And Words Are All I Have

At a certain point I need to go wandering. My feet need to hit earth, again and again, that bone-filling drumbeat. I need the sky's colored threads to tangle inside me,
pull me somewhere new.”

― Megan Harlan, Mobile Home: A Memoir in Essays

joni mitchell

What's On My Mind: May 14th, 2021

Writing is my double mask against despondency. Granted, my metaphor is a bit heavy handed but it is nothing if not (CoVid) timely.

Writing, for the most part, sequesters my melancholy. I think of it much like the lead lined boxes where Madame Curie kept her original records documenting her years of radium research.

I persist with my writing. I just keep trying to get it right. When someone asks me how do you become a writer, my answer is pretty much the same. That there’s no secret, no magic to it. It doesn’t matter where you went to school or who your family are. Good teachers and mentors can spur you on, correct your grammar and suggest improvements, but they can’t build a writer. No amount of pixie dust can.

I think it comes down to sheer doggedness. To just keep putting words together, whether it's in essays, stories or poems. It helps if you are enraptured by words as I am. When they don’t string together exactly the way I want them to, I push delete and try again, hoping down the road new ones will. I take no prisoners, never have. Oh! Did I mention the cursing component?

We improve by doing. And there are proven ways writers can exercise their muscles, keep limber, and the bonus: not one treadmill involved. In the writers' group I work with, we had a recent assignment to set our timers for 10 minutes and write sentences beginning with the letter F. (Try a list yourself. Choose your own letter.)

You have to let it flow, to use the words of a very famous professional ice skater I overheard barking instructions to his patient hairdresser mid styling.

I came up with seven sentences in a mad flurry of typing. (Strung together, they may just form the foundation of a future poem.) Were I to write another list under the same dictates right this moment, it would be entirely different. This I have learned. And therein lies the liberating, emboldening nature of this exercise.

Seven Sentences Beginning with "F."
  1. Forget the time I spoke to him in anger, before thinking, words you were never able to take back.
  2. Forget the years of nuns looking over my shoulder, and dogma that told me I was always falling short.
  3. Forget my dull blue Catholic school uniform, worn five days a week, the skirt pleats stiff from too many hot irons.
  4. Forget the advertising agency owner who said my writing wasn’t quite up to snuff but perhaps we could go out for a drink to discuss options.
  5. Forget her face that very last morning in the cruel first light and how it was not the way I would have wished to remember her.
  6. Forget the silent child in the shopping cart with the unwashed face.
  7. Forget the icy wind on my face that day on Bloor Street when he said how lovely I was. When he said he would never forget me. Ever.

A childhood friend of mine died last week. We were classmates for ten years in our small town. I lost touch with him after leaving there in my teens but when I heard news of his death it rocketed me back to my youth and my memories of us as friends.
My friend Bobby was a force of nature. He was like no one else. He taxed the nuns’ patience in classrooms because of his curiosity, his exuberance. He asked questions that only he seemed able to devise, ones that stirred debate, curiosity and passion. Disruptive? Yes. Galvanizing? Yes again.

I think it’s common for us all, once we register the loss of someone dear, to rewind to the parts of our lives that included them, to recollect what we were like and exactly who we were when we knew them. What aspects of ourselves they brought to the fore in us, and those they perhaps subdued.

I felt Bobby gave me permission to explore more freely the person I was capable of becoming back then. And in doing so I discovered sides to myself I may never have. I loved who I was around him: Me, only better. Everyone knows Bobbys. Our jokes become funnier, our antics more entertaining, our lives a little more magical whenever they're around.

The tributes to Bobby on social media following his death were voluminous and heartfelt. He touched so many people with his capacity for joy and the way he tackled life. That’s the word: Bobby tackled life. One person captured him brilliantly by describing him as a man who “sanctified the ordinary.” Dozens of people touched on the times Bobby had made time to talk and how they always felt certain he was listening, no matter the subject.

He was a gifted artist and worked in an assortment of materials and media. I remember one particularly compelling painting. It was a drawing of an elaborate picture frame, almost the full size of the canvas. Leaning deeply into the frame with his back to the viewer is a man who will always remain faceless.

Bobby showed me different ways to be me, a gift that I still consider inestimable in value. In return, I try to live life large just as he did.

This verse comes to mind as a fitting tribute to Bobby. Although written a staggering 2,300 years ago it remains utterly, sublimely timeless. The writer is the Greek poet Callimachus (350-300 BC), remembering his beloved friend Heraclitus, a philosopher and fellow writer.

They told me, Heraclitus; they told me you were dead.
They brought me bitter news to hear,
And bitter tears to shed.
I wept when I remembered
how often you and I
had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.
Still are there pleasant voices, the nightingales, awake,
for death he taketh all away, but them,
he cannot take.


Linda Pastan

Just as we lose hope
she ambles in,
a late guest
dragging her hem of wildflowers,
her torn veil of mist,
of light rain,
blowing her dandelion breath in our ears;
and we forgive her,
turning from chilly winter ways,
we throw off our faithful sweaters
and open
our arms.

Writing is a kind of revenge against circumstance too: bad luck, loss, pain.
If you make something out of it,
then you’ve no longer been bested by these events.

~Louise Gluck

I am here, listening. Let me hear from you, gentle reader.
pencil drawing red heart
tricia handwritten signature

Recent Post

Just Once

The Elephant Man finally relented. He wondered what it would be like to just once sleep like other people. So he laid his gigantic head down on a pillow instead of resting it atop his knees. Just that once. By morning he had suffocated under the weight of it. In some people’s lives there are no words for happiness. There …

Book Sales

The Music of Leaving, my collection of poetry, is available to order.
Order directly online — for both Canada and U.S. orders — from Amazon, Brunswick and Demeter.
The Music of Leaving - Tricia McCallum

Poetry goes social...

facebook twitter instagram youtube