New things are happening around our house.
The kids started school. Yeah, that was a few weeks ago already. I’ve been a touch distracted.
this was as happy as I could get them to look, and oh how we tried!
New instruments are being played. CJ has started the piano. Fooey has retired from piano and taken up the violin. AppleApple has the opportunity to play both the French horn and the cello through her school, and on Tuesday evening practiced that horn for an hour and twenty minutes. I kid you not. Then she went outside and practiced some more. The neighbours kid you not. “It doesn’t sound quite so much like an elephant’s butt,” her helpful father told her. And Albus joined the school orchestra (he plays the viola), because, he told me, participants will be rewarded with a trip to Canada’s Wonderland at the end of the year. Hey, whatever works.
I’ve newly begun teaching, again. It’s much easier the second time around. So much easier. It helps not to be suffering the effects of concussion, too. (How did I manage that last fall??)
Also new: swim kid is no longer swim kid. She’s just going to be soccer kid, field hockey kid, cross country kid, music kid, theatre kid, hanging-out-with-friends kid. This was no small decision. But I think I’m mourning it more than she is, which means it’s absolutely the right decision (she had tears, but moved on). Truth be told, we couldn’t fit the extra commitment into our lives. It’s hard to stop doing something you’ve enjoyed, and that has brought you success. But success doesn’t always mean you should keep doing it. When you’re good at lots of things, you’ve gotta choose what you absolutely love. (I mean, this is a kid who will obsessively focus on whatever is before her. She’s playing the damn horn again as I type. I mean, the melodious completely non-elephant-butt-like horn. She’s trained herself, with literally hour upon consecutive hour of practice over the summer to juggle—with her feet—a soccer ball 379 times without dropping it, when she could barely manage 2 back in June. Discipline is not her issue.)
Here is the reward: she would have been swimming for two hours last night. Instead, when I walked through the front door, home from teaching, I was greeted by this sight:
Sweeping toward me, decked out in feathered mask and cape, she burst forth in low dramatic tones. Shakespeare? Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, to be precise. “She’s in a mood,” said her father, fondly.
One more reward: eating supper together as a family.
See? We tried. We really did. It’s what we do around here.
We’ve added an element to the house: FIRE. It’s a gas stove, not wood-burning, placed in the centre of the wall in our main room. I’m sitting in front of it as I type, with my feet up (sorry, treadmill desk; I’m cheating on you with my new flame). As you can see from the photo below, this room remains a long-term work in progress. Kevin and I have two plans, one a total dream and the other something we could hack together ourselves with some help from Ikea. The latter is likely the route we’ll take… when we get a spare moment. Meanwhile, the room looks like this:
I read to the kids in front of the fire last night, snuggling up for the first chapter of Farmer Boy, which CJ had strongly objected to reading (but I can’t read any more Calvin & Hobbes comics, which he loves but totally doesn’t get, requiring a lot of difficult explication). After some stomping around, and “I’m not listening to that,” he came around to “Fine!” when he realized what he’d be missing out on — namely the snuggling in front of the fire.
Farmer Boy begins with children walking through deep wintry snow to a schoolhouse that seems remarkably lawless and dangerous, the scene of potential violence and humiliation where big boys want to “thrash” the teacher and the teacher is considered especially kind because, unlike previous teachers, he does not beat a little boy for not knowing how to spell. The Wilder children are close in age to our family: Royal is 13, Eliza Jane is 12, Alice is 10, and Almanzo is 8. Almanzo, the littlest, has to carry the dinner pail (CJ, the littlest: “That’s not fair!”). By chapter’s end, CJ was hooked. Here’s what the Wilder children found in their dinner pail: bread and butter and sausage, donuts and apples, and one big flaky apple turnover each. (CJ: “Do they only have one nutrition break?” Me: “Yes, but they call it dinner, not nutrition break.”)
We only read one chapter, but it took ages; the conversation around the story could have gone on and on. The little kids were tucked into bed quite late, and Kevin left for hockey. When I came downstairs, the big kids were so perky and happy and chatty that I couldn’t send them to bed. It was the fire. We just couldn’t help but gather and linger and talk … about everything and anything. I learned more about Albus’s school day than I’ve heard all year. They wanted to know what school subjects I was bad at (domestic science and art), and what I looked like in grade 7 (plain and unfashionable: I mostly wore my hair in braids), and I could see them wondering, would I have liked Mom? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been cool enough for Albus. But I grew up so differently from them: never staying in the same place for more than a few years, often the new kid at school, shifting between countries and cultures. By age 12, I’d lived in four different countries, and moved approximately 10 times. The life I’m offering to my children is a settled one, rooted, with privileges that they take for granted, and that I remember not even bothering to envy as a child, because they weren’t things I wanted or needed. Swim lessons, sports teams, fancy gadgets and the “right” shoes and clothes. I was a clueless 12-year-old: dreaming about getting a pony. At the end of grade seven, we moved to a farm and I got a pony! I never felt deprived.
It’s funny how we want to give our kids the things we didn’t get (i.e. swim lessons); but also give them the things we valued from our childhood. I valued my freedom to explore, and I valued being an outsider. It gave me a special status, a special vantage point from which to observe. My kids aren’t getting those things; they’re getting rides to soccer fields instead, and new jeans. What terrifies me is raising entitled kids. I struggle constantly not to do too much for them, to ask them to pitch in for the benefit of the family (and not to earn an allowance, another perk they have, which I did not grow up with). I want them to do the right thing; but more importantly, I want them to choose to do the right thing, not be forced or punished into doing it. You know? I want their inner fires stoked.
So here’s my slow-burning hope. Gathering, talking, sharing, instilling values (one hopes), connecting, laughing: these years go by so fast. Last night, I let the kids stay up late. It seemed like a rare occasion, but I hope it happens often, now that we have something to gather around, something warm and ever-changing and comforting.
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.
Tuesday morning, 9:30AM
Well that was short-lived. I am very definitely, completely, assuredly, hopelessly not alone in the house this morning. The day Albus has been praying for has arrived: Snow Day! School’s cancelled. Although I think it should more accurately be called Really Cold Day, because that seems to be why they cancelled it.
And it is really cold. I can’t deny it.
Behind me comes the persistent wail of the five-year-old: Mom, no one will play with me! Mom, no one will play with me! Mom, no one will play with me!
His sister suggests: If you had an imaginary friend, you’d always have someone to play with.
But imaginary friends can’t win!
Yes, says his sister, it can be arranged that imaginary friends can win. You just have to know how to do it.
Random parenting tip: I find that if you answer in soothingly vague understanding tones, yet don’t follow up with any action, children will go off and find something to do. Case in point: five-year-old has retired to exploding little go-go figures in the living-room. Happily.
Does our living room look really empty? It is. It’s the perfect play area for indoor soccer matches and floor puzzles and exploding go-go guys that you’ve arranged across the barren floor. It’s ugly as all get-out, of course, but that doesn’t diminish its value as a play area.
Kevin and I are currently brainstorming. This is sometimes a good thing and sometimes not. For example, we do have two dogs (unrepentant early morning whiners and poopers on porches in cold weather) due to impulsive brainstorming. But we all know how hard it is to change one’s habits. And Kevin and I maintain a perverse fondness for impulsively brainstormed decisions. Right now what we’re impulsively brainstorming is getting a gas fireplace. Maybe where the sofa is (see above). We can only do this if we don’t get a new stove and range hood. But, we brainstorm impulsively, maybe the stove will prove fixable. (This has not been adequately determined, nor do we know how much it will cost, to keep fixing a stove that has frequently gone on the fritz ever since its costly purchase six years ago. It’s like that car you keep repairing because you own it and you’ve committed so much to it already. “Throwing good money after bad.” That’s the phrase. But then again, there must be a handy counter-phrase, such as “Waste not, want not,” and “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”)
I’ve lost my train of thought. So have you. This is my brain on Snow Day.
I am currently reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, an entertaining guide to punctuation, which I fully intend to inflict on future creative writing students, should I ever teach again. Yesterday I haggled over a comma. Today, I’m writing dreadfully long parenthetical asides while my children lie about the house. Tomorrow they will be back in school. Won’t they? Are swim lessons cancelled, too? And soccer practice? Is the entire day a clean slate? If I hide out in my office drinking coffee will they notice? Can I keep them from the siren’s call of ‘lectronics, as my youngest puts it? Should a question mark have been placed at the end of that last sentence?
It’s beautiful out there. And frozen. I’m leaving the office to go for groceries now, actually, because we’re low on everything and this is the kind of weather that screams: STOCK UP OR PERISH!
Although apparently we can expect a light rain by Saturday. (Really, weather?) Sometimes I suspect we’re just lobsters in a pot, happily swimming around without a clue to our fates. Except it’s worse than that. That analogy only works if the lobsters have filled the pot, lit the gas flame, and jumped in voluntarily, while their leaders systematically burn and bury all the scientific evidence that jumping into pots on stoves is certain to cause cooking in lobsters. And strains in analogies. Perhaps I’ve taken this too far.
It’s 2014. I wonder why I thought it would be different from 2013.
oh wait, the dogs are here too
I jot down my activities in a very messy calendar every day, including exercise. So in keeping with the seasonal tallying and summing up of things, it occurred to me this morning that it would be fun to add up the kilometres covered over the past year, among other activities.
Last year, despite the concussion and the twisted ankle, I ran 1,009 kilometres.
I walked an additional 80 kilometres during my concussion recovery.
I swam 28 kilometres, not including lake swims. (That’s only about 14 visits to the pool, which is peanuts compared to what my swim kid does, but I mostly swam outdoors this summer.)
I went to 34 kettle bell classes, 9 boot camps, and 9 spin classes (we went a bit broke in the winter and spin class fell to the new budget). I did hot yoga 14 times, and practiced at home 18 times (starting this fall, in my home office). Apparently, I meditated a grand total of 4 times.
Now here’s the stat that makes me sad. I played 15 outdoor soccer games, and 21 indoor games. That’s a lot of soccer! I haven’t played a game since the concussion, which according to my records happened on August 18th.
Today, I’m working out of my new 2014 calendar. This year, I’ve already recorded a kettle bell class, yoga at home, and 16 kilometres’ worth of running. I’m desperate to return to that hard-core spin class, but it doesn’t seem to fit into my schedule, even if my budget is a little more expansive this winter than last. There’s no soccer in my foreseeable future.
I can’t believe I have the house to myself this morning. There are mountains of snow outside and the temperature is dropping, but the kids were herded off to school despite the blizzard warnings in effect for our area. I started the morning with a kettle bell class, but Kevin started it with shovelling our sidewalk and driveway, and I’m thinking he may have gotten the more strenuous work-out.
This morning, I’m grateful (not a big enough word, but it will have to do) for power, for heat, for quiet, for routine.
I’m thinking about my word for this coming year.
Every word that occurs to me seems to whisper its shadow, its opposite, which I do find sometimes happens with words of the year — one ends up exploring the dark side of, say, stretch, my word for the past year. At times I cursed the choice, feeling stretched way beyond comfort (twisted ankle, head injury) or stretched too thin. But then I reminded myself to stretch, literally, and that felt good. And I did stretch, grabbing onto goals that once seemed out of reach. I wonder how that’s changed me. That’s what I’ve been wondering about most as I think about a new word: how have I changed, and how do I want to change? What do I fear and why? What do I want to give and why? What do I hope to accomplish and why? (The “and why” seems as important as the “what,” even if the answer is very simple, like it was with last year’s word. In order to keep running long distances, I need to stretch, I reasoned. Seemed practical at the time. Still does, I suppose.)
Let me think on this and get back to you.
one of the ways she reminds me of me
One son this morning refused to wear a coat or mittens (it was -1C when he left the house). The other son, even grumpier, declared he didn’t want to go to school today. “You don’t have a choice! Now put your backpack on and get moving!” That wasn’t me speaking, it was my younger daughter, who has developed certain characteristics I find awfully familiar. I felt for them both. Neither one had a choice: she didn’t want to walk him, and he didn’t want to go. It cheered both up when I offered to walk along. Who knows what I’ll manage to get done today anyway. It’s been busy and I’m tired. Good busy, but I’m still tired.
I’m going to catch you up, which may, frankly, be exactly all I manage to get done today. This post will have a lot of photos.
Let’s begin with paella night, which was exactly as fun as I knew it would be, and maybe even more tasty. I do have the best siblings around. My brother Christian was the chef. Our version of paella packed in every meat and seafood we could think of. At one point, I realized I was eating a delectable mouthful that included chicken, pancetta, and chorizo, and probably a tiny clam, too. We drank red wine, cuddled a new baby, and quizzed each other hilariously from a Trivial Pursuit game, Canadian version, that appeared to have last been updated in 1996. I don’t think anyone napped or googled.
Yesterday, Kevin and I were off to Toronto, as soon as the kids left for school. Our new car is so comfortable. It’s so luxurious. It has seat-warmers! I kind of hate how much I love it, but I do. Kevin drove. Traffic was unexpectedly light. I took photos.
the escarpment, in passing
I met my agent, Hilary, at her office, which I’ve never actually visited, although she’s been my agent for nearly a decade. I signed some important papers.
very important papers!
me and Hilary
We posed for a photo. Hilary tried not to make me look short.
me and Hilary, take two
I told her to go ahead and stand up straight. I am short! Also, she’s very tall and was wearing heels. This photo cracks me up. When Kevin first glanced at it, he thought it was a picture of AppleApple (ie. a child standing beside an adult). This is exactly how I feel sometimes on the soccer field, I must admit.
Then Kevin dropped me off at the Anansi office, which feels very familiar to me now. Our small party headed off to a restaurant nearby for lunch.
I was very geeky and hauled out my gigantic camera and lens to take photos. Above, my US editor, Claire Wachtel of HarperCollins, my Canadian editor, Janice Zawerbny of Anansi, my Dutch publisher, Jacqueline Smit of Orlando, and my Canadian publisher, Sarah MacLachlan also of Anansi. Mostly, I just listened, ate a very good turkey sandwich and french fries, and enjoyed a glass of champagne. Mostly, I was just amazed at the places Girl Runner has taken me already, at the connections made.
More news to report, and another meal to add to the menu: the rights have sold in Sweden! To Albert Bonniers Forlag. I said to Kevin on the drive home that it doesn’t feel like I’ve done anything I can take credit for, in terms of these sales everywhere. I wrote a book. The result is weight lifted, and lightness of heart, but what I really want is to write another, and another, and another. We arrived in Waterloo in time to see our oldest walking our youngest home from the school bus. It was slightly heart-melting.
For an after-school snack, and to cheer up one small boy who did not want to go to swim lessons (but who had no choice), I cracked open the tin of “stroopwafels,” which Jacqueline had brought with her from the Netherlands, and which the kids called “waffle cookies.”
And then we went to swim lessons. And even though he had no choice, CJ loved it, and couldn’t stop talking afterwards about how he jumped into the deep end without a life jacket, and treaded water for 15 seconds, by swinging him arms like this, and pretending to ride a bicycle. I didn’t tell him that when I saw him jumping into the deep end without a life jacket, and his teacher not exactly in arm’s reach, I held my breath in genuine fear as he went under, and almost couldn’t believe it when his little goggled head popped up again and he swam to the side and pulled himself out. “I think you actually love swim lessons,” I teased him on our walk this morning, as he continued to regale us with tales from the lesson yesterday. He grinned sheepishly. And then Fooey admitted she feels the same way sometimes: really really really doesn’t want to do something, and then discovers while doing it that she loves doing it. I figure it’s my job to keep reminding them. Just like it’s my job to walk along sometimes: my job, and my fortune.
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