dogs sharing bed with random soccer ball
I’m writing this post in my office! The dogs are sleeping in their beds! I have a cup of coffee at my elbow, nearly gone, and I’m feeling almost well enough to consider, seriously, going to boot camp tomorrow morning. Yes! Restlessness is returning to me!
(I’m relieved. The past few days have been a bit of a dangerous interlude, as I discovered how easy it is to work in bed on my laptop; and tempting as it sounds, that is not a habit I’d consider good for my morale, long-term.)
Today is Kevin’s birthday.
We still have no oven, so I can’t bake him a cake.
But we’re going to go out for lunch and look at wood stoves, and talk and dream, so maybe that’s enough.
I’ve found a quote attributed to Nelson Mandela that struck me this morning: “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” That’s almost been the basis of our marriage, right there. We haven’t stayed the same, and we haven’t expected the other to stay the same. We’re quite different, in many ways, but we sure enjoy basking in each other’s light.
I can’t bake Kevin a cake.
But I can sing his praises here. He’s improvisational of character, willing to change, forever finding ways to make something out of nothing — or out of the materials at hand. He’s the kindest coach you’ll ever hope to meet, who seems blessed with infinite patience, who sees potential in every kid, and never tires of finding new ways to motivate (which makes him a great teacher, too). And now I’m afraid of winding myself into deeply sappy territory by saying what a terrific dad he is (but of course!) and partner, too. I most appreciate his willingness to be swayed, to consider alternative perspectives, and to listen without comment.
Happy birthday, dear Kevin, and many more.
Tuesday morning, 9:30AM
Well that was short-lived. I am very definitely, completely, assuredly, hopelessly not alone in the house this morning. The day Albus has been praying for has arrived: Snow Day! School’s cancelled. Although I think it should more accurately be called Really Cold Day, because that seems to be why they cancelled it.
And it is really cold. I can’t deny it.
Behind me comes the persistent wail of the five-year-old: Mom, no one will play with me! Mom, no one will play with me! Mom, no one will play with me!
His sister suggests: If you had an imaginary friend, you’d always have someone to play with.
But imaginary friends can’t win!
Yes, says his sister, it can be arranged that imaginary friends can win. You just have to know how to do it.
Random parenting tip: I find that if you answer in soothingly vague understanding tones, yet don’t follow up with any action, children will go off and find something to do. Case in point: five-year-old has retired to exploding little go-go figures in the living-room. Happily.
Does our living room look really empty? It is. It’s the perfect play area for indoor soccer matches and floor puzzles and exploding go-go guys that you’ve arranged across the barren floor. It’s ugly as all get-out, of course, but that doesn’t diminish its value as a play area.
Kevin and I are currently brainstorming. This is sometimes a good thing and sometimes not. For example, we do have two dogs (unrepentant early morning whiners and poopers on porches in cold weather) due to impulsive brainstorming. But we all know how hard it is to change one’s habits. And Kevin and I maintain a perverse fondness for impulsively brainstormed decisions. Right now what we’re impulsively brainstorming is getting a gas fireplace. Maybe where the sofa is (see above). We can only do this if we don’t get a new stove and range hood. But, we brainstorm impulsively, maybe the stove will prove fixable. (This has not been adequately determined, nor do we know how much it will cost, to keep fixing a stove that has frequently gone on the fritz ever since its costly purchase six years ago. It’s like that car you keep repairing because you own it and you’ve committed so much to it already. “Throwing good money after bad.” That’s the phrase. But then again, there must be a handy counter-phrase, such as “Waste not, want not,” and “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”)
I’ve lost my train of thought. So have you. This is my brain on Snow Day.
I am currently reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, an entertaining guide to punctuation, which I fully intend to inflict on future creative writing students, should I ever teach again. Yesterday I haggled over a comma. Today, I’m writing dreadfully long parenthetical asides while my children lie about the house. Tomorrow they will be back in school. Won’t they? Are swim lessons cancelled, too? And soccer practice? Is the entire day a clean slate? If I hide out in my office drinking coffee will they notice? Can I keep them from the siren’s call of ‘lectronics, as my youngest puts it? Should a question mark have been placed at the end of that last sentence?
It’s beautiful out there. And frozen. I’m leaving the office to go for groceries now, actually, because we’re low on everything and this is the kind of weather that screams: STOCK UP OR PERISH!
Although apparently we can expect a light rain by Saturday. (Really, weather?) Sometimes I suspect we’re just lobsters in a pot, happily swimming around without a clue to our fates. Except it’s worse than that. That analogy only works if the lobsters have filled the pot, lit the gas flame, and jumped in voluntarily, while their leaders systematically burn and bury all the scientific evidence that jumping into pots on stoves is certain to cause cooking in lobsters. And strains in analogies. Perhaps I’ve taken this too far.
It’s 2014. I wonder why I thought it would be different from 2013.
Kevin barbecues Carrie a birthday cake.
Meanwhile, CJ gets a hit in the eye by Albus while the two are playing soccer in the living room. CJ not sure he will survive.
Cake arrives at table, CJ inconsolable, candle burns down. [Note: Carrie is not turning a number that ends in either 3 or 0, though the 3 is applicable at the beginning of the number.] “You’d better blow that out before it goes out.” Nobody remembers to sing Happy Birthday. Candle sputters, flame dies. Carrie announces that this is a bad omen. Children go silent. Then AppleApple says, “You’re so superstitious, Mom.” Carrie admits this is true. Children cheer up.
Kevin replaces candle. Carrie protests. “This is not a better omen!”
Fooey captures the moment.
Carrie captures the Fooey.
Fooey pretends to look all serious. Meantime, CJ has stomped upstairs in a fit of pique. He wants to play Pit. “It’s Mom’s birthday. We can play Pit on your birthday.”
CJ reappears at Carrie’s elbow, looking injured and attention-deprived. Family consults the “Feelings” chart, which Fooey has enhanced with a few extra feelings not covered on the original, including “Guilty” and “Sacred,” which may be a misspelling. “Is ‘weird’ a feeling?” Fooey wonders.
Albus demonstrates “Angry.” CJ agrees. He feels angry. Albus wonders if perhaps CJ also feels “Bloated.” Carrie points out that “Bloated” is a physical rather than an emotional feeling. Albus argues that feeling bloated should count.
CJ cheers up. Kevin serves cake and ice cream. CJ takes first bite. Fooey announces that this is another bad omen: birthday girl should have gone first. Carrie reminds family to sing Happy Birthday to her. Family decides to practice small talk for AppleApple’s benefit (AppleApple is paralyzed by social situations in which small talk is required). “Are we doing mini-talk?” says CJ. It takes everyone a moment to compute. In CJ world, mini-talk = small talk.
Family does mini-talk. Amusement is had. Kevin does dishes. Carrie does bedtime reading. Birthday is tucked into bed.
I dreamed my Canadian editor sent me a message with the subject line: Reminder: Girl Runner edits due!
I dreamed of heart failure.
I dreamed a house with a big back yard into which we could not enter.
I dreamed mounds of dirty snow.
I dreamed that we needed a key to get in — or out. We just needed a key.
I’m back at the pool. My Girl Runner file sits open. I’m ready to polish. I’m ready? I’m ready.
No more home delivery. No more mail person clomping up my porch steps. No more familiar ting of the metal lid being lifted and dropped. I don’t receive a lot of hand-written letters these days, but I get a lot of mail, and not the junk kind, either. I’m self-employed, and most cheques for my speaking and writing work arrive in my mailbox, often unexpectedly. Gazing out my office window, it always cheers me to see the mail person marching along the sidewalk, with our stack of letters in her hand. So. So? Maybe it’s just a luxury to expect my mail to be delivered at the door. Maybe it is. But it makes me sad to know that this delivery system for communication is vanishing.
I’m facing off against Girl Runner today; that’s not a good way to frame it, but truth is, doubt is plaguing me. The only way to make this anxiety go away is to do the work. I know that. Why is it so hard to begin?
Reassuring words from Kevin, to get me going this morning: Once you get started you will find your pace, just like running. Your personality is that you get better and faster the longer you go.
True. I gain confidence over the long haul. I gain resistance to pain. I shed fear, or it shuts down, somehow, and doesn’t matter. I’m talking about my experience as a runner, but I’m also talking about writing. About anything, really. About being a mother. About being a friend.
Was I ever grumpy this morning. Broken zipper on snow pants discovered at the last minute, digging through the attic for another pair, bitter cold pouring through the opened front door as the impatient child waited for her little brother. But I’m not grumpy because of that. I’m grumpy because my mind is elsewhere, edging toward questions and solutions, big questions, elusive solutions.
I’m grumpy, maybe at least a little, because I went out with my siblings last night, stayed out rather late, did not object to another pitcher being ordered, and then set my alarm and went for an early run this morning (with a friend; if I hadn’t been meeting her, I would have stayed in bed).
I’m grumpy because I know what I need to do, and I’m afraid of failing.
I’m grumpy because I’m afraid of failing.
Shouldn’t I know better? It’s not failing I should fear. It’s inertia.
coming from behind in the 200-metre BR
This wasn’t my whole weekend, but it was part of it: another swim meet, a warm-up for the big meet in two weeks, which takes place near Ottawa, and to which my girl will be going without me. She will travel with her team, stay in a hotel with teammates, and race without me there to cheer her on in the stands. “I’ll be fine!” she told me this morning, when I was fretting over it. “You’ll be fine,” Kevin told her, “but I’m not so sure about your mother.”
And here I thought I was prepared to send her off. I was being all grown-up about it and practical (it would be expensive; I’d have to drive myself and stay in my own hotel room), especially knowing how excited she is to be going on an adventure all her own (well-chaperoned by coaches, of course).
I think I can do it. I think I can.
This is what I did in the stands on Saturday, while trying to practice good posture. I’m really enjoying this book, which I’d purchased awhile back before it won the Giller, because I love short stories. Looking down at my little pile, I realized how reliant my afternoon was on electronic devices. The phone to text updates to Kevin and my mom. The Kobo reader. The camera to take photographs. And then the meet sheet print-out, old-school, for keeping track of events.
The late afternoon sun on the water was striking. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that make me feel satisfied, creatively. Even with only a point-and-shoot camera at my disposal, there are moments of beauty to notice and to capture.
She was pleased with her races, but especially with her 200 metre back, where she took 16 seconds off her previous personal best, swum only three weeks ago. This despite thinking she was done with a lap still to go, and stopping at the end; her coach had to yell at her to keep going. (She still won her heat). She loses count during the long races, she says. A similar thing happened in the first race, the 200 metre breast, when she thought she had a lap left to go, and held back a bit rather than sprinting as she usually would in her final lap. She was quite disappointed with that race because she got the same time as her previous best. She’s just moved up to the 11-12 age group, which means no more medals till she grows a bit. Luckily, she doesn’t seem to race for the medals, but for the personal bests.
The sky was beautiful when we stepped out into the parking lot. We were both famished. Kevin made burgers and fried potatoes on the barbeque, and we were home in time to eat together as a family. The conversation was all about dreams. There was also some gentle mockery of my lousy advent calendar activities last year. So I surprised them with chocolate advent calendars yesterday morning, which felt extravagant, I’ll admit.
Also yesterday, we put up the Christmas tree and decorated it. Fooey cleaned up the art area, a massive task, to make room for the tree. That kid can organize! Advent feels unexpectedly real and important to me this year: waiting through the darkest days for the light to come again. The kids interpret this time as anticipatory, and I love that, and would love to grab a bit of that emotion for myself, rather than worrying about all that needs to be brought about, and whether I’ll have the energy to do it. Looking forward to, rather than waiting it out.
I didn’t run this weekend, not at all. On Friday night, feeling flattened by the week, I hung out with the soccer parents at the bar instead (drinking tea). Aha! So this is what they do while I’m out racing around in the dark, thought I. Saturday, I chose not to wake early for a run, and my day was otherwise occupied with the meet. Sunday, the girl had an early soccer game. I’d planned to run when we got home, but instead went to bed and slept for nearly two hours. And then staggered up to make buttermilk biscuits and turkey gravy for supper (a huge hit!), folded laundry, read the kids their bedtime story, and returned to bed early despite that long nap. I do feel better today. So maybe going for a run isn’t always the answer. What do I know?
Lunch date with Kevin. We took the food back to his office because sometimes we like to do take-out. We don’t always eat at home. It’s not that we don’t have enough to eat home, just that sometimes we like to get take-out. I’m sorry. I can’t help myself. All I can do is move forward.
This was going to be a serious post about serious things, and what could be more serious than poetry? A friend in my poetry book club made copies for the group of an article in Harper’s Magazine, by Mark Edmundson, from July of this year called “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse.” Whilst waiting in my quiet office for students to come and talk to me, I read through it, underlying bits here and there and scribbling arguments in the margins. What spoke to me directly was his suggestion that it took three qualities to write “superb lyric poetry,” (and in my mind I couldn’t help but substitute “literature” for “lyric poetry”).
First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress senes, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. … [Second,] she must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. … [Third,] the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all.
He goes on to say that ambition might just as rightly be called courage. I like that view of ambition, frankly. Moreover, I like that view of what’s required to write well, and plan to offer it up to my students before the term ends (two more classes, my God, it’s not enough!). I think most of us who are drawn to writing come with the first talent: a facility for language. It’s why we’re drawn to writing. It may also be what stops many of us from moving on much further, and why agents and publishers tear their hair out trying to get young and talented writers to write about something, and not just beautifully or masterfully or lyrically. That’s why theme is so important. You have to have something to say. But I knew both of those things before reading this article; it’s his third point that is a new idea for me. And I like it, very much.
Ambition. Courage. Willingness to put one’s grand ideas on offer for public critique. The daring required to engage. No wonder a writer needs a hide tougher than a rhino’s. How does this willingness to stand out, to say something out loud, to take a stand, to care about something publicly, how does all of this fit with the necessity of being vulnerable? Because if you’re writing about something that compels you, something you care about, you can’t not be vulnerable. It’s what makes what you’re doing matter. We all know it, as readers.
One more thought from the article, on writers who teach.
Teaching poetry means talking about it in a highly self-conscious way. It means bringing the judging facility to the forefront. … But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front part of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits.
Now. I like to think that teaching creative writing this fall has forced me to distill and make useful much of the knowledge I’ve gained instinctively over my years of practice. I appreciate being forced to bring the judging facility to the forefront. But I’ve written next to nothing of creative content this fall, and though it wouldn’t be fair to blame this entirely on teaching, I do wonder if he’s got a point. By picking something apart, analyzing its pieces, well, the thing you’re dissecting is dead, isn’t it. It had better be, for the sake of all involved. When I’m writing, it’s like coping with a living thing that seems almost unrelated to the suggestions and guidelines I keep trying to share with my students. Sure, there are rules. There are excellent, tried-and-true ways of doing things. But I’m not thinking about them. I’m writing. I’ll save the analysis for later, for revision and editing.
For the record, I had the pork belly with the papaya salad, and Kevin had the fried chicken, and both were very very good. If you live in town, follow @westofseoul on Twitter for menu updates and to find out where the truck is parked from day to day.
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