There are so many moments in a week.
On Thursday, I felt like an adventurous mother, pulling off the feat of getting the kids organized and out the door by 9AM, with picnic lunch, full gas tank, sweaters, and gear for the beach. We drove two hours to a park I’d never been to, my hope for a fun day only dimming slightly when a) we had to stop by the side of the road for a bathroom emergency and b) when the sky went dark and rain spattered our windshield. The GPS, with its insistent female voice, kept sending us on a route contradictory to the directions I’d decided on independently, so with Fooey’s strident encouragement — “Trust your instincts, Mom!” — I turned it off. We found our friends’ campsite, ate lunch together, and tramped up enormous dunes to find Lake Huron in a wild state, more ocean than lake. The sun came out. The kids swam. I reclined in the sand with the wind whipping my hair. And I was able to get us organized and back home in time for soccer practice.
Then Friday. I met Kevin for lunch so we could discuss finances. We ate at a Korean place. Toward the end of the meal, I saw a woman standing and staring into the restaurant through the glass for a long time. “I think a character is coming in,” I said. She was elderly, squat and stooped and clothed in many layers, and seemed a rather unlikely patron. “What should I try here?” she asked us, shuffling directly to our table. “What do you like?” I said. “Oh, vegetables. As long as they’re cooked so I can get ’em down.” “Ummm….the food’s quite spicy,” I hedged. “Oh, I like the Chinese food.” “Well, this is Korean, it’s not really the same.” “How about that one with the egg?” [pointing to the colourful menu items posted on the wall] “Yes, the bi bim bap is very good,” said Kevin. “But does it have VEGETABLES?” “Umm…”
We got the story from the server, a young man with dyed pale orange hair who told us that the woman comes frequently, asks patrons for recommendations, sits at a table, but never orders. He hates to ask her to leave.
Then Friday, arriving home from lunch. I caught a strong rather strange sweet smell when I opened the front door. No one appeared. A large bath towel was on the kitchen floor in front of the fridge. DJ was licking the floor. It was definitely a what the hell? moment. Evidence was everywhere. A mostly empty container of tamarind sauce open on the counter. Brown spatters. Clean-up had clearly been attempted. I impressed myself (if no one else) by muttering and speaking firmly rather than yelling. Maybe I’ve grown. The next forty minutes were spent on hands and knees discovering new patches of stickiness, and then opening the fridge and discovering the accident had occurred inside there. Well, the fridge needed to be cleaned, I reasoned. I called the culprit in, but I did not yell. Instead I concluded this session by sending several bitter texts to Kevin, as if he were somehow to blame. “Just spent last 45 minutes cleaning tamarind sauce off floor and inside fridge. Lid loose!” “These are the perks of working from home, of which you are spared.” “I don’t think I will meet for lunch again anytime soon.”
He did not text back. I think this was wise of him.
Finally, this morning. Chilly, rainy, windy. I am running. I’d left the house saying I would go 15-20 kilometres, tops. I’d left the house not in the mood for a long run, not at all. Around 15 kilometres, I’m flying through a favourite wooded path quite far from home. I’m thinking, this is why I resist going on long runs — because once I’m out here, I’m all in. Distance breaks down resistance, changes my brain, changes my understanding of pain and suffering, I think. 15-20 kilometres tops?! Ha! I’m feeling way too good. I cover 25 instead, and maintain pace. I think this is how my brain works on writing too, that the challenge is jumping in, because I know it will be hard, it will take me far away, it will hurt, but I know too that once I’m in, I’ll be gone. I’ll only want to go further. And, like running, good writing breaks down resistance, breaks down the self-conscious mind and pulls me into its flow. And I’m away.
I can’t always be away. Maybe I have to come back and clean up the tamarind sauce and be surrounded by shouting voices of children and get filled up with energy and anxiety and stories, so that I can go out again. And go long.
“Who dumped the clean laundry onto the basement floor? Who? Who?” [Voice of rising rage.]
“I had to find my soccer shorts! If you’d just fold it, I wouldn’t have to dig around.”
“If you’d just fold it … [muttered]. Get down here and put it back into the basket.”
“If you’d just fold it …”
“When exactly am I folding this laundry?”
“Last night I was at your soccer game until 9 o’clock.”
“And I was in my office working all day today. Do you know my earning potential?”
“Neither do I! But I’ll tell you my earning potential while I’m folding laundry.”
“Someday, you’ll have to all do your own laundry. You could each have your own laundry hamper in your own room that you’re in charge of.”
“Nice. My own hamper.” Pause for thought. “Won’t that waste a lot of water?”
“You wouldn’t do laundry every day. You’d do it maybe once a week.”
“You’re right. That’s not going to work. The sports clothes! They stink. You can’t wash those once a week.”
“Maybe we could all fold our own laundry.”
“Maybe. Or maybe you could take turns folding laundry. Everyone could have a laundry night. It’s hard to find your own laundry in the basket when it’s all mixed up.”
Fast-forward to 8:30PM, same night, post-soccer practice, post-late supper, post-bedtime snack. Carrie folds two giant baskets of clean laundry at the dining-room table. At the other end of the table, her family enjoys a games night: Settlers of Catan. (Carrie doesn’t enjoy playing games, so this is not quite as unfair a set-up as it sounds.) An hour passes, perhaps more than an hour. The game ends. The laundry is folded, carried to rooms, placed into drawers. Carrie glances into the hamper in the upstairs hallway. It’s already nearly full.
(Solutions, friends? How does your family handle its dirty laundry? Help wanted. xo, Carrie)
Oh summer. Summer summer. Summer! I love you and you are killing me with your demands, with your late nights and early mornings, your travel time spent in highway traffic going to far-flung soccer tournaments, swim meets, and beaches, and I realize how privileged that sounds — and is — but I’ve been to Toronto (twice), Ancaster, London (twice), Kincardine, Ottawa, Sauble Beach, and Kingston in the last five weeks, and if I have to spend another kilometre on the road I might dissolve into genuine rage. Or tears. I might come undone. Oh wait, summer, you’re sending me to Elora tonight for a soccer match in a rainstorm. Okay. I will do it. There’s seems no other way but through.
Summer, there’s more. I know I’m putting this all on you, but I have to tell you. You are killing me with your lack of school. It’s my own fault that I have four children. I take full responsibility for that. But there’s no substitute for school. Despite no lack of planning and foresight, summer, these four children, or some combo thereof, have taken over the house all day long. And for large portions of the evening too. I’ve started going to bed before some of them do. They are right this second making themselves elaborate lunches in the kitchen. I can’t even discuss the state of the living-room.
And the laundry. I weep.
I have told my four children to leave me alone for twenty minutes, which, frankly, seems a lot to ask given all the elaborate lunch-making currently underway. I am going to my office, I cried, and you must pretend that I am not here for twenty minutes!
I see my time is nearly up.
I am about to get in the car and drive to another set of swim lessons.
I have a message from a publisher, waiting, regarding a book cover. I have a magazine pitch to work up on a story I’m really excited to dig into — on women in sports. I have an essay waiting to be finished. Not to mention the book-writing writing that is on-going, and that I try to make an every-day event, but which is suddenly — summer, this really is on you — a rare occasion, shoved into corners, typing away in a car at a soccer field behind a high school in Elora. You know? It isn’t ideal. I don’t think it’s conducive to top flight work, summer.
And what of the lounging with gin & tonics, summer? Can you slide that in somewhere, please? Could you give me an evening out with my husband to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary? Could you let me lie around and read a book?
I’m putting this all on you, summer, but I get it, I do. I’m the one setting the course, running the race, putting in the miles. While you while away. So maybe it’s not you; maybe it’s me. Whatever, as the kids say. What’s clear is this: one of us is killing the other.
completely unrelated photos of SPRING!
8:40 PM. Home from AppleApple’s first outdoor soccer game of the season. Kevin off to his soccer game.
Me, at dining-room table, eating a late supper, Business section of the Globe open before me (nothing else available, clearly).
Him, two bowls of bedtime-snack-cereal consumed and teeth brushed, arrives at my side.
Me, hugging him, while trying to finish eating: “It’s bedtime. Would you like me to read to you, or I could play the ukulele for you, or would you like AppleApple to read you some more Harry Potter?”
Him, no hesitation: “Harry Potter!”
Her: “I can read you a bedtime story, Mom.”
Me: “Okay. You can start while I’m loading the dishwasher.”
Her: “It’s about this dog and a boy, and the boy can read the dog’s mind.”
Her: Reading out loud, stumbling over words like “array” and “campaign.”
Me: “This book uses a big vocabulary.”
Her: “Can we read in my bed now? I’ve set it up for you.”
Me, awhile later, dishwasher running, pots washed: “Sure.”
Her: “Are you coming, Mom?”
Me: “I just have to … kiss your brother goodnight … tuck in your brother … get a sheet for your brother because his blanket is too hot … tell your sister to brush her teeth ….”
Her: Waiting in a little nest she’s made for us in her bunk.
Me, climbing up: “Do you want me to read to you for a little bit?”
Her: “You can finish the chapter!”
Me: Finishing chapter.
Her: “Now I’ll read.” Stumbling over words. Patiently continuing. Laughing with genuine delight when the dog eats the boy’s pillow.
Me: “Look at the clock, honey.” [9:30 on the dot.] “We have to stop here.”
Her: Bookmarking spot.
Me: “This book really has a lot of big words. But I don’t think it’s actually very well written.”
Her: “I finished all the Magic Treehouse books …”
Me: “And we’ve already read a lot of the really good ones, like Pippi Longstocking, Charlotte’s Web.”
Her: “I’m not going to read Because of Winn Dixie. We’re reading it at school.”
Me: “I’ll bet your sister could recommend some really good books for you to read. She’s read just about everything. Let’s ask her in the morning.”
Us: Goodnight kisses.
Me, back downstairs: “You are not allowed to start reading another Agatha Christie book right now!!!!”
Her, blank-eyed, glancing up at me: “Whaaa?”
Me: “Mark your page and put down the book, or I will take it away from you.”
Me: “You need to go to bed. You’re swimming in the morning!”
Her: Eyes gazing downward on page.
Me: Turning book over.
Her: Sad face (fake).
Us: Hugging goodnight.
Me: Folding laundry, nearly 10 PM.
Him, coming downstairs, plopping into nearby chair: “Mom, what if video games had been invented before books? Do you think that parents would be making their kids play video games instead of reading books?”
Him: “I mean, what makes books better than video games? At least in video games I get to choose what I want to do next. In books, the story stays exactly the same, no matter what.”
Me: Wondering if fundamentally I don’t get how the mind of a nearly-13-year-old boy operates.
Him: “Why is reading for entertainment better than playing a video game?”
Me, launching into it: “I think it’s because reading is creative. You have to see the characters in your mind. You have to make them up using symbols on a page. In a video game, it’s all there in front of you. You’re just viewing it.”
Him: “I mean, I like reading some books. But it seems like they’re less creative than video games because you can’t make any choices.”
Me: “Well, a book is a linear creation. But even a video game is limited by its own parameters. And in really good books, everything isn’t neat and tidy, and you have to figure out for yourself why characters do certain things, and you wonder afterwards what might happen next.”
Him: “I don’t do that.”
Me: “You don’t wonder why a character did something? Or wonder what might happen next?”
Me, climbing onto soapbox: “Also so many video games are extremely violent. You’re in a fantasy world where you can’t empathize with the people you’re killing. And you basically have eternal life.”
Him: “Exactly. It’s a fantasy. That’s what people who play video games want.”
Me: “Sure. I agree with you. Lots of people want the fantasy. Lots of people watch reality television too. It’s easy entertainment. I guess I just don’t really get it.”
Him, sadly: “I’m going to bed now.”
Me, feeling crummy, missing his company, hearing my ponderous long-winded lecture through his ears (have not transcribed entire ponderous long-winded lecture for the sake of brevity and face-saving)
Me, to self: “I’m the worst mother in the world.”
Self, to me: “No you’re not. Don’t get down on yourself. It’s not going to help.”
Me, awhile later, laundry folded, knocking on closed bedroom door, sitting on the end of his bed in the dark: “Maybe we can agree that we don’t quite understand each other’s preferred forms of entertainment. Maybe you can figure out how much time you think is reasonable to spend playing video games, and I’ll figure out how much time I think is reasonable to spend reading books. And then we can talk about other ways to be entertained too.”
Him, quite agreeably: “Ok.”
Ok. Okay? Ok.
After re-reading yesterday’s post, let me rebut myself, point by point.
How do you manage to travel, to run to appointments, to make presentations, and dress professionally, and be brushed and unwrinkled and fresh smelling?
You do your best. Sometimes you fake it. You nap when you can, and drink plenty of water. You remember to smile. You find a good deodorant. You carry floss. You gain a few key pieces in your wardrobe that are trustworthy. You apply makeup, if necessary. You give yourself a break.
How do you exercise and eat well and keep a sharp eye on your children’s needs, both physical and emotional?
You do your best. You don’t get down on yourself if you can’t run as fast as you used to. You go as hard as you can, in the moment. You exercise with friends. You pay attention. You listen. You show up.
How do you clean your house and yard and fold laundry and cook food from scratch, and lovingly tuck your children in at night, and read them bedtime stories?
Forget the house and yard. The dog hair matters less than you think. Do the laundry when you get a chance. Let your husband cook. Make your kids do some chores too. And then you’ll have time to read to them and tuck them into bed most nights. And when you’re not there, they can look after each other, because you’ve taught them well, so be glad about that—plus they relish the freedom of independence, so it’s good for everyone some of the time.
How do you go to the soccer practices and piano lessons and swim lessons and travel tournaments and meets?
You don’t go to them all, and that’s the long and the short of it. You represent as best you can. Sometimes you won’t be able to be there. Support them in other ways. Schedule rides, carpool, ask questions, cheer when you can. This isn’t the end of your world or theirs.
How do you teach classes and welcome students and read essays and comment and mentor and remain open and flexible and funny and never bitter?
You treat this as seasonal work. It isn’t year-round, because you’re not a full-time teacher. If you’re fortunate enough to be asked to teach, it means you’ve reached a stage in your career when you have something to offer. Remember the wonderful teachers who nurtured and inspired you. You’re getting the opportunity to give a bit of that back to others. And you learn a great deal by teaching.
Also, you don’t want to be bitter. So don’t be. Easy as that.
Journal. Run it off. Don’t say yes if you really mean no. This is your life. Don’t sleepwalk, don’t idly wish or wait for someone else to point the way. Take responsibility.
you braid your daughter’s hair
How do you host meals and go to parties and celebrate birthdays and be a good partner?
You drop some things in order to do others. You compromise. This is seasonal too, in a sense. You accept that you can’t go to everything, and so you prioritize. You spontaneously dash out to a movie on a weeknight with your husband. You decide not to play soccer this summer so you can save your head, and suddenly Sunday evenings open up.
How do you meditate and feed your spirit and do yoga and stay fit and healthy of body and of mind?
You do. Because if you don’t, you won’t be you. You get up early. You pray. You read. You practice breathing. It works.
How do you continue to make art that is worthy of being called art?
This you cannot answer. All you know is that there is mystery in making art, and it’s none of your business as the maker to judge it worthy or not worthy of being called art. What you do is this. You begin. You dream. You research. You prepare yourself in a million different ways. And when you’re ready to write, you’ll know, and you’ll make time and space for it (with help from your husband, who is the person who reminds you that you still know how to do this).
Also, you keep short-term goals present in your mind. You make lists. You check them off. It all adds up.
Change. When you make art on the driveway in winter, here is what happens to it over the course of several months.
I would like to speak today about the idea of being, at least in part, a public person. I wonder how others do it. How do you manage to travel, to run to appointments, to make presentations, and dress professionally, and be brushed and unwrinkled and fresh smelling? How do you exercise and eat well and keep a sharp eye on your children’s needs, both physical and emotional? How do you clean your house and yard and fold laundry and cook food from scratch, and lovingly tuck your children in at night, and read them bedtime stories? How do you go to the soccer practices and piano lessons and swim lessons and travel tournaments and meets? How do you teach classes and welcome students and read essays and comment and mentor and remain open and flexible and funny and never bitter? How do you host meals and go to parties and celebrate birthdays and be a good partner? How do you meditate and feed your spirit and do yoga and stay fit and healthy of body and of mind? How do you continue to make art that is worthy of being called art?
I know I set the bar high, and I know it’s me doing the setting of the bar. We all have our (tragic) flaws. Mine may be that I want to do it all, big and small.
I want art on the driveway. I want books in translation. I want to run fast. I want singing. I want fun. I want to braid hair and apply bandaids and hold hands and honour all the stories. I want deep still quiet reflection. I want to stir. I want to comfort. I want invention.
And I’m sitting here in my office with the dogs, slumped on my stool rather than walking on my treadmill, with eyes at half mast and emails unanswered, wondering how exactly to do all of this. Because I really don’t know.
advance reading copy, i.e. not for sale, still needs to be proofread, but looks awfully book-like
And then this arrives in the mail. Seeming to say: well, you’ve done something you wanted to do, woman. Now, enjoy it for a moment. So I sit on the radiator (because I’m cold because it’s still winter, this spring), and I read the first chapter out loud to myself (and the dogs).
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