Of birth and birds and the quiet of May

The quiet felt like a blessing to ease the worry and confusion of those early weeks of sheltering at home. The planes absent from the sky, the flow of traffic diminished to a trickle, people passing quietly and widely on the sidewalks. I remembered then how much I love where I live, the place itself, the neighbours all around, all the life.

We walk through Wychwood Park now most mornings. One morning we saw both hawks, one in the nest and one in a tall tree near the pines. Saw the geese, the goslings, bigger and darker than a week ago. Heard the white-throated sparrow, and another bird that sounded vaguely familiar, more from birding by ear recordings than from life. Common yellowthroat? I admired the trilliums, bloodroot, Canada mayflower, columbine, all of which were surprises when I saw them here. One day, on a late afternoon walk, an unexpected heron landed at the pond. We watched for a long time. As we were about to head home, it leaned forward, bent its legs, looked like it was about to take off, and then – bam! – it dove in and came back up with a wriggling fish. My whole family spontaneously cheered.

The blessing of quiet, the strange blessing of staying close to home, brings me back to the time around my first son’s birth. It’s the same time of year, the same warm spell followed by a cold spell after we’d already turned off the heat. I remember that first night after the birth, when my husband slept and I curled myself awkwardly around this unfamiliar creature who I was supposed to keep alive. I lay awake, even though I’d been awake labouring all the night before, even though I was exhausted. Like earlier in the day, after the birth, when my husband and the baby had slept and I got up and made phone calls instead. My body was sore and slow, the bleeding would be heavy for many more weeks, but my heart and mind were racing. I couldn’t bring my energy back down; I couldn’t settle. I couldn’t understand what was supposed to happen next. How anything could ever be normal again after the fabric of reality had torn.

The small creature beside me: translucent eyelids, curled up hands, something alive that hadn’t existed before. He didn’t cry much then, just made the oddest squeals and whimpers. His eyes blinked in slow motion. His hands were curled up tight. His mouth opened wide. Wherever I looked in those early weeks, I saw those eyes and mouth imprinted behind my eyelids. He moved and squirmed and squeaked and simply existed in the most unsettling way. A living creature that hadn’t been there before, that had been made by magic, the most amazing magic of bringing things together, of conjuring, of incubation, of waiting… waiting…

I sat in bed for days in May and June and the spring turned to summer. I moved slowly around the house, watched the big maple in the front, now gone; or sat in the back room, nursing on the borrowed love-seat, and looked out at the big maple in the back, now also gone (oh, how I miss those trees!). I felt the sweet breeze on my face and body and nursed and held and juggled and tended this creature who was suddenly the centre of everything. In those quiet days in May, as the days lengthened and warmed up again, and I tried to reweave my life in a completely new, strange, and irreversible way. We do it all the time, humans, tear the fabric of reality and then mend it again. Life changes irreversibly, and we adapt.

From an online Morning Coffee writing session with Firefly Creative Writing last week. The prompt was “The quiet felt like…”. I wrote more, but this is what I kept. I missed yesterday’s morning writing session because: birds. The beautiful distraction of birds. On my morning walk, I saw two orioles, a kingfisher, and a baby hawk, pale and fuzzy and clearly visible without binoculars (which we forgot yesterday), standing up and briefly flapping its wings at the edge of the nest. And my son, my once-tiny firstborn who is now 6′ 1″, turned fifteen last Friday.

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Begin here. It is raining.

Begin here. It is raining. I watch a maple one street over through my back window, towering over the houses and yards, south-east of me, south-east of the empty space where my maple had stood until last fall. The pale May green against the sky, today’s sky not the blue that makes the green glow bright, but a white-gray, like smoke, like a diluted wash of watercolour. The maple crown itself moves like water, like one huge muscular wave, but also each branch and twig and leaf creating its own slight ripples. This maple is now my anchor every morning, this particular magnet of green. A thought clenches in my chest: what about when this maple comes down one day? I don’t want to look at this thought right now. I nod to it and hurry briskly by, pretending I have somewhere urgent to be.

Three pots of herbs sit in cheap yellow plastic pots on the windowsill: rosemary, lemon thyme, parsley. A couple of weeks ago, the parsley leaves clung to the window like hands pressed against the screen, peering out, so ready. Today, the leaves droop. This unsettled weather, the late freeze last week – the parsley no longer looks hopeful for release.

The metal rod that cranks open the awning over the back steps bangs hard against the brick of the house. I hear faint music from the kitchen, the rustle of pages turning from the boys’ bedroom, steps creaking the floorboards in the hall.

I’m on my second thermos of tea this morning, warding off the rain and wind with spice: cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, whatever else dresses up my black tea in brighter colours.

I’ll head out for a walk with my husband soon, out into the weather, in grey raincoat and deep red scarf. That scarf that I started wearing at forty, when I was grieving what felt like the end of youth, when I was tangled up in longing and hurt and melancholy. That red gave me power, a power that now feels owned, not borrowed, that I’ve learned I had been wearing all along. I’m stronger than I was then, clearer in my speech, taking better care of heart and body and mind.

When I woke during the night I thought about leaning into darkness. I often close my eyes when I walk in the dark, and when I open them, the faintest light can become bright enough to navigate by.  No lamp, no flashlight, no fire – those blind the eyes to what is already visible. No-one wants the darkness when it falls, but we are grateful on the other side to have learned the skill to move through it.

I’ve been participating in free online morning writing sessions with Firefly Creative Writing in Toronto (such lovely people!) three mornings a week through May.  These have been moments of clarity and quiet in a time that has often felt crowded and murky now that everyone is always at home. A brief prompt, then silent writing for twenty minutes, then a poem to close. Today’s prompt was “Begin here. It is raining”, out of a choice of first lines from several other books. I found out at the end that this one was from May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude. We were also asked to include a colour we had chosen at the start. Mine was “deep red”, from someone else’s suggestion in the chat screen. And from my still-going-strong daily email writing group I also dropped in today’s word: watercolour.

The small details of the canvas (or zooming in and out again)

There are many days right now where my creative brain seems to be on pause, or simply, to use a phrase I’ve been hearing from government employees lately, redeployed. Redeployed, for example, puzzling over complex instructions on how much and how often to feed a sourdough starter, the newest member of our family, snuggled in beside the large jars of kombucha on the tiny kichen counter. When I texted my sister excitedly last weekend that I had acquired some sourdough starter plus a couple of packages of yeast, she sent me a comic about the pandemic being a sneaky form of colonization of humans by yeast. Yeasts in league with viruses  – it has an elegant logic, as far as conspiracy theories go. All these tiny organisms looking for territorial expansion might as well team up.

My rebellion against baking is over. I’m a convert. Or simply rolling with the zeitgeist of the times. Or perhaps I’ve avoided sourdough all these years because I know how attached I get to things. The sourdough starter needs to be divided and fed every day if I keep it on the counter, and since I can’t bring myself to discard the “discard,” some form of baking now happens daily.  I’m grateful learning that I can ignore the complex instructions and that a well-established starter is forgiving. Good thing, because it’s all the precision that has always turned me off baking. I’m a cook, not a baker, and a one-pot cook at that, with my joy directed to improvising with ingredients in large pots simmering over the stove, ideally using ingredients that I already have in my fridge and cupboards, thinking about what flavours might belong together. Soup, stew, chili, curry, stir-fry – that’s my territory. Rarely more than one large pot, with occasionally another small one for a grain accompaniment. My husband’s meals, on the other hand, seem to use every single pot and baking pan we own, spreading wildly all across the kitchen. Meat and fish, and many individual sides, that’s his specialty.

Teens and preteens are always hungry, especially when they have nowhere to go. About once an hour, my younger son turns to me and asks “Anything to eat?” I don’t know where they put all the food, being all pointy knees and elbows, but since one of them looms over me and the other will soon catch up to me in height, I guess it currently goes into vertical growth. They usually manage their own breakfast and take turns making “pizza toast” or scrambled eggs for each other for lunch. Every snack we can think of, they eat, and as our grocery period runs out, the snacks get stranger and more creative.

We’ve restricted ourselves to shopping only once every two weeks. Once, but at two or three different stores, each time dragging as much home as we can on foot. Each time the planning and execution seems to swallow a full day. I miss stopping by my favourite stores every other day, but I get a certain satisfaction from the restriction, especially for my husband, who grew up buying specialized ingredients for specific recipes, often letting the remainder languish in the fridge until it was too far gone to use. Now we use my method, buying a wide range of basics, and then using all of them until they’re completely done, making substitutions as much as needed. I thrive with this cooking method. An onion, a can of tomatoes, and some grain… great! Tortilla bread, beans, and sweet potatoes… great! Some stock and some frozen peas… great! I’d wait longer to shop so we could challenge our creativity further, but my husband gets antsy when we run out of staples. And, to be honest, having some reserves feels important right now.

There’s a new sense of normalcy about this small life we’re leading now. A sense of living in an eternal present. Like we’ve entered a portal in a fairy tale, and when we come back, we’ll find that no matter how many months or years we were away, no time has passed. There’s some part of me that believes this, I think, and right now I’m not arguing with my brain’s survival strategies. Every day is a variation on the day before, and yet, there is always something small to look forward to, some small sense of momentum, something to be grateful for. There’s a great deal of privilege in the monotony of isolation, the luxury of turning one’s back on the world for an unknown period, the slowing down of time. Not turning one’s back exactly, but interacting from a distance, helping from a distance, loving from a distance. The scale of everything shifts, and if we are working on a smaller detail of the canvas, it’s highly magnified, so it takes up all the space it always did. Life takes up the normal twenty-four hours. Each day, in a tight household of four, feels full, although each is similar to the one before and the one after. The days pass quickly. Or slowly? Or both.

I started drawing again this week. Again, my canvas is small, not much past my backyard. I suspect I will be spending a lot of time in this small backyard the next few months. At this point, this year’s LUNA art project would have been well underway in High Park, all of us taking turns to meet and draw, partnering this time with the High Park Nature Centre, which, like everything else, is closed. When I think too far past my home and neighbourhood, I can feel the sadness. When I look at photographs, think about cancelled plans, notice the physical distance between people, I feel it. When I make those connections, I notice what is missing and not what is. What is is life around me, plants and birds to draw, warming weather for working outdoors, neighbourhoods to explore by bike. A riot of tree blossoms. A garden to plant and tend. My new symbiotic relationship with the sourdough to nurture (today’s bread, half white half rye, was amazing). There are poems to write, stories to tell, meals to make. I won’t push, but will surrender, actively surrender to what is here and what is possible. I will let myself be guided and pulled by curiousity, attention, love.

A few days after I wrote this, there is more and more talk about “opening up.” I am hopeful, but am also anticipating a rise in anxiety as that happens. And I think about the people who have not been able to hit pause in any way, who are busier than ever while also least sheltered and most at risk. A few days after this slightly idyllic reflection, I am zooming outward again,  feeling moments of rage as I read about the anticipated rise in car traffic from people continuing to avoid public transit, frustration about the still-scant infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians in my city and North America in general, moments of judgment and despair when I wonder whether there will be any lasting positive changes that come out of this crisis, whether we can even agree on what we would want those changes to be (and all that’s just from looking locally). It’s too early to tell, I keep telling myself. It’s too early to tell.  And I remind myself how much all strong emotions teach me about what I value and where I need to direct my energy and attention. 

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