a) get out of the city, get out of the traffic and construction and virus cases going up fast fast fast, and
b) hang out with friends around a dinner table and the fire at night and the coffee in the morning, and be social and silly for hours and even days on end without worrying about corona the way we do in the city.
Each morning I’d try to slip out the side door and go for a walk, past the hungry barn cats, down the dirt road to the fields to catch some early morning light –
Startling the horses, startling the cows…
There was a fair bit of rain, but that only gave way to dramatic clouds and even rainbows, adding to the magic of time OUTSIDE.
After my walk I’d do my morning meditation behind the house under this silver maple, so massive I couldn’t even fit it in the frame –
From there I might wander out back to the garden, full of giant zucchinis and squash and kale and sunflowers that towered above me.
If there wasn’t too much rain, we’d head out to the back cabin, back away from the highway, with just the river and crickets and frogs and this old tree stump that made me think of a menhir.
I took pictures of it again and again, trying to find what it was that made it so majestic and mysterious.
One night we even spent the night out in that back cabin, and the moon, growing fuller on its way to the Harvest Moon, danced over the river…
Last week I reached up onto one of my bookshelves and cracked open a book I’ve had for years and years, have carried from one home to the next, but have yet to really open. Truth be told, I bought it entirely on a whim, cruising a second hand store, noticing the gorgeous green cover; the title with my initials, Ka; the evocative subtitle, Stories of the Mind and Gods of India. All for only $11.
Finally opening it, years later, I found on the first page, an astonishing paragraph:
Garuda flew and remembered. It. was only a few days since he had hatched form his egg and already so much had happened. Flying was the best way of thinking, of thinking things over. Who was the first person he’d seen? His mother, Vinata. Beautiful in her tininess, she sat on a stone, watching his egg hatch, determinedly passive. Hers was the first eye Garuda held in his own. And at once he knew that that eye was his own. Deep inside was an ember that glowed in the breeze. The same he could feel burning beneath his own feathers.
~ Roberto Calasso
Oh what imagination! The consciousness of a bird who has just hatched from an egg!
Immediately, I wanted to dive into this book, into this world with such soaring imagination… and yet, I know I currently am struggling to maintain the concentration for deep reading.
People who’ve known me a long time know what an avid reader I’ve always been…stacks of books forever by my bedside, several books, both fiction and non, on the go at once much of the time… both parents are English profs, what can I say.
But I have lost this capacity for deep reading – maybe it’s been gradual over the last couple of years? I did really notice my stunted attention span last year at work – I found that, seated by myself in a little dark room for hours on end, day after day, I’d spend so much of that time on the internet. While waiting for a render to complete, I’d check my email, and while that was loading, have a look at my phone, checking for new texts, notifications.
There’s an increasing amount of writing about this problem in the population generally – the addiction to the dopamine hits, the living out of shallow parts of the brain, the inability to access deep focus and concentration.
And then on top of everything, the pandemic… the doom scrolling, the obligatory news information check ins lasting hours longer than was truly necessary.
So, for the moment I’ve moved to audio books, listened to in extended quiet moments with no other stimulants (except maybe the lake or a tree). And I’ve been making the studio a wifi free zone. No phone allowed.
My desk there now has notebooks for writing, but also a few books to read, a few books about writing, so that I have the option of spending time just quietly with my thoughts, or even with the thoughts of otherss…
We can’t fully participate in the mystery of life if, as soon as we approach the depths where ideas reside, our own anxiety, negativity, and self-doubt make breathing difficult. If the depths unnerve us, we’ll search for answers in safe places, where the air is plentiful and the sun scares demons away. But the answers we seek can’t be found in those sun-drenched places. We really must dive.
I’ve been trying to start a daily habit – to get out the door first thing every morning and say hello to the lake.
The morning is my favourite time – the light is beautiful, the day just beginning, and there is hardly anyone around except the geese, the gulls, the ducks, and the diving cormorants
The few people who are out are doing inspiring things like yoga, or jogging, or even finishing up that report from a beautiful spot.
All in all, you would think this new habit would be a) easy enough, not overly ambitious, not going from sedentary to marathon in a week kind of thing and b) highly pleasurable – it is, as they suggest, a small enough habit to start with, and it is a blessing on my day every time I do it.
On her About Manda page, written in a unique tense, she describes the period of her life when she wrote a seriously ambitious historical fiction series:
Six years of Boudica dreaming. Throw out the TV. Throw out the sound systems. Light the fire every night and let it teach me. By the end, have lost all touch with consensus reality.
The television bit and the fire every night bit I’d heard before, but the sound system??? She says: “recorded music is one of our strongest addictions”.
This is deeply radical. This blows my mind. I’d discovered the enormity of music in my life during one of my current habit experiments, which is to make the studio a wifi free zone. Not having a phone to reach for is the key piece – I have to deliberately leave my phone at home and walk over to the studio without anything that connects to the internet. The idea is that, distraction free, I will spend more time in deep thinking, or at least deep being, if there is nothing to plug into.
And the first thing I discovered was how much I missed playing music.
The phone and Facebook and whatever I can live without for a few hours, even for the day… but no music…??? I am deeply deeply hooked into music as a kind of mood designer.
So, thinking about just how deep one could conceivably go with lifestyle changes (can’t light a fire every night in downtown Toronto, but maybe there are other things…) I’ve tried to change up even the tiniest of habits, to experiment and try new things. You know, just those deeply engrained little things like brushing your teeth with the other hand.
Or, the other afternoon, on my way to a backyard BBQ with friends, rather than take the obvious bike route along King, across the bridge over the Don and along Queen East into Leslieville, I got out the map and explored some twisty bike lanes that take you over little hidden bridges and under underpasses and down onto the Lakeshore bike path. It’s still kind of unfamiliar territory for me, but shucks, there was dozens and dozens of folks out there with some serious looking biking habits.
All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger… The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.
~ James Clear
Meanwhile, with some BC friends we’ve begun a daily drawing challenge – each evening one of us sends a prompt to the others, and the next day we each respond to that prompt with a drawing. Some days have produced some pretty terrible drawings, but by coming back to it (almost) each and every day, there are some drawings where I can really see my skills developing –
And my morning lake-visiting habit???
At the moment I’m averaging about every other day.
There are still days when, distracted by the inviting option of coffee on the balcony, watching the skies and scanning the construction site below, searching for the resident bunnies and foxes who can occasionally be spotted darting out from underneath sheds and pipes, I indulge in that strangely sweet uber-urban homey feeling.
So, for now, on those days I don’t make it to the lake first thing, I’ve been making sure to do it at some point during the day. This is not the ultimate goal but is a temporary compromise, and it has reminded me of how fun it is to see the same body of water at different times of day.
The glaring sun and choppy waters of a mid-day, can turn into a magical evening in exactly the same spot.
And in the evenings, turns out people are bringing boom boxes and coolers of beer and skateboards and portable disco balls, and setting up sweet mini parties and dancing underneath the trees by Sugar Beach. Small groups, as is proper during a pandemic, but such creative and romantic ways to enjoy our tiny sliver of city lake front.
There’s a thing that they say about Toronto, that it’s a hotel city – cold, soulless, people from all over the world with nothing in common and no desire to know each other. No naturally occurring culture.
In my new construction zone of a neighbourhood that reputation seems personified in the architecture, the condo towers, glass shoeboxes in the sky, holding lives of tiny isolations.
And yet, and yet… on my way to work last week, I noticed some new ducks in the water.
Usually we have the mallards, currently fattening themselves in the waters by the sugar dock…
But these ducks were different, with white stripes on their heads.
A google search suggests they are long-tailed ducks, who summer and breed up in the arctic and are currently migrating to the eastern U.S. where they winter – just stopping in, a layover on their journey.
I was talking about the ducks with my old friend Sabrina, visiting from Ottawa.
She was in town wanting to see some of the exhibits at the inaugural Toronto Biennale – one of the larger exhibit spaces being just across the street from me, gathered around the theme of Shoreline.
We climbed around on the big wooden structure by Adrian Blackwell resembling the shape of the lakefront I look at every day –
Until I noticed my old friend Andrew across the room, just sitting down at a table with a coffee, and went over, startling him into a hug.
It had been so very long since I’d seen him, so many years had passed that there was a divorce I’d guessed at but didn’t want to believe between two beloved souls, both of them so creative and wonderful in different ways – too different, they’d finally concluded, and off they went in their own directions, a warm beautiful home on a tree-lined street in a friendly neighbourhood torn assunder, hearts broken.
In fact, there was a new book he said coyly, a sly crooked smile of pleasure in accomplishment.
And later in the day, sitting on the Sherbourne bus heading south after a browse in an overflowing Book City on the Danforth, full to the brim with the beginnings of the Christmas season on a Saturday afternoon, I cracked open his latest Ticking Heart and was reminded of how much local flavour he imbues in his books – the corner of Barton and Euclid evoked in the opening paragraph, a corner I know by heart from the years when my boy went to school at Palmerston, and a place I still see on the days I visit my friend Nicky…
The richness of place, I was thinking, even in its younger moments, its birthing moments, even as it is being built, even if it is cold.
The strange melancholy even of a construction site where bunnies can be seen in the early mornings and the Santa Claus parade parks at the end of its run in a moment of fun park absurdity.
Sunday, the final day in a weekend packed with lovely human encounters, was brunch with Sabrina and Louise, another old friend from back in the day in Montreal, in town to visit family.
We stood around the kitchen table in my tiny new home and laid out food and found plates and cutlery in the cupboards and talked about time and failing memory and the decline of bodies and accidents slow to heal the way only women who have known each other for decades can do, talking over top of each other finishing each others sentences, laughing at jokes that have been running between us forever…until a moment where Sabrina – or maybe it is Louise? – is telling a story, making a point, building the narrative towards a natural culmination point, saying:
“… Because in the end, we are all…” and completing the sentence, Louise and Sabrina both speak at once:
Louise saying: “goddesses”
Sabrina saying: “bags of flesh”
There is a split second pause before we are all bent over, helplessly howling with laughter at the perfection of the opposition, the absurd juxtaposition of such wildly diverging endings to a sentence.
Ahhhhhhh… old friends.
And there you have it – a dispatch from the life of a goddess/bag of flesh in a tiny glass box in a cold and soulless city.