“RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.”
– Some Rules for Students and Teachers by Sister Corita Kent and John Cage
Here’s what it’s like for me at the start of this blank page. Thoughts circle like clouds, move in then away. If I can glimpse another behind, a shape emerges. Sentences become paragraphs, clouds line the sky.
“Start in the action”, editors say. “Show, don’t tell”. Write “a woman wept” instead of “people were sad”. Better still, follow her into the parking lot, wiping tears from her cheeks, and watch her fumble with her keys as she leans against the car. They drop in the dust, and she looks at them for a long second, then follows, sits hard in the gravel, her dress bunched around her knees. Rocks bite into her skin. “Why?” she says, softly.
I’m at my ancestral home in Alberta, listening to the clock tick seconds. Outside, the needles of a spruce tree I planted as a boy, now tall and wide, swing softly. It’s strange to wake up here, so far away from Toronto, and Kensington’s busy-ness. No beep of backing trucks, nor muffled voices through the drywall. It’s quiet. Nothing is happening at all.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I already told you about the clock, so time’s happening. And there’s the faintest roar of a highway two miles away. Out the front window, a bird flies from the feeder. I stand to see it better. Beneath its black flat tray, a squirrel picks up a seed, twitches his tail, then moves to another. A chickadee dives in beside him.
Aside from them, I’m alone. My father is on the way to the hospital to be with my mother. She is there for a month, in a hospital gown, her immune system wiped clean by drugs in clear bags, dripped into her neck.
Her pale face. Clear tubes passed through machines. Drip-drip-drip.
This past winter, my dad’s faint voice, over the phone, over her shoulder, just as I was about to hang up.
“…(You’d better tell him)….”
“Tell me what?”
“Well,” she said, “they didn’t find anything on the CT scan to explain my back pain, but in my blood, they found something called…blast cells?”
Oh no. Nononono. Anything but that.
They are trying to kill those blast cells now. There are too many, lost, without a purpose except to copy themselves until there is room for no others, and since science has no way to be specific, at least not yet, we’re razing them all. Yesterday, her hematologist told her to expect her hair to fall out.
“I’ll just ask a nurse to shave it,” she said. “It’s better than pieces in my mouth.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I thought there was more time. I had a book to write, and a year off from the ER to do it. I was to travel the world, exploring different views of the body. From India through the Himalayas, into China, to the Amazon and its millions of plants and plant medicines, our indigenous North and what wisdom first people gleaned from thousands of years on this land.
Instead, I’m in the hospital without a stethoscope, waiting hours for doctors to come. I didn’t know irony could be so tedious. Yesterday, I pushed my mom in a wheelchair, half my body hers, towards a concert in the foyer. People listened, tubes in their arms and noses too.
“Jim, I’m tired. Push me back.”
My dad has left the bedroom door open. Only his side of the bed has been used. Her bathrobe lies on the chair. The house is quiet, but for the clock.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
And I catch myself. Finally. Months. Since that phone call in February.
This is exactly how it is supposed to be, always was. All the forces of the universe, the same ones hammering stars into stars into stars, every chemical collision and thought pattern has made it come true, and there’s nowhere else to be, no other place worth trusting except this one. What matters most is not what was lost or what might have been, but what I’m losing wishing the story in front of me away.
This is why we practice, or at least why I do. It’s not to take the edge off of anything, or get a good night’s sleep. It’s not to get enlightened, because that’s just another narrative that sits between me and the true place worth trusting, fierce and unsentimental, from which all action bursts into the terrible beauty of being alive.
I meditate so I can write the story in front of me, conjure it from laws of physics yet to be discovered, from the clouds that surround, from thin air then again.
My mother’s cells have stopped growing. I’ll cut her hair. *
I’ll be gone for a while, from Toronto and CEC, working on this story, watching it unfold, unfolding it. Not sure where it will go, because like yours, it’s yet to be told in the history of things. I’ll do some writing along the way, here and here, if you want to come along. Otherwise, I’ll tell you about it when I’m back, and you’ll tell me yours, about the impossible things that happened right before your eyes.
The woman stands up, rock falling from the dimples in her skin. She reaches beneath her dress, brushes the rest of the stones free, picks up her keys, opens the door, drives away. Actually, you know what, fuck that. She can fly. She leaves the keys where they are, looks around, and seeing no one, takes off like an arrow into the sky.
* Didn’t get a chance. My sister-in-law did it, and it looks cool.