Sometimes I wonder if I need ever write anything else here on this blog, if I haven’t perhaps already written everything I need to write; if the same ideas come around again and again. I just finished reading a memoir by Sally Mann, the American photographer, which is called Hold Still. In May of 2009, I wrote about Sally Mann after viewing, by chance, a documentary on her called What Remains, which was also the title of one of her major photography projects (click here to read that post). Mann’s memoir is lovely, and loving, and offers what feels like genuine and at times unintentional insight into the artist’s mind, her blind spots, her fervour, her view of herself, which may not line up perfectly with the way she is viewed by others.
When you make something, and you send it out to be seen, you lose control over how it is received. She gets that.
There are times when I feel naked, exposed, a character in a story I hadn’t realized I’d been writing. Sometimes I do not know how to be the person at the front of the room. Sometimes I don’t even know if I know how to be the person in the quiet of this room. I don’t know if these people are different people; I would like them not to be, and yet I recognize that a performance is performative by nature, and the domestic self is simply not–but what of the creative self? Does creativity not draw on a bit of everything thrown together, domestic and performative, insightful and riven with blind spots?
It’s been a gruelling start to the new school year, and the marathon of responsibilities continues apace, and to be honest, I feel like I am living a version of life that is unworkable, unsustainable. To fit here, I have to prop my eyes open, I have little time to see friends, I rarely cook or bake, I stagger from one task to the next, I write almost nothing, and I am doing a poor to mediocre job at all tasks required of me. “How do you find time to … ? How do you do it? How do you make time for …?” This question, in its many guises, is asked often of me, and I want to cry when I hear it.
I don’t know. I’m not doing it. I do not have time to. I do not make time for. I am marching bleary-eyed and uncertain toward a goal I cannot see and cannot claim, and yet, I march.
The post that I wrote about Sally Mann, in 2009, was called “On endings.” It’s lovely. I loved re-reading it. It brought me a frisson of excitement, because I was writing about writing the stories that would become The Juliet Stories, and because the retrospective is a comforting viewpoint. But I feel in some ways that I remain in exactly the same position now as then, in 2009: stretched for time, though in new and different ways, and questioning questioning questioning my purpose, my role, my goals, even my desires. Exhaustion rolls through me like fog and bleaches my mind. What remains?
“A year feels like nothing to me anymore, writing-wise,” I wrote, then, more than six years ago. I continue to agree whole-heartedly.
I also see now what I knew already then: that time is what separates those who make something from those who don’t. Well, it’s one of the things. But it’s huge. If your mind is a tangle of appointments and schedules and to-do lists and undone-never-finished-tasks and children and worries and travel and work, you do not have time to spread out your thoughts and sink into them. The physical scattering, the distractions and interruptions, the segmented sliced-up hours: your mind is scattered. How can it settle?
I’ve applied for a grant to earn some time; whether I get this grant remains to be seen, but it’s like I’ve bought a lottery ticket, and I am sitting here holding the ticket and imagining what I would do with this time. I imagine this time clean and crisp and clear, textured by weather and hunger and coffee, hour upon hour without interruption. I imagine it on a windswept hilltop or in a one-room cottage. I am clearly immersed in fantasy. Time is such a luxury. I would like to think I could write my next book beside soccer fields and swimming pools, but I think that I can’t, actually. I can’t. Let’s be honest. Sally Mann makes her photographs alone, hour upon hour in a darkroom. She takes her photographs alone, often, travelling for days or weeks, alone, as she works. The deep gritty stuff happens alone, in quietude, when you’ve fallen down into the depths of yourself, and it is work that doesn’t fit well with much else.
This is not the news that anyone wants to hear–no one wants to hear it. I don’t want to hear of sacrificing one thing for another. But I am already sacrificing many things for many others. One does. It’s the way it goes. The question is: am I doing this consciously, am I choosing this, must I do this, or can I choose otherwise? What would I sacrifice in order to earn that quiet time?
I don’t know. I’m really not sure. I can’t see yet.
Quiet discipline is a massive gamble, and it seems to require the courage (not to mention the resources) to say: this is what I’m going to do, even if it doesn’t work out, even if nothing comes of it, even then, it will have been worth it.
It isn’t summer anymore. We’ve leaped into fall. A friend told me she was trying to figure out how to preserve her summer-self; and if I could, I would bottle the kids’ playfulness and super-summer energy, and that hat-wearing blissfully-at-peace-vibe I’m getting from Kevin in these photos. For myself, I’d be content to stand in the lake taking photos.
But in all seriousness, I do find myself taking time, post-summer, to wade in the water. By which I mean, to step into the flow that surrounds me at any given moment of the day. On Friday evening, for example, CJ and I went outside to figure out why there was an enormous transport truck blocking traffic at our corner (a driver lost in the uptown construction woes, we surmised) — once outside, we decided to go for a night walk around the block, just the two of us, and there was the moon, a sliver shrouded in mist, and we walked and he talked, and talked, and talked. In all the busyness, all the exhaustion, there is time for this, and many more tiny moments that come calling, quietly, for attention.
I’ve had a most beautiful weekend. Later on that same Friday night, just after I’d gone to bed, I got the phone call I’ve been anticipating: my sister-in-law was in labour. I leaped out of bed, gathered a few items, including my camera, and drove my fogged-up car down the street. And here, in their quiet house, time slowed down, or lifted, suspended itself to wait patiently for the work that was being done, and before dawn, the emergent babe took her first beautiful breath.
Being with someone in labour is like inhabiting the most meditative space I can imagine. I am honoured to have been invited to share, again, in this experience.
Later that same day, now Saturday, I dragged myself from a sinking nap, dressed in soccer gear, and went with our family to celebrate the end of Albus’ and Kevin’s soccer season — pizza followed by a just-for-fun game: the boys’ team v parents/siblings/coaches. It had been raining, the grass was muddy, and I was out-schooled and outrun by the 14-year-old boys, and yet, wasn’t it fun to play? Something else, I just remembered: in the middle of the night of the birth, my brother and I were suddenly famished, and we ate granola bars covered in chocolate that tasted like heaven.
Yesterday, waking after sleeping through the night, for 11 hours straight (!), the flow flowed on. Fort in the living-room. Processing photos. Friends to play. Kids climbing over the back fence. I baked a fruit crisp and listened to the radio. A run in the park with the eldest girl (hill intervals — she wanted to do hill intervals!). We ate supper all together. The floors did not get vacuumed. All together, we played backyard volleyball until it got too dark. There was time, there was time. Even though I also had to do class prep for today, and answer emails, and get organized for the trip to Spain: I leave tomorrow. I hope to step into a different flow when I walk out the door for six days of being an author, all on my own. I plan to travel old-school, with a notebook and pen rather than a laptop. So, no blogging from abroad. But lots of observations, I hope, lots of words on the page, descriptions, mysterious scenes, tangible building blocks for more stories to come.
Work that is not work, but play.
In my previous post, I published a list poem detailing some of the things in our downstairs bathroom (because, why not?). It included the description of a painting that hangs there, and I was amused to notice while brushing my teeth the other day that my description, written from memory, bears little resemblance to the actual painting.
I remembered horses, for example. There are no horses. I remembered the scene being of a marketplace. The scene is clearly of a busy city street.
I like that there are differences between what I remembered and what exists in actual fact, because I think it’s instructive of how memory fictionalizes reality all the time. At least, that’s my theory. And I like that my memory invented horses in the painting. Horses are a touchstone for me. They symbolize the freedom of childhood, but also some of the confusion of childhood too; I think of going to an auction of wild mustangs with my grandpa, in Tennessee, when I was a kid, and realizing it wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. Wild mustangs! We were going to see wild mustangs! But the horses were skinny and dusty and untamed and seemed frightened, being herded through chutes and into pens. And I just felt … sad to see them like that. A sadness I couldn’t express.
At least, that’s what I remember now, thirty years removed from the experience.
I could write a poem about it, probably. Perhaps I should.
A friend wondered why I’d specified, in the previous post, that the line poem exercise be written by hand, rather than typed — it’s a good question, and here are my reasons. For practical purposes, it keeps laptops off desks in the classroom. But for even more practical purposes, writing by hand forces you to pour out your ideas less automatically, more deliberately. You can’t help but slow down, as pen tries to keep up with train of thought. The exercises we do call for a lot of scribbling, scrawled point form or almost shapeless idea-noting, and even some doodling: this happens best on paper. Finally, writing is a craft and there is something tangible about words written on a page. You can see that words are building blocks, you can move them around, remove them, play with them. So that’s why. (She says, as she types this post via keyboard onto screen.)
In other news, I’ve been working on a ridiculously long post that may or may not actually come into being. It’s really too long to be posted here, but I don’t have a better forum on which to share it. If and when I post it, I’ll give you a heads-up so that if you don’t want delve into a long-form manifesto on art, you can’t skip it! I think it’s an important subject, but I also don’t want to lose readers.
Happy Friday. (Spain next week, here I come!)
I like to write along with my students during our writing exercises. In class last night, our last exercise was a list poem created by imagining ourselves into a familiar room, and writing down details about the room, each detail making up a new line in the poem. The order was simply the order in which the detail occurred to us; we did not rearrange lines for this exercise. I’m breaking one of the class rules by re-reading the piece just one day after writing it; but I’m keeping the most important rule, which is not to edit or attempt revision for at least five days after writing it. This is as it was.
Here is my poem, for the record.
bathroom downstairs at our house
my face in the mirror
CJ’s face in the mirror, jumping and jumping and jumping but not seeing himself
my face with blemishes, frown lines of bafflement or pain stuck there now, un-erasable
the window out of which we cannot see
the blue stool that CJ is jumping from, jumping from
the window open and a light breeze, hot not cool
“what do you think of yourself? do you like it? can you see?”
the shower with the faint blue mould in the corners, faint grey scum on the tiles, a bar of soap melting in the corner
the towels hanging from a hook, one striped, one white and slightly mottled from years of use
the cupboard, paint peeling at the edges
the red door, open
debris in the corners, fuzz on the floor, fragments of hair and nails and dust and us
the toilet and the painting above it of a marketplace in Nicaragua, stick people almost, pinks & purples yellows & blues powder & light oxen & people churches & horses
and my face in the mirror
In other, but perhaps related news: I gave CJ a hair cut on Saturday. He spent a lot of time staring at himself in various mirrors, saying “Who is this strange guy in the mirror?” in a faux-shocked voice. He seems to like the change, very much. (While I miss the crazy curls more than I thought I would, somehow.)
Want to write your own list poem? Choose the first room that pops to mind, set a timer for seven minutes, and get writing (use paper and a pen or pencil; do not type).
PS My siblings (aka Kidstreet) have just released a new single. It’s called Daydream. Listen here!
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
Friday, noon. I sit in perfection on the deck of a cottage overlooking a calm lake, pines and birch and cedar moving in a light breeze, the sound of children playing on the rocks below, wading in the shallows. An iridescent dragonfly flutters up and away. The sun is hot. I am wearing a swim suit underneath a brown faded sundress, and a half-drunk cup of coffee is at my elbow.
It feels like this could last forever.
Of course, it can’t and won’t. But there are times when a moment gives the illusion of settling and holding and the mind and body relax so completely that there is no thinking about later, tomorrow, work, duty, responsibility. Ambition vanishes too.
Because what am I part of if not something much greater than my mere human ambition can imagine?
I want for all the gift of rest, respite, dignity, play. At a moment like this, I can imagine no greater gift than somehow creating space for rest and respite, for all who live on this earth. Yet instead we seem most adept at inventing barriers, walls, borders, crises, battles, weapons, dogma that excludes, ideologies of fear and control. There is too much to grieve. I become overwhelmed. I grow weary and distracted. I can’t think clearly.
I sit and watch the lake water move in patterns of eternal symmetry.
Perhaps, I think, my mind is being cleared. Perhaps I will return home less weary, more aware of what matters to me, which patterns I wish to nurture, and which I wish to discard, in order to be a participant in a world where all of these gifts may be shared.
Relief. Simple pleasure. Ease. Rest. Hope.
PS I reviewed Lawrence Hill’s new novel, The Illegal, for The Globe and Mail, and it’s online now, and will appear in tomorrow’s paper. The book is a fast-paced, prescient read on a subject that could not be more timely — the movement of people across borders.