I didn’t write yesterday. That felt strange. But I didn’t have anything to say.
I’m not sure I have anything to say today, either. In truth, life feels a little wan this week, gloomy, rainy, pale, grey. Or is that the weather?
I am tired. I might have overdone it on the exercise front, though I don’t like to admit it. I didn’t rest after my trail race, but continued apace, training toward the marathon. And I didn’t rest after Sunday’s long run (the furthest I’ve ever run). By last night, my whole body ached in a way that was unfamiliar. It still aches this morning. I did not get up early to swim, though I dreamed it; even in the dream I didn’t make it to the pool, though in the dream, I got to lounge on a snowbank under a hot summer sun. Ah, dreams.
Before sleep, I am reading the poems of Mary Oliver for my poetry book club. I am searching my heart (it is impossible to read the poems of Mary Oliver without searching one’s heart). And I have some questions. The kind that can’t be answered by reading the horoscopes, though heaven help me, I keep reading those, too.
**Where am I heading, at my breakneck pace? **What am I failing to stop for? **What if I can’t squeeze every fascinating everything in? **What matters? **Will I always be so impatient? So goal-oriented? **Can I be both ambitious and content, or do those two states of mind cancel each other out? **Do I want to be at home, all day, every day?
That last question hangs around me this fall, dogging me. Look, there is the new porch, and at the end, there is the wall and the front window of my new office, which makes the house look unexpectedly much bigger than before. But is it big enough to contain me?
A friend from grad school wrote this heartfelt post about returning to work after spending the past year home with her son, who is now a year. I was riveted by the emotions her post raised in me. She’s a full-time working mother! She loves her job! It’s a whole new frontier! I want to know more in an almost clinical way: let’s dissect and analyze this. What do I feel, reading about her major life transition? I feel envy, longing. She is expressing her working self, participating in the larger world, working with others. But when she describes missing her son’s bedtime due to a late meeting, I am gripped by the same agony she expresses, a pit opening in my stomach: missing a whole day in his brand-new life!
It’s too late to wish I’d chosen otherwise: to wish that in the past decade I’d developed my working self. I didn’t want to at the time. Instead, I got to have all those bedtimes. So many that they blur together. They seem mundane. I didn’t/don’t appreciate them enough. All that time we’ve spent soaking into each other.
**When I unpeel myself from them, who am I? **Who am I outside this home? And the question I’m most scared of, the one I really want to ask: **How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at-home? (Some of you might be asking, too. If you are, or if you have ideas or encouragement or more questions, too, please respond.)
I’ve been thinking about that phrase: Seize the day! I’ve been thinking about it because it feels, sometimes, that the day has seized me, and not the other way round. What to do when a day is holding you hostage?
Do you know what I mean?
Yesterday was just such a day. I started with some good seizing of the moment, my alarm pattering at 5:15, in the pool swimming laps (with friends) by 5:45, enjoying a fantastic strong hour of back and forthing, working lungs and arms and legs. And then home, quickly, so my big kids and their dad could seize the day themselves. They headed off to the pool, and I made breakfast and supper, and everyone was eating porridge and eggs, awake and happy by 8am. What a great start to a Monday, one might have congratulated oneself.
And then, down came Monday. A load of lumber arrived. A pneumatic digging machine. A bunch of beefy guys (I’ve got to work beefy guys into my posts more often). Work on the porch footings began. The sun was shining. And suddenly, work came to a halt. I heard it, just like that. An abrupt stop. Unfortunate silence. And, after a couple of beats in time, someone hammering on the door.
This can’t be good, thought I.
It wasn’t. Soon, we had water in the basement, a busted pipe that couldn’t be stopped until the City showed up to stop it, and everyone on my front lawn looked very anxious indeed, and some came down to the basement to haul out rugs and move furniture and wield mops and apologize profusely while I felt like apologizing for the already disastrous state of our basement (do the kids really need to leave their socks EVERYWHERE?)
So … that was my yesterday. I was thankful to have gotten supper prepared before we had no water. I spent the day running up and down stairs to consult with various professionals, while trying to work. This is my writing day??? Thankfully, water was restored just before the kids arrived home from school, two friends in tow, hungry, tired, thirsty, and needing the bathroom.
Writing day and basement-flooding-day was over, and feeding-children-in-a-rush-at-a-ridiculously-early-hour began immediately thereafter. Just after 5pm, me plus three girls pulled out of the driveway to pick up more girls, off to theatre rehearsal. And then Fooey and I went on to her first Highland dance class (tell me she isn’t going to make a perfect little Scottish dancer!). And then I came home and ate supper. Realizing by the hole in my gut that I’d forgotten, in the rushing up and down stairs, to eat lunch. Good grief. It was time to pick Fooey up. Time to clean up from supper. Time to supervise homework. Time, please dear God, to go to bed.
And there I was, lights out, 9:40pm. Seized by the day, shaken and hauled off, and quite at the mercy of it. Just doing my best to stay calm and carry on.
But good news arrived this morning, just a few moments ago, in fact. I’ve received, from my editor, THE FINAL DRAFT of The Juliet Stories. Did you read that correctly? Yes. The final draft. I shall be called upon no more to revamp these stories. They are done. (Well, the copy editing stage remains. But.) Juliet is ready to roll. Not sure where this fits into the seize/seizing equation. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe on the rare occasion one gets to sit back and go ahhhhhhhh. And take a little moment to settle into the knowledge that something big has been completed. That was a whole lot of seizing, folks. A whole lot.
The edits have arrived. So I’ll be back to Juliet for one last think before the copy editing stage. And you know, I’m feeling ready to say goodbye. I’ve been working away at the new book, and discovering new characters, and writing in a different way than I did with Juliet. It feels more free-flowing, less controlled, and more plot-oriented, but that’s okay. Different is good.
As I start this new book, and finish Juliet, I’ve been inspired by Miriam Toews’ career so far. I just finished reading Swing Low, her biography of her father, written and imagined in his voice; and before that gulped down Irma Voth, which was set in Mexico, in a Mennonite compound where a movie was being filmed. A couple of points here. Miriam Toews played a lead role in a movie made by a Mexican director set in a Mexican Mennonite compound (compound might not be the right term, but my sense is these farms are not like villages or towns). And her father died of suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression. What inspires me is that she found ways to incorporate real-life experience into her work. There is no straight line between fact and fiction; it’s threads spun and wound and sewn into beautiful fictional patterns. I suspect that she could not do otherwise. Her creative life is necessary, and can’t be separated from her life. I get a sense of urgency, poignancy, and necessity when reading her work.
And I also experience overwhelming gratitude: that her work exists, that she works so hard to create it, and that I get to read it.
She writes the kinds of books I hope to write … hope that I am writing. Not that I want to mimic her voice, but that I want to build a career out of the things that matter to me, and write books that are heartfelt, maybe even heartbreaking, but also hopeful. That I not fear the insistence of life experience nosing its way into my fiction; but that I not limit my imagination either. I aspire to variety backed by consistency. Which is not the same as predictability.
“Be careful, Carrie. You’re becoming predictable.” I remember a mentor telling me that, many many years ago. I would have been eighteen. I remember thinking that she had a point; and it frightened me. I knew she didn’t mean I should become erratic; no, she was cautioning me to stay creative, to continue to push my limits, not to rest easy.
Many years later, and I don’t rest easy. Except at night, when I sleep very deeply indeed. (Except for last night, when I didn’t. I didn’t rest easy, either metaphorically or literally. Too many thoughts — work, deadlines, food, scheduling — whirling through my mind).
This morning it was sun hats. It had to be something. Fooey couldn’t find hers, last minute, of course, and left wearing an old one and not very happy. Not the best start to her walk, but hopefully being outside in the bright fall sunshine quickly cheered her up.
I’ve been up since 5:15am, swam laps for an hour, came home to get kids organized and fed, and worked on a couple of music-related projects with the kids. AppleApple is learning “Across the Universe” for her Singer’s Theatre audition (her choice; and a tough tune to perfect. She amazes me with her patience and not just willingness, but eagerness, to take suggestions from me in her efforts to improve). And Albus practiced piano before school, too. (This year, we’ve agreed that he earns a star sticker for every “good” practice, and when he has 100 stars, he gets a reward; likely Lego-related. The girls can earn stickers too. Will this last? It may. He’s highly motivated by rewards and by money. Apparently the lad takes after his dad, which probably means he’ll go far, whether or not he ever learns to write neatly).
I can’t write neatly either, come to think of it. Thank heavens I learned to type at an early age. It comes in handy, being able to spit words as quickly as thought.
On a dimly related topic, I’m considering a different writing strategy this fall. Because I’ve spent years working on the same material, and crafting and re-crafting it, it’s daunting to leap into something entirely fresh and new, with brand-new characters who have brand-new stories to tell. Daunting, but exciting, too. In the past, I’ve never written for length or volume. My style is fairly compressed. But for this project, I’m considering tracking my words-per-day, and writing lavishly, spilling words, aiming in my first draft to give ample voice to characters within a fairly tight and dedicated plotline. My role-model for this project is Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. In other words, mystery, dark pasts, multiple perspectives.
I’m calling it The Swimmer.
Yesterday evening, while running, I had a vision: a shelf of pretty paperbacks, all different, with my name on the spines. I’ve been thinking of myself as a book-a-decade writer, ie. someone unable to produce excellent work quickly, someone who gestates stories very very slowly. And I’m not afraid of the potential slowness of the process, either; I’m a fan of patience, and patience rewarded. But here’s the thing: I’ve also never had the chance to work as many hours a week as I do this year, and in years to come the hours will grow. What if I put my head down and work the way I’ve worked at becoming triathlon-ready? It was thrilling to let myself imagine creating a variety of books, to chase down the ideas floating around my brain, to gather and bring them to coherence. I may be pursuing a career in a dying industry, but I refuse to believe it. Go read a book, any book, and you’ll remember what you’re missing out on as you surf the web late at night.
And with those thoughts, I’ll begin today’s writing day, trying to remember to sit up straight, not to slouch or twist in my ergnomically-sound chair, and to get up and take regular rest breaks. I’m also turning off my email for chunks of time throughout the day. No distractions.
Oh, and swimming and running are just the best times for thinking about my characters. And on the flip side, thinking about my characters makes swimming and running easier because time just slides by.
Problem: six-year-old’s pants no longer fit; discover salient fact at exact moment pantless child needs to be leaving for school; discover half a minute later that box in attic containing six-year-old hand-me-down clothes has next to no pants, oodles of pretty dresses
Solution: six-year-old leaves wearing pants that are slightly too big, but at least not too small; mama makes mental note to buy child more pants, preferably soft; mental note not good enough, should probably go on list; which list?
Problem: ten-year-old’s brand new labelled-as-non-marking shoes leave marks on gym floor, therefore ten-year-old can’t wear them as his indoor shoes (yes, the school requires children to have two pairs of shoes at all times, one for inside, the other for out); too late to go shoe shopping; old shoes wrecked and don’t fit
Solution: ten-year-old’s feet approximately same size as mama’s; ten-year-old agrees to wear mama’s old running shoes to school; but will this work for longer than one day?; mental note to add shoe-shopping to list (maybe); which list?
Problem: late bedtime due to late soccer practice and excursion to get binders that ten-year-old needs for school; three-year-old wakes incapable of speaking to anyone in tone other than grumpy, grouchy, or extremely put out; three-year-old threatens mutiny re attendance at nursery school
Solution: early to bed, early to bed, early to bed (mutters mama, thinking, oh dear, this is all on me tonight, as husband will be working late)
Problem: rising super-early to exercise, mama is Just Plain Tired by the time kids straggle off to school; precious few hours of work-time available; fuzzy-headedness not conducive to deep thought
Solution: one super-short nap; not sure it’s working, as mama is currently blogging and is not, therefore, starting to write her brand-new book, which she’s not scared of starting, really, honestly, okay, she’s pretty nervous about this (file under Things to Get Over; It Will Be Okay, Promise; You Can Do This, Just Take a Few Deep Breaths)
Problem: too much mama multitasking; items slipping through cracks; library books overdue; lists festering; brain overload; can’t read recipe for crockpot while serving porridge and trying to write notes to children’s teachers AND field question from husband about lunches without snapping irritably in reply
Solution: nothing comes to (over-stuffed) mind
Problem: there always seems to be more; it’s not predictable; no amount of list-making can answer the unknowable future
Solution: embrace improvisation; accept failure, reject defeat; welcome to the joy of being alive
What’s this? you may ask. Why it’s a Quidditch pitch, of course.
And what about this? Ah, this is the breakfast bar disguised as play area, craft area, Lego-building, snack-time, reading, puzzle-making, crap-dumping area. And dimly visible beyond it, the living-room, complete with giant homemade movie-watching fort.
And here are some movie-watching fort-building Quidditch-playing recently eye-examined kids.
This week, the last before school starts, has been a quiet one. I’ve had no writing time. Zero. There seemed little point, having sent the line edits back to my editor at the end of last week (that’s worth a small hurray!), and not having the fortitude to imagine starting a new project in the midst of this. And by this, I point you to the photos above, which capture only a portion of the domestic chaos in our rooms and yard.
The appropriate implement for cleaning our living-room, at this point, would be a snow shovel.
I spent the first day or two of this week making feeble attempts to clean up. I think it was fort day that smacked me in the face with the obvious: there’s no point in cleaning up when the kids are still playing. And what else should they be doing during these last days of summer holiday? Of course they should be building Quidditch pitches out of duct tape and sticks and buckets and hula hoops. Of course they should be setting up gigantic (and sweltering) movie theatres with precariously balanced air mattresses and every pillow in the house, and of course their mother should let them eat popcorn in the living-room just this once, even though it’s sure to spill, just because. So I did. And they spilled. And it wasn’t the end of the world; or the end of anything, really.
I can’t say I’ve enjoyed this week, but it’s nobody’s fault but my own. Where I’m at is caught in my own end of summer turmoil. I find myself performing small (private) feminist rants (while washing the dishes) about a decade wasted in not climbing the corporate ladder (ha! as if that would ever have been me), and erupting in bitterness because Kevin gets to go out the door to work every morning while I stay home and pop popcorn and plan supper and watch the kids stir up enormous messes (er, play creatively). It’s time, as they say, for a change.
Today, Kevin is home from work, and we are getting stuff done. “It feels like it’s fall,” said Fooey this morning as I hung laundry and we listened to a squirrel’s teeth gnawing on a black walnut, and the fallen leaves blew around the porch stairs. “Is it still summer?”
It is. It is! It’s that melancholy late summer that gets me every year. It’s full of promise and hope, somehow, the way endings always are. And restlessness. And a stomach full of butterflies.