Balance. Is there such a thing? I’ve stopped looking.
This week, I biked to the university library on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, where I took over a carrel on the 9th floor and did research. Personal bliss. But every day can’t be spent zooming through the park and poring over dusty old books. On Monday, I volunteered on a class school trip to city hall, and today I am home with a sick child, who was up half the night, but is now drinking tea and told me I could go and blog. She is reading.
I’m really not kidding when I say that researching at a library is just about my happiest state. Researching, writing. I could do this all day. I don’t even take snack breaks.
Which is why it was odd to find myself, last week, spending a full day as a children’s entertainer at a school, reading my book The Candy Conspiracy to approximately 450 kids, and filling in the space around the reading with age-appropriate activities. I even brought my pineapple ukulele. I was pretty nervous in the lead-up (see happiest state, above). I tested my plan with my live-in focus group before unveiling it to the public: the 8-year-old sang along happily to my made-up songs; the 10-year-old informed me in no uncertain terms that I would be embarrassing myself. Ergo, kindergarten through grade two got to sing and pretend to be Juicy Jelly Worms and Clever Children. Grades three through six got a more traditional author visit, with a Q&A and a make-your-own book project. Each session lasted 45 minutes. At the end of the day, I crawled home and collapsed into dreamless sleep on the couch, like a toy whose batteries have run out. Apparently Robert Munsch did coke. I forgive you, Mr. Munsch.
This is feeling like a randomized news roundup. Let’s continue. This morning I went to boot camp and pulled a muscle in my back. Now I can’t look to the left. I’ve been writing in the car in the evenings when I take my eldest daughter to soccer or theatre, or, like last night, both, back to back. Here is a list of the books I’ve read since leaving France: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin (you must read it even if you’ve seen the movie!); How Should a Person Be, by Sheila Heti (so Canadianly weird); Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; a bunch of short plays; and one more play called Yellowman, by Dael Orlandersmith. None of these are the dusty old books I’m poring over at the university library.
Today marks 21 years since I met my husband. We always remember the buds on the trees busting out overhead. This morning, while he took our sick child at the doctor’s office, I walked the dogs up the street with our 8-year-old to meet his walking-to-school buddies, and he pointed out all the things that were coming to life around us: the tulip in our front yard (only one, randomly placed), the strawberry patch, the buds on the trees. It’s happening! Instead of going on a date tonight, Kevin will be driving our oldest daughter to Oshawa for a soccer tournament. I will be tending a sick kid and prepping for her team’s first soccer festival (non-competitive tournament) tomorrow, which it looks like she’s going to be too sick to play at; but I’m the coach, so I will be there. This is what 21 years has brought. We can do this! From randomized news roundup to randomized positive self-talk. Let’s stop here.
Yesterday, we gave the kids a snow day. This was not my idea, but Kevin was very keen on it, so I agreed somewhat begrudgingly as it meant sacrificing a quiet day at home in my office, alone. Quite a lot of snow had fallen overnight, but it was crisp, clear, and beautiful, as you can see from the photo above. In the morning, Kevin took the kids sledding; some safety boundaries were pushed to great hilarity, apparently (good thing I hadn’t gone along!). In the afternoon, AppleApple and I went cross-country skiing. We still had all of our regular after-school activities: piano lessons, soccer practice, and a soccer game. It was awfully late when we gathered together again for supper. The boys had been home alone, playing dominoes, waiting to eat until we’d all arrived. Well after 7PM, we sat down to a very popular meal of soft tacos. I could sense the difference the unofficial snow day had made for everyone. We were so relaxed, and especially kind to each other. We sat for ages after we’d finished eating, talking and laughing; everyone.
It’s a luxury to take a holiday in the middle of the week. Kevin and I are both very fortunate to have jobs that allow us this level of flexibility, and yesterday was a reminder to take advantage of that freedom from time to time.
Today, my office is quiet. The dogs are sprawled out napping near my feet. I’ve set the timer for fifteen minutes.
I have some news. I’m going to France in April. (!!!) I’ll be away nearly three weeks, attending events at an arts festival in Normandy, and promoting the publication of the French translation of Girl Runner (or, Invisible Sous la Lumiere, as it is being called). I’ve been commissioned to write a short piece as part of the arts festival, and will be given an artist’s residency at a museum for about ten days. I’ve been dreaming of a writing retreat for a long time … just never imagined it would happen in France!
One sad thing about the trip is that I’ll be missing the performance of AppleApple’s adaptation of Macbeth. Of course, in 18 days, I’ll be missing much more than that. I think I’m missing everyone and everything in advance right now. Premature homesickness. Adventures are so much harder to throw yourself into when you’re leaving behind children.
Two readings coming up this weekend. I’ll be in Hamilton on Sunday evening at an event called Lit Live, and in Toronto on Monday evening at the Rowers Reading series. Check my upcoming events page for more info.
Ding-ding-ding! That’s my time. Tomorrow I’ll try to remember to tell you about turmeric tea, the laundromat, and swimming.
This morning, I bought two kitchen timers, the kind that you can set for an hour and that tick loudly to mark each passing second. I bought them after listening to the CBC radio program Spark on Wednesday afternoon. I was driving through the most miserable weather (freezing rain) to pick up a child for piano, so I missed the name of the expert and the context, but the point of the interview came across clearly, like a message I needed to hear: video games are entertainment. They are designed to suck players in, to make players want to keep playing. That is their sole purpose.
Adults get sucked in to their digital worlds too: email for some, Facebook or Twitter or other social media for others.
Lecturing a kid about self-discipline around video games is not only ineffectual, it’s completely pointless, said the expert. You can’t tell a kid to have more self-discipline, when in fact, the kid is responding to the stimulus exactly like a normal human being.
Which is why I’ve got two new kitchen timers. Here is what the expert recommended: set a time limit, and enforce it by setting a timer. An old-fashioned ticking timer that reminds the child that time is passing. When the timer goes, re-set it for another 1-2 minutes, to let the child extract him or herself from the game/digital device. When that time is up, if the child hasn’t disconnected, there will be a penalty, say, 5 minutes less playing time tomorrow. If the child has shut off the game, the expert recommended a reward. I didn’t hear what kind of reward. (I wouldn’t really want to offer more playing time tomorrow.)
There are larger issues, here, of course. You have to be present to know and actually see when your children are disappearing into their devices. What are they doing in their bedrooms while I’m cooking supper or sitting here in my office? What about at friends’ houses? Will my eldest choose to go to hang out a more permissive friend’s house, if he isn’t getting the screen-time he so craves at home? I worry about that.
But I worry more about being too permissive myself, and not consistent in how I apply my values to this situation. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. That’s the sound of my children growing up more quickly than I can really comprehend. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. My own timer is going. (In fact, I know the method works because I use it all day long, to keep myself on task, and free from distraction.)
P.S. Our washing machine is broken. OUR WASHING MACHINE IS BROKEN! And won’t be fixed till the middle of next week at least. AND WON’T BE FIXED TILL NEXT WEEK! I weep.
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.
“We do not want merely to see beauty … we want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see.” – C.S. Lewis (as discovered on Twitter; follow @CSLewisDaily for more quotes)
Today marks the second week of summer holidays. I’ve put over a thousand kilometres onto the little car since Thursday morning. I’ve been across the border, stuck in traffic jams, meandering back roads, standing by soccer fields, hauling various bags, buying food that will keep in the heat, making and executing miniature step-by-step plans to get one kid safely to the places she needs to be at the right times. She is now safely at overnight camp with her sister. I am safely at home, in my office. But I couldn’t keep her entirely safe. Her team made the final at the tournament, but she was injured in their third game in a bad fall. This is parenting one doesn’t want to have to do: watching from the far side of the field as a medic checks out your kid, then, after the game, helping your kid understand and accept that she likely won’t be able to play for the rest of the tournament. We need to think long-term, the parent says, and the kid says, I really want to play! Maybe if I rest it overnight and ice it and … Yes, maybe, but, says the parent, taking the long view, knowing that injuries will happen in contact sport and a week or two of rest will pass in a flash, while an injury worsened by poor management could dog a player for weeks, months, more …
So she cheered her teammates from the bench in their fourth game on Saturday afternoon. She woke yesterday morning optimistic, and dressed for the match. Her coach let her play a few minutes in the final game, but she ran like she was stiff and in pain, so he decided, wisely, not to put her back on again. I was relieved. She understood. The long-view won the day.
Here’s part of what I wrote on Saturday morning, waiting for that third game to begin, the one in which she was injured, when I didn’t know she would be; I hadn’t read the C.S. Lewis quote, above, yet, either. But I think I was choosing to write for the very reason Lewis pinpoints: to be united with the beauty we see (if we go looking for it).
In Ohio. I sit in a collapsible chair behind my car in the shade on a warm morning, the fourth of July. It’s Independence Day in the United States, and I seem to be in a quintessentially American scene: wide blue sky, gravel parking lot, trucks and cars lined up, not neatly but askew, claiming space, because there is so much space, and just beyond the short grassy hill, a highway off-ramp. Noisy, constant noise of engines turning as they veer past on the other side of the guardrail. In the gravel lot, dust balloons when a car zooms by looking for a parking spot. I’ve returned to the same spot where we parked yesterday, just under a clump of bushes with pale green leaves flecked with tiny white spots that look like a fungus, an invasive disease, not native to the plant’s patterns. The breeze moves the speckled leaves. Wildflowers have pushed through the gravel near my feet, like flowers that belong in a desert, sparse pale purple blooms with spiked centres.
A man sits in a convertible opposite me, and talks on his cellphone, shaded under a ball cap. I choose not to look too often in his direction, although we must both see each other. Parked to his left is a junked-out abandoned trailer home with the brand-name Tag-A-Long on its faded front above a vented window, which has blue sheet insulation propped against it from the inside. The trailer’s hitch is rusted red and green, deep dirty brown-red, metallic green, a beautiful shade of green richer than emeralds, but what does it mean, to beautifully mark an abandoned object? What does it mean to flower in a parking lot? What does it mean to sit by a highway and write about the gravel scattered underfoot, embedded loosely into the clay-like dirt, pale ochre dirt, pale grey and white stones, some so small they are almost granular, worn down to sand?
“I’m gonna go now,” says the man in the convertible, on his phone, but he doesn’t. This is the way of conversations. You state that you are finished, but you don’t unstick yourself, not quite yet. You laugh. “You didn’t say that,” you say, and chuckle. A large 4 x 4 Ford pickup kicks up dust between us. The rumble from the cars on the off-ramp obscure what might be said, if I were closer and could overhear this half of a conversation.
I see a Canadian flag flapping on a truck down at the end of the lot, near field 14 where my daughter’s team will play their second game today. Beyond that, taller than the trees, are signs advertising gas stations and fast food restaurants. The street lights above the off-ramp look like objects from outer space, as you might imagine an alien spaceship to look, with lights suspended inside bright shiny metal pods like six vast aluminum mixing bowls, upside-down, and affixed around a slender pole, way up high, like cake tins stabbed onto pointy spikes high up in the sky.
What happens when you sit and write? You see differently, you fall down inside of yourself and go quiet and you receive whatever passes by, whatever dust and stray information and overheard conversation passes by, you reach up into the air and pluck it like fruit, ripe or unripe, doesn’t matter, you’re hungry for information.
It’s true. I was hungry. And in a gravel parking lot beside an on-ramp, I found some measure of satiation.
May you be united with the beauty you see.
Another girl runner in the family.
This morning, I biked to watch my nine-year-old run her first ever race at a track meet: she was representing her school in the 60 metres. She was in the fastest heat and she placed third. She was glowing and proud. Then I sat in the grass and read a book and waited two hours for her next race. She popped by to sit with me a few times. She was nervous, proud, and excited about the meet.
Her second race was the 4 x 100 relay, one of the last races of the day. She was on the 9-year-old girls’ team representing her school against five other schools. All of the girls on her team are friends. She was running the anchor leg. They’d practiced and practiced at school, passing the baton, but this was the first time trying it out on the track.
I texted Kevin so he could be there too. We were standing near the finish line. I hoisted myself up on a railing to see better. Her friends are a speedy group, and when she got the baton, she was already in first place. I can see her running, running, running, arms pumping, up the black track, face shining. She crossed the line and knew she had won. The juniors at the school had walked over to watch the meet, and they were in the stands, all cheering for her: what a moment! Her second race ever. She crossed the line and her face broke wide with the thrill of it, the joy of it, and she jumped with her hands in the air, turning toward us. I won’t forget it. I’ll keep it here in my mind’s eyes, where I can see it anytime. She was shining.
I was crying, a bit.
What is the mixture of emotions that rise when watching your child accomplish something like this? She’s played soccer for many years, but she’s never competed as an individual before. We didn’t even know she could run so fast! Suddenly, I’m seeing my younger daughter with new eyes, seeing her as competitive and spunky and fierce and willing to throw herself into the race. So the emotions that rushed through me (and rush through me even now as I see that moment in my mind’s eye) are complex: pride, awe, joy, love. There is something amazing about seeing a child attempt something brave, something that requires courage, that asks the child to put herself—her effort, her identity, her physical self—on the line.
Were you nervous, I asked her afterward, and she grinned and nodded, Yeah, really nervous!
She was nervous but willing. And her nerves showed she cared.
In parenting, the reward is getting to see your children make their attempts. But it can also be heart-rending. There is a lot risked when we care and they care, no matter what it is we’re caring about—a big race, a tough test, a friendship, being on a team, performing at a recital or on-stage. These are risky moments that make us vulnerable—they are vulnerable and we feel vulnerable too. I don’t talk often about parenting through the experiences in which effort goes unrewarded; but those happen too, and those experiences are among my most gruelling parenting challenges, especially when the child cares deeply.
Yet, I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t change being present to watch, win or lose, because it isn’t win or lose. It’s try. It’s do. It’s be. I wouldn’t wish not to care: them or me. The reward is seeing them present in their moments of effort and risk, pushing themselves, and, occasionally, flying.
This is the parent I strive to be: See the child; respond to the child’s needs and individual character.
See the child. See the child.