebec. I couldn’t make it up to the top, which is why I’m so well-positioned to take this photo. So many steep hills in Quebec!
Augustine Monastery, which called me off the main drag and into an early morning yoga and meditation class on our last day in Quebec.
The only problem with being on holiday is not being on holiday anymore.
Today is also the birthday of our younger daughter, who is now twelve. A lot has happened in these past twelve years, so I won’t say it’s disappeared in a flash, but it has gone. The years have gone. She starts junior high next month: a new school, an earlier day, a new route to walk. I’m pleased that she wants me to continue being her soccer coach; somehow I’m less embarrassing as a coach than as a mother.
Birthday breakfast was pancakes with M & Ms (made by Kevin). Her siblings are making the cake. We’ve got soccer practice tonight, and we’ll have cake and gifts after that. Home again, home again….
I have no voice.
After writing my previous post, I promptly got sick and spent most of last week shivering on the couch, feverish and dizzy. I dragged myself off the couch to coach a soccer game on Tuesday evening, heavily dosed with Tylenol. I’d recovered enough by Friday to embark on our trip to Kingston, with a detour to Sauble Beach to pick up CJ at camp. Kevin and I drove separately; he spent the weekend with AppleApple’s team, and I spent the weekend with Fooey’s team — same tournament, two different teams. Thankfully, we played at the same field, so we could spend Saturday near each other. The boys stayed with their grandma. It felt like we were all dispersed. One of my happiest moments of the weekend was during game two, when I looked across the field and saw a whole bunch of redheads watching from the sidelines: it is the only time everyone has come to see Fooey’s and my team play. Everyone got to see AppleApple play the following afternoon, when her team made it to the semi-finals.
Coaching was fun. I still had a voice, and I was feeling much better. The girls started the day slowly, but played a solid second game, and by game three they were firing on all cylinders. It was exciting to see the team play up to their potential. They played like I’ve imagined they could, with intensity and togetherness, and skill. It was thrilling.
We ended the day with a swim and a pizza party, and some late night goofing around at the hotel.
I woke up on Sunday with laryngitis. I could still speak raspily enough to be understood. But after another long day that included a family brunch, supervising five children (we had an extra child on the trip with us), three more soccer games, dinner out at a pub to watch the Euro Cup final (photo above), and a five hour drive home (many pee stops), my voice was done.
I woke up yesterday with nothing. A whisper.
I picked up the dogs from the kennel using this whisper. The women at the kennel whispered back. I saw friends at CJ’s swim lessons and explained my voicelessness in a whisper. My friends whispered back. The woman at the pharmacy whispered back. The chiropractor whispered back. My kids whispered back. With help from a whiteboard and a whistle, I coached a practice yesterday evening with my whisper. The girls huddled up to listen to instructions. “Why are we all whispering?” one asked, and I told them how everyone had whispered to me all day long, and they thought it was really funny. Tonight I will attempt to coach a game with only this whisper available to me.
I shouldn’t even be whispering, as it’s hard on the voice and will slow recovery.
Oh, how I miss my voice. I miss its command. I miss its humour. I miss its participation and connection. But there’s voicelessness and there’s voicelessness. Mine is temporary.
I want to comment on the way the world is blowing up all over the place. No justice, no peace. That’s the phrase that keeps running through my head. No justice, no peace! But what else have I got to say? I don’t always need to speak. Sometimes, like now, I just need to listen. I don’t know what it’s like to be black. I don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer. I don’t know what it’s like to own a gun, or to live in a country where gun ownership is so prevalent. I don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a war zone, or to lose my home to war. I keep reading articles, watching videos, trying to understand, trying to imagine.
What I’ve been reading
- My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard: A Mother Jones Investigation, by Shane Bauer (July/August, 2016). Long form piece, difficult to read, about the hell on earth of the for-profit American prison system, both for prisoners and for those hired to guard them.
- An American Void, by Stephanie McCrummen (Washington Post, Sept. 12, 2015) Another long form piece, also difficult to read, about the man who killed black worshippers in a Charleston church last year. It’s a window into poverty and disconnection.
- Making a Killing, by Evan Osnos (The New Yorker, June 27, 2016) An article on the reframing of the gun industry from selling guns for hunting to selling guns for “self-protection,” all in the name of profit.
- full transcript of Obama’s speech in Dallas (added July 13, 2016) This speech left me weeping. Then I went and read some of the ugly commentary critiquing it, and I felt more hopeless than ever. The president is saying what needs to be said: that Black Lives Matter is not a movement based on paranoia but on real experience, and also that police officers are asked to contain all the evils caused by systemic poverty, lack of jobs, and a starved public education system. That we are imperfect in our humanity. But I disagree with him on one point, and that is when he says that “In the end, it’s not about forging policies that work …” Yes, it bloody well is! Go on and forge consensus and fight cynicism, by all means, but policies force necessary change. There’s no other way — precisely because we are utterly imperfect in our humanity.
- Remembering Sandra Bland’s Death in the Place I Call Home, by Karen Good Marable (The New Yorker, July 13, 2016.)
What I’ve been watching (too many to list, so here are just a few)
I suppose I should know better than to blog under the influence of extreme emotion or wine, or, much worse, both, but here goes.
I am “home” from a truly wonderful evening that completely focused on and celebrated Invisible sous the lumiere, as Girl Runner must be called while I am in France. It was a truly remarkable evening. I can’t believe it, actually. Nearly three hours, all focused on Girl Runner. The first performer (above) was actually a writer, not an actress, a young woman who has already published novels herself and who is also a runner: she memorized at least half an hour of text directly from the novel and performed it — embodying Aggie at different times in Aggie’s life. After her performance, which was very moving, the same woman did a short lecture on sports and literature, and the book. This was followed by a second performance, a reading from the book performed by a male actor, who showed us a whole different aspect of Aggie’s character — her humour. The audience was really laughing. I started to think that I’d written not a novel but a play! When his reading of the text was done, it was my turn on stage for an interview, with a warm reception from the audience.
After all of this, there was a dinner for the artists. During which I had some wine along with the meal. And I’m only “home” now, and it’s after midnight.
I feel like I’ve seen something that I won’t forget, and also that’s changed my view of what I can do and imagine. Being in France has shown me Aganetha as I never saw her before, but it has also shown me something about my own writing that I hadn’t appreciated, somehow. I don’t know how to describe it. All I can say is that it’s amazing to feel such energy and to be in such a different creative space. This trip has been a complete gift. Full stop.
Tomorrow is the performance of my museum piece. And on Monday I come home. But meanwhile, here I am, floating.
I had lunch at the Cafe de Flore, which is next to Les Deux Magots and across the street from the Brasserie Lipp, all famous French literary landmarks. The waiter, when asked, said that I was sitting exactly where Simone de Beauvoir would sit when she came to the cafe. Now, he may say this to everyone who asks, granted, but I’m not picky. And it was a good spot. I could see the whole cafe.
I am returning by train to Louviers soon, to finish my work there. But today, I had nothing on my schedule. So after breakfast (two croissants, jam, camomile tea, served discreetly in the “library” at the appointed hour), I walked. I walked and walked and walked, marvelling at how open the city is, how inviting. How it has been arranged to feed the public — anyone who comes — with beauty.
I sat on a bench beside the Eiffel Tower, having stumbled onto the quiet side, and here is what I wrote.
Sit on a bench. Sit and look at the tower built for a World Fair in 1889. Two birds fly directly toward you and flit past your head. Green buds on trees newly popping open. What shall you do, but look? And sit. And rest in the strange power of human-made beauty — a thing that has no practical purpose, really. I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic last night, and she writes that what she loves about her work (as a writer) is that it is NOT essential. And therefore it is play. It expresses the same thing that this Eiffel Tower does and these buildings of enormous beauty and power — and the portraits at the museum in Louviers. It says: we are here to be joyful, too.
A man stops and touches the blooms on a flowering bush, of pale yellow, a middle-aged man with sunglasses and a paunch, stops and touches the blooms. All of this beauty freely available, maintained over generations, open to the public, open to anyone who can get here, like me, and sit on a bench and look.
Maybe art exists because we want to create, we humans. Maybe I should stop wishing I were someone with a practical essential career, and rejoice instead that my gift, such as it is, is a gift. That what I have been stumbling toward all these years is an expression of thanks. Thanks to this world for letting me in, letting me live and breathe and love and feel the overwhelming desire to express what catches inside me.
Elizabeth Gilbert is absolutely right. My work is not essential. I’m not saving anyone’s life or changing the world here. I’m just playing. And my God, how good it is to have the freedom, the safety, the permission, maybe even the calling, to play.
I like how Gilbert describes itching at a tiny curiosity and how it grew, for her, into a book. Maybe I need to scratch more points of curiosity: research, study, fill the arid patches in my mind with knowledge, and see what connections get made, see what stories grow. I think Gilbert’s book may have given me a template, a guide, for how to continue doing this with real purpose. It isn’t all about the writing. It’s also about collecting knowledge and experience and material in order to transform it into something that can’t be seen in advance. No guarantees.
But that’s okay. Risk is not so scary when all I’m risking is time and effort poured into something that pleases me. Forget selfishness, or stop fretting about it. Do I wish the people who built this tower had dug wells instead? Do I wish that Mavis Gallant had become a nurse instead of moving to Paris to write stories? No!
Can you accept yourself unconditionally for who you are right now? I’ve been saying this to myself and it is a powerful powerful medicine — or incantation. It is powerful good.
Maybe I came to Paris to see what beauty means. That it is bigger than its human creators; that I just need to do my work. Does your writing love you? Elizabeth Gilbert asked, and Yes, I declare that it does! Look at the gifts it’s given me: I wrote a book and it brought me to Paris! I must admit that when it comes to gift-giving, I prefer to give than to receive. Sometimes, often, I’m resistant, wary, guilty, almost afraid of being given gifts — like I must repay what’s given or fall into debt. It is probably a desire to control: a gift, after all, is something over which the receiver has no control. A gift is a gift. And I see I’ve been mistaken and blind all this time. I’ve been thinking I need to repay my debts by helping others, serving, being useful … when all I really need to do is say thank you.
PS Forgive any typos: written and posted in a very short amount of time, as I am rushing to get the train back to Louviers. Goodbye, Paris!