It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
While leading a recent yoga class, my friend Kasia said, These are beautiful times and we’re lucky to be alive right now.
I appreciate that perspective.
It’s easy to get bogged down in how hard everything is. How the things that used to be simple to do now require pre-planning and masks and protocols. How our bodies can feel like disease vectors. How familiar I’m becoming with my own physical manifestations of anxiety (tight chest, buzzing brain, inability to alight).
But I don’t deny that what Kasia says may also be true: that these are beautiful times and we are lucky to be alive right now.
Because change feels possible. Because it feels like we’re seeing with new eyes. Because we are freed from what it was like before to maybe figure out how we can make what comes after better. Because our own strengths and weaknesses are more visible. Because we need to know what’s broken in order to fix it. Because we can’t keep building on the same broken foundations. Because we’re being forced to identify our core values, our reasons for being, and what we really care deeply about.
I’m not pretending this is an ideal time to live through, or a fun time. I’m not pretending everyone’s equally affected, either. It’s a scary time, a discordant time, a time when we’re required to hold dissonant information, and altogether too much of it, in our heads all at once.
The interiority of this time has freed me to write a lot. One day, during a meditation, I heard the words create and destroy used together, and my brain suddenly couldn’t peel them apart. It was the strangest thing. It was like the two words, apparent opposites, had fused in my mind. Create/destroy. I saw how interconnected those states of being are, so tightly bound that, in truth, one cannot exist without the other. We tend to posit that one is good and the other is bad. But if both belong to each other, that duality of judgement is rendered inconsequential.
In every end, a new beginning. But also, in every beginning, an end. To make something is to unmake something else.
When I write, I create/destroy.
We are in create/destroy right now. Is it a beautiful time? It’s not a time of symmetry and balance, if that’s what beauty means to you; it’s a time of extremes. Our house is very quiet. The world is roiling. But if beauty means potential (no matter how far from realization), if beauty means truth (no matter how painful), if beauty means invention (create/destroy), then now, right now, is beautiful.
These are beautiful times and I am lucky to be alive right now.
It isn’t summer anymore. We’ve leaped into fall. A friend told me she was trying to figure out how to preserve her summer-self; and if I could, I would bottle the kids’ playfulness and super-summer energy, and that hat-wearing blissfully-at-peace-vibe I’m getting from Kevin in these photos. For myself, I’d be content to stand in the lake taking photos.
But in all seriousness, I do find myself taking time, post-summer, to wade in the water. By which I mean, to step into the flow that surrounds me at any given moment of the day. On Friday evening, for example, CJ and I went outside to figure out why there was an enormous transport truck blocking traffic at our corner (a driver lost in the uptown construction woes, we surmised) — once outside, we decided to go for a night walk around the block, just the two of us, and there was the moon, a sliver shrouded in mist, and we walked and he talked, and talked, and talked. In all the busyness, all the exhaustion, there is time for this, and many more tiny moments that come calling, quietly, for attention.
I’ve had a most beautiful weekend. Later on that same Friday night, just after I’d gone to bed, I got the phone call I’ve been anticipating: my sister-in-law was in labour. I leaped out of bed, gathered a few items, including my camera, and drove my fogged-up car down the street. And here, in their quiet house, time slowed down, or lifted, suspended itself to wait patiently for the work that was being done, and before dawn, the emergent babe took her first beautiful breath.
Being with someone in labour is like inhabiting the most meditative space I can imagine. I am honoured to have been invited to share, again, in this experience.
Later that same day, now Saturday, I dragged myself from a sinking nap, dressed in soccer gear, and went with our family to celebrate the end of Albus’ and Kevin’s soccer season — pizza followed by a just-for-fun game: the boys’ team v parents/siblings/coaches. It had been raining, the grass was muddy, and I was out-schooled and outrun by the 14-year-old boys, and yet, wasn’t it fun to play? Something else, I just remembered: in the middle of the night of the birth, my brother and I were suddenly famished, and we ate granola bars covered in chocolate that tasted like heaven.
Yesterday, waking after sleeping through the night, for 11 hours straight (!), the flow flowed on. Fort in the living-room. Processing photos. Friends to play. Kids climbing over the back fence. I baked a fruit crisp and listened to the radio. A run in the park with the eldest girl (hill intervals — she wanted to do hill intervals!). We ate supper all together. The floors did not get vacuumed. All together, we played backyard volleyball until it got too dark. There was time, there was time. Even though I also had to do class prep for today, and answer emails, and get organized for the trip to Spain: I leave tomorrow. I hope to step into a different flow when I walk out the door for six days of being an author, all on my own. I plan to travel old-school, with a notebook and pen rather than a laptop. So, no blogging from abroad. But lots of observations, I hope, lots of words on the page, descriptions, mysterious scenes, tangible building blocks for more stories to come.
Work that is not work, but play.
Yesterday on birthday eve: still 6 years old. Count ’em.
A big day here at our house: the baby of our family is seven years old! He requested a “soccer party,” so we’ve accommodated with indoor field time and friends invited this evening. It was one of his few requests. Last week, he tried to compile a birthday wish list. He carefully numbered a lined piece of paper with 1. 2. 3. 4. and so on all the way to about 20., then started to fill in the blanks. Sometime thereafter I discovered him moaning and groaning in the kitchen, staring at his wish list, stabbing at it with a pencil, tearing his hair out. “What’s happening here?” I asked. “I can’t think of anything else that I want!” he cried. He had written down one item at the top of the list. Soccer stickers. “Don’t worry about it,” I suggested. So he didn’t. And this morning he opened his very few, very modest, almost exclusively soccer-related gifts this morning (including stickers), and he appeared to be thrilled.
Also on birthday eve: CJ inexplicably poses with mini-stick and Suzi-dog, while balancing on one leg.
We’ve been reminiscing about the morning of his birth. He was born at home, but only Kevin and I were here. The other kids were away overnight with Grandma Linda and Grandma Alice. We called them to share the news. They had three questions: boy or girl? name? and does he have red hair? We said, yes, he has red hair. Ha! We continued to look for evidence of red hair for the next several months, until we finally realized that no, this one was different.
Fooey looks through photo albums: these were taken that summer when she and CJ went to dance camp together, and CJ was the only boy.
This morning I observed that if I’d only had one child, I would have thought I was very good at training children to fall asleep. Albus was a champion napper and sleeper. Then AppleApple turned up and wrecked those illusions. And if I’d only had two children, I would have thought I was very good at giving birth on my due date. Both A & A were born exactly on time. But then Fooey arrived 15 days early (and CJ further blew the illusion of control and showed up 10 days late). And if I’d only had three children, I would have thought we could only produce red haired offspring. But then CJ arrived and proved that, basically, there can be no assumptions in parenthood.
They are who they are. And he really is who he is. Wonderfully so.
On birthday morning. Seven years old.
We all love him, just as he is. Seven years old. Isn’t that a great age!
PS He’s going to let me cut his hair on May 3rd. Why May 3rd, you may ask? Because, he will tell you, his outdoor soccer season starts on May 4th.
Today was a good day.
We had a birth in the family. As of 9:40 this morning (Friday), my brother and sister-in-law are parents of a gorgeous baby boy. I got the phone call at 4:15 AM, and went over to help doula for the birth, which happened at home, in a warm and calm space, almost peacefully, I would say. There are lots of beautiful and memorable things that I get to do, and this is one of the most extraordinary. Being witness to the birth of new life.
I’m getting weepy just thinking about it.
Maybe also because I’m running on slightly less sleep than usual. And because my little brother is a papa.
I’d promised not to disturb the new family this evening when stopping by to pick up the camera I’d forgotten, but there was a new baby in the house. The kids so so so wanted to meet their cousin. He wasn’t even eleven hours old yet, we calculated. They squealed in the car on the ride home over the cuteness, the tinyness, the babyness.
Today, a good day. A breathtaking day.
When I was growing up, I planned to be a writer. I would say that I dreamed of being a writer, but that’s not entirely accurate. I did dream of it, but not in the fantastical way I dreamed of owning a horse farm or of living in a straw bale house off the grid with a homeschooled brood of offspring. Instead, I planned for it. I would become a writer. I remember a very particular moment of clarity, in my parents’ house, in the bathroom (where as a self-absorbed teenager I spent many an hour gazing into the mirror), when I declared to myself that this was what I would do: I would write books.
I aimed myself at the goal with relative consistency after graduating from high school, though I floundered around a bit, seeking the right degree (theatre? music? playwriting? history?), and it took me until I was 19 (almost 20) to declare a major and work away at it like a person possessed: English literature, of course. At night, I would compose poems on my pre-Windows laptop, eyes closed, drumming out the day’s events through my fingertips and transforming the swerving emotions and experiences into imagery, metaphor, allusion, relishing the splendor of language.
I am often asked for advice on how to become a writer. Write, is what I say. And read. Write because you love to. Write what you love. Write as often as you can, doesn’t matter what: dream journal, cooking blog, poetry scribbled in the margins. And read read read for the love of it, too.
Reading for a degree in English literature can kind of kill the love, for a few time-crunched years, pencil clutched to underline key sentences and scribble down themes for future essays and exams. Nevertheless, reading widely, reading work you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, can only be a good thing in a cumulative way. I finished the degree, applied for grants, and went happily off, like a heat-seeking missile, to do graduate work, also in English literature. I was thinking I would do a doctorate and secure myself a job. But things were looking pretty grim for doctoral candidates in English literature back then, and I swiftly grasped that there was only one valid reason to go on in my studies: if I really loved it, then yes, I should. Otherwise, it was time to thank academia for my two excellent degrees, and figure out how to become that writer I’d planned to be.
Skip ahead. Skip over the boring bits, the hours and days and months and years spent writing and reading, and, of course, believing. At the age of 29, my first book was published. It took another eight years to write a second book worth publishing. By that point, I’d lived out the reality of being a writer. I’d been home with young children for years. I’d found paid work here and there as a freelancer and “mommy blogger,” which afforded me babysitting, which afforded me writing time.
I kept circling around the question: do I want to be a writer?
Wrong question, as it turns out; misleading, distracting. I already knew the answer: yes, I wanted to be a writer, and had proven that I could be. The real dilemma, the one much harder to face, and more personally painful to articulate, was whether I wanted to continue being a practicing writer if I couldn’t make a living at it. And the answer to that, I began to recognize, was no.
Last fall, I decided to switch career paths. I applied to midwifery school. (I also worked frantically on a new novel, feeling the urgency of time ticking down.) This wasn’t a decision taken quickly or lightly. I knew what it would mean: I wouldn’t be writing books, at least for the length of the degree, possibly longer. A book is the product of time and space and does not simply appear in a burst of inspiration; it’s a long-term gamble, is what it is. That’s what being a writer is, too. And my appetite for gambling was waning. This does not seem strange to me. The timing seemed ripe for a change. My youngest would be going to school full-time. I’d put my eggs in one basket for two decades, practicing a particular craft, gaining experience and technical skill, and earning praise from peers, without ever making a living at it. In most professions, this would be a bizarre and depressing outcome: imagine a doctor with two decades of training being unable to earn a living. It would be a sign of personal failure; this would have to be an exceptionally bad doctor. But in the arts, it’s practically expected, and we all understand that, even if we don’t speak openly about it. It’s the price of admission. You get to be a writer, but it’s for love, not money.
I love writing. But I wanted to support my family. I wanted to give us some stability, to take the pressure off my husband as sole provider, and, yes, to experience the reward of working in exchange for a paycheque. It was time to a get a job-job (or, more precisely, to train for a new career). I was excited and I was ready for a change — eager, even.
And then the novel I’d been working on sold here in Canada. This happened literally on the very same day I received my acceptance letter from midwifery school. I was kind of a mess.
It felt like the intersection of two possible lives. In one, I was a writer, still doing work that would seem relatively unstable to anyone with a job-job, but many steps closer to earning a living. In this version, I would be building on the foundation I’d worked so hard to lay. In the other possible life, I was starting from scratch, a student in the process of becoming a midwife, also a long-held dream. The decision was agonizing. It took weeks of “discernment” (read: long circular conversations with friends and family; thanks, friends and family), and I questioned myself repeatedly after turning down my place in the program. But there was fresh work to be done. I rolled up my sleeves and revised my new novel. I prepared for my first teaching job.
Summer trundled by. I loved sitting my office and working all day. It felt right, as it always has. It feels right.
At last year’s Wild Writer’s Festival, I was on a panel that included Alison Pick, and she was talking about her decision to work as a writer. She recalled that she’d just been hired at a job-job when her first book sold, so she was able to turn down the job-job and keep writing, and she’s never looked back. Every time she’d start thinking, uh oh, I’m going to need a job-job, something new would come along.
As far I’m concerned, that’s living the dream. Keeping at bay that wolf at the door.
So I’m publicly updating the plan I had as a teenager staring at herself in the mirror. Seems about time. What I’m planning seems no more unlikely, delusional, or ambitious than the original dream, which was, I’ll be the first to admit, highly unlikely, delusional, and ambitious. So here goes. Dare I say it out loud? I want to be a writer whose living is sustained by her writing. I want to be a writer who keeps getting to sit in her office and write, day in, day out, day in, day out. Oh, the places I’ll go in my mind.
photo credit: Nancy Forde
So, this fall is shaping up to be very writerly and literary, with plenty of events and launches to look forward to, in addition to which I’m excited about a few other things too and I’ve decided to tell you about the whole kit and kaboodle.
Thursday, Sept. 5: Mark your calendars and come if you can. I’ll be reading at the Starlight in Waterloo for the Eden Mills Writers Festival, and here’s the lineup, musical and otherwise: Jim Guthrie, Bidiniband, and I Am Robot And Proud, with readings by Dave Bidini and me. Tickets $14, doors open at 8pm.
Thursday, Sept. 12: Think me good thoughts from 6-9pm! I’ll be teaching my first official creative writing class.
Friday, Sept. 13: It’s the launch of Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding, at 323 Richmond St. E., Toronto. I’ve got an essay in this anthology, and will be presenting my comical/tragical breastfeeding stories along with Sarah Campbell, Rachel Epp Buller, and Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This. Tickets $20, 8-11pm, with book included, plus wine and munchies.
Satuday, Sept. 21: I’m tentatively booked to read at Word on the Street in Kitchener from my essay published in this summer’s New Quarterly (and also in the brand-new anthology How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting, which will be hot off the presses). 4-5pm at the Walper Hotel. Free.
Sometime in late September/early October: I’ve been invited to doula (offer labour support) for my brother and sister-in-law, who are expecting their first baby. I’m so excited. Anyone else giving birth and wanting support? Consider me. For real. I also take excellent birth photos.
Thursday, Oct. 3: It’s the launch party for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenting, and Loss. I’ll be reading from my essay in the collection, but you can also get a sneak preview of it in this summer’s edition of The New Quarterly. The launch is being held in conjunction with The New Quarterly, at their own launch of this year’s Wild Writers Festival. Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo. Free! Doors open at 7:30pm.
Saturday, Oct. 5: Run for the Toad! This will be my third year racing the 25km trail run. I’ve nursed several soccer injuries this summer, first the ankle, now the head injury, which have cut into training time, so I think this time around I’ll simply celebrate being there and doing my best to complete the course.
Saturday, Nov. 9: Wild Writers Festival! Do mark your calendars for this event, held right here in Waterloo, and now in its seccond year. Last year’s festival was wonderful, and this year I’ve been asked to lead a panel of amazing fiction writers. Visit the website for more details (the festival runs from Nov. 8-10).
And that’s all for now, folks.