Saturday, 9 May 2020

A normal four a.m.

Full moon at 4 a.m.

Next weekend, BC is going to start relaxing isolation restrictions. We can gather in groups of six or less and maybe even hug each other. Or is that just family members in a closed group? I don't know. Meanwhile I have a fear that things are moving back to some kind of normal and I still haven't found what I'm looking for (to quote U2). Somehow I expected, if not enlightenment, at least illumination. Spring is here and the maple in the front yard is in lime green full leaf, casting shimmering patterns against brilliant blue. This morning I woke suddenly at 4 a.m. with a sense of urgency and I had to get out of bed and walk through the house, checking for -- what? That my son was where he should be, that everything was still where it should be. Everything was, except the full moon, which was shining in the pale early sky like it was still night. And I felt a longing to understand something, but that, too, was still where it's always been, just out of reach.

I'm not unhappy. I spend my days in the garden and feel very grateful to have these squares of dirt to dig and plant hopefully with beets and carrots and kale and arugula. Yesterday I transplanted tomatoes and bok choy and I took a ride on my bike and I felt like the day had been productive. Productive and relatively normal, but that's what feels wrong. Shouldn't it be extraordinary? Instead of washing my floors with a light solution of bleach and detergent while listening to Bruce Springsteen, shouldn't I be packing a few essentials and scaling a mountain I've never climbed to spend the night close to the stars and the moon and some kind of answers?

The experts say we'll have a "new normal," but in this new normal, will a dark-skinned man my son's age be able to run through his neighbourhood without fear? Will people in some of the richest countries in the world live in tents in a park in December and barter grocery cartloads of junk on sidewalks? Or will their new normal look suspiciously like the old normal? Will the most vulnerable among us still die before their time while others plan gardens and demand haircuts? Where is my part in this? I eat my avocado toast while hundreds of species continue to die out. Thousands sicken and some die so people can eat steak. Is this really the best new normal that the human race in the twenty-first century can manage? 

I cut tulips and sew face masks for my family. I believe I will come through this crisis relatively unscathed. I'm just not sure that's enough.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Isolation revelation

I feel like there's a violin lodged in my ribcage.

My spouse has suggested it could be anxiety. Or maybe grief. Week six of The Covid isolation, as we've come to call this time, and he's sending me links to things to read about what I might be feeling. But none of these ring exactly true.

For a long time I've thought of myself as control-obsessed. I also know that I crave solitude. This morning, I realized how these two things go together. When I'm around other people, including and especially my beloved family members, I have an irresistible desire to meddle in their business. I'm going to blame this on being a writer, because it sounds better to suggest I'm driven by curiosity about the human condition than to admit that I'm just opinionated and bossy.

The Buddha said that "those who grasp after views and opinions wander about the world annoying people."  I first heard this from Jack Kornfield and I immediately identified with it. When I'm around others, I can't help but form opinions about the rightness or wrongness of their actions and their thinking, and to worry about it. Not only does this presumably annoy others, it sucks up the space in my soul where my peace and creativity reside. It is almost a physical occupation. I can feel it, like having too much caffeine -- a jumpiness of the heart, a jittery, fingers-in-too-many-pies feeling. And then I am overwhelmed by a desire to escape alone somewhere, preferably into the woods or down some lonely, windswept road. 

I think I now also understand why my spouse has always been so supportive of my retreats into solitude. It must also be exhausting for him that I, to put it nicely, care too much about what he's doing. Not exercising. Spending too much time at his computer. Not getting enough fresh air. Why can't I mind my own business? 

And yet when I do get away on my own, my ability to not care is profound. I care only about that birdsong that I always thought was a chickadee. Is it? The way the shadows fall in the afternoon. Where exactly the moon will rise. How long my tea has steeped.

Of course I only had this revelation this morning when my beloved and son left for Vancouver to empty son's apartment for month-end. The house is quiet and peaceful and the long, quiet day stretches before me. I feel the calm returning to my ribcage by slow degrees. I am resisting the urge to meddle in their business digitally. (When I began a text using the word "emptying", my phone helpfully supplied the word "soul" as the next word.)

I'm aware of how ungrateful this might sound, given that, around the world, people are suffering real loneliness in their isolation. But I can't be the only one having trouble coping with the opposite. Can I?

So I've decided to begin each morning with a simple vow: not to meddle in anyone's business today. My new mantra will be "It's your call." (I will try to mean it generously, with true goodwill and no hands-thrown-in-the-air undertones).  Wish me luck. This won't be easy for me.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Small steps

Lately, whenever the weather is warm enough and the day ahead is free, I've been trekking into the rocky bluffs just outside of town with two or three friends. We take water, salty snacks, maybe some fruit and hot tea, and gear: ropes, carabiners, harnesses, shoes and helmets. The gear dangles from our backpacks as we hike in on one of the numerous trails that snake between the cliffs and crags.

It's beautiful to hike in here among the fragrant bent pines stretching into clear blue sky, to hear the tattoo of woodpeckers, and see hawks wheeling overhead. But we're not here to hike.

In the parking lot, we've pored over our climbing book and picked a rockface that the sun will warm throughout this crisp fall day.  We're beginners, so we've picked a couple of climbs that aren't too difficult, but offer us a bit of challenge.

At the crag, we rig up our climbing anchors and ropes, paying careful attention to the knots -- double fisherman's, figure eight, girth hitch. Our lives literally depend on getting these knots right. We dial in and focus. The outside world drops away. Dimly, I'm aware of carabiners clinking musically like bells on a donkey in a sleepy village. Sunshine and wind. The cool rock beneath my fingers.

Each time I begin to climb, stepping onto a tiny swell of rock that I'm going to call a foothold, running my fingers hopefully over the cliff to find something, anything, my fingers can cling to, a voice in my head says, "You can't do this."

My stomach roils a little and adrenaline quakes through my limbs. It is possible that the voice is right. I should have started climbing thirty years ago.  Not now, when I'm closer to 60 than 50. The thing is, it may have taken me this long to realize that in every beginning, there is the potential for failure. And failure isn't the end of the world. It's not even the end of the climb.

Every time my toe presses into an indent the size of a cashew, I take a chance at failure. When I choose a path for my climb, there's the chance I'll have to re-think my decision partway up the rockface when I can't find anything to hold onto.

I recently heard a climbing instructor tell a group of climbers to take small steps instead of looking for one big one. It's good advice, I found. I take a small step and the rock looks different. What seemed impossible suddenly becomes possible.

I'm learning how a small step can open up a bunch of new possibilities.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Is only trouble interesting?

Chilcotin mountain meadow
My students complain that I never teach any happy books. Last semester, totally by accident (are there any accidents?), I had a cannibalism theme going (The Odyssey, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and a documentary film called Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains). I tell them that only trouble is interesting, or so, in various ways, say many writers with a dim view of human nature. For the most part, I've found this to be true. Only trouble is interesting. When everything is going smoothly in a book, I ask myself, when's the story going to begin?

But I recently read Heidi, and I thought, maybe this is the kind of book my students mean when they ask why I don't teach happy books. It's a delightful book; that's the word for it. And yet it starts with trouble and more trouble. Heidi is an orphan who is being deserted by her aunt -- left with her grandfather who lives alone on a mountain and has a reputation for being an ogre. Everyone in the village thinks it's cruel to leave her there and that the grandfather will have no idea how to care for a little motherless girl. The reader expects big trouble. But Heidi is so sunny and positive and curious and warm that she opens her grandfather's cold, closed heart and the two turn out to be kindred spirits who love nature and solitude. The book is heart-warming from the start and it's a gentle reminder that most people are essentially good, or at least mean well, and that the natural order of things is probably not to (The Road spoiler alert!) roast your newborn child on a spit over a fire. Most relationships have at the core some spark of tenderness and goodness, however clumsily expressed, and a book like Heidi captures that. I think that's what I love about good children's books. Not saccharine, they admit hardship, but they don't stop there.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Slow writing

My 1975 notebook
When I was twelve years old, I wrote a novel called The Mystery of the Secret Passage. Much of it I wrote in our wartime house on a leafy Winnipeg street, where we had a crawlspace that was sun-warm in summer and furnace-duct warm in winter, smelled of old insulation and dust and had a small slatted vent where I could look out into our front yard and the sidewalk that ran past our house. I set up a makeshift desk with some boards, and in my memory, I sat on the floorboards and wrote. Having the desk made me feel like a real writer; it lent a certain commitment to what I was doing. I wrote the novel, suspiciously like a Nancy Drew novel, which I loved, in Hilroy exercise books. Word by word, sentence by sentence, I sank into the private world I was creating, not caring where the story was going or who might read it.

A page from Red Fox Road.
For my most recent novel,  Red Fox Road, I decided to allow myself this same luxury. I wanted to return to the simplicity and joy I found in writing when I was twelve. I wanted to close my ears to my own inner critic, and write something slowly, happily, word by word, just for the sheer fun of it. I had an idea that had captured my imagination: a girl on a family vacation becomes stranded alone in the wilderness when the family's GPS leads them astray. The idea was based very loosely on stories I'd read in the paper about mishaps with car's navigation systems. Also, my own little family had had a close call one day when we headed off on an off-road driving adventure, got lost, and couldn't retrace our steps because we didn't have enough gas.

I took out one of the notebooks I usually use for a journal, and began with the first sentence. It came easily and I didn't worry too much about whether it was the right sentence. It took me somewhere. And in writing this novel, I learned to pay attention to that feeling. Does this sentence take me somewhere? Is it where I want to go?

"In each act is the seed of the next." I'm not sure who to credit for that sentence; it's not my own, but it became my guiding principle. If the sentence I wrote took me somewhere I didn't want to go, I backed up, crossed it out, and wrote a different sentence. The wrong paths were usually ideas that I had imposed on the story, rising from some sense of obligation to include something. Apparently Warren Buffet has a tray on his desk labelled "too hard" and he puts ideas that he doesn't understand or has to work too hard at into that tray. My principle was similar. I wanted the story to roll along, to unravel like a road I was travelling down. I didn't want to impose too much of my vision on it in advance. I wanted to watch, almost listen for it. For me, the fun is in following the story, not having the story follow me. If I've set it up well enough, the story takes on a life of its own. It has its own intelligence, which is smarter than me.

In Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck writes, "I sometimes feel that when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness." I would say that about the way I wrote as a child, and I'd say that it's when writing is at its best for me now. I feel a physical change in my body when I find that, a sense of inhabiting the world I've created. I dream about it, it's the first place I find myself if I wake in the night. I can hear my narrator's voice, I watch what she does, what she feels and thinks.

Writing by hand seems to help me find that. Slowed down, I'm both more careful, and less constrained. Maybe the slower, physical act of handwriting, the pen drawing letters on a thick new loaf of paper, helps me pay more attention. And in writing this novel in notebooks, I remember the twelve-year-old girl that I was, on an adventure without a certain outcome, just for the joy of it.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Coyote jubilation

Photo by Gerald Romanchuk
Last night I was out in my yard digging in the garden around dusk when suddenly from the east, sounding very close, a band of coyotes sent up a wild howling, yipping, barking, crescendoing and decrescendoing. It went on for several minutes. My neighbour came out on her step to listen. "Crazy," she said. "They sound so close."
It was thrilling, a bit scary, carrying some primal, irrational sense of threat. When I heard the coyotes' frenzied voices, something rang in me, as it always does when I hear them, or see them loping down the road. The cry of jubilation, victory. Then I wondered if that was right. Maybe it was mourning. Wild grief, not jubilation at all. I have no way of knowing which it was. Probably neither.

How many times in my life have I misinterpreted what I've heard? One recent instance brought home to me how wrong I can be in my perceptions. I was camping at a lake I love, a place I'm comfortable going alone. It was a weekday morning; the campground was quiet. I was drinking my tea, listening to the wind that sometimes moves through the tops of the trees but doesn't touch the lower branches. A trailer pulled into the campsite next to me. We're separated by trees and a pretty good distance, but I'm not the most gregarious camper. I'm not quite on the level on Sartre with his "hell is other people," but I'm close. The way that my mind becomes hijacked by others' impressions, the stress of that processing, is the reason that I go camping alone in the first place. So I always have mixed feelings when others arrive.

After a while I heard a woman's voice come through the trees from their campsite. She carried on an unbroken stream of chatter. Once in a while I heard another voice interrupt. But then she went on. I tried to ignore it. Most people are more sociable than me, I realize. Clearly, she had something to get off her chest. But it started to irritate me. I went down to the lake. When I came back a couple of hours later, I was surprised to hear her still droning on and on. I wondered what she could have so much to talk about. I wondered why she didn't shut up for awhile and let me and the people around her enjoy the peace and quiet.

This went on all day long -- after I went kayaking and stood at the picnic table making my supper; as I built my campfire for the evening. Then the wind changed. I began to hear her voice much more clearly, and another voice, a young girl. I heard the woman say, "Maybe that's enough for today. I can read more tomorrow. We'll be able to start on the other book. Did you bring it?" And I realized that what I'd been irritated by all day long was the sound of a woman reading to her granddaughter.

I doubt I'm the only one who has spent years, literally years, rehashing things that have incredible power over me, the power to make me blush, or the power to make my vision blur, my heart thunder in shame. Shame seems to be one of my most stubborn emotions. But I'm beginning to realize, at the age of fifty-six, that it's just possible that these things I've perceived in certain ways are wrong, that I got them wrong at the time and that I've continued to feed the flames of my wrong perceptions every time I call up the memories. My perceptions are not reality. That's what I'm learning.

The Urban Coyote Project says that coyotes have more than eleven vocalizations whose meanings are complex. One coyote can sound like many more, because of the way they change the pitch. Normally, I don't spend a lot of time wondering what the sound means. I appreciate the mystery. I would like to be able to bring that spirit to my more mundane experiences, too.

This is a beautiful short recording of coyote voices by Rocky Raybell on the Colville Indian Reservation, in Washington State. He calls it Coyote Symphony.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Road Past Libau part II

Mary, my grandma, Neil and me
with pump and bunkhouse in background, early 70s.
When we were near the turn that my sister, Mary, and I thought was the road to our old farm, I phoned my brother Neil on my cell phone and asked him to guide us. His memory for the navigational details was better than mine or Mary's. That sounds like it, he said. Turn left. So I'm almost sure we'd found the right place. The road seemed exactly true to my memory; I remembered how when we walked in, there was a sense of mystery about what lay beyond the bend.

But when we drove onto the property where our house and barn and outbuildings had been, everything seemed out of place. Some things were familiar: the thick woods, the soft powdery soil, even the sky, a scrubbed clean blue. But it was as if the rest of it had been bulldozed away. How many years had it been? Forty, we realized with shock. How much could change in forty years? How much could we have remembered wrong?

The road at the curve.
Mary and I remember painting the bunkhouse one weekend. We leaned the ladder up on one side of the bunkhouse and climbed onto the roof to paint the trim. It was morning, coolish. By noon the sun was high, and the side of the roof with the ladder was too hot to walk on. The other side was too far down to jump. We were stranded up there.

We looked for that bunkhouse. There were buildings like it, but none had the attic trapdoor in exactly the same place, the door we'd unhooked so that we could swing down off the roof and lower ourselves to the ground.

You begin to wonder if it's the actual place that's wrong, or the memory of it. How many times have I told an old familiar family story, only to have one of my sisters, or my brother, say, "That wasn't you, that was me." The place now, the farm, the outbuildings and the way it felt at night when the quiet was so deep my own heart beating was the loudest thing in my ears, have taken on new shapes in my memory, as they've become the setting for my new novel, The Burned House (originally Sing a Worried Song).