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.
This is a week of transition, of return to routine. Our evenings are relatively quiet for most of the month, thankfully, as the soccer season ends and gives us a respite of a few weeks. This is good, because the kids are tired. And grumpy. (Oh yeah, I’m tired too.) Meanwhile, I want to keep track of what’s working, what’s changed, and what habits we’ve carried over from summertime.
Music practice: This happened quite rarely over the summer, when everyone takes a break from lessons. Lessons started this week, and so did regular practicing. AppleApple makes her own schedule and sticks to it, mostly practicing immediately after school (piano and French horn; no cello this year, as orchestra has been removed from her class’s curriculum, sadly). Fooey and CJ practice before school (violin and piano, respectively). Fooey goes first, and I accompany her on piano when she requests it. CJ is in his second year of piano and needs me nearby to help with finger positioning, musical details, and, mostly, moral support … and the will to continue. Yesterday, I tried combining his practice time with some light exercise (for me) because, frankly, it’s quite tedious to hang around calling out “quarter note!” and “check your hand position” and “sounds like a sharp!” (I am my father, good grief). Anyway, that whole exercise/musical instruction combo didn’t really work. I kept having to drop the kettle bell mid-lift and those things don’t drop well. Tangent alert, post-tangent. Sorry.
Chores: I have a list on the chalkboard of the kids’ chore categories: Dogs; Laundry; Dishwasher; Garbage; Set and Clear Table. Let’s break it down.
Dogs: AppleApple is supposed to feed the dogs. But they’re eating fancy food after a (let’s not talk about) bout of stomach woes, so Kevin has been doing that. She is also supposed to walk them from time to time, which happens occasionally. Fooey is supposed to keep their water bowls full. That happens only when I notice and remind her. She does clean the fish bowls regularly, however.
Laundry: I wash and dry a load or two (or three!) of laundry every day. Each of us have a labelled basket in the basement into which our clean laundry can be sorted. It’s each individual’s job to carry his or her basket upstairs and fold and put the laundry into drawers. Sorting the laundry into the baskets is the kids’ job. CJ is too small to sort effectively, so he is in charge of folding and putting away the leftovers that don’t have individual baskets: dishtowels, napkins, etc. A penalty is applied if the laundry is very poorly sorted: this requires oversight and judgement on my part. After all, even I have trouble figuring out whose underwear is whose. (The penalty is to have to sort the laundry again the next day, rather than it moving on to whoever is next in the line-up.) I also don’t pick up dirty laundry from the kids’ bedroom floors: if it gets in the hamper, it gets cleaned. This takes a great deal of restraint on my part. I hate seeing dirty clothes piling up! But I’m doing it for the team.
Dishwasher: Each kid has a designated quadrant of the dishwasher to empty. In summer, the rule was the dishwasher had to be emptied by 11AM; if you forgot, you emptied the whole dishwasher yourself the next day. I must say this method of setting child v child was enormously effective. Fooey in particular would gleefully announce at 11:01 that so-and-s0 had forgotten. On week days during the school year, the dishwasher has to be emptied before school.
Set and Clear Table: We’d meant for this chore to be shared equally, with the boys setting the table and the girls clearing every evening. But that never happened. Instead, what’s happened is that I ask whichever child happens to be around to set the table, hang the unfairness and griping. And everyone carries his or her plate to the kitchen after eating. It’s not much, I admit, but it’s better than nothing.
Garbage: Albus is supposed to sort the recycling, and carry the bins in from the curb on garbage day. That did not happen much over the summer, and I forgot to remind him about the bins when he got home from school yesterday. Yes, the thing about chores is, people need reminders until it becomes habit.
Breakfasts: We’re aiming for high protein breakfasts to get everyone off to a good start. Kevin is making a giant pitcher of smoothie in the morning: fruit, yogurt, kefir, almond milk. I’m also keeping boiled eggs in the fridge for breakfasts, lunches, or snacks.
Lunches: Albus and AppleApple have been packing their lunches for awhile now — it’s habit. Fooey decided to start this year too. She has been working on her “knife skills,” and can now slice up an apple like a pro. (On day one, the apple looked like it had been hacked apart with a hatchet.) I get the kids to write food requests on our grocery list, posted on the fridge. Anyone know where to find seaweed snacks for cheap? Everyone loves them!
Suppers: Our current routine involves me and Kevin texting back and forth around 3:30/4PM with meal ideas. Kevin can pick up ingredients on his way home. Obviously, these last-minute meals tend to be quick and easy. Last night we made pad thai with shrimp and tofu; it took us under an hour, and that was all we served, literally a vat of pad thai. Side note: Albus is excellent at making meal suggestions (that’s the hardest part of meal planning, IMO: trying to think up something different/healthy/appealing to feed everyone every single gosh-darn day). I also really like the Cookstr website for recipes, and I sign up for their weekly email newsletter, which is frequently inspiring.
Homework: This applies less to the younger kids, but Albus started high school this week, which comes with more homework and tests. He also gets home from school relatively early. I’m encouraging him to take the opportunity to do homework immediately on arriving home: grab a snack, sit at the dining room table, enjoy the quiet house. AppleApple sets her own daily/weekly/monthly homework schedule, and is diligent about making plans and sticking to them.
Exercise: I plan to continue running two mornings a week with friends, and doing one early morning boot camp, and one kundalini yoga class. I would love to swim one morning a week with AppleApple, but I’m not sure either of us can manage the early hour. I’d also like to run on the weekends and do a hot yoga class once a week. AND I’d like to start a mini running club with my kids (and any friends who would want to join), after school, running around our block in a 1-kilometre loop, so kids could decide individually how far they wanted to go. For this to happen, I will need to schedule times and dates.
In fact, for anything to happen, it must be scheduled. Inertia is a powerful force in our daily lives. Advance scheduling is the antidote. (I’m not against spontaneity, you understand; but the truth is that I’m far more likely to spontaneously watch a show on Netflix or scroll through my Twitter feed than I am to, say, go on a nature hike with my kids after school, or catch up on work-related emails, or grab two hours for myself to do yoga. You know? You know.)
And I’ve now spent well more than 15 minutes blogging … a spontaneous blogging spree. This will have to last a few days.
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
While I’m blogging lots this week, and because I won’t be blogging much (I suspect) in the week or two ahead, I’ll take this moment to highlight another tab, above, on my web site: Upcoming Events. It’s not new. But it’s handy. It’s where I keep track of readings, speaking engagements, festivals, launches — everything book-related.
For starters, next week I’m heading to the Sunshine Coast Festival in Sechelt, B.C. This is my first time at the festival, which I hear is amazing, and my first time on the Sunshine Coast, and my first time bringing the whole family along to an event like this (they likely won’t come to the reading itself, but the organizers have kindly invited our family to several other events and found us a family-friendly cottage by the ocean to stay in, while we’re there — see, amazing!). This is also our first major summer family holiday ever. The last time we flew somewhere together, we spent Christmas in Nicaragua — and we only had three kids. That’s a long time ago. (Note to self: must find a way to return to Nica again; I’ve visited once a decade since childhood.)
Then, in September, I’m going to Spain! I’ve been invited to the Hay Festival in Segovia, with the Spanish-language version of Girl Runner: La corredora. This trip will be a whirlwind, hosted by my Spanish publisher, Alfaguara, which is launching the book this fall. (The family is staying home; sorry, guys.)
I return home in time to visit the Halton Hills library, which has chosen Girl Runner for its One Book: One Community program (very exciting!), and then just a few weeks later, in October, I’m flying out to Victoria (solo) where I’m a guest speaker at the Victoria marathon. Sadly, there’s no way I’ll be in shape to run the marathon, but in my dreams I somehow manage to conquer the half. This hasn’t been a high-mileage summer. I’ve been averaging three runs a week, rarely more than 10km, often less. One change is that I rarely run alone anymore. Almost all of my exercise is social, right now: meeting a friend is motivating, and it’s fun. But if I’m going to add more miles, I will have to do some longer solo runs.
Kevin is recommending that I start listening to podcasts while running. He’s become a convert to the short story form by listening to The New Yorker fiction podcast while running around the neighbourhood with the dogs. I listened to one just this morning, while making poached eggs for Fooey (it’s her Birthday Eve!): a story called “Love” by Grace Paley, as read by George Saunders. If you think you don’t like short stories, try out this podcast. It combines the reading of a story with a conversation afterward between a well-known writer and the New Yorker story editor: it’s like listening in on a really informed book club discussion.
Love is poaching eggs for your almost-ten-year-old; love is kicking a soccer ball for two hours with your seven-year-old; love is watching a leader’s debate (Canadian version) with your twelve-year-old; love is driving back to camp to fetch your fourteen-year-old; love is sharing earphones and stories with your husband.
Hm. That was really cheesy. I feel compelled to apologize a) for writing it and b) for not erasing it. But hey, maybe you’ll want to make your own list? Enjoy your weekend.
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.
Three of the six of us dressed up. Two of the six of us collected candy. Our haul this year looks almost reasonable. Which seems unreasonable, but is actually very very good. Plus the kids who hauled in the candy shared it with not a shred of proprietary greediness in evidence. (Surprising but pleasant parenting moment.)
“I’m going to eat one last thing. One last thing. I’m going to tell myself that this is the very last thing and if I can’t listen to myself …”
“I don’t know.” Faint panic in sugar-shocked eyeballs.
“How about you brush your teeth after your one last thing?”
“Can you open this for me?” Rapid-fire words. Hands mother small package of Reeses Pieces.
“Are you sure you should eat this? Absolutely sure? You’re not feeling sick?”
Genuine hesitation. Internal dilemma and debate. Furrowing of brow. Desperation in eyes. “Yes.”
I’m going away again, in the morning. I’m not going to say no.
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