Write a love letter to someone you do not know.
Dear child playing the piano behind the closed door,
I can’t hear your voice, only your teacher’s, and she accompanies your ragged efforts with a determined tone, as if her words will pull from you the correct notes and rhythms. I stand and casually walk past the closed door, peeping through the narrow rectangle of glass, into a room that isn’t exactly how I would have imagined it: larger, and with more light. It has always sounded like you are playing in a dark closet. I glimpse you in this stolen way. You are older than I’d imagined, a young teen with hair cropped short into a pageboy cut; you might even be a boy rather than a girl, as I’d assumed. How can I write a love letter to someone I cannot see?
I sit again, and listen intently to the music you are making with your fingers. You keep a patient beat, hesitating as you try to read the notes you have failed to practice at home. I know this sonatina, by Muzio Clemente, one of my favourites as a young musician. You start, you pause, you try again. You have a dogged patience to your persistence, a haphazard understanding of what you’re trying to achieve, but a willingness to go on.
As I turn the page, you lose the beat altogether, and your teacher steps in to direct you, her tone not patience but not unkind. She sings along. She claps. She makes counting noises to pull you onward, and for a little stretch, here, it is only her, and you pause as if unable to continue. The song seems to grow longer and longer, and I wonder if you will ever finish it. You were wearing a white and grey t-shirt on this hot day, your face bent away from the door, as you perched on the piano bench and watched your teacher gaze at your music, which she was holding in her hands. On a chair nearby, your school backpack.
You have reached a form of conclusion, though I’m not sure it’s yet the end, and your hands crash out two chords — smash, smash — after which you continue on, your fingers chopping at the keys, dragging yourself toward the end, which requires a trill to complete. “And that’s a sharp,” the teacher reminds you, and you try to trill a second time, then stagger into the real end, the one we’ve all been waiting for.
You whack at the finishing chords. They are not the correct chords.
“What key are you in right now?” asks your teacher, and you are forced to backtrack, to begin to take another crack at this ending, again.
Have you practiced this song, this week? Are you sight reading the notes and hoping the teacher won’t notice? What are your expectations for yourself? Do you enjoy playing the piano? Does this song speak to you, or is it like a truculent closed mouth, a turned head, an impenetrable mystery whose meaning is contained behind the closed door, and which even your teacher cannot illuminate for you, though she tries, a scene you might remember when you’re older, much older, with some fondness, and, even, then, regret.
Write while listening to music.
Sept. 29 Listening to music at half time, Jacob Hespeler High School, to the pounding of basketballs on wood, to the squeak of shoes; Eminem, but I don’t know which song. The music, the moment. Pounding rising beat and intensity. The girls huddle up and shout their little cheer. Music’s over. Game on.
The music is still in my head as I stare into space during a time out. It makes me feel excited, determined, pumped up. Cliches. How to express the whirling sensation in the blood, under the skin, like a flame licking kindling, burning up that dry wood, these old dry bones have life in them yet. I am exactly the wrong age. Not old enough for wisdom, not young enough for spirit.
Write while listening to music.
Oct. 3 At the Beckett school of music. From behind closed doors, a cacophony of voices, instruments, songs, chords, melodies. A piano teacher sings along with her student, “One, two, three, four, One two three four, One two and three four.” Further away, the sounds of a piano being played by expert hands, a fluttering waterfalling of notes rippling over the keys.
From behind the nearest closed door, the one behind which my daughter is playing her violin, a lively piano bubbles up, chirpy in tone, and then her violin bites into the opening bar — a tango. She is slightly off-key. They march together, piano and violin, and suddenly the counting goes awry and they stall out, confused, and I can hear their voices trying to sort it out. Two competing pianos now pound at each other with the violin dancing its sprightly tones. Both pianos stop at once. The pianist behind the other door stumbles and hesitates, chopping out a four-beat march in a minor key, stopping and starting, a herky-jerky effect. At a patch of confidence, the speed increases. Then stops.
I hear again the rippling of notes from somewhere far away, rolling, rolling, effortlessly, decoratively.
On the drive here, I could not countenance the thoughts crossing my tired mind; listening to a song on the radio, a brand-new lively pop song that tormented me with its worn-out familiarity. My eyes could scarcely focus and I said, I can’t be this tired all the time. Because the thoughts wandering into my mind and tapping with some irritation on the bones of my skull, were saying, I can’t bear art. I can’t bear how profoundly it can fail to do its job. I can’t bear the necessity of selling it for survival. I can’t bear to make it. Elena Ferrante has been stalked for months so as to rip her from anonymity and I can’t understand why, can only see the pain of it, and how necessary her invisibility to her work.
All of this music sounds like the cacophony in my head, the crossed wires, and missed connections. The random pairings of discordant melodies and misshapen chords, the staggering array of possibilities that is yet, as yet, and possibly forever, incoherent. I can’t make sense of it. I can’t strip it down and hold its many shapes and piece them together again. I can’t bind it in place. I can’t even hear it. My powers are waning, if ever they were waxing, and I fear what I cannot do and I fear the effort wasted. Yet I can’t stop writing. I’m still writing. No matter the unthreading it leaves in its wake.
Subject: Writing as an outsider. My chosen venue: a basketball game in a high school on the west side of the city.
When I first arrive, I sit on the wrong side in the wrong set of stands, then notice a dad I vaguely recognize heading in the other direction, and try to discreetly switch ends. It is hard to focus and write because I want to watch and things happen so quickly, end to end and back again. Coach whacking her clipboard on the sidelines, shouting, “Whoo!”, the team scores. My daughter is on the bench looking small in the red and black jersey. The coach wears red too. The other team is white and blue. Girl misses her free throws.
Shoes squeak. Ball pounds on the wooden floor. The sounds are particular to this space. Close your eyes and you would know what you are hearing. Echoing.
Girls are up 4-0 when the teams take an inexplicable break. They have been playing for mere minutes. I don’t understand. The team huddles up with a tall assistant coach who is not wearing red (blue, instead), and the head coach, who is also tall, animated and vocal. I recognize one of the refs from soccer.
The teams play for another minute and take another time out. The refs stand together at the far end, side by side, like identical twins in their black and white striped shirts, long black pants, black shoes, and round heads, one bald, one with short white hair. I know the bald one. They run up and down the court with whistles in their mouths. I don’t know much, but I can see that the coach plays the same five players most of the time. Nine girls sit on the bench and wait.
Bright lights. Echoing chamber. Blue plastic benches, terminally uncomfortable. “Home of the Highlanders.”
I should watch instead of writing.
At half-time, the ref who I recognize from soccer comes over to chat. “You don’t watch while your own daughter is on?” “Oh no! When was she on?” “She was on for the last minute.” “Oh man, I totally missed that.” “This is a good team.” “Yes.” “She’s in grade nine, your daughter?” “Yes.” He tells me about how he used to coach basketball and why he quit (a long story).
The buzzer counts down and the next half starts and now I watch with great duty and attention. My daughter does not play again. I don’t know much about basketball, but the same nine players sit on the bench and don’t move for the final quarter. My attention drifts to the clutch of slender teenage boys watching and horsing around with their phones on the lower benches. I recognize one from soccer.
I understand soccer, but not basketball. The team wins by more than 10 points. That seems sufficient.
Afterward, walking across the parking lot, my daughter, who is glowing, says, “Have I converted you to basketball yet?” “I’m really sorry,” I say earnestly, even though I’d intended to keep this opinion to myself, “but I have to admit that I’d rather be watching you run cross country.” “Oh Mom,” she says in a fond tone, “but I want to play basketball.” “I know,” I say, “and that’s what counts. You’re the one who’s doing it! I’m just here to watch.” (And today, I didn’t even do a good job of that.)
I am sitting outside on my own front porch.
Every few seconds, a car or truck whizzes past, either accelerating as it speeds away from the nearby stop sign or slowing as it approaches. A few cars ignore the stop sign altogether. Now a large cargo truck wheezes past, white with black lettering. In its deceleration it makes a sound like a human cry. A bicycle, red, passes, with its cyclist turning the pedals at a leisurely pace, face inscrutable as he gazes down, away from the sun.
I can hear the hum of machinery from the nearby construction site that is our downtown core. The steady beep-beep-beep of a vehicle forever in reverse. A neighbour shuffles past and does not see me, screened as I am behind the green lilac leaves, which are shaped like teardrops. A light breeze lifts the leaves, and my own loose hair, and my little dog barks from inside the house, growling and yapping at what I now see is a yellow guide dog, strapped into a harness and leading a tall man, who is wearing a backpack, hat and dark glasses, toward our perilous intersection. The man was smiling faintly and gazing slightly to his right, toward our yard. Behind him, about three paces back, a young woman walked, wearing a bright sundress and a floppy hat. Did she know the man? Was she following to keep him safe or staying politely behind him because to pass him would have been to disturb him?
A rustling of fallen leaves. A fat grey squirrel with bushy white-fringed tail inspects our bed of lavender. Earlier, when I was describing the blind man and the woman he may or may not have known, a friend bicycled past — at least I thought it was a friend, but found myself squinting through the leaves to make out her face under the bike helmet. She was wearing grey flowing pants cut short above the ankle, and I thought, those look like pants my friend would wear; but it wasn’t real confirmation. A girl with bleached blond hair and a stocky upright gait passes, holding a white phone to her ear. And now, a couple holding hands, the girl talking, the boy saying nothing. He rubs his head with his free hand. They are not near enough for me to determine their ages.
I have forgotten how lovely it is is to sit and record for no purpose at all, only to slide more deeply into the moment, to sit as if immersed in a quietness of the self. A stillness amidst all that is moving and passing me by.
A garbage truck stop, redolent with the smell of rot, sweet and persistent, even after it has turned the corner. What does it smell like? Garbage? I stop and think for awhile, but can’t come up with anything but sweet rot and stink. I can see in my mind’s eye a kitchen, a darkly lit particular kitchen that seems to have come from a dream not from a memory, with a crock lined in newspaper, and filled with blackened moist vegetable peelings, beside the sink; sweet stink.
A brittle leaf falls from high overhead, clunking as it passes through the still-green leaves of my lilac, scuffing on the paved path where it lands. A rotund woman in hot pink with a checkerboard skirt eats handfuls of something out of a stiff plastic bag — nuts or seeds? — while she glances at our garden, expressionless. And my dogs set to howling as another dog, a beautiful black lab, tap-tap-taps patiently along the sidewalk in front of our house, leading a young woman with her fair strawberry hair stuck up in a bun at the top of her head, a baby which can’t be seen asleep under a quilt, and strapped to the front of the her chest. The young woman does not hear my dogs’ fuss, because she is plugged into white earbuds.
When the mailman arrives, not long after, I sit perfectly still and wonder whether I should alert him to my presence, but he speaks immediately to the dogs, talking to them through the glass as they bark frantically — “Hello, there, friends! And how are you today!” He flips the lid of our mailbox and is turned and away in an instant, and I watch him walk our stone path, and duck around the back of our truck, his step lively, his manner bright, his form short and plump, jolly as an elf. He has not seen me at all.
A funny thing happened yesterday morning. I started reading old blog posts, from 2009/2010, and F and CJ sat down and read along with me. They loved the photos, but they also loved the snippets of dialogue and descriptions of our daily life — adventures in which they played starring roles as 1 and 4 years olds. We were in stitches laughing and remembering. I mean, I’d almost forgotten about our “cooking with kids” experiment, and how we would hold family meetings using a “talking crayon.”
I’d forgotten, too, how openly I wrote about my own writing struggles. This was a quiet and difficult time in my writing career. I was three years away from publishing The Juliet Stories, and five years from having published Hair Hat, at the time, my only book. Yet I shared when I finished a new draft of a manuscript — even though the manuscript would ultimately be sent back to the drawing board by my kind agent. I shared when I felt aimless and unsure. I shared the small joys, too. I didn’t seem afraid to let others see me fail.
I’m much more afraid now, I understand.
Why haven’t I shared my ups and downs since publishing Girl Runner? Why hold my cards so close to my chest? I would like to be as brave as my former self. I would like to tell you when I’m excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published.
I am excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published. It sprung from out of an abandoned idea, and tapped me on the shoulder, and I worked on it in a torrent of concentrated obsession for the past number of months, in locations that seem woven right into the book, in my mind: beside several different soccer fields, sitting in my little white car, or the camping chair I keep in the trunk, or at a windblown picnic table, and in a cool calm classroom in New York State that allowed me to find an ending. I wrote some of the book by hand. I drew cartoons of the main characters. I drew sequences and storyboarded scenes. It was fun. It was super-fun.
And I want to share that with you, whether or not the manuscript is ultimately destined to be published. Because it’s part of the story.
Because the writing felt like play. Because I’ve had a sense of well-being as I’ve worked on this manuscript, and that is a good, good thing. Because I’ve had a sense of spaciousness, of enough, but not too much, these past few months.
Now to go walk the dogs around the block with my Fooey and CJ, who have grown to the enormous ages of 11 and 8. Wow. I love that I can learn from my former self. I love that my kids have this virtual scrapbook to flip through, if and when they’re interested. And I’m glad, glad, glad it’s still summer.
PS Home again. CJ led us in an around-the block heptathlon. He got gold, Fooey got silver, Suzi took bronze. DJ didn’t appear to have Olympic ambitions, and I blame my sandals for my poor showing. That, and the late-afternoon inertia. We were having a grand old time right up until CJ stepped in dog poo (not ours) on the sidewalk, which Fooey found disproportionately amusing, which in turn put CJ into an even worse mood. “This is just a bad day,” he said, although he did take my hand as I tried to cheer him up, to no avail. By the time we reached our back yard, he was so mad that he took off his hat and kicked it into a small tree. The hat-kicking had a salubrious effect on his system. He and Fooey are friends again, and they are playing at the dining-room table with a craft kit dug up from heaven-knows-where that can be used to make miniature cakes and pastries, and probably, also, a major mess. What is this stuff? “It smells terrible,” says CJ. “Don’t worry,” says Fooey. “We’re using it all up.”
How to sum up an experience like Omega, you ask, sitting in your office, once again, with a dog curled alertly at your feet? A child has just rushed in to tell you that she has gotten to 7 juggles (of the soccer ball, with her feet) in the “summer juggling camp” organized by your husband, to keep your children active and entertained, while you were away.
You were way for six days, but it could have been months. It could have been that you fell down into a different world, unrelated to your own, as vivid, as real, but somehow without connection to your own. You crossed a drawbridge that let itself down, into a small, contained universe which you inhabited almost like you’d become a child again.
You drew pictures. You wrote by hand. You went to class. You ate meals provided for you, and you compliantly accepted the food that appeared, eating something called “chickpea scramble” for breakfast every morning, almost obediently. You napped on pillows under a table with your fellow classmates. In the evening before bed, you went to tuck shop and bought a snack. You swam in a swampy seaweed infested lake. You laughed till you cried with your friend. You had a camp name. You were, in fact, a child at camp, again.
There were marvellously awful moments, such as when you struggled in full-on sun, sweat pouring off you, to erect an enormous, ridiculous tent, while the campers nearby reminisced about recently hiking the Appalachian Trail, popping up their compact tents in mere minutes. You almost cried, running in the heat to seek out duct tape—for the love of God, duct tape!—to repair your ridiculous and broken tent. And then you slept in luxury on a queen-size mattress, inflated with a motorized roaring machine that irritated those hardier neighbours who had recently hiked the Appalachian Trail.
There was the morning you rose at 4AM to attend a two and a half hour kundalini yoga class, that consisted largely of sitting cross-legged whilst chanting under the instruction of a tone-deaf guru.
There was the heat, the thunder storm, and the morning you had to take the rain-soaked tent down and pack up in the mud, only to be confronted by a breakfast of turmeric-soaked lentils immediately afterward.
But this was bliss.
It was blissful to spend hours every day writing and drawing. You didn’t know you could draw. You didn’t know you had characters inside of you, their faces waiting to be seen, their hidden emotions so certain on the page, present in a few quick lines you’d sketched there. After class, you would find your way back to the classroom to work—writing and drawing, drawing and writing. Determined as a child. Delighted as a child. You would want to thank this genius teacher, whose genius is her delight in the process, and her generosity. There was no waste in Lynda Barry’s class. Time was honoured. It was honoured with work, and it was honoured with rest, and it was honoured with delight in what you were all making, individually and together.
You went on this adventure, and you came home again.
But you’re still there, you think. Half of you is still there, safe and bewildered and surprised and elated.
Thank you, Lynda Barry.