I am sitting outside on my own front porch.
Every few seconds, a car or truck whizzes past, either accelerating as it speeds away from the nearby stop sign or slowing as it approaches. A few cars ignore the stop sign altogether. Now a large cargo truck wheezes past, white with black lettering. In its deceleration it makes a sound like a human cry. A bicycle, red, passes, with its cyclist turning the pedals at a leisurely pace, face inscrutable as he gazes down, away from the sun.
I can hear the hum of machinery from the nearby construction site that is our downtown core. The steady beep-beep-beep of a vehicle forever in reverse. A neighbour shuffles past and does not see me, screened as I am behind the green lilac leaves, which are shaped like teardrops. A light breeze lifts the leaves, and my own loose hair, and my little dog barks from inside the house, growling and yapping at what I now see is a yellow guide dog, strapped into a harness and leading a tall man, who is wearing a backpack, hat and dark glasses, toward our perilous intersection. The man was smiling faintly and gazing slightly to his right, toward our yard. Behind him, about three paces back, a young woman walked, wearing a bright sundress and a floppy hat. Did she know the man? Was she following to keep him safe or staying politely behind him because to pass him would have been to disturb him?
A rustling of fallen leaves. A fat grey squirrel with bushy white-fringed tail inspects our bed of lavender. Earlier, when I was describing the blind man and the woman he may or may not have known, a friend bicycled past — at least I thought it was a friend, but found myself squinting through the leaves to make out her face under the bike helmet. She was wearing grey flowing pants cut short above the ankle, and I thought, those look like pants my friend would wear; but it wasn’t real confirmation. A girl with bleached blond hair and a stocky upright gait passes, holding a white phone to her ear. And now, a couple holding hands, the girl talking, the boy saying nothing. He rubs his head with his free hand. They are not near enough for me to determine their ages.
I have forgotten how lovely it is is to sit and record for no purpose at all, only to slide more deeply into the moment, to sit as if immersed in a quietness of the self. A stillness amidst all that is moving and passing me by.
A garbage truck stop, redolent with the smell of rot, sweet and persistent, even after it has turned the corner. What does it smell like? Garbage? I stop and think for awhile, but can’t come up with anything but sweet rot and stink. I can see in my mind’s eye a kitchen, a darkly lit particular kitchen that seems to have come from a dream not from a memory, with a crock lined in newspaper, and filled with blackened moist vegetable peelings, beside the sink; sweet stink.
A brittle leaf falls from high overhead, clunking as it passes through the still-green leaves of my lilac, scuffing on the paved path where it lands. A rotund woman in hot pink with a checkerboard skirt eats handfuls of something out of a stiff plastic bag — nuts or seeds? — while she glances at our garden, expressionless. And my dogs set to howling as another dog, a beautiful black lab, tap-tap-taps patiently along the sidewalk in front of our house, leading a young woman with her fair strawberry hair stuck up in a bun at the top of her head, a baby which can’t be seen asleep under a quilt, and strapped to the front of the her chest. The young woman does not hear my dogs’ fuss, because she is plugged into white earbuds.
When the mailman arrives, not long after, I sit perfectly still and wonder whether I should alert him to my presence, but he speaks immediately to the dogs, talking to them through the glass as they bark frantically — “Hello, there, friends! And how are you today!” He flips the lid of our mailbox and is turned and away in an instant, and I watch him walk our stone path, and duck around the back of our truck, his step lively, his manner bright, his form short and plump, jolly as an elf. He has not seen me at all.
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?
Sometimes I wonder if I need ever write anything else here on this blog, if I haven’t perhaps already written everything I need to write; if the same ideas come around again and again. I just finished reading a memoir by Sally Mann, the American photographer, which is called Hold Still. In May of 2009, I wrote about Sally Mann after viewing, by chance, a documentary on her called What Remains, which was also the title of one of her major photography projects (click here to read that post). Mann’s memoir is lovely, and loving, and offers what feels like genuine and at times unintentional insight into the artist’s mind, her blind spots, her fervour, her view of herself, which may not line up perfectly with the way she is viewed by others.
When you make something, and you send it out to be seen, you lose control over how it is received. She gets that.
There are times when I feel naked, exposed, a character in a story I hadn’t realized I’d been writing. Sometimes I do not know how to be the person at the front of the room. Sometimes I don’t even know if I know how to be the person in the quiet of this room. I don’t know if these people are different people; I would like them not to be, and yet I recognize that a performance is performative by nature, and the domestic self is simply not–but what of the creative self? Does creativity not draw on a bit of everything thrown together, domestic and performative, insightful and riven with blind spots?
It’s been a gruelling start to the new school year, and the marathon of responsibilities continues apace, and to be honest, I feel like I am living a version of life that is unworkable, unsustainable. To fit here, I have to prop my eyes open, I have little time to see friends, I rarely cook or bake, I stagger from one task to the next, I write almost nothing, and I am doing a poor to mediocre job at all tasks required of me. “How do you find time to … ? How do you do it? How do you make time for …?” This question, in its many guises, is asked often of me, and I want to cry when I hear it.
I don’t know. I’m not doing it. I do not have time to. I do not make time for. I am marching bleary-eyed and uncertain toward a goal I cannot see and cannot claim, and yet, I march.
The post that I wrote about Sally Mann, in 2009, was called “On endings.” It’s lovely. I loved re-reading it. It brought me a frisson of excitement, because I was writing about writing the stories that would become The Juliet Stories, and because the retrospective is a comforting viewpoint. But I feel in some ways that I remain in exactly the same position now as then, in 2009: stretched for time, though in new and different ways, and questioning questioning questioning my purpose, my role, my goals, even my desires. Exhaustion rolls through me like fog and bleaches my mind. What remains?
“A year feels like nothing to me anymore, writing-wise,” I wrote, then, more than six years ago. I continue to agree whole-heartedly.
I also see now what I knew already then: that time is what separates those who make something from those who don’t. Well, it’s one of the things. But it’s huge. If your mind is a tangle of appointments and schedules and to-do lists and undone-never-finished-tasks and children and worries and travel and work, you do not have time to spread out your thoughts and sink into them. The physical scattering, the distractions and interruptions, the segmented sliced-up hours: your mind is scattered. How can it settle?
I’ve applied for a grant to earn some time; whether I get this grant remains to be seen, but it’s like I’ve bought a lottery ticket, and I am sitting here holding the ticket and imagining what I would do with this time. I imagine this time clean and crisp and clear, textured by weather and hunger and coffee, hour upon hour without interruption. I imagine it on a windswept hilltop or in a one-room cottage. I am clearly immersed in fantasy. Time is such a luxury. I would like to think I could write my next book beside soccer fields and swimming pools, but I think that I can’t, actually. I can’t. Let’s be honest. Sally Mann makes her photographs alone, hour upon hour in a darkroom. She takes her photographs alone, often, travelling for days or weeks, alone, as she works. The deep gritty stuff happens alone, in quietude, when you’ve fallen down into the depths of yourself, and it is work that doesn’t fit well with much else.
This is not the news that anyone wants to hear–no one wants to hear it. I don’t want to hear of sacrificing one thing for another. But I am already sacrificing many things for many others. One does. It’s the way it goes. The question is: am I doing this consciously, am I choosing this, must I do this, or can I choose otherwise? What would I sacrifice in order to earn that quiet time?
I don’t know. I’m really not sure. I can’t see yet.
Quiet discipline is a massive gamble, and it seems to require the courage (not to mention the resources) to say: this is what I’m going to do, even if it doesn’t work out, even if nothing comes of it, even then, it will have been worth it.
Last week, I travelled to Madrid, Spain, to promote the Spanish-language version of my book.
La corredora is officially off and running.
I took many notes and sat observing on park benches whenever possible. Hearing Spanish opened old pathways in my brain, and if there’s something I’m missing right now, being home, it is the absence of Spanish being spoken all around me. I loved being immersed in the language, but also appreciated not being expected to speak it; I worked with a talented interpreter during all interviews and media events. She made me sound fluid and articulate, which was pretty much a miracle, because at moments it felt like I’d forgotten how to speak fluently in either Spanish OR English.
I went for a run in a beautiful city park. I walked everywhere I could, orienting myself. I visited the Prado museum. I visited the World Press photo exhibit at the architectural school. I went to Segovia and saw the remains of an ancient Roman aqueduct. I ate paella, and gazpacho, and bread dipped in olive oil and salt, and the potato omelettes that I think are called tortillas. All of the orange juice was freshly squeezed.
I talked and talked and talked about Girl Runner.
I slept fitfully and rolled with the time change, as is necessary. I had little access to wifi, and therefore only sporadic access to my family at home, which paradoxically made me a little less homesick, I think. I was too busy and occupied to let myself think about missing them. But I missed them.
I felt welcomed by everyone I met, in a way that I can’t fully describe. It was not just that everyone was kind; it was more than that. It was that everyone was open, present, generous with their time, engaged. The experience was immersive, as the best travel experiences are.
I arrived home late Sunday night after being in transit for around twenty hours (includes time waiting in airports), taught my class last night, and have a One Book, One Community event tomorrow evening in Georgetown.
This is what life feels like right now. A blur. A beautiful, remarkable, strange and mysterious blur through which I am walking. Or maybe that’s sleep-walking.
I can’t remember being this tired before, although I’m sure that must be hyperbole. I have spent way too much time today organizing the online system for students to hand in their work, work which I must then read and mark. Also, side note, I just volunteered to coach my eldest son’s indoor soccer team (and was immediately accepted). I blame sleep deprivation. If I ever write another publishable book, it will be a solid gold miracle.
But it’s been quite a ride with this one.
It isn’t summer anymore. We’ve leaped into fall. A friend told me she was trying to figure out how to preserve her summer-self; and if I could, I would bottle the kids’ playfulness and super-summer energy, and that hat-wearing blissfully-at-peace-vibe I’m getting from Kevin in these photos. For myself, I’d be content to stand in the lake taking photos.
But in all seriousness, I do find myself taking time, post-summer, to wade in the water. By which I mean, to step into the flow that surrounds me at any given moment of the day. On Friday evening, for example, CJ and I went outside to figure out why there was an enormous transport truck blocking traffic at our corner (a driver lost in the uptown construction woes, we surmised) — once outside, we decided to go for a night walk around the block, just the two of us, and there was the moon, a sliver shrouded in mist, and we walked and he talked, and talked, and talked. In all the busyness, all the exhaustion, there is time for this, and many more tiny moments that come calling, quietly, for attention.
I’ve had a most beautiful weekend. Later on that same Friday night, just after I’d gone to bed, I got the phone call I’ve been anticipating: my sister-in-law was in labour. I leaped out of bed, gathered a few items, including my camera, and drove my fogged-up car down the street. And here, in their quiet house, time slowed down, or lifted, suspended itself to wait patiently for the work that was being done, and before dawn, the emergent babe took her first beautiful breath.
Being with someone in labour is like inhabiting the most meditative space I can imagine. I am honoured to have been invited to share, again, in this experience.
Later that same day, now Saturday, I dragged myself from a sinking nap, dressed in soccer gear, and went with our family to celebrate the end of Albus’ and Kevin’s soccer season — pizza followed by a just-for-fun game: the boys’ team v parents/siblings/coaches. It had been raining, the grass was muddy, and I was out-schooled and outrun by the 14-year-old boys, and yet, wasn’t it fun to play? Something else, I just remembered: in the middle of the night of the birth, my brother and I were suddenly famished, and we ate granola bars covered in chocolate that tasted like heaven.
Yesterday, waking after sleeping through the night, for 11 hours straight (!), the flow flowed on. Fort in the living-room. Processing photos. Friends to play. Kids climbing over the back fence. I baked a fruit crisp and listened to the radio. A run in the park with the eldest girl (hill intervals — she wanted to do hill intervals!). We ate supper all together. The floors did not get vacuumed. All together, we played backyard volleyball until it got too dark. There was time, there was time. Even though I also had to do class prep for today, and answer emails, and get organized for the trip to Spain: I leave tomorrow. I hope to step into a different flow when I walk out the door for six days of being an author, all on my own. I plan to travel old-school, with a notebook and pen rather than a laptop. So, no blogging from abroad. But lots of observations, I hope, lots of words on the page, descriptions, mysterious scenes, tangible building blocks for more stories to come.
Work that is not work, but play.
This is a week of transition, of return to routine. Our evenings are relatively quiet for most of the month, thankfully, as the soccer season ends and gives us a respite of a few weeks. This is good, because the kids are tired. And grumpy. (Oh yeah, I’m tired too.) Meanwhile, I want to keep track of what’s working, what’s changed, and what habits we’ve carried over from summertime.
Music practice: This happened quite rarely over the summer, when everyone takes a break from lessons. Lessons started this week, and so did regular practicing. AppleApple makes her own schedule and sticks to it, mostly practicing immediately after school (piano and French horn; no cello this year, as orchestra has been removed from her class’s curriculum, sadly). Fooey and CJ practice before school (violin and piano, respectively). Fooey goes first, and I accompany her on piano when she requests it. CJ is in his second year of piano and needs me nearby to help with finger positioning, musical details, and, mostly, moral support … and the will to continue. Yesterday, I tried combining his practice time with some light exercise (for me) because, frankly, it’s quite tedious to hang around calling out “quarter note!” and “check your hand position” and “sounds like a sharp!” (I am my father, good grief). Anyway, that whole exercise/musical instruction combo didn’t really work. I kept having to drop the kettle bell mid-lift and those things don’t drop well. Tangent alert, post-tangent. Sorry.
Chores: I have a list on the chalkboard of the kids’ chore categories: Dogs; Laundry; Dishwasher; Garbage; Set and Clear Table. Let’s break it down.
Dogs: AppleApple is supposed to feed the dogs. But they’re eating fancy food after a (let’s not talk about) bout of stomach woes, so Kevin has been doing that. She is also supposed to walk them from time to time, which happens occasionally. Fooey is supposed to keep their water bowls full. That happens only when I notice and remind her. She does clean the fish bowls regularly, however.
Laundry: I wash and dry a load or two (or three!) of laundry every day. Each of us have a labelled basket in the basement into which our clean laundry can be sorted. It’s each individual’s job to carry his or her basket upstairs and fold and put the laundry into drawers. Sorting the laundry into the baskets is the kids’ job. CJ is too small to sort effectively, so he is in charge of folding and putting away the leftovers that don’t have individual baskets: dishtowels, napkins, etc. A penalty is applied if the laundry is very poorly sorted: this requires oversight and judgement on my part. After all, even I have trouble figuring out whose underwear is whose. (The penalty is to have to sort the laundry again the next day, rather than it moving on to whoever is next in the line-up.) I also don’t pick up dirty laundry from the kids’ bedroom floors: if it gets in the hamper, it gets cleaned. This takes a great deal of restraint on my part. I hate seeing dirty clothes piling up! But I’m doing it for the team.
Dishwasher: Each kid has a designated quadrant of the dishwasher to empty. In summer, the rule was the dishwasher had to be emptied by 11AM; if you forgot, you emptied the whole dishwasher yourself the next day. I must say this method of setting child v child was enormously effective. Fooey in particular would gleefully announce at 11:01 that so-and-s0 had forgotten. On week days during the school year, the dishwasher has to be emptied before school.
Set and Clear Table: We’d meant for this chore to be shared equally, with the boys setting the table and the girls clearing every evening. But that never happened. Instead, what’s happened is that I ask whichever child happens to be around to set the table, hang the unfairness and griping. And everyone carries his or her plate to the kitchen after eating. It’s not much, I admit, but it’s better than nothing.
Garbage: Albus is supposed to sort the recycling, and carry the bins in from the curb on garbage day. That did not happen much over the summer, and I forgot to remind him about the bins when he got home from school yesterday. Yes, the thing about chores is, people need reminders until it becomes habit.
Breakfasts: We’re aiming for high protein breakfasts to get everyone off to a good start. Kevin is making a giant pitcher of smoothie in the morning: fruit, yogurt, kefir, almond milk. I’m also keeping boiled eggs in the fridge for breakfasts, lunches, or snacks.
Lunches: Albus and AppleApple have been packing their lunches for awhile now — it’s habit. Fooey decided to start this year too. She has been working on her “knife skills,” and can now slice up an apple like a pro. (On day one, the apple looked like it had been hacked apart with a hatchet.) I get the kids to write food requests on our grocery list, posted on the fridge. Anyone know where to find seaweed snacks for cheap? Everyone loves them!
Suppers: Our current routine involves me and Kevin texting back and forth around 3:30/4PM with meal ideas. Kevin can pick up ingredients on his way home. Obviously, these last-minute meals tend to be quick and easy. Last night we made pad thai with shrimp and tofu; it took us under an hour, and that was all we served, literally a vat of pad thai. Side note: Albus is excellent at making meal suggestions (that’s the hardest part of meal planning, IMO: trying to think up something different/healthy/appealing to feed everyone every single gosh-darn day). I also really like the Cookstr website for recipes, and I sign up for their weekly email newsletter, which is frequently inspiring.
Homework: This applies less to the younger kids, but Albus started high school this week, which comes with more homework and tests. He also gets home from school relatively early. I’m encouraging him to take the opportunity to do homework immediately on arriving home: grab a snack, sit at the dining room table, enjoy the quiet house. AppleApple sets her own daily/weekly/monthly homework schedule, and is diligent about making plans and sticking to them.
Exercise: I plan to continue running two mornings a week with friends, and doing one early morning boot camp, and one kundalini yoga class. I would love to swim one morning a week with AppleApple, but I’m not sure either of us can manage the early hour. I’d also like to run on the weekends and do a hot yoga class once a week. AND I’d like to start a mini running club with my kids (and any friends who would want to join), after school, running around our block in a 1-kilometre loop, so kids could decide individually how far they wanted to go. For this to happen, I will need to schedule times and dates.
In fact, for anything to happen, it must be scheduled. Inertia is a powerful force in our daily lives. Advance scheduling is the antidote. (I’m not against spontaneity, you understand; but the truth is that I’m far more likely to spontaneously watch a show on Netflix or scroll through my Twitter feed than I am to, say, go on a nature hike with my kids after school, or catch up on work-related emails, or grab two hours for myself to do yoga. You know? You know.)
And I’ve now spent well more than 15 minutes blogging … a spontaneous blogging spree. This will have to last a few days.
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