I’ve been thinking about how much control we have over what we’re called to do. First of all, you have believe that a person can be “called” to do anything to bother reading on; if you skip this post I won’t be offended. I come from a Mennonite background where this language is commonplace and understood, and in fact, I do believe it, at least in a general way. I believe that we can be called to serve a larger purpose, and I don’t necessarily mean a religious purpose; I mean broader purposes of justice and care. But I also believe in self-determination, in launching yourself in the direction you want to go, in imagining where you want to be in order to get there. I don’t like the thought of sitting around vaguely waiting for Life to tell me what to do: take responsibility, make things happen, work hard! is my philosophy.
In this way, I’ve meandered along, believing that being “called” is not incompatible with my philosophy: figure out your calling and launch yourself toward it. I suppose I would say that I was called to write, and I suppose I would say that even now.
But what if being called also means stepping into the mysterious unknown, opening doors whose existence you couldn’t have anticipated, discovering yourself off-path, doing something you wouldn’t have thought you were prepared for?
What if what you’re called to do is not what you are launching yourself toward? What then?
I’m not wondering about this because there’s some big, exciting non-literary opportunity tucked up my sleeve. No, not at all. I’m wondering because of this blog, actually. I never anticipated the blog becoming anything at all, or being read by anyone other than friends and family. How could a whim become an institution? I wonder: what if I’m remembered, as a writer, more for my blog than for my literary fiction? Would that bother me? And if it would bother me, why? Do I value one kind of writing over another?
I think of blogging as brief, quick, and in some ways superficial bursts of regular writing, but if I consider the cumulative weight of these years of posts, perhaps this is a larger project than I’m willing to admit, a long-unfolding narrative venture, a different version of storytelling. But it will never be a book. It will never be compressed, distilled. It isn’t meant for that.
Do I get to choose what kind of writer I’ll be?
Do I get to choose what kind of person I’ll be?
I’ve been wondering, too, as I think about teaching. Teaching is hard for me. I doubt myself. I doubt the worth and value of what I can offer to the students. I doubt, too, that anyone can teach anyone else how to be a writer. But the strange thing is that all of my doubt doesn’t seem to matter. All term, I came to class hoping to create a respectful and maybe even reverent space where our minds would be free to focus and write, and every week, we wrote. (I wrote, too). I think it worked. I decided that my job wasn’t to teach anyone else how to be a writer, my job was to make it possible to write. To tune out distraction, to turn off cellphones and computers, to tunnel into our minds, to focus as deeply as was possible in a concrete-walled box of a windowless classroom.
What I’m saying is that I never felt called to be a teacher. But I think, maybe, it’s called me. Like blogging called.
What I’m saying, too, is that I’ve been mistaken, I think. I’ve assumed that a calling should be big, exciting, life-changing, world-changing. But no. A calling can be private, small, unseen by almost all. It doesn’t matter what I’m remembered for: more to the point, I don’t get to choose. I don’t know what matters, honestly. But I think it might not be what I imagined in advance would matter.
PS We did our second Christmas Cookie Sunday (aka #CCS) this past weekend, but the cookies were not successful-enough to photograph or post the recipe. This happens. We’ll try again next week.
It’s been a week of busyness with little opportunity for reflection. It’s been an up and down week, emotionally, and it’s just struck me that I’m finishing my November, as I often do, in a bit of funk. Is it the shortened days, the vanishing light, the overhanging clouds, the chilly winds, the general gloom of a world stripped bare and not yet blanketed in bright snow? Probably, yes.
But it’s also an existential Novemberness that alights every year. A wondering what it is I’ve accomplished this year, and what’s left to complete, as if I am a list of tasks done or undone. And maybe I am? But maybe, maybe I’m not, in truth.
As Kevin tells me, Life is not going to give you First Prize. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’ve written a good book. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good parent. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good person.
I’ve fallen to pieces on a few occasions this past week. I’ve been filled with unaccountable shame. This is not the face or person I present to the world, but my kids have to stumble over it. They’ve seen me crying and have found ways to comfort me, with compassion and rationality; and I worry that I’m harming them by not being as solid as rock, as rooted as an oak tree, as strong as diamonds.
I suspect that this feeling of vulnerability and exposure is cumulative. It’s been a fall of presenting my book in public to audiences interested and sometimes not so much; that’s the reality and necessity of publishing books. One must promote one’s work. One must speak on behalf of the work in hopes that the work gets found and adopted and championed by others. I have many many wonderful memories from events this fall, and in truth, very few that are even mildly distressing. So I suspect this feeling of vulnerability and exposure has little to do with the quality and worthiness of the events themselves, but rather with a sustained public stance that has been more difficult for me to participate in than I’ve allowed myself to recognize.
After all, I enjoy reading from my work. I enjoy meeting other writers, and readers. I enjoy sharing my thoughts, and appreciate immensely being invited to participate. These are enormous blessings. I am enormously grateful.
But the shadow side is that I don’t think the human character is designed to absorb even the modest amount of attention that’s come to me this fall. I don’t think we’re particularly good at it. It doesn’t tend to make us into better people. It tends to make us think we’re something special. And even while we’re thinking that, we know we’re not special at all, and the disconnect and disharmony of having to sustain and project the confidence of having something worth saying, while fearing one doesn’t, creates a cognitive dissonance.
I’ve felt kind of hollow this last little while. Hollow, and, in truth, lonely. Removed from myself.
Restoring an interior balance and sense of location and groundedness seems the answer. Advent starts tomorrow, a season of waiting, and I like that metaphor. I don’t mind waiting. I’ll never arrive, not really, because I’ll never cease changing. I want to inhabit deliberate patience. I want to discipline my mind away from its taste for quick hits of attention, and return it to the slow and steady onward pace of life in its daily ritual and routine, a life of small adventures, private successes, and strength through connection.
How I fit in the public work that is necessary to my job — and important (teaching is important, for example!) — is a question I’m not entirely able to answer at the moment, but I think it relates directly to maintaining disciplined habits and routines. Maybe too — this has just come to me, just now — it relates to forgiveness. Maybe it is mainly in my own mind that I’m falling short. Maybe, secretly, I really do believe in a First Prize for anything and everything, and as long as I cling to my imaginary scale of external validation, I’ll exist in a kind of permanent November of the spirit. And I would rather not.
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 am posting to you from my new home in Blogland! If all has gone according to plan, the transition has been seamless and you’ll find yourself here even if you’d gone looking for my former address. If I’d moved houses in real life, the same could not be said. This is much easier.
As with all moves, I expect there to be a few glitches as I figure out the plumbing, so to speak. I welcome your comments and thoughts, and hope you’ll feel just as much at home here as you did in the old blog. If you take a look around, you’ll see there’s more space now, rooms upstairs for events listings and news and information about my books, and the pictures are bigger, but the light feels the same to me. And the colours. And the faces. Just look at those faces.
Plus, I’ve brought along ‘most everything from the old place. All posts and photos are here too, going right back to the beginning. You can still subscribe via email, if you don’t already. Recipes and books-I’m-reading-now can be found in “Extras.” Packing up and moving all those boxes was easy too: my brother Cliff did the heavy lifting. (His company 10AM.ca does great work, if you’re considering a digital renovation, redesign, or move.)
So c’mon in. Keep your shoes on, we’re not fussy (even if we’re dressed up in this post; trust me, this is not the new normal). Stay awhile. And please come back and visit again soon. I’m really excited to share the new place with you. (Enough with the extended metaphor! Enough, I said! Okay. Stopping now.)
Top ten travel locations so far this summer 1. the point at Seeley’s Bay, Ontario 2. soccer field(s), Fooey’s team 3. soccer field(s), Albus’s team
4. soccer field(s), AppleApple’s team
5. Silver Lake camp 6. Kingston, for tournament, with siblings, cousins, aunt and Grandma
7. Swimplex, Nepean, with cousins, aunt and Grandma 8. Ottawa 9. en route, from somewhere to somewhere 10. our house; swim lessons; friends’ houses; backyard
Top five reasons I’m blogging less this summer.
1. I’m out and about with the kids all the time. And I’m swimming at lunchtime.
2. I’m prioritizing writing work in those spare moments not populated by children and their summer activities (and mine).
3. Blog-time is going largely toward building a new web site to house this slightly long-in-the-tooth blog.
4. Summer. Have I mentioned summer?
5. See above. And below.
last day of school, June 26, 2014
We spent the Easter weekend on the farm where Kevin grew up, and his mom still lives.
We helped her begin to sort through and organize the rooms, the closets, cupboards, drawers, nooks and crannies. This is no small project in a house that’s been home for nearly forty years.
I boxed up books to give away, many of which had been bestsellers at some point in the past four decades, already out of date, out of style; some were too musty even to donate. It was an odd conflation of realities, having just spent several days at the British Library, where I pored over printed texts that were four or five centuries old. By what random chance did those books survive? Nothing I read in the BL would be considered great or lasting literature, though some was popular in its time; survival over the centuries was a matter more of being kept by generations of someones who were not like me, I guess, as my instinct is to purge, rather than to cling to, at least in a general sense.
The work got me thinking about how transitory and brief are our lives on this earth. Consider my files of manuscripts in our attic. I wonder, should I burn them now so as to spare my children having to decide what to do with them, some day? What’s precious, after all?
I come home thinking that what’s precious is today.
But today is also ephemeral, which is why we keep so much, trying to keep what can’t be kept. We’ve all got our means and methods, our junk drawers, our shoeboxes. I say this as an inveterate collector and curator of the daily now, in the form of this blog, knowing that what I’m compelled to do is only fractionally more lasting than the day itself, and then only because it freezes and distorts the complicated layers of each beautiful breath and heart beat into a small, glancing story.
I come home thinking that it’s really really important to pay attention to what you’re pouring your life into. I think: don’t worry about whether or not you’re making things that will last. Don’t worry period, actually. Make and do the things that bring you and those around you some daily sense of being loved and cared for. Be as alive as you want to be, while you’re here.
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