The Real Thing

September’s pace hits you in the belly, takes the breath right out of you. Perhaps the greatest indicator are the sounds coming in through my bedroom window from outside at six in the morning. The squealing breaks of large trucks, engines turning over, wheels pressed against pavement. These are not weekend sounds, rumpled sheets, the hot sizzle of oil in the frying pan or the smell of bacon and maple syrup. Another car drives by this morning. Even the sky is screaming with jet engines. Busy, busy, busy. All going somewhere.

Sometimes I want to turn it all off, make the noise go away. I check my phone and my day begins listening to a video of a friend crying. On a phone call with a friend last night, discussing writing, she reminds me that our brains don’t know the difference between real trauma and trauma we relive through our writing, in terms of the toll trauma takes on our bodies, our wellbeing. We feel trauma at a visceral level when we remember it and we actually reexperience it. Does my brain understand the difference between my friend recording a video of herself crying last night and that my friend is likely sleeping soundly when I watch the video today? Probably not. I feel sad when I watch the video because I see her pain, no longer real, but that once was so and were she to be reminded about it, she might be sad all over again too. But maybe not. Perhaps that was a particularly sensitive moment and she’s moved on. Without being there in person myself, I’ll never know the full context.

Online, even when we aren’t there, we are there. Through video and Zoom, we are everywhere now. I’m not sure if my brain knows the difference: that I am not actually going everywhere, it just feels that way. My body, my mind, have travelled into the city, across the country from one side to the other all in one day, and it’s tiring. We feel exhausted, fatigued. Burnt out.

I do have a remedy for this. My dog is my lifeline. I HAVE to walk him/run him/play with him. He gets me outside. Outside this time of year is the sound of crickets chirping, the hot sun beating on my bare arms, fading colour and fresh air with a whiff of decay. In town, it’s the cries of children in the school yard and the barks of dogs greeting passersby. Out of town, it’s trees and dappled light, stretching shadows, dusty footsteps along a well-trodden path.

My dog, my children, they are in the present moment. They are my real life. There is no such thing as past traumas, only the right-here-right-now of the moment. I am filling in a form for the school before I go back to the email I was in the middle of typing before I had to pick the kids up, before I phone that person back, before I join my next Zoom call, before, before…

“Mommy,” says Penelope, my youngest, “come play hockey with me in the backyard.”

“Okay.” I drop the pen and the form. This time they can wait, my four-year-old can’t. Or rather, she can, but real-life beckons.

While Zoom may take me to far-off places, my children keep me right where I am, right where I am meant to be.

Outside we go and the sun is blazing, the grass needs to be cut. Penelope hacks away at a tennis ball with her plastic stick. I teach her to always keep two hands on your stick, see, like this? the way my dad taught me. She hacks at the ground. Lower, quick, like this – see? She pauses to look at me, her eyes hold me and she smiles, delighted to have her mom all to herself. In the flesh. This connection between us cannot be replicated on any screen, or rather, it can, a scene in a movie perhaps, the mother dropping what she’s doing to make time for her youngest, a heartening scene that evokes emotion. The listener feels something, real emotion, love even, that approximates the real thing. But do not be fooled. My phone doesn’t love me. My computer screen does not love me. Exchanged in that glance was authentic real-life, an in-person exchange that cannot be replicated again. The exchanges of real-life are the fabric of the universe, not what happens on a screen. I’m trying to remember that. To tell my body to slow down, step away, get outside and into the folds of the universe. We pass the tennis ball back and forth between us; she hits it really far and we cheer. Our happy cries ring out and there is no replacing this real thing.

 

The Place We Are In

I’m back at the cottage for a few days. I watched the water current move all summer long almost exclusively to the right, or eastwardly, but now I detect an unmistakeable shift to the left. Fall is here. Something about the current, the way the water is moving, is reminding me of this global pandemic we are in. The water moves swiftly, as temperatures drop lower and lower, until the water temperature becomes untenable, deathly. For the time being, the water is hovering around 60 degrees, and most people wouldn’t go in. I did. With a wetsuit on. But not everybody has a wetsuit, protection. Many people can’t even swim. For many, the simple act of being asked to float would lead to drowning. Right now, people are being asked to float and people are drowning.

I listened to an audio book on the way up to the cottage, Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. What I’ve heard so far is fantastic, but there is one detail she got wrong. She likens depression to drowning, “but at least,” she says, “with drowning there are signs: arms flailing, noisy splashing, cries for help, etc.” I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the picture. While I appreciate the metaphor and the point is not lost on me, the notion of drowning being loud is incorrect. I was shocked to come across a pamphlet on drowning when I was researching water safety (as mothers are wont to do) when we bought the cottage. Drowning is known, by those who know – by lifeguards and the aqua-savvy – as a silent killer. Most people who drown never make a sound. They slip away, unnoticed. We are in a pandemic, there are people drowning, and they aren’t making a sound.

It’s fall and I’m in a three-season cottage and it’s cold so I’m trying to light a fire. Again, I have resources. I ball up paper and lay down kindling. Put a few bigger logs on top, one or two, not too many. I’ve been educated by those who know in the art of fire building. I asked my local neighbour who lives in the house he grew up in about wood stoves. After I’ve asked my many questions about indoor fire maintenance, he at one point grows quiet and still.

“Please,” he says, “let me know if you need help anytime.”

My question of, “so I leave the door open and then…?” left him feeling anxious.

“I don’t want you to burn down the cottage.”

Step one, pull the lever to open the flu (door at the top to let air out) all the way. Step two, get the fire going, use kindling and a fire starter as needed. Step three, once the fire’s going, close the door and close the flu three-quarters of the way by pushing in the lever, that will keep the fire from burning too hot, which could lead to a chimney fire. Step four, turn on the built-in fan in the back to disperse heat and temper the flame. Be careful what you burn. Always hard wood (maple, oak), not softwood (pine), which burns too hot and fast and can lead to said chimney fire.

Build your fire and watch the flames burn. Revel in the warmth, enjoy.

And I’m trying. I know all the steps, I’m doing the things, but the fire just won’t catch. Smoke pours out of the chimney, inexplicably flowing to the east, but nothing is catching. I’m flickering, flickering and now the flame’s out. I’m cold. Chilled to the bone. I add a layer of protection, but I’m not moving, not going anywhere and so my temperature drops like the lake outside.

And there’s something about being behind the glass and looking out at a lake I can’t touch that unnerves me – a fire I can’t hold. I want to go swimming in the lake everyday like I did before, but everything is different now. I’ve had to readjust my expectations, my way of being. I’m shifting direction from east to west. I’m going a different way now.

The fire, of course, is not for me to hold. But is it not just like me to want the things I can’t have? The very things that will burn me?

A career in writing is like this. Did I mention I’ve received a few rejections lately? I did not win the CBC Creative Nonfiction Contest, I did not place a particular story in the newspaper, I did not land that coveted agent. Burn, burn, burn. In truth, the agent hurt the most, although there I probably had the lowest odds. But here was the thing: this agent gets 10,000 pitches a year and mine was one of the 400 she asked to read further material. I was not one of the ten or so she chose to sign. And that hurt because the first hurdle felt SO monumental, to have made it so far, like getting our cases down so low, only to fail to complete the job. Those outside of the writing industry will say they’re sorry for my luck, and I thank you, really, I’m fine. Those inside of it will nod their heads in understanding and recognition, congratulate me on the rejections. I collect rejections because it means I am getting my work out there, and at some point, there come acceptances too. At some point, this will all be over. But arguably, we’ll be in a different place by then.

I will continue to swim in the lake as long as possible; hold my head and hands up, and warm them by the fire.

The lake by the shore is still now, motionless. As darkness descends, a flash of light and stone, a memory darts into my mind. One last reminder that I am not safe. Taking my dog out this morning, down a trail and beyond where I’d gone before, past the ‘no trespassing’ sign (I know, I know), into the beyond, in the dirt there lay an animal track. Bigger than my hand. My neighbour warned me of the potential for bears, but I just had to see for myself. And there it was, a sign as clear as day. I had been warned. These tracks were fresh. Except, this wasn’t likely to be a bear track, not based on the shape. The shape was more reminiscent of a wolf’s paw. A very large wolf. I followed the tracks, one, two, three, then stopped, came to my senses, and scrambled back through the brambles, back the way I came, thorns tearing at my pants. Turns out that was not the direction I wanted to be headed. I’m still figuring it out, which way to go.

The fire is lit now, burning steady. And I’m thankful for that because the temperature continues to drop with the sun. I’m warm and cozy inside, tucked away from wolves that hunt and the monsters, mostly men, I conjure in my mind. I am finding my way and this is the place I am in.

 

 

The Last Time

This is probably the truest thing I can share with you right now. It’s a poem I wrote this morning, reflecting on nature, but also, in a roundabout way, it’s about heading home, the changing seasons and the kids going back to school. Endings and new beginnings. I have such a strong desire to be close to nature and I don’t want to forget all the elements that have left me feeling so inspired this summer. Poems can convey, with brevity, emotions I may not capture in a thousand words of trying to explain the complexity here. Suffice it to say, time is up, in so many respects, and so please allow me to be brief.

The Last Time
When was the last time
you paused
to stare at your breath on a cool morning;
you tilted your head up
and let the sun
cover your face like a warm cloth;
you strolled through the woods
and appreciated each tree,
the curve of its trunk,
a slender pointed branch,
noted the toadstools tucked in
at its feet,
down to the dew drops hanging from pine needles
like runny noses?

When did you last observe the clouds
dance, multiply,
like the dust kicked up of a thousand horses or
drift slowly by, on an airless day
the glaciers of the sky

When was the last time
you let the cool waters of the lake lick at your toes
or took the time to kneel –
crouch right down –
to peer inside the hole of the chipmunk’s lair;
admire the beauty
of the undulating hills towering above
reflected in water below in perfect symmetry;
the cattails tinged yellow, their colour
fading, bend and bow
in the gentle breeze?

You stare breathless
Pause
(hopefully not) for the last time.

The Curious Incident of the Frog in the Night

I’m a sentimentalist, it’s true.  I am guilty of romanticizing life at the cottage, both to myself and to others. I tend to focus on the good feelings and not so much on the bad experiences. And there’s merit to this, to being an optimist, to seeing the glass half-full, to finding the positives and looking on the bright side. To letting one’s self get swept up in the moment. But we all know that darkness lurks somewhere in the shadows.  I can’t remain clouded to what is difficult and unseemly to write about or I risk only telling half the story – that which is saccharine, sickly sweet. (See Leslie Jamison’s essay, In Defense of Saccharin(e) from The Empathy Exams for a further examination of this topic).

There’s the fairy tale version of our summer stay and the darker elements – the truth of our existence here lies somewhere in between.

Let me tell you a sinister story, reminiscent of brothers Grimm.

Once upon a time there was a princess named Penelope who loved to pick up frogs and toads. All day long, she caught the frogs, watched the toads and cradled them in her hands. At four years old, the little princess was not the best at washing her hands.

Her parents, the king and queen, were very busy running the cottage kingdom, managing three children during a pandemic and working full time. Life in the palace was not always a bed of roses. They argued over responsibilities and often left the children to their own devices. Princess Penelope spent her days down by the shoreline with her frogs.

Now, if this were brothers Grimm, the little princess would likely drown at this point in the story, but stay with me here.

One night, after the royal family hosted visitors for the weekend, the little princess began to vomit. The queen panicked. Was this the dreaded Covid plague?  Her poor baby! What had they done! How could they have been so foolish as to allow others to enter the protective bubble of their cottage kingdom?

Mysteriously, the next morning, after having vomited all night, the little princess recovered. She seemed absolutely fine – better than fine. Life returned to normal with princess Penelope catching her frogs down by the shore. The king and queen stopped worrying about the little princess and fell back into their work.

A week later, the vomiting happened again. This time, there had been no visitors. Was this some sort of evil spell?  No – poison.

The king happened to remember something he once read in a book of potions about toads excreting toxins.

Little princesses aren’t very good at washing their hands. 

Busy monarchs seldom have the time to enforce proper hand washing after every single held toad.

When a toad is squeezed, they excrete a milky poison from their eyes toxic to their enemies. In addition, many water frogs also have bacteria and can carry salmonella, which can lead to some serious intestinal upset. Through further research, the king and queen also discovered that the substance coating certain frogs and toads can be hallucinogenic.  So the story of the princess kissing the frog who turned into a prince – who knows?  Maybe that’s what she thought she saw, high as a kite.

Furthermore, because a frog’s skin is so porous and takes in its environment so readily, holding it in your hand is akin to having someone hold onto your lung. That cannot feel comfortable, and so, perhaps it is best to leave the frogs and toads be.

Now that the case of the curious night vomiting has been solved, his and her majesty have gently, but firmly, instructed the young princess to limit the number of frogs and toads she holds and to wash her hands after handling every single one. Every single time.

According to latest reports, “I’m holding a toad in my hands!”, not much has changed.

And so this story – and her nausea – may continue unhappily ever after.

But, honestly – what can you do?  She’s a kid. Kids are disgusting. And to those who would judge: if you think your kid hand-washes after doing something as dirty as wiping their own ass, check next time, use a magic mirror or whatever you have to do. And when you watch them walk out, hands dry, wipe their nose and pass you by with a grin, maybe then the frog vomiting won’t seem so bad.

Accompanying every bit of life, every piece of beauty, there’s a darker side.

“Oh, I just love the loons!” I told one neighbour,

“Yes, well, they’re not as great as you might think.”  The loons eat the native ducks’ eggs, effectively almost abolishing them from our lake. And the ducks that do survive, another neighbour informed me,

“The ducklings – the snapping turtles pull them under by the legs, one by one.”  One webbed foot at a time.

Nature is murderous, cruel, relentless, toxic. Leeches that suck your blood, wasps that sting beneath the eye. Toads that poison little princesses like a blood-red apple.

At the end of the summer, I’ll hold a picture in my mind of our sweet four-year in a pink tutu bent over the toad in her hand. All eyelashes and a mop of curls. The remnants of salmonella on her small hands.

I’ll try not to get all sentimental over that picture, over the notion of a tiny girl cuddling with her toads, enjoying her warm summer days, the sparkle of the sun reflected in the water, dazzling, under a bright blue sky, the apple of the frog’s eye.  That kind of romanticizing, especially in writing, is enough to make you sick.

 

Blog Post: On Observing Humans

We learn in a multitude of ways.  Directly, from others.  Directly, from ourselves, from the front row seat of the skins we inhabit, with our bodies, our five senses.

I’m standing at the end of our dock in my underwear.  I have de-clothed after a forty-minute run in an attempt to convince myself I should jump into the lake.  The air feels cool, it’s fifteen degrees Celsius and there’s a breeze.  The lake temp is in the seventies – that’s not bad.  Already, here, up North in the Madawaska Valley, fall is sidling in.  A smattering of trees are painted in hues of warm colours.

My toes hang over the edge of the dock, and I’m wrestling with myself over going in when a large white orb torpedoes by under the water right before my eyes.  My first thought is baby sea turtle!  But of course, there are no sea turtles in our lake.  The creature seems too big and moves too quickly to be a snapping turtle.

I don’t have to guess for long.

The beautiful loon crests a few meters to my right.

Wow, I think, surprised a loon can move that fast under water.  To have read the fact would not have sufficed; experiencing the loon move with such streamlined speed and grace is now forever etched in my mind.

I jump in off the dock and feel the water against my skin, warm and not unpleasant as expected.

Recently, we had my sister-in-law and her family visit us at our cottage.  My brother-in-law is a trained and practising ecologist, an environmental consulting expert.  I ask if he’d like to join me on a grueling hike, in the rain; the ascent goes skyward, but the lookout at the summit is dazzling and worth the exertion.  He agrees.

The hike has become a right of passage, an initiation of sorts, to life at the cottage and an introduction to the stark and startling beauty of the area.  On certain days, the climb involves blazing heat and humidity that leaves your neck and t-shirt soaked and bugs sticking to you like Velcro.  On other days, as was the case when my brother-in-law agreed to hike with me, the rain renders the path muddy, the rocks that protrude slick.  On the way down, my foot gives way beneath me.  I catch myself, elbows in the mud on either side of the rock that would have bruised my spine.

“You okay?” my brother-in-law asks.

“Yep.  Close call.” It’s all part of the climb.

I can tell a lot about a person by the way they make it up the mountain.

I power through the path, half at a run pace, treating the hike as sport, legs strong, hopping off rocks with vigour.  Sometimes I pretend I’m flying, while keeping a solid pace.

Dan, my husband, keeps pace with mine, never pulling ahead of me or falling behind.  He knows I like to take the lead and that I expect him to keep up.  We talk amicably, easily, on the way up and congratulate ourselves for exploring and for breathing heavy when we arrive at the top.

“Good exercise!”  We both agree, cheerily enough.

He empathizes over my attire; I would not have chosen to wear a summer dress had I planned this unexpected detour.  He understands my need to plan.  He takes my picture at the summit when I’m not watching.  He offers me a sip of his water, even though I have my own.  He pets our dog and does most of the caring for him.  He poses in pictures with me, even though I know he doesn’t particularly like to do so.  He kisses me, a quick peck, back at the van.  We’re both sweaty.

My brother, my little brother as I call him, sets off up the trail ahead of me, head down, and at a fast pace.  We take turns chasing one another up the mountain.  I think that we are racing and having fun.  We sweat equally hard.  We discourage the dog from biting at our fast heels, equally.  He really appreciates the view at the top, as do I.  At one point, he worries about the dog being too close to the edge.  I agree and we rein him in.  We are both parents.  He is okay with me snapping a few pictures of us, but even having owned a photography business, he takes few to no pictures himself.  I think it’s because he has owned the photography business.  We talk little on the way up, neither one of us can much breathe, but we engage in friendly chit-chat on the way back down.  Afterwards, we chug back water and he thanks me for taking him there.

My friend, a woman my age, approaches the hill with wonder and excitement.  She asked to do it once I mentioned it.  I feel the urge to check back on her as we make our way up, but she shoos me ahead, insisting she’s fine.  She never complains, though her ankles give her trouble.  She is excited about the view before we even get to the top.  She takes many pictures.  She snaps my picture from behind – an action shot – and I pause to take a few of her, too.  I hold the dog and keep him moving ahead so that he won’t bite at my friend or knock her off the edge of the mountain.  The dog is incredibly strong.  At the top, she orchestrates a photo shoot and I oblige.  She admires the view fondly, fully.  She expresses some regret – guilt? – that her husband is not also enjoying this activity, the climb and the view.  She worries about him.  We pick our way back down the trail slowly.  She tells me I remind her of a spry woman in her sixties she sometimes hikes with who blazes along the path, while she often trails behind.

“I want to be fit like her when I’m that age,” she says.

We talk about fitness, how my friend has lost weight – and she has, noticeably – but that she doesn’t weigh herself.

“That’s just a number,” she says.  She goes by how she feels.  I completely agree, though I know my number, more or less.  I know best by the way I feel, too.

At one point near the end, I spot a harmless house fly against her neon green tank top and calmly reach to flick it off.  My friend’s happy and calm demeanor changes, her face drains.

“Is there a BUG on me?”

“Yah, but it’s just…”

She’s flailing her body, shaking her head and hands.

“A fly.”

The offending beast is gone, close call.  We share a little laugh.

My brother-in-law is happy to tag along behind me up the mountain, and I enjoy looking back over my shoulder at the scientist at work.  He is completely lost studying the local flora and fauna.  The ecologist in him shines.  He reminds me of my toddler, always lagging behind on our family hikes, bent over a branch to examine this leaf, or that blade of grass.  His childish nature is glorious to witness.  Simultaneously, there is a meta-analysis happening: the ecologist observing plants in their natural habitat, the writer observing the ecologist observing the plants; the writer taking a snapshot of the scene in her mind; the ecologist collecting samples, “I’ve never seen this before,” he later exclaims, photographing a generic-looking stem he’s collected.  His very words become the evidence of the writer who is the documenter of human behaviour.

I frequently stop climbing and wait for him to catch up.  His eyes never leave the side of the trail, his hands are busy delicately grazing this or that greenery.  We ascend mostly in silence.  He seems unbothered by any physical discomfort the climb is costing him; he’s too busy observing.

Predictably, I reach the lookout before him.  I double back with the dog to make sure he’s okay.  When he arrives, he exclaims, “I want you to show me where this is on a map so I can take (my wife) and kids.”  Also, so that he may document the plant species he has discovered, single samples of which he grasps like a bouquet.  I admire his passion, understand it, recognize it in myself.

“That was great,” he says when we’re done the hike.

I ask my brother-in-law to identify tree species on my property.  I learn that a hemlock, an evergreen wispy tree with droopy limbs and numerous short needles, is one of my niece’s favourites, and where the forest of red pines is at the top of our drive, and how to tell the difference between the white and the red pine anyway: the white pine needles are long and in bunches of five, whereas the red pine have a reddish trunk and long needles that gather in clusters of two.

My favourite new piece of knowledge from hanging out with my brother-in-law the ecologist pertains to the beech tree.  This is where the writer and the ecologist collide.

“They say the trunks of beech trees look like the feet of elephants,” my brother-in-law tells me.  The feet of elephants.  Somehow this line reminds me of a piece I wrote about the souls of dinosaurs.

I have a look at the beech for myself and I have to agree.

 

The Absence of Something

Do you give yourself time to be creative in the way that you need?

A storm blows in.  I’m sitting beside an open sliding door and there’s the smell and warmth of fresh rain in the summertime wafting in, and the pitter patter of water droplets hitting leaves and branches creating a cascading effect all the way down to the forest floor.  The sound of the waves lapping the shore is overshadowed by booming skies, crackling thunder.

With overcast skies, the lake’s the colour of a silver coin.  The sun wants to push through.

Bright, hot, and sunny this morning, cloudy and thunderous this afternoon; the day’s as undecided as I am.  With the children visiting their grandparents, the pressure to enjoy the absence of something becomes too great.  One minute I tell Dan I’m going to focus on writing, use the time to get some work done, the next we’re packing up the car to take our dog Louie for another hike.  We hiked sixteen kilometers total the day before, but yet, somehow in the absence of something, more was not enough.

So we hike again, then after the hike I plan to visit the dock.  I pack my tote bag full of books, notebooks and pens, silicone earplugs and oversized black sunglasses.  I slide my pink flip flops on then get sidetracked writing a poem.  The poem complete, more or less, I scoop up the handles of my tote just as the rain comes pouring down.

Dan and I spend more time talking about what we’re going to do next then actually doing anything.  We talk some more, and we talk some more beyond that because in the absence of something the space must be filled with everything else.  An onslaught of words and ideas rushes forth.  We could talk for years.

Dan has committed to running a few errands.  He waivers, attempts to tell me one more story about his conversation with a local dog trainer before heading out the door, but my mind is already elsewhere, onto the thing it is I will be doing in the thunderstorm in the absence of something.  I wish to fill the space perfectly, deliberately, with an activity of my choosing – not of necessity.

“Do you want to hear about the dog trainer?”

My husband has caught me tuning out, moving into the space and sphere of my own consciousness.  Did I reply, “not really,” or “how about you tell me later,” or plain “go ahead,” I can’t recall, but what I do remember specifying is my desire for him to be in charge of that project.  I’ll take part, do my duty, but it’s not my show.

A hummingbird suspends itself in front of my window, hovering long enough to have a good look.  Its wings beat so fast I can’t see them, and I think, yes, that is the speed I travel in the presence of everything. I beat my wings fast and hard so that I too may look in on the writer.

I shoo Dan out the door and turn to my pen – or should I type on my laptop?

At Algonquin Park, where we hiked, I picked up two books from the visitor centre.   One titled Braided Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and the other a lovely illustrated edition of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.  In lieu of picking up my pen, I sit down on the couch with the latter, open the front cover and notice the author’s name written on the page.  I decide I should follow him on social media and so I sit back down at my desk to pick up my cell phone.

But instead, I reach for my pen and fill my life with the presence of words, the absence of regret.  Time well spent.

I squint looking outside, the day is now bright.

The storm has passed.  The water’s calm and the skies are clear.

I hear a few measly drops, the soft hum of the fridge.  A truck passing by in the distance.

A lone moth flutters by, otherwise the world is still and silent.  Not even the birds sing.

The sun peaks out.

I think I’ll go back down to the dock, but who knows.

A single bird breaks the silence with its melodic trill.

An echo beating in the sky, the sound of base drums, reverberates in the distance.  This isn’t over yet.

Good, Bad, Who’s to Say?

There are two sides to every coin.  Heads or tails?  Well, depending on the side you are rooting for, which way you’re betting, one side is perceived as ‘good’, the other side as ‘bad’.  This narrative of good and bad plays into so many aspects of our lives, but lately I’ve been thinking about it in the context of how we view others.

I came across an engaging well-thought out TED talk by Heather Lanier (thanks Sue Robins for introducing me to her work) about the problematic nature of framing stories as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Lanier explains through the use of an ancient parable that “’Good’ or ‘bad’ are incomplete stories that we tell ourselves.”

The ancient parable of the farmer goes like this:

There once was a man who lived on a farm with his son and his horse.

One day, the barn door was left open and the horse ran away. When the nearby villagers heard about it, they ran to the farm to tell the farmer how sorry they felt for him.

“How will you work your farm without your horse?” they asked.

The farmer simply shrugged and said “good, bad, who’s to say?”

A few days later, the farmer’s horse returned, and following it were two more horses. The villagers were so excited for the farmer’s luck, they ran to his farm and told him so.

The farmer simply shrugged and said “good, bad, who’s to say?”

The new horses were not broken in, so the farmer’s son worked hard to break them in so they could be used on the farm. While doing so, one of the new horses threw him off and his leg was broken.

The villagers again ran to the farm and expressed their deep sadness about the son’s broken leg. “Now your son can’t help you on the farm,” they said with their heads hung low.

The farmer simply shrugged and said “good, bad, who’s to say?”

As the son was healing from his broken leg, a war broke out in the countryside. All the young men were sent to fight. Many died or were seriously injured. However, since the farmer’s son had a broken leg, he was not able to go. The villagers again came to the farm, to say to the farmer how very lucky he was that his son didn’t have to go fight in the war.

Once again, the farmer shrugged his shoulders and stated, “good, bad, who’s to say?”

This parable teaches us to simply be a witness to life’s events.  The idea being that peace is found by observing the events of life and removing all judgement; by sitting back and witnessing without trying to attach labels, and avoiding life’s dramas.

The principle tenant of Buddhism is that craving leads to suffering.  Either craving for something good to last or craving for something bad to end.  One who does not crave, does not suffer – or so the idea goes.  In meditation, the goal is not to judge the thoughts that come into your head, but to let them flow through your mind and watch them from a distance. Thoughts are not labelled as good or bad, nor are they held on to.  They are let go.

Wow.  This all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  Letting go of notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; meditating and watching all kinds of thoughts float by without attaching meaning or significance.  As a writer, I often try to do the opposite: I latch on to words, haul them in, examine them to death, then stuff them into a basket full of other used thoughts and ideas.  But perhaps I need to loosen up, disassociate from my body a little bit more.  My body is so needy, temperamental; it’s cloistering to the mind.

I received a rejection note this morning for an essay I wrote.  Good or bad, who’s to say?  Maybe the piece will go on to be accepted in a more reputable journal or will lead me to a connection and long-lasting friendship with an editor – who knows?  Maybe it’s eventually printed at a time when the person who needs to read it, reads it.  I can’t help but yearn toward the positive.  However, maybe the essay never gets published.  I have to be satisfied with the idea that the essay just is.  Pain and pleasure, bad and good.

The other day, out on a drive, I turned right at the last minute onto a path I hadn’t planned to go down.  I discovered a beautiful trail; the kids loved it.  Later that day, I swatted at a bug on my knee, assuming it was a horsefly, and got badly stung by a wasp.  So the story goes.  Good or bad, who’s to say?  The key is to remain open; to abstain from judgement.  This is not the same as being passive.  Even meditation – sitting being, seemingly doing nothing – is an intense exercise of the mind.

When I leave for my run this morning, I will either feel good or bad and I’m going to try to not attach meaning to those feelings.  Today’s run doesn’t necessarily signify that I’m a good runner or a bad runner, that I’m in good shape or bad shape, it is just how I’m feeling today, at this particular moment.

I see the value in letting go, but a part of me needs to rebel against this notion of watching our feelings pass by without judgement.  I’m quite attached to my feelings.  I’m all for letting the feelings that are hurtful and painful pass through me, but I’m not so willing to let go of joy and happiness.  I want to fully inhabit my body in these moments.  But we don’t get to choose.  One minute, joy, a new path; the next minute, pain, a wasp sting.  Life is just like that.

When it comes to people though, I see how this principle need apply.  In my own life, the good/bad story has played out like this: the initial Down syndrome diagnosis – pain, bad; getting to know people with Down syndrome – joy, good.  Over and over, in different contexts, the story repeats itself.  My greatest realization of all, through years of reflection and learning to withhold judgement, is that: Down syndrome just is.  And so the story goes.

 

Unable to Perceive the Shape of You

What an odd yet strange and wonderful thing it is to tether oneself to another human being through the act of marriage.  To say, “you’re the one!” with the intention that they’re the one forever.  Until death do you part.  Even after death, we comfort ourselves by imagining our dearly departed waiting for us behind those pearly gates, just on the other side.  Well maybe that’s not exactly how we each envision it; from accounts I’ve read from the other side there are bright lights and an energy, a sort of life force that’s difficult to describe.  A place we go back to from whence we came.  I believe in this energy, in the light that glows within us – ‘our spirit’ – that is extinguished once we’re gone.  It’s a romantic notion, but I have to, I have to believe in living on in some form after death, the way I have to believe in marriage and love.  Both forces are equally dubious yet unmistakeably felt.

I began writing this blog yesterday with the intention of dedicating it to Dan in honour of our upcoming eleven-year wedding anniversary, but the piece took a turn when I remembered a line I heard recently in a reading – a poem, The Country of Marriage by Wendell Berry.  Poems apparently have the power to control your thoughts and fingers typing on a keyboard.  Once I began traveling to the country of marriage through my writing, the piece evolved and transformed itself from the lighthearted voice and tone of my blog post writing into a more lyrical, deeply felt, literary piece you would call an essay, which is, as Cynthia Ozick puts it, “A stroll through someone’s mazy mind.”  Pieces of Wendell’s poem became part of the essay and the basis of each scene construction, forming my own ideas about what constitutes a country of marriage.  You can’t just throw a phrase like ‘country of marriage’ out at a writer and not expect them to pounce on it.  I wrote on that idea with a rabid fervour.  Anyway, you’ll have to read about it in my next book.  I promise tears (mine), steam rising, oppressors, ex-boyfriends, rugged terrain, the torn skin of a scalp, the taste of alcohol, knees pressed together, Down syndrome, and a belly (mine) as full as the moon.  We have gone some places, my husband and I, in our country of marriage.

But this post isn’t all lost causes, because today I remembered another line that I happily dedicate to the man who walks alongside me.

Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.

~ The Shape of Water, adapted and translated (likely) from 13th century Sufi mystic poet Rumi

When I heard this, I thought it was one of the most romantic notions conceived, unable to perceive the shape of you.  Rumi is, of course, speaking of God.  Love may be the closest facsimile of divinity I’ve encountered in my life, and so I think these lines are just about right.

Eleven years in our country of marriage, unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me.  Your presence fills my eyes with your love.  It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.

Light

Much of what gets written down in books, talked about; the ideas we exchange during human interaction involve a central question: what’s this got to do with me?

During my MFA residency week, my mentor, Jane Silcott, mentioned a few times that she was fascinated by light.  The way light moves and changes, bends or refracts.  And on the one hand, I thought, light…hm – so what?  And on the other hand, I thought me too, because I love light; I just hadn’t taken the time to properly think about it before and its relevance to my life.

In her book of memoirs, Everything Rustles, which is described on the back cover as “a debut collection of personal essays” in addition to looking at “the moments right now that shimmer and rustle around her,” Silcott explores “love, grief, uncertainty, longing, joy, desire, fury, and fear.  Also wandering bears, marauding llamas, light and laundry rooms.”  There it is again, that fascination with light.  Now, when I read through her book, I wasn’t reading with an eye for light in mind and planning to write about it.  But something about her light caught my eye.  A scene comes to mind, something to the effect of Jane watching the light change from her porch and an annoyance at being disturbed by a family member for disrupting her peace.  I can relate.  I remember another essay, Natty Man, where the light is mentioned, “I’m enjoying the last bit of light sunny air when the natty man appeared.” and yet another, where the absence of light, the dark of night, causes her fear.

Flipping through the pages of Everything Rustles now, I come across, “What is it about morning light, the in-betweenness of it, that space between night and day?” in the essay Thereness.  That question is tucked in there, just past the page in my book with the remnants of a dirty paw swipe left on it.  I remember reading that particular essay sitting on the edge of the dock, listen to the happy cries of children splashing in the water, fending off puppy licks as I read about my mentor losing her father, the page swathed in heavy sunlight.

And so the light gets in, our stories blur and her words begin to take on meaning in my own life.  And so it goes with stories well told.

After talking with Jane and reading her book, the question of light demanded to be answered.

After dinner last night, I found myself sitting by the edge of the dock, supported by my hands, legs crossed out in front of me, during that magical hour of dusk when the sun gets sleepy.  I happened to glance over my shoulder.  There, in the space between the boards of wood, was an illuminated support beam.  And I thought, what a miracle the sun can reach its light all the way under there, while also thinking, this is my life, right now, and that the light could so ground me in it.

We bought a small kayak and I took it out for its first paddle to explore our lake.  In doing so, I found the perfect pink granite rock that I could swim to later on.  Not enshrouded by weeds or clam shells, perfectly inviting, and close by.

First thing the next morning, with goosebumps on my flesh, I suited up, moved my goggles in place, snapped on my flippers and aimed for the rock.  I strive for an even stroke, a calm breath.  One, two, three breathe, one two three breathe, one two three breathe and look where you’re going.  Thirty minutes of swimming without rest is tiring and in a lake, somewhat disorienting, so I am grateful for the rock.  As I swim there and back, there is the greyish blue-green of the water I look down on and the blinding light of the sun as I turn my head to the side quickly to breath.  Darkness, darkness, light; darkness, darkness, light.  I stop to get my bearings, look around.  Scan the horizon for boats.  We live on such a small lake, and I keep mainly to the shoreline, but I think of the cottage we stayed at in Muskoka a few summers ago, and the woman in the neighbouring cottage who paddled out in her kayak to paddle alongside me as I swam back across the land divide because, as she explained, “a woman was killed here by a boat last summer – please, never swim across alone.”  In the bright morning sun, I can see clearly, no boats.  I continue to cut through the water, and there it is – light – beams of it cutting through the dark water in front and below me with ease, diamonds, glittering along the surface.  The light is all around me.  I just need to open my eyes to see it.

 

Forget Normal: a case for the MFA

Normal life.  What does that even mean anymore?  Did such a thing ever exist or perhaps the term has become as outdated as ‘normal families’ and ‘normal children’ has for me.

Normal life would suggest a pattern of specific behaviours.  I do ‘x’ and then I do ‘y’ and then I do ‘z’.  Lately my life has looked more like: SJgahhjkgSA$#@IFS(F?US?J0u8472.

Not much of a pattern, more of a free-for-all, more like one of my computer passwords.

Going from being a ‘normal family’ to redefining what that means and looks like, to accepting ‘normal family’ encompasses a whole variety of situations – or rather that a ‘normal prototypical family’ doesn’t really exist – helped me make one of the biggest mental shifts of my life.  If I didn’t have to be normal and my family didn’t have to be normal then that opened the door for a whole host of other exciting avenues.

I’m not knocking normal, rather I’m opening the door to the great unknown and saying, “why not go in here?”  I’ve become rather fond of wild places, of the great unknown, of showing up at houses with appealing entrances.

And so I dived headfirst into my Masters program.  You know when you have a great idea and you get really excited about it, and maybe even mull over the possibility for years and wait for the timing to be just right and then that thing you wanted, you are ACCEPTED, you GET IN and IT’S HAPPENING.  Then you defer for a year, because life isn’t quite right, and then it’s here, that thing you really wanted and YOU’RE DOING IT.  I’m struck by that moment when it arrives, the momentous occasion of going from dream to reality.  But I’ll skip to the point.  The doing is tedious.  The doing is hard.  The doing is work.  No matter how much I like the dreaming, the doing is the fun part.  And so my former ‘normal life’ as a mom who wants to write is no longer.  I wrote before now because I wanted to, and for many years with urgency, but now I HAVE to write.  Not that this is the judge and ruler of my behaviour, but we are literally spending thousands of dollars for me to do so.  Money talks!  Money talks!  Now I am part of a writing community.  Now I’m in writing groups with editors and published authors who are looking to me to hear what I have to say.  Soon I will be face-to-face with agents and publishers.  There’s no time for remembering what normal used to look like, this is my new normal.  The glittery, dazzling literary world.  I feel like I have been knocking on the door for years, and somebody finally let me in and is showing me the way.

A writing program, such as the MFA, is a writer’s dream not just because of its focus on the craft, but because of the writers themselves!  The people!  I am so fascinated by my fellow classmates.  The cliché, in this case, is so true: every one of them has a story to tell.  And that’s why they’re here, beside me, engaging in the normal task of writing in the extraordinary setting of the MFA.

Things will never be the same.  This notion, this idea, comes up over and over in my memoir, a repeating theme, but over time, through my transformational journey of understanding what it is to become the parent to a child with Down syndrome, with much self-reflection, the tone of that messaging changes.  Things will never be the same and I wouldn’t want them to be.

Change, for me, has become a mark of growth.  How much more could my life possibly change over the next two years of this Master’s program?  Who knows? Chances are, at some point, I will settle into some kind of neat and tidy routine.  For a while.  Then the world will tilt, and I’ll have to stumble back onto my feet again.  But our world is constantly spinning, we only think we’re standing still.  Our sure-footedness is the illusion.

Our ‘new normal’ after the pandemic may not look like our ‘old normal’, but can we use this as an opportunity to change something maybe we didn’t like about our ‘old normal’?  Can we find the silver linings?  Can we step one foot in front of the other and knock down that door we’ve been eyeing.  You should know that Elyse, my seven-year-old daughter, never hesitates when it comes to knocking on strangers’ doors.  Ringing their doorbells, too.  She wishes every day were Halloween and so she makes it so, by declaration and by ignoring our cries of protestation.  Unfortunately, it isn’t always enough to declare our wishes, we need to take action, step through the threshold, fully commit to our objectives, and often we need others on board.  And timing.  Halloween only works one day of the year.

Living life is like turning the pages of a book; once you’ve experienced the story, you can’t unread it, it’s there inside of you.  There is no going back.  Nothing will ever be the same.  You can flag a passage, return to highlight your favourite lines, but ultimately the story doesn’t change.  You have to pick up a new book for the story to continue.

I’m somewhere past my title page, floating in a sea of ideas that I will shape, with time, into a sculpture of ice.  This endeavour of becoming makes me wildly happy.

I will leave you with a vision of my ‘normal life’ stranded on an iceberg, floating gloriously far away from me out to sea.  I’m in a speedboat with the people who matter and my new writer friends, heading in the other direction, and I don’t look back.