We spent the Easter weekend on the farm where Kevin grew up, and his mom still lives.
We helped her begin to sort through and organize the rooms, the closets, cupboards, drawers, nooks and crannies. This is no small project in a house that’s been home for nearly forty years.
I boxed up books to give away, many of which had been bestsellers at some point in the past four decades, already out of date, out of style; some were too musty even to donate. It was an odd conflation of realities, having just spent several days at the British Library, where I pored over printed texts that were four or five centuries old. By what random chance did those books survive? Nothing I read in the BL would be considered great or lasting literature, though some was popular in its time; survival over the centuries was a matter more of being kept by generations of someones who were not like me, I guess, as my instinct is to purge, rather than to cling to, at least in a general sense.
The work got me thinking about how transitory and brief are our lives on this earth. Consider my files of manuscripts in our attic. I wonder, should I burn them now so as to spare my children having to decide what to do with them, some day? What’s precious, after all?
I come home thinking that what’s precious is today.
But today is also ephemeral, which is why we keep so much, trying to keep what can’t be kept. We’ve all got our means and methods, our junk drawers, our shoeboxes. I say this as an inveterate collector and curator of the daily now, in the form of this blog, knowing that what I’m compelled to do is only fractionally more lasting than the day itself, and then only because it freezes and distorts the complicated layers of each beautiful breath and heart beat into a small, glancing story.
I come home thinking that it’s really really important to pay attention to what you’re pouring your life into. I think: don’t worry about whether or not you’re making things that will last. Don’t worry period, actually. Make and do the things that bring you and those around you some daily sense of being loved and cared for. Be as alive as you want to be, while you’re here.
After re-reading yesterday’s post, let me rebut myself, point by point.
How do you manage to travel, to run to appointments, to make presentations, and dress professionally, and be brushed and unwrinkled and fresh smelling?
You do your best. Sometimes you fake it. You nap when you can, and drink plenty of water. You remember to smile. You find a good deodorant. You carry floss. You gain a few key pieces in your wardrobe that are trustworthy. You apply makeup, if necessary. You give yourself a break.
How do you exercise and eat well and keep a sharp eye on your children’s needs, both physical and emotional?
You do your best. You don’t get down on yourself if you can’t run as fast as you used to. You go as hard as you can, in the moment. You exercise with friends. You pay attention. You listen. You show up.
How do you clean your house and yard and fold laundry and cook food from scratch, and lovingly tuck your children in at night, and read them bedtime stories?
Forget the house and yard. The dog hair matters less than you think. Do the laundry when you get a chance. Let your husband cook. Make your kids do some chores too. And then you’ll have time to read to them and tuck them into bed most nights. And when you’re not there, they can look after each other, because you’ve taught them well, so be glad about that—plus they relish the freedom of independence, so it’s good for everyone some of the time.
How do you go to the soccer practices and piano lessons and swim lessons and travel tournaments and meets?
You don’t go to them all, and that’s the long and the short of it. You represent as best you can. Sometimes you won’t be able to be there. Support them in other ways. Schedule rides, carpool, ask questions, cheer when you can. This isn’t the end of your world or theirs.
How do you teach classes and welcome students and read essays and comment and mentor and remain open and flexible and funny and never bitter?
You treat this as seasonal work. It isn’t year-round, because you’re not a full-time teacher. If you’re fortunate enough to be asked to teach, it means you’ve reached a stage in your career when you have something to offer. Remember the wonderful teachers who nurtured and inspired you. You’re getting the opportunity to give a bit of that back to others. And you learn a great deal by teaching.
Also, you don’t want to be bitter. So don’t be. Easy as that.
Journal. Run it off. Don’t say yes if you really mean no. This is your life. Don’t sleepwalk, don’t idly wish or wait for someone else to point the way. Take responsibility.
you braid your daughter’s hair
How do you host meals and go to parties and celebrate birthdays and be a good partner?
You drop some things in order to do others. You compromise. This is seasonal too, in a sense. You accept that you can’t go to everything, and so you prioritize. You spontaneously dash out to a movie on a weeknight with your husband. You decide not to play soccer this summer so you can save your head, and suddenly Sunday evenings open up.
How do you meditate and feed your spirit and do yoga and stay fit and healthy of body and of mind?
You do. Because if you don’t, you won’t be you. You get up early. You pray. You read. You practice breathing. It works.
How do you continue to make art that is worthy of being called art?
This you cannot answer. All you know is that there is mystery in making art, and it’s none of your business as the maker to judge it worthy or not worthy of being called art. What you do is this. You begin. You dream. You research. You prepare yourself in a million different ways. And when you’re ready to write, you’ll know, and you’ll make time and space for it (with help from your husband, who is the person who reminds you that you still know how to do this).
Also, you keep short-term goals present in your mind. You make lists. You check them off. It all adds up.
Change. When you make art on the driveway in winter, here is what happens to it over the course of several months.
I would like to speak today about the idea of being, at least in part, a public person. I wonder how others do it. How do you manage to travel, to run to appointments, to make presentations, and dress professionally, and be brushed and unwrinkled and fresh smelling? How do you exercise and eat well and keep a sharp eye on your children’s needs, both physical and emotional? How do you clean your house and yard and fold laundry and cook food from scratch, and lovingly tuck your children in at night, and read them bedtime stories? How do you go to the soccer practices and piano lessons and swim lessons and travel tournaments and meets? How do you teach classes and welcome students and read essays and comment and mentor and remain open and flexible and funny and never bitter? How do you host meals and go to parties and celebrate birthdays and be a good partner? How do you meditate and feed your spirit and do yoga and stay fit and healthy of body and of mind? How do you continue to make art that is worthy of being called art?
I know I set the bar high, and I know it’s me doing the setting of the bar. We all have our (tragic) flaws. Mine may be that I want to do it all, big and small.
I want art on the driveway. I want books in translation. I want to run fast. I want singing. I want fun. I want to braid hair and apply bandaids and hold hands and honour all the stories. I want deep still quiet reflection. I want to stir. I want to comfort. I want invention.
And I’m sitting here in my office with the dogs, slumped on my stool rather than walking on my treadmill, with eyes at half mast and emails unanswered, wondering how exactly to do all of this. Because I really don’t know.
advance reading copy, i.e. not for sale, still needs to be proofread, but looks awfully book-like
And then this arrives in the mail. Seeming to say: well, you’ve done something you wanted to do, woman. Now, enjoy it for a moment. So I sit on the radiator (because I’m cold because it’s still winter, this spring), and I read the first chapter out loud to myself (and the dogs).
this morning’s run
I’ve been thinking about readings. Maybe because I read at one last night here in Waterloo, representing Goose Lane Editions, on behalf of their new anthology, in which I’m pleased to have an essay: THE M WORD: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT MOTHERHOOD.
There is a bigger launch party tonight in Toronto for THE M WORD, but while my name is on the poster, I won’t be there. This is due to a calendar error. Plans were in place, carshare car rented, chalkboard schedule adjusted, and then, yesterday afternoon, I saw the listed time on the poster — 6PM. 6PM?! Two hours earlier than I’d thought. Oh no! I emailed the book’s editor, Kerry Clare, to double-check. Yes, the launch starts at 6PM (at Ben McNally Books, if you’d like to hear all those other wonderful writers read). So that meant with Kevin at the dentist and me doing swim lessons, I couldn’t magical think myself to my destination on time. I’m sending regrets, and they are enormously regretful, because I was planning on hugging a lot of writer friends tonight.
This will have to suffice.
I don’t know about you, but that felt unsatisfactory.
I’ve been thinking about readings, and how some people just seem to come into themselves more fully when on stage. It’s like they’re radiant. Like there’s no barrier between you and them. You could listen to them all night.
the Canadian ARC for Girl Runner exists! (I haven’t held it yet, but it’s on its way)
My fall calendar is filling up with readings: I’ve got invitations to festivals coming across my desk, and a book launch to plan (Sept. 6th is the official pub date for Girl Runner), and I’m so looking forward to the opportunity to speak and read, again. I really do like being on stage — more accurately, I appreciate it. Even though I felt rusty last night, after a few months off, it’s a remarkable place to get to be, standing behind a microphone, talking to people. Walking home along the dark cold streets, I thought myself a most fortunate woman, and most fortunate writer, to get to share what I’m doing in this way.
In other news, which is not exactly news, I’m a tired woman, a tired soul, right now. I am not sure how to remedy this (although I’m sure my mother would remind me to get more sleep, and if I were my mother I would be saying exactly the same thing).
The house is full of dog hair. Every flat surface is covered in piles of maddeningly random objects. The taxes are due. The laundry pile has stamina. The fridge is full of leftovers that need to be magically transformed into suppers-everyone-will-agree-to-eat. And I kind of feel like for sanity’s sake I need another uke night with friends, or a morning coffee get-together, or to invite friends over for dinner, but I can’t figure out how to host fun stuff when the house is full of dog hair and every flat surface is covered in piles of maddeningly random objects. You know?
so I get up and go, despite the snow
What were we planning to accomplish together? Do you recall? Because I seem to be lost in a bit of a haze. It could be all the yoga. Or the early morning spin and weights class, at which I felt fantastic, only to crash upon returning home, following a breakfast of poached eggs on toast.
I don’t blame you for the weather; it could happen to the best of days at this time of year. If it wants to be -20 with the windchill, what can anyone say about it? “Whoever is in charge of the weather needs to know that it’s SPRING!” hollered Fooey, but she was cheered by the long-term forecast, which promises a balmy +7 with rain for Friday.
I didn’t take many photos this weekend, and they’re still on my cellphone. Maybe this is a good day to use one’s imagination. Imagine sunshine startling me just now through my office window, clouds moving across a sky that is actually blue.
On Friday night I meant to get a photo of me and Kevin playing uke and guitar (respectively) in front of the fire, with the two oldest children sitting on the couch behind us, side by side, playing Minecraft and making the occasional clever comment on the song choices. It was as close as we’ve come to a family-music evening, and I thought, optimistically, that at least the kids were getting to hear some favourite old tunes and see what fun we were having. Except Kevin got very grumpy because he couldn’t see the music (we were playing off of single printed sheets, some of them crumpled, and all with very small print); not long after that got resolved, I rapped the whole of “Rapture” by Blondie. Awkward pause, no applause. “Is that a song about eating cars?” “Why, yes, children, it’s a very serious song about eating cars, bars, and guitars. Anything that ends in -ars, really.” “Deep.” “At least it’s not about sex, like all songs nowadays.” (Note: do not say things like this to your adolescent children unless you welcome mockery.) (Also note: I say things like this all the time. Because I welcome mockery.)
Then I sang “True Colours” by Cyndi Lauper about a billion times, trying to get the chord changes right. It’s such a beautiful song, Monday. I really wanted my children to love it. Maybe I played it too many times. “Eternal Flame” by The Bangles received similar treatment, but even I started to question the lyrics after a few times through: “This used to be my favourite song!” “Really??” “When I was 13. I thought it was so romantic!” “It sounds kind of, like, creepy. ‘I watch you when you’re sleeping’? Creepy.” So, yeah, kids these days. I’m not sure I converted anyone to my favourite 80s songs, but there you have it: family music night at our house, regretfully not photographed for posterity.
I’ll end it here, Monday. You’re a busy day and I shouldn’t keep you, rambling away here like this. Things to do! Places to go! Etc.
Signing off (or is that singing off?), Carrie
Monday: returned the copyedits to my editor in New York. Big day. That means the book is nearly done, and very little will change from here on in, but I need to take a deep breath when I say that because I’m a tinkerer and tweaker, and it always seems that just a little more effort and a little more time will make the book just a little bit better, so how can I let ever let it go? But I let it go.
Yesterday: felt at loose ends. I wondered, as I sat before the fire holding this computer: am I getting enough done today? I decided to tally it up, even while wondering what’s enough, exactly? I didn’t write the opening sentences to a brilliant new novel yesterday. I didn’t cross everything — or even more than three things — off of my massive to-do list. But I gained a few experience points here and there. (To explain: my brother Christian has an amusing habit of giving himself “experience points” for all of the little odds-and-ends of must-dos in his daily life; life as video game. Oddly satisfying to do, actually.)
Yesterday, tallied up
Up at 5:40 to meet Nina for a run. Floss, take vitamins. Run 8 km. Conversation. 3 friendship points.
Shower. Deodorize. Brush hair. 3 points for good hygiene.
Dress. Eat eggs on toast. Drink cranberry juice. Hug and kiss children and check backpacks. 3 points for smooth start to morning.
Take nap (half an hour). 2 points for renewal.
Drink water and surf Facebook. Waste half an hour. Lose 2 points. Also make arrangements via email re book club visit tomorrow evening. Gain back 1/2 point.
Blog about two books. Stop tallying points.
Call allergist and change Apple’s appointment to next week. Leave message at horse farm about camp this summer. Cross several items off to-do list. Points! Lose steam, fail to return other calls.
Transfer files from dying iMac to laptop. Gather all essays written in last number of years into single folder (think: non-fiction book???). Get distracted reading old poems. Win points, lose some.
Begin writing dedication and acknowledgements for GIRL RUNNER.
Eat leftovers for lunch. Read newspaper.
Try to fix iMac with help from brother Karl. Sit in front of fire. Email Hilary (agent). Finish writing dedication and acknowledgements, email file to Kevin for his opinion. Begin writing this list.
Greet Albus, home from school. Fail to think of acceptable snack.
Walk to meet CJ at bus. Also meet Fooey. Walk home with CJ and Fooey, chatting to both simultaneously about school day. Carry Fooey’s bag. Meet Apple walking home too.
Host playdate with CJ’s friend, steer them away from electronics. Help very grumpy Fooey make her own snack. Negotiate trade with Albus: read for half an hour = play Minecraft for half an hour.
Horse farm calls back, brief conversation about summer camp.
Chop potatoes, onions, garlic, parsnips and squash and make curried coconut soup for supper. Turn on radio. Turn off radio. Receive but do not reply to several work-related emails.
Make Apple eat snack and remind her to get ready for soccer practice. Text Kevin to pick up milk, bread on way home. Instruct Kevin on last-minute supper prep. Yell at Apple to get ready for soccer practice already! Lose points for losing cool; gain points because child now ready for soccer practice.
Drive Apple to soccer practice. Chat with other moms and watch soccer practice. Discuss practice with Apple on way home. Fill up truck with $100 worth of gas (!!!!!). Definitely lose green dream points.
Exchange parenting duties with Kevin, who leaves with Albus as soon as we arrive for their team’s soccer practice.
Eat (cold) supper with Apple. Plan CJ’s birthday party with Fooey and Calvin, add to guest list. Clean up supper, put away food, fill and start dishwasher. 10 points just because.
Supervise Fooey’s piano practice. 2 points.
Feed children snacks. Supervise tooth brushing. Read Farmer Boy in front of fire. Put CJ and Fooey to bed. Bonus snuggling points.
Fold laundry. Try to think of acceptable snack for Albus, now home; no acceptable snacks. Albus retreats upstairs unhappily. Lose a few points. Kevin leaves for hockey.
Eat grapefruit in front of fire, read first chapter in book that happens to be on coffee table nearby: IMAGINING LONDON, by Anna Quindlen. 1 point for self-comfort.
Convince Apple to brush teeth and take asthma meds before letting her finish her book in front of fire, whilst snuggling with dogs. Apple finishes book, briefly discuss, send to bed.
Albus back downstairs, still seeking snack. Helps crate dogs in basement. Cheers up. 3 points for mysteriously good mothering moment. Albus drinks chocolate milk and eats peeled orange. Brushes teeth. Goes to bed.
All children now hugged and in bed! A million points!
Surf Facebook lamely for forty minutes whilst castigating self for not being in bed. Read article on lost Malaysian plane, for example. “Like” photos and statuses of friends. Do not reply to work-related emails. Am reminded of the old days when I would slump in front of the TV and watch just because I was too tired to do anything else. Mildly depressing; maybe necessary? No points gained, but decide no points lost either.
Brush teeth, take probiotics and fish oil. Lock house. Turn out lights downstairs. Carry folded laundry in basket upstairs. Read LADY ORACLE by Margaret Atwood for approximately fifteen minutes. It’s not even 11pm! Turn out light. Goodnight.