Truth telling

I am paralyzed by own search for meaning, by the need to draw out conclusions, maybe even (dare I say) truths from my words, my experiences, my stories. I walk over the damp cushiony dirt between the roots of trees with peeling bark, and at the same time I wonder what I could learn from trees, if there is a pattern in the growing of things, why I’m so lucky to afford this luxury in the first place, this walking and meaning-searching.

Which leads to the other paralysis, the one of my own privilege. I am so aware that everything about my life, the freedom to walk in safe green spaces, hours to sit at my computer and craft sentences, even my ruminating over the cost and responsibility of privilege, is somehow enmeshed with my rich, white, Canadian place in things. Knowing that I can tell my story only because someone else is unable to tell theirs, leaves me floundering, desperate to write, but paralyzed by the ability to do so.

All of these heady internal conversations, my analyses, guilt and defensiveness, they render me motionless even though I’ve spent decades pouring my life behind the imperative to write and tell stories. So I turn instead to the one truth that— I don’t think— can be denied. The facts of my experience. My uninterpreted life. I spend hours at this exercise, recording the details of my days, my young daughters’ words, movements, the flight of the birds above the tree line:

A sunbird lands on the ivy climbing up the stripy bark of the banana tree. Its feathers shimmer in the morning sunlight. It chirps, hops over to reach its curved beak into the open purple petals of the agapanthus. The flowers tremble with the bird’s deep drinking.

J wakes early, slides silently down the hall in white soft cotton pajamas, sniffles in the silence. She sits down beside me, wipes her nose with an old baby washcloth, reads a fairy book in the dim light before dawn.

The girls squeeze into the bath tub, scrub dirt from their foreheads and feet. P makes soup in a cupcake lining and bows as she serves it to me. Water splashes on the floor as J makes explosions with a small shampoo tube.

A brown hadada ibis struts across the lawn.It pecks at the grass with its preposterous beak, watches me with a round leery eye. I remember when M was two and stood at the back door talking to the ibises, loud, screeching. They answered her with their caws just like she assumed they would.

Today we argue. About new cars versus old, about where to sit at the dinner table, about how to argue. We each retreat to nurse our wounds, emerge cautiously from bedrooms and books, try again, argue again. I go to bed early and wait for morning.

I write these stories, the truth of my days, with relief and gratitude, but still with an underpinning of fear. Even the facts of one’s life can be judged. They may have happened but that doesn’t mean they should have happened. Maybe we are too insular, insulated, shouldn’t spend so much time safe in our four walls, doors shut, suffering ignored. We have our own pain of course, our own suffering even, but it doesn’t touch the bigger broader sufferings, the ones named war and rape and racism and abuse and famine and incarceration. Those stories are theoretical to us, at least now, sad and sorrowing stories, but abstract.

The trail of slug slime on the sidewalk, the sharp smell of the first rain, the arguments over Lego, these are the concrete experiences of our bodies, our breath. I don’t know how to hold all of it, how to tell my own stories without devaluing others. I want to search for meaning but am afraid I must relinquish that privilege to other voices who have not yet experienced that luxury.

I am a writer afraid of writing. I hold my small truths in my hand like wounded butterflies, sad and unsure what to do next, willing them to fly.

A War Story

There is a story from Vietnam
about monks
kneeling in a still room
when the soldiers arrive,
kick in the door I think,
point guns, shout.
All that violence
slashed into all that peace.
And the monks,
they don’t flinch.
They don’t open their eyes, startle,
grab each other’s arms or
look to their leader.
They keep sitting there, silent,
noticing their in breath,
their out breath.
I think of those monks every night
when I hear a loud sound in the street
and my heart races and my eyes
flash open and I’m already
planning how quickly I can get
to my babies, where we could hide
if needed.
I think of them in the morning
when I read the news,
and during the day when panic pushes
through the spaces around my lungs.
I carry them with me
through my tense and worried days,
these monks,
breathing the same air as soldiers,
their stillness a foreign language
I cannot decipher.

J and P use a turquoise skateboard as their main mode of daily transportation in the house, from the stairs to the table, from the entrance to the couch. They roll back and forth, calm, nonchalant, like mannequins on a conveyor belt. I wince when it bangs into the sliding glass doors, narrowly misses the violin, but am proud of their confidence, their poise.

Something is happening with the sunbirds. There are so many around the house, diving from plant to plant, swooping in through the doors. Phil remarks that at everyone window of the house there is a sunbird flapping its metallic blue wings, chirping loudly as though desperate to be let in. We don’t know why they want to come in so badly, what has shifted in their population or our yard to attract so many. One flies in through the open door, lands on the back of a chair, then hops to each piece of furniture, observing us. It decides its work is done and glides out through the front door. We laugh, baffled, try to remember how miraculous it is, that curved beak, those shimmering feathers.

P walks down the hallway an hour after her bedtime, holding a pink stuffed pig. She walks into the darkened guest room for a few seconds then comes to the living room and announces that she can’t find it, has been looking everywhere. I realize she is asleep, caught up in a dream search for an object she can’t quite articulate. I ask her if she wants help finding her bed. She nods and wipes her blond wispy hair from her face. I tuck her back in under her down comforter, covered in hearts, smile at this glimpse into her private dreams.

M recites Shakespeare, practices writing in cuneiform, teaches us songs in Spanish. She is discovering so many ways of speaking, comes alive with so many possibilities, ways of voicing the ideas teeming in her head. She carries a music stand outside, sings songs from old musicals to the birds.

The girls practice gymnastics in the yard on two old tattered mattresses. They blare Disney songs from speakers, choreograph elaborate routines long after the sun has set. Phil and I are called to be the audience, shine headlamps on them like spotlights.

A new look

Hello faithful followers.
Those of you getting my posts to your Inbox may have noticed I posted a new poem today- though truthfully it was an accident. I had hoped to publish it privately so that when I unveiled my new website next week, there would be some new content. But instead, I guess I’ll unveil it today, right now, right HERE. As well as a whole new look to The Kirsten Collective, you’ll see an announcement about my travel/parenting memoir Georgette: Writing and Mothering in an old French Cottage, which will hopefully be on sale on Amazon very soon.
So welcome back. Thanks for waiting and for reading.
See you at the collective,


On Reading the Masters

Sometimes when I read the great poets—
the ones I think are great, that is, my own
anthology of heroes—
the lines and spaces around me become brighter, sharper.
I see the dragonfly beating its wings against
my window and I speak to it with soft affection,
cup it in my palm and admire its shimmering weightlessness,
feel weightless myself–
this because I have been reading the poets
and I feel tentatively that I am one of them,
me and my brief encounter with delicate wildness.
But other days I read the great ones
and I sink through admiration, down to envy,
to resentment, to the swamp floor of despair.
Because who can ever hope to add to all that genius?
How can my attempt at naming the truths of this planet
add anything to the world already written?
Yet each morning, I reach again for the stark stanzas,
wonder if I will float or sink,
willing to risk either for the slippery feel of
a poet’s brilliance, for a chance to swim in this wide water.