Balance. Is there such a thing? I’ve stopped looking.
This week, I biked to the university library on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, where I took over a carrel on the 9th floor and did research. Personal bliss. But every day can’t be spent zooming through the park and poring over dusty old books. On Monday, I volunteered on a class school trip to city hall, and today I am home with a sick child, who was up half the night, but is now drinking tea and told me I could go and blog. She is reading.
I’m really not kidding when I say that researching at a library is just about my happiest state. Researching, writing. I could do this all day. I don’t even take snack breaks.
Which is why it was odd to find myself, last week, spending a full day as a children’s entertainer at a school, reading my book The Candy Conspiracy to approximately 450 kids, and filling in the space around the reading with age-appropriate activities. I even brought my pineapple ukulele. I was pretty nervous in the lead-up (see happiest state, above). I tested my plan with my live-in focus group before unveiling it to the public: the 8-year-old sang along happily to my made-up songs; the 10-year-old informed me in no uncertain terms that I would be embarrassing myself. Ergo, kindergarten through grade two got to sing and pretend to be Juicy Jelly Worms and Clever Children. Grades three through six got a more traditional author visit, with a Q&A and a make-your-own book project. Each session lasted 45 minutes. At the end of the day, I crawled home and collapsed into dreamless sleep on the couch, like a toy whose batteries have run out. Apparently Robert Munsch did coke. I forgive you, Mr. Munsch.
This is feeling like a randomized news roundup. Let’s continue. This morning I went to boot camp and pulled a muscle in my back. Now I can’t look to the left. I’ve been writing in the car in the evenings when I take my eldest daughter to soccer or theatre, or, like last night, both, back to back. Here is a list of the books I’ve read since leaving France: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin (you must read it even if you’ve seen the movie!); How Should a Person Be, by Sheila Heti (so Canadianly weird); Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; a bunch of short plays; and one more play called Yellowman, by Dael Orlandersmith. None of these are the dusty old books I’m poring over at the university library.
Today marks 21 years since I met my husband. We always remember the buds on the trees busting out overhead. This morning, while he took our sick child at the doctor’s office, I walked the dogs up the street with our 8-year-old to meet his walking-to-school buddies, and he pointed out all the things that were coming to life around us: the tulip in our front yard (only one, randomly placed), the strawberry patch, the buds on the trees. It’s happening! Instead of going on a date tonight, Kevin will be driving our oldest daughter to Oshawa for a soccer tournament. I will be tending a sick kid and prepping for her team’s first soccer festival (non-competitive tournament) tomorrow, which it looks like she’s going to be too sick to play at; but I’m the coach, so I will be there. This is what 21 years has brought. We can do this! From randomized news roundup to randomized positive self-talk. Let’s stop here.
Today is a good day.
Every day is a good day.
That is not true, but every day could be a good day. Since I returned from France, I have endeavoured to hang onto the laid-back vibe that surfaced, slowly, and prevailed while I was there. It was so easy to be laid-back when my mind was emptied of its many duties and responsibilities, and I had only to focus on what mattered to me, and what I decided would matter to me.
Of course, that mind has once again been cluttered with necessities, but I am trying, trying, trying to maintain a focus on what matters. Does it matter that we will be a few minutes late because a child is disorganized (or because I am)? No. It does not matter. In France, I was amused to realize that it was no advantage to be early or even to be precisely on time, because no one was ever early or even precisely on time. Better to arrive a few minutes late without breaking a sweat. Now, that doesn’t quite work here in Canada, but at the same time, it isn’t a bad policy to follow: to not break a sweat. I don’t know if I can keep that laid-back feeling of … hey, this isn’t a real problem, this is a problem of vanishing effervescence which serves me not to trouble over. So many of the day-to-day problems are like this. If only I could let them go.
But how to let go the child yelling “hey, Mom!” from the other room as I clutch my train of thought while trying to respond politely, laidbackly.
Certain things seem easier, it is true. I’ve been reading and researching even if it looks (and even feels) like leisure. Just because I’m enjoying it doesn’t mean it’s not productive. Also, I’ve been much better at ignoring emails until a designated time, when I churn through the whole lot; or designating a particular half hour to a particular subject, like soccer messages (aargh!), or tax prep (double argh!). But you know. It all needs to get done.
I returned from France feeling content with my life. In France, I decided not to complain anymore about the things I’m asked to do, but to do these things with excitement and a sense of adventure. I decided to not worry so much about whether I did an awesome job, and simply content myself with doing my best and showing up. I get asked to do a lot of different things, some of which I’m not, frankly, all that good at, and probably never will be. So all I can do is try.
What I remembered, in France, is that a person is rewarded for her curiosity, her interest, her excitement, her willingness to leap in whole-heartedly. Really, those are simple ingredients. They require no talent. They require no skill. They require only a willingness to learn, to listen, to observe, to engage, to dig in, to do. I have those things! Sometimes I almost annoyingly have those things. I know that the light is going out of me when I lose those things. It takes so little to spark them again. I lose them when I’m exhausted, run down, distracted, overwhelmed.
You know, this can happen, in this life.
I wish the busyness of my every day life was renewing, but sometimes its effect is draining. Okay, so be it. I decided to have four kids, and I enjoy all of the richness and interest that come with raising them; of course there is a downside. There is always a downside. So how to make space within the chaos, how to prioritize, how to make space for my mind to wander, as it needs to, and to dream, and to come untethered from the schedule and the organizing and the mass of must-does.
I must go pick up children for violin lessons right about now.
Dare to dream, remember to dream, wander. Let the mind wander. Feed it on clean air, on walks outside, on friendship, and on work. Good work. Work that feels good to do.
On my last full day in France, I went for one last walk on the Voie Verte, with Kelly Riviere, my collaborator, who translated and today performed my museum piece. I promised her that, contrary to its reputation, Normandy had been beautifully sunny during my stay, and as we set out, this seemed to hold true. We saw ducklings in a stream, a father fishing with his small son, families on bicycles. It was only when we turned around that we noticed the lowering darkening sky, and no sooner had we said, “Oh dear it’s going to rain,” then it began to rain. The rain came in the form of hail, icy fragments that melted on contact and soaked us by the time we’d reached the village again. But as you can see from the photo above, we appear to have a similar sense of adventure.
A few hours later, we’d dried off and readied ourselves for the performance at the museum. As planned, at the start of the piece, I positioned a chair and sat in it, laptop open, as if preparing to write about the paintings before me — the first paintings discussed in the piece. I was quite close to the paintings, and I sat looking at them as the room behind me began to fill. And fill. And fill. I realized, without turning around, that the small gathering we had expected was not small at all. Kelly began. And the crowd followed her and stayed with her — with us — for the entire time, as we moved through the museum. This was quite remarkable given the limitations of the space, and the size of the paintings or etchings, many quite small, which meant people were standing and listening to Kelly describe and illuminate a painting they could not see.
It was a moving experience, and unlike any I’ve ever had or expect to have again. And that sums up this whole trip, I think. This whole wholly embracing and embraced trip into what seems to be another world. One in which I’ve been opened, again, to the beauty of possibility, and the possibility of beauty.
It’s funny, but throughout the trip I kept saying to myself, “I think I came to France to …” and filling in the blank with something different. I think I came to France to write. I think I came to France to be alone and listen to myself. I think I came to France to appreciate art (hello, Paris!). And now, I think I came to France to discover the magic of collaboration. But I think it must be for all of these reasons. I needed to be here for awhile, longer than seemed reasonable when I was chalking out those columns on the board at home. But here we are, in the last day of the last column, all still standing.
I’m excited to be going home. I can’t wait to see those beautiful faces again. But I think — no, I’m certain — that whatever comes next will be better because I’ve been here. And I hope to come back again soon.
I suppose I should know better than to blog under the influence of extreme emotion or wine, or, much worse, both, but here goes.
I am “home” from a truly wonderful evening that completely focused on and celebrated Invisible sous the lumiere, as Girl Runner must be called while I am in France. It was a truly remarkable evening. I can’t believe it, actually. Nearly three hours, all focused on Girl Runner. The first performer (above) was actually a writer, not an actress, a young woman who has already published novels herself and who is also a runner: she memorized at least half an hour of text directly from the novel and performed it — embodying Aggie at different times in Aggie’s life. After her performance, which was very moving, the same woman did a short lecture on sports and literature, and the book. This was followed by a second performance, a reading from the book performed by a male actor, who showed us a whole different aspect of Aggie’s character — her humour. The audience was really laughing. I started to think that I’d written not a novel but a play! When his reading of the text was done, it was my turn on stage for an interview, with a warm reception from the audience.
After all of this, there was a dinner for the artists. During which I had some wine along with the meal. And I’m only “home” now, and it’s after midnight.
I feel like I’ve seen something that I won’t forget, and also that’s changed my view of what I can do and imagine. Being in France has shown me Aganetha as I never saw her before, but it has also shown me something about my own writing that I hadn’t appreciated, somehow. I don’t know how to describe it. All I can say is that it’s amazing to feel such energy and to be in such a different creative space. This trip has been a complete gift. Full stop.
Tomorrow is the performance of my museum piece. And on Monday I come home. But meanwhile, here I am, floating.
I had lunch at the Cafe de Flore, which is next to Les Deux Magots and across the street from the Brasserie Lipp, all famous French literary landmarks. The waiter, when asked, said that I was sitting exactly where Simone de Beauvoir would sit when she came to the cafe. Now, he may say this to everyone who asks, granted, but I’m not picky. And it was a good spot. I could see the whole cafe.
I am returning by train to Louviers soon, to finish my work there. But today, I had nothing on my schedule. So after breakfast (two croissants, jam, camomile tea, served discreetly in the “library” at the appointed hour), I walked. I walked and walked and walked, marvelling at how open the city is, how inviting. How it has been arranged to feed the public — anyone who comes — with beauty.
I sat on a bench beside the Eiffel Tower, having stumbled onto the quiet side, and here is what I wrote.
Sit on a bench. Sit and look at the tower built for a World Fair in 1889. Two birds fly directly toward you and flit past your head. Green buds on trees newly popping open. What shall you do, but look? And sit. And rest in the strange power of human-made beauty — a thing that has no practical purpose, really. I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic last night, and she writes that what she loves about her work (as a writer) is that it is NOT essential. And therefore it is play. It expresses the same thing that this Eiffel Tower does and these buildings of enormous beauty and power — and the portraits at the museum in Louviers. It says: we are here to be joyful, too.
A man stops and touches the blooms on a flowering bush, of pale yellow, a middle-aged man with sunglasses and a paunch, stops and touches the blooms. All of this beauty freely available, maintained over generations, open to the public, open to anyone who can get here, like me, and sit on a bench and look.
Maybe art exists because we want to create, we humans. Maybe I should stop wishing I were someone with a practical essential career, and rejoice instead that my gift, such as it is, is a gift. That what I have been stumbling toward all these years is an expression of thanks. Thanks to this world for letting me in, letting me live and breathe and love and feel the overwhelming desire to express what catches inside me.
Elizabeth Gilbert is absolutely right. My work is not essential. I’m not saving anyone’s life or changing the world here. I’m just playing. And my God, how good it is to have the freedom, the safety, the permission, maybe even the calling, to play.
I like how Gilbert describes itching at a tiny curiosity and how it grew, for her, into a book. Maybe I need to scratch more points of curiosity: research, study, fill the arid patches in my mind with knowledge, and see what connections get made, see what stories grow. I think Gilbert’s book may have given me a template, a guide, for how to continue doing this with real purpose. It isn’t all about the writing. It’s also about collecting knowledge and experience and material in order to transform it into something that can’t be seen in advance. No guarantees.
But that’s okay. Risk is not so scary when all I’m risking is time and effort poured into something that pleases me. Forget selfishness, or stop fretting about it. Do I wish the people who built this tower had dug wells instead? Do I wish that Mavis Gallant had become a nurse instead of moving to Paris to write stories? No!
Can you accept yourself unconditionally for who you are right now? I’ve been saying this to myself and it is a powerful powerful medicine — or incantation. It is powerful good.
Maybe I came to Paris to see what beauty means. That it is bigger than its human creators; that I just need to do my work. Does your writing love you? Elizabeth Gilbert asked, and Yes, I declare that it does! Look at the gifts it’s given me: I wrote a book and it brought me to Paris! I must admit that when it comes to gift-giving, I prefer to give than to receive. Sometimes, often, I’m resistant, wary, guilty, almost afraid of being given gifts — like I must repay what’s given or fall into debt. It is probably a desire to control: a gift, after all, is something over which the receiver has no control. A gift is a gift. And I see I’ve been mistaken and blind all this time. I’ve been thinking I need to repay my debts by helping others, serving, being useful … when all I really need to do is say thank you.
PS Forgive any typos: written and posted in a very short amount of time, as I am rushing to get the train back to Louviers. Goodbye, Paris!
There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged.
What I’ve enjoyed about this experience in France is being given something to do, an assignment, a commission. It gives me purpose and direction. In my usual writing life, I am the sole source of my purpose and direction. I have to propel myself toward something no one else can see and when the work is done I have to convince people to care. It takes a lot energy. The pleasure of this commission is that I’ve been asked to do something, and I’m doing it, to the best of my abilities. It’s up to the Festival to convince people to care about what I’m making, just as they invented the goal. It takes so much weight off.
My sense, as I’ve worked, is of being at play, in a playful and free state of mind, digging in, like a child with a wad of modelling clay having just been told: go ahead and get messy!
When I am busy and rushing around, I imagine that what I want is to be still, to do nothing. But here I am, today, with nothing pressing to do, well-rested, in a state of quiet and relaxation, and it is almost as if I’ve come to a stop and can’t begin again. The idea that we will get to do whatever we want in our state of needing-to-do-nothing ignores that it is a state that requires some force to exit. I think I sense this in my every day life, that it is easier to keep going than to stop and recalibrate. Now is my chance to recalibrate, now that I am at a stop, and it’s up to me to decide what that means.
Today, I went for a run on the trail by the river where I’ve been walking almost every day. What a good choice it was to run, as I knew it would be. The air was sweet, the wind was cool, it was sunny, I got a good sweat going, I made myself work on some stretches and let myself go easier on others. I heard songbirds, and saw the green popping out faintly on the trees, and my thoughts came calmly and clearly.
I thought about doing rather than thinking. How important it is to do. To do is to be. I’m proudest of myself and most satisfied with my life when I am active, involved, taking risks, in the public space, using my body, along with my mind. My idlest and least productive times have been when I’ve had “all the time in the world,” or “nothing but time.” During those seasons (winter, age 19; fall, age 23), I tried to write and produced nothing; more nothing than at any other time in my life. For example, as soon as I got a job, age 24, I started to write again. Another example: I started to write Hair Hat as soon as I’d given birth to my eldest, but not during the months of relative idleness before. That says to me something quite profound: that my being a writer is not dependent on having grand expanses of free time. It may even be dependent on the opposite, on being squeezed for time because life is so interesting and full, and I’m doing so much, and then in reverence and thanks can I come to a quiet space and write, in a way that feels crucial, important, necessary. If I could go around the planet working on commissions like this, I would; but this is unique, this is grace.
Something came to me while I was running — running past a ramshackle farmhouse with a red attic door and orange brick outbuildings, running past a field of bright yellow blooms, running under a row of fat-trunked trees with bird-shit splattered on the pavement below them — I thought, in order to write I must have something to say, and I’ll only have something to say if I have something to do.
I need to do.
If I want to be the writer that I want to be, I need to do more … but what? … than write.