Yesterday: five boys in the back yard, already semi-bored from summer holidaying, looking for fun, finding it spontaneously. Four ten-year-olds welcoming the three-year-old into the group. After the splashing and the snacking, they retreat to the basement. The three-year-old emerges, flushed and sweaty, requesting his shirt off, and races back down again, shouting, “I’m a bad guy now, too!” “Um, what are you doing down there?” “Playing a battling game.” “Okaaaaay …” (As long as no one gets hurt.) (No one gets hurt.) From basement battling to board game in the living-room: Mama eavesdropping on the goofy, happy conversation. Finally, Mama needs to leave to pick up the girls, one at a play date and the other at horse camp. “We can stay home alone.” “Yah, I’ve stayed home alone a lot.” “Me, too.” “It’s okay.” “Right, well. No. Not gonna happen. You’ll have to find another plan.” So, five boys walk down the sidewalk and around the corner — even the three-year-old, who refuses to be left behind — to someone else’s house, to keep on playing. (Mama retrieves the pleased-as-punch three-year-old once they’ve reached their destination; and drives off to horse camp thinking of boys at a not-quite-in-between-age in damp swim suits on a front porch, playing Apples to Apples; and one of those boys is hers).
I keep starting this post, then erasing the words and trying again. I’ve been wondering how best to express my feeling of gratitude for the support and luck that make possible the arc of my days.
I am grateful to be able to send my children to school and nursery school where they are nurtured by caring teachers. I am grateful that I have a babysitter who picks my youngest up from nursery school three days a week, walks patiently home with him, feeds him lunch, plays with him, and loves him, so that I can write (that she happens to be a qualified teacher in her country of origin, who speaks five languages, is our fortune, too, though I’m rooting for her to get her Canadian qualifications so many more children can benefit from her gifts).
I am grateful to have a grant, and an advance, that allows me to focus on my fiction writing (and pay for said nursery school and babysitting time). I am grateful my husband has a job that covers our household expenses, so that my grant/advance can go toward writing time.
I am grateful for my family’s willingness to make room for my crazy triathlon project, and the countless hours of training it’s required (hours from which they are excluded).
I am grateful to live in a country with universal health care.
I am grateful for clean water from our taps, for fresh ingredients from which to prepare healthy meals, for the shelter and space of our home and yard, for safe sidewalks, and a community-oriented neighbourhood.
I am grateful for all of these things, while knowing that my fortune is neither deserved nor earned, and that the individual pursuits of art and athleticism are gifts. They are not mine for the taking. They could not exist without the offerings of many others, and of even larger, structural offerings that are pure luck: where I was born and to whom. I wonder sometimes how the relative few of us can bear to live with such wealth, when so many live with less than a little. How can I?
What I’m saying is that my gratitude is mixed with guilt, and questioning. What luxury–to train my body to complete an arbitrary task that has nothing to do with real survival. What luxury–to sit and to think and to create in repose, without anxiety or fear or threat. Are my luxuries just for me? Is that how I’m using them, and if so, does that not express greed rather than gratitude?
I’ve noticed an uptick in visitors reading this blog, and it would be a pleasure to hear your voices (thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration: your post on engagement made me want to invite more engagement and conversation, here, too). So, what are your thoughts on being grateful/guilty? How do you take the luxury of your individual gifts and use them to satisfy something greater than your own comforts and desires?
Finishing the first leg, heading for the transition area. Both feet off the ground. Looking and feeling strong. Plus, the sun is shining!
Getting out on my bike. Right at the start. My form isn’t great here and I haven’t settled in (and down), but I look so darn happy. I like that. Let’s get this baby moving, uphill preferably!
Heading out for the final leg, post-bike ride. Discovering my leg muscles no longer know how to function. Fittingly, it had started to rain. Thinking: I can do this. Right? Well, I’m gonna.
The homestretch. The finish line is before me. I did have a moment of emotion here, realizing I was going to make it. That final leg was one of the harder things I’ve done in my life. It was like running on legs of water. I tried and tried, but throughout the four km, I just couldn’t pick up the pace.
Me and my friend Tricia! I am so glad she was with me. All of the planning and logistics, plus the ride there, set-up, the wait: I needed someone with me. It would have been awfully lonely and intimidating on my own. She went out of the first transition ahead of me and I never caught up, but it made me glad to see her jersey in front of me. She is an Ironwoman! This picture makes me teary. We’ve trained together over the winter, shared some early mornings, and today, we worked so hard and we made it across the finish line! (And thanks also to her husband who took these fantastic photos. My family didn’t quite make it to see me finish, though we all got to eat pork on a bun together afterward).
I’ll write more in-depth about the experience on my Swim/Bike/Run Mama blog. And now I can offically call myself Bike/Run Mama. That’s something.
That title is grammatically incorrect. Forgive me. It sounds perfect to my ears.
Here it is: good news, arriving in my inbox and waiting for me to get home from running errands on bicycle yesterday, with kids shouting in the stroller behind. I was so busy that I only had time to skim the message once before jumping back into the other projects in my life, namely, cooking, laundry, and children. (Laundry: how can there be so much of you? you never give up).
This was news from my other life, the one where I’m a writer. It was a long message from my editor, who had finished reading the draft of The Juliet Stories I sent awhile back. I’d written many new stories for the revision, and was praying she would like where I’d taken the book.
First, the “bad” news, which is easy to swallow: I will need to rework two stories from the opening section, possibly combining them into one. I like her suggestion to combine the two and will put on my thinking cap. I’m pretty much always up to a good challenge. I will have a month or so to do this. I estimate it will take me three full long days of work, assuming the ideas flow. If they don’t; well, I won’t go there. Why assume the worst?
Because the best is the rest of my editor’s message, of which I’ll share my favourite part here. The hard work, the isolated hours, the years of doubt, all add up to: “My heart was in my throat as I read these new stories.” Emotional connection: it’s what I crave for my writing. I also appreciated, and read with much relief, the line: “The book is cohering so beautifully now …”
I like to think this “Obscure Canlit Mama” blog, now in its third year, had something to do with the creation of The Juliet Stories. It’s brought me connections with other writers; allowed me to be vulnerable; and it’s given me permission to embrace myself as a writer. Sometimes just saying something out loud is enough to make it real.
And now to spend a weekend celebrating by eating cheese, swimming in a lake (I hope–in my borrowed wetsuit), and communing with friends who’ve been with me since I was way more mama than writer. (I’m still way more mama than writer, but I’m not intensive-pregnant-nursing-mama anymore; and somehow that’s changed how I imagine my life and explore other parts of the whole. They’re out of the cocoon, in a way, and so am I).
One last thing. My editor also described The Juliet Stories as “deeply feminist,” which surprised me. It’s not that I don’t see myself as feminist (I do! I am!), but I never imagined writing with the intention of expressing a political viewpoint. I hope she means that the book explores the emotional and physical potential in women’s lives. I do think of my characters, especially the women, as free, somehow; or as free as any human being can be, to claim their own lives and essential selves, and to make choices beyond the boundaries of gender, while still understanding and partaking in the potential of their bodies. “My soul felt decidedly less shrunken when I’d finished reading it,” my editor wrote.
Next up: a complicated rewrite for two thematically linked stories. Followed by the line edit. Followed by … book cover design? Copy editing? And the big intake of breath before the finished book exists and hits stores, and makes its attempt to kick out a place for itself in the tough and largely indifferent world. If I learned anything from the first time around, it’s to enjoy the moments when they come, and not try to put them away and save them for later. Enjoy in a big way. Laugh, cry, shout. Forget muted gestures. There is no way to store the rush of immediacy. Which is why I let myself bask in the feeling of relief yesterday afternoon, in the midst of busyness. Ahhhh.
Writing week. This is the official week of writing, planned many moons ago. Last week, I started the new year with an extra day and a half of writing, and a brand-new story, and inspired energy and spirit; which was quickly subtracted by losing a day and a half of writing at the end of the week due to a mild stomach virus. Thankfully, only the youngest succumbed, and it was never terrible (and when it comes to stomach viruses, I know from terrible, let me tell you; or, rather, I’d best not tell you).
Where was I?
Up and down, that was last week. I ended the week feeling low indeed, struggling with a story that has plagued me since its conception back in June. I’ve been telling myself (very helpfully) that the story is more ambitious than my talents. And it may be, that. Or, it may be that I’ve been shovelling into this one story far too much; stories can only hold what they can hold. I spent the weekend in a grumpy panicky state, distracted, anxious, wondering whether I’d lost my nerve here at the last minute; because the damn book is so close to done. This story is the last major story that needs to be written. After this, it’s tinkering and chink-filling and trim.
I did what I could. I tried to remember what works. I did not curl up in bed under the covers (though it was awfully tempting). I prepared for this upcoming writing week the only way I know how: in the kitchen. I baked a batch of granola, filled a container with oatmeal cookies, converted four litres of milk into fresh yogurt, cookied up a batch of tomato sauce for quick meals this week, and finished my Sunday evening by baking four loaves of wholesome bread. I also ran errands, restocked the pantry, went for two long runs, to church, and to a kundalini yoga class. But “class” isn’t the right word for this semi-regular event, led by a friend and shared with other friends; it’s more like a religious experience. It’s pretty much impossible to put into words. I just tried, and erased my attempt. But I think the feeling that is shared in that warm dimly lit studio room is of collective joy: individual effort that somehow becomes shared effort, appreciation, compassion.
I left that beautiful room believing myself capable of finishing the book. I also left knowing I’d scrap the story and start from scratch. I trust yoga to open me to big/simple ideas: that was my big/simple idea. I also understood the image this new story will revolve around.
I think this weekend was good for me. It was unpleasant in a lot of ways: hard not to be writing, hard to bide my time, hard to live with such uncomfortable anxiety and to be around others; but I’m proud of myself for slogging onward. It’s really all that can be done when staring down doubt. In the past, I might have holed up and gone even more interior. It’s difficult to talk to friends, to reach out, or even just to be out and about when in a state of anxious distraction; but that’s exactly when it’s so important to keep on keeping on. It’s not about faking it. It’s about continuing to feed yourself even when you don’t feel hungry.
My writing week started yesterday, with a bang: a brand-new story to fill another chink (though not the major story). Today, I attempt it. The big one. It’s going to be a whole lot smaller. Maybe it will be small enough to fit into a dimly lit warm room crowded with friends. Who are chanting. We’re all chanting.
Poetry book club … an idea hatched several years ago (though not by me), and never quite brought to fruition, finally became an actual factual multi-participant event last night. We read Pigeon, by Karen Solie (this year’s winner of the Griffin Poetry prize). The group was (mostly) self-selected from a Facebook status I posted a few months back. Turns out there are people out there willing to identify as poetry readers–or, more importantly, as readers willing to try chomping through poetry. And then to talk to others about it. Why does this often seem so hard, beyond impossible–both the reading of poetry, and then the talking about? As if the process revolves around a test that we will pass, or, we fear more likely, fail.
So. Can a group of people who don’t all know each other terribly well get together and talk about poetry? Um, yes, we can. Turns out that we can talk, and talk, and talk about poetry. After some introductions, we just hopped right in. Everyone had read the poems (a good start), and we all had opinions, favourites, lines that stuck with us, bafflements, questions, hesitations, dislikes; and few conclusions. A gigantic dictionary was referenced. Cheese was eventually eaten, wine imbibed, host’s children kept up by the seemingly inexhaustible interest we brought to this book of poems.
As one of us observed, we were talking about the poems, not (as novel-reading book clubs often do, ahem, been there, done that) veering away from the text to reference our own experiences. A poem addresses (or tries to address) a vast and existential question, in the most compressed form. It is almost too distilled to elicit an anecdote. It needs treatment both more personal and less specific. It has multiple levels. And like any artistic creation, it is partially made by the person who is consuming it, though in poetry this connection between poet and reader seems even stronger; what is the ephemeral creation being made and discovered on the page out of images and emotion?
We quickly threw out any pretense of knowing-nothing. Of course, we all know enough to talk about a poem. And it is ever so crazy much easier to talk about when others are talking about it, too. We filled a couple of hours with talking about poetry.
A few favourite moments: When we discussed a poem called “The Cleaners,” which ends with the speaker hearing a song piped out of a nearby shop, sung by a singer “who is a national treasure,” it turned out that at least three of us had imagined who the singer was, though he/she isn’t identified. I loved that. (Leonard Cohen; Anne Murray; Celine Dion). I also loved the debate around the poem “Pigeon,” which baffled many of us–especially those of us who were looking for an easy solution to the book. Ah, so this will tell us what it all means!, followed rapidly by increased puzzlement and disappointment. Except, after talking and talking about the poem, it began to seem that “Pigeon” was actually just that–the key to everything, the answer to the riddle (and a riddle itself). At least, that’s how it seemed to me. I never in a million careful solitary readings would have gotten at that idea.
Next up: Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House. I’m going to look up her more recent collection, The Door, too.
I’m guessing there will be some blog readers out there with suggestions. Please, please, please send your recommendations, favourites, must-reads. We just might–read.
The photo is totally unrelated, but there you see AppleApple heading for the finish line in her second-ever cross country race (it was about 2km in length), run late last week and sadly unrecorded up till now. She finished much better than she’d expected, and was filled with excitement. The same could be said of her mother.