Last Sunday, I posted this photo along with the following caption on Facebook: I have been given these two notes and told to wait in my bedroom while the gifts are being hidden. Meanwhile in the bedroom across the hall, the eldest child is still asleep; and down the highway, the second eldest child is playing a soccer game in Oshawa. I’ve already walked the dogs, fed a neighbour’s cat and planned today’s soccer practice, and I’m wearing running gear in hopes that it will inspire me to go for a slog/run in the sunshine later this morning. What are you doing for mother’s day?
Here’s what happened next:
Daughter opens bedroom door, hands me a note, which instructs me to look for a remote control toy car in the bedroom she shares with her brother (oh yeah, we mixed up the bedroom configuration again: the two eldest get their own rooms, and the two youngest are sharing; I agreed because they came to the solution together and everyone agreed).
Anyway… I walk to bedroom, find remote control car, which has note affixed to it: Follow me!
Son proudly but silently picks up remote control car and heads to the front stairs.
Daughter: (admonishing tone) Those are the wrong stairs!
Son looks confused, drops remote control car, car tumbles as if in slow motions down to the bottom of the wrong stairs, breaking into pieces as it goes. Moment of shocked silence.
Me: It’s going to be okay.
Daughter: (to her brother) You’ve ruined everything!
Me: We can fix the car!
Daughter and son: searching for lost batteries, can’t find last one.
Me: Can I help you look?
Daughter, downstairs, closes door to area that may contain secret surprise. I find missing battery, put into car. Car doesn’t work.
Daughter: This was his idea!
Son: (silently trying to get remote control car to work)
Daughter: We should go with Plan B! That’s my plan! Not his plan!
Me: (tapping car, shaking car) I think the car is working now. (car moves several inches, stops dead)
Daughter: (retreats to nearby room where the secret surprise is waiting) It doesn’t matter anymore. Everything’s ruined.
Me: (quietly to son) What was Plan B?
Son: (whispers) I don’t know, but I think we were going to use string.
Me: (louder to daughter) Should we come down the other stairs instead?
Daughter: It doesn’t matter!
Me: (smacking car a few more times) It’s working again, let’s just keep going.
Son: (silently maneuvers car through doorway, I follow, into room containing secret surprise)
On the table is a jar of freshly picked tiny spring wildflowers from our backyard, and a paper bag with a gift that son has carefully carried home from school on Friday. It is a clay bowl, the fourth one I’ve now received for Mother’s Day. Apparently there is a kiln at school, in the basement, it is reported to me. The clay bowl is full of notes detailing all the things I can now get for free: 1 free help clearing the table, 1 free walk the dogs, etc.
Me: But this is lovely! (sits down)
Daughter: (bursts into tears) I don’t even have a gift for you! Because I wasn’t in school on Friday! [she was sick] And then he had to do his plan.
Me: But you picked these flowers! And these notes are from you, aren’t they? Or is your brother supposed to give me all this free stuff by himself? (joking tone)
Daughter: (wiping tears) No, they’re from me too.
Me: All I really want for Mother’s Day is to see you having fun together, and it sounded like you had so much fun planning this….
Son: (a bit miffed) You already have four of those clay pots?
Me: (shouldn’t have mentioned it) Now I have four. I only had three before. (pause) I guess this will be my last clay pot.
So … the construction of the above scene may give you a hint as to what I’m working on now, perhaps foolishly, definitely without provocation. I just want to do it! I’m writing a play. It is not a play about Mother’s Day, it is not autobiographical, and I have no idea what will happen when I’m done writing it (assuming it’s any good), because a play is meant to be seen and performed, not read like a book. And what do I know about that?
In unrelated news that my brain wants to make related, the Canada Council has just announced a juicy one-time grant in celebration of Canada turning 150 next year. The grant is called the New Chapter. I would love to figure out how to participate by pitching a project that would “encourage public engagement in the arts” and “promote outreach locally, nationally, and internationally.” (Not sure I entirely get what that second clause means in practical terms.) I want to be a visionary, but my strength is doing stuff, not making stuff happen, not pulling together a bunch of disparate pieces and spinning them into something like the amazing Terres des Paroles arts festival I participated in while in France (which would be an example, to my mind, of what a New Chapter grant could and should be used for here in Canada) … where X artist from discipline A works with Y artist from discipline B: i.e. writers and actors collaborate to create performance pieces in small Canadian museums; or actors perform readings from books; and it all happens in small towns.
Is anyone out there applying for this grant? I’m curious to know whether artists even know about it. It sounds like an opportunity for collaboration. And just thinking about it makes me feel a little bit lonely and disconnected, in all honesty. I can’t seem to imagine who, what, where, when, and most of all how …
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.
It was the moment when I was on my hands and knees trying to vacuum up every last tiny fragment of broken glass off the kitchen tiles—a science experiment gone awry at 9:38PM—and I was still dressed in my coaching gear after our exciting exhibition game, and I could hear the younger kids upstairs calling for me to come kiss them goodnight, and I saw Carrie-in-France like a ghost haunting the scene, like an ephemeral substance dissolving before me in a puff of breath. I could not be here and be Carrie-in-France. What did it mean, to be Carrie-in-France? It meant being so unencumbered by responsibility that my mind could empty out and be still and I could think clearly, think with a relaxation and peacefulness that allowed for fantastically ambitious plots and schemes and plans. Not just to dream of them but to see how they might be realized.
And here, with the tiny sparkles of broken glass everywhere, glass covered in corn syrup, which was drawing an army of ants—ants! we have ants!!—it was all I could do to keep my shit together, if you know what I mean. I was congratulating myself on only yelling the tiniest bit, on staying relatively calm, and not freaking out completely, on merely with a sense of exhaustion and inevitability getting to the task of making our kitchen floor safe for bare feet while the boy doing the science experiment stood by sheepishly, another glass jar in his hands.
Here is also what I thought: it’s okay. It’s okay because I brought back those ideas from France. I carried them home (and not in glass jars) and I’m working on them now. But when those ideas shrivel up, when their energy dissipates, I need to remember to head out again on a retreat, I need to remember that it’s not a waste of time, it’s a necessity, it’s the path to clarity. I can’t replicate what happened in France here at home. Here at home fills me with a different kind of energy, a different kind of drive—the chaos, the whirling schedule, the stolen moments of peace and stillness (like right now); I don’t begrudge here at home.
I just need the other too. Now I know.
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 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!
I haven’t taken many photos at the museum, where I’m spending my mornings. I mean to, and then get caught up in the work and forget everything else. I’ve been commissioned to write a completely open-ended piece that will be performed in the museum a week from Sunday (by an actress, not by me).
Here is my morning routine: I walk to the museum, enter at a back door that is unlocked and propped slightly open, climb a wonky circular staircase, which I swear is going to fall off the wall any minute, and ring the bell outside an industrial metal door on the second floor. Eventually someone comes to let me in, although I usually have to knock for awhile too, and one day had to wander around the grounds until the museum director happened by. Behind the door is a large room with big windows, big tables, shelves of books, filing cabinets, several desks, mysterious bubble-wrapped items, and a workspace where today a man was framing photographs: new prints made from old film (or would it be plates?), photographs originally taken in the late 1800s. These will be part of the exhibit too, which focuses on portraiture.
I follow the director down a hallway where he unlocks another door, this time to a small storeroom that has become very familiar. Here, I sit on a step-stool and write, while looking at paintings, photographs, etchings, sketches—whatever the director brings and props before me. His gentle delight when he offers me a new portrait has become familiar too. It is an astonishing and simple way to spend several hours. I sit, I study, I look, I think, I lean closer and examine, I wonder, I write. Out of this, I hope to make something new and original.
Adolphe Felix Cals, “Portrait de Leonie-Rose Davy,” 1874.
Today, I walked through several empty rooms in the museum below, where the director has taped paper print-outs of paintings on the white walls to indicate where the real paintings will be hung. The exhibit is due to open a week from Saturday. On one wall, I saw a print-out of the portrait, above. As we stood in the empty room, the director gestured toward the woman and said, “It is you!” I have not seen the painting in person, only in the catalogue. I have not studied her face up close, nor sat with her in the storeroom. I hope there will be time before the exhibit officially opens to stand in front of her and wonder about who she was.
After I left the museum, and walked to the boulangerie to buy half a baguette for lunch, and to the fromagerie to buy some very soft cheese to eat with the baguette, I came back to my apartment and looked up an old photo I remembered taking during my 365-project (when I took a self-portrait every day for a year): our expressions are so similar, it is uncanny. What do you think?
I surrender to the mystery.