Category: Writing

Burn After Reading

This is a January primal scream of self-pity and I apologize in advance, with an extra sorry to my little son who deserves to be picked up, rather than stuck clutching my pant leg and fussing with boredom–okay, he wins. Really, where are my priorities? I’m now typing one-handed.

I’ve been outdoors twice since Saturday–once to pick the kids up from school, and once to entertain those well enough to go outside and play in the snow. Otherwise I’ve been in here, tending to children throwing up and cooking elaborate local meals from our stores (cutting up a chicken is harder than it looks; though that might have been in part because said bird hadn’t fully thawed).

But the biggest primal scream relates to a serious lack of writing time. I’ve had SIX HOURS to write since before Christmas. That’s going on a month. It’s not for lack of trying to schedule time, either; it’s circumstances conspiring against opportunity, the unforeseeables of germs, of sleep deprivation, of dental and medical appointments. Last night, Kevin had a soccer thing and then a hockey game, so I put the kids to bed alone; in the fantasy version of that scenario, I laid CJ down in the crib in our room, and stayed up late writing in the office/baby room. In the actual version of events, I laid CJ down “for the night,” and he woke screaming fifteen minutes later–though in the interim I’d carried Fooey off to a happy sleep; thank you, sweet Fooey–at which point I sat nursing a twitchy CJ for another hour, till finally, finally, he’d fallen into what approximated a deep sleep, at which point, I was glassy-eyed and hungry and resigned, and laid him to sleep in his own bed in the office/baby room.

I admire every parent who works after his or her children are asleep. No matter how hopeful my plans, by the time this blessed state arrives, four times over, my brain has ceased firing on all neurons. So instead, I went looking for a fatty cheese to spread on some crackers, then read in bed (Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri; oh read her, read her, her stories are quietly amazing; she is also the mother of two young children and said in an interview that she’d never write anything were someone else not regularly caring for them).

Okay, we get the life we choose, and I’ve chosen four children, and no nanny. For the record, I get this grim feeling every January. I’m in need of some naturally sourced vitamin D. Or some exercise-induced endorphins. Our bodies crave nutrients. But I’m starting to think–or to be reminded, more accurately–that my fingers crave these keys, and my mind craves a quiet space carved out of the day’s responsible hours.

And, no, CJ is not in my arms anymore. He jumped down and went off to chew on a few crayons, accompanied by the companionable noises of Albus, home from school for one final recuperative day, exploding imaginary ships, and Fooey munching crackers and chatting to herself.

Ahh, The Warm Glow of Self-Improvement

Haven’t stopped thinking about the New Year, and inevitably that means self-improvement. Right? It’s funny how at the stroke of midnight on the 365th day of the year, we pretend collectively that the slate has been wiped clean and we can Be Better. Except we’re just ourselves. Except that shouldn’t be an except or a just, because we’ve earned all of that grime and all of those scratches, and who would want to be wiped clean, really? That would be a recipe for unchecked narcisism.

Some thoughts on our family’s carbon footprint. Last year we went down to one vehicle, I started hanging laundry even off-season, did some canning, and attempted to source and eat local food. We also managed to lower our water consumption, but that was probably the new efficient toilets. Our electricity bill continues to climb; we moved in five and a half years ago, and every year we’ve consumed more electricity, not less. We have added family members during that time, but it’s no excuse. So this year, I’d like to do an energy audit, figure out where we’re leaking electricity and staunch the flow, train the kids to turn out the lights every time they leave a room, and continue to do many of the things we’ve started: walk as much as possible; hang the laundry; do more canning and preserving this coming summer; continue to buy local and cook from scratch. There must be other actions we could take, too, that I’m not thinking of right this second.

To add to that, here is a fantasy goal: I’d love to rid my cupboards of any prepared food that I could actually make myself. ie. no more boxed cereal, only homemade granola. Crackers? Bread, of course. Cookies, yes. Butter? Not unless we source our milk off-grid. Will it happen? Unlikely. But it’s a dream.

Some other random things I’ve been contemplating doing …

Smugness, begone! (Have I become a “Smug Married”? This thought has plagued me, slightly, over the holidays. All the things we consume, how full our house is of comfortable objects, how satiated we are. How much I don’t want to give up these comfortable things …).

Childcare … I’ve been thinking that I might enjoy caring for other people’s children during the day, or exchanging childcare. This is less fully-formed-thought than persistent notion. It would also be a good goal to have one day per week with nothing extra in it, one day just to hang out at home, read, play, nap, bake (with children, I mean). On the other hand, accepting that there is no Normal, that the day is bound to be broken in many ways by many unexpected occurrences, is really good for the sanity. You can’t have a household of six people and expect even one day to run according to Plan. So–flexibility. Going with the flow.

Embracing cliches.

Continuing to write. Think about how to get back to Nicaragua again–and for how long? Maintain and nurture the good things we’ve got going, but stay critical. Not complacent.

And next post, tell a good story rather than preach.

Catching Life

Writing day, but this is the first I’ve gotten to the computer this morning. Fooey had her major dental appointment this morning, so that took priority. She was fully conscious during the surgery, but on nitrous oxide (“magic nose” as the dentist calls it) and additionally on a drug that kinda makes her look and act a bit drunk. Amazingly, the dentist (Super Dentist, as I shall forevermore call him) drilled and filled three cavities, including between her two front teeth, and shaved off an additional three more cavities, all in one go. So she’s taken care of. For now. Heaven knows, we are flossing and brushing and treating juice like a rare treat these days (“Juice!!!” the kids squeal with delight when it is offered at a birthday party; the way other children might scream, “Candy!” or “Cake!”), but there are hard teeth and there are soft teeth, and it’s looking like my babies have the soft ones. Something tells me this won’t be Fooey’s last”magic nose” experience. It was quite trippy trying to imagine the experience through her eyes, lying in that chair, breathing nitrous oxide into her innocent lungs, sunglasses on, in a dental office that looks like it’s perfectly preserved from the 1960s, while Super Dentist and his assistant spoke soothingly of “pink and yellow sugar bugs” being “washed away.” (Drilled away). I was starting to see pink and yellow sugar bugs. It wasn’t a bad sensation, actually.

I’ve been meaning to blog all weekend and it’s already Monday. These were some of the topics in mind. Carrot cookies: really good. Taking four children ages three to seven to the musical theatre (Annie) for a 7pm show: surprisingly fun. Midwifery: lots of Big Thoughts. In fact, that’s where I’d like to go in today’s blog.
On Friday evening, I attended the Eby Lecture at Conrad Grebel College, which this year was given by Marlene Epp, a Mennonite historian. The place was packed out with the local Mennonite crowd. It is impossible to show up at something like this and not a) recognize 99% of the audience, b) be known by name by at least 33% whose names you do not, in turn, remember, and c) actually turn out to be related to 5% of those in attendance. (Note: All figures are wild estimates). The subject was Canadian Mennonite women who were midwives/healers. I love this kind of history, largely story-telling, using oral sources, diaries, notes. I loved how she integrated and contextualized the Mennonite story into and within the larger story of immigrant Canada. Proof that I would make a lousy historian, what jumped out at me instantly was the source of great fiction this history could make.
Some of you may know that I harbour distant fantasies about becoming a midwife myself. Likely from the moment I saw my own sister born at home (I was twelve and a half), the profession has seemed to me almost magical, and certainly powerful: guiding a woman through gestation to delivery, being present and receiving new life. It’s the only alternate career path I’ve been able to imagine for myself; yet I’m excruciatingly aware that my interest in midwifery is more idealistic than practical. It seems like the kind of profession one should feel “called” to (though that may be more of my idealism talking). Children and grandchildren of these midwives recalled holiday celebrations broken by the mother or grandmother grabbing up her brown bag and heading out on a mission of mercy. Midwives also acted, in some cases, as naturopaths, chiropractors, bone-setters, healers, and undertakers. Because, of course, tied up so closely with birth is death; at least, it was for most of human history, and still is in many places on earth. The responsibility seems vast. I feel myself torn between wanting to discover whether my own hands and mind could care for women and babies in this way; and being pretty darn sure that pursuing that course would bury my ambitions to continue writing fiction. Not to mention limit my time with these four small children I’ve produced who still need constant care.
I figure on four years of grace till CJ starts kindergarden. In some ways, it doesn’t seem like much time, yet when thinking over the changes in our lives these past four years there are almost too many to integrate and understand. We just are where we are. I like planning ahead. But I like staying flexible and open.
Four years ago, I was just about to get pregnant with our third child. Four years ago, Kevin was travelling long distances, regularly, and working for someone else’s company. Four years ago, my parents were living in the same house they’d lived in since 1991. They were still married to each other. Kevin’s dad was still alive. Four years ago, our kids had two sets of intact grandparents. Though we could hope for more kids, and hope for Kevin to change his job, we really couldn’t predict or control many of the events that occurred alongside those others. So it is. I just finished reading Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air, and there’s a line that’s stuck in my mind. (I’m paraphrasing). One character says that some people believe everything is all about timing; some people believe everything is all about luck; and she believes everything is fragile. Life is fragile.
I believe that, yes, everything is fragile, connections and relationships are fragile; in some ways. In other ways, everything is damned tenacious. Connections and relationships stick and tangle and surprise us and hold us and remain. Even if only in memory.
Life is fascinating, isn’t it? And that’s why I can’t figure out whether I want to be catching it, literally, or catching it in this other way: on the page.

Getting Dumber

I should say that the life cycle of a butterfly is actually a really amazing thing. Boy I sounded grumpy in that earlier post. Guess it wasn’t just the kids that day. I like to think I’m immune from bad moods, just riding the wave of the day, up and down, without too many fluctuations … you know, calm mama, serene mama. With a little bit of creative editing and amnesia, this is true.

But this is also true: I am trying to drink a cup of coffee, while listening to the radio, while CJ climbs my leg, while Fooey shouts from the living-room that it is time for her mommy to read her a book, NOW! While blogging. There was an article somewhere (Globe? Maclean’s?) recently about how we are training our brains to lose the ability to concentrate deeply by multi-tasking on our electronic devices. This bodes ill for writers of novels, et cetera. But I still enjoy reading, and would confess to being a ridiculous multi-tasker; though maybe I’ve dumbed myself down and don’t even realize it.

Except this is also true: I can still write a story. I can sit for six or seven hours straight, and focus entirely on an imaginary place and imaginary people, and write a story. And yesterday that task brought me great pleasure because the story was good, and it twisted and turned in ways unanticipated. In the world, and out of the world. A bit of both.

Way too rambling. Turn off the radio, maybe! And go read that Fooey some butterfly books, marvelling at the life cycle of these fragile (seemingly fragile) creatures.

Writing Day, with Poem

I’m going to post a poem that comes from a suite I’m working on called “How to Be a Writer.” This poem originally started with the words “don’t be,” which tells you how ambivalent I continue to feel about this writing path. Despite ambivalence, I’m looking forward to going to “poetry club” tonight and talking verse, talking writing. It will be an all-around writing day, from bottom to top. Here’s the poem …

don’t sit before the screen and tap tap tap

don’t lick your pen and fill a blank
with scrap scrap scrap
don’t whisper lines of verse
at the grocery store
don’t narrate yourself at a quarter to four
don’t half-light darkness
with old joy and ruin recast
don’t lie don’t leech don’t bargain thieve and grasp
don’t write, small soul
don’t pretend or imagine
don’t ache for a reader
don’t prance for recognition
don’t do it, you’ll regret it
the black dog will eat you whole
don’t do it, amputate, amnesiate, enfold
but you can’t?
then it’s fatal
but you can’t?
then you shall
be a writer
be a writer
be it well

Superhero Cinderella

Today I feel like a superhero, except without the super powers. No, I’m the superhero with the double life, changing in the phone booth, racing from one reality to another in the blink of an eye. Today, we slept in, and the day started with a multi-coordinated dash to get dressed and fed and breast milk expressed and the children out the door in under an hour, in the care of their super-dad. Then my writing day started, except not really, because I still needed a shower. This superhero starts slow. Eventually, the writing portion of my writing day began, and I sat on the blue exercise ball and worked on poems. It was definitely a poetry day. I even wrote a new poem! I worked around the muffins for dictators theme of an earlier blog entry. Sort of a recipe for poetry poem. Somewhere in there, I fed the baby, packed my handsome leather bag (for professional use only), dug my nice boots out of the basement, and brushed my hair. Kissed all goodbye, jumped in the car, and drove off to the symposium on fiction for Chinese and Canadian writers. Apparently, I count as a Canadian writer, which is nice to know. In fact, this was my disguise.

Parked, followed signs, entered typical room in typical university facility, pleasant but furnished on budget and by committee. Hoarsely informed organizer of my temporary disability–though thankfully my voice worked enough that I could make myself understood, which was not the case yesterday. Spent the first fifteen minutes chatting with Alistair MacLeod, whom I’d met once before, a long time ago. He seemed to accept my disguise. I was the representative young local writer. One woman thought I was a university student. Which is a pretty nice compliment at this point in my life.

The Chinese writers, flown in from China for this event (though perhaps for more?), spoke very little English, so we were seated in groups with a translator to facilitate conversation. I found the whole process very interesting. I was seated with Dennis Bock, who coincidentally was our neighbour when we lived in Guelph, and his wife and I had babies at the same time, so that felt most unintimidating. I was only kinda in disguise at that point. At our table was Fe Gei, a writer who was working on a massive trilogy about modern Chinese history; he also writes short stories, one of which I was able to read in translation before meeting him. Few of the writers had the opportunity to read each other’s work, since most hadn’t been translated. At our table, we talked, with some difficulty, about concepts of economic class in Canada and in China, and about ideology. It felt like we were trying to represent very different worlds to each other, through the voice of the translator, who had moved to Canada sixteen years ago, and had her own opinions on subjects.

Toward the end of the conversation (well after the meal of take-out Chinese food had been consumed), I was able to ask Fe Gei about his story writing, and about his interest in Western writers, and about Raymond Carver, whose stories he greatly admired. He asked what ideas I was trying to convey through my writing, a question that very nearly stumped me, so I simply said that I start with an emotion, that I write about relationships. That I try to get at the essence of what seem like ordinary moments. He seemed quite chuffed about this. I was taken back to China, which I visited as a high school student in 1992, and to those formal, funny gestures of goodwill, of elaborate and heartfelt hospitality that are much greater than we Canadians are accustomed to offering or receiving. How can I get at this? He said it had been an honour to meet me, and that he would tell young Chinese writers he mentors about me and the kind of writing I was doing. I said something in a similar spirit. But I am not sure whether these were empty compliments of the sort we are used to giving and receiving; or whether he meant it with all his heart, which is what it looked and sounded like. I guess I will never know. Lost in translation.

Then I said a quiet goodbye, and slipped away, because my time was up. Come to think of it, it was less superhero, and more Cinderella. The clock struck midnight and I dashed to the car, just Mommy again, and drove home to my baby, who was desperate for a nurse, and my three-year-old, who, in the few moments while I was changing CJ’s diaper managed to colour both of her hands with a green marker. She approached me with hands hidden under sweater. “Mommy, I not colour my hands.” Huh? “No, Mommy, I not colour my hands.” Oh dear. What a sweet confession. So we added scrubbing hands to our to-do tasks before walking up the hill to school to pick up the kids. I took off my boots and put on my sneakers, and that was all it took.

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