|Full moon at 4 a.m.|
Saturday, 9 May 2020
Monday, 4 May 2020
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
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
|Chilcotin mountain meadow|
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
|My 1975 notebook|
|A page from Red Fox Road.|
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
|Photo by Gerald Romanchuk|
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
|Mary, my grandma, Neil and me|
with pump and bunkhouse in background, early 70s.
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.|
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).