This post is illustrated exclusively by cellphone-created photographs. Bear with me.
I’m presenting as dazed and confused this morning. No special reason for it. Could be the season. So many plans to keep in my head. I should be making good use of the quiet house, which will transform into a temporarily endangered species, seen rarely to never, come Friday around 3:10PM. Instead, I’m enjoying it. I just had a nap by the fire with the dogs. This is like stepping into a confessional. Shhhh. It was so so lovely. Forgive me.
I dreamed that I’d accidentally downloaded a virus onto my computer that rendered it useless; it kept running a program that showed a creepy GPS map of where I was at all times, with dire messages directed at me. That was not so lovely. But it does point to a certain subconscious anxiety underlying the lovely nap time, which is that I have work to do!
Good work, work I’ve been enjoying, but work nevertheless.
This morning, I got up early and went for a walk with my Thursday running partner. Tuesday’s running partner did the same. I feel immensely lucky to have running partners willing to walk with me during injury. Do you know how hard it is to get up early and go for a walk? It’s about a billion times harder than getting up early to go for a run. No zap of endorphins to reward your efforts. Hats off to all early morning walkers.
Tis the season of the festive school concert, and that’s where Fooey and I were yesterday evening, at AppleApple’s. Here, Fooey is reading patiently before the concert begins; ie. that is not a scowl of irritation. The scowl of irritation arrived when the concert was over and we had to wait around in the crowded gymnasium for AppleApple to come and find us (she thought we’d come and find her in the band room, until she realized we didn’t know where the band room was…). Anyway. Concert. Strangely glorious, I must say, and I don’t mean the parts involving my daughter specifically, I mean the whole thing. I should not be allowed out without a package of tissues. Because in the moment, there seemed nothing more moving than these groups of 12 & 13 year kids singing, dancing, and playing instruments together. (Maybe I’m going through something hormonal?) The squeaking of reeded instruments, the tuning (lack thereof), the confidence, self-consciousness, talent, and bravery–the participation. I would do all it over again.
Wait, I’m going to. Albus’s festive school concert is on tonight. Wish me luck, though. The turning. The tuning.
Have I shown you this picture yet? It’s a scene from My Perfect Family, you know, the family that is mostly fantasy, but occasionally surfaces into reality, in one’s living-room–the family you dreamed of creating back when you thought you were in control of such things.
Children reading by the fire. Perfect Children reading Christmas books lovingly collected over many years and brought out every December by The Perfect Mom. I have photographic proof that this actually happened. Once. Last week. For a few minutes.
Okay, thanks for walking along with me this morning. The confusion and daze is lifting, I think. Time for work.
PS I won a prize! This blog was judged First in the category of Writing & Literature and Third in the category of Life at the 2014 Canadian Weblog Awards. I get this button. I’m not sure what to do with it, so I’m pinning it here.
It’s been a week of busyness with little opportunity for reflection. It’s been an up and down week, emotionally, and it’s just struck me that I’m finishing my November, as I often do, in a bit of funk. Is it the shortened days, the vanishing light, the overhanging clouds, the chilly winds, the general gloom of a world stripped bare and not yet blanketed in bright snow? Probably, yes.
But it’s also an existential Novemberness that alights every year. A wondering what it is I’ve accomplished this year, and what’s left to complete, as if I am a list of tasks done or undone. And maybe I am? But maybe, maybe I’m not, in truth.
As Kevin tells me, Life is not going to give you First Prize. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’ve written a good book. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good parent. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good person.
I’ve fallen to pieces on a few occasions this past week. I’ve been filled with unaccountable shame. This is not the face or person I present to the world, but my kids have to stumble over it. They’ve seen me crying and have found ways to comfort me, with compassion and rationality; and I worry that I’m harming them by not being as solid as rock, as rooted as an oak tree, as strong as diamonds.
I suspect that this feeling of vulnerability and exposure is cumulative. It’s been a fall of presenting my book in public to audiences interested and sometimes not so much; that’s the reality and necessity of publishing books. One must promote one’s work. One must speak on behalf of the work in hopes that the work gets found and adopted and championed by others. I have many many wonderful memories from events this fall, and in truth, very few that are even mildly distressing. So I suspect this feeling of vulnerability and exposure has little to do with the quality and worthiness of the events themselves, but rather with a sustained public stance that has been more difficult for me to participate in than I’ve allowed myself to recognize.
After all, I enjoy reading from my work. I enjoy meeting other writers, and readers. I enjoy sharing my thoughts, and appreciate immensely being invited to participate. These are enormous blessings. I am enormously grateful.
But the shadow side is that I don’t think the human character is designed to absorb even the modest amount of attention that’s come to me this fall. I don’t think we’re particularly good at it. It doesn’t tend to make us into better people. It tends to make us think we’re something special. And even while we’re thinking that, we know we’re not special at all, and the disconnect and disharmony of having to sustain and project the confidence of having something worth saying, while fearing one doesn’t, creates a cognitive dissonance.
I’ve felt kind of hollow this last little while. Hollow, and, in truth, lonely. Removed from myself.
Restoring an interior balance and sense of location and groundedness seems the answer. Advent starts tomorrow, a season of waiting, and I like that metaphor. I don’t mind waiting. I’ll never arrive, not really, because I’ll never cease changing. I want to inhabit deliberate patience. I want to discipline my mind away from its taste for quick hits of attention, and return it to the slow and steady onward pace of life in its daily ritual and routine, a life of small adventures, private successes, and strength through connection.
How I fit in the public work that is necessary to my job — and important (teaching is important, for example!) — is a question I’m not entirely able to answer at the moment, but I think it relates directly to maintaining disciplined habits and routines. Maybe too — this has just come to me, just now — it relates to forgiveness. Maybe it is mainly in my own mind that I’m falling short. Maybe, secretly, I really do believe in a First Prize for anything and everything, and as long as I cling to my imaginary scale of external validation, I’ll exist in a kind of permanent November of the spirit. And I would rather not.
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.
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.
Good things I did yesterday: wrote in journal, wrote blog post, received kind messages from friends, publisher, agent, etc., made detailed class plan for teaching gig tonight, read (and wept) through Katherena Vermette’s GG-winning poetry collection North End Love Songs while curled in front of fire, walked dogs, did not put on brave face, picked up kid from field hockey practice, napped, drove kid to and from gymnastics, ordered Chinese for supper, laughed, shared sadness with family who refused to come to my pity party, played piano duet with 6-year-old, read picture books to kids, folded laundry, went to bed knowing all was well, set alarm for early morning yoga.
Dumb things I did yesterday: did not eat lunch, did not answer phone.
Six-year-old: “So your book didn’t get a medal?”
Eleven-year-old: “Go for a run, Mom, you’ll feel better.”
A list of Canadian authors also with books out this calendar year, also not on this year’s Giller long list, posted in my FB feed yesterday by a friend: Margaret Atwood. David Adams Richards. Ann-Marie MacDonald. Caroline Adderson. Michael Crummey. Johanna Skibsrud. David Bergen. Kate Pullinger. Fred Stenson. Rudy Wiebe. Emma Donaghue. Thomas King. (To which I will add those names I’d hoped or expected to see there too: Richard Wagamese. Tasneem Jamal. Kim Thuy. Dionne Brand. Kathryn Kuitenbrower. Claire Cameron. Angie Abdou. Michelle Berry. And I could go on.) All of which is to say, I’m getting over myself. It usually takes me exactly 24 hours to get over myself. Hi, self.
I want to argue with my own expectations. I do. I want to blame them, get angry at them. But they’re such an integral part of me. Here’s how Kevin put it (this is why I married him): “If you really didn’t care, well, you wouldn’t care. You wouldn’t be who you are.”
The worst has happened—in terms of your literary life in Canada, that is, which are terms admittedly insular, and insignificant, perhaps, to all but those who’ve published a book of literary fiction in this calendar year. But there it is. Within this specific framework, at this specific moment in your publishing life, the worst has happened. You’re not on the long-list of the premier Canadian fiction prize.
This has just happened.
You’re surprised (and relieved) not to feel envy for those upon whom the light is shining. But you don’t. They need the light too. You don’t begrudge them a single spark.
What you feel, immediately, perhaps inexplicably, is shame and very little else. You feel like vanishing. You feel as raw as if you’d been sliced open, as vulnerable as a scurrying animal exposed in an alien environment. Shame is the most powerful emotion right now. You can’t imagine going outside of your house ever again.
So what are you going to do?
So you sit here writing. You sit and write because what else could you possibly do, especially if you can’t go outside ever again, even though it is a beautiful sunny day? You sit here writing, laughing at yourself, saying, you’re right here, breathing and alive, and you aren’t going to die from this. Your family is beautiful and funny and active, and they love you no less for this. You haven’t done anything wrong or evil. You haven’t hurt anybody. You haven’t actually failed, because there was nothing you could have done differently to pass. You are the same woman you were this morning, and you will be the same woman tomorrow. You will find your footing.
You are not made for the sprint distance, but for the long hard lonely run.
It isn’t meant to be easy, because if it were, it would count for nothing in your mind.
It’s meant to be hard. You learn most when it’s hard. You learn how to access reserves of strength and humour you did not know you had. You learn how to feel things deeply. You learn compassion for the deep, painful feelings of others. You learn repair. You learn self-governance and self-control. You learn discipline. Maybe, after you’re through writing this post, you’ll learn perspective, too, letting go, you’ll go eat some lunch. So, this is the worst that could happen? So, your reward is not going to be a bright prize and audience applause? You don’t know what your reward is going to be. It doesn’t matter. You aren’t doing this for the reward, you never were, and you never will. You’re doing this for life. You’re doing this to pattern words into story, to carry a reader into another world, to share your ideas in ways that can be taken in deeply and felt.
You want readers to find your book, so this is a disappointment. You know disappointment. It’s a totally non-lethal side effect, a condition of being who you are, someone with high hopes, dreamy and possibly delusional optimism, joyful dogged effort. And joyful dogged effort can’t be stopped by disappointment, only paused briefly, stalled briefly, here in this little rut of a moment that must be walked through to be gotten through.
It’s going to hurt, yes. It hurts, yes. This too is life. This too shall pass. Already it occurs to you that you may, in fact, be able to leave your house and go outside again. Perhaps even later this afternoon. It’s going to be okay.
And tomorrow you’ll write something else because tomorrow this will look different to you again. This is of the moment. This a record of what is happening now.