Category: Big Thoughts
To do what I want to, as a storyteller, I need to bear witness to what is. I need to shed light. But I want, too, to bring light. And maybe that’s more about imagining what could be.
I’ve been thinking about this: about shedding light and bearing light, and how the two are not the same at all, yet I want to be able to do both at once. I want to illuminate the dark areas of our culture and our lives, and I want to bring light while doing so.
It’s a small “big thought” on a day when it seems the snow will never stop falling, nor the wind whipping. The kids are hoping for a snow day tomorrow. Maybe I am too …
I’ve set the timer. I’ve given myself fifteen minutes to sketch out a few thoughts that have been floating around my mind, not necessarily connected to each other.
The main thought is this: the easiest way to express love, care, and pride to my children is to be present. Example: on Tuesday evening, I drove Fooey to her gymnastics class. I usually drop her off and Kevin picks her up, an hour and a half later. But on Tuesday, I made a spontaneous decision. Did I really need to go home? I didn’t, really. So I stayed. She was thrilled. The bench on which I sat was hard, but the task was easy. Watch. Wave, occasionally. Give a thumbs up. Smile. And on the way home, talk about the class, and anything else.
She’s been a happier kid in my presence ever since.
It reminds of last winter, when I started going to my eldest’s indoor soccer games. It was a small time commitment every week that required sitting on the sidelines and watching (and again, uncomfortable benches!), yet it seemed to bring about a complete shift in how we were able to relate to each other. I wasn’t saying: I care. I was showing it instead.
It is such a blessing to be home again, to have again the opportunities for these interactions. Having four children means having to spread my attention a little thin at times, and this fall it’s meant lacking entirely in attention and presence to offer. Skype calls are ridiculously insufficient, let me tell you. They are the stuff of tragic-comedy. Being present on a computer screen in your living-room is one step removed from appearing as a character on TV.
Okay, so maybe I only have time for one thought today.
Or maybe I can squeeze one more in, here. It’s about what matters. It’s not a small thought, but an enormous one, the kind of thought that should pervade one’s life at all times, and I think it does even if it’s not always at the forefront of the mind. It’s about rejecting cynicism and doubt, and throwing your arms around life in a way that shouts, Life is precious and I am here right now, alive. It’s about putting into perspective the meaning and weight of accomplishment and success, and turning to the people and connections and rituals and routines that bring you daily succour. It’s about humility, grace.
It’s about presence. While present, be present. It’s about giving what you have to give, and not questioning whether it’s big enough, good enough, strong enough, fine enough, valuable enough. It’s about sitting on the sidelines with love, pride, a touch of boredom, a touch of restlessness, and deep, joyful care.
The timer’s gone.
At the Wild Writers Festival this weekend, here in Waterloo, I took my daughter along to volunteer. At lunchtime, I gave her some money and she went across the street to the grocery store to buy herself something for lunch.
Something for lunch, as purchased by AppleApple: a 500 ml tub of lime-flavoured Greek yogurt; a plastic-wrapped English cucumber; a loaf of Italian-style bread.
She found me in the green room, chatting with a handful of writers/editors/publishers, sat down beside me at the table. “This must be your daughter,” was a refrain we heard all day. “What’s that?” said the editor. “It’s my lunch,” said my daughter.
And then, this-must-be-my-daughter proceeded to eat the cucumber, whole, in great munching bites. I didn’t see what happened to the bread. The yogurt she polished off directly too. I could not have been more proud.
The thing about blogging is that so much gets left out. I haven’t, so far, made this a particularly political space. It’s not terribly ideological either. That doesn’t mean I lack for political thoughts and opinions, simply that I haven’t felt this to be the place and space to raise them.
I’m struggling with this choice at present. There are zeitgeist moments when an issue seems to get ripped open and demand conversation. But the conversation is never ever simple, that’s why issues are buried and need an almost shocking violence to bring them to the surface; we don’t want to have these conversations. Why would we? They’re painful. They tear us apart. They challenge our safe ideas of who we are. In Canada, that issue is sexual harassment and violence against women, and underlying it, biases and beliefs so entrenched that we don’t even notice they’re there. It’s distressing and depressing to be talking about this again or still. I suspect that no one wants to talk about this less than women. I consider myself an equal. I consider our culture much-changed and for the better. But it hurts my head to try to make melodic the dissonant chords of experience.
Consider this. A woman on stage presenting her book: she looks like she doesn’t care, she gives off an aura of irritation, responds to questions with her own personal grievances, cuts others off, and appears to be drunk. Would this ever happen? I’ve never seen it. But I’ve seen a man on stage doing that. (Granted, it’s unlikely to win him fans, but he still feels like he can do it.)
Maybe that’s a bad example. I would never want to feel like I could do that.
What about this? A woman writer on stage making fun of the other writers on stage, all in good fun. This also almost never happens, but if you think about it, friendly mockery is frequently the patter between men on stage, and it is funny, it’s appealing, not negative. So why do women rarely do it? Could we get away it? I wonder. It’s not that women can’t be funny on stage. I’ve seen a lot of funny women on stage these past two months. But here’s the difference: women on stage make fun of themselves. (So do men sometimes; I’m not suggesting otherwise.) That’s funny too. It’s self-deprecating. But it’s not the same thing.
I think that’s the difference between the privilege of being taken at face value, of being given the benefit of the doubt, and not. Some of us women would like to be joking around in public with the men (and women), joining in the joke—really, that’s what it is. Some of us would like not always to be so damn self-deprecating in order to get laughs. We would like to be taken seriously without having to be so serious. I would like that very much, at least on occasion. I would like it to be an option. This is a small small observation, and you may think it unrelated to the issue at hand, and certainly it’s not serious in the way that sexual harassment and violence is serious. But I think it’s a small piece of the larger picture. It points to a difference in the parameters of public behaviour open to women who wish to be taken seriously, versus men.
Listen. I’m a polite Canadian woman. I fear offending. I’m not especially brave. (And may not be very funny, either.) I prefer to be liked. I can’t help worrying as I push publish on this post. But I’m going to push it anyway.
I’m home. And I’m tired. But that’s not news. I’m living in a blur of present moments that vanish behind me, and I’m not doing a great job of keeping track. To every thing there is a season. This seems not to be the season of reflection and stillness, and I’m in serious need of such things. That’s why I’m glad for the glancing moments of reflection & stillness provided by this blog.
I had eight events in eight days, plus teaching, plus children, plus travel. This morning I got up early and went to my spin & weights class for the first time in four weeks. It wasn’t hard getting there, it wasn’t even hard being there, but I hit a point during the lifting and swinging of the kettle bells when I realized that I’d crossed some physical line. I had to take a brief break. “You went pale,” one of my friends said. I knew it, too. I was able to come back after a swig of water and continue, but I didn’t push hard, because I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
Kevin works in Toronto on Mondays, so back home, I had the morning routine to hum through. Greet the already awake, yoga-practicing daughter, wake the eldest, start making breakfast. Around 7:38 there came a great stomping from upstairs. Crap, I forgot to wake Fooey. She doesn’t need to be up at 7:15, but she likes to be up at 7:15, and insists on being woken; but I don’t like waking her unnecessarily early. So. Was it forgetting on my part, or making a wise parenting decision that she should sleep longer? I wasn’t even sure myself. But she sure was sure.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Stomp, stomp, stomp.
“I hate those kinds of eggs.”
“You forgot about me.”
“You didn’t even make me hot chocolate. You don’t even know what I like.”
Some long while later I said, thinking I would drill into the heart of what seemed to be the issue, “I know I’ve been gone a lot. But I’m home again now.”
“And you’re already making mistakes.”
Instant reply. Articulate. True. She’s smart. And she’s cutting right to the core of my feelings of weakness and doubt.
If you think parenting is about being the adult in the situation, well, you’re absolutely right. It is. And I was the adult in the situation, and I simply apologized again, hugged her again, promised again to do my best, and life goes on. But on the inside, in that moment, it felt like she’d touched on a pain I could never fix. And I thought, parenting is also about this. It’s about feeling pain, and calmly carrying the pain to the kitchen where you go on loading the dishwasher.
“What can I do to make you feel better?” I asked her.
“Don’t be late to pick me up from violin lessons,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, and then, after mentally running through my list of recent failings: “I’ve never been late to pick you up from violin.”
“And you’d better not be today,” she replied.
She’s missed me most vocally, while I’ve been away. And she is the child who seems least comforted and assured by my efforts to comfort and assure—that I’m here, and all is well. Maybe I can’t because I’m not sure, either, that I’m here and that all is well.
I’m here. I mean, I am. I’m here.
I think she will love these photos.
But I’m tired, as I said. And I’ve been in a strange, performative, public space that’s kept me on the alert, energized, and apart from them, kept me occupied with concerns unrelated to hot chocolate and violin lessons and morning wake-up times. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I did forget about her this morning. At 7:15AM, I forgot that she insists on being woken, and maybe she insists on being woken because it assures her that she is remembered and therefore loved.
This isn’t what I’d intended to write about when I sat down just now. I wanted to write about the weekend, with its whirlwind of events. I’ve been to the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo, and to Books & Brunch in Uxbridge, and both were memorable and special events, and I would like to write about them sometime. But we don’t always get to choose what wants to be written. And I guess it’s fitting that I’m writing about this instead, because, yes, I’m home again. I’m here, now.
It’s that eternal present in which I’m existing. In order to be very much present, I have to be very much present. Leaving room for little else, past & future.
And in today’s eternal present, oh, how I don’t want to be late for violin lessons.
This is good. I’ve got the third load of laundry already spinning in the drier, I’ve swiped mud and leaves and dog fur off the floor with a rag, focusing on a few critical areas, and I’ve been through every room and soccer bag and countertop looking for dirty socks, library books, and notices from school. The house is in good shape and everything looks under control. My family is awesome!
I still haven’t seen the kids. I can’t believe I have to go out and teach almost as soon as they’re home after school, but we’ll get through it. It’s a PD day on Friday, so we’ll have time to reacquaint ourselves before this weekend’s events take me away from home again. (It’s the Wild Writers Festival here in Waterloo, and I’m going to Uxbridge to read with Frances Itani at Blue Heron’s Books & Brunch).
I had a lot of fun yesterday evening. I did not win. The prize went to Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. I’d expected her book to win, and therefore did not approach the event with any expectations of my own, aside from the desire to be intensely present, open, and filled with gratitude at being witness to this moment in time. I was so grateful to have a ceremony to attend, no matter the outcome. All of my publishing people were with me from House of Anansi, my agent Hilary, and Kevin too. We went out for a feast afterward too. It felt like the moment had been marked, when all was said and done.
I do like to mark the moment. So thank you, thank you, those who helped me mark this one. I am blessed.
I’m glad to be home.
I had a thought while sorting laundry in the basement, just now. I thought: “this hasn’t been life-changing.” Then I wondered what that meant, and what exactly “it” might refer to. I think I was thinking of the prize and being a finalist. It isn’t life-changing, not in the way we think of things as being life-changing, and I wonder, would it have been life-changing to have won? I’m not convinced. Maybe it’s because I do not wish or want my life to be changed. Maybe it’s because I’m certain that prizes do not define any of us, that to be who we are — more precisely, who we want to be — is a constant commitment that is poorly served by reliance on external recognition. The peak moment fades. We go on, you know. We do.
I think life is as it is, and I am who I am, no matter what scenes I move through or what clothes I’m wearing. Don’t misunderstand, please: It’s been loads of fun. I take none of it for granted, and I’ve relished every opportunity to be here now. I’ve met or been reacquainted with many many many writers, and have had many memorable conversations, be they funny, happy, silly, serious, insightful, kind-hearted or all of the above. I feel a part of the “class of 2014.”
Now I want to get back to the work of writing another book. I want to get back to discipline and routine, family and friends, soccer and music. That’s not contradictory, I think, I hope.
PS Calgary’s Wordfest produced an audio play of the first chapter of Girl Runner. It’s beautiful. If you want to hear Aggie’s voice, young and old, listen here.
I’m in Toronto.
The Weather Network informs me that it is 12 degrees, feels like 10, with a mix of sun and cloud expected today. When I turn my head and look out the window, I can see highway and cars travelling past in an endless stream; and the Redpath sugar factory. I had a reading last night in Burlington, with the other finalists for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, and we’re reading together again tonight here in Toronto at Harbourfront. I’ll be back for more readings/panels on Saturday and Sunday.
This morning, I had breakfast with my French editor, a graceful and down-to-earth woman, which is an unusual combination, I think. I myself am down-to-earth but not so graceful; or else, I aim for grace and perhaps lose the down-to-earthyness. Who knows, this may be a completely inaccurate look in the mirror. I am looking in an actual mirror right now and a woman with tired eyes looks back at me, smile lines around her currently unsmiling mouth, hair unkempt.
I feel in the process of a transition (isn’t one always, though?). I feel that what is happening right now, on this fall tour, is that I am finding a way to say goodbye not only to my character, Aganetha, and to Girl Runner, but to the sound of my own voice talking on and on about my character and my book. What a pleasure it will be to escape into a new fictional world, to hear from new fictional characters, to listen to voices other than my own. I’m talking myself back into the desire — the need — for quiet, for the life inside the mind.
This is all very out here, this time of publicity. Publicity = Public. I put myself out into public on this blog, of course, but that feels different (although perhaps it shouldn’t). It feels under my control (though, again, perhaps it shouldn’t). When I write these posts, I imagine that no one is reading them. Which is how I write fiction too: privately. But neither is meant to stay private; I don’t write to keep it to myself. And then what was private becomes public. And then, well, what does the private person do with herself, out in public, the person accustomed to living so entirely inside her head?
Sometimes, during my travels this fall, I’ve heard myself speaking out loud to myself; not always kindly. Critiquing a performance. Critiquing, even, a passing exchange, as stupid or graceless or aloof or too familiar; there is no balance to my judgement.
Here is the truth about being a writer. There are seemingly infinite opportunities for humiliation. These are cut with nano-second bursts of awesomeness, when the stars align and all possibilities seem to hover within reach. The awesomeness will promptly be extinguished by a new opportunity for humiliation, or, less dramatically, another awkward encounter into which one wanders, or perhaps causes. This can make a person feel delusional. But being a writer is about sustaining delusions, I think; or put more kindly, it’s about having faith in the imaginary. It’s about believing in something that does not yet exist, and willing it into existence. It’s believing in one’s capacity to do the work, and sustaining that belief even at the darkest moments. It’s that breath that keeps the flame alive.
So I’m trying to remind myself to be kind. To speak kindly when speaking out loud to myself in airport bathrooms and fast-falling elevators. The tone of the inner voice makes a difference to one’s inner life, the life going on behind the tired eyes in the mirror. It’s not delusional to be kind. It’s important. Also, it’s grounding, and I need grounding when I’m away from home, away from all of the things that keep me rooted: the routines, the children, the laundry, the carefully constructed and thoroughly loved mess of my whole life.
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