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.

img_0945

 

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. 

img_0638

 

 

 

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.

img_0037

 

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.

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.

 

Embellishment: words in brief

I ate my lunch on the back steps today. I once came out here each morning, sat with my tea, silently taking everything in. Why did I stop? The steps face due east, unshaded, sweltering in the summer morning sun. I retreated to a shaded window instead. Today, in early afternoon, I can sit here in comfort. Breeze on my skin, the sky a brilliant unclouded azure. I eat a large bowl of hastily chopped vegetables in yogourt. I get up, pick fragrant dill and chives I forgot I had planted, toss them in too. I can believe, in this moment, that this meal is the most delicious I’ve ever eaten. These days, I am looking for enchantment without embellishment. Look at the peonies: their ostentatious glamour seems exhausting. They hang heavy with the weight of their blooms. The gull high in the sky, however, is unconcerned that it’s a much-maligned gull. It’s soaring. I crave sometimes to be more marvelous, less ordinary than I am. But I lay that aside now. I let my senses be delighted. I tap into the magic that binds me to everything.

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

Stakes: words in brief

My neighbour two houses north asks me over our wire mesh fences if I want two dahlias for my garden. I am hanging laundry in the sun, sliding the squeaking clothesline to my right, shaking and pinning each damp item. It is a comforting ritual. She tells me to put down stakes on either side of the plants and tomato cages around the stalks, as once they’ve grown huge and unwieldy any support offered may damage them instead. She tells me I must dig them up in the fall and overwinter the tubers in my basement. I love that she opens the gate to the yard of the neighbours between us and walks through to pass me the lumpy tubers and stalks. “I’m going to plant one here too, in John’s garden,” she says. “Does he know?” I ask her. We laugh uproariously. I imagine us sneaking under cover of night to plant flowers in the yards of our sleeping neighbours. Guerilla gardening. These spiky summer-flowering red and yellow blooms our rambling coded messages of life and death and regeneration.

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

Ancient: words in brief

Ninety years is not ancient for a tree, but it seems to be the lifespan of the tall maples on our street. Now that half of our neighbours’ tree has cracked and fallen, the rest is under suspicion, marked with an orange slash of paint for removal. Today the wind is wild and violent, swirling garbage in the air, tearing away shingles, knocking off tree branches. My children agonize that the second half of the tree will fall, this time on our house. Our streetscape has changed. A handful of the tallest maples have been removed in little more than the same number of years. The arch of green over our short street, the cooling summer shade, the racoon sleeping pads and squirrel dreys, we’re losing those. The street looks lopsided, denuded. I rant to myself: “If only someone had had the foresight to plant more trees fifty years ago!” But now we must be patient, place our hopes in the future. The spindly ten-year-old maple in our front yard has a lot of growing to do.

From last Friday. Word prompt: ancient. Fortunately, the maple in front of our neighbours’ house stayed up, but for days afterwards I have been seeing giant trees that were downed by that day’s violent winds. After a 100 day stretch of daily writing, my small group is taking a break for part of May. Now every day I wonder what it is that I’ve forgotten to do…

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.

Transparent: words in brief

My thoughts keep coming back to the beach at Lake Huron this week, like they did to Ragged Falls the week before. This visit was perhaps the first time I have seen the lake so flat, so purely transparent, the stones beneath the surface glistening and smooth. I know that beyond the stones there are sandbanks, normally impossible to see because of high waves and strong currents, normally something found only through touch, through trial and error and trust. Many times I’ve walked out in this lake into wild waves and crawled painfully back along the stones, unable to keep upright in the fierce pull of the water, feet and knees bruised. This time, the water is smooth, deep, accepting: both a mirror and a revelation. I am humbled and instructed by the lake’s vast integrity, the space it gives me for both rage and calm.

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

IMG_20180422_112358.jpg