yeah write

The dumping zone

Nothing in my house is new. I wonder if I could live among objects that don’t carry stories. Would I feel welcome at home? Or like I’m walking through a museum with blank placards, peppered with sticky notes of prophecy? You’ll have wonderful and awful conversations on this couch. Breakfasts will happen at this table, and here, maybe, you’ll rest.

This short telephone table here, it holds my keys and detritus, it’s the dumping zone. But before this, it sat in a living room with one purple wall. It held up a tacky blue lamp, next to the couch that was the only new thing in that house. My sister’s glitter-speckled nail polish spilled onto the tiny table as we piled together on the couch and floor, tangled dog and human limbs, laughing and arguing about movies over milkshakes.

This tiny table sat next to those moments of assemblage I remember as possible home – doors fully open but not mine every day. There were beds I could sleep on. Sometimes it was my sister’s, under the abstract floral curtain. Sometimes it was my brother’s floor, on a spare mattress, staring up at the shadows of a Lego pirate ship.

Sometimes I found myself on the hide-a-bed in the basement, in later years, in those times when I was banished from my main home.

From my own bed, I watched treetops sway out the fifth-floor window. I’d crack it open in the middle of the night and blow secret cigarette smoke out, looking up at stars and down at police cruisers, watching them while they waited for our apartment doors to open. And maybe the next day I’d be banished, grabbing a few dresses in a plastic bag before stomping out into the uncertain world. I’d bounce around other beds, and then finally back to my most possible home.

I’d never known such darkness as there was in that stony basement. I’d lose myself in Sims, building imagined fantastical homes suspended over pools, designing little lives that fit into neat patterns. I found a secret hack to refill the bank account. It was so impossibly simple on that screen, a dream I lived until 4 or 5 am before crumpling into the hide-a-bed.

Early morning felt no different than midnight. I’d stumble upstairs anyway, accept the offering of a sandwich in a brown paper bag and try to live the Sim-perfect routine, the one I’d mastered in the dark basement, except in the daylight world. Go to school, go to work, study. Find a home, go to it.

The basement could have been my home too. It was an offer to get away from the too-soon onset of adult life, from fighting. Just go to school and be a kid, they said. You don’t need to maintain home just yet, just live. Just live here.

But I fought and begged for my tiny corner, my room on the fifth floor. I pleaded, why can’t I just pay some rent and call it even? I wanted a door I could lock, a window I could quietly smoke out of, an explosion of branches reaching up into the sky, pulling me out of this mess on the ground.

Long after we left the fifth floor and the others moved away, I searched for new possible homes, for places that could hold the possibility of tangled dog and human limbs on a couch. I held onto what was left, bits of furniture and scraps of stories, patched them together, and called it home.

The dog lived out her years here and died on the kitchen floor, and I cleaned up a bit, then a bit less. I quit smoking and looked out the windows at the one spare treetop. And I pulled out this old table again, rickety but still holding steady. It greets me when I come home. It’s the dumping zone.

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Chair day

If I have to start somewhere, and I do, it’s going to be the chair.

I’m starting with the chair because before the chair, there wasn’t nothing, but there was nothing great. There were places to sit, and they worked in the way that a handful of nuts works in the midafternoon, just to keep dinner at bay. There were places that held up my bones and muscles and ligaments, this structure that supports me, but they didn’t give much in return.

I sat because sitting was necessary and I wrote and edited because that was necessary too, with deadlines and publication schedules and everything that just has to get done. Now the time to be bound by time is gone, but something needs to take its place. I turn back to the words because I know them and I want them to be home.

But I’m not just mind and words spewing out through fingers, I’m this bag of bones and ligaments that need to assume a posture, they need to settle – I need to settle – and focus, dig into the visceral feeling, burp it out over this keyboard, stretch, and then go back with the technicians edge and polish it up.

Enter the chair.

The chair is a place to sit, but more than that. It’s a throne, a glorious place to be, a solid foundation that yields just a touch with the gentle kindness of a minor lean. The chair is a commitment to diligence and discipline. It has to be, because I’ve never spent this much on a goddamn piece of furniture in my life, and if it isn’t a commitment then it’s a warning sign of reckless behaviour.

Or is it symbolic, a gesture that I’m taking the work that I do while I’m sitting in it, myself included, seriously? Does it really need to be anything more than a chair, why must I justify the writing by a chair, and then justify the chair by writing? Aside from this – this vaguely chair-focused word-vomit – have I even written, or written anything worth reading? Perhaps this was all just a rotten idea.

Pause.

This is the process, it always is, and it always looks the same, or close enough to the last round that I can discern the pattern. Commitment. Optimism. That first creaking lunge, an adrenaline rush. Settling in. An ache, a distraction, heads buried in hands, doubt. Paranoia, questioning, fear, fuck it just run away. Or not.

The trick is to start, and if I have to start somewhere, why not here? So I tell myself, start with where you are. Start with where you will sit. Start with the chair.

Not Sorry Bus

"Canadian bus crash"

“Canadian bus crash”

Our apologetic buses are kind of a joke. Image and text, a bus front with its route banner blank, reading simply, “SORRY”. More text, added, explaining something about Canadianness in general, politeness, deference.

That one word, sorry, has the potential to hold much deeper meaning. It can be the introduction to considering the impact of one’s actions on others, to feeling some kind of regret, to intending something better for the future. On a bus-face it’s perfunctory. It’s a pre-emptive shield against future rage. How can you be mad at me? howls a cloud of exhaust fading into the distance, I said I was sorry.

It falls out of warm lips inside buses as backpacks swing into faces, bodies wrapped in parkas squeeze together more than they all would like. It’s held out like a torch to part the crowds. Excuse me, sorry, sorry, coming through, sorry.

We speak to each other like a bus marquee. Hello. How are you. I’m good. I’m sorry. Words scroll across our faces, meaning long frozen and faded, a simple redundant sound. We mean oops, we say sorry, then we scuttle off like an empty bus.

There’s a second line not shown in this bus-borne sketch of laughable Canadiana, though, the companion to SORRY. The marquee cleans, and it reads NOT IN SERVICE, then back to SORRY, and on and on as the driver races to the beginning of the route or back to the garage for either home or dead time in the middle of an all-too-common split shift.

Maybe the second line doesn’t suit the meme-makers in its factual abruptness. It’s a sharp ending to a casual tale of apologia. I have nothing to offer you and I’m leaving, says the bus. Not the meme bus, though. Maybe the meme form wasn’t made for second lines, for nuance, for both/and.

Yesterday, as the -40 wind froze my lips, I watched a bus skate by, blaring its usual banner phrase: SORRY. But the side marquee told a different story.

In a frozen half second, a moment tinier than an ice crystal, I saw the line before the second line, before SORRY was cleared and NOT IN SERVICE took its place. Right in front of my frozen eyeballs the bus nonchalantly announced NOT SORRY, and then sped away.

Those who disregard the second line won’t care that it’s now been reclassified as third, won’t care that a middle chapter has now been etched into this mini-synopsis of Canadiana, our symbolic personality edified in photos of buses poached from news sites.

But we of the icy bus stop, of the wiggling toes and dwindling hope, we who squint into the darkness looking for that familiar constellation of lights that we recognize as warmth and mobility, we care about the new second line.

Even if it’s the most short-lived of all bus announcements, it’s the truest message I’ve ever seen transmitted from public service to public.

And so I present to you the modified mantra of the frozen, passengerless, Winnipeg Transit bus:

SORRY

NOT SORRY

NOT IN SERVICE

Named, unnamed

I don’t want to write about Jian Ghomeshi.

Yet I find myself reading, tweeting, commenting endlessly. Not even about him directly, but about all of the reactions to him and the story he crafted. What our collective responses mean, how this news brought the words Rape Culture into mainstream media. How that carefully crafted statement drips with the venom of language used in service of an agenda, which it always is, but this one is so, well, apparent.

Who speaks, and who is silent?

For the first time in a long time, I’m at a loss for words. The only words that I can reach for aren’t exactly words, but descriptors that I’ve enlisted to take the place of names. Common male names that I’ve chosen to replace, because dragging those around and being reminded of them on a daily or weekly basis just wouldn’t do. A conscious trick of the mind, take away the names, perhaps take away the power?

Even nameless, I can’t forget the fact that I still carry around a list. The drunken violent one. The cutely coercive one. The roofie guy. I can’t un-name them out of existence, and their half-erased faces are lurking around in my memory this week, stomping all over the words I was saving for other things.

The women who will not give their names for fear of retribution had a list too, a list one name long or many names longer. They took that one name on their list and they shared it publicly. Now we all watch the responses coming in, and those who have words close at hand weave them together into gorgeous pieces, shouting all those thoughts and statements usually reserved for whispers.

Women with wise words ask for caution: Think about how you respond. You probably won’t know if you’re in the company of a survivor of sexual assault, so act as if everyone you’re talking to is potentially a survivor.

Women with wise words warn others: Watch what you say. There are more of us than you think, and we are standing in the wings, maybe crying softly, maybe stone-faced. We’re watching your response, considering whether or not it’s safe to step forward.

Women with wise words are explaining, sometimes patiently, sometimes rightly less so, why anonymity is the only real form of safety, even if it won’t sate your taste for facts. It’s safer than a key-fist or a whistle. We know that those are decoys, tactics of diversion, covering for the Nice Guys, the Famous Guys, the Charismatic Guys, the It Couldn’t Possibly Be Him Guys.

Because it can possibly be one of those guys, it was, it has been, and it will be again, as long as they remain names or stand-ins for names to be added, silently, to another woman’s list.

I’m surprised at how long it’s gotten, my list, 20-odd years in the making. I don’t want to write about the name that’s trending and all the names still unspoken, but for once, at least, I’m not alone.

Fellow travelers and other obstacles

I fell back as we turned the corner to the apartment’s side door. I knew that there was still a short hallway to pass through and an elevator ride – more than enough time to sneak a page in. I flipped open the latest Babysitter’s Club and picked up where I had left off in the car, trusting my feet and peripheral vision and no-longer-novel act of walking to carry me safely along.

Was it the subtle rustle of pages that alerted my mom, or a near-automatic reflex: Check on daughter, is she reading? She’d instruct me to get out of bed and get ready for school, and then return to find me sitting in my pyjamas, book in hand. Put it down, get ready.

She wasn’t there to remind me on the bus, and I’d be surprised by the long turn signaling end of the line, two stops past school. Or at recess, hiding under the stairs, then poking my head out to find an abandoned schoolyard. Bookmark in, jump up, run.

The in-between moments that were perfect book times to me were always (apparently) designated for something else. But walking didn’t take much attention, and it was one of the rare times I didn’t need to be getting dressed or going to school or watching bus stops. So I fell behind a few steps and found my bookmark’s trusty spot.

Mom looked over her shoulder. Don’t read and walk, you’ll fall. 8-year-old sigh, bookmark replaced. Feet still working without me, my eyes drifted over the bare pink walls instead.

– – –

I step onto the bus and scan for a spot. The seats are all full, rows and rows of heads leaning towards screens in laps. There are no eyes to accidentally match gazes with, no friendly people to fill the ride with small talk, which suits me just fine. I take a wider stance by the back door and hook my elbow around a pole: Three anchor points to hold me up for this short haul.

I instinctively reach for my pocket, to bow in kind before the small screen, thumb-scroll through short missives or filtered pictures. Then I remember the latest issue of Room stashed in my backpack for this exact window of bus-time. I dive into the world of words and come up for air just as my stop is approaching. Out of hurry or habit, I step off the bus with book still in hand. I stop and hesitate for a moment, do I really need to put it away?

The bus is emptying, ripples of passengers dividing around me as I’m still as a statue, holding my book in the air as if to proclaim the fading virtue of bus-reading. But I’m barely affecting the current. Elbows are bent, heads still bowed to screens as well-trained feet carry them off towards the mall. There are no mothers here to take up the familiar reprisal, Don’t read and walk, you’ll fall.

Maybe at 8 I was preparing for a future none of us had seen, honing the skill of moving forward and inward at once, fragmenting my attention and portioning it out with careful divisions: a smidge of hearing for oncoming traffic, a sliver of vision to the path below my feet, a microsecond allotted for eyes to dart up at the end of each sentence, to watch for fellow travelers and other obstacles.

I have two pages left, and a parking lot to cross. I set my feet in motion and flip the book back open.


Rehearsing tough

There is a line that I draw, and redraw, and redraw, between what is tolerable and what is not. It shifts with my expectations, my confidence, my priorities. It shifts with my mood. It shifts with the seasons.

In Winnipeg, we always talk about the weather. Are we special? No, every place has its own set of atmospheric vagaries that shape our movement, fashions, habits, routines.

What’s exceptional about our weather (as much as it pains me to write those 5 words, which, standing on their own, read as the most mundane declaration in the prairies, but stay with me, please!) is the yearly range, the distance between extremes. Well past 30 above in the summer, often beyond 30 below in the winter. But we don’t jump about too much, we adapt in little shifts.

As we descend, each 5 degree drop comes with a twinge and a resigned sigh. Last week, in the mid-teens, I replaced screens with storm windows and packed up all the open-toed shoes. Today I pulled my hood up to defend against tiny hail droplets, but took comfort in the fact that we hadn’t yet moved into full-on hat and mitts territory. The cold approaches and I retreat at first, scaling back further into my house and piling on blankets. Then I acclimatize, re-bundle, and wander out again, smiling at the sun on my face even as the wind blows more and more bitterly.

It’s not winter yet, but it will be. And I know that when -30 comes, I’ll look back at these flirting-with-zero days with a mix of envy and desperation. Winter’s approach feels certain; Spring can’t ever be trusted.

Here, we complain, joke, mythologize the weather. Our city’s rich music scene, often credited to the months spent in half-hibernation. The warmth of our personalities. Our resilience.

I worry that strength and resilience are misread into a much harsher reality: Expecting the cold, and facing it with a sad, cynical smirk. The blunt bravado behind what won’t kill me will make me stronger.

This strength comes at a price, as it always does. To steel my cheeks, unflinching in the face of 60 km/h hail-speckled wind, may lessen my suffering for the dark months, but it’s harder to just flip the switch back come July: The air is kinder, it’s time to feel now. It’s more than the weather that seeps deeper inside, reinforcing a kind of permafrost.

After spending the longest part of every year rehearsing tough, it takes more than a short spurt of relative warmth to truly thaw.

Words mean things – a mini-manifesto

This may sound incredibly basic, but it’s important to keep in mind – especially when you’re asking someone (or have been asked) to stop using a word, and to recognize its meaning and effect.

Words mean things.

“It doesn’t mean that to ME”, “but I didn’t mean it like that!”, or “that wasn’t my intention” aren’t great responses to a reminder that words mean things. Why is that, you may ask?

1-Words have meanings, but these meanings aren’t stable.

The meaning of a word changes according to social and cultural context. Since the 13th century, this one word meant (very literally) a bundle of sticks; Today, it’s used as an insult towards gay men. Meanings change with time and context, and sometimes we don’t always keep up.

We may use a word that seems neutral or harmless according to what we knew about it, but its meaning can change right under our feet. When it’s brought to our attention, then WHOA – we learn something. But once we know more about the word, we can’t go back to using a literal or limited meaning and claim ignorance to its impact.

2-If you want to mean what you say, say what you mean.

If you’re still using a word despite its broader meaning, you’re messing with your message. If you’re asked to stop using a word because its meaning is harmful, perhaps this is actually a grammatical opportunity. No, you may not have that common, comfortable word to fall back on to describe that thing you’re describing, but now you get to collect some new words.

If new words elude you, maybe try saying exactly what you mean, even with a few more words at first. You may come up with a better understanding of what it is you’re really trying to say.

For example, in using a slang synonym for weak, what are you really saying? Maybe you’re saying that according to your standards of coping, another person is not coping well. Are you talking about their actions, or your own values and judgements? Is there another word you could use in service of your point? Think about what you mean, and eventually you’ll become more concise, discerning, and clear.

3-With best intentions, words can still hurt. Using hurtful words casually normalizes hurting with words.

I know someone who uses “queer” as a synonym for “strange”. We’ve talked about how this can also be a derogatory term (or a reclaimed term, depending on the tone of voice and on who is uttering the word) – but it no longer ONLY means strange. If she says, “Oh, that’s queer!” with a particular inflection (even if she just means “strange”), her speech echoes homophobic culture. Whatever her intention, she is normalizing the use of discriminatory words outside of their new context.

Intention doesn’t negate effect, and speaking words that have been identified as harmful – anywhere on the spectrum of harmful – feeds into cultural beliefs that these things don’t matter. If we only count BIG HURT words as hurtful, then we’re condoning little hurts (aka microaggressions). These can easily turn into big hurts – the kind made up of a thousand tiny daily scratches.

Words means things.

Reflecting on and talking about words that may not seem overtly discriminatory (to us) is a great start. If we can’t talk about words that may be hurtful in a (relatively) minor way, we don’t stand a chance with the big ones. And we all deserve better – not only better communication, but more kindness from and towards each other.

 

All the pieces, all the time

Even when I can break projects down into manageable chunks, or work on them at a reasonable pace, I still have moments when I feel like I’m being pulled in a million directions at once. I wish for that elusive singular focus, to comes home every day to that one thing that drives me.

When I was a kid, there was a question that adults always loved to ask: What do you want to be when you grow up?

From 8-12, I might have said “Writer”, or “Baseball Player”. And then it turned into “Musician”, “Rock Star”, “Cook”, and I tried those things in real life and they were cool, but I didn’t have any grand imperative to keep going, to take them all the way. I didn’t envision a title, a career, a final place that I could set as a destination where I could stop and say “I’ve arrived”.

I had a friend who said she wanted to be a marine biologist. It confounded me. Where did she get that from? Is it because she liked dolphins, and that was a title for a person who did dolphin things? She held the same answer for years, and I wondered where her conviction came from, her aim so steady and true.

Running into another friend just after high school, I offered that same tired query, and he replied “Thoracic surgeon”. I nodded in slight confusion, then looked it up when I got home. I was perplexed. Not just surgeon – he had a specialty nailed down already. The specificity of it boggled my mind.

Perhaps I overestimated the commitment behind these pronouncements. Perhaps everyone else who had a clear answer on hand had just that – an answer on hand for that redundant question, knowing that answering properly is part of what’s expected of young folks. They should aspire to be something, or to want to be something, even if the adults know it’s impossible.

The adults will nod, like they’ve had some insight into young person’s brain, or at least have some reassurance that this one has a plan. They will be something. They’re not just going to keep dying their hair and playing in punk bands and fucking shit up, though that was legitimately my plan for a while. (I suppose I’ve just refined my aims slightly. Still dying the hair, still playing music loudly, still fucking shit up, but on more of a discursive level.)

I’d prefer to think that most people are also secretly confused and fumbling through this world while somehow presenting a tidy and polished exterior. I’d prefer that over a suspicion that’s been shadowing my whole life, that Other People have that thing called Knowing What To Do With Their Lives and I’m totally missing it.

So I line up my rainbow-fill array of interests like a package of pencil crayons in their pristine beginning-of-the-school-year completeness, and pack them into my backpack. This is the assemblage of things that are me, that are always with me, that are always overfull, zippers straining, scraps of paper and half-inked pens spilling out of the edges. How can I carry just one notebook, just one novel, just one magazine? I want it all, all the time.

Every night, I dump my backpack onto the couch and sift through all the stuff. I gaze longingly at a tiny minimalist purse hanging among a dozen tote bags, the elusive dream of paring down, of needing less, of carrying just one small piece at a time.

Who am I kidding. That’s never been my style.

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Let’s Celebrate!

On Saturday morning, I took a cue from a roving balloon that temporarily moored itself in the patch of unclaimed garden between my front yard and the nieghbour’s.

“Let’s Celebrate!”, it said, bobbing gently atop its long orange tail. It swirled and danced in the wind, hopping over the sidewalk, and then diving onto the grass and flopping about like a beached fish.

“Let’s Celebrate!” bumbled over into the space that is more certainly my yard, and edged towards the stairs. Perhaps it was seeking home, a place to rest, or a gathering that would echo its far-flung origins.

“Let’s Celebrate!” was untethered and curious, unbounded by conceptions of lawn and sidewalk and street.  I thought of the terror that could ensue as a child tried to recapture this wandering party, or of a car swerving to avoid it. Perhaps this was too much celebration for a quiet street.

I wedged the long orange tail between two fence boards, leaving some leeway for the the nodding balloon’s face to play in the breeze. It picked up speed and raced from side to side on its newly shortened tether, an inverted pendulum swinging in protest of its assigned post. But it was held lightly, I didn’t expect it to stay, and I had a date to keep.

*  *  *

The Food Truck Wars at Manyfest were more of a short-lived battle. Both sides of the street were bumper-to-bumper for half a block, but each one offered much more than a meal. My chosen truck would either win or lose according to my palate and/or mood; The Walleye Wagon was only up against itself, and then I was full.

We saw friends, friends of friends, family, family friends, strolling up and down the truck-lined street and nibbling their chosen bites curbside. Some to nod and smile at, some to pass along the verdict handed down upon our respective meals. We found my brother on his bike, wearing the same boots as me but in a different colour, carrying his camera. I shared that my fish and chips was more chips than fish, but the fish was tender, crispy, and quickly devoured. The chips defeated me. He was on a bike lock mission, unimpressed by the street festival, already moving on.

The walleye settled into my stomach while we wandered through the artisan’s market. Another block full of tables and tents and shiny things, makers proud of their wares and hoping for a sale. My backpack grew heavier as I collected candles scented with rose, vanilla, and root beer (still gripping my empty Dr Pepper can, I was an easy mark).

And then we stumbled onto Giant Jenga.

There is no point in resisting its lure – if I see Giant Jenga, I play Giant Jenga. I become Giant Jenga. I draw an imaginary cone of concentration around Giant Jenga and the drama of life is reduced to a carefully balanced tower of wooden bricks. It must grow at all costs. It must grow and not topple (though we know it will always topple, we play to prolong the inevitable).

Some passers-by offered a play-by-play and seemed to be drawn in momentarily, but they were quickly pulled off towards the idea of the next spectacle with the precise Canadian 30-second attention span my busker friend had calculated. We weren’t performing, though. We were engaged in an exacting sport, a carefully calculated competition, a collaboration in suspense and measured risk.

“I can’t believe it’s barely swaying in that wind!”
“Oh no, What am I going to do here?”
“I don’t knoooooow…”
“Right, take the easy one from the top!”
“Hmmmmm.”

I crouched at the side of the tower, squinting, watching for light slipping through the cracks, a sign that there was room to move. Block by giant block, it rose, it swayed. It was over four feet tall, maybe four and a half. The bottom third became a skeleton; the peak was a solid mass.

The end could come at any minute, or there could be no end. There was only now. Sun, wind, smiling people out on the street. Slow, gentle movement. Relax. Focus. Celebrate each small addition, each moment stolen from game over and added to what’s next.

I tapped a corner brick in tandem with the wind’s gust. The whole structure collapsed into my arms, and I laughed and let the pieces fall to the ground.

We rebuilt the tower for the next set of players and parted ways.

*  *  *

Stopping for a coffee on the way home, I stumbled on the Sherbrook Street Fest. I took the last empty table, a solitary island in the middle of the street, castaway from the sociable huddle shopside, on the sidewalk. I didn’t mind the spot. I enjoy the feeling of being alone in a crowd, though the best kind of alone is found in a sizeable crowd. Being alone in a scattered array of strangers feels more like a stray dog, looking into every face for possible friendship.

My pen lurked above my notebook with no real intention of making contact as I stared off into the middle distance, half watching people, half watching the flutter of the cheery banners strung up across the street. Another friend crossed my sightlines, said hello, and moved on, carrying a small book from the local anarchist library.

A mayoral candidate was talking to the CBC to my left, showing off her love for the city and this neighbourhood, this festival, the young entrepreneurs building the area up. “This is the spirit of Winnipeg!”, she exclaimed, and then behind her was my brother again, walking next to his bike. We’re like homing pigeons, he and I, tuned to the same social trajectory, drawn about the city as if we were pulled by the same magnet.

He was less impressed by the scenes than I’d been, and called it Nothingfest. “Everyone shows up, and there’s nothing!” he joked. But his spirits were soon lifted by the sight of a dog that looked like it was made of a mop, a man with a parrot on his shoulder, and a younger version of my old dog, Shadow. More animals, or less people – what was the magic ratio? I spotted a FREE HUGS sign being held above the crowd, but little Shadow saw no point in asking and just jumped in, giving me a big kiss on the lips.

*  *  *

I came home and found a waving blue face reminding me of the day’s mission. “Let’s Celebrate!” it asked again, but I had, and moved on to the back stoop.

I heard its constant protest from the front fence, inflated silver crinkling and bouncing against fence boards. Perhaps it would be happier among the peas and beans in the garden, I thought, so I brought it back with me and wove it into the chicken wire. Even in the still breeze, it continued its dance, nodding out a silent eulogy for the party it thought it was missing.