There are times when the world is too much with us, and a gut response is not sufficient, what’s needed is time and reflection and perspective. I’m not ignoring what’s happening in the larger world. I’m interested, I’m engaged, I’m paying attention, but I don’t have anything useful to say about it, here.
As of today, I’ve got two teenagers under this roof, and I think their growing independence and autonomy is stoking my growing impulse to step back into the shade of obscurity. I don’t know what the purpose of this blog is anymore, which is why I post here more and more rarely.
I still want to keep this space open, for when I do have something to say. But I don’t want to say something just because this space exists.
Today, I want to tell you about the wonderful books I’ve been reading.
I finished My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, and immediately dove into the second book in the four-book series, translated from the Italian. I’ve heard this series compared to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, but to my mind, they are unrelated. Ferrante has a wider world view than Knausgaard, even if she is examining in detail a very particular time and place: she is depicting the assertion of power itself through the generations. It is the story of a friendship, and of two girls (now young women, in the second book), and it is told from the perspective of one of the women, but it is not about the rigidity of an individual point of view (which Knausgaard’s series seems to be explore), but about the flow of power and knowledge and ritual that shape an individual in ways that are beyond her control, even if she is aware of them. Ferrante observes patterns, large and small. The patterns of place. The patterns of family, of neighbourhood, of wealth and poverty, of knowledge, of culture. This is extremely rich and immersive writing, but it is also propulsive in its pacing. I won’t be reading another book until I’m finished the whole series, but at the same time, I don’t want it to end. It will be like saying goodbye to a friend.
I am thinking of My Struggle in relation to this book because I recently finished reading the third book in that series, Boyhood Island. I can’t read this series quickly. It’s like being trapped inside someone’s mind, someone who has a limited understanding of how he is being received in the world around him, and the effect is claustrophobic, and sometimes even alarming. But I remain interested. I will continue reading through this series, but at a much slower pace. I have no sense of urgency in my quest. It’s more of a commitment to see a thing through.
Another recommendation: Outline by Rachel Cusk. She is the British writer who was born in Canada and whose book was a finalist for two major Canadian prizes this season; there were complaints about how Cusk scarcely qualifies as a Canadian, and that may be true, but I’m glad she made the lists or I wouldn’t have discovered her. I devoured this book. I loved it unreservedly. It is highly stylized, enormously intelligent, and although told in the first person almost erases that person entirely, so that everyone around her leaps into the world fully fleshed, but she never becomes more than an outline on the page. It is the strangest feat, an accomplishment of great discipline. It made me question the purpose of the first person narrator, and the purpose of the writer, too.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading out loud to the kids in the evenings: especially the two youngest (ages 7 and 10). So far we’ve read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, and we’re nearly through From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg, both set in New York City, both stories about siblings.
All for now.
Anonymous hotel room, Victoria, B.C.
I’ve got no business writing a blog post at this moment in time. My to-do list is half a mile long, and to mix metaphors and tumble into cliche all at once, I’m not keeping my head above water. Sinking. I’m definitely being pulled under. But I’m oddly buoyant. (Awkward; cliched language; where are you going with this? Do you know? I think it’s important.) But enough with the emotional play-by-play. I came here to write a post, and I’m going to write a post, dammit! It’s going to be random and scattered and must be completed in under 15 minutes, so here’s what’s on my mind…
Super-prettiness, Victoria, B.C.
* This awesome quote, in honour of the Blue Jays winning in Texas yesterday, from the pitcher who took one for the team:
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” — R.A. Dickey, knuckleballer, philosopher, absolutely bang-on
Location of morning run, Victoria, B.C.
* This very small thought of the day: Right now, I am a teacher and a public speaker, not a writer. I miss being a writer. That is why it was so gratifying to receive notice from my UK publisher, Two Roads, that The Juliet Stories has just been published there, along with the paperback version of Girl Runner. Better yet, if you’ve got a moment, read this glowing review of The Juliet Stories, which compares the book to books by some really fine, really smart UK authors: Ali Smith and Eimear McBride. Nicest of all, my UK publisher sent flowers to celebrate the occasion.
* This breathless recap of my weekend to catch us all up to right now: Flew to Victoria on Friday. Spoke at the Victoria marathon on Saturday. Raced the 8km run on Sunday. Flew to Toronto immediately after that. Arrived around 9:30PM, was met at airport by family, who had spent the weekend with Kevin’s family. Woke up yesterday and decided that yes, I did have the energy and desire to make Thanksgiving dinner for family! Watched Jays game. Was read off to sleep and literally tucked into bed by CJ (who is 7). Woke up this morning, recognizing that I am a) swamped with marking, despite having worked on marking all weekend; b) behind on emails; c) late to meet a deadline for my next children’s book (!!); d) worryingly looking at a to-do list of tiny but important and unrelated tasks that is expanding at light speed.
Which is why I’m blogging, obviously. Not on any to-do list. Fun. Relaxing. Keeps me sane. Thanks for being here, Blog.
I have a list in my head entitled: Jobs That Kids Can Do Themselves! I can see the title written out in perky brightly coloured bubble letters on a piece of paper and I can see the children discovering the list, glancing at it, and sighing, Oh Mom. (On the imaginary list: pick up dog poo in back yard; clean shoes after stepping in dog poo in back yard; feed and water dogs; put away clean laundry; put dirty laundry into hamper; hang wet towels; empty dishwasher; put dirty dishes in sink; empty recycling and compost bins; make breakfast and lunch; clean up after breakfast and lunch; find friends to play with…)
I have driven many many kilometres this weekend. I have driven them in my new little car. On Tuesday we gave in to the ongoing overlapping scheduling puzzle that has been our reality, as a one-car six-person family, these past few years, and we bought a second vehicle, a little pod that can efficiently travel from the mothership.
Sunset over salt mine, Goderich, Ontario.
On Friday night I was with friends in Goderich — old friends. I was reminded that even within a larger group, I look for moments of intimacy amidst the noise. I like to listen. I like to hear.
On Saturday afternoon I read at a festival in Bayfield, in a space that had been the town hall, with four other writers, and the stories they told were essential and moving and spiritual, somehow, and as the last reader of the eventful first half, I felt myself pulled into the flow in the room, and saw how there was space and focus for what I was about to offer and I was so glad and grateful to the other writers for opening up that spiritual river. How I loved stepping into the water. How I loved Aganetha, speaking through me. On the way home, driving my new little car through the rain, I didn’t want to listen to the radio, I didn’t want talk or music, I wanted to hear my own thoughts, I needed space to let the emotions of the afternoon work their way through my system. I heard myself saying, Aggie Smart is a wonderful character. Give yourself that. Let yourself know it.
One of the writers at Saturday’s event told me afterward that they were embarrassed by the organizer’s introduction of me, which was particularly awkward—title of my last book wrong, said she couldn’t find any information about me online, except some weird site called Obscure CanLit Mama, which perhaps she didn’t realize was mine—and when I got up to speak, I tried to riff off her intro and said that I didn’t mind being obscure, and wrote for the words on the page and the stories I wanted to tell, which perhaps just made everything all the more awkward. And then I read. I dove right into those words on the page. I wasn’t upset by the intro at all, actually, even if the other writer thought it was infuriatingly dismissive of my career and experience. Oddly, I’d thought it was accurate and reassuring. How nice that she couldn’t find much about me online, I thought. Maybe I can do this writing thing and remain obscure. (Although, is that really true? I’m not going to Google myself to find out.)
An author at the event told a story about Alice Munro writing while her kids were at school, and covering her typewriter when they arrived home again; I like that un-precious approach to the work. It fits with how I see myself, as a very ordinary person living a very ordinary life, who happens to enjoy an imaginative extra-life, like a room in the attic full of dress-up clothes stuffed into old-fashioned trunks or with secret passageways that I can visit and escape to, but I’ll still be back downstairs in time to help make supper and coach a soccer game. Life has many rooms. I want to live fully in all of them, whichever room I’m in.
Yesterday, I delivered my youngest child to overnight camp, and he is away from me until tomorrow. This picture breaks my heart just a little. He looks so anxious, but also like he’s trying to reassure me that he will be okay.
The writing work that I’ve submitted recently sits out there waiting for responses and there is no guarantee that anyone will like it or want it. I want other writers to know this, especially writers beginning their careers: know that even the writers you think of as more established, or as having had some success, receive rejection, sometimes, or have to begin projects over again, or abandon them altogether, sometimes. In fact, I think it’s good for a person never to get so comfortable in her abilities that her work can’t be critiqued by thoughtful professionals. It’s good never to become so precious, so valuable commercially, that no one holds you to account. (Even though that sounds awfully tempting and a person can dream!)
The best things in life are never the easiest, even if the experience of them feels easy. Getting to ease is hard.
Maybe I exercise because it is a form of extremity, it removes barriers, can push the self beyond the beyond to a purer place that doesn’t traffic in the ordinary obstacles that come between people, that we use to keep ourselves safe and protected and apart.
Behind me, a daughter inhales her asthma puffer. I can hear her breathe out slowly, then pull the medication into her lungs.
Behind me, my other daughter and her friend practice what I think are dance steps, her friend instructing her, one-two-push. But when my older daughter joins their conversation, I realize that a soccer ball is involved, and the friend is teaching my younger daughter a fancy soccer move, in our living-room. Maybe she will use it in her game tonight.
The nervous little dog comes into this office and lies down near my feet. She is distressed by change and change is constant in our house, in the summertime.
If I were to write a poem today what would be my subject?
If I were to write a short story today what would be my subject?
Here is the blog post I’ve written today. What is its subject?
The American writer, James Salter, died recently, aged 90. His output, said the obituary, was modest: six novels, two short story collections, a memoir. I think that output sounds quite fantastic. Nine books in total, not much more than a book a decade. I think it must have meant he cared deeply about what he published and rejected a lot of his own ideas and attempts. This is just a guess.
Enjoying this room I’m in. Hope you are too, wherever you are.
I sit down to write here, on the blog, and my mind goes round and round the purpose of this blog. I wonder why people are reading, perhaps, and why they may not be reading. I wonder why I am writing. Do I have something to say? Is my purpose to amuse, to inform, to muse, to form? Do I call out in hopes of a response? Am I launching quirky missives from an insular and isolated place? Am I writing as a writer, as a mother, as a seeker, as a knower? Am I writing to you? Or to me? Or to no one at all, to the ether?
I’ve come a long way on this path of being a writer. When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer like L.M. Montgomery or Lois Lenski. I wanted to be a writer like Emily of New Moon. I wanted create imaginary romantic worlds of adventure and mystery. As a teen, I was in love with language, and saw in it a violent risky potential. I wanted to write like Michael Ondaatje. I wanted to write barely coherent poetic scenes of romance and mystery and adventure. I didn’t care whether or not my stories or poems made sense, only that they burst with emotion and the fullness of self, perhaps. As an older teen and into my twenties, I wanted to write like Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. I wanted to craft brilliant sentences that both hid and displayed meaning, sentences that were as rich and big and complex as a whole story, characters whose motives were murky. I wanted to conjure worlds at a tilt from my own, veined and layered and dark.
And so I wrote and I read and I wrote and I read.
In some fundamental way, I refused to believe that I might not be a writer, someday. I willed myself to continue through years of small steps forward, and crushing rejections. I determined to improve. I determined to learn and to master the craft of storytelling. How to do this particular thing and do it well: how to tell a compelling story, not neglecting plot for style, not neglecting sentence structure for pace. I got better.
I got to where I am right now, here, sitting before this laptop, wondering, wondering. Do I still want to be a writer, so fiercely, so absolutely, so determinedly? Who do I wish to write like, now? Or, more importantly, perhaps, than I originally understood: what stories do I long to tell? And if I have no story that I long to tell, why craft the structure, why lovingly build the sentences? If the house is empty? (Is the house empty?)
Engagement is a key word of our era. That seems to me the purpose of social media. Anyone who wishes to earn attention, to market her work, must learn to engage with her audience, to maintain a call-and-response relationship, the bigger the better. It comes naturally to some, and less naturally to others. I put myself in the latter camp. Yet this blog is a form of engagement, whether or not I choose to see it that way. And when I recognize this and admit it, I become more and more uncomfortable as purveyor and publisher of posts. I cannot understand what I am doing, nor what my purpose may be. Is it, as originally intended when I started the blog in 2008, to narrate my every day life, to keep it in some form, and if so, for whom? For my children? For myself when I am older? Am I marketing my books? Practicing my craft? Indulging in cheap philosophy? Is this a publicly-kept journal?
Could I live without engagement? This specific form of engagement? (Silly question. Of course I could.)
Less, is the message that’s been coming my way. Not more, more, more, but less, less, less. For so long, I’ve fought to become more, to achieve more, to do more. I’ve worked toward big, specific goals and dreams. Now I’m confronted with this strange glimpse of myself, something I was afraid to see: I see that I will never write as wonderfully as I’d hoped to. I’m not possessed of a special gift. I’m a hard-working woman, that’s all, and I had a dream.
I’ve written that in the past tense without even noticing: and I had a dream. Strange. Isn’t it? Maybe the dream is shifting, deepening, altering course, becoming something else.
What now? What next?
Now: Life is strangely lovely at present. It is unexpectedly wonderful to hear less, less, less calling me. I feel myself relaxing into moments in a way that feels almost unfamiliar, unknown. I feel the pace changing. I feel myself at peace with what I have, right now.
Next? Being a writer isn’t something you quit. Writing is how I process the world around me; I’d be impaired without it. I continue to write, as always, but right now it’s a form of listening; without shape. I think my purpose is to listen, right now. I feel quiet. I feel a great deal of affection–of love–for those around me. The days are full, vivid, layered and veined and rich. I feel human. I feel flawed. I can’t think of anything I need or long for or crave, not even direction, right now. I feel present.
What I don’t feel is at an end with this blog. But I want to be honest about my ambivalence toward its purpose, and my use of it, at present. Thank you for listening.
PS Photos are from this past weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, taken after the sun went down, on the longest day of the year. Homework got burned, marshmallows got roasted and mushed between graham crackers, and the mosquitos almost won. Almost.
School project being completed at 10PM by kid after soccer practice: not exactly what I wanted to be assisting with, but nevertheless well worth my time. Why? Read on. (Yes, that is a pyramid made out of rice krispie squares.)
On Facebook last week, I posted a photo of my daughter at one of her track meets, and expressed my pride at being there to watch her race. Among the complimentary and sweet messages in response, an acquaintance posted this comment: Can you write a book or blog about how you manage your time?
It got me thinking: could this be a book that I could write? (Kevin says no; he thinks the subject would bore me silly.) (Note: “Could this be a book I could write?” is a surprisingly common question that I ask myself.) I do have a facility for squeezing a great deal into my day, including time for watching my kids do the wonderful and ordinary things that they do. And yet I often think my facility for organization has more to do with privilege than talent, because I don’t have to spend a great deal of time on tasks that may be essential or unavoidable to others, such as a long commute whether by car or public transit, or a full-time job performed primarily for money. Truth is, I resent and rage at any perceived waste of my time, such as waiting in long line-ups to sign official forms, or sitting in traffic on my way to an event I don’t want to attend. I’ve tried my best to work at being patient in these situations, and to learn patience and stillness from them, but I feel keenly any waste.
What’s being wasted? Time. Precious and diminishing with every breath.
Yet I’m quite willing to “waste” copious amounts of time doing things like this: meditating followed by journalling / blogging.
So it strikes me that a significant element to effective time management is defining what you consider wasteful, and rearranging your life to perform those tasks as infrequently as possible. Again, I recognize that it’s a privilege to be in position that would allow a drastic life change, like quitting a job, but most of us can probably find some small ways to change the lives we’re living if the lives we’re living cause us enough pain. How does change happen? In my own experience, it happens in a variety of ways, but most often it happens because I notice a point of discomfort, pain, unhappiness, and recognize that things I am doing (or not doing) are at least in part the cause of my unhappiness.
What comes next is that the routine has to change. The structure has to change. You can’t say “I’m going to make a change,” and not create the structure to support it. Small example: None of us are getting up at 5AM to run because we feel like it; it’s because we’ve decided it’s worth doing, and we’ve arranged our schedule, our habits, our routine to support our choice: we’ve checked the weather, we’ve laid out appropriate workout clothes, we’ve gone to bed a bit early, we haven’t had a drink, we’ve set our alarm, we’ve arranged to meet a friend or friends, and with the wheels in motion, we simply show up and do what we’d planned. But without the supporting structure to carry us through—to carry the idea through to action—we’d sleep in, telling ourselves, I’m too tired right now, I’ll just do it tomorrow, or I’ll run tonight instead, or … and the imagined moment never arrives.
It’s like painting lines for bike lanes sandwiched between live traffic and parked cars and then blaming cyclists and drivers for colliding. It would be more useful and more accurate to blame the structure instead, rather than putting the onus on human beings to make rational, correct, perfect choices at all times, in all situations, in all weathers. Human failure is inevitable. Therefore, change the structure, put the bicycles in a separated, unobstructed lane, and everyone will both feel and be safer.
Structure is what shapes our lives, far more than we accept or acknowledge, and this is true right down to whether or not we floss our teeth, or eat lots of veggies. That we are “creatures of habit” is a truism because it’s true. So scan your daily life for routines that aren’t serving what you value. Maybe there’s room for a change, here and there.
I realize it’s more philosophy than step-by-step advice, but here is my time management strategy in a nutshell.
1. Identify what matters to you.
2. Be curious, be open. Respond to pain or unhappiness (and to joy too!)—recognize it, don’t ignore it.
3. Figure out what changes are possible.
4. Don’t think about making a change, actually force change to happen by altering the routines and structures that govern your daily life.
One last piece of my time management strategy: celebrate every little thing worth celebrating. The sandwich that tastes good, the kid who is telling you a story, the green of the clover coming up in the back yard, being outside, a good nap, holding a 3-minute plank, chatting with other parents beside a soccer field on a particularly fine late-spring evening, driving with a child and having a side-by-side conversation. Don’t waste your own time by wishing you were somewhere else. Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, take it in. Tell yourself: This is not a waste. This is my life.
PS I feel like this post has a slightly preachy or evangelical tone. Please don’t think I think you should be getting up at 5AM to run; rather, I think you should be getting to do your own personal version of an early-morning run, that is, the thing that’s kind of hard but makes you feel alive.
Today I went to my 9-year-old’s grade four class to read them The Candy Conspiracy and talk about writing. For the venture, I brought along a file folder of all the edits and original storyline ideas and drafts, and read to them from the very earliest draft. The funny thing was, it was really funny, perhaps rather more darkly funny than the version that made it to the published page. The original draft included mysterious characters called Grubbers (which vanished entirely by draft 3). The kids spontaneously imagined their own versions of the characters, with hands up afterward to describe what they thought the Grubbers looked like. Shrivelled up vegetables, elves, gremlins, little green blogs or specks, tiny green worms. Everyone had a different version in his or her imagination.
And that got us talking about the magic of the imagination. Don’t get me wrong. I love illustration, and illustration paired with text can make magic too. But the simplicity of words on the page, projected into our minds, is at once personal and collective. We all hear the same words, but what we see comes from our own personal landscape of experience, textured with individual differences.
I have left myself a mere eight minutes to write and publish this post before picking the kids up from school. There is much I could write about, perhaps too much, and here is a shortlist of topics I was thinking about covering.
Playing soccer in the back yard. (OMG so fun! Even I’m getting into it and testing out my mad dekes on … okay, on my 7-year-old, whose mad dekes are way madder than mine, but hey).
Being a depressed miserable writer. (Such a great topic, right up there with my collection of belly-button fluff. I’m sure you’re all sorry not to hear more about it.)
Our continuing efforts to try to train the dogs. (Having a dog is like having a toddler FOREVER.)
Coaching soccer. (Best game ever last night, as our Mighty Green Grapes, with only 5 players on the field for a 7 v 7 matchup, held their own mightily and with an intensity that could only be admired and cheered in the off-and-on rain. The coaches were verklempt by the end.)
The weekend. (That seems like a long time ago.)
Food I haven’t had a chance to cook or bake. (Just kidding.)
Laundry. (Sorry. I do like talking about laundry.)
Running without pain! (Hurray!!! In this beautiful spring weather! This is what I worked for all winter!)
Time. (And the way I’m forever running on the edge of behind, and yet not quite falling off, like a tiny figure on a giant treadmill, arms and legs whirling. Or like a metaphor with the wheels about to fall off.)
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