Sunday, July 12, 2015

Eyes Wide Shut

After a storm-filled winter and cold, rainy spring, there’s no misery worse than being stuck inside with the flu on the four sunniest, hottest days of summer so far. Right?

Er, well, wrong.

First off, it’s really just a bad cold, but it feels bad enough to be called a flu, so I’m going with that. I’ll spare you all the details, but one symptom of this high-level cold is that, for two days now, I haven’t been able to read, watch TV or movies, or generally look at anything because of itchy, watering eyes akin to the worst seasonal allergy attack you or I have ever had. Meanwhile, with my eyes half open for only seconds at a time, I can see that many of my FB friends are off to the beach, on retreats, waterskiing, hiking and flying to exotic locales and posting wonderful pictures designed both to proclaim the beauty of life and. occasionally, I’m sure, to stir a light envy within the still-beating hearts of those who aren’t there with them. Most, though, are just sharing, and I appreciate that, in fact. I don’t live vicariously, but I like to see people enjoying their lives. I usually welcome proof of life.

The first two days, I was doing okay, figuring I’d be better by Sunday. Yesterday, I was supposed to start my road trip to the U.S. – something I did for the first time in August of last year and enjoyed it so much that I feel a need to do it again. But, as you can see, I’ve had to delay the gratification of several days of driving nowhere in particular and feeding my soul with the sights of a different country. America is no country for sick men. (Here, I’m sidestepping the obvious allusion to certain interest groups, televangelists and Fox news.)

The rebounding tomato plants.
I didn’t sleep last night and so, this morning, my eyes still hurt. I stayed in bed till nearly 9 a.m., then forced myself to go make coffee and then some toast. I already had my sunglasses on, so I went out to the backyard, where it’s sunny and warm – something a raw throat, and all the rest, have kept me from enjoying the past few days. I saw that my strawberry plant was hanging low – the squirrels and bunnies had eaten a few berries, but, miraculously, had left a couple of me. So I ate them. Vitamin C in the form of a fresh, ripe strawberry is pure therapy.

That little yellow bud there?
Looks like a great pumpkin's early days.
Then, I took a tour around the garden that I’d started back in mid-June when the weather was just warming up, but there were still frost warnings and torrential rains, with lots of high winds. I didn’t know if it would survive, especially the withered tomato plants and the giant pumpkin. The tomato plants had looked sick, nearly dead when I finally planted them. The pumpkin, even as recently as a couple of days ago, didn’t look so great.

Trying to catch and sing the sun in flight -
the promise of a sunflower.
But, somehow, they survived. I got out the hose and gave them all – the peppers, onions, lettuces,  tomatoes, squashes and flowers – and gave them a good, long drink. And I even saw that the lone sunflower that I’d planted – my most favourite of flowers, but which I’d never grown before (but then, I’ve never grown any plants before that lived) was sturdy and strong, peering up at me as if to say, “Soon, boss, soon.”

From the shade, I see and feel the breeze,
and drink my coffee, sunglasses on.
Then I sat myself down in the shade where I had a good view of it all – the rippling blue lake, the welcoming tent that makes me think that I might have run away with the circus after all, the waving flowers, the burgeoning vegetables, and surrounded by tall, sheltering trees and green grass all around – and realized that the plants weren’t the only ones that have survived and were thriving, in spite of nature, and yet because of nature.

All the flowers lived.
Self-pity fled from my soul. I thought of friends who are battling cancer, living with daily illness, have had trauma in their lives, both physical and emotional, from which they’re still recovering  and wondered, what has this morning been like for them? What has this weekend been like for them? This springless spring and sunless winter? What have they  endured that I couldn’t even begin to fathom?
Of course, self pity isn’t my style. ‘Twas merely a fleeting touch of gray to begin with. I know I’ll be fine tomorrow. In fact, I am fine today. I’ll be well tomorrow or the next day. I’ll take my road trip and other adventures as soon as I can – if only because I can. I’m always all too aware of those who wish they could do these things and, for various reasons, truly cannot. So, in a way, I owe it to life itself, and to myself, to get on with it, to grow things and enjoy moments, to participate in life in as many ways as possible for as long as I possibly can.

I won’t dare to think anything so pithy as that I’m doing it for anyone else. But it doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with others. And it’s not a bad thing to remember that a cold is just a cold, even if it feels like a flu. And to be unable to see well for a couple of days is hardly the worst calamity to strike a person, even a writer.
Sitting out there, the wind blowing  and the sun shining upon my bare chest and feet, I remembered a time four years ago  – in July 2011, at the height of summer, when I had eye surgery and wore dark glasses inside and outside for nearly two weeks. It was a self-inflicted surgery, to make my vision stronger (which it did, I’m happy to say), but I was in the midst of revising a novel called Finton Moon at that time.  Suddenly, I found myself unable to stand the glare of the computer screen. What was I to do? Surely, I couldn’t just wait two weeks of glorious summer (tick-tick, tick-tock, with classes starting up again in six or seven weeks) before writing again. Back then, I hadn’t published yet and the thought of wasting two precious weeks was, well, unthinkable.

NL Book Award winner,
 completed with blind faith.
So, I dug out my neverending short story collection and thought that, if I could just write the three or four stories I knew I had left to tell (though I had no idea what they would be) then there was no reason for me not to submit Moonlight Sketches to a publisher by the end of summer. Long story short (or short stories short) I wrote “The Darkness and Darcy Knight,” “Run, Mother, Run!” “Fish of the Damned” and “Chosey Bilch,” as well as a couple of others in a prolific period of about six weeks. The other stories had been revised (some published, some award-winning already) so often that they didn’t need much revision at all. And, once I’d written these stories, and my sight came back to normal, I was able to revise them to my heart’s content. By the end of that summer, I was able to submit my manuscript to the one publisher I thought could appreciate those stories more than any other – Creative Publishing. As I’ve said before, it was the right collection for the right publisher at the right time. And if I hadn’t had the eye surgery, I might still be writing that collection. As it was, I signed a contract in mid-December of that same year.
So, I thought, this morning, I feel inspired to write a blog entry about all these thoughts. And, later today, I think I’ll try my hand at a new short story for a new collection I’m working on.

I can always revise these things later when my eyes are wide open and healthy.

Life, you see, is a lot like that. But when I take that road trip alter this summer, I think I’d better be able to keep my eye on the road. Still, I won’t know where I’m going till I get there, and that’s the most exhilarating part.

Please forgive the typos. No revision today.

But, as you can probably see, I did take some pictures before the moment had passed.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Authorial In Tent

Day 1: It rained. A lot.
This blog post was originally handwritten in a tent beside a lake. I've typed it onto my iPad and posted it a couple of days later. My intention is to blog, occasionally, from the interior of my tent. Sometimes, I'll write after the fact about the experience and whatever epiphanies have occurred. Other times, I'll just post exactly what my thoughts were while sitting out there at various times of day and night.

Since I first wrote this one, just three days ago, I've been in the tent every day at various times, including Canada Day, as the orange full moon was floating above the lake - an indelible image that I'll take with me always.

Sitting beside Walden Pond (2014)
Last night, I recalled I'd bought a lovely copy of Walden when I was visiting Concord, MA last summer, and I thought it would be interesting to read a little bit from that book now and then while sitting in my tent, just to relax and be transported, to transcend this techology-driven, information-obsessed world. It did the trick. I was particularly interested in the introduction of this volume which explained that Thoreau was chagrined at breaches in his privacy as he wrote and lived on the shores of Walden Pond for a short while. The train would go past, apparently, and his cabin, that he'd built, was quite visible to the passengers. Every time a large truck zooms down the highway across the lake where I live, I know exactly how he feels. Isolation isn't easy to come by, but alienation, I suppose, is a different story.

Walden Pond in modern times (2014)
I take some solace in knowing that Thoreau came to the lake to get away, but found civilization intruding quite often. Furthermore, the author himself often went into Concord for meals and company. I do the same in Sussex and Hampton, and always figured there was something wrong with me for not being able to sit perpetually by the lake and stare at the water while thinking deep philosophical thoughts. I also found that Thoreau had never intended to write about himself or his experience, but he'd found that that's what people were most interested in reading from him. I don't know if that's true in my case, but I do find the world interesting enough to write about it, and to try and figure it out. So, that's what I'm doing here.

Beside the lake, beneath the trees
For now, here's my first word-for-word journal entry from my first day in the tent. I'll admit to being vaguely aware of a potential audience, and I'm sure it affects the writing. But I aim for truthfulness - though not necessarily confession - and, as time goes on, I'm sure I'll become more the kind of journalist I hope to be.

June 28, 2015 (Sunday afternoon)
Beside a lake, Southern New Brunswick

I’ve purchased a tent on sale for $125 at Canadian Tire so I can have a room – or, really, an entire structure - outside of my rented cottage to spend moments or hours, or perhaps entire days and nights, if I can get used to it – of living/being somewhere outside of the usual. I plan to do a lot of writing out here, but I'll also be using it as an area for sitting (or lying) and thinking, eating, napping and playing mind games with myself.

I am an interior kind of person. Or, at least, that is how I have lived for the past 30 years or more years.  Even as a kid, I was an outsider, so to speak. I was known to be a reader – a solitary type of creature who enjoyed spending his days inside with a good book. And books, by their nature, lead you inside of yourself and, simultaneously, lead you outside of yourself and into the broader world.

But what people didn’t know was that, even though I was most often found inside my own head, and sometimes inside the house, I was most at home when I was not at home – roaming the woods, trekking the shorelines, hiding in the tall grass – or, when possible, hanging out in a tent or treehouse built in the forest near our home – “home,” though, is a word whose meaning eludes me. Honestly, I don’t know what that is, or is supposed to be.

More on my rootlessness another time, especially as I try to sink roots into the soil of New Brunswick.

For now, it’s my first afternoon of this grand experiment, and I need to record the sensations for posterity, for my own sake.

The rain is pelting on all sides and the roof of the tent, like being inside a Jiffy popper, I suppose. the wind keeps tugging at the nylon sides of the tent, and I do wonder how long it will take before the entire thing comes down in a heap.

I almost used the rain as an excuse not to come out here, but I convinced myself that the tent would leak – or be fine – whether I was inside it or not. So I filled my thermos with hot lemon tea and stuffed a few basic necessities inside my knapsack and ventured out. At that time, it was only pecking rain, not the deluge that’s currently threatening to capsize my tent.

My necessities include:
A notepad
A good pen
A thermos of tea
A camera
Two flea market pillows and a blanket
A cardboard box (to stabilize my cup of tea and, as it turns out, it makes a handy writing desk)

Except for the camera, there is no technology. I brought my iPod (without internet turned on) for music, just in case – and it has a voice recorder for times when I’m out here after dark. But I likely won’t be using it.

(I just tried to get a recording of the rain beating down on the tent, but discovered that the iPod requires a mic. Oh, well.)

The idea here is simple: to be able to “work” in a space that feels like play. And it does feel that way.
By sneaking out to my tent for several hours a day, I feel as if I’m stepping outside the expected box of sitting at a desk or a laptop somewhere sanctioned and appropriate for such activity. I’m creating my own writing retreat and an enforced wireless zone where internet is forbidden and therefore, I already feel that it’s freeing my mind to both wander where it wants and to focus on whatever it wants to focus on.

This could be interesting.

And there are no bugs inside the tent.

And I’m out in the rain without getting wet. Beside the lake.

And when the rain stops, I can open the flaps for more light.

How easily I can imagine what it was like to live without the luxuries of modern life and what a future world – or alternate world -  would feel like without those conveniences on which we have become so dependent.

The stove, the fridge, the toilet, the table, the laptop, the wifi and internet, the big screen TV – they’re all inside, and I can easily go inside and have them back.

But, as a writer of fiction, it’s crucial to be able to imagine and to empathize. And to be able to leave one’s interior world behind for a new and somewhat jolting, but fun experience. I like to travel, but when I cannot, or am not doing so, it is good to have some place to go that will inspire me and allow my mind to wander.

The odd, and wonderful, thing is that I feel, out here, writing by hand and the natural daylight, with the rain beating down, as if I could keep writing all day, and somehow everything seems to matter a little bit more. It’s the intensity of confinement, I suspect, as much as it is the ability to do something different and playful. When the body is compressed, the mind expands.

But I won’t keep writing all day. Time to listen, now. And observe.