Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On hiring gardeners

Last week I parted with money for the second-best non-breathing investment of my life.

(The best was for a dishwasher. It cost $200. I had a three year old, a one year old and a big belly and it came with a shimmering glow and a chorus of angels.)

Last week, I hired two ladies with rough hands and soft hearts to come weed my hated rock garden.

I looked out every few minutes from my computer to cheer. I confessed to them before they left that I loved them. I believe they understood what I meant.

They edged the back of the garden so it looked clean. They got at the roots of the wild mustard that was invading. They tidied things up. They got dirty and I stayed clean.

I thought that was why I had hired them -- but it wasn't.

In having them come, I figured out all sorts of things I had never known before.

I'm a hard worker. I don't mind getting dirt under my fingernails -- literally or metaphorically. I scrub bathtubs with joy, for the sake of seeing the difference afterwards. Having people come to weed my rock garden wasn't about being unwilling or too busy to work.

What it was actually about was me being overwhelmed and not knowing what to do about it.

I love my vegetable garden. I till it under in the fall, like putting a well-loved child to bed. In the spring, as soon as the snow is mostly gone, I poke fingers into thick, cold soil and drop peas in a row, and I wait. When plants come up, I know what they are. I know what to thin. I know to brush tomato leaves for the scent.

The rock garden was different. I've whined about how it harbours weeds among the rocks, and it does, but it turned out that that was not at the heart of my trouble with this garden.

There were four or five clumps in my rock garden that were a mixture of goodness-knows-what -- some desirable and some not-so-desirable plants, all growing together. It may sound really really simple to you, but the very best thing these ladies did for me was to set a tarp on the lawn, dig out the good, the bad and the ugly of a clump and then put back the plants we decided we wanted. That I could do this was a complete revelation to me somehow.

I looked at the garden when they were almost done and I pointed to another clump that had a couple of plants mixed together in it. They explained to me what was what and said they could both stay, that they were both desirable plants.

What I had felt toward this garden was frustration -- that no matter how hard I worked at it, it would beat me. Even while I slept, it would keep churning out stuff to thwart me. I would pull and hack at it and my efforts felt futile. In reality, they kind of were. What I needed was to take a step back and to see what it meant to take charge of the garden. I needed someone to help me sort out what was what, and help me to know how to do that for myself.

It got me thinking about all sorts of ways we can help one another not get overwhelmed by life, ways I need help and ways I can help. But mostly I'm thinking about how I didn't even know I was overwhelmed and how frustrated I felt, and about how much frustration I see all around me and what might be lurking beneath that and what might pull those roots out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

what i made in your absence

i'm afraid this will come out wrong but i'm going to say it anyhow. when you are gone and the kids are here i feel very deeply responsible, more than i am probably. i think about safety more. i feel sometimes like i'm all that stands between them and orphanhood. when you are farther away, i feel it more, that you couldn't just pick up and come home if there were an emergency.

i feel that i am acting in good faith in your absence, keeping the contract we've made of our lives, the normalcy for the kids even when you aren't here.

i made cod cakes in your absence -- cod and mashed potatoes and onions, dipped in bread crumbs and fried. i made curried lentil-cauliflower soup and homemade bread. i made a hot orange-ginger-honey tea. i made ground pork, potatoes and peas. i made dishes clean and children wake up. i made sure the house was locked for the night and the dog was fed and watered. i do these things of course when you are here, but you do too. when you are not here, it is a solo dance. this is where i'm afraid it will come out wrong, that my single mom friends will read this and think big whup, i do that every single day, and you do and i want to acknowledge this and to say it's not that i am complaining about my hard lot as a two-day single parent, not at all. it's the absence i'm talking about and the need to temporarily figure out the juggle. it's like someone changed the music and i have to find the new rhythm, but not forever, just for now.

i count the hours until you return every time. again not because it's too hard but because i like the other song, the one where you are here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

On Things I Want to Touch

I often want to touch things I shouldn’t: in particular, sculptures and molten metal and glass. Scolding museum docents and third-degree burns are sometimes all that keeps me back. I am fascinated by the red-hot glowing of metal and glass and I have stood watching glassblowers and blacksmiths at work on their craft.

And that is particularly what I was reminded of on Thursday night as we sat in the audience at the Molson Amphitheatre watching Gotye. To most people in North America, Gotye is a one-hit Somebody I Used to Know wonder. I first heard of him last spring, described as being like Peter Gabriel and Sting mixed together: I had to investigate this further. The chorus of Somebody led me to find his other – in my opinion better – music and I was hooked. I watched a short YouTube documentary in which he talked about coming across a sound fence in the Australian outback and how playing it had inspired his environmentally apocalyptic song Eyes Wide Open (my personal favourite). The day his North American tour was announced, I bought tickets without checking my or Dave’s schedule: we were going. I felt fortunate that Dave didn’t think this was one of Those Singers that women like and men loathe. We were both excited to go.

We’ve been busy about the business of children and soccer and work and concerts have fallen low on our lists in the last, um, couple of decades. We have enjoyed concerts by friends, but the last big concert we remember going to was Ashley MacIsaac, about sixteen years ago.

There were parallels. What I adored about MacIsaac was how the man shredded his bow as he fiddled. He plays with such intensity that he literally must replace bows as he goes along. It looks like curls from a wood plane or tangles of hair coming off the bow.

Gotye moved around the stage with energy, singing, playing various instruments, but as I watched, I knew that primarily, foundationally, the man is a percussionist. Because I knew the music well, because we were sitting in a cloud of pot smoke, because we weren’t close to the stage, it was actually easy to watch the clever videos and to sing along to the music, losing sight of the excellent small performers on stage. I kept reminding myself to watch the musicians themselves.

But there was one sight that imprinted itself on my mind: Gotye, de Backer, himself, joining the drummer on his own set of drums, raising his arm to full height and bringing it back down to hit the drum, over and again in a rhythm that reminded me exactly of a blacksmith hammering at his forge.

And that, I think, is the key to the beauty of his music: that molten quality, that too-hot-to-touch danger, that between states of matterness.

I wondered as I watched whether such vigour took or created physical strength: did he have to work out in order to be able to play, or was the act of playing the workout?
At one point, he confessed to having had a frog in his throat that evening. It was hard to hear but after he announced the last song and after that song was played, Dave stood up to go while I cheered for an encore. “Let the man rest,” Dave said, but Gotye came back on stage for three more songs, possibly the best of the night. We talked about this afterwards, that probably a rest was what was needed on one level, but the passion for the music, the love of performing, the ability to create such raw power was that much stronger.

I was inspired. I want to bring that same kind of energy – the bow-shredding, anvil hammering passion – to the work that motivates me with that kind of passion. It had occurred to me before the concert – not with any kind of worry – that we might be the most ancient people there. This was not true – there were people of all ages (elderly to very young), genders, races, and economic abilities all enjoying the music. It was perhaps the most diverse concert I have been to. What made me feel really glad was that while drumming may require physical energy I don’t always have, what I do does not. Writing fiction is a quiet interior experience of shapeshifting and molten transformation. Physical fitness helps – typing is hard on the neck and shoulders – but it’s not necessarily a young person’s game. In fact, sometimes the skill and passion grow with age.

I see Gotye’s arm poised, fully extended above his head, ready to slam down with precision at just the right moment. That’s the picture I carry away from the concert. That’s what I want to be able to touch when I sit down to write.

The Provenance of Things or Dear Rob A

Dear Rob A,

It's been more than 21 years since our wedding, but today I was folding the sheets you gave us, the double-bed sheets that are royal blue and purple, kind of an Aztec print. Maybe the sheets that a young guy buys for the sister of his ex-girlfriend when she gets married.

Anyhow, I thought you'd like to know that those sheets are still with us, and they spend the summer on my six-foot tall son's futon mattress, and I've now replaced them for the colder months with fuzzier sheets.

I think about the provenance of things sometimes. I survey my own clothes and remember that this shirt came from Value Village, the scarf from Italy, the jeans from Reitmans, the socks from Quebec, from that trip we took.

Or it could be wedding gifts. The cozy blanket we stared at aghast when we opened it after the wedding became our go-to keep-us-warm blanket for a million years, that now keeps the dog warm at night.

Sometimes we get gifts or buy things and they get integrated into our life and we don't think about where they came from. Sometimes we remember to check labels before we buy, avoiding products and produce from places where things are produced badly and people are treated poorly.

But sometimes we remember. I called a great aunt this week for a phone number and we chatted for a few minutes and I felt deeply rooted in my family, even though this is a woman I see once a year only, if there are no funerals.

In Ithaca this summer, I noted that the provenance of food was more important than the provenance of people. Ithaca is not a place where one is shunned for being from away: most people are, many have found the place and stayed. But where your food comes from --- ah, now that matters. The market has a strict 30-mile radius, and when we stopped at the deli (The Piggery) for sandwiches, the woman at the counter greeted us with "what can I tell you about our food?" I didn't know what to ask so I said, "What should I want to know?" and she told me how the pigs were raised and slaughtered and prepared. And then we ate glorious pulled pork piled high.

Knowing, remembering where we, our stuff, and our food come from matters.

I don't know where you've gone, Rob A. Maybe I could find you on LinkedIn or Facebook. But I thought of you today as I turned the sheets and folded them away into the cupboard once more. And I was grateful that you were in my life, even for a short season.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Huh. She's Not Dead Afterall.

It's been a good summer and it was nice to be a little less plugged in than usual. Which brings me to my point.

I don't keep Miss Vickie's Sea Salt and Malt Vinegar chips in my house because they would last no time at all. They would whisper to me from the cupboard and my plans to have a small bowlful would result in frenzied gobbling and licking of the bag. I know that about myself. It isn't pretty, but it's true. My self control takes place in the store; if the chips get past that line, there is little defense remaining.

Likewise, the matter of being digitally connected. When I go on holidays, part of the joy of the vacation is being disconnected from any electronic existence. Being freed up to live in the moment, rather than keeping track of the world and my world. When we were in Ithaca this summer, we missed two big news stories: the US senator/congressman who said that rape never caused pregnancy, and some celebrity hookup or breakup I've already forgotten.

I also have regularly maintained a different kind of disconnect: while I use a laptop that is perpetually connected to the Internet, I have the cheapest, oldest cell phone with a pay and talk plan and no real data plan that I know of. In other words, I don't text and I can't check the Internet while I'm walking my dog, getting groceries, sitting at soccer games, having dinner with friends, etc. (I may not be dead after a two month hiatus, but I certainly am a dinosaur, no?)

I do rush home from any and all events and -- before I even use the facilities -- I run to check what I might have missed in the ether. But my point is that, like my lack of resistance to chips in my house, I am firmly convinced that I would never again make eye contact, notice birds and sunsets and telephone poles were I to give in and buy myself a smartphone. I would be texting with the best of them and frankly with all of them, all the time.

But, I have a nonagenarian in my life who has decided that the fax machine is the Last Communication Technology She is Willing to Learn. Although she has been given an iPad and has wireless access in her home, she has declined to adopt any more technology, even though she forfeits the chance to see most photos of her great grandbabies as a result. And I'm scared of being like that. Our fax machine broke a few years ago and we never replaced it. There may well come a point when the only option is a smartphone and what will I do then?

Unlike my elderly friend, I am not being a Luddite about this. I get the convenience, the opportunity to text with my kids, the apps, everything. But I'm actually trying to protect myself from myself. You can say all you like about quiet hours, but seriously, I'll eat those chips until the skin is hanging off my tongue and my ankles are swollen to bursting. (I exaggerate only slightly. And really, do you know how dangerous it is for me to even write about chips?)

Once in a while, I use my husband's smartphone simply to keep up with the cool kids, to make sure I'm not left behind altogether on the information highway. But I'm wondering about how to stay being a person who is connected and yet who wants to wander -- literally, not metaphorically -- keeping my eyes open on the very real world around me, rather than glued to a small, blinking screen.

How about you? How do you work this one out?