It’s a little tradition of mine on New Year’s Day to write something down. One year it was a letter to a friend; another I drafted the opening lines to a new short story. This year I scribbled an essay, just a tangle of thoughts I wanted to sort out as I was walking the dog on January 1st. As is my habit, I’ve spent some time fiddling with it and revising – “writing is rewriting” – and wondering what to do with it. So here it is, a few weeks into the new year, not quite a resolution but a reflection.
A Bird in the House
On a recent morning I awoke feeling stiff and achy. Hungover. It was the first day of the New Year, and a hangover stands to reason but for the fact that I don’t drink and anyway New Year’s Eve I went to bed at 10:30. I decided a visit to the gym was in order to try and de-creak myself, so I made my way out into the morning, silver as it was with cold, cloud, and frost.
Since my children were small the gym has been my refuge, my quiet space. I don’t pretend to be sporty at all, but I find the physical routine I’ve set for myself gives me a meditation of sorts, while maintaining a level of strength I need in order to carry on playing the viola for a living. Holding a large piece of wood under the chin and attacking it with a bow for hours at a time requires a combination of strength and finesse, a fine balance of this and that. It can be hard on the back, hard on the neck, hard on the hands, and now that I’m in my sixth decade my back, neck, hands, etc. are much less forgiving than they once were.
I may have started going to the gym for peace and quiet and, to be honest, to trim down after childbirth, but now, twenty-odd years on, my motivation has changed. Three times a week (in a good week) I’m there, huffing and puffing on the treadmill, picking things up and putting them down again, and stretching, all in order to stay upright in my chair on the stage and keep bending in all the right places. I aim for twenty minutes of cardio, which I detest; fifteen minutes of lifting weights, which I tolerate, much as I tolerate my morning calcium pill because it’s good for me – nothing like starting the day off with a mouthful of purple chalk – and ten minutes of stretching, which I quite enjoy. And despite the din of the top-forty radio that honks away over the clanking of weights and the hum of the treadmill, I manage to find the quiet space I need away from the demands of everyday life and my noisy job as a musician. I’ve done some of my best writing while huffing on that treadmill, and the kindly, muscle-bound young proprietor – secretly I call him “Popeye” – has grown accustomed to my stumbling off of it with one hand outstretched for a scrap of paper and the other for a pen so I can scribble whatever bit of inspiration has come to me. At times I’ll look over at the front desk to find Popeye grinning at me, holding a pen aloft. I’ve established an amicable relationship with the gym, and I like spending time there.
So I put on my hat and coat and running shoes and made my way into the silver morning and up the road. I stepped through the door with the idea that I’d know within ten minutes on the treadmill whether or not I was up to staying for my usual hour of cardio, weight lifting, and stretching. After three minutes I knew I was not. I decided I’d much rather be walking the dog, so I found an empty weight room and did some stretching to ease the non-hangover creakiness, and went home.
The dog thought a walk was a great idea. I snapped the leash on her collar, and away we went. Saffy has been part of our family for ten years, and we’ve adapted to each others’ quirks and neuroses quite nicely. She’s a pretty thing. What with her blend of husky, yellow lab, border collie, and who knows what else, genetics has turned out a blonde, blue-eyed, bushy-tailed creature who likes few things more than going for a walk and a good head-scritch. We live in a tree-lined neighbourhood, ideal for dog-walks, although this time of year the leaves are gone – fallen to the ground and for the most part raked up and taken away to the city’s composting. What daylight there is in January makes its way through bare branches, and on this particular day the sidewalks were sprinkled with road salt in anticipation of our first snowfall. We found our groove, me clomping along in my boots while the dog trotted along peoples’ lawns to avoid the sting of salt in her paws. From time to time she sniffed Christmas trees laid to rest by the roadside.
Our own Christmas tree, which was among those lined up at the curb, recently had an unexpected visitor. While it was still indoors hung with ornaments and dropping needles by the fistful, the tree had an encounter with a bird. Granted, there were some beautiful glass bird ornaments, but hiding among the branches one day there was a live bird, a small brown starling come down the chimney for an unexpected visit. We startled each other to the point where we were both flapping around the house in a state of high excitement, until my 22-year-old son brought some calm to the situation, took apart a window, and politely ushered the starling out with the help of a nearby curling broom. It was a truly Canadian sort of rescue.
With Saffy ambling alongside me as I strode beneath bare branches and past discarded Christmas trees, my breath puffing in little clouds, I thought about the year’s losses and gains. Within the span of a year, not quite the calendar year but inside of twelve months, seven people within my orbit died, some family and all of them friends (eight, if you include the cat). Two of these friends died at a mighty age, two at a not-so-mighty age, two of them were exactly my age, and one had barely left her childhood behind. While I’m not given to public grieving (I’d rather have my root canal tooth excavated a third time in twelve years than share my grief, which may not be the healthiest approach, but it’s my approach), I will say that these losses, coming one after another as they did, made no sense at all and it will be a long time before each of them has settled within me. I thought of these friends, now gone, as the dog and I made our way through the quiet streets.
And I thought about the twelve filled notebooks on my book shelf, sitting alongside the dozens of books I’ve read over the past three years while learning about the young vaudevillian-turned-silent film comedian whose life inspired the story I wrote that became a novel. And I thought about that novel, which was released into the world just a few months ago, and which has brought me such incredible riches including new friendships, travels to places I never thought I’d see, and the company of the vaudevillian Muse who started it all. Yesterday, as I placed the twelfth notebook alongside the others, I told myself that it’s time to give that poor Muse a rest. Everything I needed to say about him is in the novel.
Soon enough my dog and I arrived home, just as the first flakes of snow began to fall. We had a green and brown Christmas, with much rain and the ground soft. But by the first of the year there’d been a cold snap, and when the fat, airy flakes made their way down from the sky, the ground was able to catch and hold them as they piled up a few inches. Pecking at the suet block that hangs from the magnolia out front was a starling, perhaps the same one that had dropped in for a visit a few days before.
A friend tells me that a bird in the house augurs well, that the droppings it leaves behind are a sign of good fortune and coming prosperity. Someone else offers the poetic suggestion that my indoor starling may have been a Christmas angel come to say hello. I gave the outdoor starling a nod as the dog and I left the morning’s silver light behind us and stepped inside the warm house.
All Rights Reserved
(including the right
to eat my words
if I so choose)
Photo credit: me