Okay. It is not couth to open a blog by saying, ‘I am, like, such a bad blogger.’ Just like it is inadvisable to begin a speech or a reading or an argument with a self-conscious disclaimer. Nevertheless. Here I be. I have not written for a donkey’s age – has it been lack of will? Sort of. A dearth of time? Yeah, that too. An overwhelm of… life? Yep. Never mind. I’m here now.
I’m here – on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, where I’m living (temporarily) with my husband and two daughters. We have extended family here, which was part of the impetus for the move. But also, the place is infectious (in the way of laughter, not disease) and previous visits convinced us we needed to spend more time getting to know the Hebridean way.
We arrived in January and toughed it out through the darkness and the gales, and are now reveling in the sweet air and endless skies of spring on the island. There are lambs everywhere. Sometimes the lambs do that thing you read about in books – they gambol!
As part of my stay I have had the pleasure of teaching a group of keen and good-humoured writers at An Lanntair, the fabulous, multi-faceted arts centre in Stornoway. One of my students, and a new pal and half marathon training buddy (gack!) wrote about the class on her wonderful blog Hebrides Writer. I have also had to opportunity to connect with some fine writers at Catch 23, a warm and welcoming drop-in centre for those living with mental illness.
Living in the country has made me very good at shouting at dogs and noticing the way moss pokes its way up through fence posts. I have always been good at spotting birds; now that spring is here it seems they are forever trembling and soaring at the edge of my vision. Winter forced a slow-down; I started knitting and sinking into the warmth at the peat fireside. I am writing, but perhaps more importantly, reading with a less cluttered mind. I love the way my children take to the outdoors. They play on the beach and in the croft with both abandon and childlike care, collecting and building and taking off after movement and colour. I am drinking a lot of tea.
Also trying to be looser and more forgiving of myself and the world. My friend Kerry Clare wrote about this in a recent blog post: ‘In Praise of Messy Blogging‘.(I also have a guest post — an update to my M Word essay – featured there.) One of my hesitations around blogging has always been that I have difficulty teasing different strands of my life away from each other – they are all so gloriously and complicatedly tangled. How to write about one thing and not the other? Maybe stop trying.
She passed me an image through the glory of the internet and I passed her back some text — and so on… We had time and word limits, but were otherwise free to follow our whims and weirdnesses. We were working with a 12 hour time difference; she was in a big American city, I was on a remote Scottish island. We have never met. It was such fun; I miss it!)
Stacey D’Erasmo: Well, it’s like a coming-of-middle-age novel. I think the idea of finding one’s voice is something that’s very much on your mind when you’re in your twenties and your early thirties, but that struggle lasts throughout your life. How do you figure out how to be forty? How do you figure out how to be fifty? Later, how do you figure out how to be seventy? The good news and the bad news is these transitional moments keep happening.
I have been meaning to write something here for a long time, but as always seems to be the case, never have enough consecutive moments to gather my scattered wits to actually string the right words together. But I want to try. Because this summer is proving to be very different from the last, which led me into some sad and scary times. And because, well, because attention must be paid! Bills must be paid too; but attention – to art, to nature, to friendships, and to the way life keeps rolling and sliding and catapulting onwards – paying attention satisfies a different kind of debt.
It has occurred to me lately that so much of feeling well and empowered has to do with finding voice. And this seems silly, because – of course! But having a voice and finding an authentic voice in which to speak and sing and write are very different things. And that we can lose our own voice, or lose access to it, for periods of time, however short or long, seems counterintuitive and unfair. But, sister, it happens.
Maybe this is why when we hear an authentic voice, when we dare to be authentic – we get that shiver of recognition, that zing of potential and truth and strength. So here, in no particular order are some people and things and experiences that have helped me to celebrate voice lately:
1. I’m taking singing lessons. I love singing. I went to a Baptist church camp, because my parents, apparently slipshod atheists, liked the fact that it was cheap and situated on beautiful Beausoleil Island. My dad loved singing too, mostly Scottish folk songs and rousing labour anthems. So I know a lot of songs about Jesus and the blood of the lamb and a few songs about picket lines and some songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie. I am also a pretty good whistler. But I have never taken myself very seriously as a singer. I am trying to change that.
2. Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Ooh boy, this is a book that made me want to puke with sadness and recognition – and that is an endorsement. The novel is about sisters – one trying to convince the other to live, despite the fact that her mental illness is causing her unbearable anguish. It hit pretty close to home for me. But it is also lovely and funny and fierce and true. I wrote the writer a note to say as much – because we should thank the truth tellers in the world whenever we can! One thing I loved about the novel was that the characters – who are experiencing such horrible heartache – do not shy away from the words, ‘I love you’ and the author is not afraid of what some might deem sentimentality, but I deem emotional courage. Here is a great interview with Toews where she gives advice for writing: ‘Ignore all advice about writing! Leave your blood on every page! Every page!’ AMPS is a gut-wrenching, beautiful read because Toews is such a gutsy writer. And by that I mean that it feels like she has torn out some of her most vital organs and smacked them down for the world to see. Sounds grim and gory, right? But her voice is also hilarious – wry and self-deprecating and witty and warm and wise (What? What? You think I overdo the alliteration?). Read the book, y’all.
3. My husband has taught himself to play the ukulele. And he’s really good.
4. I got to teach a group of adults about creative writing this summer. They were all such smart, accomplished people, and I wondered, at the outset, what I might have to show them. What I forgot was that giving yourself license to create is really hard (perhaps especially if you have spent many years becoming an expert or authority in another field) and having someone give you that permission is pretty powerful. It was such a rush to see my students discover that sitting down to write is not the province of garret dwellers or lone madwomen or lauded salt ‘n’ peppah haired (mostly male) Authors – that everyone has a story, or maybe everyone has pretty much the same stories, but we all have different ways of telling them. And that is what makes the telling/writing a worthwhile enterprise.
5. Neko Case. Because she’s another truth teller and because she wins the prize for long-ass, ballsy album title: The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight The Harder I Fight The More I Love You. And the lines below from ‘Where Did I Leave That Fire?’ (so plaintive and powerful when she sings) which pretty much sum up how it felt for me to find myself lost in my own brain’s chemical swampland.
I saw my shadow looking lost/Checking its pockets for some lost receipt/Where did I leave that fire?/Where did I leave that fire?
6. Pippi Longstocking. In June I did an event at Parentbooks in celebration of The M Word, where I got to talk about mothers in children’s books. I chose Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren because we learn in the first couple of pages that her mother is dead and looking down from the clouds at her wayward, fantastically strange and weirdly competent daughter. Who is more interesting, more prone to accident and awesome antics? Pippi, or her clean, law-abiding, next door neighbours, Tommy and Annika?
Tommy would never think of biting his nails, and he always did exactly what his mother told him to do. Annika never fussed when she didn’t get her own way, and she always looked so pretty in her little well-ironed cotton dresses; she took the greatest care not to get them dirty.
(I wonder: Who is ironing those dresses?) Pippi, on the other hand, sails with her father on the high seas, makes her own clothes, straps scrub brushes on her feet to mop the floor, has a pet monkey, puts bullies in their place, and is so strong she can lift her horse down — one-handed — from the porch. Proof that sometimes a writer needs to get the mother out of the way for her protagonist to thrive. And, for a parent, proof that sometimes the mother needs to get herself out of the way for the child to forge her own way.
7. The Old School Concert series at South in Milford. I have some friends who up and sold their house in the city to buy and live in an abandoned school in the country. A school. Not a school house, all one-room and quaint, a one-storey, 1960s sprawler of a school. They are renting part of it out to tourists, and the rest they are using as a backdrop for some of their long held fantasies. Last week, they held the first in a series of concerts in their gym. It was like a cross between a grade eight dance and a town hall meeting and a basement bar show. Jenny Whitely and her husband Joey Wright played many of their wonderful originals – and a gorgeous cover of this song by Jesse Winchester, which is all about how our vulnerability is our strength. Right on.
8. My youngest daughter says No all the time. When I ask her if No is her favourite word, she says No. This is intensely annoying but I admire her endurance and consistency.
Oh, summer time. When a person who usually spends a lot of time in a (real) school has time to think about such things.
Here is an art (heart) piece by M. I love that it contains other smaller hearts and a piece of pirate gold! And that it is hanging out next to Joan Didion in her cool shades. Haven’t written for a long time — too overwhelmed by parenting and teaching and also a recent (and lovely) visit to lakeland around Waterloo, as part of their tribute to the book Lakeland by Alan Casey, this year’s One Book, One Community pick. I had a wonderful time; I got to visit Edna Staebler’s cottage and read with poet and recent Edna winner Jeffery Donaldson, plus spend time with Kim Jernigan (outgoing editor of The New Quarterly and one of my favourite people).
So — scattered sensibilities and now summertime brain. Plus this blogging thing is not a habit yet; I have moments where my thoughts cohere into brilliant combinations, really super sentences. Then something happens — say, a park visit, a phone call, a craving for coffee — and the sentence flees. I can see the back of it from my brain’s small window — a flash of eloquence, a well placed semi-colon rounding a faraway corner. Then, gone. So this is my attempt to rectify my delinquence in posting. It might be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.
I’ve just finished reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion for my book club. I loved The Year of Magical Thinking but haven’t yet mustered the courage to crack Blue Nights (too sad for me in my current exhaustion and thin, thin skin) so was really looking forward to her earlier work (some of which I’d already read) and was not disappointed. I was definitely less compelled by the journalistic pieces, which often felt high brow tabloid-esque — but this, I know, is less a matter of quality than a function of the time and place they were written. I can (and do!) acknowledge how ground-breaking this work must have been when it first emerged. But I was more drawn to those personal pieces — really rigorous self-examinations — that felt like they existed outside of time. I wonder if this is because I can more easily trust a narrator passing judgment on herself than on others… One of my favourite essays was ‘On Going Home’, a perfect little riff on how it feels to revisit your childhood home as an adult, the weariness a person feels whilst wandering the rooms of her past. Here’s an example of how succinctly Didion captures moments that trouble a consciousness, that engender questions and also a kind of philosophical paralysis:
That I am trapped in this particular irrelevancy is never more apparent to me than when I am at home. Paralyzed by the neurotic lassitude engendered by meeting one’s past at every turn, around every corner, inside every cupboard, I go aimlessly from room to room. I decide to meet it head-on and clean out a drawer, and I spread the contents on the bed. A bathing suit I wore the summer I was seventeen. A letter of rejection from The Nation, and aerial photograph of the site for a shopping centre my father did not build in 1954. Three teacups hand-painted with cabbage roses and signed “E.M.,” my grandmother’s initials. There is no final solution for letters of rejection from The Nation and teacups hand-painted in 1900. Nor is there any answer to snapshots of one’s grandfather as a young man on skis, surveying around Donner Pass in the year 1910. I smooth out the snapshot and look into his face, and do and do not see my own. I close the drawer, and have another cup of coffee with my mother. We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.
Also, I am reading next Wednesday at the Brockton Writing Series, at Full o’ Beans Coffee Shop, right here in my ‘hood. Would love to see you there!
Psst! I will be teaching Short Fiction: Introduction at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto, beginning April 10. Short stories for spring! Pass it on!