I’ve started reading again lately. Not that I ever really stopped entirely, but I’ve been lazy about it these past few years. I could blame it on the screens, or on my busy work life, but really I’ve just fallen out of the habit. The problem with that in our culture of attention-deficit, is that once you’ve stopped reading, it becomes hard to start again because the brain has to be retrained to focus for long enough to finish a whole chapter, and then a whole book.
From an early age, reading was my preferred activity, and I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t have something on the go. I have not had cable TV in most of my adult life, and before the advent of Netflix and other like services, that meant if I wasn’t out socializing, then I was home reading a book or a magazine (loved magazines and journals). Before the advent of smart phones, whenever I had to wait in a queue or take the bus, I carried a book with me to pass the time. There is no doubt the encroachment of electronic services on my life has pushed the printed word to the margins. My brain seems to think it is so much more rewarding to check Facebook on my phone or crash out in front of a Netflix show than it is to immerse myself in the world and words of an author.
A couple of months ago I read Stephen King’s On Writing which has been kicking around my shelves for awhile. Part memoir, part instruction, it’s full of excellent insight and advice. In it King says “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.” He also advises that aspiring writers should get rid of their TV. His book was written in the very early days of Internet, how much harder this instruction becomes if we think “get rid of all screens”.
I really took the advice about making time to read to heart, realizing that at the most intellectually productive times of my life (last seen during my Master’s degree) I was reading from a wide variety of materials simultaneously and at great volume. Not only that, but it is by other writers I am so often inspired in both content and style. While I do not write “from” the work of others (responding to or borrowing from), I carry all those other words around with me, not to mention a sense of how I (don’t) want to write when I come to work on a new piece.
And so I’ve been reading with ferocity lately, turning the TV on less and taking a book with me wherever I go. My house is littered with reading in progress, and I’ve re-subscribed to literary journals and magazines (oh! how I’ve missed you!) It’s been a few weeks and I seem to have turned my brain around: I increasingly seek out a book rather than my phone or the television when I want to unwind. Right now I’m engrossed in The Farm by Joanne Ramos. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood made me want to go back and read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and the latest issue of the Paris Review is sitting beside my keyboard, waiting for a moment when I can crack it open and read the Lydia Davis essay.
In A Writing Life Annie Dillard says, “if you ask a twenty-one year old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushing, ‘Nobody’s.’ In his youth he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat.”
A renewed focus on writing should increase our attention to reading. I feel a deep sense of relief about it, turning the pages as I curl up on the couch or ride the ferry to Nanaimo, as though getting off the screen and back to the inner worlds of books is what I’ve been craving all along.
I’m heading out for a four-day meditation retreat tomorrow and I am not ready at all. By that I don’t mean packing my bags, that only takes me a few minutes, it’s just that I’m not really in a kneeling-and-staring-at-the-wall-for-hours frame of mind right now. My meditation practice in the last three weeks has taken a backseat to work and writing – and I have a bit of guilt around seeing my teachers for that reason too.
But I’ve paid, I’ve agreed to my practice position (head tea server), and what’s more, I’m on the hook to give someone a ride from the ferry to the retreat centre so there is really no backing out on this one. And I wouldn’t want to anyways – after all, when we come to meditation practice, we come from wherever we are at that moment. It can’t really be any other way.
A musician friend of mine staying at the house this week says that to be perfect, to reach enlightenment is not truly human. That to be human is to be full of flaws and contradictions. And I think that’s right. I don’t believe in perfection, but I do think that striving for it is one hundred percent who we are as a species. It’s what gives us drive to improve things for ourselves and others. It’s also what leads us to some of our worst behaviours. The notion of perfectability can be twisted in so many different directions, and they aren’t all altruistic.
So that’s not what I go to meditation retreat for. Though I believe the psychological state that looks like “enlightenment” is attainable, I don’t think it’s anything mystical that one gains and then holds onto. Then again – what do I know? I’m not enlightened! What I do know is that sitting in meditation for hours, or days at a time, silently letting go of thoughts and cultivating an inner quiet, allows for openings and understandings that might not otherwise be there in our busy, noisy lives. I’ve certainly had experiences – often post retreat – that suggest meditation has the power to unlock some pretty deep stuff in us, and some of it’s pretty instructive to doing just a little bit better in this world. Which is why I do this thing in the first place: each time is a totally different experience of the practice, and each time I come away with a little bit more of something — not perfection — but a little bit more of myself in the world.
Which is why showing up, exactly as I am — unprepared and exhausted and a little bit resistant to practice at the moment — is so important. Because I’ll only find out what I’m going to learn this time when I do. And besides, it’s beautiful up there in the mountains, even if I do spend most of my time looking at the floor.
The wind against the strings of the guitar hanging on a post of our deck, catching the hollow of the body and making a faint thrum as though being played.
The pleasure of opening up a thrift store book to find an artifact from the past–an old train ticket, theatre stub, bus transfer–that gives me some insight into the last person who was reading it and what they were doing. Today I found a bus ticket from 1992 in Vancouver. Once I found a slip of paper with a1940s phone number written on it, the kind that required an operator to call it, a word followed by four numbers.
My husband making noise with effort as he hoists plywood underneath the cabin. He is attaching doors to a storage compartment he is building. While not handy by nature, he has been teaching himself how to make do lately. I find it’s better if I don’t work with him on these projects. It reminds me too much of the dynamic between my parents when we do.
How one pen feels right when another does not; how my hand cramps after only a few sentences and that makes my tooth hurt where I just bit down on a square of dark chocolate.
Just an hour ago, a conversation with Ron driving by on his ATV who stopped the flow of our words after five minutes to explain why he was driving around with his lever-action shotgun beside him. “Coyotes,” he said, “Moose. Cougars. Even bears.” As though I might not know. His gun didn’t give me pause and neither did he. Apparently I am used to encounters out here. Everyone is extra-friendly when they are carrying a gun.
A hash made of leftovers just before sitting down to write. Potatoes, garlic scapes, dandelion greens, red pepper and pork chop with a splat of rhubarb ketchup on top. I’m always a bit sorry when Brian doesn’t feel like eating with me, but also glad when I get to have it to myself.
The ache in my tooth reminding me that I haven’t seen a dentist in three years.
The mosquitoes landing on my hand, the ring of water on the table left behind by the glass I drank from at lunch, the sound of a hammer, a chainsaw, a logging truck out on the main road.
The taste of stale chocolate, my tooth.
Bird song, chipmunk chatter. The body of the guitar knocking up against the post it’s hanging on. The chime of the strings each time it knocks wood against wood.
I’ve been busy these last few weeks, reading, writing, setting up new websites for my creative live and our house concerts – and these activities ave brought me to a gratitude for a few things I did in my twenties and thirties that have me set up now. There are lots of things I should have done younger and didn’t, but here are some of the things I did do which are helping me right now:
Studied Marxist economic theory. That’s not what I thought I was doing at the time of course. I was an activist! A revolutionary! A world-changer! But because I hung out with organized socialists, the need to study theory was also impressed upon me. Thus in my early twenties I read most of Marx’s three-volume Capital, as well as numerous other books and articles.
I’m not going to pretend that left me an expert in economics – but recently I picked up How Will Capitalism End? by Wolfgang Streeck and am really enjoying it immensely. It’s an incisive (if somewhat terrifying) discussion of all the cracks in our current social reality that are starting to show, and written in a way that really cuts to the point. It’s not overly academic, but still, the volume of references he draws on might be overwhelming if you’d never heard of the social and economic theorists he’s talking about (Keynes! Polyani! Weber!) My 46-year old self is very glad that my 22 year old self stored a lot of that information when my brain was still fresh and absorbent. I’m not sure I could take it all in now.
Established a computer hosting service for radicals. I wasn’t particularly technologically inclined growing up, but when the opportunity presented itself for me to become a system admin for tao.ca, I took it on and went on to found resist.ca which I remained involved in for ten years. Though I’m not interested in that type of service work any longer, the fact I can tell my way around an MX or DNS record today is tremendously helpful when it comes to setting up new project domains and managing hosting on other servers. I also know how to ask for help, which is half of the battle: getting the terminology right. I just spent a bunch of hours transferring mail and domain records for our house concert project, and I noted that it would have been so much more painful if I was starting from scratch.
Writing. Now that I’m writing again, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that I have a lot of writing from my early and mid-thirties kicking around. That was the last time I had a solid daily writing practice and I can recognize now that some of what I worked on was pretty good. Not publishable good, but it’s a reminder that I’ve been doing this thing a lot and for most of my life in some capacity or another and that putting in the daily effort really does pay off.
I know, these isn’t your standard list of this type. Often when people look back (in blog posts and medium articles) they express gratitude for taking care of their skin early or establishing healthy eating routines young. But in this era of collapse politics, it pays to understand what’s happening and be able to organize oneself around it. I feel very equipped intellectually, and I have some useful skills – so even if I did drink too much, exercise too little, and smoke too many cigarettes when I was younger – some good came out the things I did do.
I haven’t touched down here in a couple of weeks because I’ve been head down working on the essay for the monthly mailing and it’s been an intense go. I’m writing about a friend who passed away three years ago, and if you want to know more about that, you can read it on Friday
Talking about the piece this morning, my friend Jill, whose edits and support have been instrumental in my recent writing process says to me “I do hope you identify as a writer because you certainly are one.”
And that’s a funny thing, because just this month I set up a new personal website and got moo cards made which say: Writer. Maker. Musician. which is a departure from my old tag line: Communicator, nature-lover, maker, and musician. While the switch from Communicator to Writer may seem tiny, to me it was monumental.
The term writer is fraught with questions for me; Am I good enough? Don’t I have to be published? Who am I to call myself a writer? You know the drill. I’ve feared claiming the title, as sounding too pretentious or even fraudulent. And yet I’ve written continuously, throughout my life. I’m paid to write professionally. I have worked poetry, fiction, and essays as a craft over long periods of time. This aversion to using writer as a self-descriptor is bordering on the ridiculous.
At the start of 2019 I set out some intentions: to make time for writing, to publish a monthly mailing with the writing, and to improve my blog and personal website presence in support of my creative work. Coming up on June, and reviewing my progress, it’s clear to me that I’ve been putting the effort in and as hard a slog as writing is, it’s the thing I am most gratified by when I get it right. Sure, I love to weave a good blanket! But writing is the work of my soul expressed, which is why it’s so central to my well-being.
I recently discovered a folder called “for submission” in my google drive which has a number of poems in it that I intended to send out for consideration about 8 years ago. I read a couple of them, expecting to cringe, but instead was pleasantly surprised to discover that with a bit of editing they really are submittable. I don’t know if I’ll do anything with those, but I have started thinking again about getting published. I’ve never made a serious run at it before, and I would have to decide what I wanted to devote that kind of time to, but at the moment it’s a thought I’m having (and that my friend Jill has encouraged me about this morning).
We’ll see. For the time being I’m pleased that I’ve finally settled on Writer. Even if it feels a bit uncomfortable to do so.