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.
What a time it’s been! November passed in a blur of airports and timezones and visits with nieces and nephew, mother and siblings, aunts and uncles and friends. I travelled from Halifax to Toronto in early November and from there on to San Francisco and Half Moon Bay, to oversee the gorgeous launch party for this remarkable book. Then back to Toronto for some family time before once again heading to the west coast, this time to Victoria, BC, for a company retreat, and then finally back to Toronto to see my nephew perform in a production of Seussical Jr, which was pretty much the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And then finally, two days in the car and I’m back home in Halifax, a little tired, but pretty satisfied overall.
First, San Francisco has long been on my list of places to go, and it was just so great that Katy wanted to have the launch for Movement Matters in nearby Half Moon Bay. I drove the Pacific Coast highway, ate an artichoke omelette in Pescadero, got soaked by the ocean, walked San Francisco’s streets for hours, ascended the staircase at City Lights bookstore, imagining all the hands that had held the handrail before mine, sat in the Poet’s Chair and looked out the window and thought about this life, and how every day it falls into place a little more clearly and a little more perfectly. I ate a burrito in the Mission and I sat in Dolores Park and basked in the sunshine. I made a list of things to see and do next time, and began scheming about how to make that next time happen, with Kev in tow.
Then, the retreat in Victoria. This almost-year of working with Propriometrics Press has been transformative in many ways, but the weekend we five spent together in Victoria was a whole other level of transformative. So great to spend face to face time with colleagues I hang out with for hours a week online, and to discover that we all really love each other in person. I learn so much from these colleagues, about the work we’re doing, and about the life it’s possible to lead. Plus, the Pacific Ocean was in our front yard, and we ate foraged madrone berries on our walks, and there was a cozy fireplace, and we laughed so hard we stopped making sound. It was perfect.
And of course, the family time. It was a glorious month of seeing my people just about every day, tagging along to my sister’s jewellery shows, making dinner for my mom, walking to meet my niece and nephew on their walk home from school. And the jewel in the crown of all that was the boy’s outing as Wickersham Brother 2 in Seussical Jr. The Nephew reminds me of myself at his age: a little anxious, kind of scared of everything, feeling like everyone else knows the score, a bit dreamy, a singular worldview. I buried myself in books, he chooses video games. I tried to hide being anxious and scared, he speaks of it freely, in a way I admire so hard. He told me regularly during our visits that he was scared to go on stage and perform, that he was concerned that he had missed a rehearsal in which everyone else learned the first part of one of the dances, and that he’d never had a chance to catch up. He told me on Thursday night, as I drove him to his dress rehearsal, that he had never before wished the weekend wouldn’t come. But at the theatre he was comfortable, at home, more himself than I’ve ever seen him.
And on Saturday night, when the curtain finally went up and he came on stage in his little denim vest, with monkey ears adorably askew, I started crying with happiness and didn’t stop till the final ovation ebbed. He friggin’ nailed it. He danced, he sang, he projected, he smiled with his whole heart. He overcame that fear…or he felt it and went on stage anyway. I love that kid. So much.
As for me, it’s coming up on a year since I left my work at CBC behind. I continue to not regret it for even a moment. I did not feel fear when I gave my notice, and I haven’t felt it in the almost-year since I embarked on this new life. The kind of smile I saw on my nephew’s face on Saturday night, that’s the smile I feel on my own face every day. This life is where I am comfortable, at home, more myself than I’ve ever been.
I have a pent-up bunch of things to tell you, things to write about. I have been busy living, which is good, and also busy writing, which is very good, but I have not been busy writing about that living here, which is less good. So, in true Virgo fashion, let’s start with a to do list, an agenda for this post.
- Novel-writing breakthrough delivered courtesy of a day at the beach and a long, sunset drive home down a familiar highway
- The generosity of performing the Inevitability of Death publicly; the way the public responded
- What I Did on My Summer Vacation, aka a weekend at Make.Do.Camp
So, to start. I have been struggling, this year, with Good Birds Don’t Fly Away. I have shown up for my writing as regularly as I can right now, I have written thousands and thousands of words, and I have moved no closer to knowing what I am doing and what this book wants to be. I was having secret terrible feelings that perhaps my days of writing long-form fiction were behind me. That maybe two novels were all I would get. More than a lot of people get. Not enough for me, but maybe they were going to have to be. These are not thoughts I was able to articulate to myself or anyone else, until July 22. That day, I swam in the ocean to the point of exhaustion with my niece and my nephew. Had supper at their cottage in Hubbards with them. Drove myself home along highway 103 as twilight did its golden thing in the rearview mirror. Reflected on an experience of grief-by-proxy I’d had earlier in the summer, and the questions that experience raised about who has the right to grieve what. Felt a quiver of energy. Imagined a shining triangle of story gently descending from the sky to my conscious mind, fitting into place with the other bits and pieces of Good Birds I’d assembled, and becoming a linear narrative, with grit, conflict, surprise, and heart. All the things you’d hope a novel you were trying to write would have. It was a couple weeks before I was able to get back to my desk to explore a new character who could carry these questions and experiences, but I felt a buoyant peace such as I haven’t felt about my writing in months. It’s a relief to report here that things are now going pretty well with the new guy, who is fascinating to me and will, I hope, be fascinating to you, too. It was totally gonna suck to admit that this novel wasn’t going to happen, since I quit my job in a pretty showy way to write it. Phew.
Speaking of grief-by-proxy, I have wanted very much to write about Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip, though I am not sure what’s left to say about the collective experience of love and sadness and hope and resilience in which many Canadians engaged through the summer. What I want to say is that Downie’s grace and generosity gave me a place to put all my sadness about all the sad things I’ve ever felt sad about, so that I could sort through them and feel them deeply, in a uniquely communal way. What more can an artist hope to do? And to have the opportunity to stand in front of people who love you, being exactly who you are meant to be, to stand in front of tens of thousands of people and give them what you have to give, and receive from them so much love. To be seen, truly. What more can an artist ask for? May we all have the opportunity to do this, in some small way. May we all give each other this opportunity. I appreciated, too, the nudge to dig deeply again into songs I have loved and put aside. To once more engage with Scared, and Nautical Disaster, and Escape is At Hand for the Travelling Man, and Fireworks. I appreciated the chance to look down a row of strangers and see them all rocking out, all in. And of course, the constant reminder of the summer: No dress rehearsal, this is our life. Indeed it is.
Which brings me to Make.Do.Camp. A transformative experience, which is not the kind of thing this cynical correspondent is used to reporting, but there it is. Seventy-two hours at Big Cove Camp on Merigomish Harbour, alongside eighty mostly-strangers, letting our defences down. There was art and conversation and politics and campfires, saunas and stars, an impromptu talent show and a big dancey dance party. We were without our phones, without an internet connection all weekend long. No one died from disconnection. If anything, we all came more alive. I know that’s cheesy, but it’s no less true for all that. I kept an analogue Twitter and Instagram feed going in my notebook all weekend. I’m more earnest on analogue Twitter than I am anywhere else. There is no performative aspect to analogue Twitter, therefore no snark necessary. I sat in the grass and listened to the wind ruffle the leaves. Had I had my phone, I’d have reached for it and missed what was really going on. For a person who prides herself on noticing, I sure do choose disconnection on the regular. I am grateful for the invitation to consider the way I use technology. I wasn’t sure, before I went to Camp, whether it was for me. Now, I can’t imagine who it’s NOT for.
It’s been a summer of giant feelings.
It has been glorious to be free to feel those feelings, to take them to the beach and dunk them in the cold north Atlantic, and to buy them an ice cream cone on the way home. I have spent days just reading, the way I used to when I was a kid. I’ve read more books this summer than I did all of last year, and maybe the year before that, cumulatively. I have been able to think deeply about the ideas in those books, and the ideas in my head. I have stared out the window. I have stared into the garden. I have stared at the ocean, and at a couple of lakes. I’ve been with people and without them. I have begun building the life that was always just out of my grasp while I was working for someone else. That building is life-long work, and I am glad to be thusly employed.
Oh hi. Sorry about that protracted absence. Spring passed in a whirl of travel to Toronto and Edmonton and Toronto again. And then things bloomed in the garden and I got kind of distracted.
Right? That is totally distracting…and that’s from, like, six weeks ago. I’ve been to Toronto then to Chicago, back to Toronto, then back to here, then to Cape Breton, then back here since then. I bought a new car. And a new washing machine. It’s been busy. And the garden is even more intense now. I’d show you, but I fear you wouldn’t get anything else done today. I’m just looking out for you.
In Cape Breton, I was fortunate to read at the Margaree Canada Day writers’ festival, alongside Michael Winter, Sarah Faber and Kate Beaton. What marvellous company. The library was crammed with fans of the written word and it was a truly great day. A lot of people let me know they’ve been missing me on CBC radio. That is so kind. I must tell you that I am so happy now. Thank you for liking my company. Consider hanging out with one of my books!
Speaking of hanging out with one of my books, I’ve been taking my own advice on that front and have been digging in to Good Birds Don’t Fly Away. The trip to Chicago was huge. Even though my sister and I had only a couple days in the Windy City (we didn’t even have time to find a good purveyor of sterling silver so Donna could do her thing, sadly. Next time for sure.), it was enough for me to realize that the dinosaur part of my brain was absolutely right in serving up Chicago as the setting for this book. What a relief. I had a number of small profound experiences that I have been chewing ever since. I found her neighbourhood…and maybe even her exact house. I found a couple of likely downtown movie theatres in which a shooting could occur. I found so many explorable metaphors in the way Chicago reinvents itself, and in the ways the developed city lives cheek by jowl with nature and works to control it.
The other thing that has kicked open the door to writing this book is the time I’ve been spending with a friend who’s been telling me about PTSD. “Of course,” he said during a recent visit, “your character has PTSD.” Of course she does, obviously, I said, though it had in no way been obvious to me. But with his help I’ve been exploring what this character’s trauma looks like (and smells and sounds like!) and it’s been helping me figure her out. And the writing that is coming out of that feels like it is going to take me somewhere. Such a relief after months (years?) of not really knowing how to unlock the door to this book.
It feels like the door is unlocked now. I am tiptoeing through it. That’s why it’s been so quiet around here.
This day, this day. Who knows what to do with this day.
Forty-eight years ago a little brown baby was being born to a man and a woman who were just barely not babies themselves.
Forty years ago, that little baby was an eight-year-old, the eldest of four. Spooky-smart, especially about math. He had a funny way of walking when he was excited about something or when he was thinking hard. He’d pace the living room floor, back and forth, with his arms straight at his side, his hands balled into fists. The fists were to keep him from actually flapping his arms. We called it flapping anyway. Chris is flapping, we’d say. And we’d know he was about to come up with something.
Thirty years ago, he was a man himself, though a young one, getting into the university of his choice. I couldn’t wait till my older brother was gone, out of the house and out of my hair, the way teenagers do. And then he was gone and I realized I actually really liked him, and couldn’t wait till Thanksgiving to see him.
Twenty-three years ago he was getting ready to get married and have babies of his own.
Eighteen years ago, the first of those babies was in the world.
Sixteen years ago this day, he was lying unconscious in a hospital bed, while a doctor who surely failed Bedside Manner 101 told those of us still standing that we’d have to make a decision about whether the man in the bed, who’d been that little brown baby, that super-clever, arm-flapping eight-year-old, that eighteen-year-old full of promise, that twenty-five-year-old getting ready to be married, that twenty-nine-year-old holding his own first born, we’d have to make a decision about his life. Whether it continued. What a stupid doctor. I won’t say heartless. Stupid is more kind. Another doctor who came on later scoffed and said there’s no decision to be made here. We wait. And so we did.
Thirteen years ago this day, another young man and young woman were getting ready to be married, taking a day of sadness and confusion and turning it into a day of celebration and love.
Eight years ago this day, Homing, written in grief, was winning the Margaret and John Savage Award. Three years ago this day, I was sitting at my desk, as I had been for days and days (and days!) beforehand, writing, writing, writing to deadline. Three years ago this day, with my brother firmly in mind, I tap-tapped the final words of Fallsy Downsies on my laptop. “The End,” I wrote, and so it was.
But The End, we learn, is never really the end. Though sometimes you wish you could just lie down and retreat from it all. Let the end be what it claims to be. Throw up your hands and say, I can’t anymore. Why should I. Let me just stop here, where he is. Let me sink into these memories, this sadness. Let me wallow and lie still.
And yet, even in stories, The End just means Of The Telling. Those characters go on, you know they do, in your imagination. You reflect on the story days after you close the book. Years later maybe you think, I wonder whatever happened to those people I used to know, for a moment thinking them real till you remember they were just in a book you read. We are made of story, and stories go on forever.
Every breath that’s ever been taken is still in this world. Forty-eight years ago this day a little brown baby drew his first breath and pushed it out with a great shout. If you listen hard, that shout still echoes, in his mother, his siblings, his widow, his children, all the family that loved him, his friends and acquaintances. That breath is still here. Draw it into your own lungs, push it out. Go on.