I stayed up late last night reading a book till the end. And then I got up with my alarm, early, and ran before the cars could take over the streets. It was still and quiet and not all that slippery, with a fresh dusting of snow falling, and a huge full moon.
But then I was tired, and napped after the kids left for school, and I couldn’t wake up for ages. Not recommended. I was dreaming about parenting — and it was clearly an anxiety dream. There are lots of subjects I don’t touch on this blog, for reasons of privacy. I’m not the only “character” in the stories I tell, and my kids, as they grow and change, may have their own opinions about how things are going down — their own interpretations. I remember how annoying it was when I would overhear my mom telling another mom a story about me — I would jump in to proclaim that wasn’t what I said, or not what I’d meant, missing the point that she was embellishing for effect or humour; missing the point, too, that the primacy of my point of view was questionable.
So I’m trying to remember that, now. The primacy of my point of view is questionable. I’ve got in my possession the stories of my children. But they’re not mine, not really. So as we stumble into different territory, as they grow into the more opinionated, complicated, autonomous people they are destined to become, I’m taking care — trying to, that is — not to pin them down according to my view of who they are. I’m training myself to let go, at least a bit. Or maybe a lot, at times.
Right now I’m struggling with something that sounds really basic. I want a certain kid to pick the dirty clothes off the floor and throw them into the laundry hamper in the hallway. I’ve been at this certain kid to do this for, well, weeks. I’ve forced myself not to pick up the clothes myself, letting them fester for days, which bothers me greatly, and bothers the kid not at all. Not at all. When we chat, I find myself bringing the conversation around, relentlessly, to the clothes on the floor. The clothes that seem to say so many things: this kid is over-privileged, hasn’t been given enough responsibility, fails to appreciate the efforts that sustain the well-being of all in this household, refuses to participate in the simplest chores; but mostly, I’ve realized, the clothes seem to say: I don’t care. I don’t care about your rules. I don’t care about you.
In other words, I’ve successfully turned a pile of dirty laundry into a metaphorical mountain of mothering guilt.
More precisely, I’ve turned the dirty clothes on the floor into an indictment of my own parenting, because if the kids are poorly trained at household chores, it’s my doing, not theirs. My anxiety is the lens through which I see the scene: I haven’t taught them right, I’m not moulding them into respectful, hygienic, thoughtful human beings, I’ve spoiled them, and the proof is right there festering away on the floor! And … and … (here’s the greatest anxiety of all) … I’m running out time.
My kids are growing so quickly, changing before my very eyes, growing away from me. Am I doing enough? When they’re unleashed on the world, will they be the kind of people who notice what other people need, who care, who offer to do the dishes, who look out for friends in trouble, who look out for themselves, too, and treat themselves with kindness and compassion, and floss and do yoga? You know what I mean?
This was totally not what I sat down to write this morning.
But parenting. It’s such an enormous responsibility and yet ultimately I feel kind of helpless, so utterly human and fallible as I go about the daily tasks and interactions. I feel sometimes like maybe there’s an ideal parenting script out there in the ether, with perfect words that I’ll never quite manage to speak, at the right time, or in the right amounts.
The thing that keeps me hopeful is that I love my kids, and they know it.
This morning, upon waking from the nap and the anxiety dream, I decided I wouldn’t mention the dirty clothes to said kid again, at least for awhile. I’d like to talk about other things, together. I’d like to let go of what matters to me, just a little bit. Maybe if I can, I will understand better what matters to the kid. Let me listen. Let me listen.
Here’s where I’m spending this week. My favourite part of the photo, above, is CJ’s tiger overseeing the situation (ironically, it’s the part that gets cut out of the photo when this blog is posted online; I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something). I’m marking. That’s what I’m doing. By the end of this evening, I expect to be more than halfway done. (That’s the sound of me knocking on wood.) If all goes as planned, I will finish on Friday. (The knocking is getting louder.)
Maybe then I can fold that basket of clean laundry at the end of the table, which will no doubt have expanded into two wildly overflowing baskets of clean laundry if left until then.
Anyway, if you don’t hear from me between now and the weekend, you’ll know what I’m up to. And why my posture is deteriorating by the hour. And why I suddenly have the urge to write. In broken. Oddly, punctuated, sentences. Grumpy oldster comment ahead, but I don’t think anyone’s teaching kids grammar anymore (did anyone, ever, come to think of it?). It’s like they’re on their own, trying to negotiate a sea of inexplicable commas. I want to help them!
Here’s an awkward transition. I’ll just throw it in like this.
Can you spot the common theme in the following two photos?
new art area
I’m signing off. Pencil in hand, freshly sharpened, back to the table, back to the tiger. I can see it, even if you can’t.
Yesterday, while grabbing a book to bring along to a soccer field I mentally composed a perfect blog post. Maybe I’ll blog on my phone beside the soccer field, I thought. But the post vanished, and instead, beside the soccer field, I chatted with other parents (whom I see far more often than I do my closest friends) and watched, mesmerized, our daughters pass the ball with great skill and determination. The book stayed unopened in my hand.
The perfect imaginary blog post is not unlike the perfect imaginary book, I suspect, a subject Ann Patchett addresses in her very funny and quite serious essay on writing, “The Getaway Car,” in her new book of essays, THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE.
Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it … But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart.
Two things in that passage. One, the obvious point that writing is not a natural act; and two, that we narrate our lives, and it’s the second I’ve been thinking about most.
Yesterday, I imagined writing from inside the new car. I would tell you about the sudden shock of snow, the windshield wipers working, the warm hum from the vents. I might add in a snippet of caught conversation between me and a child. I might even admit to a burst of irritation at the stupidity of another driver. There would be the hush of tires turning. The flash of lights and the smear of their colour across the wet windshield in the early dark.
It’s fitting that I put my book advance toward a new vehicle, as the new vehicle has become my second home in a way that seems almost outrageous when I add up the hours. I’ve undone every green dream I ever had, whilst supporting my children in their extra-curricular interests. On Monday, between 5:05pm and 9:15pm, I spent a total of two and a half hours in our new vehicle, including an hour and a half venture, around town, that had me climbing out at home with a numb posterior. During that particular round, “Aggie” and I visited a far-flung indoor soccer field, a gymnastics club on the opposite side of town, and a pool, before returning home. And it snowed the whole time. The best part was when the eldest voluntarily joined me for the final trip of the evening. “What should we talk about?” he asked cheerily, and, as we’d already covered the intricacies of the PS4 gaming system he’s hoping for, we moved on to music, and soccer, and the mall, and fantasizing about food we’d like to eat.
That’s the one good thing about all this time in the car. It’s time with the kids, and we talk, a lot.
But later, home again, kids in bed, I said to Kevin, “When I’m all done driving these kids around, I’m going to be old. That’s what’s going to happen. I’ll be done driving them, and I’ll be old.”
photos in this post taken by child in passenger seat
Meanwhile — and this may save me — I’ll be “narrativizing” my life.
Yesterday afternoon, I listened to a Writers and Company podcast: Aleksandar Hemon interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel. Hemon uses his own experiences in his fiction, without qualms or apology: “The way I write fiction most often is that I imagine a different outcome of a situation.” Hemon observes something unfolding and ending, a snippet, a glimpse, or a straightforward hike from A to B, and he wonders: what if X had happened instead? A character might appear to be based on himself, yet he seems to harbour no worries about being mistaken for a character. In short, the line between fiction and non-fiction does not seem to trouble him. He’s writing stories, not history, whether they are “true stories” (non-fiction) or fiction. “We go toward the things we do not know in literature. To go in the opposite direction is to write only about the easy things.” (I’m paraphrasing; I took notes while listening, as non-fiction versus fiction has become a bit of an obsession while I try to teach it to my students, and while I reflect on what writing/publishing The Juliet Stories has both given me and cost me.)
I feel myself urgently wanting to use what I’ve got at hand, and to spin it into something different; “to arrive at something,” as Hemon puts it. There is life. There is the rendering of life into story. I’m missing quite a few pieces in my life, right now. Apparently I can’t squeeze everything in to satisfaction, not while driving for hours a day. What gets lost? Wouldn’t I love to host more suppers? Yes. My social life is pinched. I’m tired far too early in the evening. The laundry overwhelms. But there’s something about writing that can set life into balance, for me. I arrive at something there that I can’t here.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. I woke with those words in my head, but immediately thought about how it’s today that pulls me. Today that I wake to. All those tomorrows aren’t promises. They’re overwhelming if I consider the repetition of their demands, and even more overwhelming if I consider the speed of their passage. No matter how much I do, time will turn these words to dust.
Yet how much I wanted to run downstairs and write down my thoughts. And so I have. Today pulls me.
It was my second waking of the morning. The first was much earlier, when AppleApple and I woke for her swimming. Being up already, I went for a run. It was very dark when I set out, but as I made my rounds, the sky shifted, pale light between ominous clouds, and at last a pink and blue sky that looked right out of a fluorescent painting. Shadowy crowds of crows called from the treetops, then took off flying in a seemingly endless stream. I liked this somewhat less when they flew directly overhead.
I came home to warm up, shower, and scarf a plate of scrambled eggs and bagel, then returned to fetch my swimming daughter. Tonight my siblings are coming over and we’re making paella. That’s to celebrate the sale to Spain. I haven’t properly celebrated France (the coffee and croissant were lovely, but the kids want in on it, too), nor Italy (which I kind of want to splash out on, if someone can recommend a good Italian restaurant), nor Holland, though a friend, who is Dutch, recommends kale and potatoes with sausages, or “tiny meatball soup,” both of which sound delicious (I will need the recipes).There may be yet one more country to announce shortly (!!), but I’ll leave you waiting for now. It is quite astonishing to consider the variety of languages spoken on this Earth.
We’ve named our new truck “Aggie,” which is short for Aganetha Smart, fictional girl runner. Yesterday, I christened Aggie with a billion (more or less) errands around town to prep for paella night, and Halloween, and winter, and to replace items my swim child has lost or broken recently. Last week, for example, she lost her asthma puffer and aero-chamber. These things do not grow on trees. Recognizing her own ability to shed personal items at an alarming rate, she opted for dollar store gloves rather than those from Adventure Guide, which are, quite frankly, a shocking investment.
Elsewhere, Fooey found a dress fit for a vampire, with a hoop skirt to boot, but AppleApple rejected my suggestions and insisted on searching for something I fear exists only in her imagination: an old-fashioned formal dress (also with a hoop skirt) that would be both appropriate for trick-or-treating AND she could wear on social occasions. Yeah. Tips? She wants to go as Anne of Green Gables, and I’m not sure Anne wore hoop skirts, and that we may be confusing her with Laura Ingalls in her courting days, as we are reading These Happy Golden Years right now. In other costume news, CJ will be a clown in a suit we found in the dress-up box, and Albus is still debating. I will miss seeing them in full costumed flight, as I teach that evening. I bought some extra treats to take for the students, and I’m hunting for spooky-themed stories to read (suggestions??). Who knows, I may even throw on a costume. Would my students take me seriously as a rhinstone cowgirl? With braids? That’s all I’ve got (and it’s borrowed). I wore it to a party on Friday night, and looked cute and appropriately clad, but felt like I had dragged with me the equivalent of a wilted personality. I’m tired, it seems. Too tired to stay up late, too tired to carouse, though not too tired to spend the evening within arm’s reach of the cheese platter.
It does seem like a happy life makes room for a wide variety of activities, solo and in company, professionally and personally. Leave aside work and play, which are linked, in my mind. The bulk of my efforts goes into relationships, which are like gardens and need tending: there’s marriage and children, wider family, friends and neighbours, colleagues and students and coaches and other parents and acquaintances. When I’m down, I castigate myself for a lack of diplomacy, or a willingness to enter into conflict, and sometimes for exhaustion itself, for feeling spent. This may indicate that I’m an introvert, and yet it’s the relationships that interest me most, that feed me and that I live for. What’s left out of the equation, what gets squashed to the margins? Housework and chores, and often cooking and food. I try to leave room for meditation and stretching. Ultimately, I find, it’s dancing that falls by the wayside.
I’ll end where I began this rambling post. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But really, today.
this is where I went this morning
this is why
Bus ride, hee-hawing donkey, straw bale maze, wagon ride, corn maze, pumpkin patch. I’ve been on field trips with all of the other kids — fire station, nature hike, a different pumpkin patch — but never with this last one; so he gets his due. This might mark the end of the line for me, the last of the field trips. Six hours a day of work-time (ie. school hours) are already too slender for my requirements. I’m going into my office on campus on Wednesday evenings for teaching prep. I’m out of the house on Thursday evenings too (for class), and may maintain the habit even if I’m not teaching this winter. I need the extra hours wherever I can find them. And everyone’s getting along just fine without me.
“If I’m going to be more of a house-husband, you might have to give up some control over the laundry,” Kevin told me, as he chauffered me to campus yesterday.
The laundry remains my only real area of total domestic domination; why am I holding on? I used to maintain exclusive management of the following: kitchen, dishes, lunches, meals, food gathering, bedding, bathrooms, vacuuming, and laundry. I let Kevin handle the basement, garbage, pets, and yard (such a classic gender split, I know). I’m down to just laundry, having acceded control over everything else. I can’t remember why I used to be so possessive of those spheres, so certain of my own superior expertise.
Where was I going with this post?
Oh, yes. Such a jam-packed evening yesterday. After being dropped on campus, I holed up in my office to work. Then we had class, cut short due to a reading planned months ago. I walked through Waterloo Park with several students brave enough to tag along, to the Clay and Glass Gallery, where a double-launch was already underway for the Wild Writers Festival (coming to Waterloo Nov. 8-10), and for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting, a new anthology of personal essays, to which I’m a contributor. I was the last to read, and had time to down a glass of white wine and fix my hair (sort of) before going on. It felt quite magical, actually. I’d slashed my essay to a reasonable reading length, and the words seemed to fall into a hushed and welcoming space.
I love reading. I want to say more about it, but everything I try to type sounds presumptuous and vain. I love the opportunity reading affords: to share a moment that has the potential to be profound. Yup, that sounds lofty. All I know is that when I’m reading, it feels exactly like what I’m meant to be doing. And that’s a good feeling.
Afterward, I went out for drinks with friends to celebrate, well, all of this.
Which is another reason I was not so extremely filled with happiness to find myself on a crowded school bus this morning.
More news, to end on: Girl Runner has found herself a German publisher! Yes, it’s true, we’ll be going out for schnitzel. And beer. The book will be published in translation, which is kind of mind-blowingly awesome, isn’t it? We were trying to figure out last night what the translation of the title might be: Madchen Lauferin, according to Google (sure to be spot on).
And, last but not least, here’s a link to a piece in today’s The Bookseller, on the UK deal.
More projects on the go! Kevin’s on a painting kick. This weekend he’s tackling the stripes Fooey requested for her bedroom. The kid is onto something. Her instinct for style is uncanny. Kevin’s only finished the blue stripes (there may be green and yellow ones yet to come, depending on his patience for what has turned out to be a time-consuming job), but it seems to have added something dimensional to the walls. I swear the room looks cleaner. Stripes as mess-camouflage?
I can tell my head is better not only because it doesn’t hurt, but because I was operating at high efficiency yesterday. I tackled a series of projects of the sort you never intend to tackle, but simply find yourself head-shakingly in the middle of. It was all precipitated by an order of a half-bushel of roma tomatoes, which I knew I would both regret and appreciate. I never intended to can them, there being ample room in our freezers due to lacklustre enthusiasm (from me) on the food preservation front this summer. I’ll freeze them, thought I! Nothing simpler! (Really, there isn’t; I just toss them cored but whole into freezer bags). Then I scouted out the freezers. Two half-full small chest freezers desperately in need of defrosting. Perfect! No time like the present! I’ll just defrost these, one by one, switching the frozen items between each, clean out the interiors, oh, and wash behind and underneath while I’m at it, discovering enough fur-like dust to make a pile that looked (disturbingly) mouse-like (it wasn’t). And then I froze the tomatoes. The defrost project dragged on all day, but freezing the tomatoes took less than half an hour; I’ve ordered another half-bushel to process next weekend.
I also made a run to the grocery store for boring bulk essentials that we were totally out of like TP and rice and dog food.
on the landing
I declared Saturday to be cleaning day (that made me popular), and ordered the kids to strip their beds. There were mountains of laundry. I attacked hard water stains in the upstairs bathroom with vinegar and elbow grease.
A million friends came over to play, with children rotating between houses on scooters. One child did nothing but Rubiks cube all day (“cubing” is all the rage in her class, which probably tells you something about her class). Kevin and I, at the eleventh hour, left a houseful of kids playing the card game “Pit” at the highest imaginable volume, in order to go shopping for a new bed. We’re sticking with our living-like-grad-students theme and made the purchase at a futon store uptown. Kev’s picking up the new frame and mattress this afternoon. Photos forthcoming.
the colours in Albus’s newly painted room (I told you Kevin is on a roll!)
And then we fed the kids pancakes for supper, and took ourselves out for dinner to celebrate: our first opportunity since Monday’s news. Truth be told, we were both really tired. We drank, we ate, we tried to talk about it. We don’t know what’s ahead, can only sit in the strange calm of right now, shaking our heads and laughing at the ridiculous year we’ve had so far, a year of extremes and unforeseens, of injury, bed bugs, concussions, fresh paint, career turns, difficult choices, and, at times, seemingly no choice at all but to keep on keeping on. So we’ve kept on. Thankfully. And here we are. Thankfully, and with thanks.
Above, our house, captured, in reflection, in its natural state. We’ve got son plus friend, plus clean laundry unfolded in basket on dining-room table, plus piano (not being practiced), plus basket of mail (unopened), plus family photos more than a decade old (which I long to update), plus book on table from Friday night’s poetry book club meeting (The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2013), plus covered chalkboard wall, plus broken bridle on living-room floor (remnant from my childhood, used recently as a prop in a child’s school presentation on horses). I also spy art supplies on the dining-room table, because art supplies are like weeds. You think you’ve got them coralled and under control, and bam, they’ve sprouted everywhere again.
I’m feeling at peace with the messiness, with the constant state of disorder. I don’t like dirt. Or dog hair. But I love this evidence of flourishing life, creative, shared, blessed, untidy, in the midst. I love being in the midst. Keep me here.