“I don’t see why you have an office, Mom, when you’re so happy writing in the car.”
My laptop was the best investment I’ve made, writing-wise. It comes with me to the pool, to the backyard, to the couch, to various soccer fields, to parking lots, and of course, to my pocket-sized car, aka the Chub-Chub.
I spent this past week driving my eldest daughter to a soccer camp about an hour away. That meant I had to stay for the day, which, trust me, was all part of my master plan. In this way, I carved out a writing week (or four days), mostly spent sitting in the back seat of the Chub-Chub. I napped there. I ate snacks there. I read stories there. And I wrote there. Next week, I’m off to a writing workshop in New York State, where I will be an anonymous participant: camping with a friend in our family’s enormous ten; eating vegetarian meals; doing yoga at dawn (if the mood strikes); and writing, of course.
On Sunday, I put that tent together all by myself. I was perhaps unreasonably proud of the accomplishment, as you can see from my body language, above. I’m not mechanically minded and this is the sort of endeavour I happily off-load onto to Kevin, but I did it with a little help from a YouTube video (an elderly couple lifting up a tent that vaguely resembled ours), and a lot of thinking, and some jumping and throwing (the tent is very tall and I am not, and getting the fly on is really a two-person job). It took over an hour, I will confess. In the end, I observed that seeing behind the scenes to the mechanics of production does not inspire confidence. I preferred not knowing that this airy structure over my head was made merely of thin rods and poles stuck through nylon sleeves. There is knowing, and there is knowing. There is knowing in a theoretical, yes, dear, way. And there is knowing in a visceral, I hammered those stakes myself way. And the thunderstorm that threatened the afternoon seemed much more threatening when I’d built the damn tent myself, and knew its materials intimately.
To be responsible is to be forced to confront vulnerability. That is my observation about growing up, generally. The older I get, the more fragile the structures around me seem. The more tenuous. The more invented, in a way. What I mean is that the security of everything I hold precious and dear, even my beliefs, is supported by a certain level of cognitive dissonance, but also by the suspension of disbelief. To dig in, to help build, to get my hands dirty, to make or unmake, is, for me, to witness the complexity and arbitrariness of experience, of life itself, against which there can be no absolute assurances of safety and security.
All of this from putting up a tent in our back yard.
And, also, from sitting with my laptop and thinking and thinking and thinking.
PS Yes, I have my voice back. It is weak and a bit raspy and rough, but it exists, and I am once again in the world, where it is so much easier to participate with working vocal chords.
Friday, noon. I sit in perfection on the deck of a cottage overlooking a calm lake, pines and birch and cedar moving in a light breeze, the sound of children playing on the rocks below, wading in the shallows. An iridescent dragonfly flutters up and away. The sun is hot. I am wearing a swim suit underneath a brown faded sundress, and a half-drunk cup of coffee is at my elbow.
It feels like this could last forever.
Of course, it can’t and won’t. But there are times when a moment gives the illusion of settling and holding and the mind and body relax so completely that there is no thinking about later, tomorrow, work, duty, responsibility. Ambition vanishes too.
Because what am I part of if not something much greater than my mere human ambition can imagine?
I want for all the gift of rest, respite, dignity, play. At a moment like this, I can imagine no greater gift than somehow creating space for rest and respite, for all who live on this earth. Yet instead we seem most adept at inventing barriers, walls, borders, crises, battles, weapons, dogma that excludes, ideologies of fear and control. There is too much to grieve. I become overwhelmed. I grow weary and distracted. I can’t think clearly.
I sit and watch the lake water move in patterns of eternal symmetry.
Perhaps, I think, my mind is being cleared. Perhaps I will return home less weary, more aware of what matters to me, which patterns I wish to nurture, and which I wish to discard, in order to be a participant in a world where all of these gifts may be shared.
Relief. Simple pleasure. Ease. Rest. Hope.
PS I reviewed Lawrence Hill’s new novel, The Illegal, for The Globe and Mail, and it’s online now, and will appear in tomorrow’s paper. The book is a fast-paced, prescient read on a subject that could not be more timely — the movement of people across borders.
Yesterday, I drove my eldest to camp and dropped him off. The weather was sunny and hot. The car’s thermometer said it was 30 degrees outside. But as we came closer to our destination, a wall of grey cloud rose up on the horizon. Rain could be seen falling in sheets from a distance, lightning flashing occasionally. Albus took it in good humour—it always storms when he’s at camp. He had to go for cover during a severe tornado warning, several years ago.
We carried his gear to the dining hall along with everyone else who was arriving, and it soon started to thunder and lightning, and rain. After a brief introduction, the kids began gathering into their cabin groups, and the parents were sent on their way. I had brought an umbrella, and walked to the car in heavy rain, feeling chuffed with myself for being so prepared. But the air was cool, and I felt almost chilly in my t-shirt and knee-length leggings. When I started the car, I saw the thermometer now read 17 degrees.
I turned on the radio and found CBC as I left the camp grounds and headed east on the small country road, then south on the slightly larger country highway (Grey County 10) that cuts down to Clifford, through Hanover and Neustadt. But I didn’t get very far. Eleanor Wachtel was engaging three writers in a conversation on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which kept my mind occupied, even as I watched the ominous shelf of heavy cloud to the west, which seemed to be blowing my way. I accelerated to pass several cars, because I had the impression that I could somehow outrace the storm. I was in a strip of clear sky overhead, no rain, no wind, as I drove down the strip of paved road between vast stretches of fields, punctuated by little clumps of thickly treed areas, a few houses, fences, barns, but mostly fields and trees.
I crossed Highway 21, which goes to Southampton, and Lake Huron. I remember glancing to my right, again, to assess the location of the cloud, still thinking I could outrace it, if only I could get past this slow-moving trailer-home in front of me. Only a few hundred feet out the passenger window, I glimpsed a stream in amongst trees, the whole of the scene stirred into a whirl, as if it were being thrashed by an invisible force. I can see it right now in my mind’s eye: a grey force, rattling the leaves and branches, bending the trees, stirring the water, within a rapidly descending fog. It’s that near to me, I thought. I’ve got less than a minute and it will be here. And then it struck the tiny car full-force, a powerful wind, heavy rain. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. I kept driving like an automaton, not sure what else to do, following the trailer-home. We crossed a small bridge that took us between a thick patch of trees planted close to the road, and I could see debris flying, and the car was struck with a branch, the treetops were whirling, and I knew, suddenly, that this was very dangerous weather. But what could I do?
I must stop somewhere with less trees, I thought. The trailer-home pulled into the gravel at the side of the road, and other cars coming from the opposite direction were doing the same, so I pulled over too, coming to stop in an area with a few trees far enough from the road that I didn’t think they could fall on me. I didn’t even notice the power lines overhead. On the radio, making it all the much worse, a siren began sounding, interrupting the voices of the women talking about George Eliot, and an automated voice informed me that the area in which I was driving was under a tornado watch or warning, and that I was being advised to take shelter immediately.
Take shelter? Where? I’m sitting with the car still in drive, my foot on the brake pedal, my body shaking uncontrollably, asking the automated voice where exactly would it advise me to take cover? My new car felt approximately as substantial as a tin can. At moments, the blasts of wind seemed to lift it almost off the ground. I imagined it spinning through the air like a blown piece of trash. I realized that there was no point in keeping the car in drive, and that my muscles must relax in order to stop shaking. I geared into park, and remembered that I had a cellphone.
I began texting Kevin. No response. Here is my series of (completely over-the-top hysterical) texts to him:
I’m in tornado.
Can’t find hazards
Should I leave car and get down in ditch?
How big is storm?please help if you can
The reason I considered abandoning the car and getting down in the ditch was because only a couple of days ago I heard a news report about a massive tornado in western Canada that ravaged an area for hours, and two teens, brothers, recounted how they abandoned the pickup they’d been driving and lay flat in a ditch waiting for the storm to pass—should I do the same? Is this what one does? It came to me that I possessed zero survival knowledge in this situation, and that my instinct was paralysis, essentially: to freeze and fearfully hope for the best. Hope that I wouldn’t be the unfortunate person who finds herself in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
But I could find the hazards! I dropped the phone on the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment to find the manual. The car is new enough that I’d not yet had occasion to use the hazards, and couldn’t have found the symbol if my life depended on it—couldn’t even remember, in my state of mind, what the symbol for hazards looked like. In the index I found the page listing: “Page 176,” I said out loud, which curiously made me feel better, and I turned to the page, and read that the hazards are conveniently located near the radio controls.
Ah. That’s it. I pressed the button and felt more in control. I’d forced myself to behave in a calm and rational manner. The storm was not abating, however, so it occurred to me to phone home. My elder daughter answered, and I freaked her out while trying to sound calm, and then Kevin came on the line. He looked up the storm on the radar. Yes, I was right in the heart of it, but it was one long narrow path running north to south, and should be by me soon. He assured me that it was nowhere near camp, which eased my mind enormously. I kept thinking of how I’d left my kid in a camp dining-hall in what was maybe a tornado.
The trailer-home pulled out. I decided to pull out too.
I stopped once more when the wind got heavy again, parked in the shelter of a driving shed with another woman in her vehicle, both of us glancing at each other but what else could we do? Then I resumed driving again. The sky was alight with flickers of lightning, almost constant. I started to think I was imagining them. The storm didn’t seem to vanish, as promised. A utility pole that had snapped in half dangled over the highway on wires. It occurred to me, as I passed it, that I shouldn’t have parked underneath the electrical lines, earlier. I listened to a call-in show on the newly-called federal election, but I was hardly listening. I was in a dream-state, really. My focus on the road, my emotions pressed down deep. I chased the storm all the way home, kilometre after kilometre of tension and rain and wind—at one point tracking west to try to escape it, only to finish in Waterloo, on the homestretch, under a torrent of hail, and thick rain.
As I drove down Bridgeport, minutes from home, the sun came out and shone in my eyes—but it was raining heavily. The contrast was comical. Then it stopped suddenly, suddenly clear. The street ahead was blocked off by emergency vehicles, so I took a detour, and finally, I was in our driveway, home. On our front steps I leaned down and picked up a piece of hail that was quickly melting, as big as a quarter. I was jelly-limbed. Kevin fed me burritos. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t sit. When I lay down, I couldn’t rest. I felt both drained and wired all at once.
It wasn’t that I thought I was going to die—not really. But it did occur to me that this was a situation in which death would not be a completely unreasonable outcome. “Don’t let anyone publish anything I’ve been working on,” I instructed Kevin over the phone. “It’s not ready. It shouldn’t ever be published.”
“Um, okay,” he said.
I didn’t feel a need to give him last-minute instructions on child-rearing, because he knows what to do and what could I say in a ridiculously cliched phone conversation in the middle of a storm to make a worst-case scenario outcome better? But my publishing legacy—that seemed important to try to control.
Is it sad that I’m in the middle of projects that are incomplete, insufficient, unready? It isn’t that sad. I’ve published some good things, and it would be fine to leave it at that. It also isn’t sad because the potential of the incomplete and unready is good, when a person is around to fulfill it, and here I am, alive and well, sitting with earplugs in, listening to my daughter play and sing a song she’s composed on the ukulele—she’s even printed out the lyrics and chords—and I’m writing something, even if it’s only this. I’m here and I can keep working away at these ideas and projects and can hope, eventually, maybe, to finish something else I’ll be proud of, worth sharing.
When I walked through the door, safely home, I was drained of emotion. I’d spent the last two and a half hours trying to feel nothing at all—or instinctively feeling as little as possible, emotions useless in the situation, because they’d only overwhelm rational action and thought. I felt removed. The sensation was physical—that was why it felt so peculiar, so particular. It was like my eyes and ears couldn’t transmit deeper information to my brain, like there was a fog of rain between my brain and my body. My body was this blurred heavy weight that I was dragging like stone, but it was also me, I could recognize it as me. But this was a me that was blurred, heavy, indistinct. I couldn’t feel myself. And I didn’t care.
And now, let me be a little less melodramatic: passing through the storm was a minor trauma. Had I not been alone, it might not have seemed so dire, in truth.
After devouring the burritos and drinking several enormous glasses of water, I binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine with AppleApple. Later, I played the ukulele in the dark, somehow recalling lyrics and chords to a vast number of Leonard Cohen songs, which made me feel 18 again—exactly 18 years old, when Leonard Cohen songs were my summer soundtrack and longing and love were fresh and his lyrics made perfect and perfectly romantic sense: “I loved you in the morning, your kisses deep and warm, your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm. Many loved before us, I know that we are not new, in city and in forest, they smiled like me and you. But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie, your eyes are soft with sorrow, hey that’s no way to say goodbye.” (Except, I see now, in looking up the lyrics, that I’ve remembered them wrong, and the love or chains line comes in a later verse… but it is a good line, possibly the best in the song, so I’ll leave it as it is, and sing it like that, when I sing it again, in the dark.)
It’s bloody hot this week in Canada. So we’re working with a salad theme for supper, and it’s been both easy and quite pleasant. If you have a favourite recipe, pass it on, please. I still need salad ideas for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. (Note: I haven’t done a post on recipes for AGES, because a) Kevin does a lot of the supper prep now, and b) we almost never make anything exciting or original. So these recipes must be good to have inspired me to note them down… Either that or the heat is addling my brain and I’ve got nothing else of interest to write about.)
Combine in your biggest mixing bowl: one head of lettuce, torn and washed; several cups of cabbage, chopped; half of an onion, chopped; two cobs’ worth of fresh corn kernels; one can of black beans, rinsed and drained; one green pepper, chopped.
To make the dressing, whirl together in a blender the following ingredients: between 1/2 – 3/4 cups buttermilk; the leaves off a bunch of cilantro, washed; one peeled clove of garlic; one scant teaspoon of sea salt; one tablespoon olive oil; the juice of one very juicy lime, or 1/4 cup’s worth; 1/2 teaspoon chili powder.
Pour the dressing over the salad. Let sit for a few minutes, then stir in one cup of grated cheese (or more). Serve with corn tortilla chips at the table, letting each person crush his or her own and add to the salad on the plate.
Peanut & ginger pasta salad
Cook up a 450-gram package of pasta in salted water. I made farfalle, because that’s what we had in the cupboard. Drain, rinse, cool, and toss into into a larger serving bowl. Add nicely matchsticked veggies like: red pepper, cucumber, carrot. Or grated. Fresh peas or corn kernels would be good too.
Cut a block of tofu into cubes, place on baking tray, douse with olive oil and tamari sauce, and a sprinkle of salt, and roast in the oven until delicious. (Bake at 425 for about ten minutes, shaking the tray now and again.) Add tofu to pasta.
For the dressing, mix together the following ingredients: 1/4 to 1/2 cup of peanut butter; two tablespoons of hot water; one clove of garlic, finely chopped; one tablespoon tamari sauce; one tablespoon of ginger root, finely chopped; the juice and zest of one lime; several green onions, chopped; one teaspoon sugar; salt and pepper to taste.
Pour the dressing over the pasta, add extra peanuts if you’d like, and some greens (I didn’t), and serve.
And then forget to take photos of either salad because you’re about to rush out the door to some early evening soccer-related event or another.
PS Bonus Recipe: Bean Salad!
I have to add a third recipe, a dressing for bean salad, because my mom had some when she was here on Wednesday (our third day of salads), and she LOVED it. She’s now taken the recipe to Tennessee, where my aunt and uncle loved it too.
You know how to make a bean salad. I used canned beans: black, red, and chickpea. Fresh corn sliced off the cob (about six cobs). Half an onion, chopped. Spinach. Green pepper. Some green onions too.
For the dressing: 1/4 to 1/2 cup buttermilk; 1/4 cup olive oil; 1-2 teaspoons sea salt (to taste); 3 cloves garlic; 1 to 2 tablespoons oregano; 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar; the juice of one lemon; black pepper to taste: whirl all ingredients in blender. Pour over salad. Leftovers taste great too, as you can imagine. If you want to try making this vegan, substitute a ripe avocado for the buttermilk. (I didn’t have a ripe avocado, or I would have tried; therefore, I cannot personally vouch for this method.)
Where I’m writing from (above).
Poolside, underneath a wonky umbrella, at a picnic table, with birds cheeping from a ventilation system nearby, and the sound of water moving rhythmically in the 50-metre pool. My eldest is taking a lifeguarding course, three hours every morning for the next two weeks. I decided to stay, this morning, and work here.
Where I was on Saturday (above).
I spent the better part of the day driving to and from the overnight camp where our kids have been going for many summers. I picked up the girls, who had been away for the week and were in varying stages of tired and hungry and happy. We stopped at a diner on the way home. Driving almost defines my summer so far, but this week and next will be a different flavour: swimming pools, staying close to home.
Maybe we’ll have more of this, too (above).
Yesterday, the kids spontaneously decided to make supper in two teams: boys v girls. Boys made dessert, girls made the main meal. They plan to switch it up for another evening this week. Kevin took them shopping for ingredients. I offered a few tips (such as you don’t have to tape parchment paper into a cake pan!!!), but mostly tried to stay the heck out of the kitchen, and let them follow their recipes and help each other out. I even went for a run to avoid the hovering. Unfortunately, it was hot and I kept having to stop and walk, which couldn’t have been fun for my running partner, who was totally fine. We made it 10 km, but I was all kinds of pitiful. I kept fantasizing that someone might have dropped a water bottle near the path, or maybe I’d see a puddle, or maybe that guy on the bike is carrying water and I can ask him for a drink … Moral of the story: on hot days, carry some damn water, Carrie.
The meal I returned to: French onion soup, caesar salad, and oreo-shaped cake for dessert with freshly whipped cream. Best of all, the food was excellent. The judges ruled that the teams had tied. Points for everyone. (CJ has been giving himself points lately: a point for feeding the fish, a point for emptying the dishwasher, watering the plants, reading a book, brushing teeth, practicing soccer, etc. etc. I like this very much. The simple self-reward.)
These three are home for the morning together (above).
This is a possible illustration of what’s happening right now. Jenga turned into a housing complex. Bananagrams as furniture. Go-go people. Random cars. And some ukulele playing. On Sunday morning AppleApple and I sat and played our ukuleles for at least an hour, leaning toward folk and spiritual songs. She wants to learn how to sing harmony, inspired by the musically talented counsellors at camp. She also may have a broken collarbone, but that’s another story. I will fill you in later this week when we get x-ray results, but it looks like that injury during the soccer tournament was more serious than we’d realized. A reminder than comfortably held patterns and assumptions may experience unexpected breaks.
How to roll with it? How to comfort anxiety? How to let yourself be carried along peacefully with the new direction of the flow? Always learning. Playing and singing spirituals seemed like a good way to go, yesterday morning.
PS Here’s what I’ve been clicking on, reading, and listening to this week: From Those People, a personal piece on race and unrecognized, unacknowledged privilege. I think this is a necessary read, especially if you have white skin; from the NPR, setting goals by writing about them; from The New Yorker, free podcasts of fiction writers reading and then discussing a favourite short story published in the magazine. AppleApple and I listened to two while driving together: Nathan Englander reading John Cheever’s The Enormous Radio, and Paul Theroux reading Elizabeth Taylor’s “The Letter Writers.” (No, not that Elizabeth Taylor.) One final link: from Hazlitt, I enjoyed reading Dreams Are Boring, by Sasha Chapin, about the romanticized and false link between madness and inspiration.
I have a list in my head entitled: Jobs That Kids Can Do Themselves! I can see the title written out in perky brightly coloured bubble letters on a piece of paper and I can see the children discovering the list, glancing at it, and sighing, Oh Mom. (On the imaginary list: pick up dog poo in back yard; clean shoes after stepping in dog poo in back yard; feed and water dogs; put away clean laundry; put dirty laundry into hamper; hang wet towels; empty dishwasher; put dirty dishes in sink; empty recycling and compost bins; make breakfast and lunch; clean up after breakfast and lunch; find friends to play with…)
I have driven many many kilometres this weekend. I have driven them in my new little car. On Tuesday we gave in to the ongoing overlapping scheduling puzzle that has been our reality, as a one-car six-person family, these past few years, and we bought a second vehicle, a little pod that can efficiently travel from the mothership.
Sunset over salt mine, Goderich, Ontario.
On Friday night I was with friends in Goderich — old friends. I was reminded that even within a larger group, I look for moments of intimacy amidst the noise. I like to listen. I like to hear.
On Saturday afternoon I read at a festival in Bayfield, in a space that had been the town hall, with four other writers, and the stories they told were essential and moving and spiritual, somehow, and as the last reader of the eventful first half, I felt myself pulled into the flow in the room, and saw how there was space and focus for what I was about to offer and I was so glad and grateful to the other writers for opening up that spiritual river. How I loved stepping into the water. How I loved Aganetha, speaking through me. On the way home, driving my new little car through the rain, I didn’t want to listen to the radio, I didn’t want talk or music, I wanted to hear my own thoughts, I needed space to let the emotions of the afternoon work their way through my system. I heard myself saying, Aggie Smart is a wonderful character. Give yourself that. Let yourself know it.
One of the writers at Saturday’s event told me afterward that they were embarrassed by the organizer’s introduction of me, which was particularly awkward—title of my last book wrong, said she couldn’t find any information about me online, except some weird site called Obscure CanLit Mama, which perhaps she didn’t realize was mine—and when I got up to speak, I tried to riff off her intro and said that I didn’t mind being obscure, and wrote for the words on the page and the stories I wanted to tell, which perhaps just made everything all the more awkward. And then I read. I dove right into those words on the page. I wasn’t upset by the intro at all, actually, even if the other writer thought it was infuriatingly dismissive of my career and experience. Oddly, I’d thought it was accurate and reassuring. How nice that she couldn’t find much about me online, I thought. Maybe I can do this writing thing and remain obscure. (Although, is that really true? I’m not going to Google myself to find out.)
An author at the event told a story about Alice Munro writing while her kids were at school, and covering her typewriter when they arrived home again; I like that un-precious approach to the work. It fits with how I see myself, as a very ordinary person living a very ordinary life, who happens to enjoy an imaginative extra-life, like a room in the attic full of dress-up clothes stuffed into old-fashioned trunks or with secret passageways that I can visit and escape to, but I’ll still be back downstairs in time to help make supper and coach a soccer game. Life has many rooms. I want to live fully in all of them, whichever room I’m in.
Yesterday, I delivered my youngest child to overnight camp, and he is away from me until tomorrow. This picture breaks my heart just a little. He looks so anxious, but also like he’s trying to reassure me that he will be okay.
The writing work that I’ve submitted recently sits out there waiting for responses and there is no guarantee that anyone will like it or want it. I want other writers to know this, especially writers beginning their careers: know that even the writers you think of as more established, or as having had some success, receive rejection, sometimes, or have to begin projects over again, or abandon them altogether, sometimes. In fact, I think it’s good for a person never to get so comfortable in her abilities that her work can’t be critiqued by thoughtful professionals. It’s good never to become so precious, so valuable commercially, that no one holds you to account. (Even though that sounds awfully tempting and a person can dream!)
The best things in life are never the easiest, even if the experience of them feels easy. Getting to ease is hard.
Maybe I exercise because it is a form of extremity, it removes barriers, can push the self beyond the beyond to a purer place that doesn’t traffic in the ordinary obstacles that come between people, that we use to keep ourselves safe and protected and apart.
Behind me, a daughter inhales her asthma puffer. I can hear her breathe out slowly, then pull the medication into her lungs.
Behind me, my other daughter and her friend practice what I think are dance steps, her friend instructing her, one-two-push. But when my older daughter joins their conversation, I realize that a soccer ball is involved, and the friend is teaching my younger daughter a fancy soccer move, in our living-room. Maybe she will use it in her game tonight.
The nervous little dog comes into this office and lies down near my feet. She is distressed by change and change is constant in our house, in the summertime.
If I were to write a poem today what would be my subject?
If I were to write a short story today what would be my subject?
Here is the blog post I’ve written today. What is its subject?
The American writer, James Salter, died recently, aged 90. His output, said the obituary, was modest: six novels, two short story collections, a memoir. I think that output sounds quite fantastic. Nine books in total, not much more than a book a decade. I think it must have meant he cared deeply about what he published and rejected a lot of his own ideas and attempts. This is just a guess.
Enjoying this room I’m in. Hope you are too, wherever you are.
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