In praise of interdependence

Bright morning. I hear a helicopter overhead. It’s deafening. The house shakes a little. Maybe a train is also going by on the tracks south of us. A house sparrow chirps. The sun reflects off residual rain on dark shed roofs.

Monday was unsettled. I was unsettled and restless. Stormy weather, menstrual cramps, that sense of being about to burst in some way. The things that are missing are lifting their heads, looking at me, calling for my attention. The other day, I tried a loving-kindness meditation, and started crying, imagining going for a walk with my mother and talking to her in person. Today, I tried on a cloth mask my mother had sent me in the mail for grocery shopping, and felt panicky and claustrophobic until I reminded myself that I would be wearing it for other people more than for myself. Until I gave myself permission to hate it but practice wearing it nonetheless. I try to keep some emotional armour on, even soft armour. Not armour, but boundaries against fear and grief. But they leak sometimes. Then the future feels blank, and the past like a dream.

I miss my friends. I miss hugging people outside my immediate family. All those people outside my household who I love. At night I dream about conversations with friends.

On Monday, I contemplated making crackers. It was on my long list of things to do. I looked at the recipe I found, I looked at my kitchen, and all I felt was irritation. Our counter is tiny. The recipe involved rolling out the dough paper thin. And, although I make pizza dough, I roll only a little and then lift and stretch by hand. We don’t have a wooded board to roll on like I grew up with, and anyway, where would we put it? The recipe was simple, but I imagined cleaning everything off the counter first and then scrubbing the counter afterwards. Contemplating it, I felt furious. I didn’t want to make crackers. I wanted to make art. Completely impractical art. I wanted to make collages and intricate drawings of plants. I wanted to write poetry and publish it in obscure literary journals. I wanted to not make crackers and bread, but walk to the store and buy them so that I could spend my time doing something else.

Tuesday evening, we watched Jane Eyre performed at the National Theatre in London, part of their current weekly free online pandemic series. Even on the tiny screen of my husband’s laptop, it blew my mind – the performances, the visuals, the music, the metaphor of it. Theatre is nothing like film. Watching it, I added “see a live play, or several” after “buy lots of crackers at the store” to my mental list of things to do the moment they are possible again.

Remembering the few times I’ve seen live theatre in London, my next dream was of travelling. Even out of my neighbourhood, out of my city. I wouldn’t want to be hunkered down anywhere else right now. I am grateful to be exactly where I am, where every day I can take a different route on my daily bike ride, where I have wide streets to walk on, and tall trees all around my neighbourhood, and neighbours who I can easily talk to over the fence. But on Monday I looked at the counter, cursed the cracker recipe, and longed for more freedom of movement. Yesterday, I watched a play on a tiny screen and dreamed of theatre and of travel.

On the scale of comparative suffering, I’ve lost very little. And as an introvert who loves solitary activities and extended periods of time with my immediate family, in some ways I’m thriving. Most of the work I hope to keep doing in the future is from home. There are days when I question how I will fare with re-entry into a world with wider expectations and commitments, with tighter schedules. There are days when I want to hold my growing children close forever. When I guiltily recognize that there are now many things I worry about less than is my norm. That the strange anticipatory weight of dread I was feeling all through January has melted away. That in some ways it’s easier to channel anxiety into purpose – into shared concern and shared suffering and shared planning – when there is something huge and specific to be anxious about.

But in the moments when I feel stuck and restless, I long for things I’ve never seen before, never done before, experiences that will stretch my assumptions and my expectations. I want to go to the theatre, to a museum, to a library, damn it. I want people to write books, dance, put on plays, to do the things that make their souls sing. I want people to teach, to build, to heal, to do research full-time, to tell stories, to advocate for themselves and others. I want people other than me to interact with my children. I want schools to reopen. I want people to keep having choices. I say this after nine years of homeschooling and close to fifteen years of almost full-time caregiving. It takes a community. All of it does. The truth is, the thought of a world where everyone homesteads to the exclusion of everything else that humans do and create does not fill me with delight. I want a world where people can dedicate their lives to things other than subsistence.

So clearly, as I contemplate what will come out at the end of this all – inasmuch as I have a say in any it – I’m not interested in throwing out all of civilization. And, as I often do, I’m arguing against straw-men in my head, and random opinions from people on the internet. I’m happy enough that there are almost no planes in the sky right now. I’m even happier that there are fewer cars on the road. If I had a pandemic agenda, it would be to close off more streets to cars – as some cities are currently doing – to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists. And then keep it that way.

I’ve added a second small garden bed in my small backyard, and have planted some seeds and ordered more. I’ve mended some clothes, as I often do anyway. And yet, this past month has not convinced me that I want to grow all my own food, sew all my own clothes, go back to homeschooling full-time, and never travel again. If anything, the opposite. If anything, I am amazed and awed and grateful for the ways humans do things together, do things for each other, follow their own skills and passions and curiosity, make space for others to do so. I am amazed and awed and grateful for interdependence. I am wildly grateful that I don’t have do all the things by myself.

I don’t need to farm all my own food, but I can recommit to supporting local farms and local food systems. I can recommit to supporting active transportation and local transportation networks. I can share tools with my neighbours. I can support local businesses. I can support politics that prioritize people over profits. Does that change anything for me personally? In truth, I’ve been on this train for years. Now, seeing the renewed push for well-funded health care infrastructures, seeing direct government support of people who have lost income, seeing advocacy for fair wages for the jobs we now know to be essential, seeing the conversations about what matters most and what kind of future we want, I can say to my kids: “This. This is what we need to keep working for.”

I made the crackers yesterday. The recipe was easy, and there was no mess. I planted some kale in my garden. And I ordered more seeds, but, for better or for worse, most of them were flowers seeds.

Word prompt: stories.

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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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.

Gloves: words in brief

Going for walks at my parents’ house usually involves a large loop, twenty minutes each time along a quiet road. This used to bother me, now I find it meditative and simple, easy to add up. My mother and I went out for a walk each morning of last week’s visit. The south-east corner of the loop is wooded, mostly private property, but connecting to a marshland on the nearby small lake, where my dad and I sometimes paddle. Heading towards that corner one morning with my mother and kids, we saw a dark low shape on the road. Moving, but so very slightly we though it might be a living thing injured. We approached it with trepidation. As we neared, we made out the low, slow shape of a snapping turtle crossing the road. A car approached behind us. I waved frantically, flagged it down. It swerved around the turtle. A man and child got out and told us the snappers had been laying eggs on the north side of that corner. They sped off. Tentatively, we approached the turtle. My older son immediately volunteered to relocate her. I instructed him to hold the shell on both sides of the tail, keep a firm grip, as I had seen others do. He tried, found her much squirmy than he had expected, asked for gloves. Gardening gloves retrieved from the house as we guarded the corner from cars, he tried again. He lifted her over the pavement carefully, placed her down on the grass on the other side. A moment later, a huge truck heaved around the loop, taking up both narrow lanes. We walked home, my son skipping a little. I said to him, “You are often nervous about small things, often worry unnecessarily. But when action is needed, you are decisive. You are the first to act.” He walked home even taller than his now two inches taller than his mother.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: gloves. We moved the turtle one more time that morning, this time crossing back towards the marsh.

 

Hospitality: words in brief

Most of today we spent on the Leslie Spit, a human-made piece of land jutting out into Lake Ontario. Built mid-last-century for vague harbour-related purposes out of sand, silt and stone, it’s now a hybrid of ongoing filling operations, wildlife conservation, and educational programs. Thousands of migrating birds stop here in the spring and fall, are caught by careful means, weighed, banded and recorded. It’s an odd bit of hospitality: a mist net, a small cloth bag, upside-down weighing in a narrow tube, a tiny metal band clipped to one thin leg.

Each child in turn is shown how to put out their hand, how to gently contain a bird with the other, how to release it into startled flight. Warblers, thrushes, red-winged blackbirds, a cowbird, a grackle. There’s one left for me, a tiny yellow-rumped warbler, a small bright bit of fluff and feathers nestled in my palm. The sky is blue and clear, white birches rise pale against red dogwood stems and spindly green horsetails. The city skyline looms across the water, airplane traffic bustles overhead. I love these stark contrasts, this complex urban co-existence.

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

Shadow (2): words in brief

I am noting a shadow lately on my almost-teen’s upper lip. A couple of months ago he said to me in alarm, “When I woke up this morning, my voice sounded strange. I didn’t recognize it.” I could hear it too. His singing voice has now descended into bass, like his dad’s. Every week he is taller, lankier, more like an adolescent, more like a man. I told him at dinner last night, after a conversation with two mothers of teens, “I understand why you are so tired recently. You are completely re-forming. Like a caterpillar to a butterfly.” “Oh great,” he grimaced, “I’m going to liquefy and reconstitute.” None of us look forward to changes that huge, that painful, that necessary. We hold our breath, haul in our reserves, squint skeptically at the miracle of flight promised on the other side.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: shadow.  The first time the same word has come up more than once. But what a versatile word it is. 

Evanescent: words in brief

I told my friend today that I miss our camping trips with kids. She said, “me too, but my kids wouldn’t come if we planned one now. It would be only me.” How could it be that we didn’t know, the year she moved further south and we camped on the property she lived on? And the following year, after she moved back to North Bay, and we met with friends at Mansfield on the summer solstice? When we made a little village of tents and sat around the fire at night, sang songs to the full moon, and drifted on our backs in the gentle current of the Pine River? How could we not have known that it would be so fleeting, so evanescent? That those days would soon be past?

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

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June 2016. Camping with friends, a full moon and an (evanescent) rainbow. And much shorter kids than I currently have.

 

Spanish: words in brief

Evenings around the woodstove at my parents’ house this holiday week have been accompanied by an electronic soundtrack of arbitrary phrases voiced in four languages – Polish, French, Spanish, Russian – punctuated by happy pings of reward and more occasional buzzings of error. My sister, amused, last night: “Am I the only person here who owns earphones?” My children and I are on a month-long Polish streak on Duolingo, me finally determined to teach them my first language after years of feeling tongue-tied trying to translate the English that colonized my brain more than 35 years ago. My dad and sisters, on hearing our lessons, each dive in too, and now we are all daily practicing every language that we know in this new and addictive format. I don’t know how much Polish my children will take away, but there are other truths they are starting to glean: that we must take care in our communication, but also take risks; that the way we construct our language shapes the way we construct our world; that some things, important things, will never be translated.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: Spanish. Day 96 of 100. 

I’ve tried out various things with this daily writing practice over the past three months. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve challenged and entertained myself by finding my brief story within the day’s events. It has been surprisingly easy to find the connection points. As times goes on, however, I am increasingly lax with the word count.

Once-in-a-lifetime: words in brief

This morning we made more maps for our calendar, which late in the day was re-themed. More play with watercolour, ink, pen, pencil crayons. More strange geographical features labeled. “How do you spell ‘serpents’”? So many details to finish. Twelve is a detailed age, perhaps, but he’s always been a perfectionist. Nine on the other hand, apart from occasional wild bursts of tears, is convinced that most things he does are brilliant. Children are not born a blank slate. I drop them off with grandparents, take an out-of-the-way subway ride to fulfill a complicated arrangement with a car pick-up. For other complicated reasons, the car is not there. I pick up a tourtiere for dinner instead, decide that a brisk walk makes up for my annoyance, rush home to paint my one contribution to finish off our joint project, which I insist will be for March, my birthday month. The house smells like fir tree, beeswax candles, paints, and Sharpies. The shortest day, the longest night. Today, once it has passed, will never come again.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: once-in-a-lifetime. From the day of the Winter Solstice, Day 87.

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