Here is a portion of a conversation I had with Kevin the evening after my reading at the Sunshine Coast Festival. Let me set the scene: we were sitting outside on a deck at a glass-topped table covered with the remnants of a delicious supper we’d prepared for our family, of grilled and shredded chicken, refried black beans, tortillas, and a salad made entirely from vegetables grown in the garden of the house where we were staying: zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes in a ranch dressing.
The kids had gone inside, probably to watch the Food Network. We don’t have TV at home, and while we were at the house on the Sunshine Coast the kids became entranced and mildly obsessed with shows they found on the Food Network, which was all they watched. Their interest extended beyond the television, and they played and continue to play (especially the younger two) games based around preparing imaginary and elaborate dishes that include bizarre ingredients, and judging their relative success and merit. Just this morning, for example, while I sipped coffee and read the newspaper, I was offered fish and shrimp covered in caramel (um … ok?), and beans and rice topped with peach salsa.
That was a long aside.
Back to the glass-topped table, outside on the deck, at the house overlooking the Georgia Strait where we stayed while on the Sunshine Coast. I’d held the stage for an hour that morning, reading from Girl Runner and talking about my research for the book, and I’ll admit that I was feeling pretty high. It’s rare, at a festival, that you’ll be asked to hold the stage for a full hour (most often, authors are paired with other authors and a moderator, a format that works well when the chemistry is good, but tends to elevate one or two voices above the rest, if the chemistry is even a bit off). In all honesty, I was pretty nervous going into that solo hour, even though I’d prepared obsessively and practiced my presentation in advance. It is an honour to be given an hour of anyone’s time, let alone an hour’s worth of warm and generous attention from a sizeable audience. Trust me, in a writer’s life, this cannot be taken for granted. It’s a gift.
And that is essentially what I said to Kevin, while we stared out at the ocean and marvelled at being here, even if just for a few days: “It feels really good to get to do what you feel you are meant to be doing — it feels so good. So useful. To think of all those people giving me an hour of their time and attention. It is such a gift. This is a most lucky life.”
I think my strongest longing, as a human being, is to be useful. It’s why I so enjoyed parenting small children, and why I wanted to be a midwife. But children grow, and I’m not on the midwife path; instead, here I am, forty years old and still writing. And it doesn’t always feel useful. It often feels frivolous, self-indulgent, narcissistic. I try to apply my skills in wider ways, and to other causes. But it always comes back to this: I love writing fiction. I’m good at organizing ideas into a coherent shape. Out of everything I can do, this is what I can do best.
So I sat at the glass-topped table with my husband, and I savoured the moment, my heart and mind filled with what felt like inexpressible thanks. And now I’m trying to express it, because that is what writers do.
This could be a really really really long post about our truly wonderful family adventure on the West coast of Canada, but I am so pressed for time, having just returned from the truly wonderful adventure with all of the laundry / deficit of food in the house / soccer games upcoming this evening / unanswered emails that it will have to be a really really really short post.
In some ways, I wish we could always be on holiday. I don’t mean I wouldn’t work, because I love my work, and in fact work was a key part of this holiday — I appeared at the Sunshine Coast Festival to present on Girl Runner, and I wrote lots while away, too. I mean, our family would be together all the time, but without the pressure of the every day. We would no doubt bore of this … sleeping in, going for hikes and walks, playing beach volleyball in the ocean, eating out, doing very little in the way of cleaning or upkeep or chores … but it was sweet while it lasted, and I hadn’t tired of it yet.
I hope to post in greater detail soon. The photo above and the one at the top were taken in Vancouver, on an early morning run to Stanley Park. I kept stopping to take photos. It was that beautiful, and that out of norm, for me. Although, strange aside, several people I met while on the Sunshine Coast had been to Waterloo region, and recalled it as a most beautiful place; to which I replied … huh? Please don’t take this the wrong way, Waterloo. I mean, I’ve chosen to live here, not anywhere else on earth, and I love you for many reasons, but geographical features and natural beauty do not top my list. I’ve never been inspired to stop and snap a pic whilst running beside the railroad tracks through campus, for example. To compare:
I know, right? Ocean, sunrise, boats, mountains. Sigh.
Meanwhile, in bookish news:
* I’ll be appearing at the Chapters in Waterloo with The Candy Conspiracy on Saturday at 11AM (click link here for more details)
* It’s just been announced that I’m on the 2015 Journey Prize jury, along with Tanis Rideout and Anthony Da Sa (and it’s amusing to compare the descending head sizes on the official Journey Prize poster)
* Finally, I just opened a package from House of Anansi with the brand-new paperback edition of Girl Runner, including a guide for book clubs, with truly challenging questions (think you could answer them all?)
All for now.
I have a list in my head entitled: Jobs That Kids Can Do Themselves! I can see the title written out in perky brightly coloured bubble letters on a piece of paper and I can see the children discovering the list, glancing at it, and sighing, Oh Mom. (On the imaginary list: pick up dog poo in back yard; clean shoes after stepping in dog poo in back yard; feed and water dogs; put away clean laundry; put dirty laundry into hamper; hang wet towels; empty dishwasher; put dirty dishes in sink; empty recycling and compost bins; make breakfast and lunch; clean up after breakfast and lunch; find friends to play with…)
I have driven many many kilometres this weekend. I have driven them in my new little car. On Tuesday we gave in to the ongoing overlapping scheduling puzzle that has been our reality, as a one-car six-person family, these past few years, and we bought a second vehicle, a little pod that can efficiently travel from the mothership.
Sunset over salt mine, Goderich, Ontario.
On Friday night I was with friends in Goderich — old friends. I was reminded that even within a larger group, I look for moments of intimacy amidst the noise. I like to listen. I like to hear.
On Saturday afternoon I read at a festival in Bayfield, in a space that had been the town hall, with four other writers, and the stories they told were essential and moving and spiritual, somehow, and as the last reader of the eventful first half, I felt myself pulled into the flow in the room, and saw how there was space and focus for what I was about to offer and I was so glad and grateful to the other writers for opening up that spiritual river. How I loved stepping into the water. How I loved Aganetha, speaking through me. On the way home, driving my new little car through the rain, I didn’t want to listen to the radio, I didn’t want talk or music, I wanted to hear my own thoughts, I needed space to let the emotions of the afternoon work their way through my system. I heard myself saying, Aggie Smart is a wonderful character. Give yourself that. Let yourself know it.
One of the writers at Saturday’s event told me afterward that they were embarrassed by the organizer’s introduction of me, which was particularly awkward—title of my last book wrong, said she couldn’t find any information about me online, except some weird site called Obscure CanLit Mama, which perhaps she didn’t realize was mine—and when I got up to speak, I tried to riff off her intro and said that I didn’t mind being obscure, and wrote for the words on the page and the stories I wanted to tell, which perhaps just made everything all the more awkward. And then I read. I dove right into those words on the page. I wasn’t upset by the intro at all, actually, even if the other writer thought it was infuriatingly dismissive of my career and experience. Oddly, I’d thought it was accurate and reassuring. How nice that she couldn’t find much about me online, I thought. Maybe I can do this writing thing and remain obscure. (Although, is that really true? I’m not going to Google myself to find out.)
An author at the event told a story about Alice Munro writing while her kids were at school, and covering her typewriter when they arrived home again; I like that un-precious approach to the work. It fits with how I see myself, as a very ordinary person living a very ordinary life, who happens to enjoy an imaginative extra-life, like a room in the attic full of dress-up clothes stuffed into old-fashioned trunks or with secret passageways that I can visit and escape to, but I’ll still be back downstairs in time to help make supper and coach a soccer game. Life has many rooms. I want to live fully in all of them, whichever room I’m in.
Yesterday, I delivered my youngest child to overnight camp, and he is away from me until tomorrow. This picture breaks my heart just a little. He looks so anxious, but also like he’s trying to reassure me that he will be okay.
The writing work that I’ve submitted recently sits out there waiting for responses and there is no guarantee that anyone will like it or want it. I want other writers to know this, especially writers beginning their careers: know that even the writers you think of as more established, or as having had some success, receive rejection, sometimes, or have to begin projects over again, or abandon them altogether, sometimes. In fact, I think it’s good for a person never to get so comfortable in her abilities that her work can’t be critiqued by thoughtful professionals. It’s good never to become so precious, so valuable commercially, that no one holds you to account. (Even though that sounds awfully tempting and a person can dream!)
The best things in life are never the easiest, even if the experience of them feels easy. Getting to ease is hard.
Maybe I exercise because it is a form of extremity, it removes barriers, can push the self beyond the beyond to a purer place that doesn’t traffic in the ordinary obstacles that come between people, that we use to keep ourselves safe and protected and apart.
Behind me, a daughter inhales her asthma puffer. I can hear her breathe out slowly, then pull the medication into her lungs.
Behind me, my other daughter and her friend practice what I think are dance steps, her friend instructing her, one-two-push. But when my older daughter joins their conversation, I realize that a soccer ball is involved, and the friend is teaching my younger daughter a fancy soccer move, in our living-room. Maybe she will use it in her game tonight.
The nervous little dog comes into this office and lies down near my feet. She is distressed by change and change is constant in our house, in the summertime.
If I were to write a poem today what would be my subject?
If I were to write a short story today what would be my subject?
Here is the blog post I’ve written today. What is its subject?
The American writer, James Salter, died recently, aged 90. His output, said the obituary, was modest: six novels, two short story collections, a memoir. I think that output sounds quite fantastic. Nine books in total, not much more than a book a decade. I think it must have meant he cared deeply about what he published and rejected a lot of his own ideas and attempts. This is just a guess.
Enjoying this room I’m in. Hope you are too, wherever you are.
It’s launch party week!
Here’s the official poster, designed by my talented brother, Cliff. This time around, I’ve handed over the party planning to my friend Melissa’s public relations company; truly, here in non-stop soccer season, I’m too busy to attempt it myself, and the arrival of a new book deserves a celebration! So the plan is, let someone else make a plan, and I will simply show up and have fun. Speaking of showing up and having fun, tomorrow I’m visiting CJ’s Grade One class to talk about writing books (and to read The Candy Conspiracy). And last week, I went on local TV to promote the launch party; yes, that was actually (and unexpectedly) really fun, which is not at all what I was anticipating that morning as I tried to pick appropriate clothes for the occasion and worried about my hair, makeup and nerves. (Writers don’t have a lot of appropriate clothes. Case in point: I’m currently wearing yoga pants and a black t-shirt, with crocs.) That said, I can’t bring myself to watch the clip (and in fact, just opened the link and had a visceral “Oh God, I really can’t watch it” reaction), but hey. Here’s the link, for posterity.
And here’s the point of this post: I hope to see you (and your children or grandchildren) at the Waterloo Public Library this coming Saturday, May 30th, between 1-2PM. Please consider this your official invitation (note: registration helpful for planning purposes, but not required; spontaneity welcome.)
PS Doesn’t it look like I’ve just taken a big chomp out of that cupcake?
My meditation guide invites me to enjoy sitting in silence for twenty minutes, taking these quiet moments for myself, to which I must reply: GAH! Yesterday, I meditated on the train home from a day-trip to Toronto, while just behind me a woman agreed compulsively with everything her friend said, even while her friend was in the midst of saying it: “yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes!” Today, I meditated in my office with the constant beep-beep and deep motorized rumble of trucks as Hydro employees work on the wires in front of our house, which has been a constant for at least a week. The dogs chimed in during the last five minutes of the meditation to howl at … well, whatever dogs howl at, and I think ours are particularly thick in their choices. Are you making good choices, dogs? Are you?
Am I making good choices?
Well, I keep meditating, despite the lack of silence, inner or outer. I think that’s a good choice. I’ve returned to a regular running schedule, despite some twinges in the hamstring. I think that could prove not to be a good choice, but I feel better about running than not running, and I’m making some gains in endurance and cardio again, so, hey, there’s probably a fifty-fifty chance that it’s not a bad choice.
Kevin chose to invest in some new soccer nets for our backyard. Really good choice. Fabulous choice! The kids have been outside non-stop, either on the trampoline or playing soccer in this happy spring weather we’ve been having. We may never be able to grow grass in that strip between nets, but I’m still thinking it’s a good choice.
I was also thinking, while looking out the train window yesterday, and watching the just-rained-upon farmland zoom past, that here in Canada we have such a low threshold for excitement about what constitutes spring. A bit of sun, a touch of warmth beneath a brisk breeze, and we’re all outside grinning and hi-fiving each other. Sure, the grass is brown, the ground is wet, the flowers have scarcely peeked through the mud, and all the trash left behind by melting snow banks is suddenly visible. Sure, it’s windy and rainy and when the sun goes behind a cloud it’s kind of chilly, in fact—but there’s light after supper, and the birds are noisy, and the kids are outside being noisy too, and we’re leaping and kicking our heels together for spring, spring, spring.
PS I successfully checked off from my list all of the work-related responsibilities for the past eight days. Book club; followed by ceremony for the winners of the KPL contest; followed by a reading in Ridgeway, Ontario (where the organizer, who also owns a lovely bookshop in Ridgeway, near Niagara Falls, let me come to her store after the reading to pick out books for each of my kids! isn’t that generous!?); followed by a meeting in Toronto yesterday; followed by an interview today. And now I’ve completed the public work for a little while and can dig back into the private, quiet, sitting-and-writing-all-day work. Oh, and the laundry. Light lifting. That’s the phrase that comes to mind. I don’t know why, but I’m glad. Maybe because it’s spring? All of this, despite the busyness and the effort, and the noise, has felt like light lifting. On we go.
This morning I woke at 5:54AM, realized my alarm hadn’t gone off, leapt out of bed, and somehow got into running gear with shoes on and teeth brushed before my running friend arrived at the door at 6AM. Good grief! It’s been that kind of week, with little margin for error in the schedule. But I suppose it’s also been that kind of week, with things turning out just fine even if the wheels aren’t turning completely smoothly. (And how about that–I need a mere 6 minutes to prep in the morning? I could be sleeping in!)
I’ve been working on my manners while driving. Driving = swearing, in my world. There’s something about being stuck in a vehicle, possibly but not necessarily late, behind other vehicles that are behaving in erratic nonsensical fashion that brings out a rage I rarely experience otherwise. My kids are very helpful, calling out my muttered curses. “Mom, you said the “H” word,” CJ told me yesterday as we sat at a green light behind a car whose driver did not seem to understand the meaning of green lights. Everyone was too politely Canadian to honk, of course. “I’m sorry,” I apologized to CJ. “I’m really trying to work on not saying bad words while driving.”
“I know what you should do,” he piped up, while munching a cookie. “You should meditate in the car.” This cracked everyone up when I reported it later on, no doubt everyone imagining Carrie sitting with eyes closed ignoring the traffic and breathing deeply; but actually, I did take a few deep breaths–eyes open–and it helped. It’s all about weighing what matters, and whether you really want to work yourself into a snit over [fill in the blank]. Usually, the answer is, big picture, I’d rather have a chat with my cookie-eating kid than be gripping the wheel, shoulders tensed, cursing the eccentricities of those who share the road. If only I could recognize that before I start swearing, not during. Connecting the dots between meditation and real life is the real challenge.
Speaking of challenges, yesterday definitely qualifies. Piano lessons, picking up kids from different schools at different times, writing on laptop in car between pickups. Home to eat take-out pizza fetched by Kevin, then up to the little kids’ school for their arts night, visiting with friends and neighbours, ducking out early, dropping little kids at home in care of their older sister who was distracted by her imminently due science fair project (the dining-room table covered in chopsticks, copper wire, batteries, and bouncy balls), and at last, getting changed and zipping over to Conrad Grebel College to read as the final guest in their Mennonite Writers Series. After all that running, what a surprising pleasure it was to come to a stop in the Grebel Chapel. I could not have felt more welcomed. The evening was a total pleasure, and something about the format felt as natural as if I were reading to my kids at bedtime (dressed in nicer clothes, wearing makeup, with a microphone pinned to my shirt). As I sat there at the end of the presentation looking out at this warm and generous audience, I thought, wow, this is a damn lucky life. Embrace it, receive it, savour it.
And then go home to tea and bed in such a happy state of mind that you forget to set the alarm, apparently.
Anyway … I’m reading again tonight at WLU, at Lucinda House, 6:30PM. Then I’ve got a little break in the readings, with more to come in April. I will keep you posted. And I’ll let you know how the car meditation is going …
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