Category: Big Thoughts
“Mom, do you know how to do small talk?”
“How do you do it?”
“Look for something you have in common. Like the weather.”
I had several occasions to practice my small talking skills this weekend. Soccer tryouts, both mornings, early. A reading yesterday. I sat in the car for part of both tryouts, the weather being inauspicious both days: pissing rain yesterday, a chilly breeze today under an ominous sky (see photo above; see in photo swirling cloud; see in swirling cloud whatever your imagination would like to invent). So I sipped my coffee and scribbled in my journal for awhile.
Coffee gone, done with deep thoughts, I wandered out to watch the girls on the field, and to chat with other parents. I used to dread the casual interaction. I was painfully shy, my mind a blank against which I would scrabble for useful tidbits of talk. It’s curious to recognize that this is no longer the case. I can’t pinpoint when it changed. I suppose I’m still a quiet-ish person, not all that fundamentally different. Except I like small talk. I like meeting people, making those mini-connections, even if we’re just talking about the weather.
I suspect I used to think the exercise was a waste of time, a bit. We all know it’s raining, right? I didn’t really get its purpose. I was tone-deaf. Closed to the possibilities. But I’ve come to suspect that small talk isn’t so small, that it’s the stuff that keeps us civil, and more than that, too. Convention forces us to express interest, to look just a little outside of the self, and consider another person, a stranger, and by doing so to become just that much less strange to each other. Somewhere along the line, I got a taste for exactly this kind of interaction, and I’m never going back. I will know odd facts about the woman who is bagging my groceries, because I’ve asked, and I’m happy to know. (She’s doing a PhD in biochemistry!)
“I just can’t think of anything to say.”
I know! I totally relate to that panicky feeling, and remember it well. It hit particularly hard in high school.
Just ask questions, is what I suggested, assuming she would be talking to another kid, who might think it was kind of weird to be discussing the weather (I’m not 100 percent certain to whom she’s planning on directing this hypothetical small talk).
One more piece of (happily) not unsolicited advice: Remember, no one can hear what you’re thinking. You do have to say it out loud.
I sent this pair off to buy something for lunch, for the second time this week. They went to Vincenzo’s and got sushi and soda pop. CJ ate a blue frosted cupcake before they were even home. “We tried the free samples!” (On Monday, I let them go to the grocery store to get something for lunch and they returned with: Corn Pops, Cap’n Crunch, mini chocolate chip cookies, and three cheese buns. I think I see improvement?)
Fooey is doing tennis camp this week, which is why she’s not been involved. (Side note: she’s been working on filling in a journal all about herself, and had this to say on the page with prompts about her parents. “The one thing I hope I never inherit from my mom is the way she … HAS NO STYLE.” And: “The one thing I hope I never inherit from my dad is the way he … HAS NO HAIR.” My attempts to defend myself were met with scorn. Well, justified perhaps, because that kid has style.)
It feels like a day for black and white.
Here is my desk, right now. On the left, see the syllabus I’m working on. In the middle, my BlackBerry, which flashes whenever I get a message (very distracting, but I must like being distracted; text me, please!). On the right, this week’s calendar full of to-do lists and daily events not to be forgotten. And on the computer screen, a message to my editor with the revised version of Girl Runner attached. Yup! She’s gone off. I’ve sent her on her way.
Kevin, who has been my first reader for as long as I’ve had a writing career, stayed up past midnight reading the new draft, and told me this morning that he couldn’t put it down. He offers the following blurbs: “I felt like I was running in Aggie’s shoes over a 100-year race.” And “The book had the perfect combination of pace and depth, just like the 800 metres.” And: “Normally I can read only a few pages at a time. I read half the book in one sitting.” As he’s obliged only to say good things, for the sake of our marriage, you might think this input is highly suspect, but I’m going with it. It’s been a summer of intense and sometimes crazy-making labour, and I can’t do more without a serious break from the material. And my editor is pleased to have it back on her desk again.
And now I give myself the respite of a week or so, before the madness of the fall schedule begins, to be quiet, peaceful, breathing, playing, and not working. Tall order.
One last thing. My next post is going to be about everything I’m excited for this fall. It really and truly is. Because there is so much coming in and now that I’ve sent the manuscript I can breathe and sit back and look at it all. And rest my head. And say thank you.
Wild. What a word.
I’ve been thinking about how thin the veneer is between us and the wild, how porous the borders, how I simultaneously crave the peace and calm of a contained and civilized existence, even while sensing my need to be out in the wild.
I’ve been thinking about how much of my life involves containment, grooming, and cleaning — there is so much effort involved in keeping our domestic environment, and ourselves, free from dirt and bugs, safe from weather, our food at a remove from the earth, our bodies in a socially acceptable state.
Sometimes it seems like nothing more than illusion.
squirrel in window-nest
Recently, a squirrel tore a giant and strategic hole in the screen outside the younger kids’ room. It then dragged in a bunch of ivy, and set up house. Clearly, it was pregnant, and nesting, and had no intention of leaving. Briefly, I considered letting it stay, since the window would have provided a terrarium-like observational environment for homeschool-style education, but then I thought of everything that could go wrong. (Infant rodents perched two stories above a paved driveway, smushed up against the kids’ bedroom window???) So instead, we scared off the squirrel, and removed her ingenious screen nest.
On Monday morning, we discovered that the “hives” I’ve been experiencing for months are caused by bed bugs, which are not just for nursery rhymes. I’ve decided to write about it because life is not neat and tidy and perfect, even in Blogland. Unpleasant things happen sometimes. Apparently some people are non-reactive to the bites (like Kevin), while others experience allergic reactions in the form of hives (like me), which is why it took us so long to figure the situation out. Nobody wants bed bugs. But they’re better than an auto-immune disorder, I say; plus we’ll finally get around to painting our bedroom after a decade of procrastination. And we’ve got rid of the bed, which I never liked. We’re having the house steamed today, and I sense that after that, life will go on. As it does. Messy and disordered. (Our house is currently turned upside-down, and yet, look, life keeps marching forward. We cook, we eat, we work, we play, we go to swim lessons. Some of us even blog.)
Happy Birthday, DJ and Suzi!
Our dogs seem like the least wild of creatures, but it fascinates me that so many of us humans choose to live with other species. It’s been a year, as of August 6th, since we’ve shared our home with these two little doggie-wogs, aka the poggles, aka the pogs, as they’re called, among many other odd nicknames (where do nicknames come from?!). All of the kids made them birthday cards and fashioned these little hats for them, too, though the dogs were tolerant of (ie. not keen on) the hats, and only “listened” to the cards being read to them because the card-readers were offering treats in return. I’m pretty sure we’ll always have animals — I can’t imagine life without them, somehow.
I’m not at peace with the torment of bugs, or the inevitable march of dust upon every surface, or the grease in the stove’s mesh trap, or the relentlessness of change and accumulation that demands vigilance and attention. I’m not at peace with it, because part of me wants to live with less and less and less stuff. The less stuff we have, the less there is to protect from the insinuation of the wild. I’m not at peace with it, also, because I can’t really prevent these invasions from happening. I have other things to do. There will be dust on the bookshelves, and dog hair under the couch. Not all the time, but it’s coming back, no matter how much effort I expend on keeping it at bay.
Which is maybe my way of saying that I’m not at peace with it, but I accept it. I keep it out, and I let it in, in balance, as much as is possible, all the while understanding that I’m part of it, too. It’s not separate from me — the wild.
I’m suspicious of leisure, but why? If it’s too easy, if I’m enjoying myself too much, if there is too much time in the day for sitting and sipping coffee, I feel uncomfortable. What should I be doing? (There is always more to do, and perhaps my anxiety arises from the fact that often the reason I’m relaxing and sitting is because a) I’ve forgotten about something I’m supposed to be doing or b) am ignoring things that need doing.)
I could fight this character trait, or I could give in to it. Generally, I give in because I feel better about myself. Somehow, all of this doing gives me a sense of purpose and progress, or even just basic maintenance. Which could be utterly false, even self-deluding, and I get that. I get it, but, still, I crave the sense of purpose and progress.
Today I am thinking about photography. On the weekend I read Ian Brown’s essay on being a judge for a photography contest in which no prize was awarded — none could be, because none of the hundreds of photo essays submitted met the criteria of not just being aesthetically appealing, but also narratively significant. In other words, none of the photo essays needed to be, in the judges estimation; their beauty was superficial because it did not matter, as nothing was at stake.
Brown wondered whether with our excessive photo-taking and recording of our lunches and pets and children’s every move, we’re losing the ability to recognize, tell, and maybe even to look for the deeper stories, the essential and underlying and specific stories that make us look and think and stop, rather than entertain us. I feel myself guilty of exactly this: pulling out my camera to capture “a moment.” Am I looking for a story? Or have I already decided what the story is simply by pulling out my camera to snap the photo? What’s the difference? In the latter scenario, I’m thinking of my photos as illustrations. X marks the spot. We were here. I was here. I’ll admit that I find poignance in snapshot, but I’m kind of nostalgic, I guess. I’m hyper-aware of the passage of time, and of change.
The former scenario, is, however, more interesting and more challenging and more difficult. Looking for the story means admitting from the get-go that I don’t know the story. That the story might only become apparent through work and time and effort, that it isn’t immediately available, even if the technology is instant.
When I took the pool photos on Saturday afternoon, I pulled out my camera because I noticed the way the light was hitting the water. That was what I wanted to capture, as much as the event itself, and then I saw through the zoom my daughter waiting for her race, drawn into herself, looking solitary and private even while surrounded by crowds of others. There was a story waiting to be told. The picnic photos, on the other hand, are merely decorative, illustrative: I wanted to note what we were up to. The noting was almost as important as the doing, maybe. I carried my camera out along with the dishes and food. I sense that there is a difference between motivations.
The year that I spent taking a self-portrait every day, I began to get bored of my own face and of our house and yard. Toward the end of that year, I found myself experimenting with composition, trying to tell stories that weren’t my own, that were projections (see above). The limitations forced me to become more creative. Every day, I struggled to choose just one photo. But the whole project was stronger because of it. I believe in limitations, in art and in life. Boundaries, strictures, rules, natural or artificial, make us work, make us choose, make us care.
This week, Brown’s article has me stopping myself from automatically picking up the camera. Asking, is this necessary? Or does it just add to the noise? (Hence, the recycled photos in this post …)
Maybe I photograph the moment because I’m caught up in wanting to do, do, do. Or maybe, sometimes, if I am to be honest, to distract me from what I’m stuck doing. Maybe it makes me feel less anxious about all I don’t understand. Maybe I photograph the moment because I am terminally nostalgic. Maybe because a photograph seems to make living itself more real, by committing it to images that give the illusion of permanence. And maybe, too, I’m looking for the larger narrative. I’m hopeful. I think I’ll find the story here, and that it will make sense. Maybe that’s what we’re all doing as we snap away with our digital cameras, creating too much, not knowing what to do with what we’ve made, nor how to keep it once we’ve got it.
Maybe the story comes in the curation afterward. The cull. The work. And also the pause, the stop, the stillness. That could make all the difference. I suppose it does.
One more thing: the photos I like best are the ones that are a bit askew, the mouth open or the eyes closed — something is not quite right, not quite perfect, and that makes it interesting.
on Birthday Eve, still eleven years old
on Birthday Morn, twelve times ’round the sun
I’m feeling compelled to sum up this month, even though it’s not quite over. It’s been such a month, and I’ve been unable to share some of the crucial details of its ups and downs and whirling arounds, which has forced me into awkward positions on this blog, made me into something of a contortionist. My ambiguity has caused a few friends to contact me with concern, wondering if all is well.
Well, all is well. And I don’t mean that in a Rob Ford way, whistling past the suddenly emptied offices of his communications team.
It’s been a good month.
It’s been a good month, but I won’t pretend it’s been easy. Decision-making is never easy, even when one is making decisions about excessively positive things, opportunities one has called out for, and hoped for, and pursued with determination. As I wrote in an earlier post, the doors are open. An open door is a blessing, and I feel blessed to be welcomed to enter.
But I have come to recognize, also, this month, that I can’t walk through every open door, not at the same time. I may contain multiplicities, but I am only one. I can only be in one place at a time. (I know you already knew that, but it’s taken me some convincing.) I am mother to four children. I am a writer. I would like to become a midwife. All those doors are open for me, right now. And I feel blessed. You, however, have probably already jumped ahead to the very obvious question that I somehow managed to avoid throughout this whole process: You are probably asking, okay, Carrie, that’s wonderful and all, but how, exactly, do you plan to go to school full-time, remain involved in your children’s busy lives, and continue to write?
Somehow, I thought I could do it all. I wasn’t going to not do some of it, oh no, I was going to do it all.
Magical thinking, perhaps. I am the sort of person who thrives on juggling responsibilities. Quietly, I told myself I could set aside the writing for the summer months. I did not need to attend so many soccer games and swim meets. We could get a dishwasher. The kids could learn to cook. Quietly, I thought, bring on the challenge.
But then the doors opened, all at once.
And suddenly I had to confront my own limitations — of time and of energy. I had to ask myself: what am I prepared to sacrifice? And I had to accept that now is not the right time to become a midwife. That is a hard sentence to write, and it’s taken me all month to carry myself toward accepting what I’m realistically capable of, right now.
For a good part of the month, I thought that this was an existential question about midwifery versus writing. Do I want to be a midwife or a writer? Well, the fact is, I’d like to be both, and I still believe it’s possible. I am already a writer, married to it for better or for worse and enjoying a happy stretch of career momentum right now. And I’m grateful to midwifery for being a career that does not discriminate against age: expect me to apply again sometime in the next decade, as my children grow up and get their driver’s licences and learn how to cook. No, what I’ve come around to recognizing is that this is not a question about midwifery versus writing. It’s not even, really, a question. It’s about being where I’m at, right now. And right now I have four children in the thick of their young and developing lives, and I want to be at the soccer games and swim meets. The shortened work day might drive me crazy sometimes, but I want to be here after school to gather them in, to follow up and dig around and take care of their lives in this very hands-on way. Juggle and spin it however I like, I can’t commute to another city for school and be here for this now that won’t always be.
How fortunate that I have an office, here, that I have quiet space to work, solitary time that is sandwiched on either side by frenetic activity and demands. I even have time to run and play soccer myself, to cook from scratch, see friends, and go on the occasional field trip. I go to bed done, and I sleep well at night.
I’d still love to doula at friends’ births.
I’d still like the kids to learn how to cook.
And we’re getting that dishwasher anyway — on Thursday, in fact.
When the time is right, I still hope to become a midwife.
But for now, my heart is full with the life that is all around me, right here, right now.
Here’s a poem that wrapped itself around me a few days ago, coming from a book of essays I’m reading by Anne Lamott, called Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.
“Late Fragment,” by Raymond Carver
And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Being ambitious is good when it motivates and propels you. But what if it prevents you from enjoying what you’ve accomplished, because you’re forever pressing ahead with the more that you could be accomplishing?
Kevin offered me that perspective, yesterday, when I was pushing for more, more, more, better, better, better, as I always, always do.
I am thinking about that today.
I am thinking, too, about running. How it’s such a piece of me, now. I only started running regularly about three years ago, so it hasn’t always been a piece of me. But it is, now. It seems fundamental to my health and well-being. When I am feeling down, like I was yesterday with my more, more, more-ness, I drag on my stinky old running clothes and squeeze time to find space for a run.
Yesterday evening, with a thundershower threatening, and a less-than-ideal location (busy semi-rural roads, some with bike lanes, some without), I dropped my daughter at her soccer practice and off I ran, beating a steady rhythm on the pavement, watching out for cars. Around the sixth kilometre, I struggled, worrying I’d gone out too fast, knowing I couldn’t turn around since my route was one big loop. But by the next kilometre the difficulty had vanished and all I heard was the steady drumbeat of feet and breath.
I felt powerful. I felt alive.
“You are your own best medicine,” Kevin said afterward.
It’s a hard thing to do, to run. It doesn’t really get easy. It shouldn’t, anyway. That’s not the point of it. The point of it is to throw yourself into effort and to be present inside your body’s work. And then your head goes quiet. And you enjoy what you’ve accomplished, even as you are accomplishing it.
I’m afraid that writing has been and will always be for me a place of intense discomfort as well grace.
I’m afraid that writing costs me in ways that are physical and emotional, that in order to pour myself into words on the page, I have to make payment. I don’t say this lightly. Creativity cannot be taken for granted. It may be a gift, but it cannot be freely received. The very act of creating means holding something unfinished and imperfect to the light, and loving it for what it might be, even while accepting all it cannot be. It means you’re never really satisfied with what you make. Because you know (and only you do) what you imagined you could have made. It means living an every day life uncomfortably suspended with your unfinished work.
I suppose we all have unfinished work. Unfinished business. Longings. Discomforts. I suppose this is not unique to the writer and it sounds self-pitying to suggest so. Let me be clear: I’m not sorry to be a writer. I’ve chosen this as much as it’s chosen me. I could have been, and could yet be, something else.
I think it’s just that I’m beginning to understand what it is I’ve chosen, by being a writer.
And why I need to run, if I am to write. I am not running away. I am not running toward. I am running. It can never be like that with writing. So I’m thankful, thankful, thankful to be able to run.