reading in bed
I’m sick and in bed. It’s where I’ve been all weekend. I missed our annual Robbie Burns party, in fact. (Not to sound too over-pitying but the photos above and below were taken during the party. I spent the night at my mom’s instead, with the younger kids, enjoying live-text updates from the party by Albus, Kevin, and my friend Zoe, who had baked Kevin a birthday cake, as we still have no oven. It felt ever so slightly like being there, as I tried to help her locate one lousy birthday candle somewhere in our entire house; she did.)
The one upside to being sick and in bed is all the reading I’ve been able to do. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I lay around devouring books at this pace. I love books, but I’d forgotten how much I need them. When I think back on my life, I realize that I remember in specific detail sitting and reading, or lying in bed and reading, in many different rooms and seasons, and at many different ages. The winter after I’d turned twenty, I lived in a basement apartment with my brother, and we had no television, and the internet, as we now know it, had not been invented (or at least wasn’t available in our basement apartment). I used my computer much like a typewriter: to write papers and poems. And I read for entertainment. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice, maybe for the first time, and all of J.D. Salinger, for the millionth time, and Anne of Windy Poplars, which I still read every once in awhile, just because.
This weekend I fell in love with a book: Born with a Tooth, by Joseph Boyden. Well, it’s short stories, and I do fall for short stories. If you haven’t read it, seek it out and do. I’m certain some of the themes that seed his novels are planted here, and perhaps not as fully developed, this being his first book, but I don’t mind, not at all. These are stories that will gut you, and make your heart ache, and maybe take your spirit somewhere deeper too.
I also read an entertaining cowboy-noir tough-guy book called All Hat, by Brad Smith, which got me through a really crummy Saturday.
And now I’m reading Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. More stories. If I find out a writer I like has written short stories, that’s what I go and seek out. I love them. I find it odd that I haven’t felt like writing them, myself, for awhile. It’s almost like poetry. The urge to write a poem comes and goes — goes for years, lately. And then suddenly comes again. I seem to be thinking in novels instead, since Juliet.
shadow of our house
My profound thought of the day is that everything in this world comes down to land and stories. But now I’ve forgotten why I formed the thought. My brain feels muddy and my eyelids are heavy. Land and stories. I was thinking that war is almost always about land, but not just war — conflict of all kinds. What does it mean to possess land? To claim it? To take its riches? What claim do we have on the land we call ours, both personally and nationally? And then stories. I’ve been thinking how much stories matter. They matter in ways we don’t fully appreciate or maybe can’t take in. Stories are alive and changing, flexible, they can answer the questions we hardly dare to ask, and they can corner us, too, and pin us down. The person in control of the stories is the person with the power. Maybe even more powerful than the person with the land, when you get right down to it.
This could be the fever talking.
Outside, winter winters on, temperatures burning cold, snow whirling, wind whipping. Maybe I will remember this time of reading, years from now, and the stories that filled me up.
A little more on Christian Wiman, I think, having finished the book this morning. (I mentioned this at supper and Albus said, “Doesn’t it usually take you a really long time to finish a book?” and I went, huh? And then oh! Finished reading a book, not writing one. Yeah, that I can do in a morning, though this book took me every morning of this week, and I could likely sit down and read it all over again and find all new material that chimes true, and differently, a second time around.
Then I went and looked up Christian Wiman online, to see, rather morbidly, whether he was still alive (he spent seven years writing the book, and during that time was undergoing treatment for incurable cancer, so my compulsion to know wasn’t completely out there). He is. I found an interview he’d done with a very kindly looking man named Bill Moyers, whom I’ll admit I’d never heard of. (On a side note, I suspect I would enjoy watching more of Moyers’ interviews.) (On another side note, this must have been a “watch random videos” day, because I’d started my morning with a lecture by Brene Brown, whom everybody but me probably already knows for her work on vulnerability; and I liked it, too, and her message about how to be with people in need, but it didn’t speak to me in the same way that Christian Wiman’s book did, maybe because I didn’t have to work as hard to claim to understand what Brown was saying. Maybe I like working hard to figure something out, like the insights are more earned and therefore more personal to me, more personally valuable for being more challenging.)
Where was I?
Oh, the interview with Christian Wiman. Two things. One, the interview is worth watching if you like to hear poets read their own poetry. He reads several. Two, the part where he says that he doesn’t feel like a poet. He says it’s only when he writes a poem that he feels like a poet. He added that it’s different to write prose, and maybe that’s partially true, but I know that I feel the same way about writing fiction. I don’t feel like a fiction writer during the in-between times. I don’t even believe that I can do it — except when I am.
Tonight I am sitting beside an indoor soccer field. I can write this, it’s true. It doesn’t feel like a struggle, more like a pleasure. But it’s simply a record of where I’m at. It lacks structure and larger purpose. It isn’t meant to last. But even as I write that, I wonder, what the heck is? Isn’t it presumption to think it, that one might ever work on something meant to last?
“People who think poetry has no power have a very limited conception of what power means.” – this, and all subsequent quotations, from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss
I’ve been sitting, every morning this week, and reading this book, by Christian Wiman. I can’t take in more than a few chapters during a sitting, and even then, I’m certain I’m not taking everything in. The book is mostly about faith and Christian faith specifically. I find myself not looking to those parts, or shrugging them off; yet I know deep down that faith is an intrinsic part of my outlook, that it is where I come from and where I write from. I believe in something bigger than myself. I believe in infinite wholeness expressed somehow in every living thing, and utterly inexpressible. Most of all, I believe in the power of connection, wherever that is found. I believe, in all seriousness, that there are times when I write that I am receiving a gift by grace.
“A poem, if it’s a real one, in some fundamental sense means no more and no less than the moment of its singular music and lightning insight; it is its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity.”
What does this mean — if it’s a real one? That strikes me as being unfair and judgemental. But isn’t it true? When you read a real poem, you know it. You just do. And isn’t the paradox of writing the need to get beyond one self while staying true to oneself? There is magic in pinning down a moment of singular music and insight; and there is failure, too, because it is an impossible task.
“… existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.”
And yet, to write a story is to participate, actively, in inventing puzzles to be solved. Somehow to be human is to long for puzzles to solve, to crave them. The solution is never as satisfying as the mystery.
“Behind every urge to interpret is unease, anxiety. … The trouble comes when the effort to name and know an experience replaces the experience itself.”
How to answer this? Isn’t this what I’m involved in daily, as I blog and photograph my life?
I was thinking again about the movie we watched on the artist Andy Goldsworthy, and my impatience with his observations about time — time like tide that inexorably rises and time like a river that won’t quit its rushing, and how we are caught up in it. His work relies on using time combined with elements from the natural world. I wanted to yell at him: who needs icicles and the sun, when you’ve got children to pick up for piano lessons? My every day is a study on the relentlessness of time.
I want a study on peace within the relentlessness. Or harnessing the relentlessness to make something bigger and wilder and rockier and freer than one could have imagined, given the boundaries imposed. Maybe that’s what he’s trying to do too. I couldn’t say. I have enough washing away as it is. I want to make time expand.
Here’s a small thought that arose this morning, as I sat and read: Restlessness is a gift. It’s a gift to luxuriate in our imaginations, in possibilities unachieved, in dreams that lie before us and that we are still fortunate enough to dream. That is the meaning on which our lives balance. It is our fortune.
And this post is out of time.
Alert: rambling post ahead. My thoughts are failing to cohere around a single theme, and so I shall offer a messy multitude.
Above, my desk. Coffee cup, cellphone, book I’m currently reading, computer-now-used-mainly-for-processing-photos-as-it’s-dying-a-painful-death, and calendar. Good morning, this desk seems to greet me. I didn’t run because the roads are super-icy, so I didn’t set my alarm, so I overslept, so the getting-everyone-out-the-door portion of the morning was hairy, so I decided to walk the little kids partway to school, so Fooey forgot her glasses, so I had to run back home to fetch them, so I had to drive anyway to get them to her, so I drove her big sister as well, so I stopped for coffee and a croissant at Sabletine on my way home. Ergo, I’m over-caffeinated.
the days are packed, and so is this office
I’m not sure my office could accommodate much more than it already does. It’s a small space. And yet it feels almost miraculously expansive. At times I think that could be a metaphor for life itself. Look at what’s going on here: we’ve got a reader and exerciser walking on the treadmill (she read for TWO MILES on Monday evening!); we’ve got another child, legs and arms just visible in the bottom of the photo, lying on the warm tile floor soaking up some doggie affection; we’ve got books, light, art, work, family, all tucked into this small space.
Some days feel like they have themes or threads tying them together.
Saturday was “free stuff” day, as mentioned in my previous post. By early afternoon, we’d received a free treadmill and a free foosball table. That evening, Kevin and I went to the Princess theatre for dinner-and-a-movie, using a gift certificate given to us over a year ago. (We saw Philomena, which I recommend, although we were a good twenty years younger than anyone else in the theatre). We also scored “free” babysitting from Albus, who agreed to be in charge during our absence in exchange for pizza. On the walk to the theatre, I found a pair of i-pod headphones lying in a puddle, which I decided to rescue rather than leave to ruination in the puddle. I feel slightly guilty about that free find.
Yesterday’s theme was good news on the professional front, with hairy/heart-rending complications on the domestic front.
The professional news is nothing to share, particularly; more to do with ongoing conversations and future plans. But it was lovely to receive pleasant messages in my inbox sprinkled throughout the day.
Not much else went smoothly. I’d planned to pick the younger kids up from school to take them to swim lessons. I sent a note to CJ’s teachers to tell them “no bus,” please. I arrived just as the bell rang to discover the note had been missed, and CJ had been sent to the bus line. I tore through the school to retrieve him (thankfully, in time), but by the time we got back to our original meeting spot, Fooey had come and gone, all in a panic at not seeing us there, so we waited and waited and waited not knowing what was happening while Fooey ran around the school (it’s become very sprawling since they built on an addition). By the time we found each other, she was breathless and in tears, and we were late.
Meantime, Albus texted to say he was at a friend’s house, which left me worried about AppleApple, home alone — did she even have a key to get in? Did she know about her soccer practice, starting early? I texted Kev to call home, and added, “You will have to do supper.”
I’d planned to run at the track during swim lessons. By the time people had changed and gone to the bathroom and made it into the water, I had about twenty minutes total to run. So I ran as fast as I could, round and round and round, blowing off steam. As I helped CJ shower and change, I realized I was pouring with sweat … and that my best-laid plan did not include time for me to change (let alone shower!) between dropping the kids at home and racing with AppleApple to the early soccer practice. Suffice it to say that we arrived slightly late at the indoor field, my face lightly splashed with water from Fooey’s shower, wearing decent clothes.
The heart-rending bit went like this. I met a friend for lunch. We had a lovely time together. On the walk home, the weather warmer and sunnier than expected, we passed the social services building, and a young mother exited behind us. She was berating her child, who was no more than two, and who made not a peep. Her tone was loud and angry and caught our attention. My friend and I both kind of froze, went silent. We kept glancing over our shoulders as we walked, keeping the young woman and child in view. Should we intervene in some way? We asked each other. We didn’t know. I think it haunted us both — not knowing whether to speak up, and haunted even in the moment by the fate of this child, and by extension the fate of every child made to feel unwanted or unloved. (I must add that at no time did the child appear to be in any physical danger.)
I’m currently reading a book sent to me by my UK publisher (Two Roads): The end of your life book club, a memoir by Will Schwalbe. Read it. It’s a meditation on the shared reading experience, and the mother/son relationship, and all the while it illuminates and reflects on the particular life of the author’s mother, who is described as a woman always open to the world around her. She’s a natural leader and visionary who believes in action. She meets everyone’s eye. She asks questions of everyone she meets. She listens and responds. She never feels she knows too many people or has friends enough or worries about having too many relationships to sustain — she faces the world (and its pains and problems) with genuine welcome. I’m a bit in awe of her. I want to learn from her.
I wonder whether she would have found some entrance into the young woman’s life. I wonder, thinking it over later, whether it would have been helpful to approach and offer to watch the child or carry him to the bus stop, so the young woman would have had a moment to collect herself and burn off steam. (I didn’t think of this in the moment.)
I felt that my posture and response to the situation was fearful. I was afraid of appearing judgemental and intrusive rather than helpful. I was afraid of getting in over my head. I was afraid of having the young woman’s anger turned on me. I was thinking of the invisible enormity of the problems, hidden like the tendrils of mushrooms, underneath, and I was overwhelmed and paralyzed.
In the end, we walked on (after observing the young woman reach the bus stop with her child), unable to speak of anything other than what we’d seen, weighed-down and saddened and heart-broken, a bit. Truthfully, I don’t know whether we should have done anything differently. But I haven’t been able to let it leave my mind either.
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?
snow on the roof, yesterday
New experience #1: I marked my first assignments this past week. My goal is to reward effort and engagement, as well as skill and effect, and I erred on the side of generous, which is probably a rookie mistake. I have my students handing in a finished piece along with two drafts and discussion of the editing/writing process, with comments supporting their revisions. The projects that showed greatest improvement between drafts were without exception those critiqued by friends or peers. I thought that was interesting, and shows the importance of sharing work, and of editors, even if your editor is your roommate. Even if you disagree, another perspective gives you something to argue against, and more often than not provides insight into weaknessess that are impossible for the writer to see in a time-crunched situation. I explained that I’m very private with early drafts (which are terrible, let’s be honest), and I set my work aside for a month or even longer, and then return with fresh eyes; but my students don’t have the luxury of time. I have a system of trust worked out: my first reader is always Kevin, who has to say (mainly) nice things, and of course the book never comes near publication without having been first seen and commented on by my agent (who is my second reader), and by professional editors, including copy editors and proofreaders. That’s a lot of eyeballs! And I rely on them to lift my work.
Lately I’ve been happily re-reading favourite books to find stories to share with the class, partly to add variety to the evening (I read passages outloud), and partly to demonstrate the different ways writers successfully do what they do — particularly in terms of technical considerations. Last night, I read the opening to Eden Robinson’s “Traplines,” what has very flat, stark delivery and description, with a rare punch of a metaphor to shock the system: the reader is tipped immediately into the action. I wanted to show them that, too. Then I read the opening to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?,” which begins with a long section describing furniture, zero dialogue, no flash, yet is highly suspenseful. How does he manage it? The furniture is outside on a man’s front lawn and driveway, set up like it would be inside the house, with everything plugged in, and it’s clearly no garage sale. Why? Wouldn’t you like to know? Again, even though it’s done with seemingly straightforward description, the story tips the reader immediately into the middle of something.
dog crate as end table, in living-room
I find myself talking about plot, especially in stories, as something that can be found most naturally through setting and character, through relationships, through characters’ reactions to situations; suspense is created by partial telling, by those bread crumbs dropped on a trail. Too little, and the reader is confused; too much, and the reader is bored. It’s a balancing act. A student asked me to provide a rubric for story-writing, but I can’t. You can’t go down a checklist and write the perfect story. (Besides, forget perfection!) I have the feeling I might not be a great creative writing teacher, in all honesty, because my thoughts on the subject tend toward broad and vague rather than prescriptive, but my goals, as the course has progressed, have changed slightly: I want them to get time to write, in class, because writing is all about practice, and I want them to hear/read good writing.
Yesterday, before class, I read a fascinating essay on Raymond Carver’s relationship with his first major editor, whose name was Lish (I’ve forgotten his first name). Lish, a writer himself, claimed to have rewritten the early Carver stories so thoroughly that he felt he should have been considered a collaborator or even co-author rather than an editor. The essayist, who reviewed archived materials, had to agree that Lish’s fingerprints were all over Carver’s first two collections, which were lauded for their minimalist style. Carver’s style changed in his later collections; not coincidentally, he’d distanced himself from Lish at that point. The essayist felt that Lish’s changes (which included actually writing new endings, and removing up to 70% of the original text) strengthened Carver’s work — at least, his early work.
At the end of the essay, for comparison, were two Carver stories: the same story, but very different, and published at different times. The first version (“The Bath”) is striking for its brusque almost brutal style: it’s short, clipped, and has an ambiguous ending. The second version (“A Small, Good Thing”) is more than twice as long, and striking for its flirtation with sentimentality that allows it an ending of enormous emotional power. Guess which one I liked better? Yet it can’t be denied that Lish’s influence took Carver from obscurity and brought him to a level of fame and success — and confidence — that allowed Carver to drop Lish and head off in his own direction.
Long tangent. It’s kind of a puzzle, isn’t it. What would I do if a student handed in a finished story that had been essentially rewritten by another student? Yikes! Don’t do that, students! That’s not the kind of editing I’m advocating. And yet, Carver’s stories exist and I’ve loved them ever since I started reading them: does it matter how they came to be? I’m not sure, actually. I found myself wondering if it was Lish I was reading rather than Carver as I read “Why Don’t You Dance?” to the class last night, and did Carver have a different version somewhere else that maybe I would have liked better (since I rather like stories that flirt with the sentimental).
New experience # 2: I spent Tuesday evening marking in my office on campus. When I checked my mailbox, look what I found: actual mail! My friend Nath sent me a postcard from England, where she’s living this year. I was touched. And excited. And I must admit that I approached my mailbox with slightly more expectation before yesterday’s class, but found it once again in its natural state. As an aside, I’m really liking my office. It’s a weirdly comforting place to come to. I’m essentially unplugged there, and undisturbed by technology. It has no personality except for that fabulously awful brown easy chair, which I can’t look at without thinking “bacteria,” but I will miss it when the term ends.
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