We ended the year on a low-key note — so low-key that I spent most of the evening holed up in my office working on revisions. “You’ve been doing this a long time,” observed a kid wandering in to see what was happening. “You know what I’m like when I get going,” I mumbled, adjusting my ear plugs. Kevin brought me two beers and a cup of chai tea to offer sustenance. I didn’t stop till I was through the whole book. I think, I think, it’s ready to send back to my editor. I hope that isn’t the chai tea talking.
As the evening progressed, I could hear my family playing Settlers of Catan nearby. Later, they retired to the basement to watch old family movies, not to be confused with episodes of Modern Family, which were interspersed when a certain almost-teenaged family member couldn’t stand to watch another video of himself “making sand” by banging two rocks together or whisking down a slide into a wading pool filled, rather oddly one would think, with mud rather than water.
It was 10PM when I removed the ear plugs, shut down the book, and joined my cozy family.
It was a long and peculiar year. It ended as it should have, I think.
With mere seconds to spare before midnight, we raced upstairs. (We chose CBC radio’s countdown, which was swell right up until it got to 3-2-1 and there was a pause of blank air followed by the dum-da-dum musical chime indicating the news was coming up, whereupon a newscaster launched directly into all the bad headlines of the moment without sparing even one “Happy New Year” to help the listening public transition between subjects.) We hugged and toasted with champagne and ginger ale. The energy dwindled rapidly and people drifted toward activities that made them happy. I, for example, took photos.
CJ played Pokemon.
Albus sighed that the evening could have been better, had it contained the playing of more video games.
AppleApple snuggled on the couch with her imaginary cat, Stella, not to be mistaken for her imaginary snake, Norbert.
And here is the Fooey sequence, which covers a time-span of about ten minutes.
This post, to launch a new year, seems to call out for reflection and resolve, and I’m not really feeling it today. Here is what my writer friend Sheree Fitch posted on FB yesterday: “This year, I unresolve. I cannot solve nor be resolute. So I will just keep trying to unresolve: to let go in all ways. Yes, it hurts and is soul-scary. A little fear is not a bad thing.”
(I agree: a little fear is not a bad thing. Fear is what I burn when I’m writing. Anxiety is the terrible underbelly of a project underway and … ok, I’m only seeing it now … unresolved.)
Life is unresolved. It is underway. It is unpredictable.
Watching those home movies last night I said to Kevin, “My God, we were living in chaos. How did we stand it?” After I’d repeated this observation several times, he finally replied, “I think we’re actually still living in chaos.” And I had to look around and admit this is true.
So I guess that’s how we stand it. We’re in it. It’s happening. It doesn’t look like chaos because it makes so much sense. It doesn’t feel like fear because it fires invention and change.
I would like to make resolutions this year, but I can’t think of any not already underway. Run more, read more, write lots. Publish. Be ambitious, be humble, be professional, be kind. Take care of my family, my spirit, my body. Be a good friend. Become a better teacher.
I can’t seem to think big, today. I’m thinking daily. I’m thinking practical. I’m thinking waste not, want not. How do I want to spend my time? That’s an important consideration, of course, but it’s not just about getting to do what I want. It’s also about not wasting time wishing I were doing something else, when engaged in activities not at the top of my priority list. (Driving the kids; cooking supper in a terrible rush; standing on the sidelines at soccer practice.)
Okay, there’s a resolution for the unresolved. I’ll take it.
But first I have to ask: Use it for what?
For light. For entertainment. For love. For health. For connection. For being silly. For questioning. For reminiscing. For stories yet to be written. For wondering. For curiosity. For building strength. For discovering resilience. For practice. For learning. For rest. For comfort. For creativity. For silence, for stillness, for emptying out.
This year I will finish some projects and start others. I will forget more things than I remember. I will wax and wane, tired and energetic, up and down, lost and found, certain and uncertain. I begin by rearranging my bookshelves, sending the kids to grandma’s, and forgetting to eat lunch, again, because I’m writing. (This.)
chance of freezing rain
More portable office sessions have followed Wednesday’s. I’m loving it. All these years of working amidst the chaos of a busy home have inured me to noise and interruption. I pop in those ear plugs, my cue to check out of wherever I happen to be, physically.
I like that my book is set in the past, and in imaginary places. I like the sense of escape I feel upon entering that other world. The work feels light or playful, maybe. When describing my schedule to someone at a party last night — working with a new editor, tight deadline over the holidays, hosting family, no oven, two sick kids — he observed, “That’s a lot of pressure on you right now.” Is it? Oh, yeah, I guess so. Funny how it feels so easy compared to the pressure that I had to manufacture all on my own last winter, when finishing an acceptable draft of this same book. It’s infinitely easier to work with a deadline, with the support of editors, with a wanted manuscript. I can’t even describe the difference. The pressure seems like a celebration, like a party to which I’m thrilled to have been invited. I feel like an actor who’s been waiting and waiting to get onstage to perform, and finally my cue has come. Let me out there! Let me at it! Let me do what I’ve come here to do.
That’s what it feels like.
And the sick kids are on meds and appear to be mending, and the lack of an oven gives me an excellent excuse (not that I should need one) to forget about whisking up the perfect Christmas from scratch. Family is here. Everyone’s helping out. I’m letting them (I have control issues in the kitchen, I’ll be the first to confess).
accidental tree decoration
Maybe I’ll look back on this holiday as the one when I let things go and came out peacefully, blissfully, perfectly fine on the other side.
So there’s a lot going on that isn’t fantabulous*, but I’m still flying high after yesterday’s successful plot to turn any-damn-where into my office.
Look at this. I’m editing my book while at my daughter’s swim lessons, laptop on knees, bathed in the ambient glow of the Coca-Cola machine, with students slumping by in their squeaking wet boots, lost, opening the doors to the squash courts, lost, squeaking past again. The one guy went by four times. I know because he was on crutches, so he emitted a special thumping dragging sound in addition to the wet squeak of his boots.
At the next location, I used ear plugs. These are bright orange and not the least attractive, but made me feel even more at home.
Here, I’m editing my book while at my daughter’s soccer practice (same daughter, same evening), leaning on her giant backpack for support, in a high-traffic zone, peopled with buff sweaty basketball players and exhausted-looking parents dragging young daughters who were dragging enormous hockey bags. We’ve never entered the Canadian world of ice hockey, but its equipment looks more cumbersome and expensive than that required by soccer or swimming.
The other soccer parents greeted me and graciously left me alone. I worked for the entire evening, conquering one problematic scene, and hurtling partway through another, interrupted only when I looked up to see AppleApple coming toward me, holding her soccer ball. “What’s happening?” I said. “Is practice over already?”
She’d been running around a gym for an hour and a half, so fair enough. It was hardly already to her. But it was to me. And that’s a wonderful thing. Best Christmas present ever!
* list of unfatabulous things: sick CJ (strep throat); oven can’t be fixed; therefore, need to buy new stove; therefore, may need to reno kitchen to add range hood; therefore, it’s doubtful we’ll have a working oven before the new year; therefore, holiday menus need revamping; also, house is a disaster and we’re hosting Kevin’s family Christmas with everyone arriving tonight; and tomorrow is a PD day
Actually, this doesn’t sound so bad, now that I’ve written it out. I’ll run the vacuum, make the beds, scale down the elaborate cooking and baking plans, and use the extra time (not cooking and baking) to write — which can happen anywhere, beside any child’s athletic or musical activity! Because my office is now portable!
I’m in a pre-holiday panic, characterized by a sense of paralysis as the lists in my head get jumbled and I can’t remember who needs what and when and where and why, and how it will all get done I do not know. At least I slept well last night. I woke looking like I’d swallowed a giant salt tablet, which I kind of did, given my new love of all things brined and fermented. Have you tried a real brined pickle, tangy from fermentation rather than vinegar? I’m now attempting to brine a rutabaga because it was the only brine-able vegetable I could find in the fridge last night. You might not think brining random root vegetables at 10:30PM the wisest use of my time, given the panic mode, but that is the truth of panic-mode. We’re not the wisest at 10:30PM.
Yesterday. Oh boy. Kettlebells and spin, and forgot my running shoes, so had to borrow a pair, which didn’t really fit, so I ended up going barefoot. Brief nap interrupted by dogs howling. Sleepy daughter needed a late breakfast, had to be forced to do her homework, had to be driven to school around lunchtime. I grudgingly ate lunch (it wastes so much time!). Before I knew it, it was meet-the-bus time. Walk home together time. Make an early supper time. Try to force sleepy swim daughter to do more homework time. Then we were off to swim lessons. Last one of the season for CJ, who didn’t pass, as I knew he would not, having observed his progress in the pool. He’s improved enormously, but he can’t figure out his kick, and lies there floating atop the water, legs churning with energetic futility, propelling him literally not an inch.
As we stood in the change room, me trying to towel off his wet legs, him howling that I was torturing him with the towelling of the wet legs, I thought, yup, this is torture alright. I’m crouched in a germ-ridden change room with a melodramatic five-year-old and my book is at home not getting written!
At home, we ate the soup I’d made earlier. Too many veggies, according to one child. Too spicy, according to another.
Then the soccer lad and I walked to the library to pick up the carshare car, and headed to his last house league game of the season. They won! And he scored! It was a fun game. I enjoyed the conversation that accompanied our outing, too. I was so grumpy as we walked to library, growling at every little thing that wasn’t just perfect in the world around me (lousy drivers nearly running us over in the crosswalk, lousy fellow sidewalk walkers cruising two abreast as if expecting us to jump into the snowbank in deference to their passage, etc.) I suddenly heard myself, bitching about everything, and wondered out loud whether really good people (like Nelson Mandela, I said) did this. Were they grumpy out loud? Did they complain about other people in such a petty terms? Surely not. Albus figured that really good people kept it to themselves. Maybe they let off steam in private. But they didn’t say mean things in public.
How do you let off steam, I wondered? Albus figured it was different for everyone. He wasn’t sure how he let off steam. Come to think of it, neither was I, only that on certain days, due to certain circumstances, I was more likely to be grumpy and intolerant and judgemental. Like yesterday. Stretched too thin, to pull my word of the year into the conversation.
After soccer, we parked the carshare car at the library and walked, shivering in the Arctic breeze, to the grocery store to check the last to-do of the day off the list (brining rutabagas wasn’t actually on the list, in fact). We had fun dashing down the aisles, as we always seem to, and were the second-to-last customers in the whole store. Albus has discovered my weak spot, which is anything with a bargain sticker on it: therefore, he talked me into getting him a tray of sushi for a bedtime snack, half-price. I texted Kev, who drove over to pick us up. What did we do before texting? Psychic means weren’t nearly so reliable. And then I ate the last pickle and brined the rutabaga and ate two more bowls of soup, plus a grapefruit, plus had a cup of tea with Kev, then tried to read in bed, until I discovered myself reading with my eyes closed, which never works. I try it every night, and it never ever works.
And now I’m sitting here wondering about presents un-bought, and when to schedule in time to go seek them out, and food-ordering, and how it will all fit together, and how I can leave the book behind for a few days, so as not to torment myself with the fact that I’m not working on it, and instead enjoy the holidays, and family, because the holidays don’t come often, and occasions for togetherness don’t come often either.
How can I set aside this unfinished work? I’m breathing its air.
Alice Munro was recently quoted in an interview saying this: When you’re a writer, you’re never quite like other people — you’re doing a job that other people don’t know you’re doing and you can’t talk about it, really, and you’re just always finding your way in the secret world and then you’re doing something else in the “normal” world.
It’s true. You can’t talk about it. It’s not that people aren’t willing to listen, it’s that it’s impossible to talk about. The secret world is paper-thin, full of holes, peopled with shadows and questions and puzzles and blazing pictures. It doesn’t all fit together, and this is impossible to explain too. That the work carries from project to project, never finished, never solved. It’s the never-ending-ness that causes enormous anxiety, which in turn fuels the work. You’re always trying to pull it together, as a writer, and failing, and it’s the failure that keeps you at it. To fail is to recognize what yet could be. How to talk about that?
No more home delivery. No more mail person clomping up my porch steps. No more familiar ting of the metal lid being lifted and dropped. I don’t receive a lot of hand-written letters these days, but I get a lot of mail, and not the junk kind, either. I’m self-employed, and most cheques for my speaking and writing work arrive in my mailbox, often unexpectedly. Gazing out my office window, it always cheers me to see the mail person marching along the sidewalk, with our stack of letters in her hand. So. So? Maybe it’s just a luxury to expect my mail to be delivered at the door. Maybe it is. But it makes me sad to know that this delivery system for communication is vanishing.
I’m facing off against Girl Runner today; that’s not a good way to frame it, but truth is, doubt is plaguing me. The only way to make this anxiety go away is to do the work. I know that. Why is it so hard to begin?
Reassuring words from Kevin, to get me going this morning: Once you get started you will find your pace, just like running. Your personality is that you get better and faster the longer you go.
True. I gain confidence over the long haul. I gain resistance to pain. I shed fear, or it shuts down, somehow, and doesn’t matter. I’m talking about my experience as a runner, but I’m also talking about writing. About anything, really. About being a mother. About being a friend.
Was I ever grumpy this morning. Broken zipper on snow pants discovered at the last minute, digging through the attic for another pair, bitter cold pouring through the opened front door as the impatient child waited for her little brother. But I’m not grumpy because of that. I’m grumpy because my mind is elsewhere, edging toward questions and solutions, big questions, elusive solutions.
I’m grumpy, maybe at least a little, because I went out with my siblings last night, stayed out rather late, did not object to another pitcher being ordered, and then set my alarm and went for an early run this morning (with a friend; if I hadn’t been meeting her, I would have stayed in bed).
I’m grumpy because I know what I need to do, and I’m afraid of failing.
I’m grumpy because I’m afraid of failing.
Shouldn’t I know better? It’s not failing I should fear. It’s inertia.
on the prow of an imaginary ship, hair whipping in the wind
|fake album cover|
I knew it would be tough to get to my desk these past few days. And it has been. And I probably should be napping instead of posting right now (I’m feeling crummy and am actually on antibiotics, as a matter of fact). But dammit, I need to write!
Friday was a good news day. I finished marking on Thursday night, as planned, if a little later than hoped, spent Friday morning double-checking my math, and then delivered the graded portfolios to campus for pick-up, my writing hand still cramped up from all the unfamiliar work. In future, were I to teach again, I might abstain from making detailed comments and suggestions unless such feedback were directly requested by a student. But it’s what I had to offer, this time around, and it’s done now.
Almost as soon as I’d finished that fairly enormous task, which has occupied a large part of my fall, all of the suppressed anxiety about final revisions for Girl Runner kicked in. I kid you not. The anxiety must have been sitting there just waiting to pop. I literally finished packaging up the portfolios and alphabetizing them (because I am nothing if not needlessly organized), and then texted Kevin with a “Help! What’s happening to me?”-style of message.
|ooh, pretty colours|
He requested that I check CJ’s “feelings” handout, which we’ve all been referring to with a certain amount of seriousness since he brought it home from school. (A funny after-dinner activity last week involved CJ directing me to act out, with facial expressions, a variety of feelings. Bored. Sad. Worried. Frustrated. (“Not angry! I said ‘frustrated’!” “But this is my frustrated face!”
|Pensive; also, Cold (note red nose)|
|Tired, yet Prepared for a Challenge?|
Oh, and Happy, Excited, and Proud. I counted three positive feelings and a whole lot of not so positive ones, but fair enough. Maybe we humans have a better understanding of the gradations between unhappy emotions, and the happy ones are more mysterious, kind of lumped together into one weird and wonderful and slightly scary experiential glob. I’m noticing as I’m considering this that my happy feelings seem somehow less trustworthy than my unhappy ones. Their transitory nature seems more fragile, more vulnerable to chance (that’s what makes them scary, I think). I wonder if by thinking this way (completely unconsciously) I prevent myself from experiencing Happy as fully as I could.
Anyway. So I went to CJ’s feelings sheet, studied it for a moment, and texted Kevin back: Uh oh. It appears that I’m feeling Anxious.
|I will slay you with my sombreness|
Less than an hour passed before the phone rang. And my feelings went from Anxious to, well, Relieved, but that’s not on the feelings sheet. (As AppleApple said, “I don’t think all of the things I’m feeling are on there.”) The person on the other end of the phone was my US editor, calling with warm and believe-you-me very welcome praise for the newest draft of Girl Runner. Yes, I’ve still got the final revisions to complete, but I can’t wait to get to them, and oh man, was I ever Relieved — and no, that’s not exactly the same as Happy — to get that call. “But aren’t you ‘Excited?'” Fooey asked me when she got home from school and I’d reported the good news. And then she said, “Or maybe ‘Proud.'” Well, maybe the latter, yes — why not!
|Serious writer face, with a hint of scorn?|
Hauling my feelings with me from afternoon into evening, I decided to run a little further than planned while at my daughter’s soccer practice. With geeky headlamp in place, I proudly (if slowly) conquered 12km: the furthest I’ve gone since the concussion. But I woke up Saturday morning feeling a bit queasy and headachy, which could indicate a bit of a regression. Consult feelings sheet: Sad. But by evening, I felt well enough to get dressed up for a party. And take photos! And at the party, I felt well enough to stay out past our (purely self-imposed) curfew (given the early morning soccer game we had to get to). I was having too much fun to be Entirely Responsible. In short, I was Happy.
|Proud. Take that, reading public|
My creative project for the weekend involved trying to take a self-portrait that could work as an author photo. It was entertaining, but I’m afraid I did not succeed. I’m including here some of the many out-takes.
“That one’s pretty,” said Kevin, looking through my efforts last night (see photo at bottom of post). “It could work as an author photo.”
|Calm; and possibly already had a drink?|
“But could it work as my author photo?” By which I meant, is this the facial expression I wish to present to the reading public? What feelings am I hoping to conjure up and send out into the world? I’m vain, I’ll admit that up front. I’d like to look pretty in my author photo, and preferably not tired and weary. But I’d also like to look not overly serious or somber. Instead, I’d like to look like someone who you’d want to meet for tea, someone you’d trust with your story — with your feelings. Friendly, approachable, calm, but with spirit and humour. And while I’ll admit to being vain, vanity is the last thing I’d like to project.
And on this abrupt note, I must declare: End of post. I’m late to meet the school bus!