In Praise of Oneness

I had just arrived home after brunching with an out-of-town friend, and was looking forward to a whole afternoon and evening of working on my MA poetry thesis, when a gust of irritation blew into me. I climbed the stairs, looking for it like a small animal lurking behind bookshelves. I was tired of my cold room, for when the light fell to the other side of the house, it was shadowy and blue. The library would close too soon to make the trek outwards worthwhile, and I couldn’t quite bear the thought of the dreary graduate study rooms or the florescent lights of Robarts. I did laundry, made soup, watched the hockey game, and did no writing; writing would not come as long as this indescribable mood held me.

It wasn’t until I was in bed, exhausted but not sleepy, my thoughts crawling up the cold walls, that the source of irritation occurred to me: I am never alone, unless falling asleep. This has been the case since I began living in cities, I am surrounded by people all of the time. I cannot so much as peel vegetables without pairs of moist eyes sliding over me, or go to study and write in my department without interrupting other students sharing tea and confidences. In cafés, I politely ignore people at other tables talking on their phones and nervously jerking their bodies, in libraries, patrons’ glances jerk up as I walk by, newspapers rustle, someone coughs. In subways we are packed in like pieces of fruit in a basket, in public washrooms another young woman reaches around me for soap, in restaurants with high rents, diners’ tables are squeezed so closely together that they can hear each other’s tax woes and marriage problems and travel plans.

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The Fine Art of Commenting

Last night at almost 11pm I zipped down to King St. to hand off a load of marked papers for my patient professor. I might have been able to meet him early the next morning, but I couldn’t stand having the thick stack in my room another moment. I wanted my desk– and mind– clear for the next task. I didn’t wish to be reminded of the countless hours I had spent the past week, making comments in margins until my fingers cramped.

For the thousandth time, I reminded myself of how lucky I was to have my tuition subsidized this way. In lieu of paying for my masters’ degree, I was handed forty or so essays to grade a few times per semester, along with the obligatory steady stream of plaintive student emails throughout the term to answer in as placating tone as I could muster. And unlike other jobs I’ve held, TAing and grading is the kind of task in which I feel I can be completely myself. My two most prominent qualities– helpfulness and being opinionated– are assets when giving criticism on undergraduate student work. I can mark wearing yoga pants, or watching hockey, or both, which would not fly in other workplaces that are not my bed.

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The Writing Life

It’s nearly dawn and the first light has appeared above the old townhouses. I’ve pulled another all-nighter, inadvertently, not realizing how the hours were slipping past in front of my laptop. The fact that my days and nights have reversed, yet again, leaves me feeling out-of-sync with the world, and a strange sense of regret. I crawl into bed, at last tired enough to perhaps fall asleep. Closing my eyes, I try to calm my thoughts. But the poem I’d been struggling with since I returned home at midnight is still flickering at me like a cracked lightbulb.

If there’d been an invisible observer in my room, it might’ve looked to him or her like I was doing anything but writing. I answered emails, revised an old boyfriend’s artist’s statement, made suggestions to someone’s special fields reading list, looked through a recently-purchased anthology of new poets. I caught up on my favourite TV show, tidied my room, updated Twitter. Yet hovering in the background of my desktop, was the open word file with my most recent draft, and at my hand was my favourite pen. While I did everything else, the poem floated like amniotic fluid within me, waiting to take shape. In between emails and podcasts loading, I rewrote the previous stanza, eliminating a phrase, hoping to see my way through to the next stanza. Hoping some line would carry me through to another day’s of work, and make the whole exhausting effort worthwhile.

The poem itself was one I’d abandoned years ago, because of its difficulty. It was about a train trip I took at nineteen across the country from Toronto to Vancouver, a city I’d never lived in, to start university. The trip took three days and three nights, and I’d never done anything like it before. I’d never been so alone, nor embarked on a journey that truly felt like my own. Whereas flying to one’s destination often plucks you out of your familiar orientations, the mind is more accepting of how train journeys moves you through space, and of the ratio of time required to distance traveled.  The poem attempted to capture this sense, and at the same time wonder about the previous generations of Canadians who had also become enamoured of the west, and of my own parents’ journeys, which I had heard of so often they seemed to overshadow my own. No wonder I had left the poem unfinished. When I realized it had a place in my current project, I excavated my notes and began afresh.

Just as I sighed into my duvet and cleared a little space in mind, a line jumped in to fill that vacuum. I repeated it to myself. It sounded good. It was the next line, the line I’d been struggling to hear. It had come to me like a gift, like so many gifts had come before, in the same way many others had snuck their way into my inner ear. I repeated again, hoping to memorize it, so that when I woke I would still hear it. I was truly exhausted now and didn’t want to get up again. I’d turned off the space heater and the room was getting cold. But to run the risk of forgetting it– I’d wake in agony, contemplating having to confront the poem again and feel and crawl my way through to the next stanza. There was no help for it. Like I had done many times before, I hauled myself out of bed, angry and annoyed. Did tax attorneys feel the need to do the same when a thought struck late at night? Or a veterinarian? A cable-repair service person? With these ungrateful thoughts, I opened my laptop again and re-awoke it, cursing the chosen profession that allowed me so little rest. Few people understand how physically taxing writing can be. And why should they? These complaints don’t fit in with the popular images of what a writer, or even a poet, are. They are best not expressed. No need to stultify or scare friends and family who encourage the writer much like a crowd might buoy up a long-distance runner from the sidelines.

I looked at the lines that I had repeated to myself, now having form on the screen. Yes, it was the right number of syllables, and it worked. There was no sound of applause or congratulation, no banners or prizes for this small triumph and this private work. Only the quiet of the room and the grace of the morning light.