Category: Family

A very Carrie idea

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Oh yeah, I’m a month late: this guy graduated from grade eight. Here’s how he looked on the big night. In June.

Last week I had a very Carrie idea, the sort that might make my children wish they had another mother, at least just a little bit. Our eldest doesn’t read much. And I’d noticed that some of my children seemed to have forgotten how to spell since leaving school last month. What to do, what to do? The idea came to me and breathlessly I spat it out! I said I would now be assigning a book report, once a week. Yes, they would have to read at least one book a week and write a report on it, which (I was spitballing here) they would then present to the family, every Sunday evening this summer.

I then dropped the mic and excused myself to go work on my Favourite Mother of All Time acceptance speech. Just in case. Because you never know.

(This comes as such a surprise! I’m in shock, look at me, I didn’t even brush my hair — and am I wearing my nightgown? Yes I am and screw it, who cares!! They love me, they really love me!)

Anyway.

Albus wasn’t so keen on the reading part, especially when I specified that the book must be at or near his actual reading level. As an option, I said he could read a magazine or newspaper article, and he made a lame attempt, flipping through a Chatelaine magazine (he was drawn by the picture of an indescribably scrumptious-looking burger on the front, amusingly, the same picture that had inspired me to buy the magazine in the first place). But nothing spoke to him (really? nothing in a women’s lifestyle magazine speaks to you, young man??), and I wouldn’t let him present on a burger recipe. So he requested a special pardon—could he instead write a story rather than read a book and write a report?

COULD HE WRITE A STORY??!

Ding, ding, ding, the judge says Yes.

Sunday evening. We gather round (most of us in pyjamas, me in my nightgown, as it happens). One by one the kids read out their book reports and stories. CJ reports that he likes a certain picture book called The Candy Conspiracy (his original report read, in total, “I like this book,” but he was pushed to go a bit further) because of the tips, and the Juicy Jelly Worm, and the kids. He did write this all down, so the judges give him a high five.

Fooey doesn’t want her report read out loud. It’s on Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, a book that she couldn’t put down, it was like being swept up in a river, she writes, an inventive metaphor that pleases her mother very much. Printed by hand, three pages long, very tidy writing, and hardly a spelling mistake to be found.

AppleApple reads her report off of her Google Drive account: a thoughtful three-page reflection on Jane Eyre, with particular interest in its religious content and pre-feminist qualities. So yes. She did her homework.

Albus reads an entertaining story he’s composed on the computer about a character who lives in the dishwasher, and who is haunted by a tale told to him by an oldster in the midst—a wooden spoon who has visited the back yard and is certain he’s seen a fox chasing a bear. (The comical part is that from the spoon’s description it’s clear the fox and the bear are nothing more than squirrels.) Well structured, excellent comic stylings, and winning characters; I suspect he put more effort into this than he did into the bulk of his school projects all year, but I am nevertheless beaming with pride.

Kevin reports on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was recommended to him by me—he reads out a passage about education, in which Miss Jean Brodie says that she believes education is meant to draw out from the student what is already in her, while the principal of the school believes education is meant to insert information into the student. Draw out or thrust in?

Discuss. (We discussed.)

I finish with the sad story of Wave, a memoir by a woman who lost her husband, two young sons, and her parents in the tsunami of 2004. The book is about her life after this loss, although it opens with an intensely riveting scene in which they are lost while somehow she survives in this massive sudden wave of destruction. I promise the kids we live nowhere near a tsunami-zone. But I can see that the younger two are quite upset at the thought of a mother losing her children, or her children being lost. Good job, Mom. So perhaps not the best note to end on.

But back to Wave: It is a powerful memoir, if you want to take it on. It isn’t as hard to read as you might imagine. Sonali Derayinagala is a lovely writer. And she carries you right into the void of what it would be like to lose all of the people who make you who you are, most fundamentally. Who is she, without them?

It isn’t a question any of us would want to answer.

Oh dear, I’ve reproduced our evening rather too perfectly. I’ve ended on a downer. I do apologize. Now, keep reading, keep reporting. And get back to me on Sunday.

xo, Carrie

Beyond the beyond

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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.

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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.

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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.

xo, Carrie

News from obscurity

IMG_20150529_173342.jpgA few things have happened around here and my reporting is not keeping pace.

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The whole family went to Hamilton on Friday evening to cheer on the Canadian national women’s soccer team in a friendly against England, the last game they’ll play before the World Cup matches start next week. And Canada won! Fascinating to dissect the strategy on the field, and watch the play get more intense as the game went on (I sat beside my brother Christian, who had scored us the tickets, and it reminded me of watching baseball or hockey with him as kids, analyzing every play).

My kids will never quite appreciate (thankfully) the thrill that I got from attending a sports match in a packed stadium involving two women’s teams who were in no way being objectified: in their eyes, they were simply watching talented athletes battling it out. When I was a soccer-playing kid, there was no national women’s team that I knew of; if there was a team, I didn’t know the names of anyone on it; and women’s soccer teams did not compete internationally in the Olympics or World Cup. When CJ pored over the program the next day, asking for the pronunciation of names of his favourite players, whose numbers and positions he knew (Kadeisha Buchanan, for example), saying, “She was a really good defender,” honestly, my heart sang. He doesn’t know it, but by seeing those women as really good athletes, he’s seeing them as fully realized human beings of equal worth and value to male athletes; and he isn’t even doing a comparison between the sexes, he’s just cheering for his team.

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On Saturday we had a little party for The Candy Conspiracy. It poured rain, so we were very glad to be indoors at the Waterloo Public Library. As a finale, I broke out a uke and played the Juicy Jelly Worm song. It’s a different crowd, that’s for sure, from the usual literary reading. It felt much more interactive, which I enjoyed.

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Fooey with Sophie Schmidt*, who scored the winning goal. *cardboard cutout version

Fooey’s soccer team had another fun and winning game last night, coached by me and my friend Marnie; this coaching gig is turning out to be even more fun than I’d anticipated. It helps to have such an enthusiastic, friendly, coachable group of girls. I might get hooked on the job.

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Lap three, 1500m. She’s the small one in blue trying to pass the taller one in yellow.

And today, I got to watch my girl runner tough it out in the 1500m and 800m distances at the regional track meet: she won the 1500m in a very competitive time, and came second in a hard-fought 800m, on rather tired legs. This means she will go on to compete again on Thursday in the regional final. It’s both a joy and privilege to get to watch her take her fierce self out into the fray and lay everything on the line. I honestly thought that watching her win that 1500m was the MOST EXCITING MOMENT in my whole life. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But in the moment, that’s how it felt. It was so surprising, so unexpected. I may have hugged a few strangers.

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There are other exciting (and less exciting) moments that I could report upon here, but I’m out of time. Another evening is upon us, another early supper (chicken, rice, dipping sauce, maybe broccoli if I get back to the kitchen in time), many more soccer games, a bit of coaching, and lots of transportation of people hither and yon. Wish me … well, strength and calm.

xo, Carrie

The proverbial straw

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Every now and again, I think, well this is a bit much. Last night, the power went out after Kevin and I had gotten the kids to bed … which was already really late in the evening. It had started to rain (though not enough to counter this drought we seem to be staggering into.) I showered in the dark, climbed the stairs to bed in the dark. Then, just as we were ready to sleep, the power popped back on, and with it all the lights we hadn’t turned off; and an annoying alarm began to sound loudly and regularly.

Kevin dashed to the basement to try various switches. Kids started coming to find me, one in tears: “I’m so tired, and I can’t sleep, and I’m scared, what is that?”

“I’m tired, too, and I can’t sleep either, but don’t worry, we’ll figure this out.”

But the alarm went on and on and on. Finally, fighting inertia, I went downstairs, where I discovered Kevin perched on a stool in the dining-room about to violently dismantle a smoke detector — except I realized in that moment that it wasn’t the smoke detector making all that noise, it was the carbon monoxide detector, plugged in to an outlet nearby.

“Wait!” I said.

Kevin paused, screwdriver in hand, curses temporarily stalled.

I unplugged the device from the wall.

Silence. Blissful peace and quiet.

Then Kevin had to clean up the mess he’d made from knocking the smoke detector around, and I plugged the carbon monoxide detector back in again, and all was well.

Because it had been a very long day already, this all felt a bit like the proverbial straw. But it wasn’t, I guess. I keep thinking the straw has landed, yet life goes on. We figure it out.

I went to CJ’s grade one class yesterday and read The Candy Conspiracy, and talked about writing and storytelling, and watched them make up their own stories about imaginary worlds made of candy. CJ and I walked home together, CJ chatting all the way. I ran twice yesterday, with a friend in the early morning and by myself at a soccer practice in the beautiful light of evening, covering 14km total, which is far and away the furthest I’ve run since last fall. Kevin took Suzi to the vet for a minor infection. I made quesadillas and beans & rice and asparagus for supper, and somehow we all managed to sit down together at 5PM to eat and share stories about our day, before rushing off to soccer and gymnastics. It was the usual jumble of quiet and rush, and being with others in so many different ways. So many different conversations I get to have every single day. Today I’ve done a radio interview to promote the launch, and met with my party planners to finalize logistics for Saturday. And that doesn’t include all the emails and texts to various friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances.

On today’s menu: samosas and pakoras for supper; piano lessons this afternoon; and this evening, two soccer practices and one rather-far-out-of-town game, necessitating reliance on the help of one grandma (my mom) and at least one friend (my co-coach Marnie). Maybe rather than worrying about needing to rely on others (for rides, for babysitting, for carpooling), I should embrace how much necessary connection it brings into my every day. Connection is good. Connection is community. Hopefully the giving and receiving is mutual or evens out in some cosmic way. It’s humbling to need help and to ask for it; I’ve gotten much better at it.

All for now.

xo, Carrie

For the record, on the subject of work/life balance, at which I am certainly no expert

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Coach and soccer player # 1.

My meditation focus for this month is: anxiety.

I spend way more time not in my office, writing, than sometimes I’d like. But hey. This is Life. For the record, here is what I do when I’m not in my office, writing. This is not a lifestyle endorsement, trust me. After reading this, you may suspect that I need an intervention.

Yesterday. Pack laptop, leave house at 2:30 to pick up AppleApple early from school, drop her at piano lessons; drive back to different school, pick up CJ for piano. There’s a lag between the two pick-ups, so I edit in the car for 25 minutes, shutting down my laptop only with great pain; CJ wonders why I’m late. Drive back across town to music school. Arrive in time for CJ to do his home reading out loud before his lesson, while I attempt to listen and finish the edit I’d abandoned in order to pick him up. Fooey calls around 4 to say she’s home (Albus texted earlier, same message; now I know where everyone is). Fooey has a friend over—is that okay? Okay, so long as dogs are crated. Soon, a text from Fooey: Can another friend come over too? Parenting by text; answer, no. I’m now downstairs at the music store buying an intro to cello book for AppleApple, and discussing the launch party plan for Candy Conspiracy with my friend Zoe who works at the music store. CJ’s lesson done at 4:30, home again, I set out food for supper, start oven to make store-bought french fries, chop veggies to go with hummus. I also telephone my friend Marnie to discuss our coaching plan for the boys’ team and to arrange transportation/child exchange for this evening; while on phone I wash the walls going up the stairs, because I happen to notice they are filthy and my mother-in-law and her new boyfriend are coming to visit this weekend; I’m sure they won’t care, but this is the kind of detail one notices under these circumstances. Kev home at 5:10. I’m changing into soccer gear, urging AppleApple to pack a supper for herself and get ready for rehearsal, and by 5:30, we are back in the car driving across town. I’ve eaten a pita smeared with baba ghanoush and a few red peppers. Traffic is nuts. I’m oddly calm—no, it isn’t odd, actually. I’m calm because just after we pull out of the driveway, I ask AppleApple to entertain me on the drive, to take my mind off the many anxieties about our evening’s schedule; and she tells me cool things her class learned during a lecture on quantum physics from a visiting scholar. And my anxiety melts away.

Drop off AppleApple, enjoy a few minutes alone in the car by listening to pop music on the radio—Chandelier gets stuck in my head; in fact, is still stuck in my head. Windows down. Sweet. Switch station at 6PM to listen to CBC news about NDP win in Alberta. Back home, grab a few fries, locate a watch, briefly talk to Kevin, clear table and help clean up from supper. At 6:40 everyone in the house is back in the vehicle, with a bag of balls in the trunk. Drive up the street and drop off CJ, pick up Fooey’s friend who is also on her team (a fair exchange of children!), visit briefly with Marnie, pick up coaching stuff. Drive across town and drop off Albus and Kevin at their practice field. Continue on to our practice field. Find parking, haul balls to field, talk to a friend whose son is playing in the time slot before ours.

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Coach and soccer player #2.

Realize the so-called planned club-led practice is not going to materialize: this practice is going to be Carrie-led. Set up drills and games and try to teach skills and make it fun for nine friendly funny nine-year-old girls for an hour. Make up a team cheer to go with new team name: The Fierce Green Grapes! Wait with child whose parent is late to pick up. Begin to quietly panic. Call parent. Parent arrives. Drive back to pick up Kevin and Albus at their field, discuss practices and strategies for future drills on the drive home. Drop Albus at home. Drop off Fooey’s friend, pick up CJ, chat with Marnie. Home to use the bathroom. Return to truck, drive across town to pick up AppleApple from dress rehearsal for play. Discover dress rehearsal is going late. And later. And later. Sit in parking lot, listening to an interesting program on CBC Radio’s Ideas, by Lynn Coady, on literary snobbery and the future of books. AppleApple finally done, arrives dressed in clown costume.

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Drive home. So hungry. Kevin has made tea. I drink tea and scarf the rest of the baba ghanouj (not homemade) with very stale tortilla chips that I find on the counter. And a few leftover carrots.

Bed. Read two pages of Knausgaard. Sleep instantly.

Alarm goes at 5:30, and I’m off for a run, and at it again. More soccer tonight!

“I think I’m going to need therapy to get through the next two and a half months,” I told my friend at the soccer field, only half-kidding. So be it. The quiet during the day is keeping me sane, I think, and the early morning exercise, and the writing. Although the writing also consumes me terribly; or wonderfully. So maybe it’s good to be distracted and occupied by evenings spent outdoors with one’s children, even if it requires a whole lot of driving and elite-level scheduling acuity.

Wish me luck. I need it. Or better yet, wish me calm.

xo, Carrie

Work, beautiful work

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chalkboard family

Oh, the word WRITE. How I love it, on a day like today, after a week like this week, when my mind is rich with ideas and enthusiasm, and the joy that comes from working. Work that sometimes, truly, feels like play.

I think we fall into our themes. We can’t always understand them, or know why they’ve become the themes to which we’ve devoted our creative lives, but they’re there. If I am to identify the themes that have occupied me in projects past, and that are highly likely to continue to occupy me during the years to come—many productive writing years, oh Lord, please, grant me—they include the following: midwifery; abortion; pregnancy and birth; mothering; siblings; running; competition; feminism; activism; rule-breaking or unconventional behaviour; gambling and debt; small-time criminality and the huckster or the shyster; peace and justice; adoption; parentage; memory; forgiveness; gifts or gift-giving; music; fame/performance; horses; spirituality; love; friendship.

I’m absolutely bubbling over with joy at having all of these pieces of life to explore. And more, and more. (Where does The Candy Conspiracy fit into the thematic framework? Hedonism? Entertainment? Fun purely for the sake of fun? Yes, sometimes all I want to do is goof off and have fun–can that be a theme too?)

I’m listening to my eldest daughter play the piano. She’s practicing her songs for the Kiwanis festival later this month. The music is beautiful, though right now she’s going over and over a few rough patches. She’s got a batch of hot-cross buns rising on the counter and she was singing the song this morning, in her pyjamas. The other kids are off with Kevin at his office, helping him reorganize and rearrange, though it’s just as likely that they’re playing video games rather than lugging stuff around.

On Wednesday, we found ourselves with a free evening. Nobody had anything to do or anywhere to go. This is so rare on a weeknight that we all felt celebratory. After supper, the adults drank a beer and the kids each had a pop and we sat around the table talking and drawing. Everyone took a turn suggesting a subject to draw, and we had two minutes to try to draw whatever it was.

Above are our people, drawn on the chalkboard, which is where we started.

It’s Good Friday. I’m going to make paska this afternoon, a Russian Mennonite Easter bread, although I’m not Russian Mennonite. Eggs, spring, colour, sweet bread, new life.

xo, Carrie

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