Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
When I set out to do this blog I hadn’t expected that my highest traffic would come from entries about my bullet journal (I use the term “traffic” very loosely – imagine a dusty country road which sees a couple of horse buggies and a pickup truck pass by every week). But it does seem that bullet journals, or “bujos” are still pretty popular and I’d be happy to share one of my favourite entries – my reading tracker:
I always think it’s pretty self-explanatory until I show it to someone and they greet me with a “wtf” face, so I think this one needs a little bit of explanation.
Firstly, the title “Kindling” is easy to miss since it runs across both pages both pages. This is a result of a very corny metaphor that came to me around the time I turned thirty (which is when I started my bujo) and refers to the fact that I think reading is the kindling that starts the mind’s fire. I’ve posted before about how important I think reading is to a writer, so this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though perhaps as an eye-roll moment.
The basic premise of the entry is based on Tetris. Each colourful piece represents a particular reading medium (yes, I count audio books and will fight anyone who argues otherwise). Usually the threshold is about a half-hour of reading in the specific category, the notable exception being short stories where a single block represents a single short-story, even though it might take me anywhere between five and forty minutes to read one. The grey block that’s “blog/misc” is the loosest category, and I usually count this only if the reading is particularly involved or informative, but really it’s whatever I feel like (as you can see, I don’t often count it so it’s not exactly a “cheat” category).
One of the wonderful things about the way this graph is set up is that I use it as a way of self-manipulation, specifically exploiting my competitive nature. It’s a point of pride for me to avoid any gaps between the pieces until the last possible moment and to leave as few as possible before the “play area” fills up. Based on this, not only do I sometimes need to read a particular genre or medium in order to make sure I don’t leave any gaps, but sometimes I intentionally place pieces in order to push myself towards doing something.
For example, if I find that I haven’t read a short story or a graphic novel recently, I could place an audio book or novel piece in such a way that the only pieces that would satisfy the remaining gap are the short story or graphic novel blocks. Boom! Suddenly I’ve found additional motivation to reach for those. Not to mention what’s going on in the far right part of the player area, where I leave an empty single block wide column that’s quite familiar to Tetris players. The only way to fill this one is with my most often neglected medium – poetry. I’ve never been a poetry connoisseur, and most of it admittedly flies right over my head (feel like the proverbial swine before a whole pile of pearls), so I tend to steer away from it. That said, I do occasionally enjoy it, and I find it to be a valuable literary exposure, so I have to find ways to read it, or I will be left with an unsightly gap in my log. This has worked out great over the last couple of years as I’ve discovered that I quite enjoy the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Wisława Szymborska, and I’ve got a lot of others on my to-read list.
A couple of interesting observations from the spread that I included above:
It’s hard to imagine that just over a month ago, I chose to drive to campus and forgo public transit, and then called my mom and said that bringing the kids over that weekend might not be such a good idea. Within days, my commute to work was resolved with a “Work from Home” directive from the university, and my decision to not visit anyone outside our household was no longer just a precaution, but an expectation for the public good. These six weeks have certainly stretched for many of us the definition of what “normal” could be, and I hope all of you are doing as well as you can under the circumstances.
As for myself, in a previous entry I mentioned how I was having a rough go of it, but it’s been getting gradually better. I’ve made progress across multiple projects (as I’m prone to do, since I can’t seem to commit to any specific thing for too long) and it’s less of a chore to sit down and force myself to write. One would think since I enjoy it so much I should just be turning to it for comfort in difficult times, but as I’m sure many of you have also discovered this doesn’t seem like the case. The stresses and anxieties of the current situation have knocked us out of ourselves and it’s going to take a while to feel normal again, and probably not until the situation stabilizes. I’m looking at my sister-in-law as well who knits like a fiend but has completely dropped it for last month. She recently bought new yearn, so maybe she feels the same slight thaw that I do.
And it’s okay if you’re experiencing no such thing. I think there’s an unfair perception out there that because some of us suddenly have way more time on our hands we should all come out of this as world-class bakers, or pianists or polyglots. That’s a whole lot of aspirational baloney that doesn’t take into account the fact that we’re all human and that our flight-or-fright response had been perma-activated for weeks on end. I’m yet to even touch editing. I can get myself into putting down new words on the page but even the thought of rereading my writing for the purposes of improving it is giving me anxiety.
Dealing with my mistakes is a future me problem.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught me anything is that my job has limited public utility in a time of crisis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m plenty busy doing my small part along with thousands of colleagues in helping the largest university in the Province function during these difficult times, but this is background work, like floating cloud #4 in a grade school production. The real difference-makers at this point are healthcare professional, grocery store workers, delivery people, teachers, and many others I have surely missed.
But while I certainly can’t use my lawyering to make the world a brighter place, I was hoping I could at least do something with my writing. I had mentioned in my previous post that art is important to provide hope in troubled times, and while my own contribution to the literary art has been paltry so far, I found something in my completed works that I thought I would share. “Nightfalls” is one of my older stories and I was very fortunate to have it published in The Nashwaak Review last year. So here it follows in its entirety – an earlier rumination on the perseverance of hope in a dark world. I hope you enjoy it.
It was a cold and windy August evening on the West Coast. Beach goers that looked forward to a nice walk in shorts and sandals were bundled up in autumn jackets desperately hiding their necks behind their collars. The circle of the sun had already dipped into the sea, and slowly melted into the water. The sunset licked the sky with beautiful scarlet tongues and many had stopped to take pictures or to simply hold hands and enjoy the solar descent.
Jonas sat on a park bench and read a book, occasionally glancing up at the mountains that were bathed in an increasingly brilliant pink light. To his right there was a stream that ran under a stone bridge and into a pond. A duck had waddled from the stream up to his feet and quacked a few times to get his attention. Jonas peered over the pages of the book and the bird turned its head sideways and waited. Having nothing to pacify the duck with, he reluctantly returned to his novel. The duck continued to stare quizzically, but eventually gave up and clumsily made its way to the next bench.
It was then, in the middle of a sentence, when he turned his head to the west. He didn’t hear anything; no one had heard anything, but no matter what they were doing, they all jerked their heads to the spot where the bloody orange disc of the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. A cold summer evening had turned much colder.
Bored and without a light by which to read, Jonas got up from the bench, scaring the duck back into the water. A chill had made him shiver. This chill didn’t come from the wind that had snuck its way under his jacket, rather, it had come from within, and spread to the tips of his fingers. He felt an overwhelming presence, as if something was bearing down upon him from the heavens, threatening to make him one with the dirt. He looked up and joined the crowd in standing mesmerized with their noses pointed upwards. A river of black birds had bisected the sky, with every creature heading out where the sky met the sea. All had strained to watch the ominous procession until their necks were sore, as black spot after black spot made its pilgrimage west. No one could say where the river had begun, for it still flowed by the time it was dark, and the birds had dissolved into the black of the night. Jonas walked home stepping through puddles, though it hadn’t rained since the Tuesday of the previous week.
Few slept well that night. Most had tossed and turned and stared at their ceilings, making revisions of various livestock in their heads. Some stayed up to read by the light of a desk lamp, while others simply stayed on their porches, and waited for the sun to come up. And they had waited and waited, but the sunrise wouldn’t come.
Jonas found himself sitting up in bed at three in the morning, without a moment’s rest behind him but with no intention of going back to sleep. He thought he could still hear it – the river as it passed over the city, and the many coarse cries of the birds overhead. The sound was lost somewhere in the wind and it got louder every time he closed his eyes. He went to get a drink of water, and then returned to his bed, where he lay on his back and waited with the others.
The first cries of sorrow had quickly turned into a chorus. As the truth took over, one by one the voices realized that they had been robbed. As the morning slowly turned into the afternoon, there were few who could not face it – the sun had refused to return. Jonas went out into the street, hoping that the darkness was merely a figment of his apartment’s imagination. There, underneath the sub-orange glow of a queue of street lamps, lost and confused souls wandered without a purpose. They all shuffled east in an involuntary daze, searching for the love that stood them up. Jonas watched their faces, pale with fear, the eyes glazed over, and he was drawn to join them. But he held back, retreating into the shadows of the building, shutting the door to his room and praying that this cosmic prank would soon end.
Come next morning, the word ‘morning’ had become obsolete. The night had taken over. It proclaimed the earth as its domain and it had begun to seep into every corner and every heart. It transformed everything it touched and it drew the hope out of every victim. There were stories being passed down about how one felt the cold fingers of the night reach deep inside them, and pull out a thin thread and while it pulled you felt cold and empty, and once it was gone you felt fine but different. No one could really say what was changed except they all knew that they lost something and would never get it back. It was swallowed by the night and they needed daylight to find it, and that is when the final traces of hope had begun to wash from humanity.
Yet, few had resolved to live in a world where time was banished to clocks and watches. No one was willing to make a graveyard out of a planet that was united by a single time of day. And so humanity had come together to wretch the day away from the night. They needed to create a new morning, and a new sense of life amidst death. And thus the night had shattered and split in two. The true night became a time when the lights would all go out. Inside and outside, the surface of the Earth would be consumed by shadow, an invented darkness made so that the day could still hold meaning. Only the moon that drifted overhead and the immortal stars pierced the night.
Day was the hum of the television sets and the glow of chandeliers. It was seeing people outside walking their dogs under the street lamps and talking loudly under the neon signs of corner stores. Smiles crept back onto the faces of pedestrians that Jonas passed on his way home. Once more he occasioned to hear laughter, and a little spark of joy invaded his heart.
Yet the merciless night would not cease its onslaught.
It was an evening, sometime in the month of September when all had already retired to their homes and sipped tea by the candlelight and talked about the days filled with sunshine. Like a jug of icy water drained down their shirts they felt something cascade down their spines that made them all jump up and run to look outside. United by a new horror, they all stood by their windows, and watched the skies with tears in their eyes. On the night of a new moon, when the stars were the only sign that the planet had not fallen out of existence and was still drifting through the universe, those little specs of light were extinguished. Like a shower of sparkles at the end of the fireworks they sizzled and died, and everyone knew that they would soon forget what the moon looked like. The night had consumed the world in an impenetrable cloak of darkness, and they were all left to shiver in a blind panic that fell on them every day.
Once again the Earth drifted through space as a dim sphere, as if mankind never invaded it, never decorated its surface with its inventions. In the pitch black of the night, when even if you strained your eyes you couldn’t make out the contours of your own hand, it was hard to imagine that you weren’t the last person left alive. Lovers touched fingertips in the dark, reminding each other that they were not alone. It was a world without a fifth sense; blind and scared. All would fall silent once the lights would go out. Motionless and tense, in the hours when sight was obsolete, they longed to hear the planet breathing, the world still existing, the night not yet delivering its coup de grace.
One evening, when the world was preparing for another night, Jonas couldn’t find a place for himself in his own home. Restless, as if constantly prodded by a thousand little needless, he went outside when everyone else flooded indoors. He walked along emptying streets, peering into the alleyways where the creatures of the night were already stirring into wakefulness. Those people he had passed eyed him suspiciously and he responded by pursing his lips into a feeble specter of a smile. Aimless yet determined, he pushed through the streets against a current he could not see.
Almost an hour later, only minutes before the dawn of a new night, he found himself on a highway. Once, it had bustled with cars racing up and down its six lanes. Now, he sat on the median, his legs dangling off the concrete divider as he slowly scanned in each direction, seeing nothing but the shimmer of downtown in the distance. Across the road from him, beyond the concrete fence that was scratched up by speeding cars, there was a forest. The trees had barely stood out against the sky, but he could still see them sway, and hear the wind that was caught in their leaves. It was a howling sound that was the siren song of nature, drawing people in, and never letting them out.
They’d already begun to forget the sight of an endless ocean sparkling in the sunlight, and the blue sky that stretched for miles. Forests were gaping black traps that threatened to consume anyone who dared to try to find their way through. Nature had shut its gates and people were reduced to wandering a world of grey concrete and tinted glass, all illuminated by the barren glow of electricity.
His gaze was pushed back onto the highway, his mind warning him about the dangers of daydreaming. Far off to his left where the road went over the hill, he thought he saw someone else. The figure lethargically roamed across the street and disappeared into the shadows of the forest.
Even in large crowds that flooded the streets during the day, Jonas felt alone. Though around him he could see faces, human faces by all accounts, he still felt like he was the only living organism that bobbed in a sea of marionettes. Phantoms that were sent to bring nothing but deceit. Now, in the presence of a shadow he couldn’t be sure was human, he felt the loneliness budge and begin to slip away. He felt that he was not alone, that there was still another soul that drifted like him, in need of answers, instead of just accepting the night, embracing it, and letting it fill every pore. There was still dreaming in the world, naïve as it may have been.
He dwelled on that silhouette as he sat in the middle of the road. What had they come for and where had they gone? What did they think of all of this and had they been able to think at all? Had it been a he or a she? The possibility of a conversation stirred in him a fearful curiosity. It had been months since he talked to anyone. By then he was sure that he would end his days by dissolving into the dark of the night and not reappearing the next morning. He’d be forgotten faster than the moon.
The word had jolted to life an image that had been hibernating for longer than he wanted to admit. He looked up at the sky in the vain hope that he may see a sliver of a crescent, and for the first time ever he saw the unreal beauty of the street lights. They stood defiantly, and they kept the darkness out. They protected him and asked for nothing in return. Like sentinels over a flickering candle they kept the feeble flame alive, so those like Jonas could live to look at them and be thankful.
He hopped down from the concrete slab of the median and the dull echo rolled out over the asphalt. As he walked towards the nearest lamppost, he could hear the sound of his every foot step, in sync with the heartbeats that told him that he was still alive. The short walk felt like a trek; like a journey across a desert whose destination was a drop of dew hanging from a single leaf. He stood under the street light – dead centre of the circle it had drawn on the ground. There was no sound on the street except for the trembling of the light bulb over his head.
He closed his eyes and let the light shine on his face. Behind the murky red glow of his eye lids he imagined the sun. He imagined that instead of the cool wind blowing over his face he felt the warmth sent down from above. At any moment he could open his eyes and be beautifully blinded, and walk around with a green patch floating wherever he looked. He breathed in what he imagined was a warm summer breeze, until he couldn’t take in anymore. As he exhaled, the bulb let out a quiet ‘snap’ and the trembling stopped.
He could no longer tell whether his eyes were open or closed. He blinked in the darkness. He could still see the faint outline of the bulb, but it was merely the dying retinal image – the mind grasping for as long as it could. While his eyes adjusted, the phantom image disappeared, and he was left with nothing. He continued to look up.
There was a sky above him, though he couldn’t be sure. Once, so long ago that he had to wonder whether it was true, it had been littered with stars. The Milky Way was a silver river that flowed from one horizon to the next, and the moon washed fields in a pure blue light. During the day, the sky would be on fire, torched by a mythical creature called ‘the sun’. Now the sky made its own colours. On the dark background, Jonas began to make out dancing waves of navy blue, and slivers of a black violet. There was a tinge of decaying green and the morbid hue of a scabby brown. The shapes and patterns danced in his vision, the night showing all its best evening dresses. He could no longer tell whether this vision was real, or came from inside him – the labour of a mind still longing for wonders. The twisted kaleidoscope continued to spin.
Dizzy, and almost falling into the void that engulfed him, he suddenly heard a ‘pop’ to his left. It came from above, and sounded like a burst of air escaping through tightly shut lips. He turned his head in the direction of the sound, and that’s when he saw it. It glowed with a piercing white light that was almost green and fell from the sky in a smooth arc. It was chased by a long flowing tail that broke apart at its tip into a myriad sparks. A star cast down from the heavens, but nothing like the shooting stars he had seen while bright skies still existed.
The sight of the beautiful glow rushed through his mind and beat its way through hardened layers to reignite him. He watched the shooting star wide-eyed, and with his mouth agape, tracing the line of its movement. It couldn’t have lasted for more than a minute but it felt like hours, like a whole other lifetime had passed before it hit the ground and disappeared in the fields beyond the road.
Once again he was left in the impenetrable dark, yet this time, it could not penetrate into him. He felt the glow from the star inside him, radiating, pushing the black out and keeping it frustrated and stalking around him. Without a second thought, he ran. He ran though he couldn’t see anything around him, couldn’t even be sure he moved at all. The blackness remained unchanged, though he could hear his footsteps and he could feel his breath getting shorter.
Quickly, he felt a sharp pain in his knees and he fell forward. His hands caught something coarse and he knew they were scraped. He cursed himself for forgetting about the concrete median. He climbed over it, and limped across the other side of the highway, knowing that another obstacle awaited him at the end. His steps were impatient, and his heart was racing, and as soon as he felt the slab tap his knee he let go of thinking. Immediately he hopped over and found himself rolling down a small hill and landing into some tall grass. Picking himself up, he bolted once again in the direction of where he saw the star fall into the fields.
He had no idea how far away it was, nor how much he ran. He was only aware of the uneven surface under his feet and the uncomfortable burning that was building in his chest. The air smelled of damp earth and decaying hay. There was something so natural and untainted in that aroma he was sure that he was alone. Humans did not exist, could not exist, but were rather a legend passed between the different parts of his mind.
There was a ditch separating two fields and he found himself elbow deep in sludgy water. He could hear the drops drip into the ditch water as he pulled out his hands. He couldn’t see what was on them and he was glad of it. In the blinding darkness, Jonas could hear the wind knocking the reeds against each other, but the water was so still it made no sound. He heard the whisper of rustling stalks rolled across the field ahead of him. He could feel that it was close, sensed that it fell somewhere nearby and that with this last stretch he could reach it.
He climbed out of the depression and burst into the thicket of waste-high wheat. He pushed past the grass while he was pulled along on the invisible line he drew for himself. He was sure he had long veered off-course; made a circle. He was squinting and cringing in anticipation of finding himself tripping onto the highway again, and bleeding onto the asphalt in defeat. He would lie there until morning, when the lights would come on again and someone would find him. And then he would go home and watch the sun on TV and cry. He hadn’t cried since it started.
When he thought that he must have passed it, he almost did. Standing and wheezing, he looked down onto the faint glow pulsating from the broken soil. He fell to his knees, exhausted. The sweat stained his face and trickled down his back. He could taste it on his lips that were dry from heavy breathing. There was a sharp pain in his chest, and if he had fallen down then and died it would not have surprised him. Yet it had all begun to melt away. The pain faded, the sweat no longer bothered him. There was no sound and no more cold, and the wind had ceased to howl. Instead there was only the tranquility of a cocoon that wrapped itself around Jonas as the faint glow reflected in his pupils.
Gently, he pushed his trembling hands through the dirt and scooped it out. She was a perfect sphere. Alive with its own light, almost blinding and hurting. He looked around and saw that the wheat was still golden like it had been in August. The forest beyond the highway was flush with green, the trees looking like living giants instead of swaying skeletons. When he looked up he could see that the sky directly above him was tinted blue – a slight break that made it seem like the whole thing had cast off the shadow. He laughed. And he let his tears fall onto the star where they disappeared. For the first time since the sunset, it rained, and again the birds had begun to sing. Jonas knew how lucky he was to be there; he trembled at the thought. To be there when the raindrops pattered on the soil and the chirps filled the air. To be there clutching the precious fallen star. To be there when it started. A hailstorm of light.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.