During this morning’s swim, I was thinking about writing. Often this is the case, though sometimes, like all of last week, I went up and down my lane in the pool figuring out how to use blue and red cotton strips to commemorate both the lane I was swimming in and the rivers swollen with rain, overflowing their banks, and in some cases forging new directions. But this morning it was writing I was thinking about as my arms and legs propelled me up and down, back and forth, the lifeguards chatting, John in the next lane, and a woman I don’t know over on the other side, swimming far more vigourously than we were. (I knew this, even without looking, because waves kept washing over my face.)
I’ve been reading Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a novel so intelligent and original that I found myself awake in the small hours, reading by the light of my bedside lamp. The cat purred between my legs and John’s. Last October, when I was in my rooms at UBC’s Carey Centre while John recovered from surgery, I read Lerner’s The Topeka School and loved it. 10:04 precedes The Topeka School but it reads in a way like part of a grand metafiction (and I’ll be looking for his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, because I understand it is also a composite work, autofiction, meditation on time, history, poetry, social constructs…). There’s a lot of art in these novels, a lot of artfulness that isn’t distracting but serves to highlight the narrator’s uneasy relationship with the present and what it requires of him. I recognised an entire chapter published in the New Yorker a few years ago as a short story and the chapter I’m reading now, set in the Texan town of Marfa, includes a poem which was published separately as a chapbook.
As I swam, thinking first of 10:04, my thoughts turned to my own recent work. I’ve put aside the novel I began in late summer, Easthope, because I knew I needed to focus on upcoming work on Blue Portugal, mostly answering the very diligent and gracious questions posed by the editor assigned to my book. In the mornings, I open my laptop, bring up the file, and think about certain things. I try to remember page numbers, sources of documents embedded in my text, whether or not the musical passages truly belong where I’ve threaded them like little songs. In the back of my mind, Easthope sits in the misty weather, woodsmoke curling up from the chimney of the house the narrator lives in with her husband, their boatshed filled with old marine engines. Sometimes I open that file just to make sure they’re still there, sitting at their table by the window looking out over Jervis Inlet. Wait, was that a pod of orca passing, in pursuit of herring or seals? Close the file, close the window, because you don’t have the kind of mind that can focus right now, I tell myself. Maybe once I could have worked in two windows, moving from one tab to another, but these days it’s all I can do to keep one clear and ready for the work I need to do. The seasons pass. More rain is promised. I’ve taken to turning on a light in the greenhouse at night and when I get up to pee and look out, the little clear box glows in the darkness.
There was a lot of talk years ago (maybe still is) about walking meditation, the practise of bringing body and mind together peacefully. I never thought of the walks I took as a practise. They were, well, walks. When John and I went up the mountain, we talked as we walked, noting birds, potential Christmas trees, scats familiar and strange. (The first time I saw wolf scat, I remember a tiny shudder running across my shoulders. I looked around. Nothing.) And maybe swimming is just that too: swimming. But it feels like such a potent time, a meditation that isn’t always peaceful (those waves), pushing my body forward and back in the water, eyes open but not seeing anything outer. My seeing is inner, contained. Strips of cotton, reels of red thread, a little glass vial of special needles from Japan, a book by my bed with questions of its own (how to make a child, how to know how a person’s own body is connected to the larger social body, how to prepare for storms, for death, how to write a book which will be this book, and more), the windows I might have opened, one inward and one looking out, out, out.