A year before she died, at my mother’s prompting, my maternal grandmother wrote out a brief memoir, particularly of the war years. My mother made a copy for me, squeezing four sheets of cramped handwriting onto each sheet of copy paper. She asked me to help her translate. My copy has lain in a file on my desk for the past ten years, maybe because I found my grandmother’s Polish cursive impossible to decipher. Today, because there is space in both our lives right now for such endeavours, my mother and I set to transcribing: she reading out loud; me typing, wrestling with Polish accents, breaking long lines into readable sentences. My grandmother was in fifth grade when the war started, and only completed the equivalent of primary school after it ended. Her phrases are brief, laconic, sometimes ungrammatical, often unpunctuated. But in the five pages we transcribed today, I already feel the seeds of a story. Setting, atmosphere, characters, tension, suspense, even an ear for sound. “Ciepło słońce swieciło śicznie. Tak pięknie nigdy teraz słońce nie świeci,” she writes. The first line is in Polish melodically alliterative. The second made my mother laugh when she read it, and yet its melancholy haunts me. My rough translation: “The warm sun shone beautifully. The sun no longer shines like that now.”
From my daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: laconic. From earlier in the week. Since then, we’ve transcribed another twenty pages. There’s a lot there that I am taking in, a lot that I had never known. “It was so long ago,” my grandmother complained to my mother. “Who would want to hear about it now?” She didn’t understand what a gift it would be. I will slowly set to translating on my own at home.
Last night, before bed, I caught online a brief mention of a shooting in the east end of Toronto. Today more details trickled in: a young man – of course – shooting at random passers-by and into restaurant windows. I could picture the corner. I met a friend there for lunch two weeks ago, by the statue at Alexander the Great parkette. Many of our friends live in the neighbourhood. This morning, when my thirteen-year-old son set off alone via bus and then subway – as he did all last week – for the drama day camp he’s enrolled in, I felt for the first time uncertain. Nervous. I’ve been celebrating his increasing independence this summer. I’ve been encouraging him, giving him space, steering him towards more responsibility. I don’t think I am wrong to do so. There is no way forward from child to adult that does not include increased risk. This morning I kissed him goodbye, told him I loved him, then lingered on the porch, waving. My only talisman against the fear of loss is to make every goodbye count.
From my daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: talisman. The past few weeks I’ve been piecing my daily word prompts into a longer fictional narrative. But this wanted to be said today.
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.
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.
There is a mystery in how things come together and then fall apart. How people come together and separate. A mystery in how more effort in relationships doesn’t always yield more reward. Years ago, in high school, my mother came into my room as I was hanging up the phone with my then-boyfriend. I was crying. She said, “It doesn’t have to be this hard.” She said, “I had a relationship in high school that was hard. Then when I met your father, it was easy.” I remembered this recently. That had been the sign I looked for. When I met the man who eventually became my husband, and still is, I knew because it was easy. Things that were hard with other people were easy with him. Communication was easy. Vulnerability was easy. Conflicts were easy to resolve. Yet that ease hasn’t made other relationships easier. I think about that, twenty-five years later. About why the dark clouds of anxiety come, why my brain tells me stories I try not to believe. About being unloved, about being replaceable, about being not worth holding onto. There is a mystery in why I am whole and strong and joyful one day, scattered into weeping pieces the next. “You have everything you need,” I tell myself again and again, “You have everything you need.” And I breathe and wait once again for the cloud to pass.
From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: mystery.
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.
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.
This morning, slightly melancholy, groping in the darkness, I thought: maybe life is random and sad and fragmentary, but the answer is to get together and sing. Maybe that really is what community is for. Not for deep reciprocity. Not to grant vision and meaning. Not for day-to-day sustenance and support. Just an occasional reprieve from the loneliness of being mortal. Something simple, a momentary unity, a momentary joy. Maybe that is what I couldn’t see. The problem was that so often loneliness was harder after the unity than before. Finally it seemed wiser to simplify, to rely more on myself, to engage more deeply with that foundational relationship. As Marianne Moore wrote, “the cure for loneliness is solitude.” It’s not so simple, of course. I live with people who love me, and that may be what tips the balance. But I’ve learned that when I choose intentional solitude, when I choose to turn my energies inward, I learn to trust that my own company is of value. I trust my own resources. My needs and motives become clearer to me. Out of that trust – I hope – my engagement with the world becomes healthier. It becomes less compulsive, lighter, more whole.
From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: darkness.
I folded myself around my son at the end of the day. Late: 11:15. He still tells me cuddling helps him sleep. Last night, our popular city counselor of many years was hosting one of his movie nights at the tiny park at the bottom of our street. A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favourite books in my pre-teen years. My name is translated as Margaret in English. Meg, the name of every bookish, over-sensitive, but secretly very brave literary heroine of my childhood. I can’t bring myself to watch the movie. The boys went down to watch with friends. My husband and I, so desperate for any time alone, are now efficient about using it, like teens. Earlier in the afternoon, he left work early to join us for the closing of the kids beloved outdoor program. Me, now, always: “Is this the last time?” I look around the small clearing in the ravine, every family at a crossroads of one sort or another. The kids are lean, gangly, a few taller than the adults. My younger son still reaches only to my chin, although he claims to be taller. He says, “Can you cuddle with me until I’m as tall as you?” How can I rush this? That day will come too soon.
From my daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: folded.
To maintain equilibrium takes effort. The self that flew through the streets a few days ago now feels earthbound, heavy, hampered by heat and menstruation, weighed down by small sadnesses, by worry, by fear. I try to stay kind to myself. It’s the only tool that works for the times when my brain tells me things I otherwise know not to be true. Perspective, my friend, perspective, I say. Perspective and compassion. Don’t get stuck here in this swampland, feet squelching and dragging through the muck, pulling you under. You will pass through it. I cautiously pry open all that is clenched – my shoulders, my belly, my brain, my heart – and gently spread them out wide. I can see clear blue sky behind the cloud layers. Infinite space, infinite opening, infinite expansion. Those are eternal. Everything else – for good or for ill – will pass.
From my current daily writing practice with three women across the continent. Word prompt: effort. From this morning.