A race is a very special undertaking. For some reason that can’t possibly relate to logic or reason, I’ve chosen to run two in the past three weeks.
It might not be good for my body to run a race every day.
But maybe it would be better for my mind and my spirit to run a race every day.
I did not feel like running this race. I wasn’t even sure my training was sufficient, despite some hard work over the summer. As predicted, my ability to train on the weekends dropped off as soon as September arrived, and with it the book. I ran that half-marathon three weeks ago as a training run. Because otherwise, I’d dropped down to three runs a week, none of them over 12.5 kilometres. Yesterday’s race was double that at 25 kilometres, and on steep winding trails, very hilly, while the half-marathon route had been a gently rolling road with no real hill challenges.
But I went. I set my alarm for early, slept poorly, woke and forced myself to eat and to drink and to prepare, and drove to Pinehurst Conservation area, and picked up my race kit, and stood in line at the bathrooms, and sat in the truck trying to stay warm and eating almonds and reading toward the ending of A Tale for the Time Being and then it was time to lace up my shoes, pin on my number, and go to the start line. And then it was time to run.
So I ran.
I didn’t know whether or not I was up for this particular challenge. In fact, I feared that I was not up for it; certainly knew that I would not be choosing to do it, had I not signed up months ago. But that’s a good enough reason to do something, I believe: sign up, show up, offer what you have in you to offer on the day it is required of you.
It might not be as much as you could offer under ideal circumstances, or at a different time in your life. That is okay.
A race is more about marking the moment with the offering of your effort than it is about finishing or competing or putting up race times. In fact, that last one is just a number and is worth something to you alone, and you get decide, therefore, its value.
I decided yesterday that the numbers didn’t matter.
I ran without a watch. I ran on gut instinct, following my body’s ebbs and flows of energy, without judging or critiquing my body’s efforts, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, but then stronger again, always with a mind to the effort needed and the desire and pleasure of speed and forward-motion. On some of the downhills, it felt like I was flying. On some of the uphills, I was bent double and slowed to a walking pace. I tuned a lot out. In fact, the experience had an otherworldly quality, or the quality of a dream I did not control, but only moved through.
For long stretches, I thought of nothing, saw little, only was aware of motion itself, the path immediately ahead, the tree roots, the leaves, the colours, the sticks and stones under my feet. I remember the sun shone for awhile, its brightness on the fallen, wet poplar leaves so strong that it hurt my eyes to focus on the ground and yet I knew that I needed to focus lest I lose my footing or trip. So much of my mind’s work went into the path immediately ahead.
When my energy flagged, I practiced staying in the moment. I thought of old Jiko in A Tale for the Time Being practicing zazen (though this was moving meditation). I used a few mantras, chosen at random from the flotsam and jetsam of information that had passed through my mind either right before race time or during the race itself.
A phrase on the back of a t-shirt that I saw while waiting in line in the women’s bathroom: “The mind leads the body.” For a while, I was saying it backward: “The body follows the mind,” which worked too, but then I ran behind the woman with the t-shirt for a stretch and saw the words as they were, so I switched to that. I tried to thank her when I passed her, but instead said, “I like your shirt.” Which wasn’t quite the right message, but there was very little oxygen available for communication.
Communication was rudimentary. I felt myself pulled deep inside my body, my eyes tools only, unable or unwilling to connect, almost a blank of observable emotion.
The flying mantra came from a comment posted on Facebook by a friend in Ottawa, encouraging my race effort: she said the damp would keep me cool and I would feel like I was flying. And I did, sometimes.
There was one more mantra, from Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, who I follow on Facebook, who said that your fear is the most boring thing about you. So, whenever I felt the trickle of fear approaching, or questioned whether I was running too well, too easily, too strong, and would therefore shortly most definitely crash, I told myself: your fear is the most boring thing about you!
I knew the second lap would be difficult, and was not prepared for it to be as manageable as it became. I’d lost all fear by that point, and the kilometres seemed to melt rather than be counted, as I wasn’t paying much attention, and would miss kilometre markers altogether, so it seemed like before I knew it there were only 5 kilometres left.
I drank coke and water. I sucked on an energy gel pack that my friend Heather, who I run with on Thursday mornings, had given me along with a new pair of socks as a surprise gift for race day. I wore the socks, too. I thought of Heather during that last 10 kilometres because we run that distance together and we run it far faster than I’m used to covering 10 kilometres, so I told myself that if I could keep up with Heather, I could easily complete these last 10 kilometres. In fact, when I realized I had only five kilometres left, it seemed as if the race had happened too quickly.
Not that I wanted it to go on longer.
Just that I was shocked to realize how quickly the time had passed, how deeply inside of it my focus was and would remain, with little ticks and breaks here and there, until I crossed the finish line.
In fact, I sped up significantly when I realized I was completing the last kilometre, and sprinted the last 600 metres, passing many runners, none of them choosing to challenge me, although I kept listening for the sound of footfalls chasing behind me. None came. I knew I could carry myself over the last stretch, and the sprint felt easy at the end, strong.
I don’t know what time I got. I was too totally inside the focus to look at the clock as I crossed the line. I do know it was faster than I’d hoped for, but slower than previous races.
As I drove home, it came to me that a race is an opportunity to prove to yourself that you’re stronger than you think. That’s what it felt like. During the race, I felt so much stronger than I’d thought I was, only hours earlier, so much braver, so much calmer. I’m doing this, I told myself; you’re doing this. It was exhilarating and fun and joyful. I will do it again. I will approach it with the same spirit, with optimism, with training to underpin the approaching effort, and without giving in to fear. It isn’t that the fears won’t rise, but I don’t have to bend to them.
This is life, too.
For example, I can’t not write another book for fear that it won’t match my previous books. I can’t let fear guide my choices or shape my decisions. I need to show up for the challenge, whatever that challenge may be, with the best effort I can offer, right now. I’m stronger than I think; you’re stronger than you think.
in Alice Munro country
This has been a good weekend, and so I must write about it, especially after my tired post last night. And I am tired, there’s no doubt, but this is also the season of gratitude and harvest, and I want to tell you that, on occasion, the “glamorous writer’s life” can actually feel, well, kinda glamorous.
On Friday evening, Kevin and I drove northwest out of the city in separate vehicles, heading for Huron County, otherwise known as Alice Munro country. The kind organizers of the Alice Munro writers and readers festival had invited me to speak at their event, and offered to put us up overnight in an Inn called The Benmiller. We drove through rolling hills, down huge valleys, taking a circuitous route recommended by Google maps that must have been recommended for the views. Yellow cornfields, stands of trees with changing leaves, wending rivers. (Is that the right word? I want it to be.)
We arrived in time for dinner. When we clinked glasses, I said, in tones utterly heartfelt: “Here’s to the perks of being a writer!” We haven’t been away overnight, just the two of us together, since mumble mumble mumble. A really long time. Yeah. I was pregnant with our now-nine-year-old on our last overnight getaway. So this was a real treat. It was a treat I wasn’t sure we’d manage to pull off, given our busyness (Kevin drove back early the next morning to soccer tryouts, while I went to Blythe on my own for the presentation.) Accept all treats! That is going to be an addendum to my motto: I don’t procrastinate. Actually, those fit together well. It’s a reminder that it’s just as important not to procrastinate when it comes to the good, pleasurable, sweet things that life has to offer. My naturally ascetic personality needs to be reminded.
So, thank you to the organizers of the Alice Munro festival, in beautiful Huron County. (Mark your calendars for next year’s festival.) And thank you to my mom for staying overnight with the kids.
I haven’t been reading reviews of Girl Runner closely, mostly because I’m a wimp. No, mostly because the book feels too newborn and my feelings about it too raw to read anything that in any way could be taken as critique. I avoid Goodreads, for example (although I encourage you to go there and enter: they’re drawing for a giveaway of Girl Runner tomorrow). My publicist is sending notification of reviews to Kevin, who summarizes them for me. The reviews he’s told me about have been good, even great, but I still know that, early on, even the smallest critique feels like a stabbing, so I steer clear. (And I have to add that as time goes by, I will be able and willing to engage with a variety of opinions in a reasoned and thoughtful way; it doesn’t hurt me to read reviews of any kind of The Juliet Stories now, because I know what I love about it, and trust its value and worth. I also fully accept and understand that readers have very different opinions, takes, likes and dislikes—and I also accept and understand that I’m not ready to confront those quite yet, with Girl Runner.) That was a long lead-in. The point being, Kevin insisted I read in full, for myself, the review that came out in this weekend’s National Post. So I did. It left me breathless. The reviewer read the book just exactly like I hoped it would be read. Click here for the link. (They used the running photo again.)
Perhaps what I appreciated most about the review is that it was written by someone who doesn’t love running; yet she got it.
“I don’t understand Aganetha Smart’s relationship to running in particular, but I do connect with her deep love, her profound physicality. And her desire to pursue the thing she is meant to do above all other things, in the face of resistance that borders on impossibility. This is where I connected with her: there is no better way to raise a demon in her brain than to tell her a thing cannot be done. There is no wrench in the gears, no threat or heartbreak that succeeds in turning her away from the thing she loves, nor can it be taken from her.”
Goosebumps, I tell you.
This morning, I received notice of another review, on the 4Mothers blog, which Kevin also insisted I read. Click here for the link. Again, the reviewer connected with Aganetha’s competitive spirit:
“What I most loved about the book is the description of Aganetha’s ambition. I don’t think there are enough stories about female ambition. Snyder describes ambition not as something hard or calculating, but as if it is something organic, born and not made by the goal-setting cheers of the chorus of life coaches that seem so loud in the 21st century.”
I want to pour us all a cup of coffee and sit down for a long chat on this subject.
So, thank you reviewers for your generous reviews.
(And thank you to all reviewers, even if I haven’t had the courage to read you all the way through, yet. I will, I promise! When the newborn gets to the toddler stage and starts climbing the stairs by herself in 10 seconds flat, I’ll teach her how to come back down safely, and then we’ll both be ready to engage with a range of opinions, takes, likes and dislikes.)
I’ve been thinking that I need a better answer to the question: How do you fit everything in? I usually laugh and say, I have no freaking idea, or something to that effect. But that’s not quite true. That’s the lazy answer. Because of course I have some idea. I’m doing it, after all. It isn’t just magically happening, it does take thought, care, effort.
Here’s the thing: the real answer is awfully long and detailed, hardly useful in interview situations, when the pithiest answer is best. But this is my blog, and we don’t care about pithy so much here, at least not all the time. So here, I present to you the non-pithy, heavily detailed, low-down from one woman’s organized life. (Note: I’m not suggesting you adopt these measures yourself; I recognize that many would not wish to lead such a strictly organized life. Please take this as descriptive rather than prescriptive.)
1. First of all, as you already know, I don’t procrastinate. Think of it, do it, done. If it can’t be done, make a note in a calendar so that it will be done. This unclutters my brain a great deal.
2. Keeping detailed notes in an online calendar also unclutters my brain, and prevents me from dropping too many balls in one day.
3. If I drop a few balls, I forgive myself. I think that’s key.
4. I lower my standards and relinquish control. The house isn’t very clean. The sheets aren’t regularly changed. The laundry is washed and dried, but may pile up for days unfolded in baskets in the basement. The meals aren’t planned. The kids aren’t terribly well-groomed. The garden is unkempt. And it’s okay. Because the domestic front isn’t exclusively my responsibility anyway — there are six of us in this house. As soon as I recognized this (and it wasn’t easy), I stopped critiquing others’ contributions. I would observe that an absence of critique makes it easier for others to take responsibility and contribute.
5. I’ve gotten good at assessing my own patterns of behaviour. For example, it’s no good to schedule exercise at lunchtime, which other people seem perfectly capable of doing; that will never happen for me. At lunchtime I will be working so intently on something else that I will forget to eat lunch, let alone remember or choose to exercise. So why fight the pattern? Instead, I schedule exercise early, or at times when I won’t be doing anything else, and will be outside somewhere (i.e. kids’ soccer practice).
6. Yeah, I schedule exercise. I schedule friend-time. I schedule writing time. I schedule everything. Some of it is actually jotted on the calendar, and some is just me, in my own head, blocking out time, observing the flow of the day, grabbing the moment and designating it: writing time. Or: interview time. Or: course prep time.
7. If the schedule isn’t working, I reassess on a deep level, or, often, I just go with the immediate flow and change course in the moment. The schedule is there because it works. If it doesn’t work, the problem is the schedule, not me or my family or us. I ditch what’s not working.
8. I don’t let the work that requires deep thought and focus overlap with all the rest of the work that requires deep thought. If I’m writing an essay, I want to be writing an essay and that is all. I try to apply this same principle to all activities. If I’m reading to my kids before bed, I want to be reading to my kids before bed and that is all. If I’m out for coffee with a friend, I want to be out for coffee with a friend and that is all. Heck, if I’m driving across town on errands, I want to turn on the radio and listen or stare out the window and daydream and that is all. You get the pattern.
9. I try to finish what I’ve started, or finish what I’ve decided needs finishing during this block of time. Big projects will not be finished in one go, or even in ten or twenty. But they can be finished in many small chunks of concentrated time. My dad used to have a sign on his office door that read: “If I do just a little bit every day, eventually I can let the task completely overwhelm me.” I remembered that recently, and had to laugh. Because that pretty much sums up my strategy. I do a little bit of many things every day. Thankfully, I don’t feel overwhelmed. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel interested, engaged, challenged, and fruitful.
10. Finally, I don’t try to do it all.
I realize it may look like I do. But I don’t. Instead, I try to make what I do count. I’m actually strategically and instinctively an opportunist (not in a bad way, I hope; I mean, I look to recognize and enjoy opportunities that exist, rather than demand the existence of ideal/idealized opportunities).
Sometimes opportunity is about efficiently gleaning multiple benefits from one task. For example, my teaching gig is a) a job, b) interesting and intellectually challenging, c) a chance to free-write during in-class exercises, d) helpful (I hope, for my students’ sakes!), and e) excellent training in public speaking.
Other times, opportunity is about embracing what’s immediately important. For example, this fall is about promoting Girl Runner. It is not about writing a new novel. If I try to make it about writing a new novel, I won’t enjoy going out into the world to share Girl Runner. And that would be a real shame. It would be a shame for two reasons. One, because there’s no way I can write a new novel amidst all this distraction, so I would be unhappily beating my head against an invisible wall. Two, if I were wishing to do something else, I would fail to appreciate what’s happening now.
Life’s short. I have right now. If I’m managing to wreck right now with my own expectations and worries, well, I’m wasting all I’ve got. I believe that.
There are so many moments in a week.
On Thursday, I felt like an adventurous mother, pulling off the feat of getting the kids organized and out the door by 9AM, with picnic lunch, full gas tank, sweaters, and gear for the beach. We drove two hours to a park I’d never been to, my hope for a fun day only dimming slightly when a) we had to stop by the side of the road for a bathroom emergency and b) when the sky went dark and rain spattered our windshield. The GPS, with its insistent female voice, kept sending us on a route contradictory to the directions I’d decided on independently, so with Fooey’s strident encouragement — “Trust your instincts, Mom!” — I turned it off. We found our friends’ campsite, ate lunch together, and tramped up enormous dunes to find Lake Huron in a wild state, more ocean than lake. The sun came out. The kids swam. I reclined in the sand with the wind whipping my hair. And I was able to get us organized and back home in time for soccer practice.
Then Friday. I met Kevin for lunch so we could discuss finances. We ate at a Korean place. Toward the end of the meal, I saw a woman standing and staring into the restaurant through the glass for a long time. “I think a character is coming in,” I said. She was elderly, squat and stooped and clothed in many layers, and seemed a rather unlikely patron. “What should I try here?” she asked us, shuffling directly to our table. “What do you like?” I said. “Oh, vegetables. As long as they’re cooked so I can get ’em down.” “Ummm….the food’s quite spicy,” I hedged. “Oh, I like the Chinese food.” “Well, this is Korean, it’s not really the same.” “How about that one with the egg?” [pointing to the colourful menu items posted on the wall] “Yes, the bi bim bap is very good,” said Kevin. “But does it have VEGETABLES?” “Umm…”
We got the story from the server, a young man with dyed pale orange hair who told us that the woman comes frequently, asks patrons for recommendations, sits at a table, but never orders. He hates to ask her to leave.
Then Friday, arriving home from lunch. I caught a strong rather strange sweet smell when I opened the front door. No one appeared. A large bath towel was on the kitchen floor in front of the fridge. DJ was licking the floor. It was definitely a what the hell? moment. Evidence was everywhere. A mostly empty container of tamarind sauce open on the counter. Brown spatters. Clean-up had clearly been attempted. I impressed myself (if no one else) by muttering and speaking firmly rather than yelling. Maybe I’ve grown. The next forty minutes were spent on hands and knees discovering new patches of stickiness, and then opening the fridge and discovering the accident had occurred inside there. Well, the fridge needed to be cleaned, I reasoned. I called the culprit in, but I did not yell. Instead I concluded this session by sending several bitter texts to Kevin, as if he were somehow to blame. “Just spent last 45 minutes cleaning tamarind sauce off floor and inside fridge. Lid loose!” “These are the perks of working from home, of which you are spared.” “I don’t think I will meet for lunch again anytime soon.”
He did not text back. I think this was wise of him.
Finally, this morning. Chilly, rainy, windy. I am running. I’d left the house saying I would go 15-20 kilometres, tops. I’d left the house not in the mood for a long run, not at all. Around 15 kilometres, I’m flying through a favourite wooded path quite far from home. I’m thinking, this is why I resist going on long runs — because once I’m out here, I’m all in. Distance breaks down resistance, changes my brain, changes my understanding of pain and suffering, I think. 15-20 kilometres tops?! Ha! I’m feeling way too good. I cover 25 instead, and maintain pace. I think this is how my brain works on writing too, that the challenge is jumping in, because I know it will be hard, it will take me far away, it will hurt, but I know too that once I’m in, I’ll be gone. I’ll only want to go further. And, like running, good writing breaks down resistance, breaks down the self-conscious mind and pulls me into its flow. And I’m away.
I can’t always be away. Maybe I have to come back and clean up the tamarind sauce and be surrounded by shouting voices of children and get filled up with energy and anxiety and stories, so that I can go out again. And go long.
Be warned: this is a photo-heavy post, and a little behind the times in terms of news items. Apparently summer has decided to kick into fast-forward and honestly, I can’t keep up. I don’t even want to. This morning, driving with a friend to our spin & kettle bell class, we saw that it was dark. It was also early, and for most of the year, darkness is to be expected at this hour, but we’ve been spoiled by summer’s long light, and it didn’t seem like it should already be contracting. August is a melancholy month. Always is. I fight against the melancholy because after all, it’s still summer. But even the youngest of our crew is noticing: “Is it fall?” CJ asked yesterday, as we sat out in the back yard watching Kevin dismantle our rotting picnic table. “No! It’s still summer!” I said. “Why did you think it might be fall already?” “The leaves are falling,” he said. And so they were, some of them, enough to dot the grass, into which a path has been worn by the soccer ball being played back and forth, back and forth, obsessively this summer.
We haven’t gotten to all of the tasks we’d meant to. Our to-do list seems as long as ever. But we’ve also had afternoons like yesterday, mild, breezy, sunny, when I sat reading out loud to the kids from a book of old English folk tales. And weekends like the one before, when cousins came to stay. And two visits to the Stratford Festival in just over a week: first, with Kevin to see King Lear (and celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary), and then on Saturday with the girls to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As we walked uptown to the carshare, we realized how unusual this grouping was: me and my girls, just the three of us. We really had fun. We got dressed up. We had a picnic by the river and named the swan and seagull who tried (unsuccessfully) to befriend us (Swanda and Seagram). We chose a feathery mask in the gift shop that we all could share. And we got a treat at DQ afterward, tapping into a gift card Fooey had gotten for her birthday. “This day feels like an adventure,” one of them observed as we drove home past fields of corn and turning wheat.
Party cake, number one.
And Fooey has had her birthday, celebrated now many times over. I’m weak, speaking parentally. We allowed her, as her birthday gift, to purchase her own iPod Touch. Our three eldest now have this electronic device, and I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it, either. Here she is on birthday eve.
Selfie, with brother.
And here she is on her actual birthday.
Party cake, number two.
She planned her friend party months ago, with an ever-shifting menu and lists of crafts and games and activities. We ended up serving Kraft Dinner and potato chips for the main course, which I supplemented with bowls of raw veggies and fruit, met with a chorus of, “Mom! It’s not a veggie party!” Moms know how to have fun! (In my defence, the veggies and fruit were devoured.) The whole party was easy, and I was glad to see that Fooey’s friends didn’t mind her stern organizational tone, as she herded them out to go “bowling” with a basketball and a bunch of plastic honey containers, or instructed them to “design your own book cover,” as the opening craft. Be still my beating heart. I was smitten all over again with this kid of mine, now nine.
And I think that catches us up on the news front, minus a soccer tournament on the weekend, to which I brought my camera but then forgot to pull it out of my purse to take photos. Guess I was engrossed in the match. Sorry, Albus. (He doesn’t want his photo posted on the blog these days anyway; or at the very least, wants to curate the photos of himself that do appear. We’re all growing up. More evidence of the time, and its passing.)
Taking the train to Toronto, yesterday morning. “We’re going in fast-forward!”
“I am going to the aquarium with only mom.” – Fooey, age eight, almost nine, recording the event for posterity on her train ticket.
Observation: it’s really hard to get good photos at an aquarium. This stops no one from trying repeatedly, including me. There must be thousands of terrible shark photos now in existence that were directly spawned by those who squeezed, squawled, and wandered with giant strollers around the aquarium in Toronto yesterday afternoon. Here are mine.
Good selfies are even harder than good shark photos. “This one looks eerie.” “What’s that mean?” “Like this.” “Oh.”
It was a very special day, with only us.