It is the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, and my hair smells like bonfire smoke. I sat outside on the frozen ground from 4:30 – 7:30AM and watched the sky turn from dark to dim to pale grey dawn. Through my head came visions of friends, and the gratitude and love I’ve felt pouring into me and out of me all through these many months of pandemic otherworldliness, a circle of holding and care that has kept me not just afloat but enriched and comforted and stronger.
There are many ways to stay in touch, even from a distance. This year, I’ve quit Twitter and don’t seem to blog quite so often (perhaps you are surprised when a post drops into your email inbox). I rarely post to Facebook, more often check in on Instagram. Then, there are texts and emails. Occasionally a phone call (usually that’s my mom or dad). Even letters, cards, postcards (such a treat to receive!) And, of course, Zoom calls: sibs night, kundalini yoga, church.
There are walks with a friend, or a kid, or a dog, or the whole family.
Dec. 16, Family walk with dog, spontaneous snow angels
We meet outside, to meet in person. We learn the weather, we greet the seasons, the changing light, we pay attention.
Dec. 20, Family drinks in the back yard shack
All month, I’ve been drawing a daily portrait and writing a short caption, to capture a scene or moment from each day. I’ve noticed that my portraits most often depict me with others, not alone. Or, if I am alone, I’m thinking of someone else when I write the caption. This year of being apart has actually been a year of coming closer together, in some ways. In others ways, no — I no longer coach a team of lively teenaged girls, and I miss those casual and funny interactions. But I’ve grown closer with my own kids. There are friendships that have deepened.
Dec. 12, kundalini class on Zoom, in my studio
I’m closer to the ground. And my spirit is closer to the sky.
Enjoy the darkness, friends. Light a candle, and send out an I love you to someone you’ve been meaning to say that to. The days are short, but won’t always be so.
I often set myself a project that spans the full year. This year, I’m considering chronicling my daily writing life, but I haven’t figured out how best to frame it. Should I keep it short, as in a daily tweet? Today’s would read something like …
Tired, late night @ Edna King’s show in Guelph. Writing group cancelled this AM; I miss them, we haven’t met in a month. Fell asleep on couch reading Song of Achilles. Drew self-portrait, wrote What’s on Your Mind + blog post. Next, continue revising new novel. #writinglife
But in all honesty, one day is going to look a lot like the next, and a tweet has limited space for the animating details.
The long-form version of today’s chronicle goes something like this …
Today, I’ve been staggering around like a zombie after getting 4 hours of sleep last night; not conducive to clear-headed composition. I went to my sister’s show last night, an intense experience (EDM) that sent me into a form of dance/trance, which I spent thinking about my character, Bess, from the new novel I’m writing, set in the 16th century. My eyes were closed much of the time, and I kept gazing into my mind’s eye for Bess, trying to see what she was seeing: the image of darkness and enclosure, the image of an open night sky.
I’m reading Song of Achilles, historical fiction, and this morning, I fell asleep within ten minutes of picking up the book.
I was disappointed that my writing group meeting was cancelled again, as we’ve struggled to find time to meet this year. Our aspiration is to meet every other week, but we’ve only gotten together once in 2020 due to illness, travel, and other meetings and complications. I look forward to those mornings so much. It’s one of the only spaces where I have neither need nor compulsion to explain anything about #writinglife. We’re all in the industry, struggling, staying hopeful, doing the work, and encouraging and believing in each other. I’m missing that medicine.
While walking the dog, I thought about this blog post. I thought: what if I were honest, publicly, about this path I’m on? I’m giving myself a year; one year, in which to research and write with full commitment. January was blissful. I spent many hours of many days simply sitting and writing. It was blissful and it was filled with anxiety. I also sent out six grant applications at the beginning of last month, and four were rejected earlier this week. Truth! Ugh! Painful! Shameful! Humiliating!
But, on the other hand, also in January, I learned that my short story, “16-Century Girl,” published last winter by The New Quarterly, had been submitted for a National Magazine Award.
And, I filled another notebook! I’m working on two separate and very different fiction projects. One is historical fiction, and I’m close to completing a first draft (“close to completing” could mean 6 weeks or 6 months, or even longer). The other project is very new, and I’ve only been working on it for a few months; too new to discuss, though it does have a name: I’m calling it Two Women. I work on Two Women by hand, composing with pen and paper, and I’ve filled three notebooks so far. I’m working on Bess in Scrivener, and I’m composing it as if amassing a great heap of loose scraps, writing forward until I reach the end.
This week, I reached an end, of sorts, for Bess, and started back at the beginning, preparing for a slow, careful, thorough revision by setting up the Scrivener file beside a Word doc with the same text, and going through line by line, scene by scene, deleting, rewriting, composing new scenes. Don’t ask me why I’m taking this route. I’m writing this novel completely on gut instinct and dream-like visualization. The manuscript is short but dense. I’m curious to see whether it wants to be fleshed out further, or whether its structure and tone demands that it remain short and dense.
Also while walking the dog, I had a thought about the auto-fiction short story collection I’ve mostly completed; could each story be punctuated by one of my 4-panel cartoons, as a way of creating a breath between the stories, which are heavy and kind of demanding, and I don’t think anyone would want to sit down and read them all at once? Something needs to ease the transition between stories; maybe the meditative cartoons I’ve been drawing would fit there?
So that’s today, as of 2:03PM. As soon as I press publish on this blog post (if I do indeed decide to publish it), I’m setting up Bess in the side-by-side format, to work through whatever scene comes next. I have to pick up kids at 2:45, but I can return home and keep working on Bess till it’s time to make supper.
The other writing I’ve done today was in my notebook. As is my habit, I answered the question: What’s On Your Mind? as a means of dumping out surface anxieties before getting to work. I also drew a self-portrait — dancing last night — to Lizzo’s “Juice”.
Lastly, I will report that I continue to wait, with seemingly perpetual hope, patience, and possibly delusional optimism, to hear from my agent about two completed manuscripts (one for children, one for adults). Would you like to wait with me? We could be here awhile. But in the meantime, while I wait, I’ll be writing and dreaming and writing and dreaming, in full-on bliss, stealth-attacked by anxieties, and holding dear to prayers and visions. Truth.
I’ve been running a lot, and will continue to run a lot for as long as I can stave off injury and chronic pain, no matter the weather. Winter has descended early on Southern Ontario, and I’ll admit that it takes a little more gumption to layer up and run out into a stiff headwind over icy sidewalks. You have to really want to, for some reason beyond the running itself — and for me, that’s my mental health. Running clears my mind. Clears my anxieties. Makes me feel stronger, powerful.
But I do have to run early, it has to be the first thing I do upon waking, or I lose the gumption. I don’t mind running in the dark, oddly enough. My favourite path is reasonably well-lit, and I’ve come to love the quiet of the early morning, its solitude almost dream-like, the darkness a strange comfort, womb-like. There was little wind this morning, and I kept a steady pace, earbuds in, tuned to a podcast called Dolly Parton’s America, which at one point brought me to tears, as the host described the unexpected connections between Dolly Parton’s Tennessee mountain home, and his own father’s Lebanese mountain home. About how different musical instruments and rhythms, patterns and vocalizations find confluence across culture and time, come together, remind us of our common need for expression beyond words or even actions. So that happened on this morning’s run: I was crying.
And then, as I turned onto a busier stretch, I was yelling at the cars buzzing by, their noise and fumes drowning out the podcast.
Emotions: they’re all over the place. Where do they come from, where do they go?
When I got home, I replayed one section again, to drink in what Dolly Parton had said. I’m telling you: You have to listen to this podcast! I’m starting to believe that Dolly Parton is not only a brilliantly talented songwriter and musician, but also a wise, grounded human being, who is carrying a message for our moment that we’re having difficulty hearing. To paraphrase what the podcast’s host said: Dolly Parton is expressing an ethos, a spirituality, in which no one is cast out. No one is condemned from the community. She has her opinions, but she will also allow that you have yours; and she has a massive capacity to see the other, to understand complexity in human behaviour. (I wonder if this points to a difference between being an artist and being an activist; both are necessary and important to instigating and envisioning change, but the roles don’t necessarily overlap, because the strengths of an artist are different from the strengths of an activist. Their ways of framing experience often run counter to each other.)
I spent last week watching documentaries, having bought a pass to our local feminist film festival — founded by a friend nine years ago — which runs every November. I crammed in as many movies as I could: I saw a movie about the family of Colton Boushie, thrust into a public spotlight, speaking with clarity out of their pain; a movie about women incarcerated in New Brunswick, making art together, cast in and out of the system and trying to see their way clear; a movie about an Israeli family in which the father transitions to becoming a woman; a movie about an all-woman sailing team who sailed in a race around the world; a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and a movie about Toni Morrison. (What made it really special was that I saw each movie with a friend or with one of my two older kids.)
At the end of seeing all these movies, I said: How anyone makes it through this world whole is beyond me. And maybe we don’t. Maybe we don’t make it through this world whole. But there are moments of clarity, amidst the confusion. Moments when people are called by some force beyond themselves to take a stand. Moments when they call others in and hold them. Moments of forgiveness. Moments beyond pain and suffering. The victories might be small and temporary. But no matter.
If you pay attention to someone else’s story, you’ll see under the armour and bluster and noise to the complexity of need and of fear and of hope beneath. We all want a safe place to call home. We all want to feel safe, and loved, without condition. How can we be that for each other? It comes naturally to want to be that for my family and friends, but can I try, too, to be that for those with whom I have little connection and less understanding? Can I ask for the same in return?
“What do people do when they don’t have a family on Family Day?” CJ wondered. And it does rather feel obligatory to spend time together, given the title of the holiday. It’s strangely warm today, so we went for a hike at the nearest conservation area. We took the dogs along too.
“Better than hot yoga,” said CJ, reminiscing about that time we tried to turn our living room into a hot yoga studio on Family Day. His comments came before we decided to take the scenic route to the look-out.
After looking out at the empty water reserve (not an actual lake) for a few minutes, the complaining began. The scenic route was decried for its lack of scenic-ness. The eldest remembered he would have to work at 6 o’clock and then his weekend would be over and he’d just spent TWO HOURS doing nothing but going for a walk. CJ slipped and fell while reaching for his pocket snacks and spent some time wallowing with self-pity in a patch of melting ice, after which he spent more time complaining that his pants were wet. “I’m dying of thirst,” he hollered for awhile. The dogs met another dog. Things fell apart.
But briefly there, while we were on the good side of the scenic route, I had a vision of us walking in the woods maybe a decade and a half or two decades from now, all of us, with our accumulated future dogs and partners and children — how many of us there might be, with added people and pets — and of how much I would love seeing everyone together. How fortunate it would make me feel, and also how fortunate I felt at that very moment, with these big independent personalities lumbering and chatting and laughing and complaining around me.
We started something, when we made this family, but I feel it’s out of our hands now — a family is not one person’s idea of it, after all. A family is who we are when we’re together. It’s complicated sometimes and sometimes things go wrong in families. And sometimes you get to spend two hours doing nothing but going for a walk.
I do not take this for granted, especially the laughter.
In other news, I cut CJ’s hair, finally, and the girls baked him a happy haircut-day cake (the cake was hair-free).
Yesterday, I hosted the first of three Teen Writing Adventures, here in our home. I also vacuumed upstairs and down (worth noting, given how rarely it happens). And I went to church with a friend, and then we went out for a leisurely vegetarian lunch.
On Saturday, CJ beat me at chess at the library; and my girls’ soccer team went on a movie outing.
On Saturday evening, a friend invited me to the symphony, and my new yoga soundtrack is now Sibelius.
On Friday night, I fell asleep for two hours in front of the fire.
That pretty much covers it. You’re all caught up now.
The dark is luminous when I walk the dogs, early. I forget to dress the little one in her pink sweater and she shivers and hurries along the paths carved between snowbanks. We slip and skid and crunch over packed ice. Morning has not yet broken. Night is a form of protection. It hides us from ourselves.
We sleep and dream, and we travel in our dreams.
In my dreams I sort out the riddles of my immediate future. I prepare elaborate plans. I wake, convinced these plans have been set in motion, convinced I’ve solved all problems.
When I walk the dogs, early, it is like the dreams are still within me or upon me, as night surrounds me. I am completely myself, the dreamer.
The dreamer has always lived in me, and I in her.
“I feel sorry for you when you read the newspaper, Mom, because you always seem so disappointed and so sad.”
“I’m not disappointed, exactly.”
“It’s like your beliefs get crushed, over and over. You’re too optimistic.”
“I’m hopeful. I think I can have hope without being naive. I’m sad and I have hope.”
“Morning has broken,” I say to the child who is still lying in bed. I sweep open the curtains. There is morning, breaking on our skyline, which is segmented by the roofs of apartment buildings. There is morning, streaks of pink and orange splitting the dark.
Must everything be broken, even morning? What do these words mean?
The day floods the dreams. And so begins the stark, bright march through the hours of consciousness, of schedules, of time marked, and meals prepared and eaten, and chores and errands ticked off the ever-lasting list.
Morning has broken, like an axe splitting the frozen sea inside. Something must do the job. Can my dreams come with me like shadows, attached to my feet, weighing nothing? Can I do everything I want to do, now that I am awake?
Day One. We wake at 4AM, are on the road before 5AM, and arrive around 10AM at our first stop in Bluffton, Ohio, a town off the I-75 where my family lived during the Carter-Reagan era (in other words, a long time ago). No photos. Lunch with dear old friends. At noon, friends and I walk to the Bluffton Library where I do an hour-long book talk on Girl Runner. Then we are on the road again to Tennessee, a mostly uneventful trip, although I’m pretty sure the kids will never let me forget that red light I run somewhere in Kentucky when we are off the highway looking for a grocery store.
Day one ends successfully with arrival at aunt and uncle’s house (pictured above). It is dark and late, but not too terribly horribly late. We are giddy. Some of us have eaten McDonald’s sundaes.
Day Two. Everyone learns how to drive a golf cart! My aunt takes us to a super-cool “extreme sport” indoor trampolining place (Kevin and I are too tired to participate). After supper, we go to downtown Nashville to watch the Predators lose rather badly to the visiting Philadelphia Flyers, an entertaining outing.
Day Three. More golf cart driving. An international friendly soccer match with cousins. Running around outside. Starting a puzzle. Seeing deer.
And, after supper, packing up and driving south through the night.
Day Four. Drive through Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida (adults taking shifts at the wheel). Stop for breakfast at McDonald’s, with regret. Arrive at Grandma’s place in Fort Myers, Florida just in time for lunch. Nap. Swim. Watch competitive cooking shows on TV. Get fed meals by Grandma. Go to bed early.
Day Five. Super Bowl Sunday. Start 1,000 piece puzzle. Swim (all swimming happens in a big outdoor heated pool that everyone loves). Read. Nap. Jog. Look for alligators. Eat tacos while watching football game.
Day Six. Boat ride with Grandma. Kevin stays on dry land. Lunch out with Grandma and kids. See dolphins and many many birds. Swimming upon return. Finish puzzle. Try on Grandma’s hats in anticipation of beach visit tomorrow.
Day Seven. Family trip to the beach. No amount of photo-manipulation can disguise the fact that it is really windy and pretty darn cold. Beach hats in great danger of flying away. But here we are, at the ocean, really far from home. Lunch at weirdly wonderful sushi/burger joint. Souvenir shopping afterwards. Swimming in the late afternoon.
Day Eight. CJ jogs a mile with me. Kids start another 1,000 piece puzzle. Swimming and more swimming. A hunt for gators is successful! (Well, gators were spotted, though not a shred of photo evidence exists to prove this; same goes for the dolphins.) Puzzle gets completed before suppertime.
And after dessert, we pack up, say goodbye, and start driving north.
Day Nine. Drive through Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. Snow and ice are visible by dawn. Arrive at aunt and uncle’s in time for breakfast. Kevin and I nap all morning. In the afternoon, we return with the kids to the trampoline place, but this time we participate! I discover a flair for swinging from ring to ring over a pit of foam blocks. Impressed with my feats of strength, I climb up a rather tall wall only to discover that I’m now at the top, and must somehow get down while simultaneously preserving my dignity (have I mentioned my fear of heights?). We shoot baskets, jump, leap, balance, swing, and fall. It’s fun to play like a kid.
Day Ten. Drive home through Tennessee, Kentucky (under construction), Ohio (under construction), Michigan (giant pile-up on highway requiring detour), and Ontario (white-out conditions, snow storms). Finish listening to a recording of Agatha’s Christie’s Death on the Nile, which is a relief to most of the passengers. We highly recommend the chicken sandwiches at Big Boy (as eaten in Louisville), and sort of recommend the food at Taco Bell (as eaten in Windsor).
Day Eleven. Arrive well after midnight. Dogs happy to see us. That post-holiday malaise. And soccer, soccer, soccer as soon as we wake up.
P.S. I’d do it all again in an instant.
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