Category: The Juliet Stories

A minor breakdown

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So much on my mind today. I couldn’t shut it down, not even in yoga class this morning. The word I used to meditate as I held poses was “strength.” I want to be strong. I think I am strong. But sometimes I wonder, at what point does “strength” become “unwillingness to appear weak”? Is it better to grit through a difficult pose, or to give in to the desire to rest? Maybe sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other. I heavily favour the former, of course.

I do believe, however, that our greatest strengths are also our points of greatest frailty. So I have to be careful.

Let me tell you about yesterday. It was a pretty crappy day, if I may be frank. Writing time vanished as I had to take one daughter to a doctor’s appointment. Vanished some more due to errands and piano lessons. And then the truck slowly but surely started breaking down. Right in the middle of the fairly complicated back-and-forthing between school, piano lessons, school, birthday party. Three kids were directly counting on me to be in specific locations at specific times.

The truck refused to shift into reverse.

I was lucky. I realized what was happening. I’d parked on an incline and was able to roll out of the parking lot. I was able to call Kevin right away. He was able to book a carshare car right away. I was able to park at the next location in such a way that would prevent me from needing to reverse. And the next. And the next. And we were able to make it to the repair shop before the entire transmission shut down.

I never realized how frequently I use reverse, when driving. Maybe this is a life metaphor. We’re not meant to be stuck going forward at all times. We need to be able to back up, too.

The situation was stressful. I was worried the whole time and couldn’t find my “happy place,” shall we say. But I recognized, too, that the day was not nearly so crappy as it could have been. Kevin and I worked together as a team. We were only about ten minutes late for the second piano lesson. The truck did not need to be towed. The children adapted to the changing plans. We belong to a carshare!

Home at last, I felt so tired — not physically, but mentally. Fooey wanted to play an imagination game while I was hanging laundry. It was all I could do to manage the most banal responses.

It also happened that I was due to Skype in to a book club in Toronto at 9pm. Well. I made a pot of peppermint tea, brushed my hair, and sat down in my office. We made contact. But we couldn’t work the video. In the end, we decided just to chat. I looked at my own video smiling back at me (not sure whether they did the same), and we spoke for about forty-five minutes. My tiredness evaporated. Their questions were thoughtful, respectful, insightful. We talked about how daughters view their mothers. We talked about being mothers. We wondered, will mothers ever get cut some slack?

I hung up feeling so much better.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with the truck. The two eldest kids wonder: would this be a good time to become a car-free family? “I’ve been thinking about it, Mom, and it would make us be more eco-friendly and more organized….” I’m proud of the values we’ve instilled in them, but, oh, I like having that truck waiting for me on freezing dark mornings when I’m headed for a spin class.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with the book. The editing is so slow. One foot in front of the other. One small step and another and another. Many, if not most, of my writing days are shortened by other necessities that take priority.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with my applications for writing grants and midwifery and The Amazing Race (thanks for watching the video: we’ve had tons of excellent feedback already!).

I feel as if so much of my life is up in the air right now. Strength. I’m calling on strength as I hold this pose.

On endings

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I’ve been re-reading old blog posts. The photos are fun, but it’s the changes that are most remarkable to see in fast-forward (or fast-rewind).

Consider the post from Monday, May 18, 2009, titled “On Endings,” which seems rather appropriate for this last day of 2012. In this post, I’m writing about trying to finish a story, one that would become, in one way another, part of The Juliet Stories. I am amazed by my own resolve under circumstances that look, from this vantage point, very difficult indeed. My youngest was not-quite-fourteen-months. My eldest was not-quite-eight. I was home with the littlest children full-time, and I was finding it trying.  Kevin was recovering from a broken knee. Friends had been bringing us meals (bless you, friends!). We’d had “the barfing thing” four times in four months. I was sleeping sporadically, still nursing at night. I must have been utterly exhausted. No time for exercise, no time even to imagine exercise — who could get up early after being woken half the night?

And yet, I was writing.

There was no guarantee that what I was writing would become anything anyone would ever want to read, let alone publish, let alone nominate for a major prize. I was writing because I had to write this particular story, in this particular way. I was doing what I had to do, and if there is a lesson in here, it is simply do what you have to do. Don’t look for reasons not to do the things you have to do. Come alive. Do! I think that even if that story I was writing had not turned into The Juliet Stories, it would have been worth writing, because it brought me hope, because it gave me space and allowed me to dream.

In the blog post “On Endings” from May, 2009, I reflected on a documentary I’d just seen on the photographer Sally Mann, an artist who was suffering from doubt and set-back — and yet her art seemed without question worthy and beautiful. How could she doubt?

Here’s what I wrote in response:

“There’s no telling whether these years of work will this time add up to something of beauty and merit, but I felt a kinship watching her [Sally Mann] struggle, mourn, reflect, create. It’s a blessing and curse to want to translate experience into art — not just to want to, but to do it. The work involved. Working toward an end you can’t see until you find it. Will it be whole, or still-born? All the infinitessimal choices along the way that shape the final artifact, that leave you wondering — why this and not that? So much room for criticism, self and other. There’s the artifact created, and the one intended, and the multiple ones that might have been.”

Weirdly, I see that her art show was titled “What Remains.” I say weirdly because that very nearly became the last line in the epilogue to my book, but we decided to cut it. I’m still not sure about that cut. It’s the only one I question and wonder about. This is the ending that almost was: “Tell me, for I need to know. What remains?”

*

I have a million other things I’d like to blog about, here, as we stand on the threshold of a new year. These are all on my mind: Chief Theresa Spence’s ongoing hunger strike; the need to protect and cherish the land we live on, the air we breathe, the water we drink; the nihilism of a sub-group of young men, worldwide, who commit acts of terror, from the random-seeming shootings in the United States, to suicide bombers elsewhere, to the violent rape that is moving protestors in India to rise up against a casually misogynist culture. There is more, I know. I wonder, will this be a year in which protest brings about hope and healing? What is my (small) part in creating a more hopeful world? We all long for peaceful communities, whole relationships, happy families. We are imperfect.

We work toward ends we cannot see.

Pulling teeth

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Creative discomfort. I’m in the throes right now. I am sitting with problems yet unsolved within in a book partially written, and it’s agonizing, I’ll admit. But it is also part of the process — no, it’s critical to the process — and the book I want to write cannot be completed without the discomfort, the discordances, the anxiety, the wish to be done with it combined with the knowledge that only patience will bring relief.

It’s been an intense writing week, in an intense writing month, as I lay down the bones and structure for this book begun many months ago. I’m desperate to finish building an arc from end to end. I’m close. But I can’t guess how close. Am I days, weeks, or still many months from creating a solid first draft? I imagine myself, with a pleasantly whole (if drafty) draft completed, marching back through these rooms to carve all the fancy parts, the elaborations, to paint the walls, and fill the closets, and scatter things on the floor. To make messy and lived-in what is yet quite bare and sparse. This book feels like a house. Which makes perfect sense because it is, in part, inspired by a house I once lived in.

I sometimes say that The Juliet Stories took six years to write, but it would be more accurate to say that The Juliet Stories took six years to get right. The actual writing of the actual stories in the finished book came in bursts and jags. Some required much rewriting. All needed polishing. Some of the best came quickly and suddenly from nowhere I could have imagined before sitting down and discovering them.

The whole of it looked messy and incomplete for a very very very long time.

How to live in a messy and incomplete house? A house that hasn’t got a roof yet, but that is already ghosted by characters? They wander too, wondering what I’ll build for them, wondering where I’ll arrange them, and why.

On Wednesday, the little kids and I finished reading Little House in the Big Woods. So last night we moved on to Little House on the Prairie. The Big Woods have become too crowded and busy for Pa’s liking. The little path in front of their log house is almost a road, now, and almost every day Mary and Laura stop their play to watch with surprise as a wagon passes by. One wagon a day is too many for Pa. So he builds his own wagon, and as Ma “does not object,” the family says goodbye to the little house in the big woods of Wisconsin and sets off for the less-populated West.

CJ was almost in tears at the loss of the cozy little house. Would Mary and Laura ever see their grandma and grandpa and aunts and uncles again? (I think the answer is: no.) He couldn’t bear the thought. And I felt the pain, too, as if it were happening to us: the early dark of a March morning, the goodbyes of family, the emptied house which can’t see them go because its windows are shuttered.

They never saw that little house again, writes Laura.

What do I hold onto? Why? What do I think I could not bear to let go of? How rooted is our family, here? We feel so very rooted, such a goodbye seems impossible to imagine.

I just finished reading Alison Pick’s Far to Go, which I highly recommend. It ends with a reflection on how swiftly the world we think we know can fall to pieces. I don’t know whether it is this present state of creative discomfort, or this dark season before the coming of the solstice, but right now I am keenly attuned to the off-kilterness in our larger world with too many sadnesses and wrongs to list here, except to say that so many of them seem caused by greed, and by the hunger of the now.

Random fact: I got hit on the head with a soccer ball

Random facts.

My hair looks good this morning. So far, the only people aside from family to have seen it have been the school bus driver (who wears a knitted toque himself) and a man walking a dog (which sniffed me; dog, not man).

The school bus was late this morning.

I didn’t eat breakfast until after doing the dishes I should have done last night.

I was too tired to do dishes last night, or even to function as a responsible parent, and instead fell into a deep sleep on the couch while my children entertained themselves in the new Lego play area. Bits of their play drifted into my dreams. I swear they’ve got a game going on right now that involves taxation for the benefit of the greater good. CJ wasn’t keen to pay his taxes. This caused problems. (Meanwhile, Kevin took the dogs on a car-ride to pick up a child who’d been at a birthday party playing laser tag, much to the envy of her military-minded brothers, who bring me to grief regularly with their battle play. War is not a game! I feel this deeply! And yet my boys — yes, boys only — take great pleasure in imagining themselves blasting imaginary opponents with imaginary weaponry. Is this play harmless? Inexcusable? Inevitable? A necessary fantasy? Related to their genitalia? This aside is getting way too long, but I want to add an aside to my aside, and ask: Are humans hard-wired to desire conflict? Is conflict itself a kind of fantasy that helps us escape from the boredom of our adult responsibilities?)

Um. Where was I?

I did get hit on the head with a soccer ball yesterday. I meant to head the ball, which is not my favourite thing to do as I am a bit protective of my brain, and in my fraction-of-a-second hesitation was instead hit upon the head with the ball, which is not the same thing at all.

Also, we lost.

But my teammates have found out that I’m a writer, and one of them had actually heard of The Juliet Stories!!! Because someone at her book club had recommended it!! Which is really quite thrilling because it means the book is making noise enough to get through to new readers! And that is all an obscure CanLit writer can really hope for. (Maybe it helps that The Juliet Stories has been noted on end-of-year-best-of lists in The Globe & Mail, the National Post, and K-W’s own The Record? Do people shop off these lists? Do you? Do I?)

Driving home after my soccer game, I wondered, am I more fuzzy-headed than usual? But it was hard to tell whether it was ball-on-head-induced fuzziness or up-before-dawn-driving-all-day fuzziness. My big girl had a swim meet on the east side of Toronto, which required us to be poolside at 8 in the morning. She is not a morning person. She also gets carsick.

It was raining. The trip was by turns exciting (when we picked up coffee and bagels for breakfast from the sweet-smelling City Cafe Bakery on our way out of town), uneventful (safe driving), and tedious (nothing on the radio; aforementioned carsickness).

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She won both of her heats.

I missed seeing the second one because I was chatting with a dad sitting next to me, whose daughter happened to be in the same heat, so we shared the parent-guilt equally. (Random fact: I enjoy chatting with people I will never see again.)

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Anyway, AppleApple and I decided to skip her last race of the morning because it meant we could just make it to her soccer game in nearby Mississaugua. Her team won. I observed several girls heading the ball properly. We were then home in time for me to change and get back into the car to drive to my soccer game.

All of this activity involved way too much driving. I found myself making up the lyrics to a sunny little song: “I’m driving all day in my car / it’s really not that hard.” Sitting in the driveway, back home again, I felt this strange attachment to the car, as if it had become a cocoon world of slightly stale bagels and cold coffee and radio talk, temperature controlled, seat-adjustable. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. But I didn’t really want to get out.

Eventually I did. And then, it must be said, I really really didn’t want to get back in again.

One good thing about not having a dishwasher

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this morning, convalescing kid with companions

Recently I sat down and wrote out a schedule. My goal was to identify any spare pockets of time into which I could slot one of the following activities: exercise, writing, social time, Kevin time, and cleaning. (My standards are low, but even basic maintenance for a family of six without a dishwasher requires a little effort every day.) I discovered a few extra spots for running or yoga, plus worked out my strategy for maximizing my writing hours (hint: it involves scheduling separate time for email). Social time seems to be the hardest to come by.

But I did find an extra fifteen minutes here and there to throw at vacuuming and cleaning out cupboards and filing the stacks of paper that fly into the house and somehow multiply and spread to every available surface. To which I say, Whoo-hoo, without much enthusiasm.

But now I’ve got a kid home sick, and the schedule’s gone out the window. This is temporary, right? Right??

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Last night, I visited another book club, my fifth this fall. I’ll admit that I was exhausted and drained after spending the previous night at the hospital, but I had a feeling that I needed not to cancel last-minute. I needed to go. And didn’t I! I was hosted by a group of mothers and daughters whose comforting warmth and welcome restored my energies. You just never know when these unexpected gifts are going to arrive. I returned home feeling repaired and strengthened by the evening.

I also got to show the book club the reprinted version of The Juliet Stories, which arrived yesterday. Oh my goodness! It looks quite different: GG finalist sticker embedded in the cover design, and new quotes from reviews on the back and front.

Kevin has made me a little gift: he put together a video with photos from this past month’s GG adventure, set over top of the clip on The Juliet Stories that was played on Monday evening on CBC radio’s As It Happens. Small story about that clip: I got to listen to it twice. First, I heard it live. I was washing the dishes, and I always listen to the CBC while washing the dishes (perhaps this is reason enough to remain dishwasher-free). Kevin was at a soccer game with AppleApple and the other kids were playing soccer in the rainy dark backyard, and suddenly there was my name and then my voice. I didn’t call the kids in. I listened alone, appreciating the quiet. What a sweet life moment. An hour later, the whole family got to hear it together: we streamed it from the Winnipeg station online. AppleApple was beaming from ear to ear: her Halloween costume is mentioned in the intro. (Several of her siblings were slightly jealous.) When my reading came on, CJ said, “Who is that?!” “Who do you think?” And he was suddenly too shy to say, but he knew.

Click here to see the video. Thanks, Kevin. It’s quite the keepsake.

Here’s what it feels like, right now

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squirrel on our back fence, yesterday, sheltering itself from the rain

I’ve been quiet.

There’s a time to be quiet and a time to make noise, and it’s time to be quiet. I’ve made a lot of noise this fall, that’s what it feels like. I’ve done my best. And because I chose to write about every stage of this journey, it seems only fair to close up the chapter begun on October 2nd, when my book was named a finalist for one of Canada’s biggest literary prizes.

A quirk about the GGs is that there is no instant reveal ceremony. Instead, all the finalists are informed of the results in advance, and then asked to keep their knowledge secret until the day of the announcement. I’ve tried to play by the rules, but you can read me like a book. I carry my happiness and my sadness in my body. I’ve been through a massive range of emotions since Oct. 2nd, and I’ve tried to accept every shift, every climb, every jitter, every fall. I’ve tried not to resent what I’m feeling. Just feel it. Just be there with it.

I’ve known for over a week, now, that The Juliet Stories was not chosen by the jury as the last book standing.

I’ve felt quite alone in that knowledge. It’s a lonely place to be, accepting good wishes for a result that you already know will disappoint. I suppose that’s been my rawest emotion: the sense that I am disappointing friends and family with this result.

I told my two big kids on Sunday, after I’d had a difficult day, struggling with how I would get through one more day until the announcement. I was so weary, so distracted, so short-tempered, it wasn’t fair to them. So I told them, to give them context; I make a habit of naming my emotions (and encouraging them to name theirs) so we all know what we’re working with. This was late on Sunday evening. They were sad to hear the news, yes, but mostly they were purely compassionate, empathetic. They forgave me my snapping.

I said, “I’m really sorry to be disappointing you.”

And my daughter came across the room like a heat-seeking missile to hug me, hard. She said, “You’re not disappointing me, Mom. I’m just disappointed in the jury’s choice.”

I needed to hear it, and I’m blessed to have heard it from my own thoughtful child.

It’s not like I ever felt that my book deserved to win over anyone else’s. I still believe it was luck that landed me on the list. But if luck got me that far, it meant I might get luckier still. And I got pretty close to that light. I’ve lived a simple life, propelling myself toward this possibility from a young age. Writing books was the one thing I consistently wanted to do and so I figured out how to write books with a singular focus: reading, studying, practicing, and working toward this goal — which is an amorphous goal, and I’m not sure one that should rely so heavily, in my own judgement, on prizes or sales, but I’m also not sure how else to measure my success in meeting it. Essentially, it’s been the goal of signing my name amidst the names I’ve read and studied and admired.

It’s been the goal of writing a beautiful book. Or two. Or more.

I’m not sure, now that I’m here, what I imagined it would be like. What if this is as good as it gets? The festivals, the readings, meeting other writers — all things I’ve truly enjoyed this fall, but also things that are new and strange and exciting because they are out of the ordinary. Would I enjoy them so much if they became ordinary? The prize part has surprised me most of all. It’s left me drained. I’d say humbled, but it’s more a sense of helplessness, a lack of control. I ask: wouldn’t I do this all over again? And yes, I would. Without question. Crazy, huh.

I’m still feeling quiet. November is a good time for quiet, and I’m craving winter’s hibernation. But I’m going to try not to hide out completely, not to avoid people. Now you know how I’m feeling. Now we know where we are. Right?

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