I’m nearly done marking, and find myself reflecting on how better to structure my course next year, should I be invited to teach again. I’m also thinking about how I might structure a higher-level creative writing course: what elements are missing from my current curriculum that perhaps belong in a separate course altogether?
My goal for next year would be to teach grammar in a creative way, because without the tools to build complex yet clear sentences, it is virtually impossible to construct complex stories. And all stories are complex when you break them down: there are so many elements that go into storytelling, many of which become instinctive when one has practiced writing for years and years, but which are actually very tricky to manage–slippery to manage, evasive, elusive, invisible, unrecognized, subtle, and unavoidable. Setting, plot and sub-plot, voice, character-building, relationships, dialogue, mood, verb tense, movement through time, descriptive language, meaning, thematic layers, back-story, interior and exterior action, emotion, perspective. Have I touched on everything? Probably not. Beginnings and endings. Deciding when to tell what you know. Eliminating that which is extraneous, even though you love it dearly. Editing. Rewriting. Not becoming attached to any part of what you’ve made, so that you can cut it out, if necessary. (Writing is not like parenting: writing requires a ruthlessness that I would never draw on, as a parent.)
And here’s the issue: to manage all of these things, or any of them, really, you must construct sentences that support what you’re trying to do. There is real technical skill underpinning excellent writing.
So I find myself dreaming up writing exercises that would seamlessly include practice in the craft as well as the art. I think it’s possible. It’s kind of exciting to dream this stuff up, actually.
This is not what our living-room looks like at present. This is my aspirational living-room.
On another note …
Things that go well, and things that do not, and things that mysteriously fit into both categories at the very same time:
– helping children practice instruments in the morning, before school
– walking dogs to meet kids after school
– being injured and unable to run and doing an hour of daily core-strength exercises instead
Snapshot 1: “Nope. I’m not going to practice this morning. I’ll practice later! After school!” “But that doesn’t seem to work. Later never comes.” “But I don’t want to do it now!” “But it’s always now. It will be now after school.” “Well I don’t want to do it right this second!” “It’s a privilege to get to play the violin. We can’t keep having this conversation.” “Ok! I will play! But you can’t comment!”
A few minutes later …
“Why are you so excited when CJ practices, but not with me?” “CJ lets me help him.” “But you can’t help me. You never played the violin.” “Your teacher can help with the bowing, but I can help with the notes.” “I don’t want to talk about it now…”
Snapshot 2: Kids running down the sidewalk after school, excited to see dogs. “Wow, you guys are fast today. You’re the first kids I’ve seen.” Small dog in pink sweater decides to stop and produce on someone’s front lawn. I remove mittens, pull plastic bag from coat pocket, stoop to clean up. What happens next happens all at the same time. Pack of schoolchildren appears. Dog slips collar and begins trotting toward street. Neighbour girl excitedly runs to pet dog who has slipped collar, and who is not the friendly dog! I toss mittens, grab for loose dog, try to hand other dog’s leash to daughter while not dropping half-filled plastic poo-bag, and warning (in what I hope are non-frantic tones) the neighbour girl away from the (undeniably cute) dog who is not friendly. Time skips in jagged leaps. Pack of schoolchildren passes, unharmed. I see myself kneeling on the quiet snowy sidewalk, half-filled poo-bag in one hand, skittish dog in the other, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with the collar. “Mom, you almost threw your mittens in Suzi’s poo!” “What? There’s more poo?” “It’s right there.” “This is way too much drama for me!”
Snapshot 3: The remains of supper are on the table. I’m lying on a blue yoga mat between the couch and the bookshelf that doubles as a computer desk. Kevin is perched on a stool near my knees, replying to work emails on the computer. I’m doing repeats of bridge, which I kind of hate, kind of intensely. Fooey is kneeling on the couch, leaning over the back, observing me from above. AppleApple is moving around restlessly on the beanbag chair near my head, observing me from above. Dogs arrive on scene, enormously excited at the discovery of a human trapped at the licking and sitting-upon level. Imaginary announcement over imaginary PA system: “Could all family members please report to the yoga mat behind the couch? Calling all family members…” The pay-off will be running again. And, possibly, abs of steel, and glutes that could crack a Christmas walnut. Bad image. Time to stop writing.
* title is tongue-in-cheek; but you got that, right?
This happened on Friday (see above).
Friday was one of those days, which feels, at the moment, like all of the days, when every must-do is done slightly behind schedule, and therefore with ratcheting tension; that was Friday, especially so. Friday included an early-morning physio appointment, a work-related phone call wherein the phone wouldn’t work, marking assignments, work-related emails that couldn’t be ignored, taking care of the sick kid (who as of this writing is still sick!), and answering the door regarding incoming packages. It was the kind of day where I was reminded that working from home is convenient for everyone except for the person working from home. Need someone to sign for your package? Carrie’s home! Sick child needs attention, feeding, and care? Carrie’s home! The dogs are disastrous bundles of anxiety and need walking? Carrie’s home! I can hear the bitterness accumulating in my tone now. I guess I haven’t gotten it out of my system.
Not running right now (injury) isn’t helping. I’ve been walking on my treadmill regularly. Helps a bit. Doing my physio exercises faithfully. Hoping the exercises help the hamstring issue, because they ain’t helping with the excess of nervous energy.
Back to Friday. I was late heading out to pick up CJ. AppleApple had arrived home and wanted to come along and bring the dogs, who needed walking, as mentioned. Dogs proceeded to stop at several amazingly inconvenient locations and moments, en route, to relieve themselves, including once in the middle of a street (!!), which required some quick work with the plastic baggy. Anyway. We were late. I ended up leaving AppleApple in charge of the dogs near the school grounds, and running (remember how I’m not supposed to run?) all the way around the school in an effort to get to CJ before the bell rang. I was not successful. This was totally my fault for leaving so late plus bringing the dogs, mother-guilt, mother-guilt, mother-guilt, sprinting across the playground. There he was, panicking and near tears. Also, my hamstring hurt a lot, after just that short run. Which seems like not good news. But it felt like a day of not good news; or, more precisely, off-kilter news, not-quite-right news.
As we were walking around the school to reunite with AppleApple and dogs, CJ smiled at me, having already cheered up, and I said, “Oh, and look, you’ve had a big day! You’ve lost your tooth!”
His face simply fell. “What????” He reached into his mouth to feel for the tooth.
“Did you not know you’d lost your tooth?”
“No!” He was near-tears again. The tooth had been dangling by a thread when he left in the morning. I’d offered to pull it, but he was hesitant and Kevin was in a hurry, and so we didn’t try. And now the tooth was gone, lost for real. First baby tooth of my last baby. The Tooth Fairy in me was grieving. And CJ was really worried about the Tooth Fairy too. Would she deliver without the goods?
“I think I swallowed it,” he said solemnly. “But not when I was eating my apple. I didn’t have an apple today!”
Later that evening, we problem-solved. CJ composed a note. It went something like this: “Dear Tooth Fairy, I lost my tooth. I can’t find my tooth. Next time I will let my mom pull my tooth. I hope you find it. Love, CJ.” [Note: certain portions of this letter may have been dictated by a certain mother…]
In the morning, he came running find me, clutching the note, on which the Tooth Fairy had made her reply. “Mom, the Tooth Fairy really is magical!!!!” [Note: the Tooth Fairy focused her message on brushing. Certain portions her letter may have been dictated by a certain father, who is in charge of the dental portfolio, in our family…]
On another subject, sort of, I’m wondering how much longer to sustain the Santa Claus myth for my Fooey, who, at age 9, is seriously suspicious: “When I move out of this house, you’ll have to tell me if Santa Claus is real!” Um. Okay. I don’t even particularly like carrying out these illusions, a part of me feels deceptive, but the other part knows that the kids love and even crave the illusions; my older two were crushed when, as a novice parent wanting to be honest, I told them the truth about Santa Claus, when they asked me, around the ages of 3 and 4. Crushed! They reminisce about it to this day (not around the younger kids, however). “Oh, Mom, you just didn’t know any better,” they say, rather fondly. They’ve forgiven me. But they’re careful to make sure I keep things going for the younger two. In fact, it was AppleApple who stepped in and took charge when Fooey demanded to know why the pyjamas from Santa Claus always come from Land’s End…
This post has gone in a direction entirely unforeseen. From griping about working at home to the realities of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. How can I be a fiction writer and be so ambivalent about sustaining illusions? Honestly.
PS This Obscure CanLit blog has been shortlisted for two prizes at the Canadian WeBlog Awards, in the categories of Life and Writing & Literature. I’ll admit to being slightly baffled about this, but nevertheless pleased and flattered.
One child home sick since Tuesday. Ginger ale, tea with honey, boredom, sleep.
One child about to lose his first tooth! “Is it still there? Is it still there? Is it still there?” “Yes. You’ll know when it’s gone. There will be a little hole for your tongue to go through.” Brief pause. “Is it still there?”
One child knitting a pink leg warmer for a dog using four small double-sided needles purchased with birthday money. “That’s amazing. How did you figure out how to do that?” “Oh, Mom. You’re underestimating yourself. All you’d need is half an hour looking at instructions on the internet and you could do it too!”
One child practicing the violin. “I’ll only play when you listen.” “I’m listening.”
One woman lying on a yoga mat in the living-room, doing her physio exercises. Opens her eyes, sees her daughters hanging over the back of the couch to peer at her from close range. “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” Dogs arrive on scene, one begins licking woman’s face, the other sits on her foot. A game with a balloon is being played, solo, with every move narrated out loud. “Mom, you have to see this great play this guy just did! Who are you cheering for? Fire or Fireplace? Or wait, no, the teams are Happy or Fire. Remember, you cheered for Happy last time. Happy’s the best.” “Okay, I’ll cheer for Happy.” “Dad’s cheering for Happy.” “Ok, I’ll cheer for the other one.” “Fire? They’re okay, Mom, but they’re probably not going to win.” “I like underdogs.” “So you’re cheering for Fire? Sorry, Mom, they just got scored on. You have to see what the guy just did!” Dog continues frantic licking of woman’s face.
One daughter begins timing physio exercises with digital watch. Other daughter begins practicing the recorder. “I’ll start from the first song I learned.”
Woman calls out to husband: “I need a snapshot of this moment!”
Husband can’t hear. Husband is playing his favourite songs in the kitchen while washing up the dishes after supper.
And that’s all she wrote.
I’ve set the timer. I’ve given myself fifteen minutes to sketch out a few thoughts that have been floating around my mind, not necessarily connected to each other.
The main thought is this: the easiest way to express love, care, and pride to my children is to be present. Example: on Tuesday evening, I drove Fooey to her gymnastics class. I usually drop her off and Kevin picks her up, an hour and a half later. But on Tuesday, I made a spontaneous decision. Did I really need to go home? I didn’t, really. So I stayed. She was thrilled. The bench on which I sat was hard, but the task was easy. Watch. Wave, occasionally. Give a thumbs up. Smile. And on the way home, talk about the class, and anything else.
She’s been a happier kid in my presence ever since.
It reminds of last winter, when I started going to my eldest’s indoor soccer games. It was a small time commitment every week that required sitting on the sidelines and watching (and again, uncomfortable benches!), yet it seemed to bring about a complete shift in how we were able to relate to each other. I wasn’t saying: I care. I was showing it instead.
It is such a blessing to be home again, to have again the opportunities for these interactions. Having four children means having to spread my attention a little thin at times, and this fall it’s meant lacking entirely in attention and presence to offer. Skype calls are ridiculously insufficient, let me tell you. They are the stuff of tragic-comedy. Being present on a computer screen in your living-room is one step removed from appearing as a character on TV.
Okay, so maybe I only have time for one thought today.
Or maybe I can squeeze one more in, here. It’s about what matters. It’s not a small thought, but an enormous one, the kind of thought that should pervade one’s life at all times, and I think it does even if it’s not always at the forefront of the mind. It’s about rejecting cynicism and doubt, and throwing your arms around life in a way that shouts, Life is precious and I am here right now, alive. It’s about putting into perspective the meaning and weight of accomplishment and success, and turning to the people and connections and rituals and routines that bring you daily succour. It’s about humility, grace.
It’s about presence. While present, be present. It’s about giving what you have to give, and not questioning whether it’s big enough, good enough, strong enough, fine enough, valuable enough. It’s about sitting on the sidelines with love, pride, a touch of boredom, a touch of restlessness, and deep, joyful care.
The timer’s gone.
I’m home. And I’m tired. But that’s not news. I’m living in a blur of present moments that vanish behind me, and I’m not doing a great job of keeping track. To every thing there is a season. This seems not to be the season of reflection and stillness, and I’m in serious need of such things. That’s why I’m glad for the glancing moments of reflection & stillness provided by this blog.
I had eight events in eight days, plus teaching, plus children, plus travel. This morning I got up early and went to my spin & weights class for the first time in four weeks. It wasn’t hard getting there, it wasn’t even hard being there, but I hit a point during the lifting and swinging of the kettle bells when I realized that I’d crossed some physical line. I had to take a brief break. “You went pale,” one of my friends said. I knew it, too. I was able to come back after a swig of water and continue, but I didn’t push hard, because I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
Kevin works in Toronto on Mondays, so back home, I had the morning routine to hum through. Greet the already awake, yoga-practicing daughter, wake the eldest, start making breakfast. Around 7:38 there came a great stomping from upstairs. Crap, I forgot to wake Fooey. She doesn’t need to be up at 7:15, but she likes to be up at 7:15, and insists on being woken; but I don’t like waking her unnecessarily early. So. Was it forgetting on my part, or making a wise parenting decision that she should sleep longer? I wasn’t even sure myself. But she sure was sure.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Stomp, stomp, stomp.
“I hate those kinds of eggs.”
“You forgot about me.”
“You didn’t even make me hot chocolate. You don’t even know what I like.”
Some long while later I said, thinking I would drill into the heart of what seemed to be the issue, “I know I’ve been gone a lot. But I’m home again now.”
“And you’re already making mistakes.”
Instant reply. Articulate. True. She’s smart. And she’s cutting right to the core of my feelings of weakness and doubt.
If you think parenting is about being the adult in the situation, well, you’re absolutely right. It is. And I was the adult in the situation, and I simply apologized again, hugged her again, promised again to do my best, and life goes on. But on the inside, in that moment, it felt like she’d touched on a pain I could never fix. And I thought, parenting is also about this. It’s about feeling pain, and calmly carrying the pain to the kitchen where you go on loading the dishwasher.
“What can I do to make you feel better?” I asked her.
“Don’t be late to pick me up from violin lessons,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, and then, after mentally running through my list of recent failings: “I’ve never been late to pick you up from violin.”
“And you’d better not be today,” she replied.
She’s missed me most vocally, while I’ve been away. And she is the child who seems least comforted and assured by my efforts to comfort and assure—that I’m here, and all is well. Maybe I can’t because I’m not sure, either, that I’m here and that all is well.
I’m here. I mean, I am. I’m here.
I think she will love these photos.
But I’m tired, as I said. And I’ve been in a strange, performative, public space that’s kept me on the alert, energized, and apart from them, kept me occupied with concerns unrelated to hot chocolate and violin lessons and morning wake-up times. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I did forget about her this morning. At 7:15AM, I forgot that she insists on being woken, and maybe she insists on being woken because it assures her that she is remembered and therefore loved.
This isn’t what I’d intended to write about when I sat down just now. I wanted to write about the weekend, with its whirlwind of events. I’ve been to the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo, and to Books & Brunch in Uxbridge, and both were memorable and special events, and I would like to write about them sometime. But we don’t always get to choose what wants to be written. And I guess it’s fitting that I’m writing about this instead, because, yes, I’m home again. I’m here, now.
It’s that eternal present in which I’m existing. In order to be very much present, I have to be very much present. Leaving room for little else, past & future.
And in today’s eternal present, oh, how I don’t want to be late for violin lessons.
photo credit: Shari Lovell
This morning began unusually. I woke at 6AM, refreshed after a very very long sleep, having crashed out just after 9PM last night. Teaching takes a lot of energy, at least for someone who would skew toward introverted on the personality continuum, and I had my class on Wednesday night (a happy place to spend three hours, I must tell you, even though our windowless brick room in a hive-like building resembles a bunker, and gets very muggy when packed out with creativity and debate). What a day to go and teach. I think it was a good thing, as it forced me to be focused and to pay attention to something other than the noise.
There was some noise on Wednesday. There was this lovely interview done by the Canadian Press, which ran in various media outlets. There was the phone call from the Writers’ Trust to confirm that Girl Runner was on the list, and various emails to note upcoming appearances and media requests associated with the award. I checked my calendar a lot. And my phone. Twitter and Facebook kept pulling me in. It was a lot of noise, as I say, and I found myself unable to settle and reflect, or even, quite, to feel what was happening.
So I was grateful to my students for occupying my evening. We talked about poetry. There was so much to learn from the discussion, so many reminders of why poetry matters, why words matter.
photo credit: Shari Lovell
Kevin had gotten take-out ramen for supper, which I reheated in our shiny new microwave when I got home, nearing 10PM. (Yes, we finally got a microwave, and I must confess my leftover lunches are much more enticing than those consumed during our long, cold pre-microwave era.) After eating, all the kids in bed, Kevin dug through his scotch collection (so many bottles, each with an inch or three of liquid, leftover from our years of hosting scotch parties), and pulled out a particularly choice selection. I don’t have the name handy. But he went online to check its current value, were it full and unopened, and announced that we would be celebrating with a $5,000 bottle of scotch. I mean, seriously?! There was just enough for two wee drams.
One of the pleasures of the scotch party is hearing our friend Mike read the tasting notes, so to keep with tradition, I will tell you that this ridiculously pricey scotch tasted heavily of oak barrels, with overtones of straw (or was that the colour?) and undertones of turmeric and cinnamon. Or something like that. Maybe it was nutmeg. And a bit of blue sky.
It was a lovely celebration. I was up five hours later to run with my speedy friend Heather, who kindly slowed down for the occasion; also because that will be my last run before I attempt the Toad, tomorrow morning: 25 kilometres of likely-to-be-muddy trail. God help me.
The book I was reading this morning is called A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I’m going to keep talking about it until I’m done, and probably for a long time thereafter, and the next reader I’ve got in mind is my 11-year-old daughter.* We’re both of us possessed of a lot of energy and drive (I hazard to suggest she’s got even more of both than I do), and we both of us need to find ways and reasons to turn down the noise and become still. (And not because we’re crashing!)
my girl runner
Wednesday, after the prize announcement and before teaching, I dashed over to her school to watch her run a cross-country race. She came second out of a large field of 7th and 8th graders. “I’m so tired! Weirdly tired! Like way too tired!” she told me immediately afterward as she lay prone on the grass. “You just ran three kilometres really fast,” I pointed out. “That’s not it!” “Well, maybe you’re too frail and shouldn’t run more than 200 metres,” I suggested, tongue in cheek. She’s read Girl Runner. She smiled faintly. Then she sat up and took off her shoes. “My feet are too hot!”
At first, she was quite disappointed in her performance, and it mattered not when I pointed out that the girl who finished first was two heads taller and a grade older. She insisted on expecting better of herself. I kept assuring her that she’d been wonderful, that she’d given her all, that I was very proud, and finally, much later, before bed, she smiled to reassure me that she was happy with the race. Mostly. I can’t argue with her. Her expectations are her own. She isn’t discouraged when she doesn’t meet them. Instead, her expectations seem to fire her with greater focus and renewed intent. Yeah. I get that. There will always be someone faster, smarter, more talented. But I think she already knows: that it’s not about comparisons. It’s about finding one’s own voice, one’s own passion.
But what about stillness? What about releasing expectation? What about rest for the mind and body?
A Tale for the Time Being is the story, in part, of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who’s offered decades to the practice of meditation, prayer, ritual gratitude for each gift, no matter how small. She bows with her whole body to the world. She is at peace with mortality. The humility of her daily practice gives her SUPAPOWAs! Even her physical frailty is a strength.
So I wake this morning, early, thinking about how whatever I have to offer must come from a grounded place, a place where I sit in stillness and silence, practicing gratitude, bowing with my whole body to this beautiful, difficult, scary, noisy world, with openness and with humility. A gift is a gift. What to do with it? How to give thanks? How to give, no matter how tired, frail, mortal, flawed? How to be still. How to listen.
PS I’d like to point you toward a review of Girl Runner by a blog-reader who is an Ironman athlete and writer; he also digs into the history of women’s long distance running.
* Note: after writing this post, I finished A Tale for the Time Being, and discovered that in the final third of the book, there are several extremely dark scenes relating to extreme bullying, attempted rape, and child prostitution, and although my 11-year-old is a mature reader, I don’t think the book is meant for her–not yet. But sections of the book are meant for her! However, I can’t figure out how to carve out the darkness to show her the light. I think this Tale for the Time Being will have to wait, for the time being. Nevertheless I highly recommend it to a mature adult audience. What is light without shadow? (The book also contains the clearest explanation of quantum mechanics that I’ve ever read.)
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