Today, I want to write about the little things. Little things that might seem unimportant because they’re not on any to-do list, they’re not responsibilities. Little things that might seem incidental in a bigger picture, not the heart of any day, but the flavour. Little things that give me a little peace. I’m knee-deep in marking and have to stay on schedule, so this is not what I should be doing, but I’m going to make a list of “little things” to mark this particular moment in time. At other moments, I might put other things on this list. But today, now, here is what’s given me a little peace recently.
Playing the piano. Either my own improvised noodling around, or sight-reading cheesy Christmas songs, or accompanying my ten-year-old during her violin practice.
Crafting. I know, weird, right? Not my usual thing. But I’ve gotten into a latch-hooking project, initiated by my ten-year-old (who loves her crafts). Same child also initiated an ornament-making craft-time this weekend, and everyone in the family got involved. My personal fave are the Trudeau ornaments, crafted by my thirteen-year-old (who has a new haircut, very stylish, if I do say so myself; I gave both my teenagers haircuts recently, which is another kind of craft, in a way, I suppose).
Walking the dogs. I’m running very little right now due to injury, but I’ve found surprising peace in walking the dogs before bedtime, or on an early weekend morning when the neighbourhood is quiet. The pace is gentle. The dogs amuse me.
Swimming. To replace the running. Monday was my first day, and I went with my swim coach, who also happens to by my thirteen-year-old daughter. She should be your swim coach too. Our session was as tough as a boot camp. She’s demanding, encouraging and kind, and smart about correcting technical flaws in my stroke. (She also coaches Kevin and her younger sister on Thursday mornings. So this is a little thing many of us in the family are enjoying right now.)
Coaching. Right now, I’m coaching my fourteen-year-old’s indoor futsal team (similar to soccer), and I’m volunteering with my ten-year-old’s soccer team, too. I love working with both groups of kids — the teenaged boys and the younger girls. I’ve been practicing my deeper coach’s voice around the house, and every practice or game is another opportunity to learn something new, or put some new concept into practice (for me, and for them). It’s the perfect activity for a person with a growth mindset outlook. We can always get better! Hurray!
Writing. I haven’t had a lot of writing time, recently, so I’ve been taking my laptop to basketball and soccer practices at which I’m not involved. Earplugs in. Sweet vanishing into another world.
Stretching. My body needs to stretch, loves to stretch. I’ve been squeezing in a few yoga classes.
Reading. A couple of days ago, I thought I had a few free minutes. Ever have those moments? When you think, how strangely wonderful that I should have nothing to do? So I sat in front of the fire devouring Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name. I was so relaxed, so blissful — so blissfully forgetting that in fact I did have something to do. This strangely wonderful moment had been brought to me by a memory lapse. I’d forgotten to pick up my youngest at school; friends had to help out; and I felt embarrassed and somewhat shamed for my parenting lack as I jogged along the sidewalk, late, late, late. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wish for more of those rare “free” minutes for daytime reading.
All for now. Please comment if you have “little things” that give you a little peace, too.
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.
I’m not going to write in detail about Canada’s federal election last night, other than to say that I heard the news about a new government being voted into office as I was driving home in stormy weather from Grimsby, Ontario, after reading to a packed house, along with Peter Kavanagh (author of The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times). (Side note: That the Grimsby reading series could pack the house on the same night of the Canadian federal election AND the Blue Jays’ first home game in their best of seven series is an enormous tribute to the organizers. For the occasion, I wore my lucky jeans and t-shirt, which I’ve been wearing for the last three Jays’ victories — and when I don’t wear them, they lose, which means I have to wear them again tonight, even though tonight I’ll be coaching my eldest’s soccer team for the first time and the jeans and t-shirt are decidedly un-coach-like garb! Superstitions are so inconvenient. And yet so alluring to a certain personality-type. Busted. That’s me, clad in the same jeans and t-shirt for days on end, thinking it will change the outcome of a baseball game. But they won last night! They won! So …)
This photo dates from last week when the Jays clinched their best-of-five series. It marked the second time I wore the lucky shirt/jeans combo. And look at how they won!
Where was I?
Here I am, on a dull fall day in October, relieved to know that a new government will be setting the tone in Ottawa, a new government will be speaking for Canadians on the world stage. To be perfectly candid, I burst into tears when I heard the news on the radio, driving along the wind-whipped Skyway, alone in my little car. I burst into tears because it felt like the end of an angry and fearful man’s government. It felt like Canadians were saying: enough with the fear and anger—we want to be united not divided. Politicians disappoint, and I’m not naive; there are disappointments to come with this new government. But I’m also not willing to be cynical about the difference tone can make, at the highest level of leadership: if you think Canada is not a racist or xenophobic country, check out some of the letters to the editor in the Globe and Mail over the past few weeks, opinions unleashed and legitimized by the fearful, angry campaign run by the guy who is now our former prime minister. I burst into tears because the guy who won last night said: A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.
Maple leaves collected by me and CJ on our walk home from school yesterday.
Now to see those words put into policy. Now to see the reversal of the damage done.
As she comes on stage, the stadium lights up, the plastic rubbery wristbands we’ve slipped onto our wrists suddenly alive and pulsating with colour, to the beat of a song I don’t recognize. There is a collective inhale, a gasp, as we prepare for this spectacle, and recognize its announcement, its arrival.
She is here.
She is wearing sunglasses and a jacket and very high heels. From where we are sitting, high up in the highest, remotest seats of this concrete bunker, she is dollhouse-sized, but her face, her stride, is simultaneously captured and broadcast onto two wide screens that flank the stage. I don’t know the first song: Welcome to New York. But she’s just getting warmed up.
The third song is Style.
She strides down the narrow runway, but doesn’t come quite far enough. It’s like she’s teasing the audience, walking forward and back, but never to the end of the platform that stretches out into the audience below, those who must have paid astronomical fees for their tickets. I want her come to the end of the runway. I wait for her to come all the way down, where we will be able to see her clearly. I think that she is deliberately teasing us, and I am impressed that desire can be invented so easily, so strategically, by the simple act of denial. The semaphores in this show are simple and effective, the narrative clean and crisply delineated.
She takes off her sunglasses, she pulls off the jacket, as if now we will see her for who she is—a doll-like creation of red lips and pale perfect skin and arched brows. She is dressed in black, the outfit cutting across her pale skin, sectioning her up into pieces. I wonder how she can stride the stage in such a short skirt with such confidence.
But is it confidence? I think, but do not say to my daughter, that Taylor Swift is not singing. She is not even doing a particularly good job at lip synching. After having heard the first two performers, both young men, sing and play their guitars with flair and emotion and talent, this is disappointing. I admit to initial disappointment, as she whips off her sunglasses and disrobes before us, and holds the mic at an unlikely distance from her lips, her mouth moving out of synch with the words that are soaring through the air: We’ll never go out of style, we’ll never go out of style.
But I will forgive her for this lapse later in the show. Because the singing is the least of what she is attempting: What she is attempting is the creation of spectacular flashing moments, a montage that tells a story—the story of Taylor—replete with fleeting images, shimmering, an illusion of perfection, an illusion of intimacy, as gutsy as it is implausible. Later in the evening, when she is spinning around in the air at the end of the runway, which has been tilted and raised high up on a mechanical arm, later, when she is being whirled counter-clockwise before us, grounded to the platform by thin wires, playing or fake-playing chords on an electric piano, balancing in her high heels, hair swinging and swooping over her forehead, chased by high-wire cameras, projected onto enormous screens, all while singing into a microphone, I will forgive her for singing over a recorded track, singing only partially. I will admire her willingness to be on display in this feat of daring, and to display for her audience only the most idealized version of her experience of this moment.
Even when she struggles to move the microphone from her hand, where it has been strapped, into a microphone stand, she does not comment on the trouble she is having, she smiles and continues to talk to us about friendship, about how she has an easy way with friends, and can feel as close to someone she’s just met as to someone she’s known forever, if this someone (could we all imagine it is us?) is authentic and trustworthy. Finally, the microphone slides into the stand. She has not burdened us with this technical irritation. She doesn’t complain, she refuses to draw attention to it. The show churns onward, making its own pace.
The plastic wristband warms my wrist oddly, in an electrical manner that disturbs me, but I do not take it off. When we arrived, we found that wristbands were taped to the back of every seat in the stadium. When we first slid the wristbands onto our arms, it seemed almost cultish, all of us willingly submitting to the mysterious plastic band, with no concern for what it might do to us. We trusted implicitly the glossy promises of Taylor Swift, her relentless optimism projected onto the screen before the show began, along with her stories about her cats, whose names my daughter knows. “Really, you know their names?” She shrugs. Sure. As if everyone does.
When the wristbands light up and flash and fill the stadium with a pulsating glow, I willingly wave my arm in the air, as instructed, even though my skin gets hot underneath the plastic, and even though I have to wrap the plastic around my palm to keep it from sliding down under my coat sleeve. The woman next to me, who has also come with her pre-teen daughter, dances wildly in her seat, sings breathlessly, gasping and giggling, while her daughter sits rather rigidly; I catch the girl observing us when I glance in her direction. The woman stops herself sometimes, as if embarrassed, but is again overcome by emotion. She knows the words to every song.
I know the words to three songs.
My daughter knows the words to a few more, but not many. We are here because her dad and I thought it would be an exciting and surprising birthday gift; she had written in a school project last spring that this was one of her dreams, to go to a Taylor Swift concert. That’s something we could actually do! we thought, her dad and I. So. We are here for the show, for the novelty of it, and for Taylor Swift whom we both like, if only abstractly—we turn up the radio when her songs come on and sing along, but our admiration doesn’t go a great deal further. We are here together, witness to what the power of money and imagination can create on a vast stage, for the consumption of a broad audience.
“Hi, I’m Taylor,” she says as she marches down the runway, early in the evening. She sounds nervous, swallowing her words, but even this might be an act.
Because I have so recently been so exhausted after performances on a completely different scale, I wonder at her ability to pull out this magnitude of a performance, night after night. I wonder at her willingness to go on, city after city, show after show. But when she stands at evening’s end to receive the applause ricocheting off the closed stadium roof and the girls’ screaming, I think, how could this not be addictive? How could you not believe the stories being told about you? You are a blank slate for the projections of millions of people, and your words are being sung back to you in unison, and your very body, your very flesh and blood is a recipient of this adulation. You absorb the warmth from all these people, here for you, and you become in this moment as near to being one of the gods as a human can get.
When I first heard the lyrics to Style on the radio, I said to my daughter, “I don’t really like this song. It’s not my favourite.”
“I’m doing a dance to it in gym class,” my daughter said.
“She’s kidding herself if she thinks she’ll never go out of style. Style comes and goes. She’ll be old someday too.”
I might have been missing the point. My daughter might not have been listening.
“Also, it’s such a vapid style she’s describing. ‘I’ve got that good girl thing in a tight little skirt.’ Is that what she’s saying? It sounds like that’s what she’s saying.” It is approximately what she is saying. I look up the lyrics later: “I’ve got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.”
That’s a bit different, message-wise, a bit richer.
But I don’t like songs about good girls, because it’s us against them, good girls v bad girls, and who are the bad girls? What do they do that’s so bad? And what do the good girls do that’s so good, come to think of it? Who is telling them they are good or bad? I also don’t like models for girlhood who teeter in high heels, their exceptionally skinny bodies exposed and hairless. But I do like that this young woman is an extraordinarily powerful presence on the stage, and that she talks to her audience in a way that appears personal, promoting messages of trust, vulnerability, no shame, and strong female friendship.
And I do so very much like that the next morning, after the concert, when my daughter crawls into bed with me, and I say, “What do you think Taylor Swift does when a show is over?,” my daughter says, “Well, she probably has to help take down the stage. And she probably needs to eat something. And maybe take a shower and go to bed. I think she sleeps in a trailer.”
She probably has to help take down the stage.
One of the best things about our family holiday was seeing the kids settle in and really enjoy each other’s company. I still can’t believe how easy it all felt, to travel so far and make collective decisions, with late bedtimes and no set routine to guide us.
In truth, we’re not the world’s most adventurous family, and nobody was disappointed if a day consisted of a little walking, a little swimming, and a made-up game, like the above, where we attempted to throw pebbles through this perfectly shaped hollow log. Points for multiple consecutive through-stones.
This was perhaps the most adventurous outing we attempted: we followed a map drawn by our host to a nearby logging road and hiked a trail in search on a large and ancient tree. And we found it! The kids agreed to pose while I tried to take the perfect family photo. And tried. And tried.
And gave up, eventually. Too much personality on display, and who would want it otherwise? The forest was eerily empty of any sign of animals (neither cougars, nor bears, nor even squirrels could be seen). But as we were leaving, this marvellous slug was spotted on the path. Everything’s bigger on the West Coast, it seems, even the slugs.
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.