I woke in the night to hear rain, one of the loveliest sounds after a run of hot dry weeks. In the dark room, I listened to the percussive tap on our blue metal roof, thinking of the trees frogs by the front door—at one point last week, we counted 6—and the water barrels filling and everything drinking in rain with gratitude. When I came downstairs this morning, my house smelled fresh and cool from windows left open. We usually swim at 8:30 to avoid other people at the little beach area but it wasn’t until 10 that I walked into the water, in mist, to do my laps, the far shore soft green. If I was writing fiction, I’d stitch in the sound of the loons we heard yesterday during our swim, stitch in the kingfishers diving. But it was quiet, apart from the two young guys from Australia who came down to swim too.
At this point in the pandemic, I’m taking stock. Not of the cupboards or the freezer but something more intangible. Have I accomplished anything with all this time, the weeks and months of quiet? Should I have accomplished more? At the very beginning, when we were reluctant to venture out at all, I completed a novella begun last summer. I wrote the final pages—a party at the end of the narrator’s life, with friends and family gathered to feast and listen to a cello, an oud—and felt I was somehow commemorating a time and a place I might never know again in the same way. I thought I’d finished an essay collection but then realized that one long-ish essay didn’t work. It wasn’t until I began something new, an essay inspired by a phrase that came to me out of thin air, that I realized why the other essay didn’t work. So I removed it from the manuscript and went to work on the new piece which I think finishes the collection in the right way. What I learned writing the new essay was how to find meaning on old maps and how a pandemic can teach us where to look for the stories that reveal who we are.
While I was swimming this morning, swimming being my own personal form of meditation when the water is right and I can tune out everything else, I had a moment of panic. What now? What now? It seems that we will go in much the same way for months, maybe years. I feel safer doing my errands on a weekly basis, my stash of masks and sanitizer close at hand, and having my Ottawa family here last week, joined for a few days by my daughter, made me feel that social events might just happen again, carefully, and outdoors for the foreseeable future. On Sunday we’re driving to Lac Le Jeune to link up with our Edmonton family.
What now? These times ask that we use our abilities, I think, because the future is unpredictable. Maybe it always is but it’s never felt so precarious to me as it does now. We may not have the time we think we have, the future we think we deserve. As I swam this morning, I was trying to imagine what I might do next. I’ve always loved this advice from Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird:
Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.
I don’t think I’ve forgotten to have a creative life but I wonder if I’ve done enough, asked enough of myself in the face of this world I’ve both cherished and not done enough to care for. Have any of us? I don’t want to change direction but I want to pay more attention to where I’m going and what it takes to travel with care and love.
It’s not even mid-August but the air has a little thread of autumn running through it. On the surface of the lake this morning, leaves blown from the hardhack, shining willow, the alders near the shore. Now that we know what early spring and summer are like in a state of lock-down, we have the fall and winter to look forward to. I’m hoping for a phrase to wake me one of these mornings, to lead me into its territory so I know how to travel safe in the months to come.
At the edge of heaven, tatters of autumn
Cloud. After ten thousand miles of clear
Lovely morning, the west wind arrives. Here,
Long rains haven’t slowed farmers. FrontierWillows air thin kingfisher colors, andRed fruit flecks mountain pears. As a flute’sMongol song drifts from a tower, oneGoose climbs clear through vacant skies.–Du Fu