Category: Big Thoughts
At the Wild Writers Festival this weekend, here in Waterloo, I took my daughter along to volunteer. At lunchtime, I gave her some money and she went across the street to the grocery store to buy herself something for lunch.
Something for lunch, as purchased by AppleApple: a 500 ml tub of lime-flavoured Greek yogurt; a plastic-wrapped English cucumber; a loaf of Italian-style bread.
She found me in the green room, chatting with a handful of writers/editors/publishers, sat down beside me at the table. “This must be your daughter,” was a refrain we heard all day. “What’s that?” said the editor. “It’s my lunch,” said my daughter.
And then, this-must-be-my-daughter proceeded to eat the cucumber, whole, in great munching bites. I didn’t see what happened to the bread. The yogurt she polished off directly too. I could not have been more proud.
The thing about blogging is that so much gets left out. I haven’t, so far, made this a particularly political space. It’s not terribly ideological either. That doesn’t mean I lack for political thoughts and opinions, simply that I haven’t felt this to be the place and space to raise them.
I’m struggling with this choice at present. There are zeitgeist moments when an issue seems to get ripped open and demand conversation. But the conversation is never ever simple, that’s why issues are buried and need an almost shocking violence to bring them to the surface; we don’t want to have these conversations. Why would we? They’re painful. They tear us apart. They challenge our safe ideas of who we are. In Canada, that issue is sexual harassment and violence against women, and underlying it, biases and beliefs so entrenched that we don’t even notice they’re there. It’s distressing and depressing to be talking about this again or still. I suspect that no one wants to talk about this less than women. I consider myself an equal. I consider our culture much-changed and for the better. But it hurts my head to try to make melodic the dissonant chords of experience.
Consider this. A woman on stage presenting her book: she looks like she doesn’t care, she gives off an aura of irritation, responds to questions with her own personal grievances, cuts others off, and appears to be drunk. Would this ever happen? I’ve never seen it. But I’ve seen a man on stage doing that. (Granted, it’s unlikely to win him fans, but he still feels like he can do it.)
Maybe that’s a bad example. I would never want to feel like I could do that.
What about this? A woman writer on stage making fun of the other writers on stage, all in good fun. This also almost never happens, but if you think about it, friendly mockery is frequently the patter between men on stage, and it is funny, it’s appealing, not negative. So why do women rarely do it? Could we get away it? I wonder. It’s not that women can’t be funny on stage. I’ve seen a lot of funny women on stage these past two months. But here’s the difference: women on stage make fun of themselves. (So do men sometimes; I’m not suggesting otherwise.) That’s funny too. It’s self-deprecating. But it’s not the same thing.
I think that’s the difference between the privilege of being taken at face value, of being given the benefit of the doubt, and not. Some of us women would like to be joking around in public with the men (and women), joining in the joke—really, that’s what it is. Some of us would like not always to be so damn self-deprecating in order to get laughs. We would like to be taken seriously without having to be so serious. I would like that very much, at least on occasion. I would like it to be an option. This is a small small observation, and you may think it unrelated to the issue at hand, and certainly it’s not serious in the way that sexual harassment and violence is serious. But I think it’s a small piece of the larger picture. It points to a difference in the parameters of public behaviour open to women who wish to be taken seriously, versus men.
Listen. I’m a polite Canadian woman. I fear offending. I’m not especially brave. (And may not be very funny, either.) I prefer to be liked. I can’t help worrying as I push publish on this post. But I’m going to push it anyway.
I’m home. And I’m tired. But that’s not news. I’m living in a blur of present moments that vanish behind me, and I’m not doing a great job of keeping track. To every thing there is a season. This seems not to be the season of reflection and stillness, and I’m in serious need of such things. That’s why I’m glad for the glancing moments of reflection & stillness provided by this blog.
I had eight events in eight days, plus teaching, plus children, plus travel. This morning I got up early and went to my spin & weights class for the first time in four weeks. It wasn’t hard getting there, it wasn’t even hard being there, but I hit a point during the lifting and swinging of the kettle bells when I realized that I’d crossed some physical line. I had to take a brief break. “You went pale,” one of my friends said. I knew it, too. I was able to come back after a swig of water and continue, but I didn’t push hard, because I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
Kevin works in Toronto on Mondays, so back home, I had the morning routine to hum through. Greet the already awake, yoga-practicing daughter, wake the eldest, start making breakfast. Around 7:38 there came a great stomping from upstairs. Crap, I forgot to wake Fooey. She doesn’t need to be up at 7:15, but she likes to be up at 7:15, and insists on being woken; but I don’t like waking her unnecessarily early. So. Was it forgetting on my part, or making a wise parenting decision that she should sleep longer? I wasn’t even sure myself. But she sure was sure.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Stomp, stomp, stomp.
“I hate those kinds of eggs.”
“You forgot about me.”
“You didn’t even make me hot chocolate. You don’t even know what I like.”
Some long while later I said, thinking I would drill into the heart of what seemed to be the issue, “I know I’ve been gone a lot. But I’m home again now.”
“And you’re already making mistakes.”
Instant reply. Articulate. True. She’s smart. And she’s cutting right to the core of my feelings of weakness and doubt.
If you think parenting is about being the adult in the situation, well, you’re absolutely right. It is. And I was the adult in the situation, and I simply apologized again, hugged her again, promised again to do my best, and life goes on. But on the inside, in that moment, it felt like she’d touched on a pain I could never fix. And I thought, parenting is also about this. It’s about feeling pain, and calmly carrying the pain to the kitchen where you go on loading the dishwasher.
“What can I do to make you feel better?” I asked her.
“Don’t be late to pick me up from violin lessons,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, and then, after mentally running through my list of recent failings: “I’ve never been late to pick you up from violin.”
“And you’d better not be today,” she replied.
She’s missed me most vocally, while I’ve been away. And she is the child who seems least comforted and assured by my efforts to comfort and assure—that I’m here, and all is well. Maybe I can’t because I’m not sure, either, that I’m here and that all is well.
I’m here. I mean, I am. I’m here.
I think she will love these photos.
But I’m tired, as I said. And I’ve been in a strange, performative, public space that’s kept me on the alert, energized, and apart from them, kept me occupied with concerns unrelated to hot chocolate and violin lessons and morning wake-up times. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I did forget about her this morning. At 7:15AM, I forgot that she insists on being woken, and maybe she insists on being woken because it assures her that she is remembered and therefore loved.
This isn’t what I’d intended to write about when I sat down just now. I wanted to write about the weekend, with its whirlwind of events. I’ve been to the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo, and to Books & Brunch in Uxbridge, and both were memorable and special events, and I would like to write about them sometime. But we don’t always get to choose what wants to be written. And I guess it’s fitting that I’m writing about this instead, because, yes, I’m home again. I’m here, now.
It’s that eternal present in which I’m existing. In order to be very much present, I have to be very much present. Leaving room for little else, past & future.
And in today’s eternal present, oh, how I don’t want to be late for violin lessons.
This is good. I’ve got the third load of laundry already spinning in the drier, I’ve swiped mud and leaves and dog fur off the floor with a rag, focusing on a few critical areas, and I’ve been through every room and soccer bag and countertop looking for dirty socks, library books, and notices from school. The house is in good shape and everything looks under control. My family is awesome!
I still haven’t seen the kids. I can’t believe I have to go out and teach almost as soon as they’re home after school, but we’ll get through it. It’s a PD day on Friday, so we’ll have time to reacquaint ourselves before this weekend’s events take me away from home again. (It’s the Wild Writers Festival here in Waterloo, and I’m going to Uxbridge to read with Frances Itani at Blue Heron’s Books & Brunch).
I had a lot of fun yesterday evening. I did not win. The prize went to Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. I’d expected her book to win, and therefore did not approach the event with any expectations of my own, aside from the desire to be intensely present, open, and filled with gratitude at being witness to this moment in time. I was so grateful to have a ceremony to attend, no matter the outcome. All of my publishing people were with me from House of Anansi, my agent Hilary, and Kevin too. We went out for a feast afterward too. It felt like the moment had been marked, when all was said and done.
I do like to mark the moment. So thank you, thank you, those who helped me mark this one. I am blessed.
I’m glad to be home.
I had a thought while sorting laundry in the basement, just now. I thought: “this hasn’t been life-changing.” Then I wondered what that meant, and what exactly “it” might refer to. I think I was thinking of the prize and being a finalist. It isn’t life-changing, not in the way we think of things as being life-changing, and I wonder, would it have been life-changing to have won? I’m not convinced. Maybe it’s because I do not wish or want my life to be changed. Maybe it’s because I’m certain that prizes do not define any of us, that to be who we are — more precisely, who we want to be — is a constant commitment that is poorly served by reliance on external recognition. The peak moment fades. We go on, you know. We do.
I think life is as it is, and I am who I am, no matter what scenes I move through or what clothes I’m wearing. Don’t misunderstand, please: It’s been loads of fun. I take none of it for granted, and I’ve relished every opportunity to be here now. I’ve met or been reacquainted with many many many writers, and have had many memorable conversations, be they funny, happy, silly, serious, insightful, kind-hearted or all of the above. I feel a part of the “class of 2014.”
Now I want to get back to the work of writing another book. I want to get back to discipline and routine, family and friends, soccer and music. That’s not contradictory, I think, I hope.
PS Calgary’s Wordfest produced an audio play of the first chapter of Girl Runner. It’s beautiful. If you want to hear Aggie’s voice, young and old, listen here.
I’m in Toronto.
The Weather Network informs me that it is 12 degrees, feels like 10, with a mix of sun and cloud expected today. When I turn my head and look out the window, I can see highway and cars travelling past in an endless stream; and the Redpath sugar factory. I had a reading last night in Burlington, with the other finalists for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, and we’re reading together again tonight here in Toronto at Harbourfront. I’ll be back for more readings/panels on Saturday and Sunday.
This morning, I had breakfast with my French editor, a graceful and down-to-earth woman, which is an unusual combination, I think. I myself am down-to-earth but not so graceful; or else, I aim for grace and perhaps lose the down-to-earthyness. Who knows, this may be a completely inaccurate look in the mirror. I am looking in an actual mirror right now and a woman with tired eyes looks back at me, smile lines around her currently unsmiling mouth, hair unkempt.
I feel in the process of a transition (isn’t one always, though?). I feel that what is happening right now, on this fall tour, is that I am finding a way to say goodbye not only to my character, Aganetha, and to Girl Runner, but to the sound of my own voice talking on and on about my character and my book. What a pleasure it will be to escape into a new fictional world, to hear from new fictional characters, to listen to voices other than my own. I’m talking myself back into the desire — the need — for quiet, for the life inside the mind.
This is all very out here, this time of publicity. Publicity = Public. I put myself out into public on this blog, of course, but that feels different (although perhaps it shouldn’t). It feels under my control (though, again, perhaps it shouldn’t). When I write these posts, I imagine that no one is reading them. Which is how I write fiction too: privately. But neither is meant to stay private; I don’t write to keep it to myself. And then what was private becomes public. And then, well, what does the private person do with herself, out in public, the person accustomed to living so entirely inside her head?
Sometimes, during my travels this fall, I’ve heard myself speaking out loud to myself; not always kindly. Critiquing a performance. Critiquing, even, a passing exchange, as stupid or graceless or aloof or too familiar; there is no balance to my judgement.
Here is the truth about being a writer. There are seemingly infinite opportunities for humiliation. These are cut with nano-second bursts of awesomeness, when the stars align and all possibilities seem to hover within reach. The awesomeness will promptly be extinguished by a new opportunity for humiliation, or, less dramatically, another awkward encounter into which one wanders, or perhaps causes. This can make a person feel delusional. But being a writer is about sustaining delusions, I think; or put more kindly, it’s about having faith in the imaginary. It’s about believing in something that does not yet exist, and willing it into existence. It’s believing in one’s capacity to do the work, and sustaining that belief even at the darkest moments. It’s that breath that keeps the flame alive.
So I’m trying to remind myself to be kind. To speak kindly when speaking out loud to myself in airport bathrooms and fast-falling elevators. The tone of the inner voice makes a difference to one’s inner life, the life going on behind the tired eyes in the mirror. It’s not delusional to be kind. It’s important. Also, it’s grounding, and I need grounding when I’m away from home, away from all of the things that keep me rooted: the routines, the children, the laundry, the carefully constructed and thoroughly loved mess of my whole life.
I’m in Vancouver.
The Weather Network tells me it’s 14 degrees, feels like 13, with 20-30 mm of rain expected to begin at 5:50PM, which coincidentally is around the time I’ll be taxiing to tonight’s event, a fundraiser at Vancouver House with Joseph Boyden.
Today may go down in my memory as one of the more surreal; if, that is, I can remember any of it. I’ve been having trouble sleeping on this trip. It was well after 1AM when my body finally shut down, and my alarm went off at 4:15AM. I roused myself, finished stuffing things into my bag (didn’t think it was all going to fit for a moment there), and caught a shuttle from the Banff Centre to the Calgary airport. It was too dark to say a proper goodbye to the mountains.
I slept on the shuttle, like someone who had been drugged rather than like a normal dozing human being. Off the shuttle, I felt delusional from exhaustion, wandering the airport, trying to behave like a responsible adult who understood self-check-in machines and how to attach luggage stickers and where to stand in line. I was randomly selected for the full-body pat-down, which, frankly, bothered me not at all. On the plane I slept that drugged sleep again, surfacing to see on the TV screen in the seat-back next to mine, live footage from Ottawa, where shots had been fired inside the Parliament buildings. A reservist killed at the war memorial for the unknown soldier. A gunman killed too. Baffled Canadians taking cellphone footage. Streets shut down.
There is nothing to be said about this that I feel qualified to say.
I can’t really connect with my emotions on the subject. It sounds trite to express sadness. But I am sad.
When we landed in Vancouver, I realized it was only 9AM here. The hotel generously found me a room. I slept the drugged sleep, roused myself, ate a burger for lunch and watched soccer in a sports bar. I texted with my family while eating, which made me feel less lonely. And then I went for a run on the seawall. Running is hard, it’s always hard, but it works. I feel better.
Kevin is sending me texts and photos from home: right now, my kids are playing music together in our living-room. My brother Karl is recording them. CJ is singing into a mic. The girls are playing ukuleles. And Albus is tapping out chords on the piano. It’s like my dream family come to life. Only I wish I were there to see it.
But I have seen Karl Ove Knausgaard–twice. First when checking in, and then when getting off the elevator in my running gear. Neither time did I fangirl him. It took some restraint.
I feel like I’ve been awake for days.
I need a short nap before putting my Little Black Dress and heading out to a party. Nothing about this day feels concrete, feels like I can dig my fingers into it and find the pulse. I’m oddly removed. I was running on the seawall an hour ago. I flew over the mountains this morning. I’m here now. I’m here, now.
PS This is the photo Kevin sent me of the kids, playing music together. Sorry. It’s very very tiny. It seems fitting: this is as close as I can get. Home feels far away, right now.
I’m in Banff.
The Weather Networks says it’s 17, feels like 16, which could also be described as “perfect.” I’ve been here since Saturday, late afternoon. I probably should have mentioned it sooner. But I’ve been stunned into silence by the mountains. There are mountains everywhere. It would be no exaggeration to claim that the first evening I was here, I was pulling out my phone to take photos of mountains every few steps.
It was like, hey, wow, holy crap that’s an awesome mountain right there!
Awesome mountain! Right there!
Take photo. Text to husband.
Turn head an inch and begin walking. Stop. Holy crap, another freaking mountain! Like, right there!
I mean, seriously! Look at that mountain!
Take photo. Text to husband.
When it seemed my husband had received enough mountain photos, I widened my range of recipients. If you haven’t gotten one yet, don’t worry, it’s on its way.
Morning mountain outside bedroom window.
For example, I texted the mountain that’s out my bedroom window to my 13-year-old. Let me rephrase that. I texted a mere photo of said mountain, not mountain itself.
“You should climb that, Mom,” he texts back.
It’s steeper than you think, I reply.
I mean, it’s sheer bloody rock, so far as I can tell. And I have a wobbly kneed fear of heights issue. I also read, with over-much attention and avidity, the section in my Banff Centre guide, provided for me in my room, on local wildlife. It’s a long section with many useful details that set my imagination into overdrive. Walking between buildings after dark, I find myself on the lookout for cougars. I know it’s irrational. But cougars. Mountain lions. What’s not to fear? I’ve noted, too, the signs posted around campus reminding us to keep “three bus lengths” between ourselves and any elk we might see. “Do not approach.” “Was not planning to, thanks.” Apparently there was a grizzly on the other side of Tunnel Mountain, blocking the path today. A grizzly. Tunnel Mountain? The one recommended as a nice stroll with a great view at the top? I might have to pass. Who knew I was such a wimp? Well, now we all do.
The thing is, I don’t need to trespass on Grizzly land to get a great view. Let me text you a photo of the great view I get just by turning my head.
In fact, it’s a bit unnerving, all the great views. I ate lunch with the writer Kim Thuy today, and she was saying there’s such as thing as suffering from too much beauty, and your head explodes; metaphorically, I presume. I tried looking up the syndrome back in my room. The search led me to a Tumblr site called “Too Much Beauty,” which mainly featured young male actors I didn’t recognize because I’m not a young female teenager. So that seems a dead end.
I wonder, could there be such a thing? Could one suffer from too much beauty, staggered by the immensity, the vast non-human scale of these complex rock creations towering over us, former seabeds embedded with ancient tropical coral reefs? How to write anything of consequence while looking at something so old, so immense, so austerely implacably beautiful?
I am therefore typing this in my room, facing a blank wall. It’s peaceful. I’m working well in here. I’m sipping a healthful beet/carrot/ginger concoction that I pray will dislodge my nasty cough so I can sleep through the night, once again. Truth be told, the free drinks, which seem to abound wherever writers crop up, have not been helping, either with the cough or the sleep.
But the beauty. It’s out there, waiting for me, whenever I’m ready to face it.
P.S. Never take a selfie with a mountain. There is no point. Mountain wins.