Saturday. Early rising. Long drive. Poolside. Laptop open.
“Are you writing your next novel right here?”
“Erm. Kind of. Well, yes, actually. I’m trying.”
Saturday evening. Barely awake. Stroll uptown. The whole family.
Burger Badanga at the Chainsaw. (Fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity)
Also, burgers, beer, pop with unlimited refills.
But really it’s all about the football.
England v. Italy.
Not the hoped-for outcome.
“I always feel sad for whoever loses.”
“Wow, Mom. Someone always loses.”
Sunday. Early rising. Ritual stop at best early-morning coffee & breakfast joint in town, City Cafe, aka “the bagel place.” Long drive. Poolside. Laptop.
The kid is fast and strong. The mother is plain worn out.
Stop for falafel and chicken shwarma. Eat under tree. Long drive home.
Followed by deep nap.
Followed by must get up and do days’ worth of laundry, run errands, and think up Father’s Day supper.
Meet “Vanna,” above, our new front yard dwarf cherry tree. “Stella” is in the back yard. Two apple trees, as yet unnamed, await planting.
Neighbour we’ve never met stops to tell Kevin: “I’ve been walking by your front yard for the past ten years, and I just want to tell you how much I enjoy watching what you’re doing here.”
I think: Kevin’s dad, enthusiastic gardener, would have been so proud.
I call my dad.
Supper: hot dogs, bacon, fixings, roasted asparagus, kale slaw (“You shouldn’t call it that! Nobody’s going to want to eat it!”).
After supper: playing in the back yard. Kevin: Gardening and soccer-ball juggling. Albus: Trampoline and soccer. Fooey: Trampoline and soccer-ball juggling. CJ: Soccer, soccer, soccer. Me and AppleApple: catch, with tennis ball and baseball gloves.
The long late light. The best part of summer.
“Should we be responsible parents and tell everyone to go bed?”
“Do we have to?”
I sponsored the two older kids’ rep soccer teams this season by “buying a sleeve.” We decided to add “A NOVEL” to the title GIRL RUNNER, thinking that a team of 13-year-old boys might not appreciate having to wear that label during games.
This was our dining-room table, Monday afternoon. Two sets of page proofs, one galley, one sharp red pencil, and one mother announcing to all who entered after school, “There will be no eating or drinking on or near this table until I AM DONE!”
I am done.
All may eat and drink here again.
Last night’s reading at DVLB was really fun. I even indulged in a scotch, thanks to the kindness of a friend who treated. Imbibe ye scotches while ye may. Life’s too short not to enjoy the pleasures that arrive. Even if that happens to be on a Tuesday night and you’re running the next morning. And so I did. (And I ran this morning too: Run ye many kilometres while ye may.)
No scotches tonight, however. I’ll be driving to and from Hamilton, where I’m reading at Bryan Price Bookseller, 7pm, with other M Word contributors. (Note to self: look up directions!)
Tomorrow I’ll be at the Anansi offices working on publicity plans for Girl Runner. (Note to self: more directions! Look up!)
Can you read the above? I can’t. File this under Strange Opportunities that Arrive via the Internet. Last month I was contacted by an editor at Unitas, a Chinese-language literary magazine in Taiwan, who wanted to interview me for a special issue they were planning on Alice Munro. (They’d found and loved my review of Alice Munro’s Dear Love in the National Post.) I agreed. And this month, two copies of the beautifully produced magazine arrived in my mailbox, in an envelope covered in fancy stamps. Sometimes the world seems very very small.
I’ve never met Alice Munro, and can’t imagine what I would say to her if we were to meet. It’s an entirely one-sided relationship based purely on my reading of her stories over many years. I’m immersed in MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH right now, a truly wonderful book that combines biography with memoir, and in some way I feel like my relationship with Alice Munro is similar to Rebecca Mead’s with George Eliot; but Mead has the benefit of distance and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable exploring Alice Munro’s life and work in quite the same way, given that she’s still living, and that our worlds literally overlap in time and space. It wouldn’t be historical exploration. There’s a freedom to digging back into the past, way back. I’m aiming to do it now, in my next novel. Nothing can be perfectly recovered from the deep past, and so one may imagine quite freely.
Yet I’m so admiring and relishing this memoir/biography mash-up on George Eliot — I would do it, if I could figure out my relationship with non-fiction, a form I’m still learning. I’m thinking out loud here, brainstorming as I type. Perhaps not the best way to compose a blog post on which one is about to press “publish.” But if I could figure out how, yes, I would write about Alice Munro.
I think the NMA nomination was especially thrilling (and perhaps seductive) because it was earned for “personal journalism,” aka non-fiction. It’s a form that interests me more and more, that I find myself devouring more and more, and that I want to learn how to master.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable–
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.
We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind went cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morning, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and the pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.
(first published in 1919)
The refrain of this poem keeps running through my head. We were very tired, we were very merry.
I drove my swim child to Windsor and home again all in one day, yesterday. “Did you have a good day, Mom?” she asked me. The stoplight turned green ahead of us, and I checked the rearview mirror. “There were many good things about this day,” I allowed, thinking more of the long dark drive ahead, and the lateness of the hour, the responsibility of getting us safely home heavy on me. “Did you have a good day?” I asked her.
“Yes! I had a really good day.” I wish you could hear her voice. The sigh of deep satisfaction.
“Well, then I had a really good day too.”
This is now just Fooey’s room, with the Lego stored under the bunk bed. The rule is, in exchange for getting such a big room all to herself (something she’s been angling after for ages), she has to let the others in to play whenever they want. This works some of the time.
CJ has moved in to Albus’s room, to the top bunk. Fooey enjoys calling this “the boys’ room.”
So far the different bed times haven’t been a problem. Last night, for example, Kev tucked CJ in while Albus and I were out picking up Fooey from gymnastics. (Gymnastics was my third distinct kid-related trip of the day: piano took up 2 hours, and AppleApple’s soccer ate up another 2 and a half, not helped by me getting horribly lost on the way to the new location. “Do you have GPS on your phone?” one soccer dad asked, after I’d spilled my tale of woe, and another pointed out: “You’ve got it in your car!” True! But stabbing buttons on the mysterious GPS system soothes me much less than calling Kevin to announce how lost and frustrated I am. Plus Kevin always manages to direct me, while the GPS is a bit dodgy).
This transition between subjects and back again needs a GPS, I’m afraid. Or just call someone you love.
When we got home (post-gymnastics), Albus did homework downstairs while I folded laundry and Kevin made the school lunches. It felt very companionable. By the time Albus went to bed, his brother had been asleep for at least an hour. They wake at different times in the morning, too, without mutual disturbance.
I’m in my office, back to a regular routine that somehow has yet to feel regular.
I’m full of plots and schemes and plans and dreams, yet quite bereft of focus. I wonder how long I’ll let that pile of papers and note books and letters and receipts fester atop the small filing cabinet behind me. I wonder how long we’ll be without an oven. How long the living-room will remain an indoor soccer field. How long I’ll sit here looking at these words.
Wishing I had better words to offer up today. But it seems this is it.
coming from behind in the 200-metre BR
This wasn’t my whole weekend, but it was part of it: another swim meet, a warm-up for the big meet in two weeks, which takes place near Ottawa, and to which my girl will be going without me. She will travel with her team, stay in a hotel with teammates, and race without me there to cheer her on in the stands. “I’ll be fine!” she told me this morning, when I was fretting over it. “You’ll be fine,” Kevin told her, “but I’m not so sure about your mother.”
And here I thought I was prepared to send her off. I was being all grown-up about it and practical (it would be expensive; I’d have to drive myself and stay in my own hotel room), especially knowing how excited she is to be going on an adventure all her own (well-chaperoned by coaches, of course).
I think I can do it. I think I can.
This is what I did in the stands on Saturday, while trying to practice good posture. I’m really enjoying this book, which I’d purchased awhile back before it won the Giller, because I love short stories. Looking down at my little pile, I realized how reliant my afternoon was on electronic devices. The phone to text updates to Kevin and my mom. The Kobo reader. The camera to take photographs. And then the meet sheet print-out, old-school, for keeping track of events.
The late afternoon sun on the water was striking. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that make me feel satisfied, creatively. Even with only a point-and-shoot camera at my disposal, there are moments of beauty to notice and to capture.
She was pleased with her races, but especially with her 200 metre back, where she took 16 seconds off her previous personal best, swum only three weeks ago. This despite thinking she was done with a lap still to go, and stopping at the end; her coach had to yell at her to keep going. (She still won her heat). She loses count during the long races, she says. A similar thing happened in the first race, the 200 metre breast, when she thought she had a lap left to go, and held back a bit rather than sprinting as she usually would in her final lap. She was quite disappointed with that race because she got the same time as her previous best. She’s just moved up to the 11-12 age group, which means no more medals till she grows a bit. Luckily, she doesn’t seem to race for the medals, but for the personal bests.
The sky was beautiful when we stepped out into the parking lot. We were both famished. Kevin made burgers and fried potatoes on the barbeque, and we were home in time to eat together as a family. The conversation was all about dreams. There was also some gentle mockery of my lousy advent calendar activities last year. So I surprised them with chocolate advent calendars yesterday morning, which felt extravagant, I’ll admit.
Also yesterday, we put up the Christmas tree and decorated it. Fooey cleaned up the art area, a massive task, to make room for the tree. That kid can organize! Advent feels unexpectedly real and important to me this year: waiting through the darkest days for the light to come again. The kids interpret this time as anticipatory, and I love that, and would love to grab a bit of that emotion for myself, rather than worrying about all that needs to be brought about, and whether I’ll have the energy to do it. Looking forward to, rather than waiting it out.
I didn’t run this weekend, not at all. On Friday night, feeling flattened by the week, I hung out with the soccer parents at the bar instead (drinking tea). Aha! So this is what they do while I’m out racing around in the dark, thought I. Saturday, I chose not to wake early for a run, and my day was otherwise occupied with the meet. Sunday, the girl had an early soccer game. I’d planned to run when we got home, but instead went to bed and slept for nearly two hours. And then staggered up to make buttermilk biscuits and turkey gravy for supper (a huge hit!), folded laundry, read the kids their bedtime story, and returned to bed early despite that long nap. I do feel better today. So maybe going for a run isn’t always the answer. What do I know?
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.
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