You might have predicted you’d see me round here this week, given the news. Between #metoo, and the conversations that have ensued all over your social feeds and mine, and then the expected-but-still-so-sad death of Gord Downie, it’s been—well, it’s been a time.
One might hope to be more articulate than that about it, but here we are. I ground my teeth so hard part of one snapped off. What more is there to say than that?
A few weeks ago, I was sitting around on a Friday night with Kev and his brother and his brother’s girlfriend, and we were having some drinks and light conversation about people we know who have serious, even terminal illnesses. “He’s going to die young,” my sister-in-law said about a guy we all know. “She could die anytime,” Kev said about a good friend of his.
I could feel my fingers twitching. When I have deep thoughts about death, I tend to save them up for my friend Maggie, who knows what time it is in that respect. We have regular Grief Summits, during which we talk about our sad feelings, raise a glass to our dear departed, and eat a lot of candy. I really wanted to text Maggie, but decided it would be rude to start texting in the middle of our little gathering. So instead, I dropped a truth bomb.
“I just want to put in a word for mortality, here,” I said. A moment of understanding flickered across Kev’s face—he knows who he’s married to, after all—but I pushed on regardless. “We’re all gonna die, and none of us know when. It could happen right now. Or tomorrow. Or the next day. You’re gonna die,” I said to my sister-in-law, “and you’re gonna die,” I looked at Kev, “and you’re gonna die,” I nodded to my brother-in-law, “and I’m gonna die. It’s coming for all of us.”
There was, as you might expect, a beat of silence. I took a sip of my drink. I definitely should have saved that one for Maggie, I thought. And then, as if I had indeed saved it for Maggie, the conversation rolled on.
And hey, I get it. Most people are not interested in contemplating the reality of our time here—that it is likely short, and certainly uncertain. That all we have is this moment, it’s gone, this moment, it’s gone, this moment, it’s gone too. This is not Friday-night-drinks conversation. Unless you’re me and Maggie, that is.
I’ve written before about my feelings around Gord Downie’s public performance of what a graceful exit looks like. The grief has rolled slowly this week. I’ve listened to Night for Day in its entirety most days. I had a deep cry over that Peter Mansbridge interview from last year, which I’d found myself unable to watch when it first aired, and barely able to watch two days ago when I finally did. I’ve been simple in my grief. I’m not thinking about it much. Just letting it wash over me. Letting those songs wake me up in the middle of the night, playing on my brain radio so loud they disturb my sleep. Yeah, I’m sad about the loss of an artist I admired, one I grew up with, one whose songs and performances have meant so much to me since I was a teenager (ask me sometime about the time I saw the Hip at Molson Park, and Gord set his boots on fire at the foot of the stage during “Boots and Hearts,” what a time.), and I’m sad about my brother, with whom I saw the Hip so many times, and I’m sad about my dad, who was the kind of guy I think Gord was. I’m sad about my sadness. I’m sad it all ends, no matter what, it all ends the same way. I’m sitting with and in that, lately, and you know what, it’s okay.
It’s okay because it’s true, and because even though I can only look at it head on for a few minutes at a time every day, that looking informs the way I do just about everything else. I’m not afraid to die, but I would prefer not to do it with a lot undone. So I am digging in as best I can. And I am luxuriating in the moments I spend with Kev, really pausing in those moments to just love him as hard as I can. I am working to be a good person, to be the kind of person my dad was and hoped I would be. I am trying to notice when I am clenching my jaw or grinding my teeth so that no more flakes chip off. Some days are better than others, you know? But I carry on with will and determination, and, I hope, grace too.
And I have been listening to this song and laughing to and at myself. Sometimes, I note it to myself wryly: I thought you beat the inevitability of death to death just a little bit.
Just a little bit.
I’ve been not writing. There are reasons. I’m knee-deep in a non-fiction project with a short deadline. I’ve been sewing madly. It’s gardening season. I’m mentoring a writer, and prepping for an interview series, and a hundred other things. These are legitimate reasons. Also, writing is hard, and I reached a point with my story earlier this year where I was stuck and trying to force it, and then my back spasmed and wouldn’t stop and, well. Here we are.
But I’ve been up front with myself about needing to write non-fiction at the moment, up front about the requirement to just put Good Birds aside for now. It’s been a relief, honestly, to be writing something that doesn’t need me to make stuff up. In fact, making stuff up would be the opposite of the goal right now. And it’s been just fine. I have a lot of enthusiasm for the non-fiction project. It’s a book, and it’ll be good to have another one of those under my belt. Especially, as I say, one I don’t have to create out of nothing.
A few days ago, though, I took Good Birds out for a spin. My gang of Wednesday writers and I were scheduled to read from works in progress at the Central Library, where we gather to write (that is, to complain bitterly about writing) each week. I was terrified contemplating reading from this work in progress. This book I do not understand at all. This book I have been forcing, and thinking about, and trying this and trying that and still coming up so short of where I want to be. Still, I chose an excerpt—one that includes the very first paragraphs I wrote of this book—and I tried not to barf.
Once I was at the lectern and reading aloud to the full room, I kind of dropped right into my story, and all my nerves faded away. As I read the excerpt I remembered what had been so exciting to me about the story in the first place. I felt the simplicity of what I’ve written, and the way it bobs along.
After the reading, some of us were talking about how we feel we’re not smart enough to write the projects we are writing. I mean, I feel this very deeply. I am sure it’s true. I don’t see how it can’t be true—of myself. But those other writers, they are some of the smartest, most intelligent people I know. There’s no way they’re not smart enough to write what they’re trying to write. For a moment I considered that there’s a possibility, an outside chance, at least, that potentially, maybe, I am also perhaps, maybe smart enough to write Good Birds. I’m saying there’s a chance, that’s all. I tucked that thought away. It’s a new one, and I’ll need to spend some time with it.
The next day it occurred to me that the excerpt I had read was written before I started thinking so goddamn much about what I’m trying to do. Back when I was just feeling my way through my story, patting around to find the shape of my characters. Back when I was using my intuition, instead of exhausting my intelligence. Hmm, I thought. I tucked that away with the possibility that I might potentially be not too dumb to write this book.
Then I went to see Amelia Curran and Erin Costelo, songwriters who typically give me a lot of feelings. I stood on the hard concrete floor at the Marquee feeling feelings and then suddenly, I had this kind of fizzy trancy feeling I get when I’m about to know something about writing. “I just need to go in a straight line,” I thought. “I need to stop complicating everything and just go in a straight line right off the back of the excerpt.” I stood with that for a bit, and then I could feel the next tiny bit of story coming down. I headed outside to type up a few sentences and email them to myself. I felt a kind of euphoria I haven’t felt in a long while.
That night, I dreamt all night that I had become a bass player. And not just any bass. Double bass. The big guy. I cursed this unwieldy instrument. It kept flopping out of my hands, crashing discordantly to the floor. I couldn’t control the sucker. “Why, why, why did I become a bass player,” I wailed. I woke myself up, despair and dread forming a knot in my jaw. In the middle of the night, I had a thought clear as the chime of a triangle: that’s about my book. I have turned it into a double bass, when really what I need to play is violin. Something compact I can carry in one hand. Something with a sweet, high, singular voice. Stop Complicating Everything: The Stephanie Domet Story.
When I was in kindergarten, my teacher recommended I be put into the “slow” grade one. Being as it was the nineteen seventies, there was such a thing as the “slow” grade one, and you could be put in it without your parents even being notified. After a few weeks in which I was no doubt bored out of my mind, the school finally called my mother and said, we want to put Stephanie in the “regular” grade one. And so, mornings I spent in the “slow” grade one, then in the afternoons, I crossed the hall to room 101, the “regular” grade one. In room 101, they were growing beans in paper cups on the windowsills. There was a gerbil. They were learning long words like “because.” They did math. They were all so much smarter than me, and I knew then that I would never, ever catch up.
Forty years later, I am still worried I’ll be sent back to the slow grade one.
I don’t need to prove that I belong. I don’t need to be an intellectual writer. I just have to write what I am here to write. And if that’s a simple story that just goes in a straight line right off the back of the very first few sentences of this project I ever wrote, so be it. Play that violin. Leave the double bass alone.
I wasn’t sure what May would hold this year. You never can tell. May does what it wants, dancing you madly up and down the thermometer, bringing everything to the point of bursting with life, and then crushing it all overnight with unexpected frost. May, as I have written ad nauseum elsewhere, is a complicated and storied month. I have learned not to presuppose how May will go.
This year, as the day approached, I searched myself for some kind of feeling. And I felt—nothing. Which was intellectually interesting to me, but also was a terrible portent. There’s no way I’d get away with feeling nothing, and anyhow, I don’t think feeling nothing is a particularly strive-worthy goal. In fact, feeling nothing is pretty much the opposite of what I want for myself, always. Still, I thought, maybe this will be one of the easy years. I could stand that.
There was, though, some rising anxiety that seemed to be unattached to anything real and concrete and point-to-able. Some aggression that seemed to be unrelated to any actual feelings or circumstances in which I found myself. A deep exhaustion I blamed on allergies, but which nagged me with its completeness. A persistent spaciness that had me making stupid mistakes while driving and sewing yesterday. Try not to hit that pedestrian, rip it up and start again.
Still, I thought, I don’t really feel much of anything.
I wonder if I am marked for grief. I know for sure I am marked by it. At the farmers’ market yesterday, we went to get fish from our usual guy. How are you, I asked, as I usually do. He shrugged as if it didn’t matter at all how he was. Then he said, I’m sorry, I’m grumpy. Well, not grumpy. Angry, maybe. But not exactly angry. He gestured with his hands in the empty space between us, as if he wanted us to move on, but then we didn’t. Grumpy, he said again. But, inside. Then: I lost my wife, you know. And I thought, did I know? Do I even know your name? And I said: I’m so sorry. And he said, oh, well. And I asked when and he said December 20. And I thought but didn’t say, ah. Five months. To the day. It’s seventeen years tomorrow for my brother, I said, so he would know I was a fellow traveller.
And then I asked for a pound of haddock and as he bagged it up, he told me how suddenly it had come upon his wife. She was sick for eighteen months, then she was gone. She had just retired. They had planned to travel and do so many things, and they never got to do a one. She loved to garden, and so this time of year is hard, he said. But then, all the times of year are hard. She would talk about the beauty of what was in bloom and he never paid much mind, would kind of pshaw it away, and now he wishes he had those moments back so he could sit with her and appreciate that beauty. I’d like to punch cancer in the face, he said, and I could feel the skin around my eyes grow wet. Right in its stupid face.
Seventeen years for your brother, he asked, and I nodded, and he said, I can see you still feel it, and I nodded again. It’s different every year, I told him. The first year is the worst, because it’s all new. Do something different at Christmas. Go to Toronto, or Mexico, or anywhere that isn’t where you usually go. Because it’s going to suck anyway, but it will suck worse if you try to make it like it used to be. I didn’t tell him it’s never going to be that way again, because obviously it’s never going to.
I got my fish and I got out of there, and I stood in the hallway at the farmers’ market and cried and cried. How could your wife, who has just retired, die five days before Christmas? How could your brother, who has barely begun his life, die before his second-born is even a year old? How can it be five months? How can it be seventeen years? How can I feel nothing one minute and everything the next? How can time keep passing? What is this life and how are we to live it?
You’ll know now, my fishmonger said, if you ask how I am and I say I’m grumpy, you’ll know. And I’ll know about you, he said, if you say you’re grumpy.
I am trying hard to find the sense in all this. The perfect bow with which I can wrap up a perfect package of insight. It doesn’t make sense, and it won’t, and I’ve known that for every minute of the last seventeen years. It was the first lesson I learned in the new country of my grief. I don’t envy my fishmonger the territory ahead of him. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned, and glad I have any kind of insight to pass along to newcomers to my land. But I would trade it all, every bit of it, for one more day with my brother.
We can’t go back, though. The things I want I cannot have. And so, I come back again to the decisions I’ve made in years past: a renewed commitment to live as hard as I can, to do all the things to the best of my ability, to take care of the earth, to appreciate the glimpses of my brother I see in those around me, to quit dicking around, thinking I have lots of time, to appreciate the time I do have. I’d like to think I could have learned these lessons some other way. Still, what I have is what I have. The grief, the joy, the knowledge, the love, the memories, the resolve, the opportunity, the day, this minute, that’s all. May’s message is simple this year: be. Enough.
Back in January, I told you about how I finally unlocked the secret to a daily writing practise, which turned out to be a lot of intervention and advice from others, along with some good old fashioned sitting the hell down and getting to it, and not a moment too soon, as part of my work in February included teaching a course on writing and procrastination, the aspect of writing in which I feel the most qualified. I was high on my writing practise and what it was yielding. It was great.
And then I hit a rough patch with my story, where I tried to force it to go forward when what it really wanted to do was keep on spreading out to the sides, and the writing practise became less great, though it remained steady. And though my imagination was tapped and my mind was really longing for a break, my sense of…what, shame, maybe? about my laziness kept me chained to my desk, trying to grind out my story.
Not, it turns out, an optimal way to approach art.
And since my mind is kind of an asshole sometimes, my body has to get involved to get my attention. This time, it did so by putting my mid back into spasm. It was very terrible. I thought it was from gripping my pen too tightly (why am I so intense, I whined to Kev. Why can’t I just let go? Why indeed.), as if that would do it, but when I explained my situation to the first of many body workers who saw me during the awful early weeks of March, telling her that for about a hundred and twenty minutes a day, every weekday, I’d been sitting on a slowly deflating yoga ball, with my notebook on my knee, curled over writing by hand…It became clear that this was a case of abject stupidity, rather than artistic intensity.
It’s funny how that goes. You think you’re one way, but then you get to a mirror and see that you are in fact another way altogether.
And so, I was forced to take a break. Forced to stop forcing it. Forced to acknowledge, once again, that my body is not just a kickstand for my brain. That it is, in fact, the place in which I live.
This is a frightening place to be, for many reasons. I am in deep fear of losing the thread of my story, along with my daily writing practise. My back is better now, but long periods of sitting and writing can still cause a flare up of pain. The reality of the paid work I do is that it also requires long periods of stationary writing time. As does sewing, the past-time that brings me the most joy right now. I really, really want to keep sewing. I also really, really want to keep making money. And I really, really want to keep writing my book. And I really, really, really want my back to not hurt like that anymore. So. These are competing desires, in many ways. (The irony that the bulk of the money I earn is in service of a biomechanist who preaches a doctrine of regular nutritious movement is not lost on me, not for one little stationary second, thanks for asking.)
One of the other body workers I saw during the Great Back Spasming asked me about my emotional state. Oh, I said, I’m pretty good. There’s nothing really going on. Although…I have been writing, which as a way of stirring up shit. Then she asked about my confidence. Again, I was cavalier to start. I generally have rather a lot of confidence. Too much, even. Although…I have been outside my comfort zone every day of the last fifteen months. Huh, she said. Huh, I said.
And so, this time has also been an invitation to consider my relationship with praise, and what “doing a good job” actually looks like for me in this new incarnation. There’s a mental work out. It involves a lot of positive self-talk about stuff I know I’m good at, like making a risotto that can make even the toughest critic cry in gratitude, for instance. It makes me feel like a dope. But it doesn’t make my back hurt, so there’s that.
I’ve also been spending a lot of time contemplating this photo:
I would say this was taken in perhaps 1976. I really don’t know what to make of myself here, and how exactly it’s connected to confidence, my emotions, writing, my back spasms, body-as-brain-kickstand, praise, grinding it out, and so on. But I’m pretty sure it is. This was back in the day when my Italian grandfather was giving me and my brothers the same basic haircut, and I was still toothless from a neighbourhood Evel Knievel incident gone horribly wrong. This was also back when I thought I might grow into good eyesight, just as I would some day grow adult teeth. Somehow Chris and Jeff are smiling proportionately to the occasion, but I…I am really somewhere else altogether.
I think I’d like to go to there. I may have to go sideways to arrive, instead of forward. That’s never been my preferred route, but preferences can change. I hope.
The goal for January was daily writing on Good Birds Don’t Fly Away. The goal has been elusive. Which is to say, I have in no way been creating the conditions that would allow me to meet that goal with ease. Or even with effort. Instead, I have faffed around, wasted time, complained about how writing is so haaaaaard, sewed two sweatshirts, one pair of leggings, and a dress, started a kitchen renovation, binge-watched Nashville season four, and most of Schitt’s Creek, read a couple books, and a stack of magazines, and eaten a lot of cheese and crackers.
In some ways, all this procrastination can be considered research, for the course I’m teaching next month through the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, called Getting Out of Your Own Way So You Can Just Write. When they asked me what I wanted to teach on, the one aspect of writing in which I feel truly expert is procrastination. Consider the first half of January my field research in that case, and the second half… is also field research, for overcoming one’s natural urge to do as little writing as possible because, see above: writing is so haaaaaard.
I would love to tell you that I magically found my own way from the first bout of field research to the second, but, as usual, it takes a village to pull this writer out of torpor and into productivity.
First of all, as always, the poet Sue Goyette intervened to tell me what’s what. She did it a number of times, gently, in person, and when that didn’t seem to have the desired effect, she sent me a card in the mail. An invitation to my own writing. Thoughtfully written, it invited me to consider the conditions under which a story living in the wilderness might consent to come spend a little time with me in a clean well-lighted place. I carried the card around for a full week before I was ready to create the conditions necessary for work. That little owl kitchen timer I’ve had for a while, procured at the suggestion of Jessica Marsh, and never employed till this morning. The Pomodoro method was seconded by my pal Mackenzie, who additionally offered the strategy of making a little tick on a piece of paper every time one is tempted to turn one’s attention from the matter at hand. The coffee is, I think, an obvious helpmeet. The sharpie, again, is an old friend. The grey notebook was given to me by, I think, my aunt, or perhaps my mother. Someone who’s long seen who and what I am, in any event. The notion of handwriting was brought to the fore for me by Joel Thomas Hynes. Fallsy Downsies was written entirely by hand. Good Birds Don’t Fly Away will be a hybrid, I think. A week’s worth of hand-writing followed by a day or two of typing up. The pile of already-printed-on-one-side paper comes courtesy of my work at Propriometrics Press, which also affords me the time to get my own work done. Not pictured: Kev, who understood intrinsically when I announced, I am getting out of this bed in seven minutes, and then I am going to write, and so left me alone to do just that.
Things that helped: I wrote about my intention to write, and about what I would need do to in order to create the conditions that would make writing happen. Then I did the things on the list (pay some bills, write some invoices, tidy my writing room, drink some water so that I feel well-rested, go to bed at an appropriate time to achieve the same result). Then, I actually came into my writing room, set the timer, and did the things. And you know what? It totally worked, you guys. I totally wrote. Next step: Do it again tomorrow, and Monday, and every weekday going forward. Thanks, village. This one’s for you.
Winter skies—late fall skies, I guess they have been lately, though the thick crust of snow below them sure reads winter these days—are a gift. They are a complicated, sometimes prickly gift, one you’re not sure you want, actually, if it has to come with certain conditions, like snow, wind, slush, ice. Treachery, danger, discomfort at least. And yet, those skies, the colours they offer a brilliant relief from the gray scale of the day, more than a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down, in the most delightful way. The light they bracket is short and oblique, and if you’re awake for more than eight or nine hours a day, you’re going to see more than your usual share, probably, of sunsets and sunrises. In the last few days, I have nervously anticipated the setting of the sun for the darkness that will fall on the highway I’m travelling soon afterward, but despite that nervous anticipation, a glorious display across the horizon has helped to lift anxiety about what’s ahead, if only for a moment. And I’ve been chased out of bed before dawn by a brain that won’t stop offering me bits of work to think about, conversations to construct or reconstruct, errands I keep forgetting to do, kindnesses I should have extended, battles I should have fought or stayed out of, unease about the future, large and small. I’ve generally been fortunate in my relationship with sleep, especially since I stopped working for The Man. As a self-employed person, I can always get more sleep, and generally, I can choose whether to do something complicated or put it off till I feel more rested. I have not been called upon to operate upon a brain or heart, and so, a few nights of less than optimal sleep brings along pretty low stakes. And when you get out of bed early, you see sunrises that are so lovely you exclaim out loud in a quiet house, and creep out onto a snowy deck in your slippers to luxuriate in it for a moment and snap a picture.
But there is the dark to be reckoned with. So much dark, the most we’ll have this year descending today. And this year has been legendarily replete with dark of all kinds. I have been grateful to have been freed, professionally, from the bonds of having to know what the news is. I have been privileged to be able to turn away, if I need to, from scenes of war and violence, injustice and despair, from racism and sexism played out in streets and communities and halls of legislation. I have had a series of bad dreams in which I am being directly sexually harassed or assaulted by Donald Trump and have shrugged my shoulders in the dream, acknowledging that this is how it is now, and what are you gonna do. I have scrolled quickly past stories about climate change and its ravages, as if it is only my eyes on it that will make it true, and so long as I don’t look, it doesn’t exist. This is incredible privilege. For the dark is real and it is all around us, whether I’m choosing to look at it or not.
This has been a year of peeling back the layers of myself, chipping off the exterior that allowed me to do a pressure-filled job in a witheringly public way. My ability to compartmentalize was almost the most important skill in my quiver, to subdivide myself into selves, to put fear, criticism, shame, uncertainty, anxiety, heart, humanity in separate trunks in my head and slam them shut so I could function on live radio. Freed from that I have discovered that the trunks do not slam shut as easily anymore, nor do I want them to. This year especially, I have been easily moved to tears by displays of humanity and kindness and by displays of inhumanity and cruelty. I am, basically, a single kind or cruel word away from crying at any given time. And though it is, to be honest, inconvenient to be so close to the surface, I want to encounter those layers of myself, sift through my experiences of vulnerability and what I can take from them, leave myself open to criticism, but also to acceptance—both from within and from without. The darkness is real and it is inside us, too, whether we are choosing to look at it or not.
But the light is real too, so real, and it too is all around us. Is it harder to see with the darkness so pressing, or are we fatalists, inclined to believe the worst and to share the worst with each other? Why can’t we see the light as easily? There is the light that’s corny and a little trite, the light that is advertised as “heartwarming,” but those stories in our newsfeeds can feel far away and artificial, or like some special effort made by someone we don’t know, not applicable to our own lives, and hardly a counter to the enveloping darkness anyway.
And yet. There is a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in. (A world without Leonard Cohen, talk about darkness descending.) The light can be the smallest glimmer. The ease with which my little nephew talks about what scares him and relieves the fear by bringing it into the light a little. An extra moment of conversation with someone who’s clearly overworked or otherwise harried—a moment of pure humanity. The grace with which my spouse agrees to be the anchor in a night of family holiday singalong-ing, which is not a role for which he’d ever volunteer, but when faced with a sentimental spouse on the verge of tears over I Believe in Father Christmas, he steps up. The ordinary citizens who have become galvanized to fight for justice, risking their lives, their comfort, their own ability to turn away from what’s uncomfortable. Circles of friends who truly form a circle, of shelter and support and love, always. Open-hearted people of all kinds who open also their arms, their minds, their lives in service of a better life for others. There is so much light. Sunrise, sunset. Look for it. Be ready to see it. Be ready to be it. Happy solstice. Welcome, winter
It’s been a year. I regret nothing.