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I boxed up books to give away, many of which had been bestsellers at some point in the past four decades, already out of date, out of style; some were too musty even to donate.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.
How to use the restless minutes and hours between activities scheduled and unavoidable:
– finish / write new story
– write 15 mins / day on any subject that comes to mind [project title: The Woman Formerly Known As]
– blog but keep it short: limit time spent writing to ten mins, see what you can produce
– read and don’t feel guilty
– research popular print culture and mysticism
– limit FB visits to time when out and about (entertainment)
– start tapping into new characters, era, and place, testing the waters
[the above is an actual note actually sent to self, as typed into phone on Wednesday, January 29th, while sitting in the car in a parking lot with a few minutes to spare between a stop at the library and picking up daughter for piano lessons]
A few notes on where I’m at, today, on this last day of January.
– I’m waiting for comments on final revisions to Girl Runner. Next steps will include copy editing, cover design, and publicity planning. Not there yet.
– My author photo has been taken (by the wonderful Nancy Forde, my friend and neighbour!).
– I’m prepping to drive to Windsor with my swim girl for a weekend meet, hoping to get there ahead of the snow that’s on its way.
– Yes, our swim girl has cut back on swimming, but only marginally; I’m just happy she’s so happy to be swimming again. Yes, we’ve cut back on the number of meets we’re attending. This is a big one, and we both wanted to go. We’ll continue to assess her overall schedule on a weekly or even daily basis, making changes as needed.
– I’ve renewed my access card to the local university libraries, and have been through the stacks to find books on popular print culture (16th century, specifically).
– I went to boot camp this morning, and my body felt perfectly normal. (Hurray!) My mind, I’ll confess, remains foggy, but that could be all the quiet thinking it seems to want to do right now. My mind is stuck in winter-mode: hibernation.
– I’m still on antibiotics.
– Our oven still doesn’t work, but the part has been ordered, and the manufacturer is paying for it, not us.
– I’m reading Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, and wondering why it’s taken me so long to discover her.
– I’m sitting down as I write this. Need to work my way back onto the treadmill desk.
– I’m meeting with my word-of-the-year friends on Monday. Until then, the word remains under wraps, as I’m suffering from my usual last-minute change of heart.
– Kevin and I spent most of yesterday together, and checked out wood stoves … and came around to thinking that what we’re really looking for is a gas stove, as originally planned. It’s about half the cost, and a whole lot less fuss once installed. I’ve decided that I may be someone who admires people who have chickens and wood stoves, rather than someone who aspires to have chickens and a wood stove, if you know what I mean. It pains me to type that last sentence out.
– This post has taken me exactly
ten eleven fourteen seventeen TWENTY-TWO (uh oh!) minutes.
A little more on Christian Wiman, I think, having finished the book this morning. (I mentioned this at supper and Albus said, “Doesn’t it usually take you a really long time to finish a book?” and I went, huh? And then oh! Finished reading a book, not writing one. Yeah, that I can do in a morning, though this book took me every morning of this week, and I could likely sit down and read it all over again and find all new material that chimes true, and differently, a second time around.
Then I went and looked up Christian Wiman online, to see, rather morbidly, whether he was still alive (he spent seven years writing the book, and during that time was undergoing treatment for incurable cancer, so my compulsion to know wasn’t completely out there). He is. I found an interview he’d done with a very kindly looking man named Bill Moyers, whom I’ll admit I’d never heard of. (On a side note, I suspect I would enjoy watching more of Moyers’ interviews.) (On another side note, this must have been a “watch random videos” day, because I’d started my morning with a lecture by Brene Brown, whom everybody but me probably already knows for her work on vulnerability; and I liked it, too, and her message about how to be with people in need, but it didn’t speak to me in the same way that Christian Wiman’s book did, maybe because I didn’t have to work as hard to claim to understand what Brown was saying. Maybe I like working hard to figure something out, like the insights are more earned and therefore more personal to me, more personally valuable for being more challenging.)
Where was I?
Oh, the interview with Christian Wiman. Two things. One, the interview is worth watching if you like to hear poets read their own poetry. He reads several. Two, the part where he says that he doesn’t feel like a poet. He says it’s only when he writes a poem that he feels like a poet. He added that it’s different to write prose, and maybe that’s partially true, but I know that I feel the same way about writing fiction. I don’t feel like a fiction writer during the in-between times. I don’t even believe that I can do it — except when I am.
Tonight I am sitting beside an indoor soccer field. I can write this, it’s true. It doesn’t feel like a struggle, more like a pleasure. But it’s simply a record of where I’m at. It lacks structure and larger purpose. It isn’t meant to last. But even as I write that, I wonder, what the heck is? Isn’t it presumption to think it, that one might ever work on something meant to last?
We ended the year on a low-key note — so low-key that I spent most of the evening holed up in my office working on revisions. “You’ve been doing this a long time,” observed a kid wandering in to see what was happening. “You know what I’m like when I get going,” I mumbled, adjusting my ear plugs. Kevin brought me two beers and a cup of chai tea to offer sustenance. I didn’t stop till I was through the whole book. I think, I think, it’s ready to send back to my editor. I hope that isn’t the chai tea talking.
As the evening progressed, I could hear my family playing Settlers of Catan nearby. Later, they retired to the basement to watch old family movies, not to be confused with episodes of Modern Family, which were interspersed when a certain almost-teenaged family member couldn’t stand to watch another video of himself “making sand” by banging two rocks together or whisking down a slide into a wading pool filled, rather oddly one would think, with mud rather than water.
It was 10PM when I removed the ear plugs, shut down the book, and joined my cozy family.
It was a long and peculiar year. It ended as it should have, I think.
With mere seconds to spare before midnight, we raced upstairs. (We chose CBC radio’s countdown, which was swell right up until it got to 3-2-1 and there was a pause of blank air followed by the dum-da-dum musical chime indicating the news was coming up, whereupon a newscaster launched directly into all the bad headlines of the moment without sparing even one “Happy New Year” to help the listening public transition between subjects.) We hugged and toasted with champagne and ginger ale. The energy dwindled rapidly and people drifted toward activities that made them happy. I, for example, took photos.
CJ played Pokemon.
Albus sighed that the evening could have been better, had it contained the playing of more video games.
AppleApple snuggled on the couch with her imaginary cat, Stella, not to be mistaken for her imaginary snake, Norbert.
And here is the Fooey sequence, which covers a time-span of about ten minutes.
This post, to launch a new year, seems to call out for reflection and resolve, and I’m not really feeling it today. Here is what my writer friend Sheree Fitch posted on FB yesterday: “This year, I unresolve. I cannot solve nor be resolute. So I will just keep trying to unresolve: to let go in all ways. Yes, it hurts and is soul-scary. A little fear is not a bad thing.”
(I agree: a little fear is not a bad thing. Fear is what I burn when I’m writing. Anxiety is the terrible underbelly of a project underway and … ok, I’m only seeing it now … unresolved.)
Life is unresolved. It is underway. It is unpredictable.
Watching those home movies last night I said to Kevin, “My God, we were living in chaos. How did we stand it?” After I’d repeated this observation several times, he finally replied, “I think we’re actually still living in chaos.” And I had to look around and admit this is true.
So I guess that’s how we stand it. We’re in it. It’s happening. It doesn’t look like chaos because it makes so much sense. It doesn’t feel like fear because it fires invention and change.
I would like to make resolutions this year, but I can’t think of any not already underway. Run more, read more, write lots. Publish. Be ambitious, be humble, be professional, be kind. Take care of my family, my spirit, my body. Be a good friend. Become a better teacher.
I can’t seem to think big, today. I’m thinking daily. I’m thinking practical. I’m thinking waste not, want not. How do I want to spend my time? That’s an important consideration, of course, but it’s not just about getting to do what I want. It’s also about not wasting time wishing I were doing something else, when engaged in activities not at the top of my priority list. (Driving the kids; cooking supper in a terrible rush; standing on the sidelines at soccer practice.)
Okay, there’s a resolution for the unresolved. I’ll take it.
But first I have to ask: Use it for what?
For light. For entertainment. For love. For health. For connection. For being silly. For questioning. For reminiscing. For stories yet to be written. For wondering. For curiosity. For building strength. For discovering resilience. For practice. For learning. For rest. For comfort. For creativity. For silence, for stillness, for emptying out.
This year I will finish some projects and start others. I will forget more things than I remember. I will wax and wane, tired and energetic, up and down, lost and found, certain and uncertain. I begin by rearranging my bookshelves, sending the kids to grandma’s, and forgetting to eat lunch, again, because I’m writing. (This.)
Yesterday, while grabbing a book to bring along to a soccer field I mentally composed a perfect blog post. Maybe I’ll blog on my phone beside the soccer field, I thought. But the post vanished, and instead, beside the soccer field, I chatted with other parents (whom I see far more often than I do my closest friends) and watched, mesmerized, our daughters pass the ball with great skill and determination. The book stayed unopened in my hand.
The perfect imaginary blog post is not unlike the perfect imaginary book, I suspect, a subject Ann Patchett addresses in her very funny and quite serious essay on writing, “The Getaway Car,” in her new book of essays, THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE.
Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it … But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart.
Two things in that passage. One, the obvious point that writing is not a natural act; and two, that we narrate our lives, and it’s the second I’ve been thinking about most.
Yesterday, I imagined writing from inside the new car. I would tell you about the sudden shock of snow, the windshield wipers working, the warm hum from the vents. I might add in a snippet of caught conversation between me and a child. I might even admit to a burst of irritation at the stupidity of another driver. There would be the hush of tires turning. The flash of lights and the smear of their colour across the wet windshield in the early dark.
It’s fitting that I put my book advance toward a new vehicle, as the new vehicle has become my second home in a way that seems almost outrageous when I add up the hours. I’ve undone every green dream I ever had, whilst supporting my children in their extra-curricular interests. On Monday, between 5:05pm and 9:15pm, I spent a total of two and a half hours in our new vehicle, including an hour and a half venture, around town, that had me climbing out at home with a numb posterior. During that particular round, “Aggie” and I visited a far-flung indoor soccer field, a gymnastics club on the opposite side of town, and a pool, before returning home. And it snowed the whole time. The best part was when the eldest voluntarily joined me for the final trip of the evening. “What should we talk about?” he asked cheerily, and, as we’d already covered the intricacies of the PS4 gaming system he’s hoping for, we moved on to music, and soccer, and the mall, and fantasizing about food we’d like to eat.
That’s the one good thing about all this time in the car. It’s time with the kids, and we talk, a lot.
But later, home again, kids in bed, I said to Kevin, “When I’m all done driving these kids around, I’m going to be old. That’s what’s going to happen. I’ll be done driving them, and I’ll be old.”
photos in this post taken by child in passenger seat
Meanwhile — and this may save me — I’ll be “narrativizing” my life.
Yesterday afternoon, I listened to a Writers and Company podcast: Aleksandar Hemon interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel. Hemon uses his own experiences in his fiction, without qualms or apology: “The way I write fiction most often is that I imagine a different outcome of a situation.” Hemon observes something unfolding and ending, a snippet, a glimpse, or a straightforward hike from A to B, and he wonders: what if X had happened instead? A character might appear to be based on himself, yet he seems to harbour no worries about being mistaken for a character. In short, the line between fiction and non-fiction does not seem to trouble him. He’s writing stories, not history, whether they are “true stories” (non-fiction) or fiction. “We go toward the things we do not know in literature. To go in the opposite direction is to write only about the easy things.” (I’m paraphrasing; I took notes while listening, as non-fiction versus fiction has become a bit of an obsession while I try to teach it to my students, and while I reflect on what writing/publishing The Juliet Stories has both given me and cost me.)
I feel myself urgently wanting to use what I’ve got at hand, and to spin it into something different; “to arrive at something,” as Hemon puts it. There is life. There is the rendering of life into story. I’m missing quite a few pieces in my life, right now. Apparently I can’t squeeze everything in to satisfaction, not while driving for hours a day. What gets lost? Wouldn’t I love to host more suppers? Yes. My social life is pinched. I’m tired far too early in the evening. The laundry overwhelms. But there’s something about writing that can set life into balance, for me. I arrive at something there that I can’t here.
I sent this pair off to buy something for lunch, for the second time this week. They went to Vincenzo’s and got sushi and soda pop. CJ ate a blue frosted cupcake before they were even home. “We tried the free samples!” (On Monday, I let them go to the grocery store to get something for lunch and they returned with: Corn Pops, Cap’n Crunch, mini chocolate chip cookies, and three cheese buns. I think I see improvement?)
Fooey is doing tennis camp this week, which is why she’s not been involved. (Side note: she’s been working on filling in a journal all about herself, and had this to say on the page with prompts about her parents. “The one thing I hope I never inherit from my mom is the way she … HAS NO STYLE.” And: “The one thing I hope I never inherit from my dad is the way he … HAS NO HAIR.” My attempts to defend myself were met with scorn. Well, justified perhaps, because that kid has style.)
It feels like a day for black and white.
Here is my desk, right now. On the left, see the syllabus I’m working on. In the middle, my BlackBerry, which flashes whenever I get a message (very distracting, but I must like being distracted; text me, please!). On the right, this week’s calendar full of to-do lists and daily events not to be forgotten. And on the computer screen, a message to my editor with the revised version of Girl Runner attached. Yup! She’s gone off. I’ve sent her on her way.
Kevin, who has been my first reader for as long as I’ve had a writing career, stayed up past midnight reading the new draft, and told me this morning that he couldn’t put it down. He offers the following blurbs: “I felt like I was running in Aggie’s shoes over a 100-year race.” And “The book had the perfect combination of pace and depth, just like the 800 metres.” And: “Normally I can read only a few pages at a time. I read half the book in one sitting.” As he’s obliged only to say good things, for the sake of our marriage, you might think this input is highly suspect, but I’m going with it. It’s been a summer of intense and sometimes crazy-making labour, and I can’t do more without a serious break from the material. And my editor is pleased to have it back on her desk again.
And now I give myself the respite of a week or so, before the madness of the fall schedule begins, to be quiet, peaceful, breathing, playing, and not working. Tall order.
One last thing. My next post is going to be about everything I’m excited for this fall. It really and truly is. Because there is so much coming in and now that I’ve sent the manuscript I can breathe and sit back and look at it all. And rest my head. And say thank you.
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