Discernment is something Mennonites are expert at; in fact, Mennonites are so good at discernment that it sometimes seems it’s code for clearly we don’t all agree so let’s keep discerning in perpetuity so as to never make a decision. Given that this is my cultural background, perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy process so much. But I do also like to come around to decisions now and again. That said, discernment is rather brilliant, in my opinion. What it does is allow a decision to unfold slowly, with voice given to many different opinions and angles; it’s a process of listening as much as speaking.
This post is a continuation of my thoughts from yesterday’s confession: that I don’t like being the speaker at the front of the room.
I’ve been trying to discern why.
It isn’t that I don’t like being in a leadership position. In fact, I enjoy taking the lead, to which my younger siblings could attest. But there are different styles and types of leadership, and the leadership I prefer to practice is the kind that asks questions, that operates in relationship, that collaborates with, that is creative and responsive and in the moment. I want to ask questions. I want to hear stories, I want to hear and try to understand other perspectives. I want to see my small ideas opening up small ideas in someone else, and I want to be opened up too; I want to learn too.
It’s the reason I like reading and writing short stories, the kind that end in a questioning, open way that unfolds into the reader and the reader’s experience, rather than telling the reader what the answer is. Resonance. That’s what I’m looking for, in everything I do.
Yesterday evening, off I went with my eldest son to coach his soccer team. I was as tired as I’d been all day. There wasn’t time to eat supper. But when we got onto the field, the hour flew by, my exhaustion vanished. I love coaching soccer. I don’t love it because I’m an expert. I’m not. I love it because it’s a creative undertaking, and because I find myself, in this role, engaged with the kids on the team: trying to figure out what will motivate them as individuals, assessing their levels of interest and skill, and asking them to push themselves in small ways—for each player this will be different. I also love it because it’s fun. We’re meeting up so they can play a game.
I think we all need to play. We should all be doing something every day that feels playful, just for fun, something that lifts us out of the ordinary. Something we don’t have to do for any reason other than it makes us happy.
When teaching is going well, it’s for the same reasons. It’s because we’re engaged in a creative enterprise together. Writing and revision should feel playful. I know this won’t always be the case, and writing is work, no doubt about it, but for me—and what I want to share—is that writing, especially fiction, is play. You get to live inside your imagination like you haven’t had permission to do since you were a child. You get to explore whatever interests you. You get to ask questions and wonder and roam freely around your own mind, making it all up, drawing from the back of your mind “perishable moments you hadn’t even noticed that you noticed.” To paraphrase Lynda Barry.
And that’s about where I’ve gotten in my process of discernment. Expect me to release a mission statement in the next decade or so.
P.S. Read this, from the New Yorker (wish I had a subscription!): an inspiring and moving essay by George Saunders about his own creative writing teachers. (Side note: how the heck did Tobias Wolff have time to help parent three children, work full-time leading graduate classes in creative writing, thoroughly read every submission to the program, and write and publish his own books?)
P.S. 2 Here’s how I started this morning. I slept in until 6:45. Then I listened to this song and did kundalini exercises for about half an hour, while the older kids started their day too, but before the younger two got up. It was a good start and I feel much more rested. First discernment decision: I’m limiting my 5AM exercise to no more than three times per week; I’m open to dropping to even less if I’m still really tired. I will reassess in six weeks.
Confession: I do not enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to myself talk.
I do, however, enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to others talk about a subject I’ve opened up for them: this is the method I’ve been using in my class, asking the students to break into smaller groups and discuss a subject, then return to the larger group to share their thoughts, and I love how ideas begin to flow, to cross-pollinate, to deepen, and I am simply a facilitator, responding to the discussion, but not imposing my will upon it. I am not there to be the expert. I am not an expert. This is not to downplay my experiences, simply to state the facts: I have no advanced degrees, no areas of speciality. I am a human being, alive to the world around me, I am a parent, attuned to my children’s needs as best I can be, I am a reader who loves language and the structuring of ideas in many forms, and I am a writer who will never be convinced that accomplishment matters—my own accomplishment, that is. What is accomplishment? It sounds so final. I am interested in process.
I am always willing to examine a problem from a different angle. I am willing to change my mind, based on new evidence, or a new argument.
I want to play and be playful, no matter how old I get.
And so my goals are changing before my eyes. They are changing as the year progresses, this year in which my focus has been WRITE. When I woke up this morning, early and exhausted, I thought that this past year has not been about WRITING at all, but about the after-effects of having written. I wrote, I published, and I am living the part that comes next. And I do not love it. I do not even seem to like it, most of the time. Even while I pour myself into it, even while I work to make the most of what has been offered to me, I only find myself growing wearier and wearier, drained, exhausted, perhaps even depressed. Lost. Uncertain. Bereft of a clear goal to call me onward; a steady dull and dulling march that I continue because I don’t know how to stop.
Here I am.
What comes next? How do I access my passion once again? How do I reset my routines, alter them, even minutely, to feed the life I want to have? If I can’t name that life, can’t see it, how can I make changes to my routines in order to step toward it?
Here is where my imagination stalls out. What do I want?
I want to write challenging stories: stories that challenge me, conceptually, that push me in a new direction.
I want …
Do I want to train for a race? Do I want to teach more classes? Do I want to change careers? Do I want to study yoga or meditation more deeply? Do I want to spend more time with children? Do I want to coach more soccer? Do I want to go on a writing retreat? Do I want more quiet writing days or weeks? Do I want to host more friends for dinner? Do I want to sponsor and host a refugee family? Do I want to make more music?
Oh, what small voice is calling me?
Why can’t I hear you, small voice?
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
While I’m blogging lots this week, and because I won’t be blogging much (I suspect) in the week or two ahead, I’ll take this moment to highlight another tab, above, on my web site: Upcoming Events. It’s not new. But it’s handy. It’s where I keep track of readings, speaking engagements, festivals, launches — everything book-related.
For starters, next week I’m heading to the Sunshine Coast Festival in Sechelt, B.C. This is my first time at the festival, which I hear is amazing, and my first time on the Sunshine Coast, and my first time bringing the whole family along to an event like this (they likely won’t come to the reading itself, but the organizers have kindly invited our family to several other events and found us a family-friendly cottage by the ocean to stay in, while we’re there — see, amazing!). This is also our first major summer family holiday ever. The last time we flew somewhere together, we spent Christmas in Nicaragua — and we only had three kids. That’s a long time ago. (Note to self: must find a way to return to Nica again; I’ve visited once a decade since childhood.)
Then, in September, I’m going to Spain! I’ve been invited to the Hay Festival in Segovia, with the Spanish-language version of Girl Runner: La corredora. This trip will be a whirlwind, hosted by my Spanish publisher, Alfaguara, which is launching the book this fall. (The family is staying home; sorry, guys.)
I return home in time to visit the Halton Hills library, which has chosen Girl Runner for its One Book: One Community program (very exciting!), and then just a few weeks later, in October, I’m flying out to Victoria (solo) where I’m a guest speaker at the Victoria marathon. Sadly, there’s no way I’ll be in shape to run the marathon, but in my dreams I somehow manage to conquer the half. This hasn’t been a high-mileage summer. I’ve been averaging three runs a week, rarely more than 10km, often less. One change is that I rarely run alone anymore. Almost all of my exercise is social, right now: meeting a friend is motivating, and it’s fun. But if I’m going to add more miles, I will have to do some longer solo runs.
Kevin is recommending that I start listening to podcasts while running. He’s become a convert to the short story form by listening to The New Yorker fiction podcast while running around the neighbourhood with the dogs. I listened to one just this morning, while making poached eggs for Fooey (it’s her Birthday Eve!): a story called “Love” by Grace Paley, as read by George Saunders. If you think you don’t like short stories, try out this podcast. It combines the reading of a story with a conversation afterward between a well-known writer and the New Yorker story editor: it’s like listening in on a really informed book club discussion.
Love is poaching eggs for your almost-ten-year-old; love is kicking a soccer ball for two hours with your seven-year-old; love is watching a leader’s debate (Canadian version) with your twelve-year-old; love is driving back to camp to fetch your fourteen-year-old; love is sharing earphones and stories with your husband.
Hm. That was really cheesy. I feel compelled to apologize a) for writing it and b) for not erasing it. But hey, maybe you’ll want to make your own list? Enjoy your weekend.
Yesterday, picked up this tired little fellow from camp. Despite looking half-asleep at camp, he was very animated in the car, singing and recounting happy stories all the way home. My favourite was about how he and two cabin-mates had plotted out a three-book series (!!) about the mythical “Evil Octopus” that is said to live under the water trampoline in the camp pond, and a good but luckless character named Tamarack Tom. Could a writer-mother ask for anything more?
On the drive to camp, I listened to an interview with a young British woman, who was on the last leg of a five week North American tour: she’s a hip-hop artist, poet, and novelist — Kate Tempest. Somehow, at least temporarily, she restored my faith in the necessity — the importance — of performance. Her fresh enthusiasm was exactly what I needed to hear. She was so present and so thoughtful, dynamic, inventive, inspiring. I was inspired. Look it up, take a listen.
When we arrived home yesterday, our visitors were just arriving too: cousins for Canada Day!
The three other children had been home alone all day and the house was in a minor state of disaster, despite our newly assigned jobs and chores. How hard is it, really, to carry a dirty dish to the kitchen?
Anyway. Thankfully my sister-in-law is not fussy. But the dogs are also shedding at present. So I just vacuumed.
And I’m getting ready for another road trip yet this week (just me and the elder daughter).
Me and boy and tiger in “The Chub-Chub”
Since last Tuesday I’ve put over 1,000 kilometres on our little pod car, or “The Chub-Chub” as it has been nicknamed by the eldest son. So much car-sitting! My body couldn’t wait to move again. Last night I ran at AppleApple’s soccer practice and kept going and going and going. I knew if I stopped and stood by the field, the mosquitos would get me, and my legs were so happy to be running: I went 14.5 kilometres and it didn’t feel hard, which cheers me greatly, and makes me think I’ll be able to run the half-marathon when I go to Victoria this October (I’m a guest speaker at this fall’s Victoria marathon–have I told you that yet?). (How this fits with less is more, I have no idea, and it probably doesn’t, but there it is, and I’m excited, and excited too about the possibility of even more travel.)
In other exciting news: here is the cover of The Juliet Stories, as it will appear in the UK & Australia. Amazing, hey?
My meditation word right now is change. I’m restless, wondering, working hard, trying to tune in to what matters, my brain firing off in all directions, as I stand here on July 1st, amazed at what we managed in the month of June. It’s been quite the ride, with so many swoops and dives, long distance drives, and more soccer fields than I can count. Hang on, here’s summer.
All for now.
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.
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