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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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.

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.

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…

Abundant: words in brief

I volunteered for a few years for an organization that gleaned fruit from urban backyard trees. Each pick was a small puzzle to solve. The promised ladder was not available or the fruit was clustered too high or some of the volunteers were afraid of climbing. Boosting on shoulders happened, and tools were devised to pull down branches for easier reach. Someone might go down the street to knock on doors for an extra ladder. Sometimes one or two agile climbers startled the rest of us, shimmying up to the highest branches, unencumbered by fear. I was slower, stayed low, but loved being in trees. I loved those June evenings leaning nestled between branches abundant with cherries, hands gently gathering, shoulder-bag full. I’d look down at the city streets radiating away from me, up at the wide sky streaked with warmth. Everything I wanted was within reach.

From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: abundant. With an ice storm in the forecast this mid-April weekend, I look ahead with longing to trees heavy with fruit. 

Lush: words in brief

My garden each year rapidly turns the corner from lush to neglected. Now, in early April, my heart leaps at the green shoots piercing up through the soil, the tiny purple and yellow crocuses, the anticipation of lilacs. It’s impossible to believe that in two more months the mint will already have run amok, in three the raspberries and gooseberries will hang heavy, in four that I will have thrown my hands up in the air and let it all go wild. Right now it is still a promise, a potential, barely even a plan. Maybe this year I will do better. I will decide what should stay, what should go. I will weed, prune responsibly, build better fences. I will channel skills I am painstakingly learning in the rest of my life.

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

Symmetry: words in brief

This morning I came across photos of Australian artist Shona Wilson’s work with ephemeral nature mandalas, intricate creations of precise symmetry constructed out of the tiniest plant parts. My breath seems to slow down when I am presented with this order, or when I can conjure it myself in small symmetrical experiments on paper or in compositions of collected parts. My favourite folk art from Poland is the circular cut-paper wycinanki of the Lublin region where I was born, delicate wheels of geometric shapes, foliage and repeated creatures, paper snowflakes taken to a higher plane. I’m soothed by balance, by the perfection of mandalas and medicine wheels, all those radiating mesmerizing mirrors of quarters and eights. Most of us are. We crave the visual representation of the ideal, of the divine. Of a perfect reciprocity and balance elusive to our brittle messy entropic world.

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

 

Plummet: words in brief

We climbed up an alternate route, off the trail, always the way it was done, scrambling hands and knees up the muddy slope, me in the heat deciding to take off my boots. Once I took them off, I wanted one more step and then one more, and then stubbornness took over. A spring awakening of my thin skin through all those hours exposed. Over sharp rocks, cool mud, soft moss, tough roots, the prickly dried grasses of last fall emerged not so long ago from under the snow. Brushing by swathes of trillium in bloom, delicate lady’s slippers, columbine. Up to the top of Old Baldy, high up above the hawks wheeling, deer tracks nimbly preceding us out to the rocky outcrop. I climbed down to a lower ledge, held my back tight to the rock. I couldn’t remember whether vertigo was a fear of heights or a pull towards the edge, the fear that one will be lured to jump by the strange magic of earth’s gravity. Of course I imagined leaping, circling boldly with the hawks, suspended in air. I didn’t imagine the plummet.

Word prompt: plummet. Daily writing practice by email with three women across the continent. This is from the backlog.