Category: Big Thoughts

On December 28th

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It’s the day before my birthday. I get all contemplative at this time of year, and on this date, specifically. I’ve got journal entries from Dec. 28th (hand-written) going back a decade or more, reflecting on the year past and hopes for the future. Something about reading over these entries fills me with melancholy, though I can’t quantify why, exactly. It’s not because I wish things had gone differently. Maybe it’s the passage of time, generally. Maybe I recognize that I wasn’t always so confident or certain. That shouldn’t make me sad, though. I had to be who I was to become who I am. Today I read the entry from 2005. So much of what I’ve accomplished since then seems improbable. So much could not have been predicted. I had no inkling that I would devote a year to triathlon and marathon training, nor could I have imagined the confidence and determination gained by training and racing. My parents were still together at that point. My father-in-law was still alive, as were both of my mother’s parents. I suspect those losses, yet to come, shaped me, too, and that grief and struggle made me into someone slightly different, someone more open to challenge and conflict and error.

The truth about becoming a better writer is that it’s a long-term process. You start with a flair for language, a love of story and words, as a young writer; you may have a gift for innovation or for structural sense, enormously important building blocks to work with. But it’s patience, only, that will make you a better writer, as you practice the craft faithfully and with hope, while you wait for life to tell you what matters to you, and what it is you want to say, what you want to put into the world. I think about that now. I didn’t used to, so much.

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I’m okay with getting older. I’m so much more at ease being me, living in this body, aware of my own limitations and flaws, and comfortable pushing against them, when I feel inspired, or settling right into them, when I’m just plain tired of trying to be better. Sometimes good enough is plenty.

I’ve embraced my own high expectations. I haven’t been crushed by them.

This past year has been an odd one. This is the year that gave me Girl Runner. Wow. This was also the year of employment uncertainty and the stress of financial strain, of unexpected expenses and hits. This was the year I got turned down for virtually every grant and job I applied for. Yet somehow this was also the year of out-of-the-blue serendipity: job offers and book deals. This was the year my writing earned me a good living. Wow, again. This was the year I did not get a hair cut. Yikes! This was the year I applied for midwifery school, got in, and decided not to pursue that career route. This was the year of the concussion. This was the year I taught my first course. This was the year I didn’t can anything. The year we got a dishwasher. The year I drove more kilometres in support of my kids’ activities than I’d ever dreamed possible. The year my green dreams faded to a paler shade.

Here’s what I wrote in 2005 about parenting, and it rings so very true all these years later: “Basically what I want for my kids is the world to be open for them, and them to feel comfortable within it, never excluded or discouraged.”

Maybe I wanted that for myself, too. Maybe that’s exactly what I’ve found and what I continue to try to nurture, for all of us: to be participants in the world around us.

We do a lot of asking for things, searching and applying and imagining ourselves elsewhere, making our requests. It’s part of participating in the world. Maybe getting turned down and turned away is part of participating too. So often what comes to us, when we’re open, is not what we’d asked for or anticipated. We just can’t know. Maybe that’s what makes me sad, on this day of looking back and looking ahead: I really can’t know. There is no way to prepare for what’s ahead. How to let go? How to be open to what the world has to offer, to be determined and ambitious and demanding of ourselves, and also at peace with what we’re given?

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I’m a little bit terrified of looking ahead at the year to come. If all goes well, here is what will happen. I will finish Girl Runner and see it published here in Canada. I will get a good head shot (and that long-neglected hair cut). I will research toward a new book, and start writing it. I will consider teaching again. I will play soccer again, come spring. I will return to running longer distances. I will practice yoga blissfully in my peaceful office. I will get a standing desk or even a treadmill desk. I will see my children do wonderful things: play soccer, swim, play piano, do gymnastics, play with friends. I will enjoy their company. I will continue to be blessed in my marriage.

If I write it all down, I fear it won’t come true. I want to knock on wood. Conversely, I want to write it all down and not fear at all what may come, because it’s only by hoping and dreaming for the best that the best can come to pass. That’s what I’ve learned. Forget superstition. The fear of dreaming and possibility is really the fear of disappointment. And tough though it is to accept, disappointment can be overcome. Much more difficult to overcome is the refusal to imagine, period.

So, here I am. December 28th, 2013. Dreaming big, as always.

Mash-up anxiety dreams

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We had to bake Christmas cookies. So said this lass, and she would do the mixing and measuring herself to make it happen. So while I whipped the butter and sugar, she sifted the dry ingredients. When it came time to combine the two, there seemed not nearly enough dry to sufficiently turn the wet into cookie dough.

“It looked like too much flour,” Fooey explained.

And then I explained that baking is like a chemistry experiment, and doesn’t respond well to measurement by whim. So we re-measured the dry, added it in, then added even more, and voila, cookies. We ate them plain as we didn’t have time to frost them, but it was a double batch, so we’ve got three trays’ worth of dough waiting in the fridge, wrapped in wax paper, ready to be rolled out and baked as an after-school snack. So far, we haven’t quite managed to follow through on that plan.

Today we’re getting the water softener replaced. We figured out something was wrong when we turned on the tap the other morning and nothing came out. Kevin was able to bypass the softener, so we do have water. Really, it could have been worse. But then the stove’s front panel stopped working. So it’s been that kind of a week.

Yesterday evening, while I was out at a soccer practice, Kevin received delivery of my manuscript, marked up with comments. I resisted the urge to read through it for about, oh, thirty seconds, and then gave in, and skimmed and scanned over a bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup. A short while later, I opened a message about the possibility of teaching again. At which point, I slid these two separate Big Things to the back of my mind and ordered them to stop yammering at me. And then I sliced up apples and pears for snack and wrangled the little kids into bed, read them the death scene from The Lion, The Witch, and Wardrobe, which required reading them the resurrection scene, too, which meant the lights went out later than planned. By then, Kevin and Albus were home from their soccer practice, and AppleApple was delivering a school presentation to the dogs (for want of a better audience), and we made tea and hot chocolate, and Albus and I texted while standing side by side in the kitchen, cracking each other up. (Butt jokes never really go out of style, I find.) And then Kevin went to hockey. The laundry never got folded. I set my alarm for an early morning boot camp. I climbed into bed.

Guess what was waiting for me — yup. My thoughts. All night, a mash-up of Girl Runner and teaching anxiety dreams played in my head. I spent an hour, around 3AM, wide awake, thinking thinking thinking. Begging my thoughts to turn off, please. Knowing everything would be clearer come morning. (Or at least less dire; I find middle-of-the-night rumination very unhelpful in this regard.)

Early this morning, I dragged myself out to boot camp. The theme appeared to be: train like a volleyball player! I have never done so many jumps — onto platforms and balls and just generally into the air, arms up — in my life. Now I’m at my desk with a where-do-I begin sensation. So I begin with the blog, naturally.

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little Albus, kindergarten era, pre-texting

And I’ll end the blog by circling back to Christmas, the preparations for which seem especially scattered and ill-thought-out this year. Children do not have gifts. We will be scrambling at the last-minute, I fear. I seem to be waiting for someone else to take the initiative, to organize the outing to the toy shop, or the baking of the cookies (thanks, Fooey!), while I sit at my desk and wander through my imaginary world, trying to fit all the pieces together that still need fitting. Trying to make it all work.

I heard myself say to myself, around 3AM this morning, “Carrie, you can’t do everything.” Don’t tell me that! I told myself. Truth is, I long for multiple lives, for the ability to step from one identity to another, from one kind of work to another, with singular devotion to each. I would be so many things, if only there were little rooms in life that one could exist in simultaneously. Here’s my wish list of multiple lives: writer, devoted mother, teacher, long-distance runner, midwife, singer-songwriter, stage actress. Oh, and I’d have horses, too.

Anyone else have the multiple lives fantasy?

Out-takes from this weekend’s “I need a new author photo” self-portraiture session

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on the prow of an imaginary ship, hair whipping in the wind

fake album cover

I knew it would be tough to get to my desk these past few days. And it has been. And I probably should be napping instead of posting right now (I’m feeling crummy and am actually on antibiotics, as a matter of fact). But dammit, I need to write!

Friday was a good news day. I finished marking on Thursday night, as planned, if a little later than hoped, spent Friday morning double-checking my math, and then delivered the graded portfolios to campus for pick-up, my writing hand still cramped up from all the unfamiliar work. In future, were I to teach again, I might abstain from making detailed comments and suggestions unless such feedback were directly requested by a student. But it’s what I had to offer, this time around, and it’s done now.

Almost as soon as I’d finished that fairly enormous task, which has occupied a large part of my fall, all of the suppressed anxiety about final revisions for Girl Runner kicked in. I kid you not. The anxiety must have been sitting there just waiting to pop. I literally finished packaging up the portfolios and alphabetizing them (because I am nothing if not needlessly organized), and then texted Kevin with a “Help! What’s happening to me?”-style of message.

ooh, pretty colours

He requested that I check CJ’s “feelings” handout, which we’ve all been referring to with a certain amount of seriousness since he brought it home from school. (A funny after-dinner activity last week involved CJ directing me to act out, with facial expressions, a variety of feelings. Bored. Sad. Worried. Frustrated. (“Not angry! I said ‘frustrated’!” “But this is my frustrated face!”

Pensive; also, Cold (note red nose)

Tired, yet Prepared for a Challenge?

Oh, and Happy, Excited, and Proud. I counted three positive feelings and a whole lot of not so positive ones, but fair enough. Maybe we humans have a better understanding of the gradations between unhappy emotions, and the happy ones are more mysterious, kind of lumped together into one weird and wonderful and slightly scary experiential glob. I’m noticing as I’m considering this that my happy feelings seem somehow less trustworthy than my unhappy ones. Their transitory nature seems more fragile, more vulnerable to chance (that’s what makes them scary, I think). I wonder if by thinking this way (completely unconsciously) I prevent myself from experiencing Happy as fully as I could.

Tangent. Oops.

Anyway. So I went to CJ’s feelings sheet, studied it for a moment, and texted Kevin back: Uh oh. It appears that I’m feeling Anxious.

I will slay you with my sombreness

Less than an hour passed before the phone rang. And my feelings went from Anxious to, well, Relieved, but that’s not on the feelings sheet. (As AppleApple said, “I don’t think all of the things I’m feeling are on there.”) The person on the other end of the phone was my US editor, calling with warm and believe-you-me very welcome praise for the newest draft of Girl Runner. Yes, I’ve still got the final revisions to complete, but I can’t wait to get to them, and oh man, was I ever Relieved — and no, that’s not exactly the same as Happy — to get that call. “But aren’t you ‘Excited?'” Fooey asked me when she got home from school and I’d reported the good news. And then she said, “Or maybe ‘Proud.'” Well, maybe the latter, yes — why not!

Serious writer face, with a hint of scorn?

Hauling my feelings with me from afternoon into evening, I decided to run a little further than planned while at my daughter’s soccer practice. With geeky headlamp in place, I proudly (if slowly) conquered 12km: the furthest I’ve gone since the concussion. But I woke up Saturday morning feeling a bit queasy and headachy, which could indicate a bit of a regression. Consult feelings sheet: Sad. But by evening, I felt well enough to get dressed up for a party. And take photos! And at the party, I felt well enough to stay out past our (purely self-imposed) curfew (given the early morning soccer game we had to get to). I was having too much fun to be Entirely Responsible. In short, I was Happy.

Proud. Take that, reading public

My creative project for the weekend involved trying to take a self-portrait that could work as an author photo. It was entertaining, but I’m afraid I did not succeed. I’m including here some of the many out-takes.

“That one’s pretty,” said Kevin, looking through my efforts last night (see photo at bottom of post). “It could work as an author photo.”

Calm; and possibly already had a drink?

“But could it work as my author photo?” By which I meant, is this the facial expression I wish to present to the reading public? What feelings am I hoping to conjure up and send out into the world? I’m vain, I’ll admit that up front. I’d like to look pretty in my author photo, and preferably not tired and weary. But I’d also like to look not overly serious or somber. Instead, I’d like to look like someone who you’d want to meet for tea, someone you’d trust with your story — with your feelings. Friendly, approachable, calm, but with spirit and humour. And while I’ll admit to being vain, vanity is the last thing I’d like to project.

And on this abrupt note, I must declare: End of post. I’m late to meet the school bus!

Great grey Friday

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It’s a pattern. Every Friday morning this fall, I sleep in (ie. not up at 5AM), yet can barely drag myself out of bed. I eat breakfast, start the laundry, see the children out the door, and struggle to be otherwise productive at anything. The cup of coffee doesn’t seem to help.

Thursday evenings I teach. Friday mornings I’m drained. I think it might be as simple as that. But frustrating, too, because there is so much about teaching that I’ve enjoyed this fall. It’s gone how I’d hoped it would go. I’m accomplishing what I’d hoped to accomplish. So how to explain my body’s reponse to the job?

I’m going to go out on a limb and self-diagnose as introvert.

A long day of writing leaves me pop-eyed and twitching. Manic, you might say. Or, energized. Three hours of teaching leaves me jelly-noodled, spine sunken like a comma. Bloodless, you might say. Glazed. Is this how other teachers feel?

This sounds like an extended complaint. I’m not meaning to complain, only to observe.

I don’t think teaching naturally drains everyone. I’m sure of it. Kevin comes home from teaching buzzing with good energy. I wish that were me. My students are terrific, interesting, thoughtful, hard-working, open-minded, and a pleasure to share ideas with.

So, yes. I do feel frustrated by myself. It’s not that I’m shy. It’s not hard for me to talk to people. But it may be that I’m introverted, and draw my energy from being alone. Any thoughts on this, from introverts or extroverts alike?

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Two more things. Okay, could be more than two, but I’ll keep it to two in this section of the post. We’ll call this the newsy section.

1. I did an interview about style for BLUEPRINT, a student-run magazine at Wilfrid Laurier. I liked the questions, and I liked thinking of myself as actually having and even cultivating style. (Long-time friends, please don’t laugh.) You can read the interview here.

2. I’m hearing rumour that the latest QUILL & QUIRE magazine has a blurb about the success of Girl Runner at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Kevin’s promised to pick me up a copy on the way home. (Quill & Quire is Canada’s publishing industry magazine.) Couldn’t find a link.

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Final section of Friday’s blog post. This will be the philosophical section wherein I write about an idea that is only half-formed, as bloggers are wont to do. The idea is about work.

Work is a word that I’m beginning to realize has enormous value in my mind. But I define it in very narrow terms. Work is writing. Period. Everything else gets filed under other categories, somehow. This happens unconsciously, and I’ve only just realized that I do it.

Here are some of my (unconciously formed) categories, which all go into the big filing cabinet of LIFE.

Parenting/pleasure. Family. Marriage. Hobbies. Recreation. Obligation. Chores. Cooking and baking. Reading. Friends. And, of course, Work.

Parenting/pleasure encompasses all the things I do for and with my kids. Of course these things have to be done, but they don’t feel like obligations. That’s why I add the word pleasure to the file.

Family is a broader category and includes my wider family systems.

Marriage. Obvious.

Hobbies. I think that’s exercise, for me. It seems to occupy the space that a hobby would. It’s quite time-consuming, and I’m devoted to it for no reason other than I love doing it. Photography fits in here. Blogging, too.

Recreation is anything done in the spirit of pure play.

Obligation is job-jobs. Things I do to earn money. There’s a bit of cross-over here between other categories, and it includes promotional work for my writing life. It isn’t all a grind, and I don’t mind doing it, but nevertheless these are jobs that must be done rather than jobs I would choose to do. These jobs don’t seem to count in my mind as work, no matter the financial value attached to them.

Chores. Also obvious. That overflowing laundry basket on the table behind me right now, for instance.

Cooking and baking. I enjoy doing this too much to call it a chore, and yet it isn’t a hobby either, seeing as feeding everyone is a daily necessity.

Reading. This gets a category all to itself. It comes close to work, in my mind, obviously in a good way.

Friends. Maintaining relationships, trying to keep them fed and nurtured, far and near, in-person and via social media.

And finally, work. As I type out this half-formed idea, I realize that work is a constant, even if I’m not at my desk. I’m feeding my working life, and my writing, by being in the world, by parenting, by playing, by running and reading, by all of it. So work is both a precious and guarded particular part of my life (writing), and work is all of it, all the time, always.

End of idea.

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Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

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Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. I woke with those words in my head, but immediately thought about how it’s today that pulls me. Today that I wake to. All those tomorrows aren’t promises. They’re overwhelming if I consider the repetition of their demands, and even more overwhelming if I consider the speed of their passage. No matter how much I do, time will turn these words to dust.

Yet how much I wanted to run downstairs and write down my thoughts. And so I have. Today pulls me.

It was my second waking of the morning. The first was much earlier, when AppleApple and I woke for her swimming. Being up already, I went for a run. It was very dark when I set out, but as I made my rounds, the sky shifted, pale light between ominous clouds, and at last a pink and blue sky that looked right out of a fluorescent painting. Shadowy crowds of crows called from the treetops, then took off flying in a seemingly endless stream. I liked this somewhat less when they flew directly overhead.

I came home to warm up, shower, and scarf a plate of scrambled eggs and bagel, then returned to fetch my swimming daughter. Tonight my siblings are coming over and we’re making paella. That’s to celebrate the sale to Spain. I haven’t properly celebrated France (the coffee and croissant were lovely, but the kids want in on it, too), nor Italy (which I kind of want to splash out on, if someone can recommend a good Italian restaurant), nor Holland, though a friend, who is Dutch, recommends kale and potatoes with sausages, or “tiny meatball soup,” both of which sound delicious (I will need the recipes).There may be yet one more country to announce shortly (!!), but I’ll leave you waiting for now. It is quite astonishing to consider the variety of languages spoken on this Earth.

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We’ve named our new truck “Aggie,” which is short for Aganetha Smart, fictional girl runner. Yesterday, I christened Aggie with a billion (more or less) errands around town to prep for paella night, and Halloween, and winter, and to replace items my swim child has lost or broken recently. Last week, for example, she lost her asthma puffer and aero-chamber. These things do not grow on trees. Recognizing her own ability to shed personal items at an alarming rate, she opted for dollar store gloves rather than those from Adventure Guide, which are, quite frankly, a shocking investment.

Elsewhere, Fooey found a dress fit for a vampire, with a hoop skirt to boot, but AppleApple rejected my suggestions and insisted on searching for something I fear exists only in her imagination: an old-fashioned formal dress (also with a hoop skirt) that would be both appropriate for trick-or-treating AND she could wear on social occasions. Yeah. Tips? She wants to go as Anne of Green Gables, and I’m not sure Anne wore hoop skirts, and that we may be confusing her with Laura Ingalls in her courting days, as we are reading These Happy Golden Years right now. In other costume news, CJ will be a clown in a suit we found in the dress-up box, and Albus is still debating. I will miss seeing them in full costumed flight, as I teach that evening. I bought some extra treats to take for the students, and I’m hunting for spooky-themed stories to read (suggestions??). Who knows, I may even throw on a costume. Would my students take me seriously as a rhinstone cowgirl? With braids? That’s all I’ve got (and it’s borrowed). I wore it to a party on Friday night, and looked cute and appropriately clad, but felt like I had dragged with me the equivalent of a wilted personality. I’m tired, it seems. Too tired to stay up late, too tired to carouse, though not too tired to spend the evening within arm’s reach of the cheese platter.

It does seem like a happy life makes room for a wide variety of activities, solo and in company, professionally and personally. Leave aside work and play, which are linked, in my mind. The bulk of my efforts goes into relationships, which are like gardens and need tending: there’s marriage and children, wider family, friends and neighbours, colleagues and students and coaches and other parents and acquaintances. When I’m down, I castigate myself for a lack of diplomacy, or a willingness to enter into conflict, and sometimes for exhaustion itself, for feeling spent. This may indicate that I’m an introvert, and yet it’s the relationships that interest me most, that feed me and that I live for. What’s left out of the equation, what gets squashed to the margins? Housework and chores, and often cooking and food. I try to leave room for meditation and stretching. Ultimately, I find, it’s dancing that falls by the wayside.

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I’ll end where I began this rambling post. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But really, today.

I’ve looked at clouds

I've looked at clouds

“Mom, do you know how to do small talk?”
“Yeah. Sure.”
“How do you do it?”
“Look for something you have in common. Like the weather.”

I had several occasions to practice my small talking skills this weekend. Soccer tryouts, both mornings, early. A reading yesterday. I sat in the car for part of both tryouts, the weather being inauspicious both days: pissing rain yesterday, a chilly breeze today under an ominous sky (see photo above; see in photo swirling cloud; see in swirling cloud whatever your imagination would like to invent). So I sipped my coffee and scribbled in my journal for awhile.

Coffee gone, done with deep thoughts, I wandered out to watch the girls on the field, and to chat with other parents. I used to dread the casual interaction. I was painfully shy, my mind a blank against which I would scrabble for useful tidbits of talk. It’s curious to recognize that this is no longer the case. I can’t pinpoint when it changed. I suppose I’m still a quiet-ish person, not all that fundamentally different. Except I like small talk. I like meeting people, making those mini-connections, even if we’re just talking about the weather.

I suspect I used to think the exercise was a waste of time, a bit. We all know it’s raining, right? I didn’t really get its purpose. I was tone-deaf. Closed to the possibilities. But I’ve come to suspect that small talk isn’t so small, that it’s the stuff that keeps us civil, and more than that, too. Convention forces us to express interest, to look just a little outside of the self, and consider another person, a stranger, and by doing so to become just that much less strange to each other. Somewhere along the line, I got a taste for exactly this kind of interaction, and I’m never going back. I will know odd facts about the woman who is bagging my groceries, because I’ve asked, and I’m happy to know. (She’s doing a PhD in biochemistry!)

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“I just can’t think of anything to say.”

I know! I totally relate to that panicky feeling, and remember it well. It hit particularly hard in high school.

Just ask questions, is what I suggested, assuming she would be talking to another kid, who might think it was kind of weird to be discussing the weather (I’m not 100 percent certain to whom she’s planning on directing this hypothetical small talk).

One more piece of (happily) not unsolicited advice: Remember, no one can hear what you’re thinking. You do have to say it out loud.

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