Well, this wasn’t what I meant to do this morning, while suffering from a sudden and nasty cold, and lying around the house in yoga pants feeling pitiful. But hey, in my pitiful yoga-panted state, I clicked myself over to Facebook to do one tiny thing — instantly forgetting what that was; still can’t remember! — and saw that a friend had posted the link to Part 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Saga,” which would perhaps be better titled “Travels Through America,” freshly published in the New York Times magazine (I read Part 1 two weeks ago).
Here are two passages that jumped out at me, fitting, as they do, into my land and stories theory about power, conflict, and human connection.
“If there is something to be gained, if it is gainable, no power on earth can restrain the forces that seek to gain it. To leave a profit or a territory or any kind of resource, even a scientific discovery, unexploited is deeply alien to human nature. …
Not only is it alien to human nature to leave a profit unexploited, but discovering, inventing or knowing something without passing that knowledge on is alien to us, too.”
– Karl Ove Knausgaard
Read both parts of “My Saga,” if you like Knausgaard’s work. If you don’t, well, don’t bother; Knausgaard is Knausgaard. Either way, you might be forgiven for reading “My Saga” as close to self-satirizing. I found it at times hilarious, occasionally grotesque, Knausgaard willing to set himself up as a curiosity, as the inscrutable Other passing through an awfully familiar (to me) landscape, which he can’t or won’t even attempt to understand. Except he makes some interesting philosophical and cultural observations, and is himself a fascinating study in contradictions, having constructed his persona on the unlikely combination of personal reticence and abject confession.
Yes, I’m a fan.
I happened to be at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival last fall at the same time as Knausgaard, and he was one of the first people I saw when I arrived at the hotel where all of the visiting writers stay. We stood side by side at the front desk, he with one of his daughters, me with my tiny carry-on bag behind me like a favourite pet, on the very day that a lone gunman attacked Parliament Hill. I didn’t say a word to him. He seemed like a private person who wanted to go on a touristy excursion with his daughter, not someone who wished to acknowledge that the person standing next to him at the front desk of a hotel might have read his own hyper-detailed account of his life (I’d recently read the first and second books in My Struggle). Strange, wouldn’t it be? Or am I doing something similar here — on a much, much smaller scale — writing about my life and offering it up to anyone who happens along, yet also certain that I’m essentially a private person, deserving of privacy.
Anyway. I didn’t disturb him. Later, we took an elevator together. In silence.
I’m convinced “My Saga” is a classic piece of travel writing, even if it doesn’t tell a great deal about the land being travelled through; really, it’s about the human condition. How we’re shaped by where we’re born, and by what were willing to do, but also by what we can’t see or recognize, even within ourselves. Maybe most especially there. Writing is an effort to translate emotion and sensation and experience into shared language. This happens, when it happens best, not by explaining what we want to say, but by inhabiting it. So, in writing, a seeker may have more meaning to offer than a finder. A seeker, who doesn’t know what she’s looking at, exactly, might reveal more than she who is quite certain of what she’s found.
Here are links to Part One and Part Two of Knausgaard’s “My Saga.”
Back to my cold-fighting garlic-ginger tea.
This morning I woke at 5:54AM, realized my alarm hadn’t gone off, leapt out of bed, and somehow got into running gear with shoes on and teeth brushed before my running friend arrived at the door at 6AM. Good grief! It’s been that kind of week, with little margin for error in the schedule. But I suppose it’s also been that kind of week, with things turning out just fine even if the wheels aren’t turning completely smoothly. (And how about that–I need a mere 6 minutes to prep in the morning? I could be sleeping in!)
I’ve been working on my manners while driving. Driving = swearing, in my world. There’s something about being stuck in a vehicle, possibly but not necessarily late, behind other vehicles that are behaving in erratic nonsensical fashion that brings out a rage I rarely experience otherwise. My kids are very helpful, calling out my muttered curses. “Mom, you said the “H” word,” CJ told me yesterday as we sat at a green light behind a car whose driver did not seem to understand the meaning of green lights. Everyone was too politely Canadian to honk, of course. “I’m sorry,” I apologized to CJ. “I’m really trying to work on not saying bad words while driving.”
“I know what you should do,” he piped up, while munching a cookie. “You should meditate in the car.” This cracked everyone up when I reported it later on, no doubt everyone imagining Carrie sitting with eyes closed ignoring the traffic and breathing deeply; but actually, I did take a few deep breaths–eyes open–and it helped. It’s all about weighing what matters, and whether you really want to work yourself into a snit over [fill in the blank]. Usually, the answer is, big picture, I’d rather have a chat with my cookie-eating kid than be gripping the wheel, shoulders tensed, cursing the eccentricities of those who share the road. If only I could recognize that before I start swearing, not during. Connecting the dots between meditation and real life is the real challenge.
Speaking of challenges, yesterday definitely qualifies. Piano lessons, picking up kids from different schools at different times, writing on laptop in car between pickups. Home to eat take-out pizza fetched by Kevin, then up to the little kids’ school for their arts night, visiting with friends and neighbours, ducking out early, dropping little kids at home in care of their older sister who was distracted by her imminently due science fair project (the dining-room table covered in chopsticks, copper wire, batteries, and bouncy balls), and at last, getting changed and zipping over to Conrad Grebel College to read as the final guest in their Mennonite Writers Series. After all that running, what a surprising pleasure it was to come to a stop in the Grebel Chapel. I could not have felt more welcomed. The evening was a total pleasure, and something about the format felt as natural as if I were reading to my kids at bedtime (dressed in nicer clothes, wearing makeup, with a microphone pinned to my shirt). As I sat there at the end of the presentation looking out at this warm and generous audience, I thought, wow, this is a damn lucky life. Embrace it, receive it, savour it.
And then go home to tea and bed in such a happy state of mind that you forget to set the alarm, apparently.
Anyway … I’m reading again tonight at WLU, at Lucinda House, 6:30PM. Then I’ve got a little break in the readings, with more to come in April. I will keep you posted. And I’ll let you know how the car meditation is going …
Yesterday, my youngest stayed home from school. I didn’t want to alter my routine too drastically and he is old enough now to be accommodating and to entertain himself quite easily. I said I was going to meditate for twenty minutes, and he was okay with it, especially when I told him to bring his little mini-super-hero figures into my office so he could play while I meditated. I told him he could make noise, but please not to ask me for anything for those twenty minutes (genuine emergencies excepted; but the beauty of having an office is that the kids already know that rule about interrupting me).
He played for the first ten minutes or so. Then I heard him leave. I heard him come back. And it got very quiet. I knew he was in the room with me, but I didn’t know what he was doing.
When I opened my eyes at the end of the exercise, that’s what I saw: see photo above. He was meditating. He had chosen to sit cross-legged with his hands in a prayer position. This is not how I sit when I meditate. He wasn’t copying me; it was the position he chose on his own. When I asked him about why he’d chosen to sit that way, he couldn’t explain it. He had a few questions about the voice in the computer (I use a guided meditation app). Who was that man, and is he real, and can other people hear him too?
I have a couple of observations about meditating. I love it. Or maybe I only have one observation. That’s it. Clearly this is something my mind takes to; reminds me of running, a bit, how when I found the running, it seemed to answer some question in me that I hadn’t known was there, silently being asked.
I love following the tracks of my thoughts into a corner of the mind where I am suddenly falling backward into deep snow and staring at an enormous open sky, in awe.
Even today, meditating alone (with dog snoring at my feet), with my mind in a state of apparent dissatisfaction–even today, I loved the exercise. Why?
My mind flitted today, ran everywhere, often to places I did not want to be.
I kept returning to breath and that helped, but didn’t cure what ailed my mind, its anxiety that I was doing everything wrong.
But you know what? Even while I worried, I knew on a deeper level: This is not an exercise interested in right or wrong. Do it, and it counts. You will learn something, every time. Not necessarily something big and astonishing. But something interesting–it’s waiting to be found, every single time. Today’s exercise was a good reminder to the frustrated, dissatisfied self: you won’t always think you’re doing a good job at the tasks you’re doing; maybe you’re even right about that. But the real work isn’t confined to a single instance, it’s in the accumulation of many instances. It’s in repetition of effort, and returning again and again to the discipline you’ve chosen to get to know more deeply. You can’t know in advance where it’s taking you. You don’t know exactly what you’re making. But that’s the beauty and the mystery.
“I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am bliss, I am, I am.” —from the song “I am the light of my soul”
These are the words that came into my head as I finished today’s meditation, which was for thirty minutes. It amazes me that I am now able to sit still for thirty minutes. Me! Sitting still, doing, apparently, nothing but breathing. Today, as I was falling into and out of my breath, feeling the stillness and comfort of my body, I heard a car zoom by on the street outside, and I had a strong and joyful sense of the world going on around me in its whirl and bustle, and yet here I was, still and at peace. Still and at peace and not necessary. That sounds odd. It’s what I felt.
It was a very peaceful feeling. I felt the world whirling on around me and without me and it didn’t need me to whirl too. I could sit here in stillness and all would be well; maybe I even understood in that moment that sitting here in stillness was as important as all of the whirling I do.
I have filled my life up with responsibilities and cares. I love being in motion, driving somewhere with somebody to something, or setting goals for myself in everything I do, from swimming lengths to running miles to lifting weights, to the word count I keep track of with pleasure on my new novel. I am also keenly aware of the needs that must be met to keep this family operating in a healthy and happy way. The dog hair that must be vacuumed. The meals planned and prepared.
So it is somehow profoundly soothing to also see the flip side, to recognize that I am not as necessary as I tell myself. That if I am busy, it is because I’ve chosen to be busy, not because busyness is essential to my being. That there is always room to sit still for a few moments and breathe, and pay attention.
I feel hopeful today.
I am hopeful about my writing. I am hopeful about my children and my relationship with each of them. I am hopeful about what meditation is bringing into my daily life. I am hopeful about practice. I am hopeful about today. And right now.
A friend asked if I’m writing a poem every day, as intended. And no, I’m not. Mostly, right now, I’m journalling in a more traditional sense. But every once in awhile, yes, a poem comes along when it might not have before, had I not been considering the possibility of writing a poem every day. Here’s one I like. I wrote it on the bench outside my kids’ piano lessons, with two of them clamouring for snacks. So note to self — there’s no excuse, no reason not to try to write or to create absolutely anywhere.
Note to self
To write is to fear
Is to write against the fear, into it
Is to let the fear hover, to hold it while it vibrates
Like a trapped bird
To write is to be spurred by fear
Sent by fear, pressed by fear deeper into the woods
Not to go into hiding, but to seek what you’re tracking
To write is to track, not to hunt
Is to follow your quarry through dangerous terrain
Is to be wrong, dying on the wrong path
Thirsty and hungry and tired and wrong
To write is to meet your imperfect self
In an argument about annihilation, uselessness
To write is to find
In the woods on the wrong path
Your self crouched in the thicket
Watching this strange animal move
Like nothing you’ve ever seen before
Nothing you could have imagined
And you are trying to write its name
You are trying to send news of this animal home
I keep track of my book-reading life in a separate section of this blog (under Extras), but as this is the year of WRITE, I’d like to highlight the connection between writing and reading by sharing some of my book-related reflections here, too. Because really, it can’t be a year of WRITE if it’s not also a year of READ. (And if you ever want advice from me on how to be a writer, here’s the only decent answer I’ve got: PRACTICE your writing like you’d practice the piano; and READ all the time, everything you can get your hands on, especially but not exclusively in the styles and forms you admire.)
So. Reading life. Below are three books I’ve read recently. But first I want to tell you about the newspaper article I read this morning in the Globe & Mail, an interview with two young women, both 13, both in grade 8 (and therefore the same age as my eldest, who is a boy). It’s the most clear-eyed, clear-headed perspective on sex education that I’ve ever come across. I love these young women! (Their parents must be pretty awesome too.) I’d like to have my older kids read this interview and then discuss it with them. Here’s a brief excerpt: What do you wish boys would understand? “Boys need to understand that women aren’t sex objects or lesser people. … Girls aren’t this whole other world. Boys and girls actually aren’t that different and they should be treated like they aren’t that different. Otherwise nothing is going to change.”
What I’m reading …
〉 Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
* Christmas gift from Kevin to me
I’ve become a Sarah Waters fan. This book seriously creeped me out, but I could not stop reading it. It’s set in Victorian England and it’s gritty and dirty and full of evil plots and human foulness, and lots of things I’m actually quite squeamish about, but I was completely taken in. Plot twists? By the dozen. Never saw ’em coming. Waters is phenomenally good at storytelling, and at capturing the intimate details of an historical time period. I’m taking mental notes as I read her. I wasn’t sure what the message at the core of the book was, exactly — it seemed emptier at its core than The Little Stranger — but I didn’t really care either. I just wanted to devour the book and piece everything together. When I have time, I will definitely be reading more of Sarah Waters. (Problem is, I couldn’t put the book down, and was up late on a few nights, turning pages….)
〉 Fair Play, by Tove Jansson, translated from the Finnish, with a foreword by Ali Smith
* bought on my Kobo
This book challenged me. I really wanted to love it, and found that I could only like it. It is a series of small stories about two characters, loosely (or perhaps not so loosely) based on Jansson and her partner, a woman who was an artist. I kept mixing up the main characters’ names; they didn’t seem that different from each other, and that was one of the problems I had with the book. The other problem was the structure of the stories, which at times seemed overly and overtly plotted, even while most ended with a severe abruptness that seemed indicative of an undeveloped thought. Yet, even while my writer brain critiqued the stories’ structure, I was nevertheless drawn into this slightly odd world being portrayed, of two artists and friends (the specifics of their relationship are never explained, but they do live together at times and often share a bed), who share their lives and their work with each other. I can’t imagine having such a close friendship with another artist, one who would criticize my work even while I’m making it; that’s a level of collaboration that I really can’t fathom. I can’t fathom knowing another woman quite this well, I suppose, too. It’s a bit strange, as I’m thinking about this now, that we totally normalize pairing up and sharing our lives and space with a sexual partner, but a platonic friendship with the same depth of understanding and time spent together seems strange (or it seems strange to me, anyway). The exception to the strangeness was that brief period in my life when I had roommates, and it seems connected specifically to youth, pre-marriage. There were so many things I liked about being that close to my friends — sharing food, social lives, plans, down-time, the daily small miseries and joys. I know there were downsides too, and irritations; Jansson depicts these well. This book made me long for closer friendships — closer than is possible in my current life, which revolves around raising kids.
〉 A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker
* ordered on Amazon.ca as an impulse buy when purchasing photo albums for Christmas gifts
The opening chapters of the book are well-written and fascinating, and support my own style of writing, which he calls “classic prose.” I really loved seeing Pinker diagram and break down sentences to show why they work (or don’t), in terms of the basic structure. We can only hold a very limited amount of information in our short-term memories, so the order in which our brain receives new information matters in terms of the ease of making connections between parts. That’s why a poorly written sentence stops us up, makes us puzzle over the parts as we try to connect them in the sense the author has intended. And a well-written sentence simply skims by, clear and well-lit. In a sense, it explains to me why it’s easy to overlook excellent writing: because it’s easy to understand, a reader assumes it’s a) easy to write and/or b) simplistic. But in fact clear writing, or classic prose, a) takes great skill to write and can be used to b) effectively communicate complex ideas. Pinker gets bogged down in his final chapter, which put me to sleep night after night, in which he logically and rationally argues over points of grammar and usage. I found his arguments sensible, on the whole, until he started arguing for rather than against particular grammatical sticking points — then he sounded just like the grammar police he was railing against. Point being: grammar is not a science. Grammar is an agreed-upon set of rules that aid clear communication, and when not-agreed-upon, well, that’s where history and tradition butt up against popular usage. Unfortunately, I come away from the book without a clearer idea of how to teach students to punctuate their sentences “properly.” I simply could not wrap my head around Pinker’s “grammar trees,” in which he diagrammed sentences using different names to categorize the parts of the sentence than the names I’m familiar with. I don’t know if this is because I’m stupid about theory (which I am, in some ways), or whether grammar is just too complicated no matter how clear you try to make your explanation, especially when you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty bits. I couldn’t imagine trying to take Pinker’s trees to my students in an attempt to make common grammatical errors clearer to them.
Now, your turn. What are you reading?
PS A review of Girl Runner from the Daily Mail in the UK arrived in my inbox this morning. I’m too chicken to read it, but Kevin promises me it’s good. Apparently this is an accurate excerpt: “Original … moving … engrossing.” (Dunno what words came in between those, but I sure hope “not” wasn’t among them …)