Category: Writing

Grounding

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We don’t always have a ton of luck with the vegetables we plant in our raised beds, but every spring we give it another go. One year we scored with a broccoli plant that was still producing in November, but that never happened again. Cherry tomatoes work best, and herbs grow well, but any squash or zucchini that’s sprung forth has been quickly gnawed by our ravenous population of squirrels, which even the dogs can’t keep away all the time, though they relish the battle.

Fooey brought home a very healthy bean plant from school, which she planted with the beans that we’d started for AppleApple’s science fair project. Fooey’s teacher told her she had a green thumb, and it seemed that Fooey took that idea to heart. She’s planting two eggplants in the photos above. Good luck, eggplants! And beans! (I’m already stir-frying you in my imagination.)

This morning I am more tired than I’d like to be, and perhaps slightly more emotional too. I’m in the kind of mood where I’m practically weeping over a story in the newspaper (this one — about a kindergarten teacher in Toronto, who died tragically young). I’m hoping no one turns up at the door. I love stories about people who live outside the box. And I love stories about people who care deeply for the well-being and dignity of children; my son’s kindergarten teachers are amazing, and we’re constantly impressed at the ambitious yet simple events and outings being planned on the kids’ behalf. Life is so much richer when it’s blessed by people who care.

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I’ve been to Toronto and back two days in a row, contributing to the tiredness of today.

Last night, I went in for the National Magazine Awards gala, and did not win in my category (the prize went to Liz Windhorst Harmer, who was radiant in her excitement). I went mostly to be a fly on the wall, having never been before, and to celebrate the career of Kim Jernigan of The New Quarterly, who was being honoured with a special prize. It was an odd experience, made pleasant by the company; but in truth I’m not sure I entirely understand award galas. I understand the value of awards themselves, to those whose careers are lifted by recognition, but I don’t understand the gala part. These must be expensive to produce, and as a writer, were I to win an award, I’d much prefer a cheque to a flashy ceremony. This is probably an heretical opinion to express, and I will now be karmically banned from ever being nominated ever again, but I guess I would wish for a celebration of writing to be more, well, celebratory, less American Idol, less winner v losers. What is our mania for making winners and losers out of individual creative efforts? I can honestly say that being nominated was a gift and a complete surprise, but that “losing” last night had an equally surprising effect of making me feel, well, like a loser, at least temporarily. That may say more about me than it does about award ceremonies, but it did get me thinking about the double-edged sword of recognition. One wants recognition, as a writer, and if one wants a viable career, one may in fact need it, but it comes at a cost we’re not so willing to discuss, attached as it is to corrosive emotions of envy and greed. Shake hands with the devil.

I can think of only one response to counteract corrosive emotions: get grounded.

Like Fooey’s doing in the photos above: Get into the earth. Dig in. Get dirty. Plant. Hope for harvest.

So, on this bright fresh beautiful morning in June, I’m going to be thankful for this bright fresh beautiful morning in June, for being here and alive, and for the way things have worked out to bring me right here, right now. I’m going to think about the short life of a teacher who did what he seemed born to do. And I’m going to keep doing what I am so very fortunate to get to do, too.

The truth about holidays

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This photo is essentially unrelated to our weekend. What I like about it is the small picture within the bigger picture: the mirror looking backward at a scene that appears to be rendered in black and white, while the almost colourless landscape whooshes past out the window. It’s like a metaphor for a blog post.

I haven’t had a lot to say this week, here in Blogland. I think my thoughts have turned to subjects too large to be confined to this space. It isn’t the medium for the long-form essay; nor is it Twitter-sized. It’s like a scrapbook: photos, captions, a snapshot capturing a fragment of the here and now. I’ve been thinking about renovating my blog so that it can display photos more prominently and text more colourfully, but that’s a big project for a solo artist who can’t seem to keep the counters clean in her actual abode, though she did just fold several days’ worth of laundry, leaving it in yet another basket for her children to put away in their drawers, which they may someday do, someday. One lives in hope.

I ran 23 kilometres yesterday. It was about two kilometres more than my legs wished to go, but I’d planned my route slightly ambitiously. I was aiming for a two-hour run, and it took me slightly more than two hours. I’m oddly un-achy today. Yet oddly grumpy, it must be confessed. I’ve run the vacuum cleaner down the stairs, threatened to give away one child’s computer (as in, physically picked up said computer and carted it toward the great outdoors where I promised to hand it to any stranger passing by), and now I’ve wisely barricaded myself into my office. One of my goals for today is to plan out the summer: last summer I paid the older children to babysit the younger children, including making lunches, and not using video games as entertainment, an entirely successful experiment we intend to recreate this summer.

It’s Victoria Day, and a holiday here in Canada, so I’m getting a taste of the summer that must not happen: everyone underfoot and bored and sulking about the paucity of electronic time and asking for snacks and ignoring the simplest instructions whilst I fold laundry and howl about wasted opportunities and my envy of Mordecai Richler, whose biography still haunts me several years after reading it. (I’m not making this up. The howl of “I wish I were Mordecai Richler!” arises surprisingly frequently when I’m in a self-pitying mood: imagine having someone to cook you fine meals and take your children to their appointments and keep the daily annoyances at bay while you work your ass off doing the only thing you really want to do).

Except take a small step back, Carrie. Do you really want to wallow in envy?

And another small step, please. Mordecai Richler was making a killer living doing the only thing he wanted to do, and while I’m doing fine as far as these things go, basically Kevin and I must share the domestic and professional tasks between us to keep our family afloat. In short, we both have to: cook the meals (some of the time), take the children to their appointments (some of the time), and make space for the things we really want to do (some of the time).

And, hey. Would I really want it any other way? I appear to be feeling better, suddenly. It must be the barricade. And the writing. The writing always helps. I can hear, through my ear plugs, children gathering to make their own lunches (ramen noodles) and the vacuum running (Kevin). And now the piano is being practiced. And the sun is shining. Here are some flowers from our backyard:

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Let me leave you with a few of the wonderful things I’ve read this weekend:

* Ian Brown’s essay on the mulberry tree that once stood in his back yard (aside: I harbour a deeply held fantasy of becoming the female version of Ian Brown)
* Anakana Schofield’s books Q&A in The Irish Times, which is as enormously amusing as one could ever imagine a books Q&A being
* Oy! Feh! So! by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Gary Clement, a children’s picture book that is CJ’s absolute favourite right now, and which is quite a lot of fun to read out loud, especially if you, like me, enjoy doing voices at great volume right before bedtime
* All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews, which is kind of wrecking me even while it opens me, like all great books do, taking you apart and putting you back together, emotionally and morally, without telling you what to think. I love Miriam Toews.

Strange opportunities that arrive

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I sponsored the two older kids’ rep soccer teams this season by “buying a sleeve.” We decided to add “A NOVEL” to the title GIRL RUNNER, thinking that a team of 13-year-old boys might not appreciate having to wear that label during games.

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This was our dining-room table, Monday afternoon. Two sets of page proofs, one galley, one sharp red pencil, and one mother announcing to all who entered after school, “There will be no eating or drinking on or near this table until I AM DONE!”

I am done.

All may eat and drink here again.

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Last night’s reading at DVLB was really fun. I even indulged in a scotch, thanks to the kindness of a friend who treated. Imbibe ye scotches while ye may. Life’s too short not to enjoy the pleasures that arrive. Even if that happens to be on a Tuesday night and you’re running the next morning. And so I did. (And I ran this morning too: Run ye many kilometres while ye may.)

No scotches tonight, however. I’ll be driving to and from Hamilton, where I’m reading at Bryan Price Bookseller, 7pm, with other M Word contributors. (Note to self: look up directions!)

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Anansi offices working on publicity plans for Girl Runner. (Note to self: more directions! Look up!)

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Can you read the above? I can’t. File this under Strange Opportunities that Arrive via the Internet. Last month I was contacted by an editor at Unitas, a Chinese-language literary magazine in Taiwan, who wanted to interview me for a special issue they were planning on Alice Munro. (They’d found and loved my review of Alice Munro’s Dear Love in the National Post.) I agreed. And this month, two copies of the beautifully produced magazine arrived in my mailbox, in an envelope covered in fancy stamps. Sometimes the world seems very very small.

I’ve never met Alice Munro, and can’t imagine what I would say to her if we were to meet. It’s an entirely one-sided relationship based purely on my reading of her stories over many years. I’m immersed in MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH right now, a truly wonderful book that combines biography with memoir, and in some way I feel like my relationship with Alice Munro is similar to Rebecca Mead’s with George Eliot; but Mead has the benefit of distance and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable exploring Alice Munro’s life and work in quite the same way, given that she’s still living, and that our worlds literally overlap in time and space. It wouldn’t be historical exploration. There’s a freedom to digging back into the past, way back. I’m aiming to do it now, in my next novel. Nothing can be perfectly recovered from the deep past, and so one may imagine quite freely.

Yet I’m so admiring and relishing this memoir/biography mash-up on George Eliot — I would do it, if I could figure out my relationship with non-fiction, a form I’m still learning. I’m thinking out loud here, brainstorming as I type. Perhaps not the best way to compose a blog post on which one is about to press “publish.” But if I could figure out how, yes, I would write about Alice Munro.

I think the NMA nomination was especially thrilling (and perhaps seductive) because it was earned for “personal journalism,” aka non-fiction. It’s a form that interests me more and more, that I find myself devouring more and more, and that I want to learn how to master.

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Art on the driveway: a rebuttal

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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.

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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.

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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.

Last night in London

Random-ish post as I’m packing up and readying to head home tomorrow.

One of the books I found at the British Library was: THE GOOD HUSWIVES HAND-MAID, FOR COOKERIE IN HER KITCHEN IN DRESSING ALL MANNER OF MEAT, WITH OTHER WHOLSOM DIET, FOR HER AND HER HOUSHOLD, &C. (Note: They went in for the thorough title in 1595). Yes, it was a recipe book.

So, herewith, a recipe from THE GOOD HUSWIVES HAND-MAID, to share with you.

To boile mutton for a sicke bodie.

Put your mutton into a pipkin, seeth it, and scum it clean, and put thereto a cruste of bread, fenell roots, parsly roots, currans, great raisons (the stones taken out), and hearbs, according as the pacient is. If they be cold, hot hearbes may be borne: if they be hot, cold hearbes may be best, as Endive, Sinamon, Violet Leaves, and some Sorell: let them boyle together. Then put in Prunes, and a verie little salt. This is broth for a sick bodie.

So there you have it.

I don’t know what a pipkin is, offhand, and haven’t had time to look it up. (“Seeth it” means simmer it, if context can be trusted.)

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Here is an actual email message I actually received yesterday from an actual child, who shall remain nameless: “Do not forget about the souvenirs. Love, Child-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless.”

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One more random anecdote before I sign off. I spent yesterday evening with my host’s children and we did some very fun activities, like riding the bus to a nearby centre and eating pub food and shopping for souvenirs in the confectionary section of a grocery stores (souvenirs? what souvenirs?), and sitting in the upper deck of the bus on the way home, just because it seems like one should, while in London. After which we were going to have a fun movie night, but the Netflix movie wouldn’t work, and the kids were having a hard time picking one from the shelf that they both wanted to watch, and I was wracking my brain for alternate fun things to do, and here is what I said (sadly, in all seriousness, because Fun is truly my middle name): “I could read out loud to you from a book, if you’d like.” There was a beat of silence. And, like magic, the kids were suddenly agreeing on a movie both wanted to watch.

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Speaking of Fun According to Carrie: being at the British Library was so fun. It was more than fun. It was soothing, it was peaceful, it rewarded my curiosity richly; it was a happy place to spend three days and if home weren’t calling me, I could move right in.

But home is calling me. And I need to go before I buy out all the souvenirs. (Buying souvenirs is also surprisingly fun. I haven’t really had occasion before.)

Imagine your way to success

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DJ is posing for the camera, which we’re all finding hysterical

Somehow, last week’s brief thaw fooled me, despite knowing better, into thinking that spring-like conditions were in the offing. I keep stepping outside and registering the cold as a shock — as a personal affront — as if it weren’t absolutely to be expected at the end of February. The windchill registered at -21C on my run this morning, for heaven’s sake! AppleApple has told me that on April 1st, she is wearing a sweater to school no matter how cold it is. I was just glad she didn’t set that particular deadline for March 1st.

To further gather my thoughts regarding yesterday’s post on fear and unwinding, I would like to observe that there’s a fine line between acknowledging and reflecting on one’s fears, and becoming mired and stuck in an introspective feedback loop of one’s fears. I feel like I’m atop a small hill that I’ve been climbing for awhile, and this is a good place to pause and acknowledge that it was hard to trust my brain post-concussion. It was hard, and it was scary, but I don’t want it to colour my life. I’ve got other hills to climb.

That’s why I played soccer a few weekends ago. That’s why I write every day. That’s why I meet friends. That’s why I want to go out dancing and do kundalini yoga again and get a decent pair of snow pants and maybe some cross country skiis so I can play outside whatever the weather — take that, February! I’m a huge believer in imagining your way to success. You have to know where you want to go or you’ll never get there.

Writing and meditation and reflection are expressions I’m naturally drawn to as an introspective person. It’s why I’m a writer, I am sure. But life is lived concretely. It’s hands in bread dough. It’s running as the sky grows light. It’s vacuuming the dog hair (or teaching the five-year-old how to vacuum the dog hair).

Here’s what I’m visualizing. And doing.

My big (overarching) goals for the year:
* write the first draft of a new novel
* promote Girl Runner
* create a solid curriculum for my creative writing class

My small (everyday) goals for the year:
* read
* write daily meditations
* run, weight lift, yoga, spin, bike, dance, play soccer
* help and support my family
* give the kids more responsibilities around the house
* bake
* offer and accept invitations to spend time with friends
* play the piano and sing

I could go on. But that’s a good start.

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two Saturdays ago: this was taken after we all pitched in to clean the house together; I hope to blog more about this new plan, if all goes well

A total side note that spoke to the fitness guru in me: I read in yesterday’s newspaper that sprinting is more beneficial to the aging body than distance running (the caution being that you need to be a strong runner, and probably a distance runner, before attempting sprints, because non-fit sprinting an excellent way to injure yourself.) No wonder I love soccer so much — it’s basically sprinting, except you get to chase a ball.

I also read that going for a walk has an almost medicinal effect on the mind and body. Why don’t we build our cities and communities around that simple concept? Imagine the health benefits. Imagine how we’d all be walking off the edges of our worries. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

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