happy violinist, by hotblack, compliments of morguefile.com
In September, 2015, the rhythm of my days took a radical change. I worried going into the school year what effect the addition of teaching for an hour every day would have on my writing. This, was, I would learn, small potatoes in terms of life changes. I drove home from the first day of school ready to celebrate the return of my children to school and therefore the return of my quiet days. Going here and there and everywhere, cell phones, and blah, blah, blah being not for me. A lonely life at times, but one that gave my writing a chance. On the way I had a very straightforward car chat with God about the global crisis of displaced persons. I was tired of worrying about it. Tired of feeling sad for mothers unable to protect their children. Honestly, I said. Open the door for me to do something to help, or leave me alone from the sadness of it all.
Within half an hour I received a call about an ad hoc meeting. Could groups of people in our town do something to help the refugee crisis? It seemed remarkably like a door, so I walked through it.
I managed to keep up with the writing until November when my new responsibilities filled every spare moment I had and some I did not. I finished my children’s novel as a consolation prize of sorts over the Christmas holidays.
I now bathe daily slathered in copious amounts of contradiction. I miss the writing terribly. I try not to remember the blog exists because when I do, I cry. I have faced the fact that the novel is not something a publisher wants (even though my very literate children sincerely love it). I have faced it as in it hurts too much to think about so I don’t. Meanwhile much of my free time remains rather taken with efforts towards helping new families resettle in a foreign land. I would not trade what I am doing. Much of the work is tedious and thankless, but alongside that is much joy and a sense of purpose. The season is of indeterminate length, but for now the season persists.
I ask myself what is next. Before September and the door I was running out of hope for finding “that publisher.” Isn’t there something kind of strange about telling yourself it’s worth spending half your life producing something you can only give away? For the last two months, the thought of sitting down to write has simply been too painful. Part of what was beautiful for me in the writing was just the writing and what I was writing about. The other part was the belief that somehow, somewhere, sometime, it would come together in a form called a book with a thing called a paycheck. The belief in this elusive other part is no longer accessible to me.
Not that I have given up forever. For lack of a better metaphor, I’ve got the body parts frozen in the crypt waiting for the cure to be found and a proper resurrection to be had. But I’m not out waiting in line for a doctor. My mental new year still revolves around September. Right now, I’m finishing the year I’m in, but next year is anybody’s guess. I’m considering going back to school. I’m wondering if the current season will require me longer than I think. And I’m looking in the mirror wondering if there will be a rock somewhere from which I can pry open a little hope to begin another writing project. I’ve one in mind just in case.
In the space of now, I’ve a few blog pieces asking to be written. And amidst the sadness of loss in terms of the writing is a sense of quiet wonder, gratitude and yearning to get up and dance in celebration of all the unexpected gifts the last eight months have brought. Because both pictures are me right now.
cutting loose blackened by jduram, compliments of morguefile.com
Photo by Denna, compliments of morguefile.com. Poem excerpts in text from “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus (a poem engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty).
I almost can’t wait until Lent. That colossal invitation to grace. That crazy idea that grace isn’t reserved for the deserving. It’s on special for anybody who walks in the door. There’s even a table on the sidewalk if you’re just passing by. If grace is dispensed by a vending machine, on Ash Wednesday someone jams open the slot. Instead of coming out one piece at a time, the candies shoot out piling up all over the floor.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Moving with intention in places that threaten and challenge us is scary. Attempting mad prison escapes, brick by brick with only a sharpened spoon for a tool, can seem lengthy. But Lent says we don’t have to stay stuck. We’re not condemned to remain as we are. Whether it feels like it or not, change, transformation and growth are possible.
Not effortless, but possible. Some disciplines don’t last past Thursday without requiring a reboot. Some get forgotten three or four times a week. Or day. But the candy machine slot stays jammed open. Lent isn’t for the faint of heart. But it is for the failures. Because Lent says that fresh beginnings and redemption are available in the midst of all the places we fail, and thus shall it ever be. So there.
We don’t believe it most of the time. Why should we? To believe that would be to embrace the terrifying reality of grace. And who knows what that could lead to. Who knows what would happen if we all grabbed on to this thing we didn’t earn and let it hold us undeserving in its arms. Take all our mess of failed intentions falling short, forever falling short. Listen to the voice of love sing softly until we stop screaming that it isn’t working and really listen.
This week, Ash Wednesday will stand there like the Statue of Liberty pleading:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,*
And this is our invitation. Not to get it right. Just to come. Ash Wednesday, the big, beautiful statue with open arms (from France no less). No lines. No cost of admission.
So there’s a long flight of stairs. So we don’t always make it 354 stairs to the top. Even at twenty or thirty, it’s worth the climb. Half way is better than having stayed at the bottom watching and wondering what the view might have been.
Lent is not for good people or people who want to do good things. Lent is for tired, grumpy, hopeless, frustrated people with good intentions they can’t stick to. And for people who aren’t sure they see the point. Ash Wednesday, our invisible statue of liberty, who comes every year. Who beckons us to a different land of the free and home of the brave.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door*
Ash Wednesday says we don’t know what is possible. But grace is raining and it’s promising to be torrential. We can take off our shoes. Take off our jackets. It’s okay to get wet. We can stand feeling awkward until we remember what children know. That we’re meant to dance in the rain. That everybody belongs there. And the rules are there are no rules about grace. You just show up with as much of you as you can and stay until you’re laughing out loud. Because grace is ridiculous and it’s for us.
I would explain what is happening with the blog (that I posted on like clockwork for two years and then disappeared into silence for the last months) except I’m not entirely sure. My life does not always feel like my own. I lack a fair bit of control over my time, not to mention the needs of others that I appear tasked to meet. The juxtaposition to that reality is that there is some kind of volcano of desire at work in me these days, daring me to live in ways I long to but have not dared hope for, except in whispers. Little personal time plus risky soul searching has left me without a lot of words.
This weekend I found myself on our pond shovelling. Despite the lack of decent snowfall, it needed quite a bit. Boy two and the girls had done some. Sunday was supposed to be a group effort plus me, but the excitement of my presence lulled them into happy skating while I put myself through my shovelling paces mostly alone.
It hit me as I worked that pond clearing was a pretty good metaphor for the state of my interior life right now – which has similarly required a lot of shovelling. To carve a path where there wasn’t one before. To clear the ice and reaffirm for another season that there is magic worth working for. That underneath the snow, there are possibilities hidden, waiting to be uncovered, discovered, and skated upon with abandon and laughter.
My last post mentioned my shopping intentions. With not a little bit of trauma and drama, I followed through on it. I’ve been told in moments I lack the strength to argue that I’m not finished yet. No comment about that. But buying clothes that fit, feel good, and look nice, has been part of my shovelling. . . I thought I was going to say a bit more about this, but I’m finding I can’t. Thinking about how I look, as opposed to what I think or believe, is for the time being just a little too threatening to write about. Saying that much is the end of my brave acts on discussing the subject.
The pond is easier to talk about. It looks very big when you arrive. But regardless of size, clearing begins with a single shovel full. I start out to clear a section. Then I get bored and start paths here and there down through the middle of the snow. After that I start other sections, which sometimes merge with previous sections and sometimes don’t.
This is my explanation for why the muscles in my soul feel like they’re getting a good workout. Because if the clothes were a section of my pond, the shovelling has certainly branched out. I finished my work on the children’s novel with a good sense of accomplishment. Then realized that although I would love to see it published, I’m just not ready to hang my daily energies on its success or failure. I’ll work at queries here and there, but I’m not willing to die for it. I haven’t stopped loving words, dreaming of books, or writing in my head while I drive down the road, but I don’t want my success or failure as a person hanging on the validation of a publishing contract. Can one still be a writer and say that?
Crazy thinking had other branches. In December, I wondered what would happen if I went back to school for one of those things I would have given my right arm to do twenty years ago, but I can’t now because it’s too late. The thought was so shocking I almost fell down thinking it. I’m a mother of four. In her forties. My life path is already decided. I knew going to school was unrealistic . . . until I didn’t know that anymore. Until I started wondering if my tiny shovel and a little grace might be able to carve out a path big enough to skate on.
When not despairing at the obstacles, I whisper to myself that there might still be time – that dreams long buried really can come true. Nothing is decided. Nothing is assured. But a few times, when no one was watching I have leapt into the air and laughed on the chance it is possible.
Girl Interrupted at her music, by Johannes Vermeer. 1660/61. Public domain.
Not too long ago, I went for a walk with a friend. She linked our arms without asking if I wanted to, although by the way, I did. If there was a plan, it wasn’t mine. My plan would not have chosen then to talk about my list of insecurities, the number of rivers, or how deep they run. But one thing led to another and that is what happened.
We were by the water. The wind was blowing. I didn’t bother zipping up my coat. What was the point? Could a coat have made me any less naked? For good measure and because why not, I threw in some comments about clothes. Not a lot mind you. But I acknowledged that they existed and perhaps the ones I owned were not my favorites anymore.
My prayer for you, she said as we walked home. What I’m going to pray, she told me, is that somehow you will be able to see yourself the way I see you. As beautiful person that you are, and . . . she said a lot of other things but I got stuck there. On that word.
Tears filled up most of me except my eyes. Our walk came to an end and we went our separate ways. I appreciated the kindness of her prayer. But the hoping was beyond me. Not that I doubt the power of prayer exactly. It’s just I’ve been me for a long time. The idea of someone wanting to pray that for me moved me, but I can’t say I was thinking it would make a difference.
Okay, I said to my husband that night. I know this makes no sense. Even I don’t know why I’m saying it. But the thing is . . .I’m, well, it’s just that . .. well, I think I’m going to buy some clothes. And nobody is making me. I actually feel like it.
The practical man said he didn’t much care how or why or who was getting through to me, but it sounded good to him.
There is so much I don’t know. How we get to places where we live in closets for so long that we’ve long since given up even trying to see if we can turn the door handle. What I know is that when the door opened, the light was blinding and unexpected. I might have felt shaky, but I wanted to stand up and walk out.
The miracles we most need take place not in shining iridescence, but in the here and now that we can touch. In earthy, messy, broken places where we love well and poorly both. In between fear, frustration, and not knowing how to fix it.
Love calls, inviting us to rise. With little acts of courage we go out. My little act is a confession. (Here too, grace simplifies the matter. One need not have courage for the last step, merely the next one. That act begets the grace for yet another and so on.) So I confess. I liked the prayer my friend prayed. Replayed it in my head. Drank it like a thirsty woman handed a glass of cold water after a long walk in the heat of the day. I confess. I want that same prayer answered. To love’s great beckoning. Anointing. I want to rise.
And so, to the raised eyebrows of my well developed social conscience, I’m going shopping. I’ve two failed attempts to my name so far in the last week, but that’s okay. I’m not sure it matters that I can’t quite manage this one alone. What matters is that I know what I’m doing and why. I’m buying clothes because sometimes love needs a marking. Needs an anchor thrown down along the portside to remind us of its presence. To stake a claim on its other-worldly power to heal, undo, make right, redeem, and raise our tears from ashes into strong, and free, and beautiful.
I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to devote my writing hours exclusively to my novel. The projected publishing date of said children’s work remains unknown. I surmise from various writing self-help pieces, that the chances of publishing before 2050 significantly increase if I don’t leave the manuscript almost finished yet unattended for consecutive months. If possible, I am keen to affect a nearer outcome. Ideally, I would be doing a little County Road 21 writing, a little of the novel, and a few other projects. However, extenuating circumstances of late have squished my writing time into a space too small for very much diversity.
Not terribly optimistic, but nevertheless determined, I sally forth on the chance that concerted, focused effort might find my novel in association with a printing press sometime this decade. If all goes well, I’ll be back in two or three weeks. If all does not go well, I will host a bonfire of all manuscripts I have ever attempted and roast all the chickens that aren’t laying any more over it.
As crazy as it sounds, I’ll honestly miss you. Strange given your rather invisible nature as my readers. I picture you all as a whole, but also as people in living rooms holding cups of coffee. Somewhere in the imagining it feels like we make each other real. I’m telling myself that the nature of this reader/writer relationship (which we’ve engaged in without any kind of formal contract about mutual expectations – perhaps this is part of the appeal?) can bear some temporary changes. That is the hope anyway.
Blessings on you all. Having made the decision to take time away, I was of course hit with an idea in the night that it pained me not to get up and write about. Luckily, I can no longer remember it. If it returns, I’ll put it on a list and tell you about it when I return.
Wish me well, my friends. And see you in a few weeks –
I had some time this week to visit with a friend of mine. She’s quite a bit older than me (double my age or so) and we’ve known each other a long time. Some of the stories we tell each other we’ve told before but we don’t let that bother us. Sometimes, despite the hours and years of talking, we run into stories we’d not thought to tell. I knew she’d had cancer and a breast removed a few years ago. I knew she’d had her appendix removed in emergency surgery at age 86. But until this week, I’d never heard this story.
My friend was on a gurney, prepped for the surgery to have her appendix removed. She was waiting in a hallway with the anesthesiologist beside her. What they were waiting for she wasn’t sure, but there they were when a woman a few doors away came storming into the hallway. The woman was in her sixties and completely naked from the waist up. My friend says there were white round pieces taped around her chest from whatever monitors she was being hooked up to. She was angry and loud, with ample breasts swinging. The hospital staff wasted no time in escorting her uncovered self back to her room.
With the hallway quiet again, the anesthesiologist leaned down to my friend. “Should we worry that you’ll put on a show like that?” he asked softly.
My friend, one of the few senior citizens in the ER with appendicitis that year, says she doesn’t know what came over her. “I couldn’t put on a show like that,” she saidback, “I’ve only got one.”
Anesthesiologist lost the ability to speak. When nurses asked him what had happened, he could only point to my friend. He was laughing too hard to answer.
We live in a very risk adverse culture. Safe schools, safe fun, safe kids, safe world. Because if we are careful enough, no one will get hurt. Ever. We make allowances for risk only under the category: calculated risk.
But safety isn’t enough. We need love. And love is the fly in the ointment. Because love is a calculated risk only if you calculate that all your expectations are guesses unobligated to attach themselves to a single one of your calculations.
I organized a work day recently, which among other things involved some crews with trucks going around to pick up donated furniture and household items. I came home exhausted to messages of further donations, which I declined. The little old lady after church was a different story. My message that no further donations were needed was not welcome news. I felt the same about her insistence that I come retrieve a fiftieth set of dishes for our cause. I countered. She countered. Her dishes will probably be passed on to some other charity, but not before they land in my car. I went home feeling the impossibility of defending myself from old ladies who had set their minds to something.
That afternoon I dreamed of great lengths of silence. Perhaps the sound of wind or birds. Instead I heard the sound of children fighting. About the phone book of all things. One had the idea to count the number of Smiths. This set off the counting of several different names, disagreements about accurate tallies, and believe it or not, pushing and pulling over whose turn it was to hold the phone book.
I wasn’t at home tired from doing the wrong thing. I was at home tired from trying to do the right thing. But when you want to swear even at the memory of the wrinkled lady in the jaunty hat, it doesn’t feel that nice inside yourself. Love. Messy. Overwhelming. Uncalculated.
I feel incapable, inadequate, unequal to the tasks I see before me. I feel, I said to a friend, like Moses with a stutter being asked to speak. Like I’m sitting in a hall of dreams I believe in, not sure if I even know how to stand up.
Maybe it was Moses who had a word with me after that. At least a fuller version of his story came to me. Moses didn’t feel adequate for the task ahead. But it was his arm asked to hold the stick that parted the Red Sea. Adequacy is not a prerequisite for giving what we have. Love asks us, the inadequate (and we who are risk adverse) to gamble on the chance that what we have to offer can be used. To pay the cost without knowing if our gifts will be accepted. To trust in our smallest moments. In our caught by surprise, brimming over with fear and tears moments. To believe, in the midst of messy, overwhelming and unexpected, that love is big enough for all of it.
Me sharing my insights with interested parties.
I’ve been paying attention to Canada. The impending arrival of friends from a different culture has me looking for easy ways to break down societal basics. Last week at the gas station, I stumbled on to something.
Beautiful day, isn’t it? said the man at the cash.
Lovely, I said. And it’s been the nicest fall.
Hasn’t it? he said. He looked at his monitor and waited. The gas is still pumping, he apologized, You can’t pay yet.
That’s okay, I said. I just came in to stay warm while my husband pumps. No sense in two of us being cold out there.
Yeah, said the man. It’s just miserable out there today, isn’t it?
Dear friends from afar,
Canadians aren’t cold: they’re reserved. Except when they really are cold. Then you’ll find them quite warm. We bond here in bad weather. If you’re lucky your first winter, you’ll be to be trapped somewhere with a bunch of cold people. By the time you get out, you’ll be best friends with everybody.
Weather is the gold standard of Canadian verbal exchange. It works with hello, goodbye, nice to meet you, and hope I never see you again. Discussion of windchill, the chance of precipitation, and road conditions are appropriate when making friends, looking for a job, asking for directions, buying a hot dog, or offering condolences on the death of a loved one.
Think of conversations about weather as a kind of social interaction Band-Aid. The temperature on your porch when you got up at 3 in the morning can tidy up an awkward moment with ease.
You don’t have to speak coherently about the intermingling of warm and cold fronts. The points that matter are:
1. It’s cold. (Even if it’s not, just say it is. Being cold is part of what makes us superior to the country south of us. It doesn’t matter that they have areas typically colder than southern Ontario. #Americans have the film and music industries: we own the weather.)
2. It’s hot. (You only get to say this for one or two months so practice more on the part about cold.)
3. It’s snowing.
The most important thing to understand about weather is that it’s personal. Frost might have killed one person’s plants and only dusted another’s. People might know it was windy, but they don’t know how many branches fell on your yard. Snow banks are best measured in relatives. Your kindergarten son’s waist or your Aunt Myrtle’s head.
Whatever else they teach you in your ESL class (English as a second language), make sure they tell you what you need to know to talk about weather. When you first get here, people might try to tell you how long the winter is going to be, or how bad it was last year. People especially like to talk about the worst winter disasters they’ve lived through. If that happens, they’re not trying to scare you. What they’re trying to say is, welcome to Canada; you’re one of us now.
We’re a little more than halfway through this year’s birthday season. I’m limping a bit on the enthusiastic party zeal, but working hard to fake it. No one knows how many times I’ve fondly rememberd the conversation where Boy one said he didn’t want a birthday party this year. No one knows I shed tears wanting him immediately crowned my favourite child when I recall it.
I find strange comforts in the midst of afflictions. Girl two’s birthday party (not to be confused with her family birthday dinner – the math on this is 4 kids x 2 celebrations minus one party thanks to current favourite child = 7 events in just over two months) was an example of this. I didn’t use to serve lunch at parties but it’s a good time killer while you’re looking at your watch to see how many more minutes until the party your child looks forward to all year is over.
I went to buy hot dogs for the party, only to broadsided at the store by my North American-waste-panic, concurrent with my panic about nutrition vs. people eating what feels like fun to them. Illogically, I could deal with the hot dogs themselves, but the thought of white buns instead of whole wheat sent me over the edge. In went the whole wheat buns to my cart. A minute later I was back exchanging them for white. I got them in, then I took them out. After much deliberation, I resolved to buy precisely one package of 8 white buns, come back another day when I was stronger to finish the shopping, and make this the last time I ever bought them. Driving away I pictured future birthday parties and the possibility of blindfolding picky visitors until they had finished eating their proper brown buns.
Of course, I never made it back to the store. The party began. There were 6 children in attendance. Celebrations are about extravagance. I decide to gamble on eight hot dog buns anyway. Some people take chances on cards, some people take chances they can outmaneuver seven year olds. We all have our vices. I sweat, but I do not panic. There’s actually a strange kind of pleasure in the challenge.
I put some fries in the oven. I prepared the hot dogs and cut each one in half. I made a mountain of carrot sticks and apple slices. Each child got a plate with half a hot dog, some fries, and their choice of fruit or veggie. I poured milk and I served slowly. Everyone who asked for seconds was served. Eventually, I brought around seconds until everyone refused more and gave the leftovers to a stray sibling.
The white bread guilt is gone. Party weariness disappeared that day. I served 6 children as much as they wanted with a mere 8 hot dog buns, none of whose pasty whiteness remained on my counter. And yes, there’s a bit of an afterglow just remembering it again.
I liked everything about this video except the title. (I doubt this video will change our lives.) However, like the seemingly small kindnesses it documents, the video reminded me something. There is a mysterious beauty to the sum total of our tiny offerings of friendship and care for our fellow humans. We don’t always see it, but it’s there. Little acts of love matter.
image found at emaze.com