I didn’t tell them to do this.
I haven’t been getting enough sleep and it may be due to my late-night reading material. I just finished Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which should not be dismissed merely because it has an Oprah book club sticker on it. I really loved this memoir. It was everything I hope for in a book: I was entertained, I was moved, I learned new things, I met fascinating characters, it touched me, it felt relevant to my own experience without being preachy, it expressed a deeper human truth while remaining particular and individual, and it had a compassionate moral outlook. And it was written by a woman. Hurray! I’ve been mildly troubled by my male-author-heavy recent reading trend. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading books by both men and women, but I kept waiting for the female-authored book that would speak to me with authority. And Wild did.
I won’t give a detailed plot synopsis, because you’ve probably already heard about the book or even read it yourself, but the narrator is hiking 1100 miles of wilderness trail, by herself, age 26, several years after the death of her mother, as a way to recover her life from a seriously scary downward spiral. Because I read it as an ebook, I can’t easily thumb through to find favourite bits, but I loved when this troubled spirit recognized that her efforts to get out of herself, to escape, had been not actually what she longed for. What she longed for was to get in. It was such a simple and profound way of expressing the paradox of the human mind and spirit: how the easy way out is always a trap, because it prevents us from finding what we really crave, which is a way into ourselves — and the way in is hard. And yet, it’s also not hard because it’s so right, because it lines up who we want to be with who we are, I think. Peace. Grace. Stillness.
So, two things I loved about the book. One, it was about hard physical effort. I related to that as a path to entering into one’s life and self. Two, the acknowledgements. I read the whole book with pleasure and ease, and it almost came as a shock to see the author thanking mentors, grant-giving institutions, writers’ festivals, and writing retreat centres. Right! I thought. This effortless-seeming book was written by a writer. Obvious, I know. But it gave me a feeling of kinship to recognize the work behind the scenes, to remember that every wonderful piece of writing began as an idea, and was supported by an invisible web, and brought to being by the same hard yet right process of steady work. That it didn’t just emerge whole. Cheryl Strayed wrote this book the same way she walked the trail: with help, alone, in doubt, and in hope. Sure, there are some ecstatic moments along the way, but writing a polished and complete book is kind of like walking 1100 miles of wilderness trail (or so I imagine): it’s a grind. You’re going to hate that you’re doing it some days, and think you might actually be crazy. You’ll be afraid and have to tell yourself that you’re not. You’ll be humbled by all you’re not, and also by all you are.
It’s the grind that yields.
In other news …
Most of the fallen tree is now piled in our front yard.
I spent yesterday afternoon deliberating with other members of The New Quarterly’s story jury, as we picked out a winner and runners-up for their emerging writer story contest. I learned a few things that I hope to apply in my creative writing class this fall. One is a total ban on sex scenes — I mean in their stories, not in the classroom; well, actually, I mean both, but the latter does not generally require mentioning. Only well into one’s writing career should one should attempt to write a sex scene, and even then … which reminds me, Cheryl Strayed wrote a really good sex scene. So it’s not that it can’t be done well, it’s just not a promising place to begin. Everything I type right now seems to be loaded with double-entendres. Which is probably part of the problem.
Anyway, that was yesterday, and I also zoomed all over town on my bike. My muscles are aching from lifting weights yesterday morning, and they’re still aching from a push-up extravaganza on Friday morning, not to mention the general battered and bruised feeling I carry following my evening soccer games (now on Thursdays and Sundays), and Saturday’s long run. I’m taking today off except for yoga stretches.
I scored a replay-worthy goal in Sunday’s game. It’s the goal I’ve been envisioning for months. I believing in envisioning, by the way. I believe if you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it in real life. The goal came off of a beautiful cross on a strong run up the left wing. I was on right forward, and running hard. The ball crossed ahead of our centre forward and I caught it on my right foot at the top of the box, controlled it like I knew what I was doing. The centre forward, behind me, told me I had time, take my time, and I did, somehow calmly positioning the ball and as the defender rushed me, I shot it over the goalie’s fingertips, skimming an inch under the bar, and swishing the back of the net.
I get to describe it in detail because it may never happen again. But it happened once. I could not stop grinning for about ten minutes. It was one of those magical sporting moments that keep a person coming back to a game–when it feels like the moment is unfolding separate from thought, purely on instinct, and you know in advance you’re going to do exactly the right thing. You have utter confidence in yourself, and it seems like it’s suddenly so easy. (Of course, it’s not). Everyone who’s played a sport knows what I’m talking about it. Come to think of it, it’s another example of grace.
AppleApple got a goal of her own in last night’s game. CJ and Kevin and I all came along to watch.
And now it’s back to work. The younger kids are at daycamp. Albus will be home from camp in two more sleeps. AppleApple is watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, which she read this spring. And I’m writing scenes that are kind of like candy. They are so fun to read, and to write, it’s weirding me out.
Back porch: a collection. Roller blades and helmet, new for his birthday and much used. Goalie gloves, for after-school practice with little brother taking the shots. Dirt, from the snails, who returned to the wild with great sobs of sadness from CJ. Dirty running shoes. Dirty socks, examples of which can be found almost anywhere. I found one on the driveway yesterday. Yes, it belonged to someone in our family. I have a gigantic single sock collection on my dresser and never give up hope of finding matches.
I’m going to insert a tiny rant here about the sliver of hell that occurs daily between 4 and 5:15. This is when a) the kids are newly home b) hungry for snacks c) I’m cooking supper d) supervising playdates e) trying to catch up on any issues f) reminding kids to get ready for soccer/swimming g) packing my own gear for running h) texting Kevin for missing ingredients i) asking for help setting the table j) suffering increasing disbelief that we’ll be able to meet the deadline for multiple departures while k) throwing hot food on the table and demanding it be eaten in five minutes flat. Soccer and/or swimming begins at 5:30 five nights a week. There is no way to make this easier that I’ve discovered. The good news is that as soon as the 5:30 people have left, the others can relax and enjoy dinner and dog-walking until their own 6:45 deadline arrives, which, the other good news is, only occurs three times a week.
Monday evening, returning the carshare car to the library post-swim-girl pickup with little kids in tow, we took the opportunity to pop in and exchange books. It had been raining, lightly. I was slightly worried about the walk home in the cooling rain, as darkness and bedtime edged closer. The kids ran ahead to the children’s section while I unloaded a pile of books at the front counter. A woman stopped and said, “Are you Carrie Snyder?” I didn’t recognize her. “Yes.” “I just wanted to say that I read your book — The Juliet Stories — and I liked it very very much. Thank you for writing it.” Oh! “Thank you for letting me know!” Glow! (Vainly, I simultaneously wondered how bedraggled my hair, how rumpled my clothes, how pursed my forehead might, at that moment, be.)
This week is thin on running/exercise time (unless I want to set my alarm early every morning), so I packed my soccer cleats and some balls and the little kids and I played together yesterday evening while waiting for AppleApple’s game to start. It wasn’t the same energy-burst and release as going for a solo run, but it helped. Except maybe it didn’t help enough because by the time we were all reunited at home, it was after 9pm, supper was still sitting on the table, we appeared to be all out of snacks, people needed showers, someone had forgotten to study for a test, and then it was discovered that a mysterious blue substance had been spilled on someone’s sheet, apparently a disaster worthy of dramatic meltdown. By the time I’d gotten the little kids in bed, I was this close to meltdown myself. I’d scarcely landed in the downstairs world of dishes and table clearing when I heard a little voice: “Mom???” Well. “No you did not just do that!” I hollered up the stairs. Screeched might more accurately describe my tone. “I am not coming up there again! I am taking a shower and going to sleep, which is what you’d better do too! Minus the shower!”
After the shower (mine), those of us still awake discussed subjects covered in our fifth grader’s health class that day — a public health nurse had visited, apparently with a vagina puppet and tampons (I must say that sounded really cool, and much more helpful than the weirdly uninformative movies we were forced to watch in my era). Anyway, the topic of PMS came up, and I said I never noticed it myself. “I have plenty of emotions at all times,” I said, and everyone in the kitchen agreed. Lest you think we’re a cool quiet and collected house. And I am a cool quiet and collected mother. We aren’t. I’m not.
And then we all went to bed.
This day is off to a fine start. One contract signed and sent. Notes from an editor on the new children’s picture book to mull. And another application completed and ready to be sent. Also, I began with an early morning run. That might have helped too.
I’m feeling compelled to sum up this month, even though it’s not quite over. It’s been such a month, and I’ve been unable to share some of the crucial details of its ups and downs and whirling arounds, which has forced me into awkward positions on this blog, made me into something of a contortionist. My ambiguity has caused a few friends to contact me with concern, wondering if all is well.
Well, all is well. And I don’t mean that in a Rob Ford way, whistling past the suddenly emptied offices of his communications team.
It’s been a good month.
It’s been a good month, but I won’t pretend it’s been easy. Decision-making is never easy, even when one is making decisions about excessively positive things, opportunities one has called out for, and hoped for, and pursued with determination. As I wrote in an earlier post, the doors are open. An open door is a blessing, and I feel blessed to be welcomed to enter.
But I have come to recognize, also, this month, that I can’t walk through every open door, not at the same time. I may contain multiplicities, but I am only one. I can only be in one place at a time. (I know you already knew that, but it’s taken me some convincing.) I am mother to four children. I am a writer. I would like to become a midwife. All those doors are open for me, right now. And I feel blessed. You, however, have probably already jumped ahead to the very obvious question that I somehow managed to avoid throughout this whole process: You are probably asking, okay, Carrie, that’s wonderful and all, but how, exactly, do you plan to go to school full-time, remain involved in your children’s busy lives, and continue to write?
Somehow, I thought I could do it all. I wasn’t going to not do some of it, oh no, I was going to do it all.
Magical thinking, perhaps. I am the sort of person who thrives on juggling responsibilities. Quietly, I told myself I could set aside the writing for the summer months. I did not need to attend so many soccer games and swim meets. We could get a dishwasher. The kids could learn to cook. Quietly, I thought, bring on the challenge.
But then the doors opened, all at once.
And suddenly I had to confront my own limitations — of time and of energy. I had to ask myself: what am I prepared to sacrifice? And I had to accept that now is not the right time to become a midwife. That is a hard sentence to write, and it’s taken me all month to carry myself toward accepting what I’m realistically capable of, right now.
For a good part of the month, I thought that this was an existential question about midwifery versus writing. Do I want to be a midwife or a writer? Well, the fact is, I’d like to be both, and I still believe it’s possible. I am already a writer, married to it for better or for worse and enjoying a happy stretch of career momentum right now. And I’m grateful to midwifery for being a career that does not discriminate against age: expect me to apply again sometime in the next decade, as my children grow up and get their driver’s licences and learn how to cook. No, what I’ve come around to recognizing is that this is not a question about midwifery versus writing. It’s not even, really, a question. It’s about being where I’m at, right now. And right now I have four children in the thick of their young and developing lives, and I want to be at the soccer games and swim meets. The shortened work day might drive me crazy sometimes, but I want to be here after school to gather them in, to follow up and dig around and take care of their lives in this very hands-on way. Juggle and spin it however I like, I can’t commute to another city for school and be here for this now that won’t always be.
How fortunate that I have an office, here, that I have quiet space to work, solitary time that is sandwiched on either side by frenetic activity and demands. I even have time to run and play soccer myself, to cook from scratch, see friends, and go on the occasional field trip. I go to bed done, and I sleep well at night.
I’d still love to doula at friends’ births.
I’d still like the kids to learn how to cook.
And we’re getting that dishwasher anyway — on Thursday, in fact.
When the time is right, I still hope to become a midwife.
But for now, my heart is full with the life that is all around me, right here, right now.
Here’s a poem that wrapped itself around me a few days ago, coming from a book of essays I’m reading by Anne Lamott, called Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.
“Late Fragment,” by Raymond Carver
And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
* and not the good kind of exclamation point, sorry–these are clearly of the holy-heck-this-is-absurd! variety
Yesterday, the day after Earth Day, I had Fooey to thank for strong-arming me into volunteering for her class’s field trip to a nearby nature centre, which we’ve never visited before. And so I was outside on a warm and windy April afternoon, fully appreciating this beautiful planet we live on. My favourite part was netting a small fish and a water-bug in the swampy pond, and examining their interactions inside our group’s glass jar. It looked like the fish might eat the bug, but then the bug climbed onto the fish’s back for a ride. “Maybe the bug is going to eat the fish!” That was about as scientific as our little group got, which was, admittedly, not very, but the sun was warm and there was mud on our hands.
This morning on the walk to the school bus, CJ and I discovered the wet ground was absolutely crawling with snails in their shells (slugs?). You had to look to see them, and then you couldn’t stop seeing them. How quickly we turned into explorers, examining how the snails moved, the different colours of the shells, how tiny some were. We moved some off the sidewalk, out of the way of crunching feet.
This has been a slow month, quiet, the drip, drip, drip of waiting. I am not, as you probably already know, the most patient person on the planet. I do not fall easily into relaxation. I feel compelled to busy myself. I tend to measure a day’s success in the variety of tasks accomplished, words written, miles run. I’m a lucky woman to have my children to pull me closer to the ground, out into the woods, fishing creatures from a swampy pond, getting my hands dirty, dragging me away from the idea of accomplishment and into the messiness of wonder. And I see that the world is full of stories unfolding, each in its own time and rhythm. What am I here for, after all? It can’t be all about the accomplishments and goals.