I love to think of Prince Street, bustling at dusk, thrumming with music and the call and response of neighbors. I imagine the quiet of winter that will soon enough settle over your neighborhood in a couple of months, a quiet I look forward to as well. I sometimes feel like I get my best writing done when the sky falls white and the world muffles with snow. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to retire to Florida.
I’m so glad that you told me a little bit about your place, which is something that’s too often left out of the stories that we tell about ourselves. For me, I live on a quiet street in midtown Toronto, which is lined with aging trees and parked cars. A new subway line is being built just a couple of streets away, and the construction brings traffic and noise. The transit expansion along Eglinton Avenue has been underway for almost six years, and I think we have another two years to go. I hadn’t thought of it until describing it just now, but I suppose this municipal project lends one concrete way for thinking about the question we’ve been tossing back and forth in our last couple of letters: what are we building?
The subway expansion reminds me of just how much delayed gratification is required to build something that lasts. For years now (and years more), we have endured the chokehold of narrowed and congested streets. We’ve weathered road closures, depended on alternate routes, suffered lengthy daily commutes so that men and women in orange vests and hard hats can burrow beneath us, hollow out more tunnels, and lay more lines of steel. If population trends hold in Toronto, in another six years, half of us will not even have remembered these hassled years of building. The newcomers to our city will take for granted what the rest of us paid for in inconvenience.
Maybe it’s not unlike the Frederick Fair and the ham and cheese sandwich stand that your grandparents started sixty years ago. Of course that’s not as momentous as a subway line crossing the heart of North American’s fourth largest city, but surely there were risks they confronted, inconveniences they absorbed that are unbeknownst to you. Whether or not they planned for it, you’re the heir of their legacy, reaping benefits from their now forgotten burdens.
I wonder how much patience I have to build something whose rewards I might never enjoy, rewards reserved for people I might never meet? I think about that with my writing, wondering if any of it will go on speaking after I’m dead. (I’m stealing your words there.) I remember reading a poem* by Scott Cairns months ago where he writes:
“ . . . Everything we write
turns into elegy, and every elegy
slips into our own. I say this now
because we know we’re dying, and dying want some words for setting down.”
It could all sound so terribly morbid, this idea that it’s death at our heels, baying and begging us to create something that time won’t rot. But maybe that’s not unwarranted. I think of the Psalm of Moses where he asks for the wisdom required for measuring his days and knowing their brevity. There’s a lot of wisdom in asking: even if these days won’t last forever, is there something I can build that will outlast me? Maybe that’s part of the incredible impertinence of being a writer, that we could be so cosmically ambitious as to set down words like we were laying down steel. That we could dream that something about our work could be impervious to the weather of years.
I’m not sure if you know, but my father died when I was a freshmen at Wheaton. He was a writer, too. Years ago, I finally gathered some of his papers that my mom was storing in her garage and brought them home to Toronto. I had the ambition of going through them slowly, as a way of getting to know him as much as a way of remembering him. Early into the task, I found a query that he wrote in his twenties, attached to what seemed to be one of his first short stories. I’m not sure that it was ever published, but that typewritten letter brought to life the young, ambitious and uncertain man that my father surely must have been. The story was a story about two office workers falling in love over lukewarm black coffee in the break room. I wondered about the origin of that story and about the man who’d imagined it.
My mom often repeats, “Your father would be so proud of you.” But I’d like to think that it might be less pride in me and more a deep satisfaction in knowing that he’d contributed to building something, whether he knew it or not. As a writer, he passed on a love of words to his daughter. And maybe, were he still alive, he would have felt like your grandparents if they could see your kids now at the Frederick Fair, returning with oversized stuffed animals and giant candy bars, falling asleep in makeshift lawn chairs turned beds. Maybe he—and they—would be caught by surprise at the wonder of having made something far more permanent than they intended. I think it’s true that we are often unconscious of what we’re building.
We’ve just planted a row of beech trees in our backyard. Right now, they’re meagre and slight, more silhouette than real substance, barely reaching the top of the cedar fence that our neighbors built last summer. But should God allow, I hope to watch them grow tall, grow wide, their waistlines thickening with each passing year. Building and rooting a life, even a body of work, is like this slow growth of trees (and less idyllically, the slow explansion of a city subway). It is not a hurried work. In fact, I think the accumulation, the growth can be so inconspicuous as to surprise us, though we’d really have to leave it to future generations to measure.
Is the fair finally over? Have you returned to more normal, manageable rhythms of writing and family life ? And what are you working on right now (even if you can’t say for sure what you’re building)? I’m looking forward to hearing from you.
*This is excerpted from Scott Cairns, “Another Elegy,” found his Slow Pilgrim collection, p. 6.
What began as a Twitter conversation between two writers on creative work and family life has become an exchange of letters. Here is a list of our prior letters for Postmarked: