I finished reading a beautiful and powerful book last night. It’s called Out of Grief, Singing, and was written by Charlene Diehl, who is a poet and also a friend and mentor. It is a difficult book to read, in some ways, because it is about a mother experiencing something no parent wants to imagine: the death of her child. But it is not as difficult to read as you might imagine before opening its pages. You only need to be prepared to be moved profoundly and deeply as you follow this mother on her journey out of grief, singing. I started reading the book in an airport, which I cannot recommend unless you are comfortable sobbing in public. I finished it in the privacy of my own bedroom, and I let the tears flow freely.
In a sense, the book is about the grieving we do in public and in private — the ways in which we are permitted to welcome grief (or not) into our daily interactions, and the discomfort (or fear) that many of us feel when we hear about someone else’s experience with death and loss. I’ve been thinking about the book all morning. I’ve been thinking how I’ve felt awkward and anxious about approaching someone who has suffered a profound loss. I’ve felt at a loss myself. At a loss for words, or actions. The people who help Charlene on her journey show love, compassion, patience. They don’t tell her what she’s feeling or what she’s supposed to be feeling, but honour where she is. They don’t pretend nothing has happened. They are open to her story. They are open to her daughter’s existence, and to the fact that her daughter lived and died.
That may sound really obvious, but I think it is not.
The greatest hurt seems to come from strangers who make assumptions, and so many assumptions are made about women of childbearing age; I know I’ve made thoughtless assumptions myself. Is this your first baby? is maybe not the best question to ask the pregnant woman standing behind you in line at the grocery store. Or, be aware that you may be expounding on the wonders of natural childbirth to a woman who has delivered prematurely, her baby kept alive by machines: and in your ignorance that you are suggesting that this woman has done something wrong, as if she had choice in the matter. Know that your childless neighbours may or may not have chosen to be childless; or that they may have suffered losses, that they may be parents without living children. Know that not everyone gets to choose their story. Know that people’s experiences are not all the same.
This is profoundly hopeful book, full of grace.
Charlene’s two living children, born after the death of their sister, hold her in their lives in ways that are completely natural. The older sister they never knew is present in their family. In the book, Charlene relates how her son says that his older sister is there whenever he has a feeling that surprises him, or that he can’t know — much like he can’t know this sister, yet she is mysterious and present.
me and Charlene in Winnipeg earlier this fall
Charlene was my professor that November many years ago when she went into early labour. I remember the shock of hearing the news, and hearing, less than a week later, that the baby girl had died. I was twenty, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to respond. I signed a card that someone more thoughtful than me bought and sent on behalf of our class. I never thought to visit. I think I would have imagined it an imposition. I think, also, that it’s okay to be where we’re at, and I wasn’t in a place where I could have been helpful. We aren’t, always, are we.
I hope I’m somewhere else now. I hope, if called upon, that I could be like the friend who listens to Charlene’s story over and over again, and because she is present and listening, is able to reflect back to Charlene that her story is not repetitive, nor is it a trap, but it is ever-changing, changing with Charlene as she moves through that long first winter after the death of her daughter.
I don’t know why the book has come into my life now, but it came and I am glad for it. Thank you, Charlene.
this is not a picture of me in my bikini
Agh! I want to blog! But I have about six minutes remaining in my work day. I can’t quite describe how busy it’s been, nor how lovely, too. We’re a week and a half into summer holidays, and we’ve hit a nice groove this week. I’ve got great daytime babysitting arranged. The kids are getting outside often, and doing fun projects with their sitters like cooking and making paper airplanes and blowing bubbles. Today, Albus went swimming in a friend’s backyard. AppleApple’s been going to daily swim lessons at a beautiful outdoor 50m pool, and I’ve gotten to bike her there all week — and then lane swim during her lesson.
Which leads me to the bikini. Today, I went for my lane swim in a new sporty bikini. It’s small. It exposes my mother-of-four stomach. And I love wearing it. Why? It expresses confidence. It’s a semiotic for where I’m at. I exercise regularly, not because I want to look good, but because it makes me feel good. And I do feel good in this body. Wrinkles, stretch marks — yup. Got ’em. Muscles — yup. Got ’em too. So be it. I am thirty-seven years old.
Occasionally, I find myself regretting that I didn’t discover my latent athletic self earlier. But you know, mostly I’m simply grateful to have discovered that part of myself, period. Regret of this sort is foolish. So I didn’t play soccer as a kid. I’m playing it now and learning new skills. So it took me thirty-five years before I learned how to swim. I learned and I love swimming! That’s the point, not that I’ve missed opportunities along the way.
I’ve decided that this is my opportunity to wear a bikini. Never thought it would happen again. Glad the moment has come.
If there’s something you want to do, or wish you’d done years ago, can you do it now? Maybe. Just maybe. Consider it.
Lazy Sunday morning.
My two littlest are playing an elaborate imaginary game together. (During yesterday’s game we overheard CJ saying, in a very harrassed-sounding tone: “I have to do the laundry and make the supper and clean the house and I just can’t do it all by myself! You are going to have to help!” “Is he being the mother?” I wondered, but we couldn’t tell, and didn’t want to disturb the game to ask.)
My bigger daughter has given up trying to join in on the game and is practicing the piano instead.
The eldest kid is at his second swimming birthday party of the weekend.
And Kevin is at a soccer game. I’ve got one tonight too. We admitted to each other that we didn’t really feel like playing. I said, “I just don’t want to get injured,” and he laughed, because that was exactly what he’d been thinking. Honestly, after every game I limp home with some injury or another, which heals itself in time for the next game; so does he. I’m pretty sure this a factor of age. AppleApple pooh-poohed my complaints of injury, and said it was just to be expected — something always hurts after a soccer game! But, then, she’s 9, and heals quickly. I’m a good deal older, and appear not to have the same bounce-back abilities.
This was a lazy week, exercise-wise, in part due to a soccer injury. I did something to my hamstring, and couldn’t lift my leg for two days. Awkward for stairs, unhelpful for long distance training. Skipped my Monday morning swim in part because of the injury, but also because I had a deadline and I was worried about being too tired (I’m quite sure I could not exercise as voraciously were I working full-time; positive, in fact). Skipped my Tuesday evening run due to injury, plus insane heat. Ran Wednesday morning as usual, felt twitchy for first kilometre, then fine. Dragged self to spin/kettlebell class, but barely, Thursday morning. Skipped Thursday evening run due to thunder storm. Skipped getting up early on Friday due to meeting friend for breakfast. Finally, yesterday, forced self out for a long run after spending the day cleaning house.
And here is what I can report. I didn’t really feel like a) cleaning the house or b) going for a long run, but I sure felt a hell of a lot better after accomplishing b) than a).
I spent six hours cleaning the house. I do not exaggerate. It was filthy, disorganized, and disastrous. At the end of those six hours, I felt discouraged, grumpy, and accusatory. Cleaning is so pointless. Within minutes of it being scrubbed, someone walked on my kitchen floor! Can you imagine! With feet that had ever so recently been outside! And with predictable results! Also, every cleaned thing had the effect of showing up every thing that still needed cleaning and therefore looked infinitely dirtier as a result of being in proximity to the cleaned thing.
So I went for a run. I made it 15km. It wasn’t easy; in fact, it was a lot harder than the cleaning had been, in many ways. It took at least as much mental fortitude to continue. I wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace I was demanding of myself. But at the end, after I’d finished what I’d set out to accomplish, by golly didn’t I feel amazing. Elated. Content. Cheerily conversational.
Which is why our house is likely to be, for the most part, not that clean. And why I am likely to be, injuries notwithstanding, reasonably fit.
Whenever I get around to cleaning, I think about my Grandma King, whom my mother remembers rising at 5am in order to scrub her kitchen floor (she also worked a full-time job and looked after five children.) Different times, I guess. When a woman was judged on the cleanliness of her kitchen floor. But we’re still judged, aren’t we? Or maybe it’s that we judge ourselves, and harshly, comparing ourselves to models of perfection, to super-women, and inevitably falling short, as Anne-Marie Slaughter points out in her excellent and nerve-striking article in The Atlantic.
I heard myself on the radio yesterday, briefly, talking about The Juliet Stories. I called AppleApple down to listen (she was the only one nearby). I was mashing garlic to make a ranch dressing and listening to myself talk on the radio. The voice on the radio didn’t sound a thing like the voice in my head; in fact, the radio voice sounded much calmer, approachable, resonant, friendly. “Did that really sound like me?” I asked AppleApple afterwards, who looked perplexed. “Of course,” she said. Here’s the thing: I liked the sounds of that woman on the radio. But she didn’t remind me of myself, except only fractionally. Myself was the woman mashing garlic, wearing running gear, feeling irritable, noticing the dirty windows, trying to work up the gumption to get out for a run.
I was experiencing myself as a projection. And in a sense, that’s what this blog is too. A projection. Incomplete. The person I show myself to be rather than the messy much more complex and in all likelihood somewhat disappointingly contradictory person that I really am. I think we women like to compare ourselves to projections. It’s one of the reasons women always want to know, “How do you do it?” We’re imagining that it can be done. We’re looking for the secret formula. We’d apply it, if only it existed. I’m certain it’s not only women who do this, but maybe men do it differently. Maybe men don’t admit as readily to being imperfect or wrong; or maybe they don’t care; maybe they’re better at managing guilt.
These are horrible generalizations. Please, disagree. Tell me what you think.
My lazy Sunday children have now moved into my office; therefore, it’s time for me to move out. It’s lunchtime.
How to pare down today’s thoughts into a blog-worthy parcel? First, I want to say thank you to the many who added their comments and experiences to the working-mom meets stay-at-home-mom post. So much food for thought. And I’ve been hungry. Here’s where your thoughts led me:
1. Six-and-a-half years ago, I read an essay by Carol Shields that both comforted me and rung true. In it, she offered the idea that there is enough time. She was writing the essay while dying of breast cancer, but even for dying, she wrote, there is enough time. When she was younger, she worried about fitting everything in, but in each stage of life, she discovered time enough. It wasn’t that she could do everything all at once, it was that she honoured and lived out each stage.
I loved that idea (still do). That I could enter fully into intense hands-on motherhood and take my time. And when the stage passed, I could enter fully into whatever came next. And in my untested theory, somehow those years of intense motherhood would be an asset to whatever came next: all the juggling of multiple demands and scheduling and coping with crises and being nurse / healer / calm-amidst-the-storm / psychiatrist / chef / chauffeur / event planner / and on and on as the moment required would be valued, and would add value to whatever I chose to do next.
A couple of big assumptions in my theory. a) That employers would value experience that couldn’t be validated or quantified. b) That careers could be built overnight or slipped into like a pair of shoes. c) That I would get to choose my career like an item picked off a menu. d) That I would have a clear idea of whatever came next. e) That the intense hands-on motherhood stage would pass.
Reading your thoughts, it struck me: my theory is entirely unproven. I’ve spent six years quietly and confidently assuming everything would fall into place at the right time. (And who knows, stranger things have happened.) But let’s just say things don’t. Let’s observe that intense motherhood doesn’t pass, exactly, things just calm down somewhat. Even a decade on, it’s still pretty intense (with children ages 10, 8, 6 and 3). Meeting their needs continues to occupy a large portion of my mind and my time. The stages of life, therefore, aren’t so clear-cut and tidy.
2. Beyond that, I’m feeling a deeper appreciation for the work that career-building takes. Success in a chosen field isn’t something you can step into. It’s a slow build, a steady climb; you have to be there in order to make connections and to stumble into the right place at the right moment. It takes hard work and commitment. And time. Time and commitment that I’ve chosen to put into my home life and my children. Not into a career.
3. But: At the expense of a career? I still refuse to believe that. Especially because I have been (slowly) building a career as a fiction writer, and, yes, it’s taken time and commitment. But as most writers of fiction will tell you, this ain’t a career known for wild profiting; or even, in all honesty, breaking even. Which brings me to …
4. How much do I prioritize financial independence? I am in a marriage with a supportive partner who has shouldered the burden of our expenses ever since we started having children (you could say, conversely, that I’ve shouldered the burden of caring for our children during that time; and that perhaps we both have made sacrifices–and gains–in this arrangement.) I realize that I’m fortunate even to be able to ask this question, but, if I had to choose between nurturing my creative life and becoming financially independent, which would it would be? Because, let’s be realistic, it may be that there isn’t time to be a mother, and a writer, AND a [fill in the blank] money-earner. At least not all at once.
5. Feminism. One reader commented that her mother strongly prioritized financial independence, for herself and by extension for her daughters; and I know my own mom was troubled by her lack of financial independence, and hoped for better for her daughters. I haven’t done much better, not yet. Why does this weigh on me? (Because it does.)
And, finally …
6. Experimenting freely. Does all of this worry and analysis leave out the most important part, the most exciting part, about where I stand, right this second? (Okay, I’m actually sitting.) Because there is so much possibility in the unknown. My imagination runs wild. Sometimes I’m afraid; but mostly, here’s how I want to frame this nebulous whatever comes next stage that no longer seems so well-defined and particular …
**Like I’m marching joyfully up a giant rock in my rubber boots to survey the fields all around.
**Like I’m climbing an old apple tree, not necessarily expecting to find edible fruit, but for the heart-pounding excitement of being up so high; and to test the branches, and my own bravery.
(Now, if you please … tell me what you think.)
**This is CJ’s drawing of the two of us. Yes, we’re upside-down. He’s the one standing on my head.
Today, I am feeling the effects of less sleep; it seems like there’s always a grace period after sleep-deprivation, followed by a crash. I’m in crash mode today, and hoping for recovery by tomorrow.
Yesterday, during the grace period, I burned through a crazy variety of activities while still flush from the after-effects of witnessing a birth. I napped in a dark room for two hours. I spent the afternoon with CJ. I made supper and vacuumed the house because the floor was nothing but crumbs. I packed a picnic for my soccer girl. I got ready for swim lessons, got kids snacked, changed, and to the pool, and then went for a much-needed run in the park across from the pool. It was gorgeous and sunny and I would have run and run and run had the kids not been waiting for me. I got back to the pool just in time, got kids showered and changed, raced home to put supper on the table, grab a bite to eat myself, and feed soccer girl.
We had less than half an hour to transition to the next activity: a soccer coaching clinic. Turns out Kevin and I are coaching all three of our kids’ indoor soccer teams (CJ isn’t old enough to be on a team, or no doubt we’d have managed to sign ourselves up to coach four). We’re not even sure how it happened. But Kevin is working quite a few Saturdays, which means that I will need to be there if he isn’t (with extra kids in tow? we haven’t worked out the finer details), so off AppleApple and I went to the coaching clinic. The coach leading the clinic is also coaching the U-10 rep girls team, so he had the girls come out to demonstrate. It was a pleasant stroke of luck that as part of the coaching clinic I also got to watch my soccer girl in action.
We spent three full hours at the indoor field, the last hour of which was just a great big game. The girls played, the rep coaches played, and the parent volunteers who had signed up to coach their children’s teams were invited to play, too. Only a few dads jumped in. I was one of two or three moms volunteering to coach, and we all passed.
I was invited to join the game! And I stood on the sidelines instead.
I was tired, yes, but that wasn’t why I didn’t play. I was chatting with a friend, but that wasn’t why I didn’t play either. It also wasn’t because I didn’t want to play; I actually kind of sort of really really did want to. Nope; I didn’t play because I felt intimidated. I haven’t played on a soccer team since the age of eleven. I’ve never practiced any of the skills and techniques the head coach was showing us last night. (Excuses, excuses.) All I had to offer, therefore, was fitness and a willingness to try. Except last night, I lacked the willingness to try. Why? On the drive home, AppleApple wondered why I hadn’t played, and when I confessed to feeling too nervous and not being skilled enough, she kind of huffed and said, of course you’d be good enough!
And she’s right. Because any willing participant would have been good enough. It wasn’t a test of my skills or abilities. It wasn’t about me at all. It was about running around, kicking a ball, and having fun. And those kids were having fun (so were the dads). Just look at my very own small and tough AppleApple who elbowed her way into the mix and stole the ball from the coaches and ran her heart out without once doubting that she should be there, doing that.
And so, regrets? I like to think of myself as a generally unregretful person. But it turns out I have a few. Many (most?) boil down to those moments when I let pride dictate in(action). When I don’t try. When I don’t take the risk, and join the game.
Must must must link to this provocative and well-argued piece
, by Kerry Clare, on women’s fiction, and how it continues to be viewed by critics as being of lesser value than men’s fiction, even now, long after Virginia Woolf wrote about the issue in A Room of One’s Own
: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop–everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”
In her essay, Clare posits that the gestational approach to plot in a book like Lisa Moore’s February is indeed very much unlike the conclusion-driven fiction that we consider to be traditionally male; but that the layered and continual sock-folding nature of “feminine” fiction should not and cannot be dismissed simply because it approaches time and human transitions differently.
I guess my question is: do women really understand time and action differently than men do? Is this a feminine quality, or does it relate more to the fact that more women than men, even now, spend time folding socks, and completing repetitive daily tasks? Do our bodies call us to observe and reflect upon repetition and a less linear understanding of time, are women by nature gestational beings? Just asking. I don’t know.
Read the article. And then comment, because I really want to know what you think (… as I sit here, writing what seems to me to be a prototypically feminine book).