We basked in glorious weather this weekend. We tuned bikes, ate outside, and got a bit too much sun on our noses. But I have to tell you. There is grief and worry rivering under our spring gladness — it feels false not to write about it here, and yet I’ve been hesitating to do so, being as this is not a story directly about me. But here it is. My stepmother (my dad’s wife) has been diagnosed with cancer. All who’ve had illness alight when least expected must know how this feels: shock, sadness, determination, all mingling together with a sense of helplessness, and the parallel impatience to get going already and live each day. Maybe it’s why I’ve been running so much lately. I don’t know. But that’s the other thing I did this weekend: I ran a long way. The mind goes quiet, when running a long way, and the body begins to take over and grow stronger until the mind has almost nothing to say anymore, but waits in stillness and calm, amazed at the effort accessible to the body in this state that seems to me almost intensely serene.
Supper prep is calling. Get going: eat, drink, jump, play, run, but most of all love.
I sponsored the two older kids’ rep soccer teams this season by “buying a sleeve.” We decided to add “A NOVEL” to the title GIRL RUNNER, thinking that a team of 13-year-old boys might not appreciate having to wear that label during games.
This was our dining-room table, Monday afternoon. Two sets of page proofs, one galley, one sharp red pencil, and one mother announcing to all who entered after school, “There will be no eating or drinking on or near this table until I AM DONE!”
I am done.
All may eat and drink here again.
Last night’s reading at DVLB was really fun. I even indulged in a scotch, thanks to the kindness of a friend who treated. Imbibe ye scotches while ye may. Life’s too short not to enjoy the pleasures that arrive. Even if that happens to be on a Tuesday night and you’re running the next morning. And so I did. (And I ran this morning too: Run ye many kilometres while ye may.)
No scotches tonight, however. I’ll be driving to and from Hamilton, where I’m reading at Bryan Price Bookseller, 7pm, with other M Word contributors. (Note to self: look up directions!)
Tomorrow I’ll be at the Anansi offices working on publicity plans for Girl Runner. (Note to self: more directions! Look up!)
Can you read the above? I can’t. File this under Strange Opportunities that Arrive via the Internet. Last month I was contacted by an editor at Unitas, a Chinese-language literary magazine in Taiwan, who wanted to interview me for a special issue they were planning on Alice Munro. (They’d found and loved my review of Alice Munro’s Dear Love in the National Post.) I agreed. And this month, two copies of the beautifully produced magazine arrived in my mailbox, in an envelope covered in fancy stamps. Sometimes the world seems very very small.
I’ve never met Alice Munro, and can’t imagine what I would say to her if we were to meet. It’s an entirely one-sided relationship based purely on my reading of her stories over many years. I’m immersed in MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH right now, a truly wonderful book that combines biography with memoir, and in some way I feel like my relationship with Alice Munro is similar to Rebecca Mead’s with George Eliot; but Mead has the benefit of distance and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable exploring Alice Munro’s life and work in quite the same way, given that she’s still living, and that our worlds literally overlap in time and space. It wouldn’t be historical exploration. There’s a freedom to digging back into the past, way back. I’m aiming to do it now, in my next novel. Nothing can be perfectly recovered from the deep past, and so one may imagine quite freely.
Yet I’m so admiring and relishing this memoir/biography mash-up on George Eliot — I would do it, if I could figure out my relationship with non-fiction, a form I’m still learning. I’m thinking out loud here, brainstorming as I type. Perhaps not the best way to compose a blog post on which one is about to press “publish.” But if I could figure out how, yes, I would write about Alice Munro.
I think the NMA nomination was especially thrilling (and perhaps seductive) because it was earned for “personal journalism,” aka non-fiction. It’s a form that interests me more and more, that I find myself devouring more and more, and that I want to learn how to master.
Yesterday was devoted to running.
I started by running 10.5 km early in the morning, before and then during the rain. My Tuesday running partner couldn’t meet up, so I headed out alone. It was very dark and extra-early, because I’d taken swim girl to the pool first. On early dark mornings I stick to neighbourhood streets, when what I really want is to run out toward the open sky. But on early dark mornings that path feels isolated and unlit; I err on the side of caution. I’d gone a dull 4 km when I saw a familiar jacket ahead. I ran faster to catch up. A friend! (Not my usual running partner.) Running with her livened up my route immensely.
Basically, aside from the odd evening out, my social life is anchored by early morning exercise with friends. And texting. And threshold conversations, such as when dropping a kid off, or waiting on the sidelines/poolside/at music lessons. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?
I spent the day reading through the Girl Runner galley, sharpened pencil in hand. This is gruelling work, I’ll admit. Because I’m still reading as the writer, still working to improve (not to say perfect) the words on the page, I can’t read as a reader. After many hours of this, all I wanted to do was run.
Maybe I was inspired by Aganetha.
Kev and I were tag-teaming supper prep, but it wasn’t ready in time for soccer girl to eat before soccer practice. I was taking her. I grabbed a handful of almonds, dashed upstairs and came back down in running gear.
Kevin, in the kitchen, puzzled: “Didn’t you already run this morning?”
Yes, but. That seemed ages ago, like it belonged to another day, another season. Plus, at soccer practice I can run out under an open sky. And it had stopped raining.
So I went, and I ran. And as I ran, I didn’t think about anything in particular. I didn’t think about punctuation or trimming words from sentences. I didn’t think about publicity planning. I thought about running. I repeated a few key phrases that remind me to improve my form, or push harder, or to relax. Quick feet. Tuck in. Shoulders down. I decided I would complete a half-marathon distance in one day, this run being the second stage. And so I did. And that’s what I thought about, really. That’s all.
change of focus
Daily life is a mixture of noise and quiet, connection and interiority, an ongoing attempt to stay focused on whatever is the priority at the moment. To not get distracted. I spend a lot of my daily life trying not to let myself get distracted. Maybe I need a few key phrases, like those I use while running. If I’m with someone, I want to be with them. If I’m working on something, I want to be working on it. It’s where squeezing everything in breaks down, attempting to do too many things all at once, splitting one’s focus. Am I tuning out the right things? Tuning in to the things I mean to? Our brains seem wired to get off on distraction. Quick hits of excitement. But really it’s focus that’s deeply satisfying. It’s running and emptying the mind. It’s reading a stack of picture books to a kid before bed. It’s listening to what a friend is saying, not jumping ahead to what you’ll say next.
If you notice I’m writing here a little less frequently, it’s due to writing elsewhere a little more frequently. On balance it all equals out, although the other things I’m writing don’t receive instant publication.
It feels really really good to be writing, especially new fiction. It’s so deeply satisfying to my brain. Like scratching a hard to reach itchy spot, or discovering a stretch that eases a tensed muscle.
I’ve been reflecting more deliberately this month on my word-of-the-year, which is SUCCESS. Such a daunting word to take on, yet it keeps calling out to be wrestled with. Any change in identity causes disturbances within the self, even positive change, even success. Even the meaning of success changes depending on the kind of day I’m having. It’s really personal. I also find myself rolling over the idea of how much a person can change, fundamentally, throughout a lifetime. Do the same insecurities that arose in childhood continue to affect my behaviour and choices now, or am I wise enough to stand counter to the pettier of the emotions and weigh my reactions rationally? I don’t have the answer to that.
On instinct, I continue to do the things that ground me. I set the alarm early. I run. I read. I spend time with friends. This weekend I also baked. In fact, I went on a baking tear yesterday afternoon. Kevin was out most of the day with the older kids at two separate soccer events, and therefore I was home alone with the younger ones, who still need supervision. For a fruitless hour around noon, I kept trying to arrange their happiness so that I could go into my office and work. Best-case scenario involved being interrupted every few minutes with reports from CJ’s latest invented back-yard soccer match, while Fooey and friends played tea party with soapy water in her bedroom.
So I capitulated. I picked up the cards I’d been dealt. I wandered into the kitchen and remembered baking. Remember baking? I used to bake all the time. Then the oven broke right before Christmas and by the time it got repaired, two months later, I’d kind of forgotten all about it. But yesterday I remembered. I now know why I used to bake so often — because it gave me the satisfaction of being productive while looking after young children. I tuned in to CBC Radio, tied on my apron, and went to town. First, Fooey and friend and I baked brownies from a box. Then they went outside to play, and I carried on, sans boxes. I baked granola bars, I baked granola, I baked mac & cheese, and I baked bread. The afternoon turned to evening, Kevin texted me updates from the soccer sidelines, the radio kept me company, and it didn’t feel like an intrusion when CJ ran in and out of the kitchen to report on The Crushers vs The Avalanches of Doom, both teams of ducks, he said, whom he was training up to play soccer.
All of this was made easier by two things: one, that I have some really heavy work to do this week, going through two sets of page proofs for Girl Runner, and I probably needed the mental break, and two, that I had gone for a long run the day before, so I figured a day of rest wouldn’t hurt.
I’m not playing soccer this summer.
I miss it already and find myself mourning for my soccer-playing self. But I can’t take the risk of getting hurt again and being unable to work or think, especially in the lead-up to this fall’s challenging workload. So to comfort myself, I’m doing more distance running. Soccer tended to beat me up at the best of times, making distance training a challenge, so I’m looking at its absence as an opportunity to run long.
I announced this intention at a family meal last Monday and my little sister literally rolled her eyes at me. I know, I know. This is my idea of fun? And comfort? But it makes me feel good. Grounded. Strong. Present.
It’s what I need. I’m going on instinct here.
this morning’s run
I’ve been thinking about readings. Maybe because I read at one last night here in Waterloo, representing Goose Lane Editions, on behalf of their new anthology, in which I’m pleased to have an essay: THE M WORD: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT MOTHERHOOD.
There is a bigger launch party tonight in Toronto for THE M WORD, but while my name is on the poster, I won’t be there. This is due to a calendar error. Plans were in place, carshare car rented, chalkboard schedule adjusted, and then, yesterday afternoon, I saw the listed time on the poster — 6PM. 6PM?! Two hours earlier than I’d thought. Oh no! I emailed the book’s editor, Kerry Clare, to double-check. Yes, the launch starts at 6PM (at Ben McNally Books, if you’d like to hear all those other wonderful writers read). So that meant with Kevin at the dentist and me doing swim lessons, I couldn’t magical think myself to my destination on time. I’m sending regrets, and they are enormously regretful, because I was planning on hugging a lot of writer friends tonight.
This will have to suffice.
I don’t know about you, but that felt unsatisfactory.
I’ve been thinking about readings, and how some people just seem to come into themselves more fully when on stage. It’s like they’re radiant. Like there’s no barrier between you and them. You could listen to them all night.
the Canadian ARC for Girl Runner exists! (I haven’t held it yet, but it’s on its way)
My fall calendar is filling up with readings: I’ve got invitations to festivals coming across my desk, and a book launch to plan (Sept. 6th is the official pub date for Girl Runner), and I’m so looking forward to the opportunity to speak and read, again. I really do like being on stage — more accurately, I appreciate it. Even though I felt rusty last night, after a few months off, it’s a remarkable place to get to be, standing behind a microphone, talking to people. Walking home along the dark cold streets, I thought myself a most fortunate woman, and most fortunate writer, to get to share what I’m doing in this way.
In other news, which is not exactly news, I’m a tired woman, a tired soul, right now. I am not sure how to remedy this (although I’m sure my mother would remind me to get more sleep, and if I were my mother I would be saying exactly the same thing).
The house is full of dog hair. Every flat surface is covered in piles of maddeningly random objects. The taxes are due. The laundry pile has stamina. The fridge is full of leftovers that need to be magically transformed into suppers-everyone-will-agree-to-eat. And I kind of feel like for sanity’s sake I need another uke night with friends, or a morning coffee get-together, or to invite friends over for dinner, but I can’t figure out how to host fun stuff when the house is full of dog hair and every flat surface is covered in piles of maddeningly random objects. You know?
so I get up and go, despite the snow
London is big.
But it feels oddly familiar. Is it because I’ve been reading London for so many years?
London has a lot of new stuff built on top of old stuff. Often, it copes with its excess of history by installing a plaque so that passersby can discover that something else stood here, or that remains still exist, but under here. But even with all the new stuff, there’s still a lot of old stuff to be seen, too. Today I went to the National Portrait Gallery and stood in front of Elizabeth I and John Donne and Shakespeare and Anne Boleyn. Ben Jonson looked contemporary. Maybe it was his simple shirt and haircut. I’m trying to remember which man was wearing a pearl earring. I think it was Sir Walter Ralegh, who lived to a ripe old age, unlike the majority of people whose likenesses hang in the Tudor and Stuart rooms.
So much changes, but the human face remains the same. Compelling in its mortality, and conveyance of individual spirit.
I’ve done so much since arriving Friday morning. I shall list it all here, mostly so as not to forget.
My flight was late. Nath met me at the airport, and we took the tube directly to lunch at Two Roads (my UK publisher). They served a fabulous plum and pistachio cake from a place called Cake & Co., and I did indeed record a video after applying mascara, which may or may not have made a difference but I felt better about it. Nath and I returned by taxi to her house, and I had a power nap, and changed, and went out for a late supper with Anansi (my Canadian publisher). Nath’s husband Craig accompanied me, for which I was truly grateful, because the trains were confusing, with lines closed here and there, and it was after midnight by the time we were riding home with the tipsy crowds. I saw a few stories waiting to be written.
Yesterday, I dragged myself out of bed by 9AM. After breakfast, Nath and I walked all over the City of London, and saw the sights (along with all the other tourists). We saw St. Paul’s Cathedral, walked across the Millennium Bridge, saw the Tate but did not go in, saw the Globe, walked across the Tower Bridge, and around the Tower of London. I also registered from my reader card at the British Library and we wandered around the Treasures room. Books! Manuscripts! Scores! I was in heaven. And I get to go back again tomorrow and spend the whole day there. (Nath and I also had lunch at this ramen place. We think Waterloo needs a ramen place just like it.)
This morning I went for a run in Greenwich Park. I did not get lost and I did not get hit by a bus. And I wore shorts and a tank top. (Kevin texted to say that at home this morning it was -8 and felt like -13 with the wind chill. What is wrong with the weather???) I’m feeling oriented now and even rode the bus and tube in to lunch today by myself. I had lunch with Claire (my US publisher) and my agent Hilary, and then Hilary and I shopped for football souvenirs for our kids and husbands, after which Nath and I went to the National Portrait Gallery, which brings you right up to date.
We’re home now. Dusk is falling. The world out my window is lush and green and a bit damp.
(No photos till I’m home, but I’m taking lots. For now, text must do.)