Here’s where I’m spending this week. My favourite part of the photo, above, is CJ’s tiger overseeing the situation (ironically, it’s the part that gets cut out of the photo when this blog is posted online; I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something). I’m marking. That’s what I’m doing. By the end of this evening, I expect to be more than halfway done. (That’s the sound of me knocking on wood.) If all goes as planned, I will finish on Friday. (The knocking is getting louder.)
Maybe then I can fold that basket of clean laundry at the end of the table, which will no doubt have expanded into two wildly overflowing baskets of clean laundry if left until then.
Anyway, if you don’t hear from me between now and the weekend, you’ll know what I’m up to. And why my posture is deteriorating by the hour. And why I suddenly have the urge to write. In broken. Oddly, punctuated, sentences. Grumpy oldster comment ahead, but I don’t think anyone’s teaching kids grammar anymore (did anyone, ever, come to think of it?). It’s like they’re on their own, trying to negotiate a sea of inexplicable commas. I want to help them!
Here’s an awkward transition. I’ll just throw it in like this.
Can you spot the common theme in the following two photos?
new art area
I’m signing off. Pencil in hand, freshly sharpened, back to the table, back to the tiger. I can see it, even if you can’t.
It’s a pattern. Every Friday morning this fall, I sleep in (ie. not up at 5AM), yet can barely drag myself out of bed. I eat breakfast, start the laundry, see the children out the door, and struggle to be otherwise productive at anything. The cup of coffee doesn’t seem to help.
Thursday evenings I teach. Friday mornings I’m drained. I think it might be as simple as that. But frustrating, too, because there is so much about teaching that I’ve enjoyed this fall. It’s gone how I’d hoped it would go. I’m accomplishing what I’d hoped to accomplish. So how to explain my body’s reponse to the job?
I’m going to go out on a limb and self-diagnose as introvert.
A long day of writing leaves me pop-eyed and twitching. Manic, you might say. Or, energized. Three hours of teaching leaves me jelly-noodled, spine sunken like a comma. Bloodless, you might say. Glazed. Is this how other teachers feel?
This sounds like an extended complaint. I’m not meaning to complain, only to observe.
I don’t think teaching naturally drains everyone. I’m sure of it. Kevin comes home from teaching buzzing with good energy. I wish that were me. My students are terrific, interesting, thoughtful, hard-working, open-minded, and a pleasure to share ideas with.
So, yes. I do feel frustrated by myself. It’s not that I’m shy. It’s not hard for me to talk to people. But it may be that I’m introverted, and draw my energy from being alone. Any thoughts on this, from introverts or extroverts alike?
Two more things. Okay, could be more than two, but I’ll keep it to two in this section of the post. We’ll call this the newsy section.
1. I did an interview about style for BLUEPRINT, a student-run magazine at Wilfrid Laurier. I liked the questions, and I liked thinking of myself as actually having and even cultivating style. (Long-time friends, please don’t laugh.) You can read the interview here.
2. I’m hearing rumour that the latest QUILL & QUIRE magazine has a blurb about the success of Girl Runner at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Kevin’s promised to pick me up a copy on the way home. (Quill & Quire is Canada’s publishing industry magazine.) Couldn’t find a link.
Final section of Friday’s blog post. This will be the philosophical section wherein I write about an idea that is only half-formed, as bloggers are wont to do. The idea is about work.
Work is a word that I’m beginning to realize has enormous value in my mind. But I define it in very narrow terms. Work is writing. Period. Everything else gets filed under other categories, somehow. This happens unconsciously, and I’ve only just realized that I do it.
Here are some of my (unconciously formed) categories, which all go into the big filing cabinet of LIFE.
Parenting/pleasure. Family. Marriage. Hobbies. Recreation. Obligation. Chores. Cooking and baking. Reading. Friends. And, of course, Work.
Parenting/pleasure encompasses all the things I do for and with my kids. Of course these things have to be done, but they don’t feel like obligations. That’s why I add the word pleasure to the file.
Family is a broader category and includes my wider family systems.
Hobbies. I think that’s exercise, for me. It seems to occupy the space that a hobby would. It’s quite time-consuming, and I’m devoted to it for no reason other than I love doing it. Photography fits in here. Blogging, too.
Recreation is anything done in the spirit of pure play.
Obligation is job-jobs. Things I do to earn money. There’s a bit of cross-over here between other categories, and it includes promotional work for my writing life. It isn’t all a grind, and I don’t mind doing it, but nevertheless these are jobs that must be done rather than jobs I would choose to do. These jobs don’t seem to count in my mind as work, no matter the financial value attached to them.
Chores. Also obvious. That overflowing laundry basket on the table behind me right now, for instance.
Cooking and baking. I enjoy doing this too much to call it a chore, and yet it isn’t a hobby either, seeing as feeding everyone is a daily necessity.
Reading. This gets a category all to itself. It comes close to work, in my mind, obviously in a good way.
Friends. Maintaining relationships, trying to keep them fed and nurtured, far and near, in-person and via social media.
And finally, work. As I type out this half-formed idea, I realize that work is a constant, even if I’m not at my desk. I’m feeding my working life, and my writing, by being in the world, by parenting, by playing, by running and reading, by all of it. So work is both a precious and guarded particular part of my life (writing), and work is all of it, all the time, always.
End of idea.
Lunch date with Kevin. We took the food back to his office because sometimes we like to do take-out. We don’t always eat at home. It’s not that we don’t have enough to eat home, just that sometimes we like to get take-out. I’m sorry. I can’t help myself. All I can do is move forward.
This was going to be a serious post about serious things, and what could be more serious than poetry? A friend in my poetry book club made copies for the group of an article in Harper’s Magazine, by Mark Edmundson, from July of this year called “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse.” Whilst waiting in my quiet office for students to come and talk to me, I read through it, underlying bits here and there and scribbling arguments in the margins. What spoke to me directly was his suggestion that it took three qualities to write “superb lyric poetry,” (and in my mind I couldn’t help but substitute “literature” for “lyric poetry”).
First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress senes, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. … [Second,] she must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. … [Third,] the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all.
He goes on to say that ambition might just as rightly be called courage. I like that view of ambition, frankly. Moreover, I like that view of what’s required to write well, and plan to offer it up to my students before the term ends (two more classes, my God, it’s not enough!). I think most of us who are drawn to writing come with the first talent: a facility for language. It’s why we’re drawn to writing. It may also be what stops many of us from moving on much further, and why agents and publishers tear their hair out trying to get young and talented writers to write about something, and not just beautifully or masterfully or lyrically. That’s why theme is so important. You have to have something to say. But I knew both of those things before reading this article; it’s his third point that is a new idea for me. And I like it, very much.
Ambition. Courage. Willingness to put one’s grand ideas on offer for public critique. The daring required to engage. No wonder a writer needs a hide tougher than a rhino’s. How does this willingness to stand out, to say something out loud, to take a stand, to care about something publicly, how does all of this fit with the necessity of being vulnerable? Because if you’re writing about something that compels you, something you care about, you can’t not be vulnerable. It’s what makes what you’re doing matter. We all know it, as readers.
One more thought from the article, on writers who teach.
Teaching poetry means talking about it in a highly self-conscious way. It means bringing the judging facility to the forefront. … But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front part of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits.
Now. I like to think that teaching creative writing this fall has forced me to distill and make useful much of the knowledge I’ve gained instinctively over my years of practice. I appreciate being forced to bring the judging facility to the forefront. But I’ve written next to nothing of creative content this fall, and though it wouldn’t be fair to blame this entirely on teaching, I do wonder if he’s got a point. By picking something apart, analyzing its pieces, well, the thing you’re dissecting is dead, isn’t it. It had better be, for the sake of all involved. When I’m writing, it’s like coping with a living thing that seems almost unrelated to the suggestions and guidelines I keep trying to share with my students. Sure, there are rules. There are excellent, tried-and-true ways of doing things. But I’m not thinking about them. I’m writing. I’ll save the analysis for later, for revision and editing.
For the record, I had the pork belly with the papaya salad, and Kevin had the fried chicken, and both were very very good. If you live in town, follow @westofseoul on Twitter for menu updates and to find out where the truck is parked from day to day.
Be forewarned: I’ve got nothing particular to say. Be reassured: the one thing I’m not going to do is to ramble on about Rob Ford, the spectacularly awful mayor of Toronto, even though it’s just about the only news penetrating the wall of fog that seems to have lowered itself around my noggin. It’s these early mornings, one after the next after the next.
I’ve been wondering about my inclination to get up and exercise, no matter how tired I am. Is it helping? Is it making me a calmer, happier, fitter, stronger, more productive person? I sleep better when I exercise, and that counts for a lot. And I’m often up early anyway, so it seems like the practical thing to do. But I also know that tiredness can bleed into the whole day.
I’ve got a sick kid home. He read me a whole book, with some help on tough words here and there. “Did you know you could read that book?” I asked in astonishment, and he shrugged and said, Nope, he had no idea.
There are only three classes left in the term. Tonight I’m tackling creative non-fiction, a subject that makes me nervous, as my level of expertise is not as high as when we’re talking about the short story. Still, creative non-fiction fascinates me, and it’s worth tackling, assuming my fogged-up brain can make sense of my scrambled notes.
This is where I sat last night to compose those scrambled notes and find readings to support my claims and generalizations. I will miss this office, quite a lot, actually. I will miss the quiet, and the routine. And I will miss the camaraderie that’s been created in the classroom over the course of the term, that I will miss a lot. It will make life easier, not to have this extra obligation, but my preference, as you may have observed, doesn’t generally skew toward easier.
Tonight’s supper: turkey noodle soup, with buttery corn-off-the-cob on the side.
Last night’s supper: grilled salmon, and macaroni-and-cheese made with leftover noodles and real buttermilk.
Yesterday’s after-school activity: music. In this beautiful sunlit building. I’m about to leave for campus, to teach. The kids are home, and it’s our quiet evening, with only one extra activity — karate — to which the boy has a ride, thankfully. I’m letting everyone eat the Halloween candy as their after-school snack. And I’m grabbing some to go. Be forewarned. Be reassured.
Not having time to take and process new photos is not a good reason not to post, I’ve decided. That’s a lot of nots. Not having time to write a new post is also not a good reason not to blog, I’ve decided. I’ve got fifteen minutes, tops. So this ain’t gonna be uber-reflective or even mildly reflective. Think: stream of consciousness.
The phone keeps ringing, but it’s not good news, or news of any sort, in fact. It’s those people longing to clean my air ducts. “I don’t have air ducts.” “What do you have, ma’am?” “Nothing that you could clean,” I say, and he laughs — mockingly? The line goes dead. “I was supposed to hang up on you,” I say, too late.
This week, I’ve been reading through all of my students’ rough drafts for the short story unit, in preparation for a workshopping session tonight. I’ve prepared a “helpful” mini-lecture on the difference between description and story. These are not the same thing, not at all. I’ve looked longingly at the new book by my elbow, Ann Patchett’s THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE, and wished to cast aside all cares and responsibilities and gulp it down, and I have not. I have resisted and scribbled comments in pencil on all of my students’ stories.
I haven’t been reading so much at night. The tired leaks into my free time. Tuesday evening, the kids in bed and Kevin off to hockey, found me folding laundry for a full hour (three days’ worth) while streaming a new sitcom, “Mom,” which was not as funny as advertised, although not terrible. (Be warned: my standards for sitcoms are pretty low.)
In other news, I wasted the better part of Tuesday paying stupidly avid attention to the not-so-mysterious but nevertheless mind-boggling show put on by Toronto’s own mayor, Rob Ford. As AppleApple (also an avid news-watcher) and I stared at Ford’s “apology” streaming live on the kitchen computer, we provided shocked running commentary that mostly revolved around the slow-dawning realization that the man fully intended to ride this out, God bless the good people of Toronto. And bless ’em indeed, for he’s causing exactly the trouble and chaos that any addict causes his family and friends, all the while insisting it’s not him, it’s them. Anyone who’s seen a family go through this pain knows exactly what we’re all watching here, and it’s not funny at all.
But there, more time wasted. And it’s not him, it’s me. Where are your boundaries, woman?
A student asked me whether I write every day. I replied, Yes.
It’s true. I do write every day. But let’s be frank. I’m not writing books every day. Most days this is what I’m writing: other things, smaller bits, random and not held together by any particular theme aside from necessity. Notes. Marginalia. Lists. Letters. Journal-type scribbles. Stream of consciousness blog posts.
Today’s session is out of time.
It’s only Tuesday, right? I’m apprehensive about my responsibilities this week. The layers of planning material in my head keep shifting, and I’m terrified of what might be falling to the bottom. It’s dark down there. Things might biodegrade without me even noticing.
I fall asleep to syllabus material, and wake considering supper plans versus ingredients on hand. A small but persistent section of my brain is wholly devoted to identifying time slots in which I can fit in a run. I’m visiting a book club this week, there are teacher interviews to arrange for each child, and I’m in charge of facilitating a panel discussion at the Wild Writers Festival on Saturday, at which I’d like very much to appear a) prepared, b) composed, and c) sane. (If I could actually be all of these things, that would be even better.) The clock is ticking on resolving a gymnastics decision, swim girl has a big meet in Brantford all weekend, and we need to plan a birthday party for next weekend. What else? Oh, the asthma puffer ran out this morning. Our tub tap is leaking rather frantically. Our stove needs repair.
I wrote a piece for Open Book Ontario, which they’ve posted today. I’ll admit it reads rather manically. It’s on my writing habits, and the peacefulness of my office. This office is my calm centre. I’ve started doing yoga in here some mornings, with kundalini music playing, and it’s pure bliss.
Much of my happiness comes from motion. I see my eight-year-old spin on a bar, hold herself upside-down, toes pointed, strong and glowing. I see the game unfolding on the field, the risks being taken. I see my eldest and me racing up and down grocery aisles late at night, revelling in the hunt for bargains, laughing at our impulses and follies: for me, corn flakes; for him, anything new and available for a limited time only, such as the soda that purports to taste like chocolate.
But I’m tired. I’m tired, and I know, too, that much of my happiness comes from points of connection, from stillness within the motion. Holding CJ’s hand on the walk home from the school bus. Washing his hair in the pool showers. Conversations as we drive somewhere together, me and a kid, or two, or three. I’m always looking for what I can share with each child, and that keeps changing. I remember when I gave the kids a bath every night before bed, and they remember how I pretended to be a giant making kid soup. Now we’re splintered and running, and I’m looking for those moments to stretch out my hand and grab on to theirs, figuratively if not literally, as we whirl in our separate circles.
The days look impossible if I try to hold them all at once.
So maybe, really, I shouldn’t try. I won’t try. If there’s any secret to this time, it’s that. Do what you’re doing, be where you are. Make your lists, prepare, yes, but know what you’re waiting for, and recognize it when it arrives, no matter how small it seems. It’s none of it small. You know what I mean.