Category: Spirit

Falling into a powerful book

I finished reading a beautiful and powerful book last night. It’s called Out of Grief, Singing, and was written by Charlene Diehl, who is a poet and also a friend and mentor. It is a difficult book to read, in some ways, because it is about a mother experiencing something no parent wants to imagine: the death of her child. But it is not as difficult to read as you might imagine before opening its pages. You only need to be prepared to be moved profoundly and deeply as you follow this mother on her journey out of grief, singing. I started reading the book in an airport, which I cannot recommend unless you are comfortable sobbing in public. I finished it in the privacy of my own bedroom, and I let the tears flow freely.

In a sense, the book is about the grieving we do in public and in private — the ways in which we are permitted to welcome grief (or not) into our daily interactions, and the discomfort (or fear) that many of us feel when we hear about someone else’s experience with death and loss. I’ve been thinking about the book all morning. I’ve been thinking how I’ve felt awkward and anxious about approaching someone who has suffered a profound loss. I’ve felt at a loss myself. At a loss for words, or actions. The people who help Charlene on her journey show love, compassion, patience. They don’t tell her what she’s feeling or what she’s supposed to be feeling, but honour where she is. They don’t pretend nothing has happened. They are open to her story. They are open to her daughter’s existence, and to the fact that her daughter lived and died.

That may sound really obvious, but I think it is not.

The greatest hurt seems to come from strangers who make assumptions, and so many assumptions are made about women of childbearing age; I know I’ve made thoughtless assumptions myself. Is this your first baby? is maybe not the best question to ask the pregnant woman standing behind you in line at the grocery store. Or, be aware that you may be expounding on the wonders of natural childbirth to a woman who has delivered prematurely, her baby kept alive by machines: and in your ignorance that you are suggesting that this woman has done something wrong, as if she had choice in the matter. Know that your childless neighbours may or may not have chosen to be childless; or that they may have suffered losses, that they may be parents without living children. Know that not everyone gets to choose their story. Know that people’s experiences are not all the same.

This is profoundly hopeful book, full of grace.

Charlene’s two living children, born after the death of their sister, hold her in their lives in ways that are completely natural. The older sister they never knew is present in their family. In the book, Charlene relates how her son says that his older sister is there whenever he has a feeling that surprises him, or that he can’t know — much like he can’t know this sister, yet she is mysterious and present.

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me and Charlene in Winnipeg earlier this fall

Charlene was my professor that November many years ago when she went into early labour. I remember the shock of hearing the news, and hearing, less than a week later, that the baby girl had died. I was twenty, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to respond. I signed a card that someone more thoughtful than me bought and sent on behalf of our class. I never thought to visit. I think I would have imagined it an imposition. I think, also, that it’s okay to be where we’re at, and I wasn’t in a place where I could have been helpful. We aren’t, always, are we.

I hope I’m somewhere else now. I hope, if called upon, that I could be like the friend who listens to Charlene’s story over and over again, and because she is present and listening, is able to reflect back to Charlene that her story is not repetitive, nor is it a trap, but it is ever-changing, changing with Charlene as she moves through that long first winter after the death of her daughter.

I don’t know why the book has come into my life now, but it came and I am glad for it. Thank you, Charlene.

International day of the girl

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Last night I dreamed that I was lying on the floor of our local independent bookstore wrapped in a sleeping bag. Beside me was a shelf of books that had mine on it. I was trying to sleep, but kept reaching up to check my book, just the cover.

Interpretations, anyone?

I’ve just spent a sleepy and tired day doing … next to nothing. I suppose there is clean laundry, and that’s something. And fresh chicken stock. But, yeah, that’s it. Lots on my mind, but it’s all too scattered to amount to action.

Today is the International Day of the Girl. I’m thinking about the girl shot in the head in Pakistan because she attended school and became a public voice by blogging about it: her writing leaves behind a permanent record of her experience, like Anne Frank’s did. (Though there is still hope, apparently, that she might survive the shooting.) Malala. I don’t know what else to say about this because it is too sad, knowing that all over the world girls are treated differently because they are girls. Some beliefs are just plain wrong. I am not a person eager to split the world into right and wrong, but this is wrong.

In what small way could I mark today, for girls everywhere?

A day out of ordinary life, with thanks and mile-wide smiles

reading at the launch of Waterloo’s Wild Writers Festival, yesterday evening

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with Tamas Dobozy, fellow local writer and GG finalist

with my husband, Kevin, who told me my hair looked fine (but I think it’s a bit wild, no?)

So. That was quite a day.

Apparently I only stopped grinning ear to ear when it was entirely impractical, such as while doing a reading from The Juliet Stories.

I know it’s cheesy to say so, but yesterday was truly special. It was a day out of ordinary life, yet still grounded in it. I don’t expect to have many days like it in my lifetime. Below, at the risk of sounding giddy and foolish, a few highlights.

– I’m glad that I posted early on yesterday, when the news was still so fresh and astonishing. That post is a keepsake in words. (And I’m glad for all the moments my blog has captured over the years that I’ve been chronicling our family’s adventures, big and small.)

– I rode a wave of excitement yesterday, generated by the goodwill of friends and family. Thank you, all who joined in to share the moment. (It reminded Kevin of when we had our first baby: the genuine outpouring of happiness that greeted that arrival.)

– A friend arrived, early afternoon, offering Goat cheese and “Grapes” (wine): get it? Double Gs to celebrate the GGs. And bless her heart, because I hadn’t eaten lunch. And I needed someone to hug. And the glass of wine didn’t hurt either.

– My kids! Oh my goodness, they arrived home all together in a clump, and Kevin had met them partway and shared the news, and they were positively giddy (at least the older ones were). Beaming. Everyone fighting for hugs. Albus’s first question, which he kept repeating in hopes of receiving a different answer, was: “Are we going to be millionaires?” Um, sorry, kiddo, you may not realize this but I’m a CANADIAN LITERARY WRITER. That will never happen.

– When a TV camera arrives at your doorstep, you will discover where you draw the line in terms of what you’re willing to share publicly. Did I rush to shovel the Lego off the floor? Did I brush my hair? Did I make my children turn off the wii? No. But I did remove my crocs, which I wear as slippers around the house, and put on shoes instead. So apparently that’s my line and there ain’t no crossing it: crocs.

– The publicity. I’ve got to tell you, it will sound crass, but it’s sweet to know that news of my book’s existence is being broadcast around the country. I’m not sure a writer can ask for anything more than that. Here are links to the articles: I spoke to Mark Medley at the National Post first (he caught me literally within 15 minutes of the announcement, smart man); Victoria Ahearn at The Canadian Press interviewed me next, which was lovely because a lot of papers carry the CP stories (and everyone used Vincent Lam’s photo, which makes sense as he’s the most well-known of the five finalists); I spoke to Paul Irish at the Toronto Star next (mid-wine, actually); then I spoke to Robert Reid at The Record, and they also sent a photographer to last night’s event. Apparently I’m on the front page today, but I haven’t seen this to confirm it. And then the TV crew showed up while I was making lentil soup for supper.

– Can you believe the beauty and candour of those photographs? My friend Nancy Forde took them at the party last night. She also took my author photo, which appears on the inside cover of The Juliet Stories. How lucky am I to have a personal chronicler of life’s big moments on the scene with camera in hand? (She also took photos at my book launch, way back when.) If you want more Nancy, visit her work on Flickr. She’s got a gift.

– I squeezed in a run before the reading. Thank goodness for running. There is no better way to burn nervous energy, quickly and efficiently.

– My mom reminded me that occasionally things come along that are more important than a good night’s sleep. Isn’t that the truth.

On The Juliet Stories being nominated for the GGs (surreal! and for real!)

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This morning I felt like disappearing into music. I searched around for Lindi Ortega’s version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and for some reason also felt like hearing Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” and I landed for awhile on Danny Michel’s beautiful and joyful new album “Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me.”

I prepped for a reading I’m doing tonight here in town, in support of the launch of Waterloo’s own brand-new Wild Writers Festival.
I worked on a grant application.
All the while, I avoided the internet. Because this morning was the announcement of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the last major prize listing of the season here in Canada. I wasn’t sure I could bear the disappointment; well, that’s not true. I knew I’d be fine, but I knew, also, that the emotions would be unpleasant. It would suck. I was irritated with myself for feeling that way, so I plugged into headphones and listened to a soundtrack of my own creation, which seemed to answer perfectly whatever it was I was lacking. Suddenly I said to myself, hey, let yourself believe you could be nominated, right up until you find out you’re not. Why not? Why not be hopeful? The worst that could happen is that you’re disappointed, and at least you’ve spent a little while in happy fantasy.
Why be afraid of an hour or so of happy fantasy?
So I let myself go, in the music, and got to work.
And then, just after 10am, I saw that my inbox had suddenly filled up with messages. Could it be??? The first message I opened was from Jared Bland, senior editor at Anansi. It was titled: congratulations! And it said simply, “I just saw the wonderful news about your GG nomination.”
What happened after that is a blur. I’m pretty sure I started crying and laughing and shouting all at the same time. I know that I leapt up and scared the dogs, who had been sleeping peacefully in my office. I was shaking so much that I almost collapsed. This is not an exaggeration. “I can’t believe it!” might have been the words coming out of my mouth, over and over. 
I wanted to tell Kevin — instantly. But I’d temporarily lost the ability to use my cellphone. When I finally got through to him, he had no idea what I was saying for the first minute, I think because my words were essentially nonsensical. 
So, dear reader, that is what it feels like to be nominated for a literary prize. It feels dumbfounding and it feels thrilling, and it makes a mess of one’s physical and emotional self for a smallish moment in time. I’ve since collected myself. Mostly. I’m not even sure I should be blogging under the influence of such heady emotions. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life (other than that I really shouldn’t start a sentence with the phrase “if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life”), it’s to jump into the good moments with both feet. Dive in. Get submerged. Be joyful. These occasions come rarely and the time to celebrate and savour them is while they’re happening. Don’t worry about looking like a giddy fool! Be giddy, be foolish.
So I’m being giddy. I’m being foolish.
Oh, oh, oh, and I get to read at the International Festival of Authors with the other nominees in Toronto on October 22nd!!!! And let me just say a few words about the GGs themselves. I’ve been a fan since high school. Basically all of my favourite CanLit authors have won the GG. I’m a nominee, not a winner, but it’s like dipping my toe into the waters of Canadian literary history. It’s like being a tiny part of it. I’m blessed and I’m damn lucky.
Also, I have yet to see or hug anyone in person since the announcement (aside from dogs), but I’ve been loving the emails and phone calls and texts and FB posts. (Like this one, from a friend who lives near Kingston, Ontario: “[My husband] and I are at Boston Pizza in Brockville and your book is on the T.V.”) What more can I say? (I’ll think of more soon, I’m sure.)

Race day: Run for the Toad

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This is a terrible photo. I apologize.

But it was taken post-race, when I was feeling an exhausted high just for having completed the damn thing. Also, I was chilled and needed to get into the car and turn on the heat, quickly. Honestly, it was not my best race ever. It was probably the hardest race I’ve done, not for distance, not for weather, not for any external circumstances, but purely for the mental effort it required of me. I’ll be honest: all along, I just wasn’t sure I could do it.

First, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to train enough to complete it. But as last winter’s hip injury resolved, I was slowly able to add distance runs back into my training. Still, I ended up swimming more than running most of the summer, and had only done one really long run (ie. over 20km) leading up to the race. That said, I knew I could complete it, given the work I’d done. I just didn’t know if I could complete it very fast.

Last year, I was fast.

This year, well, I did my best, I’ll just put it that way. I gave what I had to give. I haven’t seen the official chip time yet, but it looked like I came in about two minutes slower than last year: 2 hours, 20 minutes (over 25 kilometres of trails). I know it’s not a time to be ashamed of. But.

The thing is that I ran the first half faster than last year — I was on a tear. And then I hit the proverbial runner’s wall, which I can quite honestly say I’ve never hit during a race before. This is a course with many hills, many of them very steep and long. On my second lap, I actually walked some of them, head down, struggling; in fact, there were moments when I wondered whether I’d have the energy even to continue walking, let alone get running again.

Thankfully, I always seemed to find more. I told myself that the only way out was to keep going forward. I told myself to be grateful that I could run again. I told myself to stop fantasizing about the finish line, and stay in the moment: be here now, it’s the only way to keep going.

All great metaphors for life, I suppose. But no fun.

I ended the race with a long sprint that kept me in front of a group of four men I’d passed with about 500 metres to go. That felt good, and one of them came up to congratulate me afterward, saying he just couldn’t catch me although he’d tried. I thanked him for putting up a chase, because at that point I had very little motivation to push myself beyond just crawling to the finish line. I have no idea where the energy came from to maintain the speed, and the first thing I said to the woman who put the medal around my neck at the end is: I almost died! Slightly melodramatic.

This felt like it should have been a learning experience. But I’m not sure what I’ve learned.

From a race perspective, I really should know better than to go out so fast. After all, I started all my races slowly last year, with much success. It’s frustrating to have to re-learn things I should already know.

From a life perspective, I can see how my competitive spirit just won’t give up, no matter what. Maybe that’s good. But it can also make situations more difficult than they need to be. I could have paced myself more slowly once I realized I was tanking. Instead, I took breaks to walk, then ran at as fast a clip as I could manage. When I was running, I was running hard. I also spent a good deal of the race reminding myself to be kinder — to myself. Reminding myself: September has been busy. I’m stretched a little thin. Just dragging myself out to a challenging race should be good enough. Finishing? Even better. Instead of judging myself against last year’s numbers. Instead of judging myself against numbers, period.

Always more to learn. And that’s a fact.

Winnipeg: Thin Air Writers Festival

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I took our old digital camera on my trip to Winnipeg, and figured out pretty quickly why we’d stopped using it: the battery runs dead after approximately a minute of use. But nevertheless it allowed me to capture fuzzy moments of my whirlwind adventure. The first photo, above, shows the Museum of Human Rights, still under construction, which was my view out the window when I ran on the treadmill in the empty fitness room (I never saw anyone else there). I stayed at the hotel for less than 24 hours, but still managed to run twice, and nap once.

On Monday, I had dinner with Sheree Fitch and took no photos. I knew her instantly though we’d never met in person, and I mean knew her knew her, not just recognized her. Maybe it seemed so natural to be with her that I assumed we’d have lots of time to pose for photos together, forgetting for the moment that she lives in Nova Scotia, and I’m here in Waterloo, and that mere fortune had allowed us to overlap in Winnipeg. Now I’m plotting to bring her to Waterloo to read in some schools — especially in my kids’ schools. How do such things get arranged?

At the table behind us were Bill Richardson and Karen Levine. Sheree knew them both. I’d met Karen eleven years ago when I recorded a story for a CBC radio program — I was just striking out on my own as a writer, and I was also massively pregnant with Albus, and for some reason had chosen to wear gigantic maternity overalls that day. (Why???)

For my mainstage reading on Monday night, I chose to wear my pretty red high heeled shoes that get compliments every time (which my sister Edna has now given to me to keep), and the cute/countryish/suedish jacket that makes jeans look dressy. (I hope.)

That’s me (and my poufy prairie hair) with the the festival’s director, Charlene Diehl, whom I first met when I was 20 and I walked into her CanLit class at the University of Waterloo. What a festival she’s made in Winnipeg. I’m so proud of her. The venues are terrific, the audiences come out (at our book chat on Tuesday afternoon, someone counted 95 people!), and the writers are treated, oh, so well. The hotel was a haven, and I loved every peaceful minute I spent there. What a gift.

I slept soundly. I woke refreshed. I sat and wrote. I read. I ran on the treadmill. There was space to retreat to — I appreciated having that space, as well as having opportunities to connect. As something of an introvert, I need alone time to balance out the meeting and greeting.

Tiny side anecdote: One of the writers on Monday evening was Jess Walters (Beautiful Ruins), who was very funny — and thankfully last to read. He told a story about his dad, who just couldn’t wrap his head around the concept of a reading. “What — you wrote the book, now you gotta read it to them too?” Ha!

On Tuesday morning, I did not sleep in, but I got a nice cup of coffee, I wrote, and ran, and at 12:30 on the dot, with great regret, I checked out of my room and went for lunch. I decided to order a glass of wine with my meal. I sat alone at the table, and read. It was a strange luxury, not one I could imagine getting used to — not one I particularly would like to get used to, when it comes right down to it. But it was good because it was so unusual.

Then I went up to the hospitality suite and discovered a small frenzy, lots of people. Being a bit thick, I didn’t figure it out right away, plopped down on the couch, checked my phone, gazed around, and went, duh! That’s Richard Ford, Pulizter Prize winner, he of the steely blue eyes. We introduced ourselves and shook hands. The general atmosphere was of people excitedly dropping things and attempting not to sound ridiculously giddy or silly.

I missed his reading that evening. I was on a plane back to Toronto, which sounded disconcertingly like its muffler had fallen off.

When I walked through our front door, after midnight, I snuck around to every room and squeezed and kissed and hugged every child. In the morning, in the whirl and bustle of getting us all ready for school and work, nobody even asked: hey, Mom, how was Winnipeg? I though that was funny. It was a short trip, and I enjoyed it immensely, and I’m glad that it was so easy to slide back into home life, so easy that no one seemed to notice much that I’d come and gone. Or maybe they just accepted me back, as if I’d never left.

There’s a bit of that to travelling too. Being present in the moment. And then it’s gone, and it reverts to being almost dream-like in memory, vivid snippets, densely packed. I wonder which vivid snippets from Winnipeg will stick with me most strongly? There’s no telling.

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