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,
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. 


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
Really. Good. Coffee.
The inner voice
The ocean, and time to be near it
Forest walks
Tall trees and the birds who inhabit them
The desire to learn
The colour red

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.