Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Seventy-Two: Priority



She's made family a priority, no small feat in this age. I can hardly remember a more elaborate Easter dinner. She invited the whole, disjointed and confused lot of us, every corner of genetics properly represented, and a few extras tossed in for good measure, dogs and all. Time to put the function back in dysfunction, she'd said, slapping her leg as she leaned, grinning wildly. It was not really a joke: She knew that keeping lives sewn together takes work. Genuine effort and invitation. At dinner, each table setting was outfitted with a clothespin bearing each individual's name. No one was left out, no one forgotten; and at the end of the meal all of the clothespins were gathered and put away for next time.

The food came in waves, and I know for certain there were at least two full kitchens and two ovens involved, two basters squirting juices onto two turkeys. Possibly a neighbouring barbecue was called upon as well, though I could be confusing that with a different dinner. There were appetizers in abundance and dishes enough to supply a small army, as well as two platters of stuffing, mixing bowls heaped with potatoes, whole basins of gravy, vegetables of every colour and shape, chocolate eggs for the wee ones (before, during, and after) and more pie than any one family could safely manage. It must have taken days to prepare, and she barely batted an eye at the thanks. I'm glad you could make it, was all she said. This is what family is for.




Monday, 23 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Seventy-One: Penetrate



What happened to her, said Rat, was what happened to all of them. You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it's never the same. A question of degree. Some make it intact, some don't make it at all. For Mary Ann Bell, it seemed, Vietnam had the effect of a powerful drug; that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure that comes as the needle slips in and you know you're risking something. The endorphins start to flow, and the adrenaline, and you hold your breath and creep quietly through the moonlit nightscapes; you become intimate with danger; you're in touch with the far side of yourself, as though it's another hemisphere, and you want to string it out and go wherever the trip takes you and be host to all the possibilities inside yourself. Not bad, she'd said. Vietnam made her glow in the dark. She wanted more, she wanted to penetrate deeper into the mystery of herself, and after a time the wanting became needing, which turned then to craving.

—Tim O'Brien, from
The Things They Carried




Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Seventy: Collectable



On Sundays they ride. Rather, she rides and he accompanies her. A shared passion: hers for horses, his for her. They catch a morning ferry, the vehicle loaded with gear and the virtues of practice and commitment, and then he takes her for breakfast before they make their way to the stables. On the drive down he sometimes gives her his phone to research things on the internet. One day she came back with a surprisingly thorough history of the apple. The first apple came from Africa, she beamed, and to be honest I don't remember much else except that she was proud to know it. She will remember things about the apple and how she learned of them because they are her keepsakes, intangible and collectable, like the smell of the hay and grain on a frosty morning, the horse's warm breath on her cheeks, sweet and gentle, eager to go to work for her, or the accomplishment of a carefully learned skill—a ten metre circle, or the subtle pressure of her heel nudging the horse towards mastery. All the while her eyes shining, fresh as morning dew shimmering beneath steady hooves and proud footsteps.




Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty-Nine: Grapple



The dog thunders past with a fresh find clenched within her wide grin—a slender stick, half scalped and dangerous to the back side of unsuspecting legs. The wind whispers to leafless branches and in my mind snow is falling silently around a silent thought. The thought sits motionless in the centre of my mind, a quiet stone on a quiet night, the only mark on a flawless sea of white. It is familiar as an old friend, indifferent as disaster. It seeks contention. It asks of me to trudge through the silence and grapple with it. I stop my walking and peer up through bald branches that gently reach and sway. They were reaching and swaying before we came along and they will reach and sway after. How do they never question, I wonder, and only bend? It is the human experience to be in diametrical opposition with ourselves—yes or no; in or out; up or down; black or white; good or bad. Maybe; threshold; mid-way; grey... Both. Neither. In my mind, the snow continues to fall and the stone casts its shadow across a darkening night. Yes or no, it asks, as the snow falls quietly, quietly.




Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty-Eight: Realized



My aunt Sally writes, I only ever knew growing up what I didn't want...I know as an adult that isn't what most children think about.

We have been sharing a steady email exchange since early summer and she has been following my word-a-day writings—my number one fan, we joke. Last week she wrote of our family and she ended by saying that she sensed a sadness in some of my writing. She asked if I missed home. I explained that what she read between my lines was not a sadness for missing home exactly, but a homesickness for something that never existed. I do see the value in it now, though—in not having had what I always wanted.

Growing up with that understanding of what you don't want is a powerful force. It has been the driving force in my adult life. I have used it to create a family of friends and I find myself surrounded by the most beautiful people. What I always wanted and never had. That's not entirely accurate, actually. I had a good family, of which Sally is one, but we suffered some losses and what I really wanted was to know how to deal with it, how to carry on and be ok. I wanted to be transported out of all the sadness and loneliness into a home with brothers and sisters and parents and laughter and ease. What I really wanted was joy, deep and satisfying love, communication, somewhere to be myself, and the courage to do so. I wanted to be good enough, really—just exactly what everyone wants, and I wonder now if that's even something that can be given, or if we must learn it for ourselves. 

I have travelled far, outside myself and within, to find that place of Good Enough. Some days I can't even see the shore, or that I'm standing on it, so thick is the fog. Some days it is the tiniest grain of sand. Other days the whole shoreline shines with possibility. 

With all of its mistakes and missteps, I am proud of the life I have made for myself. I found love, after all, and I keep finding it in the faces that surround me. I always knew it was out there and it's far brighter and more expansive than I'd imagined. I lost some things when I was young, it's true. But who hasn't? No one gets out of this thing alive, as the expression goes. No one sits back at the end of their days and wonders what hurt feels like, or loss, or pain. So who am I to complain? I have discovered that I am someone I always wanted to be. I have realized my childhood dream.







Monday, 16 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty-Seven: Light



I am grateful, today, for my life, and it is largely the result of reading Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," a true, fictional account of his time in the Vietnam War. I can't say for sure, actually, that he calls it true fiction, but I do.

It is a book that contains more (and deeper) truth than most of us will ever have to bear. The word thorough comes to mind. And unequivocal. Ambiguous. Outrageous. And although one feels, in turning it's heavy pages, that it is a book which cannot be read too quickly—full of imagery that winces and squirms, unsettling the senses and tearing away at moral ground—one finds it difficult to put down. I want to know what happens next. I want to know how to put such maddening complexity, such devastation and beauty, as O'Brien does, into words that never fall short.

Thankfully, we do not all go to war. We are not all forced to shine our brazen light on such irrevocable darkness. Still, there is something O'Brien's men carry that we carry with them, and perhaps the fact that we carry it together is what prevents our being crushed by it. We find within ourselves the same seeds of disparity and torment, of isolation and confusion, of love and passion and longing and tenderness; we feel the shame of cowardice and the inadequacy of courage. We find ourselves, despite our greatest efforts, full of contradiction, negotiating a world of insufferable injustice and breath-taking beauty. We find ourselves equally challenged by both, and up to our necks in the impossible truth of things. Today, I am grateful for that, for all of it, and also for the power of words and people like Tim O'Brien for accepting the responsibility of writing them down.






Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty-Six: Jumble



The news reports strolled by
in their usual fashion,
vague
and casually outrageous:

BC Teachers Federation something or another;
NHL contract disputes;
Chiefs Atleo and Spence...

A boating accident in Union Bay
...run aground, they said.

One man arrested at the scene and later released,
a woman pronounced dead in hospital.

The police have not ruled out foul play.
In BC weather today—



We spent six weeks together
in a treatment centre sorting out
the jumbled mess of our lives, learning
how to live
with ourselves

now that we'd realized
we'd have to.

There are two ways out of that life 
and neither one is accidental.




Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty-Five: Parade



Sleet, rain, freezing rain, hail, flurries, snow, heavy snow, snow plough, snow shovel, snowmen, snow tires, road closures, road salt, school closures, school recitals, running nose, running water, shortbread, gingerbread, toque, scarf, mittens, ornaments, lights, angels, Jesus, Santa Clause, letters to Santa Clause, Santa Clause parade, Mrs. Clause, St. Nic., Mrs. Nic?, Sinterklaas, reindeer, elves, stockings, trees, mistletoe, wrapping paper, bows, carols, church, egg nog, pyjamas, turkey, stuffing, pie, plum pudding, ice skating, ice fishing, figure skating, hockey, parade, presents, VISA, Boxing Day, New Year, resolutions, airports, luggage, family, baggage, happy, holidays.





The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty-Four: Hummingbird




In the summer, I slipped two discs in my neck. It was unexpected, obviously, and undefined. None of the doctors were able to say how long it would take to heal or what it meant, only that I ought to consider some career other than construction and that I could expect to be out of work for many months. I'd never experienced an injury of this magnitude and I had no experience with chronic pain. I spent day after day on the couch, propped up on pillows and pain killers waiting for the slow work of cellular regeneration to mend me. I dozed in and out of a sort of dull agony, something that was neither sleep nor rest but which at least offered some relief. I watched the small world of the living room window move from spring to summer to fall. I learned some things, like which salmonberry bush the hummingbird likes best, and when, and how to tell time from the sun through the alders, and that baby hawks learn to fly in August and they scream the whole time, shrill and proud, or so I imagine. Perhaps it's just that I was proud for them. Maybe that would be closer to the truth. I learned the importance of being closer to the truth, and along with it, compassion and stillness.

Like all pain, there's little to say about it now except I'm thankful it's over. The other night as I climbed into bed, I remembered those first two months of it when I was unable to sleep in a bed, or at all really. I remembered the sense of loss, of being lost, and I thought what a valuable thing it is to know of yourself that you are capable of not knowing. That you can sit in the darkness and be afraid. I thought of the hawks with their first step from the nest, their shrieking and screaming and the sound of their wings slicing into the thin skin of the sky. I thought perhaps they weren't proud at all; perhaps they were terrified. It appealed to me somehow that what we all share by being alive could be at once so simple and so magnificent, such a dreadful opportunity: our mortal fear, our tenderness.




Friday, 6 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty-Three: Snowflake



I lost some money at the race track,
you said.

Whatever. No big deal.
Glaciers melt;
humans fall into the sea;
earth wins. 

Again.

I wanted to tell you
I'd lost some money at the racetrack too.
I wanted someone to know
but it didn't fit
with the tone of casual irritation
that slipped through the gates of your
simplified account.

I didn't know how to say,
Actually, there was no racetrack, and
no horses were involved.
I didn't know how to say,
I'm out of control.

In the silence between us
are the stories we don't tell.
Behind all our words,
other words.

And so I said nothing
and my breath became
a tightly held secret,
blazing a trail through snowflakes and deceit
down darkened sidewalks in the middle of the night
where no one could see
me lose.




Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty-Two: Hoochie



Only two of the four of us were nineteen and at least three of us were stoned. I’m not sure who recommended it. Joker, maybe, holding the porno mag. I have a picture of that somewhere: Coy grin and a pony tail draped over a faded gray Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirt, patio chairs and early evening sun scattered around the living room in our university rental apartment. Let’s cross the border and hit the strip clubs. The legal drinking age in Quebec was eighteen, which meant we could all get in. The first town across the New Brunswick border held little in the way of intrigue except four or five strip clubs and an all night diner, so the only reason to go there was hoochie, bacon and a good long drive. Basically, we drove four hours one way in a hot-boxed car so that Joker could get a lap dance. The rest of us drank cheap beer, played pool, watched semi-attractive, half naked women make more money than we would see in a month, and then went for breakfast at three a.m. before driving back home with Joker smiling the whole damn way.





The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty-One: Appear



Natalie Goldberg writes, List twenty things you can’t live without. And as I finish typing this, the dog comes to me, all paws, to tell me there is something she can’t live without. Two stuffed animals with their limbs pulled off and plastic eyes hanging from their sockets, a deeply wounded tennis ball, and a crumpled up piece of kindling lie abandoned on the floor behind her. I’m bored, she says, resting her chin on the table. I reach behind me and retrieve a fresh piece of cedar from the wood box. Yeah, ok, she says giving it a sniff and trotting back to her bed. I have purchased seven minutes at best.

Twenty things I can’t live without.

A blank page
Love
Truth
Sunrise
Really. Good. Coffee.
Kissing
The inner voice
Insulin
Passion
Dreams
The ocean, and time to be near it
Imagination
Faith
Garlic
Adventure
Forest walks
Tall trees and the birds who inhabit them
The desire to learn
The colour red
Literature

The dog has returned with cedar chips caught in her lips and a hankering to hit the trail. It would appear she is ready for her walk and nothing will dissuade her. I can live without it, she says, but it will be uncomfortable for us both so we should probably just go.




Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Sixty: Ecstasy



Robert had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of colour and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.

—Patti Smith, Just Kids


When young writers ask me what they should be writing about, I always say the same thing: Write about what you can’t get rid of by other means...Your obsessions aren’t there simply to fill your mind and heart with junk. They are the deepest forms of human meaning, even if they seem frivolous or shameful.

—Steve Almond, Let Obsession Be Your Ally: Be Haunted By It



On Wednesday I went to Kensington Market with a friend. We sat outside Ideal Coffee smoking and talking politics and design. It was overcast but warm. Calm. A man in rubber boots and cargo shorts wandered through the street strumming his guitar and singing random, mismatched lyrics. His lean and casual confidence was comforting somehow. A young woman swooped around him on an old red Schwinn and he paused for just a moment, calling out to her. Wow! You're like Laverne and Shirley all in one! As she sailed past us with wavy elegance and long, easy bicycle strides, his gentle guitar notes reached after her.

Beautiful, he said. Just beautiful.

You told me once that I was easy to please, but I am just as dissatisfied as the rest of us. Riddled with the complexity of being human---what to do, where to be, how to occupy my hands. If you were here right now, I would wrap myself around you, kiss your neck with open lips and pull you into something we both might want. But you are not here. And as I watched that bicycle ride away, I knew you never could be.

In you it was a way of being that I sought, not a kind of love. I wanted to stop pacing the corridors of my life searching for the thing that would quiet me. I wanted simplicity and wonder. Ecstasy in everyday things: the smell of coffee through an open door, a patio that looks onto a street in which beautiful people are living their lives under common circumstances. I wanted to sit somewhere I had never been, or somewhere I'd always been, and to appreciate. I wanted to find the courage to choose love over fear in every moment. I thought I could learn it from you. It never occurred to me that I could just sit somewhere, feel the longing, and allow myself to be amazed.





Monday, 25 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty-Nine: Bag



Sixty points for JADE, she says with a casual smile. That's a double letter, and a triple word. We are snowed in again, with no responsibility but to the potential of seven tiles at a time. She's got this one in the bag, but I won't go down without a fight. In actuality though, I've beaten her only once and she was ill at the time. I got lucky with OXEN and TORQUE.




Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty-Eight: Yawn



Odd,

standing naked in a strange house
full of memories
of people you've never met. Six in the
morning, wondering:
Will I get in my car
and go? Or crawl
back into her bed and surrender, place my lips
between her shoulder blades,
in the space where wings would meet

if wings
were what any of us
had to work with.

I have to go, I say
as she wraps me around
her body. Just stay, she yawns—

the only words I alternately
ever
and never
want to hear.


So instead
we make breakfast: bean burritos, cowboy coffee,
and a joint. She shows me pictures
of her family. Necklace beads. Her snowboards.
Mementos.
She tells me stories,
and between us there is a
space. Our agreement,
she called it the other night
when I tried to kiss her
at the bar. Woo-ho-hooo there.
Hand on my chest, hot breath in my ear.
That's not the way to do it
if you don't want
                           anyone
to know.


But I'm not sure what 
I don't want
anymore.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty-Seven: Tricycle




Often enough, in the winter months at least, Sunday dinner at our house involved lobster. My grandfather or my uncle Derwyn would arrive with a parcel pick-up bin seething with red shells crawling and clacking against one another, their thick wrists reaching in slow motion towards our faces, fat rubber bands catching against the sides of their confinement. That was when parcel pick up still existed though, having not yet gone the way of the complimentary in-flight meal. The courtesy of chauffeurring groceries to the car now lies in the hands of the consumer, of course, and you're as likely to find tricycles and barbecues in the cart, whole patio sets and a giant panda even, none of which would fit through the trolley gate at the front of the store.

As a child, my favourite part of grocery shopping was the hurling of bins. Those gangly boys with their bulky overcoats and frosty breath prowling the front of the store, tossing empty bins onto the ends of the checkout stands for the cashiers to fill and swinging the full ones onto steel rollers that ran the length of the store, firing them, with one loud SssssssssWOOOSH, to the end of the line where they careened around a sharp corner, through a heavy plastic curtain, and out into the cold. I would stand at the end just behind the corner guard rail and watch the bins hurtle towards me, trying to judge which one was fastest and urging the boys to throw them harder. Behind stealth grins and quick winks they responded with as much enthusiasm as could safely be afforded without getting fired. When mom had finished paying, we'd hustle out to the car—a beat up old VW Rabbit the colour of Orange Crush—and pull around front where we handed over the wooden tags denoting our bins, along with the keys to the hatchback, so one of the boys could swiftly load all the bags into the car and send us on our way with a pat on the roof and a Good evening, Ma'am.

I suppose if my grandfather were delivering lobster to us today, they would arrive in those blue Rubbermaid totes from Canadian Tire or Home Depot, not the hard plastic bins given to him by the man that runs the Save-Easy in Blacks Harbour, or Sobey's in the North End. Not that the lobster would care, destined as they were for screeching pots and Sunday dinners, into kitchens full of steam and cigarette smoke, children squealing under table legs and Grampy shouting about the DFO, or Trudeau, or the RCMP, all of them wasting taxpayers' money. And all the while winter would press into heavy storm windows and dark corners, the old balloon-framed house creaking in the wind, swaying under the weight of icicles crackling like fire.





 

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty-Six: Blend



On Valentine's Day, I have dinner with Denis, the Quebecois neighbour, and with no bilingual buffer, I am compelled to practice my ailing French. Ever the gracious host, Denis practices his English quite a bit more. He is a chef of French cuisine and refined experience, so I know I’m in for something memorable. It is an evening of courses, of themes and of wine, of cheese, homemade bread, delicate layers of flavour and music, and oil painted walls like gigantic canvases. Manners. Tradition. Courtesy. Culture. Communication. Documentarian by trade, he says, Communication is in my blood. Many generation, many variation. We discuss politics—it is impossible not to in Quebec, and religion, and passion, and logic, and...chickens.

We ate the rooster, which comes with a long explanation involving respect both life and limitations, but suffice to say I won’t recommend it. However, if you’re in a moral pinch or a struggle to survive, a few chanterelles blended in cream sauce go a long way. Still, Five hour, he says. Five hour I should have liked to cook this. Je m’excuse. But the rooster serves more as an appetizer anyway, to the cheeses and fruit and salad and bread and chocolate and wine.

"Des poulets" are a central point in our dinner conversation. The chicken, says Denis, I learn a lot of things here in this country (by which he means, out here in the country) from the chicken. He laughs. They are fantastique. No. I'm serious. Here is why... C’est l’equilibre en francais. En anglais, qu’est que tu dits pour ca? ah–

Equilibrium, I say. Balance.

Oui c’est ca. Vraiment. L’equilibre de poules. C’est un microcosme, ca. They are a female society, the chicken. and they work very well together. Always, always, they respond as a group. Together.

Though I want to, I have not yet asked Denis if he is a separatist. He votes separatist. but there are slight differences that I do not understand. It is here, in linguistic subtleties over dinner, that Quebec exists, and during a discussion of Stephen Harper and the proposed commemorative battle at the Plains of Abraham, I decipher Denis.

It is ridiculous, he says. Absolument. Qu’est que c’est? Eh? Quoi? Hey. Do you know what happened after that battle? It was a war. Do you know what happened? They left Quebec (city), the English, and burnt every farm in sight. They piss on the people. Hey, this is war, I understand. It happen today somewhere right now. Je savais ca. Mais, Come on. We celebrate this? Tabarnac. Understand. This is not why I want a sovereign Quebec. I don’t think, "Fuck you Harper; fuck you Alberta; fuck you English." No one is better. You are brainwash; we are brainwash. Each different. But my culture, we are lost. You see? We need to work, for us, to some common goal. as with the chicken. You know. They are connect. Always together they work. Is this for us to learn. This simple life. We must. Hey. This crise economique, you know what? We are too much luxury. Too much independent. We cross to the U.S. for gas and what else. Vivre la Quebec? Hey, we do not care for the other. We are too much remove from what is it we are. Not technologique, Ou des ordinateurs. No. Les chanterelles. Les poulets. You. Me. We are this. La vie. It is the fault of us (by which he means , it is the struggle) to be free. To choose. I believe we have to build something for a long time. Les Quebecois. Together. Everywhere the community. Everywhere the chicken house. Me. You. Each of ourselves. The soul, it strives, non? It want to work. We cannot continue to steal. We cannot continue to want so big. We must make for our self the simple life. I believe that. It is work. Yes. To awake the conscience to this. But hey, you know, with the chickens, what is that they say, you cannot make the omelette—

—without breaking some eggs, I say.

I get the feeling from Denis that he has broken his share of eggs, and that even in saying so, now over Valentine’s Day dinner, he tries to reconcile this with himself. He lives alone here, and has since he moved from the city three years ago. He struggles with depression. He hikes the woods. He keeps chickens. A cat. He paints. He cooks. He works in film, though in a lesser role and to a lesser degree than he used to I think. He engages briefly and bitterly in an attack on the Quebec Film Board’s funding directives, but quickly abandons it with apology. He maintains a friendship, to some degree or other, with his ex-wife who still lives Montreal. He tells me it’s very good for him to have company on this night.

He teases me about the notes I am taking and tells me I should record instead. But it’s not always what we say that I write, Denis, so much as interpretations. You say chicken, I think of Napolean, passion, war, love. Or earlier you said, "In this travel we must know our limits." but I was uncertain whether you said travel, like journey, ou travaille—work, like what you do with film. Both are. The same but different. That's what I love.

Ahhh oui, he says, ca c’est la poeme, ca.

Exactement, Denis.

Yes,
he says. We must create for ourself what we are.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty-Five: Destiny



Stop.
Let’s go back.

What gets in the way? That was the question I just asked. When you sit, when you write, when you inhabit the beast of your body, what prevents presence? I was going to list the many thoughts that bluster into morning, washing up on shore: The intricacies of the wood stove and trying keep the fire going all night; the stairs I’ve been hired to build and how I’ve decided to settle the issue of the landing height; I could tell you I drank tea at five yesterday and it kept me up half the night; now I’ll be tired by two. I could tell you I made plans with myself to drink coffee on the beach as the sun rose this morning, and here it comes so I better hurry. I could tell you money; time; anxiety in general. But then it came to me as I was making toast, having thought I was too hungry to tap into whatever it is I’m looking for. Well, it isn't hunger, or money, or time, or sunrise.

The tide comes in; the tide goes out. The sun rises behind coastal mountains and probably the dog will get wet, even though she near froze last night after swimming. I drink my coffee; I breathe the air. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes they are the same mistakes over and over and over. Sometimes destiny scrapes your face across the sand until you beg for mercy, until you refuse to beg for mercy, until you become something greater than mercy.




Monday, 18 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty-Four: Synthesis



Churning with existential clatter like,
What am I doing with my life? 
One can find solace in everyday things—

The potato
For example, peeled for stew.
What does it teach about life?

Grow underground, it says.
And fill your eyes with dirt.
Become something 
From nothing 
That anyone can see.

Synthesis does not always occur
In the light. Answers don't always
need to be seen.




Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty-Three: Bone



Tonight as I was brushing my teeth, I caught sight of a photo of my father and I. I remember pulling it out of a box just after I’d moved in and, not knowing what else to do with it but wanting it somewhere, I'd put it on a shelf just below this mirror. It wasn't a particularly significant placement, just a decoration, an ornament to fill one space with another.

Sometimes it makes me sad, though, that photo, that space. Why do we keep such things? Why are those the things that matter? Because it's important to be sad? Because being sad reminds us too of our happiness, of our humanity? Yes, sometimes. I am alone in the house tonight, and right now that seems to signify that I am alone in the world. I don’t know what I felt before my father died, if I thought I belonged to something, or someone, but I learned from him that whatever you love can always be taken. That is a fact, and not a bad one to know, by any means. It's how we negotiate that fact which determines our level of freedom: Either we celebrate our own liberty by tying ourselves to no thing, no person, no feeling—we embrace impermanence by accepting the risks of vulnerability and loving what we love despite ourselves—or we perpetually complicate our lives by living in fear of (and trying to avoid) the burden of loss.

Sometimes sadness is a habit that must be broken. Sometimes it must be shaken off, outrun, beaten back, laughed at. Some days it is unwise to reflect on loss. Today was one. I looked at the picture of my father and I; I looked at my six year old self looking back; I looked at the brown Osh Kosh corduroy overalls meant to match his brown Levi corduroy pants; I looked at his long, thin hands brushing paint onto boards the colour of bone, and my small wrists swimming in gloves too big for the task. I thought, Thank God for that time—for gloves that didn’t fit, and clothes that matched his, and the work of painting boards for a fence. Thank God for the time before everything else.




Friday, 15 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty-Two: Quench



Burroughs—now there’s a story, and one I won’t tell here, but there’s this: He had an apple, a gun, and a wife. It was a trick they’d done a hundred times. One small error, that’s all. One. Small. Error. He fled to Mexico immediately after, that very night I believe, taking only a typewriter and a memory that must have torn him to ribbons till the day he died. Still, the keys beat down, words flying off his fingertips like moths to a flame, quenching his thirst with ever more thirst.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty-One: Pitchfork




Not a common one, I expect, but not an altogether unlikely weapon either, the pitchfork.

It had something to do with horse dung, though it would be difficult to say what exactly sparked the dispute. Indeed, what sparks anything between sisters? Something to do with a boy, undoubtedly, at that age. A harmless bit of teasing, perhaps? The very last chores of the day before dinner, mucking out the stall, and maybe, too, it was dark and cold. Maybe the flinging of dung was accidental, though I wouldn't bet on it. But what perfect symmetry of circumstance and timing could place her mouth just so and open to receive, at that very moment, a fist full of it? You can’t even make this stuff up. And who could have blamed her, then, for the tears and the wailing and the reach for whatever item was close and could serve a vengeful purpose? Trust a pitchfork to find its way around a barn—four sharpened teeth designed only to bite, a bit rusted but well versed at piercing, and ready at a moment’s notice to attack. So it is that we sometimes find ourselves, very young and very stupid, in complete endorsement of a terrible idea and fully equipped to execute it. As luck would have it in this case, both the sister and the vaulted implement reached the barn door at precisely the right moment.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Fifty: Convoy




I’m thinking about the house on East 17th. We moved in around this time of year, just after Halloween. We’d been fighting almost daily for over a year, but decided to keep going anyway in a new location, a block and a half away from Charles Dickens Elementary School. The irony was lost on my then; I didn’t know Dickens didn’t much like children, or that his own never met with his approval. But a man needs to work I suppose. Our sacrifices leave such holes in the lives of others, but then where would we be without them? At the time, I took Dickens School as a good sign. Very writerly. I barely wrote a thing in that house, as it turns out, busy as we were with first holding our lives together and then tearing them apart.

When we were breaking up, the landlord decided to do some foundation repairs and had to jack one corner of the house. All the walls cracked and bits of plaster fell onto book shelves and into plants and dishes. A large chunk of my office wall yielded while you were home visiting your family and I was sleeping with another woman. I found the symbolism, the meaningfulness of it, something of a relief. As if everything was just as it should be: The half naked body of a new lover pinned against the corner of a crumbling life. I knew then that we’d all lose, but I didn’t know what that meant really, or what it would feel like, and so convinced myself I didn’t care. 

The best thing about that house was the Vietnamese deli on the corner of Fraser and Kingsway, between the Laundromat and the video store in which not a single video was English. The only thing on the menu I knew how to order was the coffee—thick as molasses, sweet and strong, and coming only in one size and only after I had waited at the very back, far from the convoy of symbols and words I couldn’t pronounce, for the throngs of busy mothers and screaming children to peel out into the parking lot, arms loaded with mysterious packages. I'd point shyly at a glass shelf holding individual stainless steel coffee filters and with a sharp nod and a tangle of dissonance at the counter boys and their peach-fuzz mustachios, the coffee would appear, flawless and steaming from a Styrofoam cup.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty-Nine: Cactus




Every rock has a story it whispers to the ocean floor; every seedling speaks of home—the Midwest, the Middle East, Africa, Japan. The new kitten, Siamese and recent, knows this to be true and skulks across the windowsill investigating potted plants, one of which is a cactus and, I would wager, his least favourite thing to have learned about potted plants. All the while, the dog, undeterred by our decision to ignore her, claws and pleads with the bedroom door. Can no one hear me? Don’t you see? I’m stuck! She is bursting with pressing matters, information about potted plants perhaps, or stories from the ocean floor. Maybe she has something important to say about kittens too, one of which is winding himself up in the blinds, dampened soil and tall tales leaving toe prints on the glass. 




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty-Eight: Static



In a phone booth outside the dépanneur:
Sheets of frost veer around headlights
as your voice comes through in gusts 
of static and longing. 



 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty-Seven: Verbal



Yesterday was not my favourite day. Is an understatement. And really, there's nothing to say about it now, just that it was heavy with things I don't want to carry anymore, and who doesn't have those days now and then? This morning though I awoke, in spite of myself, more or less content and already I have seen the first proper sunrise from my new home. While yesterday was an uneventful sort of daybreak—a shady exchange of dark grey fabric for lighter ones, fitting for a Remembrance Day, for the wail of bagpipes and reverence—today cracked open like an egg. Amazing what a little colour will do. Pink and yellow streaks over a shiver of orange. We’ve been up for hours now, the sun and I, and it’s been a pleasant start thus far, both of us with our best feet forward. Meanwhile, the ocean breathes softly and rolls back against a blanket of fog, now encroaching on a barge, now swallowing the far shore; my coffee brews, the wood stove crackles, and a lone seagull carries on a verbal exchange with a loon, it’s hollow warble drifting through stretches of nothing. Tabula rasa




Friday, 8 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty-Six: Confound



Today the BBC speaks of Typhoon Haiyan "sweeping" across the Philippines. I only caught snippets—380 km/hr winds; 15 meter waves; devastation, though not as much as they'd expected. Expected. Imagine, waiting for such a thing. A 747 leaves the ground at about 290 km/hr. Picture a wall of jumbo jets battering the shores of your life. Ok, someone says on Facebook, I'll stop complaining about the weather now. Perspective keeps us kind, I think, and humble.

And what do we do with that? Who do we blame? —Global warming? —Fukushima? —The downstairs neighbour's dog? —Ourselves; each other? —God? I don't know, really, except that if aliens are watching the news even half as much as I do (which isn't much), it's no wonder they haven't come for us yet. This is the world we live in: Weather that plots to annihilate whole countries, the mayor of Toronto high on crack, and the premieres of Alberta and BC making pipeline deals while nobody's watching. You take the good, you take the bad? Everything's bigger in Texas? Batten down the hatches? There's a catch phrase in there somewhere, something irresistible to captivate and confound. 

Meanwhile, we're all just doing...well, if not our best, then at least what we know how to do. Paying our mortgages, trying not to eat carbs, keeping ourselves informed. We quit smoking, we quit drinking, we quit getting fat. We have a cigarette, we have a drink. And, as it turns out, we happen to like carbs. It's not what we expected. There's no question about that. And maybe we're not who we'd hoped to be, but we're something and we're here. Together, I'd like to think. 

Ever tried, writes Samuel Beckett. Ever failed. 

No matter. Try again. Fail again. 
Fail better.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty-Five: Tranquil



A dictionary resembles the world more than a novel does, because the world is not a coherent sequence of actions but a constellation of things perceived. It is looked at, unrelated things congregate, and geographic proximity gives them meaning. If events follow one another, they are believed to be a story. But in a dictionary, time doesn't exist. ABC is neither more or less chronological than BCA. To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.

—Edouard LevĂ©


A writing prompt from a book I'm reading asks, How did you get here?
I drove; I flew; I walked out of the sea. Maybe...

I think of a friend writing about her time in the Congo. Gunfire and Land Cruisers. Road blocks and outrage. White foreigners; the failure of the UN; the importance of remaining neutral so everyone would make it home alive.

How did you get here? I think of Mike and I scouring the Downtown East Side, listening to anyone who would talk to us.

How did you get here? I don't know what I expected the writing life to be. Early mornings and strong coffee, an ocean view and a comforting hearth? Late nights and expensive scotch? Tom Waits? Ernest Hemingway? Something romantic, probably. Not glamorous necessarily, just more cohesive, tightly knit like high-thread-count sheets, without the confusion and doubt—should I just tear them up, turn it all into rags, buy new linens? Is this what I ought to do, what I'm meant to do? What does it matter anyway when there's bills to pay and dinner to cook, and the answer buzzing inside you like an angry swarm of hornets.

How did you get here? I jumped off a banana-seat bicycle when I was five and threw my fists in the air—my father holding the bike steady until he knew I could balance, and then his quiet triumph cascading behind me all the way to the corner; I ran up a hill; I slid down...let's say, a few times; I took a train, a bus, a merry-go-round; I decided I didn't like ferris wheels, or hot dogs, or low-budget ale; I waited in line; I learned to ask questions; I paddled a canoe; I bought a dog (he got me further); I fell in love; one foot in front of the other; Upstairs, Downstairs and Are You Being ServedPBS with my grandparents on Saturday night, short glasses of port on a TV tray, the volume turned as loud as it would go and my grandfather, blind as a bat, humming along to the intros; I listened to his murky breath lingering too long on Amphora tobacco—in and out, tranquil behind heavy drapes and long winters; I payed attention.

How did you get here? Mr. Donavon reading our stories out loud to the whole grade six class and then saying to me, Don't ever stop writing.

How did you get here? I told a beautiful woman at a party that I loved her. A stranger. I never saw her again. I was 19. 27. 32. Her lips were cold and she smelled of leather; her breath was hot and she tasted like cinnamon; she turned her head and walked away.

And on and on. You know how it goes, this life—meaningful, nonsensical, the most important, the least likely. 

How did you get here?

I wrote.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty-Four: Zest



If I had to guess, I would say that my love of cooking, of fine food in general, did not come from my father. I absorbed many of his passions—woodworking, for example, and laughter—but mercifully few of his dietary preferences. People joke about Spam, but in our house it was Flakes of Ham. And Chicken. Not that my mother or I ever ate it. She added the requisite Miracle Whip and somehow managed to turn it out onto bread for him, but I couldn't even stomach being in the kitchen when she opened the tins. I shudder to think, even now, how food achieves such a status: Flaked. At the least, it was an atrocious misuse of homemade bread.

Yes, my mother taught me to cook, to love cooking, and bread was a cornerstone in her culinary repertoire. Saturday mornings in our house revolved around grains, and by the time I was out of bed the Red River cereal was already soaking in a bowl of molasses and water on top of the iron radiator in the kitchen, it's sweet warmth hovering in the hallway outside my room. When she'd returned from her morning run, the dough was ready to punch down. This was my job—the only part of bread-making I ever cared to learn, and my favourite part of cooking at all—and I executed the task with a sort of luminous zest.

Swinging like a boxer (I learned eventually that such gusto was not required), I'd sink my fists deep into the first bowl, deflating it like a balloon and allowing the suction to swallow my wrists; then, recoiling quickly and imagining myself to be Mohammed Ali, I'd jump around to the second bowl and plant a strong right jab into it's doughy centre. After replacing the bowls back on top of the radiator, I'd head off on some other Saturday activity—The Smurfs, maybe, or He-Man, or swimming lessons at The Y—until payment was offered: One warm slice, fresh out of the oven, slathered in butter and drizzled with honey. Not a flake of ham in sight.

 




Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty-Three: Person



If you were to question me on plausibility
and likelihood, or if you came
with no question at all
just smug disbelief
and a roll of the eyes, maybe

I would tell you
about the darkest night
of my life

and how the moon still
crossed the sky
and the alders
still gathered it up
in their long, slender arms
and held it there, safely
till dawn.


There are so many ways to learn
about greatness and triumph.
Go ahead, ask the eagles, ask the goldfinches,
ask the hurricane—

We did not come here to be shy
and afraid. We came only
to rise above ourselves
and be held there 
by our own magic.

Who is the person of my wildest dreams?
Who will I become?






Monday, 4 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty-Two: Practice



A haiku:

Patiently waiting
for practice to make perfect,
the violin shrieks.





Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty-One: Sizzle


tru luv 4ever.

Jodi was here; kris is a playa; Melanie & Trevor 4eva; a gigantic 3D star facing the toilet—all of it suddenly lunging towards her. Like a pendulum she swings out, half-drunk glass of wine sloshing past a toilet paper dispenser. She could write a book on what she's learned from bathroom walls. But not now. First she must steady herself, face the tunnel of a glassy eyes and low cut bras, bump and sway across the dance floor. Sizzle for her man.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Forty: Chop



Southwest Turkey Lurkey with Chorizo Cornbread Stuffing

Step One: Jalepeno Jack Cornbread
This is the recipe I used. It's a good one:
http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2011/08/jalapeno-jack-cornbread-recipe.html

I doubled this because we had a big bird and let's be honest, you can never have too much stuffing. Use butter instead of shortening, and add a little brown sugar. I cooked the bird, Ferdinand, on Saturday, so made the cornbread on Wednesday, cut it into one inch cubes and left in a bowl with a ted covering it so as it had time to get stale/dried out.


Step Two: Brine
On the same day as the cornbread, you brine your bird comme ca and place inside a Tupperware tote. Clear out some space in the fridge and be careful you don't break your back wrestling him in there:

1 cup kosher salt (make sure you use kosher because the intensities of salt varies considerably so if you substitute with sea salt or iodized it will not have the same flavour in the end) per gallon of water—whatever it takes to cover the bird;

1 cup of sugar per four gallons of water;

a couple of each: oranges, limes, lemons, all sliced;

I also threw in poultry seasoning and some paprika. What the hell;

Mix all the salt and sugar with some boiling water, enough to get it dissolved, then add ice cold water to the mix until the water is as cold as you can get it before you fit the bird in there. Then sit it in the fridge for at least 24 but up to 48 hours. You need to pull it out of the brine about 12-16 hours before you cook it. Don't rinse, but do pat dry and then stuff back in the fridge. I talked to him the whole way through this, obviously. And named him. And thanked him. We listened to the CBC. He seemed to like this.


Step Three: Day of cooking
Ingredients for stuffing (I made up the amounts): dried cranberries; sliced apricots, apples and chanterelle mushrooms; chopped onions, garlics, celery, cashews, and pecans; poultry seasoning; cubes of cornbread; chorizo (I only made half with chorizo—the half that went in the turkey—on account of vegetarians needing to eat something too).

Rub: I made this part up, so I'm not sure what to tell you in terms of measurements. Wing it. I think I used about a half cup of butter, three chipotles, a tablespoon of cocoa, half a cup of honey, and the zest from one orange. Melt butter, toss everything in the blender and whirl it around till smooth, taste test, sit overnight in fridge. When I put it on the bird I only used about half the rub because I didn't want to overwhelm people with the spice. In retrospect, I could have used more.

Bastey Baste every hour. Some people say you don't need to but I think that's bullshit.

I had wanted to do a cranberry salsa but it didn't work out (I recommend it though) so I did cranberry sauce with frozen and dried cranberries, dried apricots (diced), candied ginger, and ground cinnamon.

Step Four: Eat!
And enjoy.



Friday, 1 November 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty-Nine: Sulphur



I imagine it had something to do with the seductive intrigue of power. Undoubtedly, it had also to do with defiance. Boredom. Working parents and slack afternoons. Be home by suppertime and don't get hurt. That was the only real spoken rule. There were a number of other rules, of course, that went unspoken, so we snuck around when necessary and didn't ask obvious questions. In our defence, we were ten and eleven. And anyway, Scott's older sister, Patti, smoked duMauriers and topped up pilfered vodka bottles with water before tucking them away again at the back of the liquor cabinet.

So. We weren't that bad.

It began in the park up the street with a few books of matches that Scott's mom kept at the back of a kitchen drawer. Then the sizzling burst of a whole box going up, the large ones his dad stashed on a basement shelf for power outages and campfires. The sharp crack of sulphur against the back of our noses made us squirm, but that particular curiosity that children have for dangerous things—like high speeds on steep hills and licking frozen flagpoles—outweighed our better judgement. Soon we'd created a whole industry of fire, incorporating plastic bags, rubber soles, forsaken GI Joes, nearly empty paint cans, and just about anything no one would miss.

Safety was our only oversight. It never occurred to us to have water nearby, or a plan. As much as we found the introduction of new elements thrilling—a spray can of WD 40, for example—we did not anticipate wind.

And so, one clear and breezy afternoon in October, the hillside behind Scott's house went up like rocket. A forty meter swath of brittle yellow grass and squat shrubs twisted into whirling tendrils of flame and heat waves. With one strong gust, a massive body of fire stood before us, shoving its shoulders into a canopy of maples and licking its lips at rooftops and power lines. Translucent wings of orange-red feathers and sparkling blue shadows thrust open and closed around us, fanning thick coils of smoke out into the neighbourhood. The threatening beauty of it, the magnitude, was mesmerizing. If it hadn't been so perilous, we could have stood and watched all day. Except—

Ooooh. Shit!... Scott hunched down low away from the heat and smoke as Patti screamed at us from somewhere nearby. What in the FUCK are you little shits doing?! Jesus! She'd been smoking out her bedroom window, thankfully, and was pointing at us with her cigarette hand. I have to go, Greg. My asshole brother is trying to burn the fucking house down. She at least told us to run before the fire department arrived, probably because she was in some way meant to be responsible for us.

When Scott's dad came home from work that evening, he let us walk out behind the house with him to assess the damage. Even the dirt itself lie in scorched tufts, with charred fingers of shrubbery poking up through it. Looks like someone gave it a buzz cut, eh Dad? Scott grinned eagerly. Jimmy shook his head and patted Scott on the back. This is no joke, son, he said. I'm glad you kids were nowhere near. Someone could have been seriously hurt. He pulled a pack of Player's Lights from his chest pocket and turned back towards the house. You two be safe now, ok? Half an hour till supper, Scott.




Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty-Eight: Resilience



Everything I know
I learned on the edge of a river.

It was early spring
and the Skeena was a snaking wall of muscle—

miles of shimmering silver backs
and a thousand-year-old body memory
ploughing through the impossible.

No one told me anything;
No one said a word.

There was only
the deafening weight of water
and the glean of resilience.



Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty-Seven: Infestation



My father was a cabinet maker, among other things. Woodworking was his vocation, his purpose. He built tables and chairs, chests and chiffoniers, bureaus and buffets. It seemed to me, he built everything. Before he died, he made a set of wooden benches for the museum in Saint John, and in the following years, when his absence overtook our house like an infestation, I went, on foggy summer mornings, to sit for hours on those benches—staring into wildlife exhibits and colonial re-creations—and to run my fingers over the tight, oaky grain. I wanted to be close to something, you see, to understand it, to point at something tangible and say, This is my father; I come from this. I wanted to absorb the solace of their gentle edges, the symmetry, and gaze into the grey-white glare of the harbour—it's dense emptiness, it's inscrutable answers.




Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty-Six: Booty



Sometimes
you wake up
under a bicycle.

This is not a metaphor.
This is real life. This is HD,
                                         baby.

Sometimes you find yourself
on the ground one night
on the edge of someone's lawn
with a bicycle strewn across your chest,
staring up at the night sky shaking its weary head
at the whole world on a slant, in a tangle
of tequila and regret.


Then you think of Stephanie,
who is no one
you know—just
a friend
of a friend
you saw in some pictures
somewhere.

Stephanie, from what little you can tell,
is a casual woman at a party, holding
a glass of something,
wearing a sweater, smiling
at whoever
stands behind the lens. She is also
a serious woman at a cafe in a city
where brick buildings tower
outside leaded glass windows. Neither photo
is in colour so Stephanie
is all black
and white
and grey.

So simple, isn't it?

This is how Hollywood works, except it's not just
Hollywood anymore. This is how everything works.

It isn't about the booty—
call it treasure, call it ass.
It's about how everything looks better
from far away and
everyone's more beautiful
when they can't look you in the eye

or find you staked to reality
under an impossible cluster of stars,
cheap tequila, and
a bike.




Monday, 28 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty-Five: Enlivened



The wind,

enlivened by the thought of itself,
dressed sharply and awake for hours now,
hurtles into windows and doors, growling
at corners and bullying
the quiet whispers of morning
into silence.

The neighbour’s dog, excited
be the urgency of it, barks and barks
with torrential fervour—

What! What!
WhatWhatWhatWhatWhat!!


Meanwhile, the trees murmur
in creaks more subdued
but with, I think,
the same question.
Waving and crackling,
peeling back
the night sky, they collapse
into each other’s arms
while dawn,
unfurling like fire,
rolls over
and over itself.


I stand behind the glass
with nothing to offer
but affinity, a beating heart, 
and wonder.

Everyday
the world comes to us
with such power and orchestration,
such devastating grace.

We need only open the door.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty-Four: Instigate



I have been told
that I have a very strong heart.

Look, there it is, said the technician
pointing at a hazy doppler image.
Your heart.
I watched as the obscure, boulder-like replica bleated
in gritty streams of red and yellow light, and wondered
if something instigated this strengthening
or if maybe

I'm just lucky.


And, did you know, by the way,
that if you ever cross a desert
you will carry it with you
for the rest of your life?
It's tiniest pieces become
inextricable

from your own 
tiniest pieces.

Microscopic bits of glass
burry themselves deep in your ears
your eyes
your skin
your hair—

sand
in everything you are.


It has taken some time

but, finally, I can say
that I no longer feel
that scrubbing
of the past against my skin.

I can sit
relatively near to you

and if we just keep talking,
if I don't stop to think of it,
then there is nothing at all between us
but time

and maybe, a little bit,
the small damp paws of attraction,
a puppy-teethed tug
on somewhere I once
travelled.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty-Three: Gullible



In the summer of 1936, writer and journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans were sent, by the editors of Fortune, to Alabama to get the story on the conditions of tenant farmers and landowners in the throes of Roosevelt's New Deal. Whether Agee was gullible enough from the outset to believe this was even possible is uncertain. Nonetheless, he returned to New York after eight weeks in the South with nothing less than thirty-thousand words of material and, after refusing to clip it's edges in any manageable sense, stalwartly presented Fortune with an unpublishable article. It was impossible, he argued, to convey with any degree of accuracy, the lives of his subjects within the parameters suggested by the magazine. Fortune refused to publish the work and he was dismissed. Ultimately, Agee wished to create a trilogy (though only the first book was ever written) entitled Three Tenant Families. The first instalment, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was published in 1941. In his introduction, Agee asks, with some degree of resentment and hostility, what right he, or anyone, has to write the story he has written, and then later, what right we have to read it. His defence of the families and his initial frustration with the arrogance of the project and its inciters, never abated.

...how, looking thus into your eyes and seeing thus, how each of you is a creature which has never in all time existed before and which shall never in all time exist again and which is not quite like any other and which has the grand stature and natural warmth of every other and whose existence is all measured upon a still mad and incurable time; how am I to speak of you as 'tenant' 'farmers,' as 'representatives' of your 'class,' as social integers in a criminal economy, or as individuals, fathers, wives, sons, daughters, and as my friends and as I 'know' you?




Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty-Two: Make Believe



Your caution and my desire maintain a steady gait. 

There is something behind the words I love you, when I say them to you, that even I don't understand. Woven into the nuances of gesture and tone, inflection and accent, there is a story, having less to do with you and more to do with the abiding emptiness within me. I want to call, but I don't know what to say. Call anyway, says my friend, with the answer I want to hear. So I do. Into awkwardness, make believe, and the busy-ness that is your life. I wonder where I stand, lay, fit. into you. We carry out the uncomfortable phone custom of both trying to speak at the same time, leaning into the distance between our quiet breath, listening. You call me Sweet—Hello, Sweet—so I know you are happy to hear from me, but after four minutes and fifty-four seconds you say I love you, I echo, and we hang up. I wanted to say something more, I tell my friend. I wanted there to be something more to say.




Friday, 25 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty-One: Harangue



This. Standing in her pyjamas with a neatly folded stack of material resting like a platter in her left hand. She points at a piece of green fabric with white polka dots. Is a piece of my grandmother's dress, that my aunt Maureen gave me. Maureen from our quilting group is in her sixties and cracked us all up last week by exclaiming, over a meandering conversation about relationships, that she hasn't a horny bone in her body. Anymore. Giggling over her new suitor, the first in eight years since her husband died.

Quilting is Natt's Thursday afternoon ritual. Regardless of the state of her house, her life, her love, or her mind, every Thursday is about quilting with her aunts. They don't use machines. In place of the whir and hum of mechanical assembly, the room is filled with stories, history, laughter. Every quilt is sewn by hand. Her latest project is in it's third year. I balk at this and tell her I wouldn't have the patience. What's the rush? she shrugs, loading a wicker basket full of supplies into the back seat of her Jetta. She means it isn't about finishing, not entirely. It's about the gathering. Collecting. The practice. Stitch by stitch she harnesses the power of the past—the strength, courage, and fortitude of the women of her family. Their undying ability to put up with husbands, for example, and after everything—after a lifetime of haranguing and heartache, babies and bathwater—to love them.

She wore this dress, she says, pointing still, her eyes radiating the significance of it. She wore it, she says. And I'll stitch it into a quilt one day, and I will carry it with me till the day I die.




Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Thirty: Pina Colada



We begin with Tanya Tucker and pina coladas.

He leaves for Florida in the morning, snow-birding. During dinner—halibut in cream sauce and an assortment of parboiled vegetables (prepared from scratch)—we are serenaded by The Village People's Y-M-C-A! Over another glass of wine he guides us into Country Hits of the Seventies. I imagine his wife, dead fifteen years now, permed hair and a pack a day, cocktail in hand, playing cards on a Saturday night with her husband and some of their friends. She drank too much, he tells us later. Too, too much. She was sad. I didn't know how sad. And then she was gone. Killed herself with the drinking.

He shuffles from the kitchen with a copper-edged tray. Cognac and coffee. He is eighty-one and does not want to die alone. He's offered us each a seat in his sedan, Florida bound. It won't cost you a penny. He grins, arms wide above his head. laughing now, This could all be yours. By which he means the bungalow, circa 1976, furnishings and all. Shag, wicker, hanging plants. Dropped in some township or other east of Montreal. Either of you. You wouldn't have to worry about a thing for the rest of your life. Except fashion, perhaps. And being married to a geriatric Quebecois. To our thanks-but-let's-be-honest expressions, he sighs. Sacrement, he adds, turning to the record player. 

Upon my request, he retrieves Nana Mouskouri from the depths of his vinyl. Nanna who? Natt asks. —Mouskouri, he calls from the living room, beyond his James Bond bar, unfolding as it does from the mantle above a gas fireplace. She's greek. My wife bought this album. I only know really that one song. You know. About the roses I think it is. I know nothing about Nana Mouskouri, except that someone once told me my father loved her. My beer drinking, grade nine educated, waterskiing, cabinetmaker father. Loved her, apparently, along with opera and Johnny Cash. Full of surprises you are, I say as he folds up the bar. Ah oui, he grins. Aren't we all.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty-Nine: Salal



It's beginning to snow. Winter licks at the windows. Loose Tyvek on the southeast side retaliates in loud snaps against the sky. Time passes. Through CBC Radio Two's Classical Morning, in an attic in the woods, I trim the leaves no one will smoke and contemplate. I take breaks for water, juggling and to look through the window at bald maples and birch, rock and cliff, violin and piano, woodsmoke. Get more of what you need, the flyer by the stove reads, but I don't think it's available in an aerosol spray or fat free and carb conscious. Mozart. Bach. Pine. Tamarac. A dusting of snow. Traci saying, I hope you find what you're looking for out there, and wondering what that is. The sound of footsteps on a country road, snow-packed and creaking, far from cedar and salal and the silence of fog. Here, it's another kind of silence, an unfamiliar one. Foxes and star-shine. A moon that lights up the whole pass, and barely another person for miles. It makes me think of Rumi. Forty early mornings. More of what I need.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty-Eight: Flexibility



She is the kind of woman you stand up to meet
The kind of woman you look in the eye
The kind of woman who makes you want to buy a juicer
Be nicer to cats
Smile in the rain
Improve your posture (and flexibility).

She is the kind of woman you do not interrupt
The kind of woman you ask to kiss.

She is the kind of woman who inspires you to use recipes
Throw out your pyjama pants and

Get a job.



Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty-Seven: Branding



Leggo. Winnie-the-Pooh. Disney, Disney, Disney. Transformers. GI Joe. Cabbage Patch Kids. Upper Deck, Fleer, Topps. Atari, Nintendo, Sega. Red Sox. Blue Jays. Canadians. Leafs. Sweet Valley High. Degrassi Junior High—Wheels; Joey Jerimiah, Snake. Hot Wheels. Tonka. Osh Kosh. Barbie. Crayola. Reese. Cadbury. LL Bean. Coke. Hostess. Jiffy-Pop. Nike. UBC. BMW. Calvin Klein. Wusthof. Blundstone. Apple.




Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty-Six: Incline



We pitched ourselves up the stairs with confidence. Remember you never get too drunk, just drunk enough, someone shouted. I leaned forward to speak into your ear, taking your arm in mine and keeping half a step behind because the stairs were narrow and the incline steep. Single file to the third story, as rock star as we'd ever be, you leading the way with casual determination, an elegant strut, and ulterior motives. At the top of the stairs you broke away from me into the crowd, through cocktail trays and a curtain of smoke. Gusts of laughter spilling over the balcony. Your smile striding through bass lines onto the dance floor. My heart, dropped mid-beat, skipping like a broken— like a broken— like a broken—

record.




The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty-Five: Reverence



Lenny wobbles across the lawn towards his father, thrusting his short legs in front of him, dragging a length of orange skipping rope behind. He has been holding the rope since he found it hanging by the door three hours ago. He sucks and drools on the green plastic handles, trips repeatedly over the part that gets caught up under his feet, and squeals with glee as he flaps his arms and rolls it through the air. His most pressing dilemma thus far has been how to eat snacks and still hold both ends of the rope.

His mother has fitted him with boots for the occasion of a cool, fall evening fire, but the extra three-quarters of an inch in height is cumbersome for him and he falls often. He grunts, huffs, sighs, and coos his way back to his standing height of 25 inches and trundles on. Finally, after detouring around the dog and a brief sojourn under the legs of a lawn chair, he has arrived at John's side by the campfire. Heiss, John says, pointing at the fire. Kerstin, Lenny's mother, is German, and they speak to him in both languages. We are all brushing up on our German this week. Lenny smiles at his father and repeats the action, Heiss. 

Last night, just after they'd arrived, his reverence for degrees of temperature spiked dramatically when, despite repeated warning from us all, he touched the wood stove accidentally. It was a minor burn with a quick recovery, but now each time he passes the danger zone, he veers back a little and whispers, heiss under his breath. He looks at the fire again, watches the flames flick and climb over one another, points to the smoke rising through curling heat waves and says again, quietly and unsmiling this time, Heissssss, Papa. Then he turns back to the dog, flaps his arms, spits out a shrill squeak and a foot stomp, and adds, Woo-woof, before barrelling towards her with both arms out, gripping the green handles of the skipping rope with his tiny tight fists. 








Friday, 18 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty-Four: Sacrifice



My grandmother has fallen into the sea.

We stand helplessly safe on shore and watch as she is tossed under, churning through waves of dementia. She reaches for words as if for a life raft or a paddle, a buoy, debris from the wreckage of her memory, demanding coherence...or at least to be right.

I left when I was 80, she said this afternoon. We were waiting in the car outside the St. George Pharma-Save while my mother picked up more prescriptions. From across the parking lot she spotted the garage where she used to take her car for oil changes and tire rotations. She didn't remember that. Or what driving is called. Or a car. And she didn't leave when she was 80. What she meant is that she stopped driving when she was 80, but the phrasing was out of reach. She is very close on many things. Earlier she'd said the weather would be soft today. She meant mild, or fine, or nice. Push the box and he'll tell us, she'd said, meaning, Turn on the TV and see what the Weather Network says. But as long as we can follow the logic it means there still is some. And anyway, why not soft? It's a soft day out there, Kay, you're right. But I think we're in for an angry night. Probably a bit of a crumbly morning. She reaches for the words she can't find, hand in the air pulling at the sky, the sunlight, the living room ceiling. Where do words go when they are gone? Who keeps them safe for us? And then who steals them? Who hides them in the night?

My birds, she said, looking for a series of misplaced photographs after we'd returned from our errands. She was an avid bird watcher all her life, and these, the Grand Manan puffins, are her favourites. After an hour of frenetic searching, she found them at the bottom of a candy dish that has been sitting on the coffee table all my life and hasn't held candy for half that time, but which remains there nonetheless, keeping its place—holding all our lives together for all I know—and providing a haven for rare and wayward birds. She held the photographs in both her shaking hands for just a moment saying, over and over, My birds. My birds...., before looking up at me with such incongruous clarity and saying, Oh good, there you are. I wanted to show you these pictures. Look here. These are my birds. Colin took them when he was visiting...you know, with those other people...

Later, my mother escaped to the kitchen under the guise of boiling water for tea, and Uncle Danny wandered back in, drunk again. Evening slipped in through the curtains behind me. The photographs lied abandoned on an end table. My grandmother thumbed silently through The St. Croix Courier, sighing as the local news flooded past her—nothing important to her, really, just the usual stories of theft and car accidents, charities and fund raisers. Further proof of a complicated world, that no one is ever wrong, or right, and the only true story is the one not told—the one about our inescapable tenderness swimming like mad through circumstance and sacrifice.





Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty-Three: Suffocate



Jiffy marker graffiti on pizza box lids tacked to the wall; records; snowboards—his true love; a rack of skate shoes; Lucky boxes; cold concrete under chipped grey paint; empty Gatorade jugs; dirty dishes, always; toy trucks and skate ramps for the boy—five years old, three days a week—his other true love; a growing number of origami cranes—his peace project; vinyl sofa, graffitied; baggy jeans and over-sized shirts; turntables and a mixer; Bashar; chi; Bruce Lee; wednesday night martial arts classes; Diggable Planets; eye contact; the welcoming smile of a good man; dirty towel soaking up the bathroom floor, graffitied; Gemini—oh yeah, there's at least two of me, he said one night; forced-air furnace, suffocating if you stand beneath it; and the postcards we made with old photographs and a couple of typewriters, still pinned on the wall. We each chose one we thought appropriate and Scott drove. Was that the three day night? We were inspiration itself, then, a fire that wouldn't go out. We were something important, something that mattered—we were art. Typewriters and passion; beer and cigarettes. Cocaine.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for garbage— A landscape shot. A lake maybe. Something forested and ironic. That one was yours.

I take liberties—Top of a ski hill. Chair lift to the right. Enormous, heaping piles of snow. That one was mine.




Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty-Two: Momentum



In—Out—In—Out—In—Out—

This is what she tells herself—uphill, downhill, on the homestretch, in the snow, in the rain, in the too hot sun:

You don’t have to be a runner. You just have to run.

Past sunlight dazzled and splayed out across windows. Down those long country roads in Eastern Quebec. The days of wearing two pairs of everything: long underwear, a hoody, a jacket, a hat, a scarf caked in frosted breath. All the way home, back to the farm, back to the horse. His warm breath on her cheek every morning and every night. The sweet aroma of hay and grain. His lean and mighty power, his smooth canter alongside the fence as she first set out, day after day, with the dog by her side. A good dog. He was not a runner either, but got a handle on it quickly. The necessity of pace. Momentum. Never breaking stride. No pull, no lag. Step in step.

In this way they kept each other all winter long. Her goal and his proud working body. This is my job, he’d say as mid-morning sun bled through lines of birch and maple, spilling over snow-crusted fields. His tight circles at the front door, nosing at his leash. Go, he’d say. We have work to do. Go. Ears kicking back as she met his stare. Up that first infernal hill, tearing her chest open to the urgency of raw cold. Then down. Up again. Fields unfurling like a dinner napkin. Snap of cloth, crunch of snow. Scuttle of toenails over ice. Foot fall beating out a bass line through ear buds. Every cell and every ion reaching for the unstoppable smile of that last downhill. Map of the day unfolding in her mind. Roads in every direction. Red lines, black lines. Anything is possible. Just go.





Monday, 14 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty-One: Sunrise



Through a veil of cool morning light
I watch the sunrise in your eyes
as they open and reach for my love.




Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Twenty: Simmer



On the Downtown East Side for a Research Project with Mike D:

the first thing I notice is

sirens

late afternoon sun warm on my legs as it breaks over a jagged shore of glass and concrete. a pattison billboard advertising 3.5% interest rates on home equity lines of credit from the royal bank. the wincing. the stares. who we are, what are we doing here. another project? another reporter/filmmaker/documentarian? another outsider looking in, looking for—       what? everybody wants something. down here. quick-paced shuffle/stagger/strut, hand/head/torso wobble, with conversation thrown like punches: I'll get you back tomorrow with juice. yeah that's what he said man that's what he said. seething, steaming simmer of traffic. aggressive horns, hiss and whine of busses. across the street: pho, pharmacy, and the united church—close to amenities. the parking lot view from our room at the patricia hotel: a man in a track suit jumping out of a dumpster with a decal that reads: enjoy denial and behind it a banksy-style image of a kid with a paint can spraying:
everything is ok

  ok
      ok
          ok
always the heavy breath of traffic                                always the clammer of voices, shouting,         and the invasive needs of seagulls, demanding, posturing                                               everybody wants something
we take our chances, she said, cast in amber streetlight, money in hand, eyes darting. ...I have to go now.
we take our
chances
       we all do 
3.5%                    equity
            home
for sale on the corner of carol:
Weed! Rocks! H! vitamins, a vacuum, a vcr, dvds, canned cat                                                          food, baby clothes, toothbrushes, hand soap, rubber boots,                                                       whores, and hoodies, all laid out on blankets by the curb. we take                                                              our—
 patio tables in gastown looking up at a big screen
           beach volley ball match, more tits and ass than 
you'd ever find on hastings. nonchalant yawn, 
             I'm sooooo starving! All I had to eat today was 
a smoothie. —ugh. god. I know, right? summer.  I just can't eat 
in this heeeeat.
     we take our            3.5%
we take our             busses            we take our      denial
our vitamins     our rocks in hand 
 we take our        parking lot view        we take our
pho.   our banksy.    our steady breath of
demure disapproval—

ugh. god.
I just can't...




Friday, 11 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Nineteen: Worthy




On Trying to Write a Comparative Analysis of Neoclassicism and The Restoration:


Where's the spark? The fire? The passion? The sweet rush of flooding words, purposeless and without direction. The just go of a good stream-of-consciousness.

You don't have to be a runner to run, you just have to—                                           Run.

Certainly there are things to say about it. But where the hell is Mike D when you need him? He and his whiskey. He and his bass guitar. His microphone. His meaning. Sweat. Biting. At the corners of our poems. The grit and tarnish of keeping it real. Shy grin behind a curtain of match smoke. Inhale. Exhale. I am waiting for someone to share all this with, he said. His microphone. His meaning.

Aren't we all? I thought.
And aren't we always? Like Ferlinghetti.
Waiting.

For a rebirth of wonder.


Meanwhile

The eggs fry
The toast pops
The butter—oh the butter! Are we even worthy? 

The sun gets lost in your hair 
The dust settles 
The sheets wrinkle 

The wind
Cries

Mare-ray. 




Neoclassicism, if you must know, needn't be so formal. Grab a beer; pull up a stool; picture it: late 17th century England. France too. And the colonies to a lesser extent, yes, of course. A sort of frantic obsession with order. Aristotle's Poetics becomes the baseline for what art ought to be, skewed by a gripping fear of chaos following years of bloodshed and political turmoil. The Restoration was Charles the Second, restored to the throne; and Neoclassicism was what he brought with him. Fuelled by a general weariness for war, he returned from France with peace, a monarchy, and a flair for foreign style, albeit a formal one.

Literature, theatre, architecture and a stifling sense of order—that was about the gist of it—along with concentration, economy, utility, logic, restrained emotion, accuracy, correctness, "good" taste (whatever that might mean), and decorum. All this was complicated by religion—Protestants and Catholics, still at each other's throats—social position, gender, and differing points of view in general. But all's well if you follow along.

The birth...perhaps not of wonder exactly, but at least of libraries and literacy at large. The birth of the information exchange, macro- and micro-scopic research, investigation. Without all that warring and hating, one could think. One could observe.  One could study. Perfect. Create. The wait 

was over.





The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Eighteen: Hand(s)



It snowed heavily that year, and early. By halloween we had waist-high snowbanks and salt-crusted boots, city wide. Little Ninja Turtles in snow suits and little princesses in parkas scrambled up slippery steps with bags full of loot as snowballs whizzed towards unsuspecting targets.

We received the most snow days on record that winter, and hardly a week went by without one. I could tell from the light sneaking in through the blinds if I was going to school or not, the orange glow of the street lamps gleaming off a blanket of road. If the plough had already gone by, it could go still either way and the only thing to do was wait for Donny. I would leap out of bed, race down the hall, and, with a sock-footed sliding turn at the pantry, saddle up next to the old radio that lived on top of the microwave, its bent antenna reaching vaguely towards space while black electrical tape held shut the door of the tape deck.

Donny-in-the-morning did the drumroll at precisely five to seven. I remember meeting him once at The Empty Stocking Fund pledge drive where all the grade school kids and all the choirs had to sing Christmas carols to raise money for the Salvation Army. Afterwards they gave you candy canes and sometimes you got to meet famous people like Donny.

I couldn't believe the size of him. He lumbered through the studio like a bear through a backyard, except with a lot more wheezing and sweat. Everything about him overflowed—his neck over his shirt, his shirt over his pants, his ankles over his shoes. His great, thick hand swallowed mine whole when he reached out with the widest, most genuine grin in Saint John, and shook it. On the radio though, he was spry and weightless, and his dexterous drumroll brought every child in the city to the edge of their seats.

GEEEEEEeeeet yer sleds out kids and BUUUUuundle up, his thundering voice would call out. It's another white and wonderful day in the port city this morning! You could feel the cheers erupting from one corner of the city to the other, behind double-paned windows and tightly shut doors. District seven, district nine, district eleven—you know who you are—you're staying home today. District five, down Pennfield way, you're in on this one too. You been down there lately, Jack? I was down in the summer with the missus, down to Hawkins blueberry farm there, just off the highway at Pennfield Corner, and if they don't have the best blueberries for a pie, I don't know who does. District sixteen! District twenty-one, get out there and build me a snowman. Best snowman I see on the way home gets a shout out tomorrow morning. Heh-heh-heh, eh Jack?—






Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Seventeen: Root



Sunday afternoon, early April. Stark bright light against a white-blue sky and barely a bud in sight to slow down the glare, all the sun turned up a bit too loud. Across the parking lot, a gust of laughter burst through the doors of Tim Horton's as two elderly couples bustled toward their cars, parked side by side in the same direction. The two women held onto each other, arm in arm, squealing like children, as the two men strolled half a pace behind shaking there heads.

I ran from the car into the pet food store. There's only so much Sunday to go around and mine was half wasted on errands. Inside, Woofy's was in no such rush. People meandered, blocking aisles and thumbing through chew toys, while the cashier chattered at a woman and young girl at the till. I shifted the weight of a dog food bag from arm to arm. Did I bring the punch card? And how close was I too a free bag? I'd forgotten to go to the pharmacy. Damnit. Now I would have to go back through town instead of around to the highway.

The young girl at the till kept her head bowed and kicked at the floor tiles with pink rubber boots while the cashier cackled with far more glee than was warranted. Her many bracelets rattled; her roots continued to grow in. Finally, and with some degree of reluctance, the girl took the woman's hand and stepped away from the counter. Thank you so much, the woman said as she edged towards the door. We'll let you know how it turns out. The cashier slapped her hands together and wrung them against her chest violently, then bounced on her tiptoes and squeaked, Oh please do!!!

I sighed a shade too audibly, dumped my Orijen Six Fish onto the counter, and dug into my pocket for cash. Iiiiiii'm sooooorry, the cashier drawled, black and blonde strands bobbing haphazardly around her face. That little girl is going to look at a horse. Her first horse! But they don't know if they're going to get him. Horses are expensive, you know, and the little girl is so worried it won't happen.

Renewed impatience flashed through me, this time for myself. Oh, I said. That's fine. That's fine. I'm not in a hurry.

The cashier heaved her breath in and out. Iiiiiiiii had a horse when I was her age. I was just telling her. I was six. Harlow was his name. We were best friends. He was my only friend, actually. But when my parents separated, we moved and we had to get rid of him. I came home from school one day and he was gone. Gone! My mother sold him. Just like that.... That kind of thing... Well. It was hard. That's all. And you know—I'm 32 now—we were in California last year having a big family reunion and my mother and I had it out. Right there in the hotel. It wasn't just the horse. You know. Just. Everything. And we were both yelling and crying and she finally. FINALLY—At this her arms shot above her head like Astro Boy—listened to me!! For the first time in my life. And I told her how devastated I was. Losing Harlow. And when we came home. Oh, I don't know, about three weeks later, didn't she go out and buy me a damn horse. Just exactly like Harlow. Exactly. I can't afford a horse. Look at me. I work at a pet store. And she said, "Don't you worry about it, honey. I'll take care of everything. He's yours."

There were tears in her eyes now and I noticed what perfect teeth she had. Her whole smile was incongruously beautiful. She continued on. I said to that little girl just there, I said, you know what sweetie? Dreams come true! They really do! Sometimes it takes awhile, but don't you ever, ever give up.

I stood perfectly still and tried to catch my breath. The dog food and the cashier's beaming victory stared at me. Wow. Thank you, I said quietly, at which she laughed. For what, darlin'? I shook my head and looked out through the heavy storefront window. On the other side of the glass, an obese, middle-aged woman struggled with an overstuffed shopping cart as two boys, probably five or six years old, danced around it firing fake pistols at each other. The woman scowled and barked at them, pausing momentarily to wipe at her forehead with a handkerchief before shoving off again on teetering legs.

Just. Thank you, I smiled.