I’ve been thinking about how much control we have over what we’re called to do. First of all, you have believe that a person can be “called” to do anything to bother reading on; if you skip this post I won’t be offended. I come from a Mennonite background where this language is commonplace and understood, and in fact, I do believe it, at least in a general way. I believe that we can be called to serve a larger purpose, and I don’t necessarily mean a religious purpose; I mean broader purposes of justice and care. But I also believe in self-determination, in launching yourself in the direction you want to go, in imagining where you want to be in order to get there. I don’t like the thought of sitting around vaguely waiting for Life to tell me what to do: take responsibility, make things happen, work hard! is my philosophy.
In this way, I’ve meandered along, believing that being “called” is not incompatible with my philosophy: figure out your calling and launch yourself toward it. I suppose I would say that I was called to write, and I suppose I would say that even now.
But what if being called also means stepping into the mysterious unknown, opening doors whose existence you couldn’t have anticipated, discovering yourself off-path, doing something you wouldn’t have thought you were prepared for?
What if what you’re called to do is not what you are launching yourself toward? What then?
I’m not wondering about this because there’s some big, exciting non-literary opportunity tucked up my sleeve. No, not at all. I’m wondering because of this blog, actually. I never anticipated the blog becoming anything at all, or being read by anyone other than friends and family. How could a whim become an institution? I wonder: what if I’m remembered, as a writer, more for my blog than for my literary fiction? Would that bother me? And if it would bother me, why? Do I value one kind of writing over another?
I think of blogging as brief, quick, and in some ways superficial bursts of regular writing, but if I consider the cumulative weight of these years of posts, perhaps this is a larger project than I’m willing to admit, a long-unfolding narrative venture, a different version of storytelling. But it will never be a book. It will never be compressed, distilled. It isn’t meant for that.
Do I get to choose what kind of writer I’ll be?
Do I get to choose what kind of person I’ll be?
I’ve been wondering, too, as I think about teaching. Teaching is hard for me. I doubt myself. I doubt the worth and value of what I can offer to the students. I doubt, too, that anyone can teach anyone else how to be a writer. But the strange thing is that all of my doubt doesn’t seem to matter. All term, I came to class hoping to create a respectful and maybe even reverent space where our minds would be free to focus and write, and every week, we wrote. (I wrote, too). I think it worked. I decided that my job wasn’t to teach anyone else how to be a writer, my job was to make it possible to write. To tune out distraction, to turn off cellphones and computers, to tunnel into our minds, to focus as deeply as was possible in a concrete-walled box of a windowless classroom.
What I’m saying is that I never felt called to be a teacher. But I think, maybe, it’s called me. Like blogging called.
What I’m saying, too, is that I’ve been mistaken, I think. I’ve assumed that a calling should be big, exciting, life-changing, world-changing. But no. A calling can be private, small, unseen by almost all. It doesn’t matter what I’m remembered for: more to the point, I don’t get to choose. I don’t know what matters, honestly. But I think it might not be what I imagined in advance would matter.
PS We did our second Christmas Cookie Sunday (aka #CCS) this past weekend, but the cookies were not successful-enough to photograph or post the recipe. This happens. We’ll try again next week.
It’s been a week of busyness with little opportunity for reflection. It’s been an up and down week, emotionally, and it’s just struck me that I’m finishing my November, as I often do, in a bit of funk. Is it the shortened days, the vanishing light, the overhanging clouds, the chilly winds, the general gloom of a world stripped bare and not yet blanketed in bright snow? Probably, yes.
But it’s also an existential Novemberness that alights every year. A wondering what it is I’ve accomplished this year, and what’s left to complete, as if I am a list of tasks done or undone. And maybe I am? But maybe, maybe I’m not, in truth.
As Kevin tells me, Life is not going to give you First Prize. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’ve written a good book. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good parent. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good person.
I’ve fallen to pieces on a few occasions this past week. I’ve been filled with unaccountable shame. This is not the face or person I present to the world, but my kids have to stumble over it. They’ve seen me crying and have found ways to comfort me, with compassion and rationality; and I worry that I’m harming them by not being as solid as rock, as rooted as an oak tree, as strong as diamonds.
I suspect that this feeling of vulnerability and exposure is cumulative. It’s been a fall of presenting my book in public to audiences interested and sometimes not so much; that’s the reality and necessity of publishing books. One must promote one’s work. One must speak on behalf of the work in hopes that the work gets found and adopted and championed by others. I have many many wonderful memories from events this fall, and in truth, very few that are even mildly distressing. So I suspect this feeling of vulnerability and exposure has little to do with the quality and worthiness of the events themselves, but rather with a sustained public stance that has been more difficult for me to participate in than I’ve allowed myself to recognize.
After all, I enjoy reading from my work. I enjoy meeting other writers, and readers. I enjoy sharing my thoughts, and appreciate immensely being invited to participate. These are enormous blessings. I am enormously grateful.
But the shadow side is that I don’t think the human character is designed to absorb even the modest amount of attention that’s come to me this fall. I don’t think we’re particularly good at it. It doesn’t tend to make us into better people. It tends to make us think we’re something special. And even while we’re thinking that, we know we’re not special at all, and the disconnect and disharmony of having to sustain and project the confidence of having something worth saying, while fearing one doesn’t, creates a cognitive dissonance.
I’ve felt kind of hollow this last little while. Hollow, and, in truth, lonely. Removed from myself.
Restoring an interior balance and sense of location and groundedness seems the answer. Advent starts tomorrow, a season of waiting, and I like that metaphor. I don’t mind waiting. I’ll never arrive, not really, because I’ll never cease changing. I want to inhabit deliberate patience. I want to discipline my mind away from its taste for quick hits of attention, and return it to the slow and steady onward pace of life in its daily ritual and routine, a life of small adventures, private successes, and strength through connection.
How I fit in the public work that is necessary to my job — and important (teaching is important, for example!) — is a question I’m not entirely able to answer at the moment, but I think it relates directly to maintaining disciplined habits and routines. Maybe too — this has just come to me, just now — it relates to forgiveness. Maybe it is mainly in my own mind that I’m falling short. Maybe, secretly, I really do believe in a First Prize for anything and everything, and as long as I cling to my imaginary scale of external validation, I’ll exist in a kind of permanent November of the spirit. And I would rather not.
I’m in Toronto, back for one last hurrah for the season — attending the Writers Trust Gala this evening, in my black tie attire, or what passes for such, I hope. Being at home has a way of making a person feel less than glamorous, and at the moment, to be honest, it seems like a stretch to imagine myself into such an event. I’m reading Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger right now, and I’m thinking of the Ayreses turned out for dinner in moth-eaten mismatched scarves and a woollen waistcoat the colour of ointment. I’m wearing black. It’ll be fine.
This is a week of lasts. This will be my last book-related event for awhile. I teach my last class of the term tomorrow evening. And I’m doing my last interview on Thursday for the essay on women’s long-distance running in Canada. December will be devoted to writing, marking, and turning my mind toward family and holiday time together.
View from the train, this morning.
On Friday, I’m going to physio to try to fix whatever is ailing my right leg, and hampering my running. There was one element to the running experience that I deliberately chose not to address in Girl Runner (and which, to my mind, makes the book a romance, of sorts): Aganetha does not suffer injury. This is rare among runners, though perhaps not impossible given an ideal physiological makeup; but I am not in possession of such a thing myself. Interval sprints with my daughter seem to have pushed a nagging twinge over the edge.
I said to Kevin this morning, as he drove me to the train station: Maybe I’m at the age where I have to accept that I won’t be getting faster or stronger, and that I’m exercising for other reasons instead. You know, for fitness, say.
It’s time for lunch. I’m limping out presently into a brisk Toronto wind to seek today’s fortune.
P.S. Coming soon to this blog: an order form so that you can buy signed and personalized books.
I want to write about a subject of some difficulty to process and confess.
I’ve been thinking about how I ascribe value to the things that I do. If something is hard, I assign it greater value. If something comes easy, I assign it less. Therefore, when a task or job or skill comes naturally for me, I tend to shrug off its worth. Oh, that was easy, that was nothing.
I respond to success by accepting or seeking out tasks of greater difficulty. I readily take on challenges. I choose to do the things that will be hard precisely because they will be hard. I take on this work in order to improve underused or underdeveloped skills, and to force myself out of my comfort zone. I choose it on the premise that it’s healthy for the ego and the soul to attempt and practice activities, tasks, or jobs that expose inner flaws, that force one to confront fears, that are therefore in many ways gut-wrenchingly difficult. Any accomplishment that comes out of such a frightening and challenging place is, frankly, astonishing and wonderful.
But I’m beginning to question the wisdom, at this time in my life, of this approach.
I’m beginning to wonder whether by tackling tasks of great challenge and difficulty, tasks that do not necessarily align with my natural talents, I’m unconsciously selling myself short. Rather than resting and calling myself to go more deeply into that which comes (superficially) easily, am I displaying a kind of boredom and restlessness, a mind that demands constant stimulation, even in negative form?
I seem to be good at writing fiction. Storytelling comes easy to me, more easy than anything else I’ve ever tried, always has, as far back as I can remember. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s what I need to focus on, strictly, as a life-long cause, as a hard-earned practice.
Just because something comes easy doesn’t mean it’s not hard, that’s what I’m beginning to perceive, to glimpse, ever so dimly. In fact, it may be the more difficult path because it comes easy, because I fail to value it, because ease can lead to boredom, because by delving deeper into a natural-born talent I risk discovering my limits. And that’s bloody terrifying, way scarier than failing at something I already know I’m not particularly good at.
It seems that the challenge that’s before us is not always the most obvious.
Ta-da! This is the cover as it will appear in the UK & Australia, available February, 2015.
I’ve given myself a crash course in discipline this week. After all those late nights, and hospitality suites, and complementary drinks, and absence of regular meals, I needed to believe that I still possessed both will and discipline.
I’m vaguely recalling that my intention for the fall festival tour was to have fun.
So good job. Mission accomplished. Not that hard to achieve after all, frankly, when dispossessed of the ordinary responsibilities of one’s regular day to day life. Even just not having to do laundry for six people: instant party atmosphere.
Now I’m back to the day to day—mostly. And I decided that the situation demanded a shock to the system, like being tossed into the deep end and told to swim, and then by necessity remembering how. So I set my alarm early every morning this week. I got up early every morning this week (except for today; apparently, by Friday, I’m toast and require more than 5 hours of sleep, especially after driving to and from Hamilton yesterday for an evening reading). On Monday I did weights, on Tuesday and Thursday I ran with friends, outside, in the dark, no matter the cold, and on Wednesday I ran with my own Girl Runner at the indoor track. She found this to be an exhilarating experience as we zipped around and around past the early morning walkers and joggers like we were wearing superhero capes. “Don’t you just feel like doing interval sprints?” she asked me after we’d done our first lap. “No, I’m not getting that same feeling,” I replied. But of course her eagerness for a challenge won out. I couldn’t let her sprint alone. I had to give chase. It was fun.
Now, afterward. Afterward I could barely walk. It doesn’t seem either possible or fair, to feel so out of shape after such a brief interlude of fun-having, but there it is. My grey hairs are showing.
I do have more grey hairs, or white hairs, more precisely, than I did a month ago. I’m not making that up.
I turn forty in a little over a month. I don’t always feel like the young one anymore. I’ve decided this is a good thing, mostly. I just have to get used to being expected to know things. Actually, I like that part of it. I could get used to that.
Back to the crash course in discipline—which includes setting timers on the writing of these posts. This blog is where I come to have fun. This is my own personal hospitality suite. And the timer just went, right when the post was going off the rails a bit. Okay, reel it in. Stop bantering idly on about aging and the happy faking of wisdom. There are other projects on which I must lavish my allotment of work-time.
At the Wild Writers Festival this weekend, here in Waterloo, I took my daughter along to volunteer. At lunchtime, I gave her some money and she went across the street to the grocery store to buy herself something for lunch.
Something for lunch, as purchased by AppleApple: a 500 ml tub of lime-flavoured Greek yogurt; a plastic-wrapped English cucumber; a loaf of Italian-style bread.
She found me in the green room, chatting with a handful of writers/editors/publishers, sat down beside me at the table. “This must be your daughter,” was a refrain we heard all day. “What’s that?” said the editor. “It’s my lunch,” said my daughter.
And then, this-must-be-my-daughter proceeded to eat the cucumber, whole, in great munching bites. I didn’t see what happened to the bread. The yogurt she polished off directly too. I could not have been more proud.
The thing about blogging is that so much gets left out. I haven’t, so far, made this a particularly political space. It’s not terribly ideological either. That doesn’t mean I lack for political thoughts and opinions, simply that I haven’t felt this to be the place and space to raise them.
I’m struggling with this choice at present. There are zeitgeist moments when an issue seems to get ripped open and demand conversation. But the conversation is never ever simple, that’s why issues are buried and need an almost shocking violence to bring them to the surface; we don’t want to have these conversations. Why would we? They’re painful. They tear us apart. They challenge our safe ideas of who we are. In Canada, that issue is sexual harassment and violence against women, and underlying it, biases and beliefs so entrenched that we don’t even notice they’re there. It’s distressing and depressing to be talking about this again or still. I suspect that no one wants to talk about this less than women. I consider myself an equal. I consider our culture much-changed and for the better. But it hurts my head to try to make melodic the dissonant chords of experience.
Consider this. A woman on stage presenting her book: she looks like she doesn’t care, she gives off an aura of irritation, responds to questions with her own personal grievances, cuts others off, and appears to be drunk. Would this ever happen? I’ve never seen it. But I’ve seen a man on stage doing that. (Granted, it’s unlikely to win him fans, but he still feels like he can do it.)
Maybe that’s a bad example. I would never want to feel like I could do that.
What about this? A woman writer on stage making fun of the other writers on stage, all in good fun. This also almost never happens, but if you think about it, friendly mockery is frequently the patter between men on stage, and it is funny, it’s appealing, not negative. So why do women rarely do it? Could we get away it? I wonder. It’s not that women can’t be funny on stage. I’ve seen a lot of funny women on stage these past two months. But here’s the difference: women on stage make fun of themselves. (So do men sometimes; I’m not suggesting otherwise.) That’s funny too. It’s self-deprecating. But it’s not the same thing.
I think that’s the difference between the privilege of being taken at face value, of being given the benefit of the doubt, and not. Some of us women would like to be joking around in public with the men (and women), joining in the joke—really, that’s what it is. Some of us would like not always to be so damn self-deprecating in order to get laughs. We would like to be taken seriously without having to be so serious. I would like that very much, at least on occasion. I would like it to be an option. This is a small small observation, and you may think it unrelated to the issue at hand, and certainly it’s not serious in the way that sexual harassment and violence is serious. But I think it’s a small piece of the larger picture. It points to a difference in the parameters of public behaviour open to women who wish to be taken seriously, versus men.
Listen. I’m a polite Canadian woman. I fear offending. I’m not especially brave. (And may not be very funny, either.) I prefer to be liked. I can’t help worrying as I push publish on this post. But I’m going to push it anyway.