I keep starting this post, then erasing the words and trying again. I’ve been wondering how best to express my feeling of gratitude for the support and luck that make possible the arc of my days.
I am grateful to be able to send my children to school and nursery school where they are nurtured by caring teachers. I am grateful that I have a babysitter who picks my youngest up from nursery school three days a week, walks patiently home with him, feeds him lunch, plays with him, and loves him, so that I can write (that she happens to be a qualified teacher in her country of origin, who speaks five languages, is our fortune, too, though I’m rooting for her to get her Canadian qualifications so many more children can benefit from her gifts).
I am grateful to have a grant, and an advance, that allows me to focus on my fiction writing (and pay for said nursery school and babysitting time). I am grateful my husband has a job that covers our household expenses, so that my grant/advance can go toward writing time.
I am grateful for my family’s willingness to make room for my crazy triathlon project, and the countless hours of training it’s required (hours from which they are excluded).
I am grateful to live in a country with universal health care.
I am grateful for clean water from our taps, for fresh ingredients from which to prepare healthy meals, for the shelter and space of our home and yard, for safe sidewalks, and a community-oriented neighbourhood.
I am grateful for all of these things, while knowing that my fortune is neither deserved nor earned, and that the individual pursuits of art and athleticism are gifts. They are not mine for the taking. They could not exist without the offerings of many others, and of even larger, structural offerings that are pure luck: where I was born and to whom. I wonder sometimes how the relative few of us can bear to live with such wealth, when so many live with less than a little. How can I?
What I’m saying is that my gratitude is mixed with guilt, and questioning. What luxury–to train my body to complete an arbitrary task that has nothing to do with real survival. What luxury–to sit and to think and to create in repose, without anxiety or fear or threat. Are my luxuries just for me? Is that how I’m using them, and if so, does that not express greed rather than gratitude?
I’ve noticed an uptick in visitors reading this blog, and it would be a pleasure to hear your voices (thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration: your post on engagement made me want to invite more engagement and conversation, here, too). So, what are your thoughts on being grateful/guilty? How do you take the luxury of your individual gifts and use them to satisfy something greater than your own comforts and desires?
Because my heart, speaking literally, powers my body as I work toward the goal of completing a triathlon and/or half-marathon this year.
Because I live in my head. Because I want to allow myself to respond spontaneously, without checking in with my head. If the heart says do this, I want to. At least, most of the time. Okay, even some of the time. (I’m a little bit afraid of giving myself over to my heart; I sense that mistakes will be made; I sense also that mistakes must be made).
Because of love, compassion, empathy. Because in my efficiency, I am sometimes deficient in these most important gifts.
Because it’s a challenging word, filled with challenging ideas, for me.
Because I want to explore other aspects of myself, even if it means just pushing ever so slightly against the seeming-solidity of who I am, right now.
But I’m keeping spirit, last year’s word. I nominate it to be word of the decade, an umbrella under which I will develop different aspects of the spirit. What does spirit mean, to me? It means the life unseen, not of this world, and yet expressed within this world, through words and deeds. It means: there’s more to life than what can be seen. It means mystery. It means being moved. Being open. Being emptied out to make room for God, for the divine.
My poetry book club met for the third time on Saturday evening. We were unable to get copies of the book we’d planned on reading, a collection by Giller-winner Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press, we suspect, is even now hand-sewing the binding in readiment for shipment by ox-cart); so instead, we all brought favourite poems to share. We were giddy. It was ridiculously fun. We are getting to know each other that much better. And best of all, there’s poetry. I was deeply moved by a number of the poems, unexpectedly moved, caught off guard: ah, there’s my heart, opening.
Being moved by a poem. It feels of enormous significance to me, right now, as I struggle to balance my ambitions and my sense of self, to figure out what matters, and why.
To create something that moves someone else, it’s a strange talent. It might not even be a talent, but a gift, given and taken away on a whim. It’s also a strange thing to want to do: to express the mysterious, to give it shape and form, and to share the beauty, joy, grief, loneliness, ache with others. It’s not a profitable enterprise. It’s not of this world.
My new year’s anomie seems to be somewhat late-flowering; 2010 was a fine, fine year, and it seemed, at its end, that perhaps nothing needed changing, not a whit. Four weeks in, and it suddenly seems everything needs changing.
I’m conscious of my underlying desire to be independent, financially; not because my survival depends on it, but because, as Fran Lebowitz says in an interview in Bust magazine: “Here is the key to independence: earn your own money … This is true of life–people who are paying you, whether they are paying for you like parents who pay for children or paying like a boss pays an employee, they’re in charge of you. You don’t want someone to be in charge of you? Don’t take their money.”
Now, I am in a marriage I consider happy, in a partnership I consider equal; nevertheless, the fact that I earn next to nothing, that I rely on Kevin to support our family financially, bothers me, and it has for a long time. I read that Fran L. interview on Saturday and it went click in my brain: the key to independence. (I read it out to Kevin, too, and he understood). I wish I could say that writing were my key to independence; but it’s not. If my family relied on my earnings, I would have to do something else, use my current skill-set in a different way; and I can’t think of any job I’d want to do that would use my current skill-set. And so, I continue to return to the question: do I want to retrain? Do I want to gain a new skill-set? Do I want to equip myself for an entirely different job?
It’s not that I imagine myself never writing, were I to earn my money differently. It’s that I imagine myself writing the way most writers write: look around–most writers, even successful writers, have day-jobs. The most successful writers, those earning a reasonable living from their writing, work their tails off pitching stories, writing grant requests, and working freelance from job to job until they become Mordecai Richler and editors come to them with story-requests (and I happen to know that Mordecai Richler was an extremely hard-working and not at all precious writer).
I’m not much good at pitching stories. I work pretty slowly. My overall interest, when I write, is to make something lovely, not to earn money.
And that is why I come back to the idea of retraining and earning my living in another way. Earning my living, period. I’ve given myself the imaginary deadline of CJ entering school, which is in a year and a half, when he starts kindergarten. I will be thirty-seven, not too old, I think, to start something new.
I’m not sure that heart relates remotely to this dilemma. Or, maybe it does and I haven’t puzzled out how, yet.
Writing week. This is the official week of writing, planned many moons ago. Last week, I started the new year with an extra day and a half of writing, and a brand-new story, and inspired energy and spirit; which was quickly subtracted by losing a day and a half of writing at the end of the week due to a mild stomach virus. Thankfully, only the youngest succumbed, and it was never terrible (and when it comes to stomach viruses, I know from terrible, let me tell you; or, rather, I’d best not tell you).
Where was I?
Up and down, that was last week. I ended the week feeling low indeed, struggling with a story that has plagued me since its conception back in June. I’ve been telling myself (very helpfully) that the story is more ambitious than my talents. And it may be, that. Or, it may be that I’ve been shovelling into this one story far too much; stories can only hold what they can hold. I spent the weekend in a grumpy panicky state, distracted, anxious, wondering whether I’d lost my nerve here at the last minute; because the damn book is so close to done. This story is the last major story that needs to be written. After this, it’s tinkering and chink-filling and trim.
I did what I could. I tried to remember what works. I did not curl up in bed under the covers (though it was awfully tempting). I prepared for this upcoming writing week the only way I know how: in the kitchen. I baked a batch of granola, filled a container with oatmeal cookies, converted four litres of milk into fresh yogurt, cookied up a batch of tomato sauce for quick meals this week, and finished my Sunday evening by baking four loaves of wholesome bread. I also ran errands, restocked the pantry, went for two long runs, to church, and to a kundalini yoga class. But “class” isn’t the right word for this semi-regular event, led by a friend and shared with other friends; it’s more like a religious experience. It’s pretty much impossible to put into words. I just tried, and erased my attempt. But I think the feeling that is shared in that warm dimly lit studio room is of collective joy: individual effort that somehow becomes shared effort, appreciation, compassion.
I left that beautiful room believing myself capable of finishing the book. I also left knowing I’d scrap the story and start from scratch. I trust yoga to open me to big/simple ideas: that was my big/simple idea. I also understood the image this new story will revolve around.
I think this weekend was good for me. It was unpleasant in a lot of ways: hard not to be writing, hard to bide my time, hard to live with such uncomfortable anxiety and to be around others; but I’m proud of myself for slogging onward. It’s really all that can be done when staring down doubt. In the past, I might have holed up and gone even more interior. It’s difficult to talk to friends, to reach out, or even just to be out and about when in a state of anxious distraction; but that’s exactly when it’s so important to keep on keeping on. It’s not about faking it. It’s about continuing to feed yourself even when you don’t feel hungry.
My writing week started yesterday, with a bang: a brand-new story to fill another chink (though not the major story). Today, I attempt it. The big one. It’s going to be a whole lot smaller. Maybe it will be small enough to fit into a dimly lit warm room crowded with friends. Who are chanting. We’re all chanting.
I am starting off the new year with a writing push: this week and next. Yesterday was one of those terrific and productive writing days, which means it was also overwhelming and I got lost and could scarcely drag myself out to fetch a glass of water. I’m not sure there’s another way to do it, however, not if I want to get deep into the really good stuff, the access to the underground.
When I finished writing, around eleven o’clock, I was a restless ball of nervous energy. So I picked up a book. I gave it to AppleApple for her birthday (age 8), signed by the author, who is local: Plain Kate, by Erin Bow. Erin warned me that the book, written for young adults, is too dark for younger children, and should be read only by more mature adolescents and teens, but AppleApple is an avid and wide reader, and she wasn’t frightened by the Harry Potter series, which seem pretty dark to me. So, AppleApple started Plain Kate, and got nearly the end, absolutely devouring it; and then suddenly stopped, shut up the book, and could not go on. It was too scary, she said. Since she’d obviously been taken by it, I wanted to know why it was so scary. She couldn’t articulate it. When I picked up the book, I understood why.
Plain Kate is a gorgeously written evocation of a dark imaginary world that nevertheless feels not invented but real: the setting is vaguely Eastern European-feeling, and the time is time past, when superstition flourishes, and magic is real and feared. Kate, the protagonist, is an utterly unprotected and orphaned child with a gift for carving, an outcast accused of witchcraft who must flee the only town she’s ever known. I won’t give away more. (I should also add that, inspired by Kate, AppleApple requested “carving tools” for Christmas, which we tracked down, along with protective leather gloves, so she now has her own carving kit; one evening, while she was reading Plain Kate, we found her sitting outside, in her coat, in the cold, on the back porch, whittling a stick; let me tell you, I love this child!).
So, a dark world; and having now read it, I do understand why AppleApple was too scared to go on (my plan is to read her, out loud, the last little section, because, not to give too much away, the book ends with cathartic brilliance). (And to quibble with the young adult designation, please know, adults, that this could just as easily be a book for you).
I was most intrigued by the author’s conception of magic: a witch possesses true power, but has to give of him or herself in order to receive or use the magic. In the book, the giving is quite literal: there is blood, and a lot of it. And as I read obsessively to the end (staying up till all hours), I thought about the magic that I attempt to access, when writing; I know it’s there, and I know I can get to it, but not without sacrifice.
In order to open my mind to the words, I have to open all of my emotional self: it feels, when I’m going through the process, that I am raw, that by opening my mind, I am exposing myself to the darkness and danger depicted in Plain Kate’s world. Margaret Atwood writes often, especially in her poems, about going underground, going down, and that’s what it feels like to me, too; that the underworld of the Greeks is more real than not. That the passage between here and there is always waiting. I don’t mean that I write about horrible and sad things, or that underground and underworld are synonymous with a kind of hell or darkness, only that so much of human experience sleeps under the surface, and we all know it’s there. Is it something to be feared? Maybe, sometimes. Anything powerful can overwhelm, for good or for ill. Power/magic/the divine isn’t to be sought out lightly. But anytime you’ve been moved by a ritual or a work of art, you’ve been touched by something under the surface, a powerful human connection held in common. Someone has gone under to bring back a piece of light for you.
That’s what Erin Bow has done in Plain Kate.
As I work today, I recognize what it takes to do this work: that in order to receive, I have to give of myself. I’m making it sound perhaps more exalted than it plays out in reality: sitting still and thinking and searching around for the words and placing them and then going back and replacing them, many times over, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. The toll it takes is on my body (restless, cramped, and still), and my relationships (my children miss me: “You’re working again?”; my husband misses me; I’m largely shut off from the outside world); and on my mind. I staggered down last night for a glass of water, finally, and I thought, good grief, I could not live like this. Imagine having all the time in the world to write: I’m imagining a nightmare. But I’m not a magician of brilliant creative powers, I have a more modest gift: I aspire to be a healer. I hope I remember this when writing time is short, and I am complaining about the ordinary everyday: folding laundry, feeding children, exchanging hellos in the schoolyard, racing to meet the demands of routine. That is where life happens. Just because it happens up here, out there, on the surface, doesn’t mean it’s superficial. I couldn’t go under, from time to time, without all the spirit-feeding everyday to sustain me.
Now. To see what’s waiting for me today.
Yesterday, I did two things that scared me, and surprised me. Both happened spontaneously, arising out of situations that I could have chosen to walk by. Instead, I engaged.
First story: I was pushing the stroller (uphill, through heavy snow on sidewalks that hadn’t been cleared), which possibly put me into a grumpy mood. I entered a crosswalk, at a four-way stop where my kids have to cross every morning on their way to school. While I was crossing, a car pulled up at the stop sign behind me, and turned left, into the street that I was crossing. He was in such a hurry that he didn’t wait for me to cross the street to the sidewalk–worse, he didn’t even wait for me to cross half of the street. His car brushed right behind me, near enough to touch, on his way to somewhere very important. I was surprised and annoyed. And then I saw that we were headed in the same direction. And then I saw him pull into his driveway. And then I pushed the stroller faster.
“Why are you running, Mommy?”
“I think,” I said, “I think I’m going to tell this man that I thought he was driving carelessly.”
The man went into his house, leaving his car running (fancy car, fancy house, well-dressed sixtyish man), and by the time he came back out and got into his car, he’d seen me coming. I walked up the driveway and he rolled down his window. I said that I felt his turn had been unsafe, given that I was still in the crosswalk when he turned. He responded with anger, defensively: “You were never in any danger. I was not driving dangerously.” I asked him if he knew that a child had recently been hit by a car in our neighbourhood. He said: “What? By me?” I said, of course not, but likely by someone in a hurry and driving carelessly. He pulled out of his driveway, but his window was still down. I knew I hadn’t gotten at the crux of what I wanted to say, so I called after him: “Please, ask yourself, why are you in such a hurry that you can’t spare a few seconds to let a mother cross the street with her stroller safely?” The thought left my mouth almost exactly as coherently as I’ve written it down. He heard me. I don’t know what he thought. But it looked like his expression changed fractionally. Maybe he was thinking about what I’d asked.
In thinking it over, I wish I could have phrased my question a little bit differently. I really just wanted to say: Slow down, please! Be careful! You could hurt someone. His stance was: I knew you were perfectly safe, so it’s a judgement call, mine to make. And it’s true, when you get into a car, you make judgement calls all the time. I made a judgement call just the other day, when driving the kids home from piano lessons: I turned left even though a pedestrian had stepped into the crosswalk, because I was in a hurry, and I knew I wasn’t close to her. But I shouldn’t have, and even while I was doing it, regretted that I was making that choice. What if another left-turning vehicle had followed me blindly? Had that pedestrian been able to follow and question me for my choice, I would have felt awful–very much in the wrong, and very apologetic.
This man didn’t feel either of those things. But you know, I’m glad that I ran after him. It’s pretty rare that the opportunity arises, given that cars are usually speeding off to parts unknown. I’m still in awe that I was brave enough to talk to him. (I hate to use the word confront … it sounds so confrontational …). I was definitely upset by the interaction, and wished I could have felt calmer on the inside during our conversation (though I tried to appear calm on the outside). It took me awhile afterward to shake off the nervous energy. Let’s just say that conflict of any sort does not come naturally to me. And I don’t think conflict is necessarily a bad thing: we can’t always agree. But it’s a hard thing to learn: how to disagree respectfully, to discuss, to listen, to go to uncomfortable places, to find resolution, to compromise, to be challenged, to be willing to change. I’m trying. Having firm boundaries within one’s own self (to thine own self be true!) is the first step. The next is being willing to go to places of discomfort.
Story two: On my way to yoga class, I saw a child-sized person who looked lost. As I drew nearer, I saw that he was a small adult, developmentally challenged. He still looked lost. His coat was open, he had no mitts, he was wearing a backpack, and dragging another … and I couldn’t pass him by. But I was afraid, because I didn’t know him, and because it was dark, and because he was standing in a poorly lit spot where there weren’t other people around. I spoke to him, but tentatively, and he didn’t answer, but he started to follow me, which was good, because I was headed toward the parking lot which had light and people. I asked him again–“Are you lost?”–and he said, no, and told me where he wanted to go. I pointed the direction (he’d been going the wrong way). He thanked me. I said, it’s cold, you should zip up your coat. He smiled and showed me that he was wearing several layers of coats. I asked him to please be careful crossing the street. He thanked me and promised he would, and he walked on his way … maybe home? Maybe? I don’t know. I went inside the warm yoga studio, down to the changeroom, and started to cry. I was questioning myself: had I done the right thing? Did he really know where he was going? Even if he knew, was he going to be okay? If I were going to call someone for help, who would it have been? When we spoke to each other, he seemed calm and happy, almost content, very child-like and innocent, and terribly vulnerable … though, who knows, maybe I’m projecting my own sappy middleclass ideas.
Truthfully, I felt heartbroken by the situation. He seemed to embody the lost people of this world … whom I don’t want to pass by, but don’t know how to help.
A word came to me, and I reflected on it during class. Engage. How do I engage with the people I meet? With the situations that present themselves? With friends, with family, with issues that concern me? Am I strong enough, now, in spirit, to consider opening myself to more engagement–more risk? Because it’s risky to engage. There are so many potential pitfalls: there is over-engagement, and taking responsibility for problems that aren’t mine to solve; there’s the risk of pissing people off, and saying unpopular things, and not being liked (and I’ve gotta say, I really prefer to be liked); there is more potential for conflict, for saying the wrong thing, for error; and there’s the huge risk of being judgemental and self-righteous. And of course there are times when disengagement is the better choice. Am I wise enough to know?
This reflection is unfinished, in progress. What would you have done, in either of these situations? What would you want to do?
Sometimes it’s the smallest of changes that make room for a happier daily life; it’s also easy to forget the small changes, and assume that life has always been just like this. But as I puttered around my kitchen this morning, in the pre-dawn, I realized, no, life has not always been just like this. This would have seemed unthinkable a year ago. What’s changed?
1. Sunday night scheduling. Sounds dull. But how incredibly helpful it is to sit down with Kevin and discuss what’s on the menu (literally and figuratively) for the week ahead. I jot down meal ideas for each day. We plot out car use, and any blips in the routine. No longer am I stuck for meal ideas. And we find or make extra time.
2. Exercise. Guess what I do with my extra time? Some of it is spent going to yoga, or running. I am currently holding steady at two 90-minute yoga classes each week, and two 6-8km runs. This would be unthinkable were it not for advance planning. And because it’s scheduled out, I’m much less likely to skip the chance to go, knowing what I’d be sacrificing.
3. Date night. Part of our problem, typical of partners working and raising young children, is that we are often like two ships passing in the night (is that the phrase?). Kevin plays hockey and soccer, both fairly late at night. My yoga classes are over the supper hour, so on those days, he runs in the door, and I run out. I also schedule evening outings, occasionally, with my siblings, and, about once a week, with friends. So when do we get together to be ourselves and not just to talk about schedules and kids? Earlier this fall, we began booking a regular sitter, and committed to taking one evening a week just for the two of us. Marriage is for the long-haul. We need to stay connected beyond schedules and kids, because before we know it, it will just be the two of us rattling around our house, reminiscing about these crazy busy days.
4. Getting out of the house. This could have come first, actually. It’s a huge change for me, not really a small one. During my early years of motherhood, I was a hard-core stay-at-home mama. I could go months without leaving the kids for an evening (and, no, that is not an exaggeration). I wanted to do it all myself. I loved that time with them and did not resent it. But this new stage is good, too. I think the rule of thumb is: to thine own self be true. And know that part of being true is recognizing shifts and changes within one’s own self, as they happen. The kids have become so accustomed to me getting out of the house, without them, that it’s old hat. I kiss them goodbye, and they know and trust that I will come back. No drama. No fuss. (And no, it wasn’t always like that; and all the fuss and crying and drama made it so much harder to get out).
5. Nursery school. As a hard-core-stay-at-homer, I didn’t even consider nursery school for my oldest kids. I provided them with crafts, puzzles, baking projects, singing, playdates, regular trips to the library, park, Children’s museum, and swimming at the rec centre. But after eight years, or so, I was growing weary. I realized my interest and enthusiasm were flagging. Those two youngest were not getting the enriched childhood they deserved. Almost exactly a year ago, I landed on the idea of nursery school. It was a HUGE leap for me. CJ started a year ago in January, one morning a week, which by April I’d upped to two mornings. And this September, I cheerfully threw him into three mornings a week. I would consider sending him daily next September when Fooey heads off to first grade. (She’s also gotten to tag along to the nursery school experience, going every other Friday when she’s not at kindergarten). And here’s the thing: CJ loves it. I’m not saying the older kids were deprived. But I would be the last to judge or criticize either version of early childhood: either/both can work.
6. Spirit. My word for this year. Bless that word. I don’t know whether I would have necessarily turned down experiences were it not for that word (turning down experiences is not in my nature), but I may not have sought out so many experiences related to the spirit. I don’t know why I need permission or nudging to move me in certain directions. Maybe I don’t. But I like having projects. Especially projects that spread over a long period of time, and require regular attention. The 365-project falls into that category. As I approach this solstice season, and Christmas, and my birthday, and the coming new year, I want to take time to reflect on the projects ahead: small and big, new and old. What word will come to define this year?
7. Confidence. As I walked past my own reflection in storefront windows yesterday evening, I realized my self looked unfamiliar to me: older, probably. I looked like a grownup woman, occupied, on her way somewhere. And I thought to myself, how interesting that as I grow older, I am becoming more and more known to myself on the inside, while on the outside, I know myself less and less. Maybe that isn’t entirely true, given the 365-project. Or maybe it’s just this: the outside seems to matter less. I’d like to believe that who I am shines through, and always will, no matter how much I change on the outside.
8. Portfolios. One last small change. This brilliant, brilliant, brilliant idea, which I may have mentioned before, came from friends of ours, who split up the household tasks, and call them “portfolios.” Bathroom cleaning would be an example of a portfolio. Dentist. School lunches. Kevin has taken over those last two portfolios, and what a difference it’s made in my life (and maybe in his, too).