Right here, right now (Covid edition).

Each day we walk in various configurations, me giving my sons dire warnings to stay more than six feet away from all other humans. I cycle in the mornings to get my heart pounding, grateful for fewer cars on the roads, grateful that the long-encoded solution of moving fast in the face of anxiety is still available to me.

At our grocery store, the well-spaced line outdoors stretches down the block – memories of a childhood in Poland in the 1970s, but here, there is way more food on the shelves. I want to yell this to everyone who complains about the few shortages. I also want to yell at the oblivious people who stand texting in the middle of the narrow sidewalk, at the young man who walks straight towards me and my older son – who I need to summon to help with the carrying – as we lug what we hope is two weeks of groceries home on foot, forcing us out onto the road.  But I don’t. These are exceptions. The rest of us do the keep-away dance as if we’ve done it all our lives, but now there are smiles and nods in passing that would have been rare before.

There are should-have-knows: why are our wills still unwitnessed and unsigned? How can we get anyone to witness them now? Why haven’t we yet renovated our backyard shed into an office where one of us could work? But now we are learning to move from room to room in the house, taking turns at privacy. Two hours writing alone in a room with the door closed does wonders for my focus and my mood. Why did we remove our lilac bush to my parents’ garden so far in advance of our long-anticipated backyard renovation? I imagine the lost consolation of sitting on the back steps this spring watching the blooms open, taking in the sweet scent.

There is also unexpected thanks. For our small and open backyard with its inadequate and ugly fences, where we can still easily chat with neighbours one and even two houses over, in exactly the same way we have done for years. Gratitude for the four of us being so used to each other’s company after years of homeschooling. Gratitude for the habits I’ve built up over the past few years of regular at-home yoga and meditation, and for the introversion I only recently learned to celebrate and cherish which makes me not particularly crave more company than I have. Gratitude for work that can be done from home. Gratitude too for new windows that finally open fully after fifteen years of poor airflow, which I keep flinging wide no matter what the weather, feeling immediately happier and more hopeful.

My mother has become obsessed with masks. She sent me a pattern in the mail, which I haven’t yet used. In response to my silence, she has written that she is sending me one of her homemade masks, small and light enough to slide into a letter-sized envelope. I know she’s right, but I am putting off the inevitable. I can’t imagine how I will keep myself from touching the mask, how I will figure out how to breathe through the fabric. When I go out, I tie my now too-long hair back into a bun, so that it doesn’t get in my eyes and mouth, so that I am not tempted to fiddle with anything on my face. When my eyes water cycling into the wind, I restrain myself from wiping the tears away. I wash my hands dozens of times each day. Somehow there is lots more laundry than before.

I am reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and note every time pestilence or infection is mentioned, every time the wealthy avoid crowds to avoid contagion, every sudden and brutal or long and lingering death. I have become fascinated with plagues past, with the human struggle with microbes, with how much of a risk and challenge life has always been, with how little we are now prepared to acknowledge this. What might at first have made me anxious – investigating the devastating pandemics of the past – now helps me shift my perspective to a wider view. I am amazed at human ingenuity and resilience, at how quickly people move from panic to mobilization.

I pivot from fear to a measure of normalcy, with occasional sidelines into grief. Grief mostly at what my kids are missing, all the interactions and relationships they thrive in. And a little for the people dear to me who I may not see for a long time. But I think about my parents being separated for six months when my father came to Canada ahead of the rest of us. I think about the decades when my parents could only communicate with their own parents by overseas mail, with rare visits. I think about my grandmother’s family disappearing during the war, when she was only a teen, about the years she waited before she saw them again. I think about all the people who are displaced, separated from family, without a home, crowded into refugee camps, bearing the burden of all the world’s many other infectious diseases, well-acquainted with mortality. I think about all of the people whose lives have frantically sped up as the rest of us retreat into our homes.

As for me, right now I am okay. Everyone I love is still okay. In the day-to-day, my life is not that different than it was. I have a home and food, clean running water, my husband and children with me. I watch every small sign of spring as it arrives, breathe in the air from my wide-open windows. I am adjusting to this this new normal, finding room in it for creativity, capability, joy. As long as I don’t think too much about what could have been instead. As long as I don’t think too much about the future. As long as I stay right here, right now.

Still writing with my email group to writing prompts, as we’ve done on and off for several years, sometimes daily, usually however often we can manage. Once again it’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. Perhaps I decided at some point that blogs were dead. But this feels like a time for recording. And perhaps a time for resurrection. Word prompts: pivot/lilac/mirror.

In the thickets of February

I’ve been long absent here, for unclear reasons. I’ve been writing more poetry than prose the past six months, not always daily, but in a way that needs incubation and editing and attention to craft. Still writing with my far-flung group of wonderful women to word prompts, but more often clustering several day’s worth into one piece. This was a rare long and rambling prose essay (long ago are the days of 100 word limits!) after months of short poetry. Prompts: thicket, longing, boundary, abundance. I decided it was shareable. I think every year I write some version of this piece in February, which through some strange and devious trickery is actually the longest month pretending to be the shortest. This stormy, slushy, icy February has been several months long already. 

I’ve read somewhere that there is no such thing as writer’s block, you just need to lower your standards. If this week I don’t have the mental space for poems, I can still write. I can write about longing, about boundaries, about pushing through the thicket of “life admin” I find myself in recently.

I long these days for clear skies, for clear sidewalks, for ease of transportation. I long for deep sleep. I long for energy reserves – which, for unclear reasons, I am currently lacking – that can take me through nights of long awakenings. Last night I slept deeply, without earplugs. I woke up feeling like I could throw a party to celebrate. My husband came into our office space to bring me my tea and I grinned widely at him and said I’d slept well. He laughed even before I said it, and hugged me. It was comic really, how exuberant I felt, how my face and body radiated joy. The way I taught myself to handle insomnia many years ago was to rewire my brain to make sleep less important. Over the years, I learned I could push through anything without having slept a wink the night before – large presentations, exams, meetings with intimidating books editors when I was a book publicist, work crises, sleeping in forests, all kinds of situations that were out of my comfort zone, because most things were. No, I didn’t let that stop me, but also no, it never actually got easier. So much anxiety, and no sense that I could ask for help, that it was even something worth voicing.

Putting less focus on sleep made insomnia hold less power over me. I once read that in pre-industrial cultures long periods of night waking were the norm because people went to bed much earlier without artificial lighting. It worked for a long time to simply accept this. The problem is that after years of highly interrupted sleep with babies and small kids, I know I’m a completely different person when I’m well-rested. It’s hard to pretend it doesn’t matter. But I keep muddling through, surrendering to the erratic monthly and seasonal patterns, teaching myself to get to bed a lot earlier and catch those early hours of deep sleep, learning to lie down for half an hour in the afternoon if I need it, trying not to get too attached to feeling energetic. February will end. The sun will come back. 

The daily minutiae of life. When I’m well rested I love my life, the flexibility of it, the room for constant exploration. When I’m not rested, I stumble through the day in a daze, snap at my kids, complain that I’m doing everything for everyone. I’m learning that so much of feeling over-responsible for things comes from being unwilling to relinquish control. It stings to recognize that. I made a decision yesterday to skip my women’s circle this Sunday. I have a slightly overlapping meeting with the LUNA (League of Urban Nature Artists) group that I finally decided to join. The meeting is an hour away by transit, far from where the circle is meeting, and I want to be there for the full meeting. I second-guess whether I have space for this. But the acronym: LUNA! A group of people to draw with outdoors! Bringing love and attention to Toronto’s ravines! I am amazed I was invited, really, although secretly afraid that I don’t have the energy or skill for it. So I am going to the meeting and missing the circle for the first time. My circle, that I started three years ago when I was struggling through winter, and which I’ve always lead, albeit in my low-key fashion.  Over those few years I’ve sometimes resented “doing all the work.” Aha, but if I give that work away to others, I also lose control!  Aye, there’s the rub, losing control is clearly challenging to me. What if the silent witnessing and respectful turn-taking I’ve worked on is replaced by cross-talk and advice-giving? I tell myself to let go of the reins, let go of managing these interactions. There will always be room to leave or to stay, for each of us. I can accept that no-one is irreplaceable, that groups form and change and eventually break. I can make decisions around what I need, and know that everything will work out as it needs to. 

And then abundance. As I clean years of accumulated clutter from my basement, I remind myself that I am fortunate to live in a time and place of abundance. That so much of what I want to clear out came from other people, from impulses of generousity.  I can still clear this stuff out of my house! But my kids have involved and loving grandparents, who buy them books and Lego and board games. Who give us ancestral pieces of furniture and china and tablecloths and silverware. And I can make boundaries about what comes in for me, but I can’t make them for the other three people who live in my house. My kids have direct relationships with their grandparents, and love the gifts they receive. Things trickle into the house and never leave. The more I want to control what comes in and how we tend the space, the more I become responsible for everything. It’s hard to extricate myself from that bind.

I don’t know where this is all going, this piece of writing, or my life, or the world as we know it, which is certainly not in good shape. Some days I feel I’m drowning in noise and clutter and other people’s opinions on the internet. And sometimes fear. I don’t know if I’ve made good choices in my life or poor ones. I think I see beautiful paths opening ahead of me, but on bad days they seem like mirages, or like I am on a rickety boardwalk through murky swamps, where my feet keep slipping into the muck.  David Whyte says heartbreak comes from learning that anything we care about will disappoint us, will eventually break us, and that is the honourable price of caring deeply. I am paraphrasing, and I don’t want it to be true, but I am sure that it is.

I’ve devoted a lot of energy to my children. It wasn’t intended that way exactly, but my brief experiments with the world of daycare and preschool and school, with rushing from one place to another, with quick transitions and tight schedules and bureaucracy, made me quite convinced that that life wasn’t for me. Now that we are talking about big changes, about school, about getting into the same rhythms as the rest of the world, will I look back and find it was worth it? Will they remember all our adventures and deep and hilarious conversations, or the many times I yelled at them, my frequent frustration, all the times I tried to get them out of my hair? Will they remember anything I tried to teach them? What will they carry into the world? I can’t control those outcomes. I can’t control what other people hold on to or remember, only what I do, and let’s be honest, that is hard enough. It’s really all letting go and more letting go. It’s trying to stay compassionate when the inevitable disappointments and heartbreaks come, keep my eyes wide open for the mountain peaks and forest clearings. It’s knowing that there will be hills and valleys and hills and valleys until the end, that nothing is ever stagnant, for good or for ill.

I can only keep muddling through, squinting my eyes to try to make out the path ahead, trying to find my footing, waiting for the sun to return, believing that it will. Where all my writing ends: the next small step, trusting in the wisdom of placing one foot in front of the other.

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Laconic: words in brief

A year before she died, at my mother’s prompting, my maternal grandmother wrote out a brief memoir, particularly of the war years. My mother made a copy for me, squeezing four sheets of cramped handwriting onto each sheet of copy paper. She asked me to help her translate. My copy has lain in a file on my desk for the past ten years, maybe because I found my grandmother’s Polish cursive impossible to decipher. Today, because there is space in both our lives right now for such endeavours, my mother and I set to transcribing: she reading out loud; me typing, wrestling with Polish accents, breaking long lines into readable sentences. My grandmother was in fifth grade when the war started, and only completed the equivalent of primary school after it ended. Her phrases are brief, laconic, sometimes ungrammatical, often unpunctuated. But in the five pages we transcribed today, I already feel the seeds of a story. Setting, atmosphere, characters, tension, suspense, even an ear for sound. “Ciepło słońce swieciło śicznie. Tak pięknie nigdy teraz słońce nie świeci,” she writes. The first line is in Polish melodically alliterative. The second made my mother laugh when she read it, and yet its melancholy haunts me. My rough translation: “The warm sun shone beautifully. The sun no longer shines like that now.”

From my daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: laconic. From earlier in the week. Since then, we’ve transcribed another twenty pages. There’s a lot there that I am taking in, a lot that I had never known. “It was so long ago,” my grandmother complained to my mother. “Who would want to hear about it now?” She didn’t understand what a gift it would be. I will slowly set to translating on my own at home. 

 

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Talisman: words in brief

Last night, before bed, I caught online a brief mention of a shooting in the east end of Toronto. Today more details trickled in: a young man – of course – shooting at random passers-by and into restaurant windows. I could picture the corner. I met a friend there for lunch two weeks ago, by the statue at Alexander the Great parkette. Many of our friends live in the neighbourhood. This morning, when my thirteen-year-old son set off alone via bus and then subway – as he did all last week – for the drama day camp he’s enrolled in, I felt for the first time uncertain. Nervous. I’ve been celebrating his increasing independence this summer. I’ve been encouraging him, giving him space, steering him towards more responsibility. I don’t think I am wrong to do so. There is no way forward from child to adult that does not include increased risk. This morning I kissed him goodbye, told him I loved him, then lingered on the porch, waving. My only talisman against the fear of loss is to make every goodbye count.  

From my daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: talisman. The past few weeks I’ve been piecing my daily word prompts into a longer fictional narrative. But this wanted to be said today. 

Broken: words in brief

Trees lie broken on the streets of my neighbourhood. I have never see so many trees fallen here, so many broken. Three windstorms within two months, one bringing snow and ice, one testing its immense powers alone, one allied with torrential rain. The tree in front of my neighbours’ house is marked with an orange x for cutting, its fallen half long removed but jagged against the sky where the branch once welcomed squirrels and sleeping raccoons. In this weekend’s extreme heat event – as dubbed by the weather networks – I miss that branch. I sat in bed and looked out at it nursing my babies the hot summers after each was born. I wonder how many degrees its large green leaves cooled the west side of our house. Up the hill on Christie, a massive spruce cracked close to the ground in May’s windstorm, crashing onto the house it had shaded, blocking it entirely. The tree was removed, piece by piece, but the cracked roof and porch and boarded up windows still mark the damage caused by its enormous bulk. These trees perhaps had reached their lifespan. The weather perhaps has always had its extremities. But it is as in the archetypal question in any classic mystery: “Did they fall, or were they pushed?” I wonder how to live prudently, wisely, with an eye to the future, while knowing that anything can change, anything can fall apart, anything can break, and likely will. Destruction happens in an instant, growth takes years, even centuries.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: broken.

Rampant: words in brief

My older son, at five, spoke the language of heraldry. Sable, azure, purpure, argent, he would tell me. Rampant, passant, sejant, couchant. Hypothetical coats of arms now drove his conversations. What would the crest be? The supporters? The field? Mummy, what is your motto? He pored over books of flags, small vivid shapes and colours marching in tightly-packed formations along each page. He acquired two large banners, the Scottish lion rampant and the cross of St. Andrew, slick bright rectangles of fabric draped over our furniture. A wooden flagpole was gifted to him by family friends, and we flew the Royal Banner of Scotland in our small backyard for his pleasure and our amusement. Our neighbour two doors south, suspicious, asked me about the flag’s provenance. Soon afterwards, a large Italian flag appeared in his backyard: a challenge. We took our flag down shortly after, childhood obsessions retreating as quickly as they once advanced. But each morning, sipping tea at my back window, I gaze out at the red, white and green of Italy, wind-tattered and faded, but firmly, insistently planted.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: rampant.

Mystery: words in brief

There is a mystery in how things come together and then fall apart. How people come together and separate. A mystery in how more effort in relationships doesn’t always yield more reward. Years ago, in high school, my mother came into my room as I was hanging up the phone with my then-boyfriend. I was crying. She said, “It doesn’t have to be this hard.” She said, “I had a relationship in high school that was hard. Then when I met your father, it was easy.” I remembered this recently. That had been the sign I looked for. When I met the man who eventually became my husband, and still is, I knew because it was easy. Things that were hard with other people were easy with him. Communication was easy. Vulnerability was easy. Conflicts were easy to resolve. Yet that ease hasn’t made other relationships easier. I think about that, twenty-five years later. About why the dark clouds of anxiety come, why my brain tells me stories I try not to believe. About being unloved, about being replaceable, about being not worth holding onto. There is a mystery in why I am whole and strong and joyful one day, scattered into weeping pieces the next. “You have everything you need,” I tell myself again and again, “You have everything you need.” And I breathe and wait once again for the cloud to pass.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: mystery.