Every day, including this one, over a hundred-thousand pounds of cosmic dust falls to the Earth’s surface. Scientists have figured this out by mounting gauges on spacecraft solar panels, and then executing a series of complicated calculations. But I like to imagine tiny scales all over the globe, each covered in a pile of glittery ash.
This morning I signed up for a free webinar to unclog my success blockers. First I answered a five-question survey and received a short video in my inbox. A woman with an Australian accent and hair like a blooming artichoke suggested that, given my answers, I suffered from a subconscious fear of failure. This is true and came as no surprise. When I was learning to read, I never muttered a single syllable until confident I could read whole sentences. Also, as a child, and then as a teenager, I quit many things—guitar, piano, French and, for a while, eating—because I was never, by my own measure, good enough. Now I’m a middle-aged woman suffering from mysterious pain. The nerves down my arms burn, and I’ve been told to rest, that it’ll pass. But it’s been a few weeks, and it isn’t passing. I fear I’ll fail at healing. So every day I spend a good number of hours lying on a yoga mat, browsing the Internet for advice and reassurance.
At breakfast, I scrolled through Facebook and came across several RIP sentiments for one of my Facebook friends. A man from my community—someone who’d once tree-planted for my husband and showed up for my yoga classes at the spa. Years ago, he friended me on Facebook and I became familiar with his small depressed status updates. Little help-cries he posted in search of love and light. Never sure how to negotiate anyone’s emotional needs on social media, I always swiped by. But after I learned he died, I wondered if it was suicide. No. After clicking on this link, then that, I discovered it was murder in Peru. Apparently he went to pursue the shamanic arts and take part in ayahuasca ceremonies, hoping to return to Canada with enough sacred knowledge to help people suffering from addiction. And now he’s dead. Lynched in a mountain village by a mob who believed he’d shot and killed a beloved elder. Friends of this man, people I know, are shocked, grief-stricken; they continue to protest on the news and on Facebook that he was incapable of such a wicked deed. Hard for them to imagine him holding a gun, pulling a trigger. I studied the selfie of this Canadian man I often passed outside the chocolate shop. Who knows what haunts anyone in their darkest moments? Which impulses they’ll stay away from, and which ones they’ll follow.
Back in November, my husband, sons, and I enjoyed the true taste of olive oil in Tuscany, and the elaborate Bernini fountains of Rome. Meanwhile the Pacific Ocean brewed up storm after storm and assailed our house. The prayer flags we’d strung across the balcony last summer flapped and fluttered in the wild winds until the strain snapped the cord in two. When we returned from our trip, the strands were hanging on either side of the house, soggy and frayed. For weeks, whenever my husband and I approached the front door from the outside, we’d comment on our need to fix them or take them down, but once inside, we’d forget. We left them all winter. Then, two days after winter was officially over, my body went on lock-down. Muscles alongside my spine spasmed and seized the nerves. Flashy heat radiated down my arms, across my shoulders and abdomen. One doctor suspected depression. Another told me to take a bath. That it would settle in a week. For days it raged and I couldn’t sleep. Then the intensity diminished, but the pain persisted—patchy, prickly, occasionally searing—and I was terrified it would flare again. I canceled a trip to Tofino, a visit to my sister, and all my spring classes. Last week, I gave a colleague directions to my house so she could pick up posters for a workshop I could no longer host. I told her ours was the two-story blue house with a broken string of prayer flags. “Well,” she said, “that’s what happened to your back.” This stopped me. Had I tempted fate by leaving those two dangling strands? Today I finally snipped them down. Hung them as whole and separate entities in the garden.
Spring arrived so suddenly this year. Maybe it’s surprising every year—springing upon us. A couple of weeks ago, I walked through the forest trails twice a day, feeling light-headed, groundless, pain sparking up and down my arms. My regular life, my little routines and habits, ground to a baffling halt. Still, I was able to walk, and through a lens of despair, through mist and rain and cold, I registered the first inklings of spring: lacy buds on bare branches, skunk cabbage periscopes in the swamp, robins plying dead bracken for their nests. Today there’s no missing it. Spring is a showy, full-blown gala. The sun shines and blossoms adorn fruit trees, magnolia bushes, dogwoods, and more. Car windows are confettied with pollen. And the pain in my arms mellows to nothing when I cross through town. Along the old rail-bed, cottonwoods release their sticky intoxicating fragrance, and the earth smells soft, liberated. I want nothing more than to inhale. But I carry on, and by the swamp, I’m flashed by the epaulets of red-winged blackbirds, dazzled by the swoop and thrum of a rufous hummingbird. The birdsong is deafening, endearing—thrushes, finches, vireos, sparrows. Deeper into the forest, and I hear the scrabble and peck of a pileated woodpecker. We play hide and seek. Every time I inch closer, glimpse its magnificent crest, it circles away from me, climbs higher, until finally it spreads its wings and sails to a more distant tree. Farther along, I pause by my favourite stand of hemlock and firs. They’re straight-backed, noble; hammered shield and ragbag lichens cling to their trunks, little drifts of bearded moss. Today there’s a stillness. Trees drawing nutrients from the soil, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, utterly indifferent to my existence.
Over the phone, my husband, who works away, told me that as a young boy he had a ladybug friend—two in fact. He drives endless logging roads from Port Alberni to the coast and has the opportunity to think about many things. In a recent pondering, it struck him that in our eighteen years together he’s never told me about the ladybugs. Good story fodder, he figured, a quirky flashback for one of my fictional characters. “It happened twice,” he said. “Once at my grandpa’s and once at our house in Deauville.” In both instances he found a ladybug in a backyard corner and let it climb on his finger to inspect its spots—one on each wing. In both instances he identified the same ladybug daily, picked her up and talked to her. He cherished this interspecies friendship and believed, as he regaled her with stories, that each ladybug had become genuinely invested in his life. Only the other day, nearly forty years later, did it occur to him that the distinct ladybugs probably came from a colony of two-spotted ladybugs, and he’d likely picked up a different one every time. He’s translated this anecdote for me. Since he grew up in Quebec, in a Quebecois family, the whole event and memory occurred for him in French. This part of him will always elude me, because while I understand a considerable amount of his mother tongue, I cannot fully meet him in it. Verb conjugations challenge and frustrate me. That, and the capacity to build fluid and interesting sentences.
In one of my son’s books, there’s a timeline for the universe. It runs across two pages and spans billions of years. At either end, a tiny dot, the size of a pinprick, represents the Nothing from which Everything emerged, the Nothing where Everything’s bound to return. The book warns you not to try and figure this out. But I can’t help but wonder what medium those tiny dots, those infinitesimal Nothings, are contained in. A dark loneliness? Or something bright and humming and ready to burst?
After lunch I browse the newsfeed on my phone. Two headlines about a man who plowed his van into a dozen or more pedestrians at Yonge and Finch in Toronto. First thing that pops into my mind is the subway map. I spent many of my childhood and adolescent years riding the TTC, studying the map above the subway doors, counting and recounting the number of stops till my own. Finch was the last stop on the Yonge-University-Spadina line, the top-top of the Yonge side. I never rode that far north because, for me, the city stopped at Lawrence, occasionally York Mills, but beyond I imagined it filled with sprawly grey-hued buildings, a barren end-of-the-line landscape. Now, on the Internet, that landscape gentrifies, Starbucks and green space, people with full, busy lives. Van terror disrupting those lives. The news stories mention that police and paramedics are still on the scene; not all the dead have been identified. This is horrible, terrible. But here’s what amazes me: my heart is slow to convert this information into compassion. Like lighting a damp wick. Sputter then fizzle, nothing but a cool flame.
One day death will be imminent. But our world is on hyper-drive, as though we believe some future moment is better than now. My dad used to check his watch obsessively, ready for the next thing, even if he didn’t know what that was. He had a predilection for the carpe diem motto, which meant he placed bets on backgammon games with us kids, or raced us to the corner store for malt bars. He loved Vegas and New York; he loved women and wine. He also encouraged me to believe in my own greatness, but greatness has always eluded me, and I’ve often felt excluded from the party. No one, not my parents or a single teacher, ever talked about the long pauses between happenings, the gentle pleasure of an ordinary life. Days without pain. Or an open sky. It’s only within the last few years I’ve come to appreciate that life is less dramatic arc and more elliptical poem. Something textured and full of sustenance, like a forest floor.
In the afternoon, I curl up in a patch of sunlight on the floor, feeling achy and tired. My craniosacral therapist suggested naps as an antidote for my condition. When I fall asleep, I dream about her: she’s driving a Mini, and I’m her passenger. We’re winding through a maze of narrow, European-style streets. Walls close in on either side so we’re surrounded by brick. We’re carefree, moving forward, until suddenly, we’re not. Lying across the road in front of us is an immense bull, hide the colour of rust in the rain. His body fills the cobbles; his tail switches at circling flies. My therapist steps out, looks for space to pass. But there’s none. I’m hunkered in the passenger seat afraid our presence will rouse this beast, that he’ll leap up and charge. Instead he rises on legs as tall as stilts and turns his massive head in our direction. If we were brave enough, we’d roar right beneath him, but it’s bovine bone versus tin can. “He’s going to crush us,” I say. Then he turns away and clomps down the street until he’s nothing but echoes. I wake up and my fingers tingle. Pain sizzles across my inner elbows along my collarbones. Is the bull this pain? This mysterious condition? The thing blocking me from moving ahead? Maybe if I wait long enough, if I’m patient, it too will get up and walk away.
In the hour before my sons come home, a parade of elementary school kids ride bikes along the sidewalk outside my window. A mother trails behind, pushing a stroller, tugging on the leash of a sniffing spaniel. They pass and an emptiness opens in me. A pool of grief and not-knowing. All my usual anchors are gone. In life before this pain, I’d be leaving five minutes from now to teach a class at the spa. Then home for a quick bite and off to the rec centre to teach another. For nineteen years I’ve been instructing people to lift their kneecaps, drop their shoulders, lengthen their spines, to relax already. And now my body is telling me to stop teaching, to stop the practice, and attend to it in ways I don’t yet understand. My identity has climbed into a canoe and is paddling toward a distant shore. Another planet. I can’t even claim the fullness of motherhood anymore. With one son grown and the other in his mid-teens, I’m needed less. During their younger years, I craved the kind of solitude and quiet of these past few weeks. Of course, I had visions of writing great works and devoting myself to hours of meditation. Instead pain roosts along my nerves. And an unexpected loneliness has arrived.
At the dinner table, my youngest son speaks of gravity. He holds his fork aloft and says if he drops it the fork falls, yes? We all agree it does. But the Earth also, ever so slightly and in its own generous way, lifts toward the fork. I stare at the floor as if I’m in a fun house and it will tilt toward my face. Then I laugh. And I remember, as I so seldom do, that at this moment, at every moment, we are all just along for the ride.