Category: Family

Winnipeg: Thin Air Writers Festival

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I took our old digital camera on my trip to Winnipeg, and figured out pretty quickly why we’d stopped using it: the battery runs dead after approximately a minute of use. But nevertheless it allowed me to capture fuzzy moments of my whirlwind adventure. The first photo, above, shows the Museum of Human Rights, still under construction, which was my view out the window when I ran on the treadmill in the empty fitness room (I never saw anyone else there). I stayed at the hotel for less than 24 hours, but still managed to run twice, and nap once.

On Monday, I had dinner with Sheree Fitch and took no photos. I knew her instantly though we’d never met in person, and I mean knew her knew her, not just recognized her. Maybe it seemed so natural to be with her that I assumed we’d have lots of time to pose for photos together, forgetting for the moment that she lives in Nova Scotia, and I’m here in Waterloo, and that mere fortune had allowed us to overlap in Winnipeg. Now I’m plotting to bring her to Waterloo to read in some schools — especially in my kids’ schools. How do such things get arranged?

At the table behind us were Bill Richardson and Karen Levine. Sheree knew them both. I’d met Karen eleven years ago when I recorded a story for a CBC radio program — I was just striking out on my own as a writer, and I was also massively pregnant with Albus, and for some reason had chosen to wear gigantic maternity overalls that day. (Why???)

For my mainstage reading on Monday night, I chose to wear my pretty red high heeled shoes that get compliments every time (which my sister Edna has now given to me to keep), and the cute/countryish/suedish jacket that makes jeans look dressy. (I hope.)

That’s me (and my poufy prairie hair) with the the festival’s director, Charlene Diehl, whom I first met when I was 20 and I walked into her CanLit class at the University of Waterloo. What a festival she’s made in Winnipeg. I’m so proud of her. The venues are terrific, the audiences come out (at our book chat on Tuesday afternoon, someone counted 95 people!), and the writers are treated, oh, so well. The hotel was a haven, and I loved every peaceful minute I spent there. What a gift.

I slept soundly. I woke refreshed. I sat and wrote. I read. I ran on the treadmill. There was space to retreat to — I appreciated having that space, as well as having opportunities to connect. As something of an introvert, I need alone time to balance out the meeting and greeting.

Tiny side anecdote: One of the writers on Monday evening was Jess Walters (Beautiful Ruins), who was very funny — and thankfully last to read. He told a story about his dad, who just couldn’t wrap his head around the concept of a reading. “What — you wrote the book, now you gotta read it to them too?” Ha!

On Tuesday morning, I did not sleep in, but I got a nice cup of coffee, I wrote, and ran, and at 12:30 on the dot, with great regret, I checked out of my room and went for lunch. I decided to order a glass of wine with my meal. I sat alone at the table, and read. It was a strange luxury, not one I could imagine getting used to — not one I particularly would like to get used to, when it comes right down to it. But it was good because it was so unusual.

Then I went up to the hospitality suite and discovered a small frenzy, lots of people. Being a bit thick, I didn’t figure it out right away, plopped down on the couch, checked my phone, gazed around, and went, duh! That’s Richard Ford, Pulizter Prize winner, he of the steely blue eyes. We introduced ourselves and shook hands. The general atmosphere was of people excitedly dropping things and attempting not to sound ridiculously giddy or silly.

I missed his reading that evening. I was on a plane back to Toronto, which sounded disconcertingly like its muffler had fallen off.

When I walked through our front door, after midnight, I snuck around to every room and squeezed and kissed and hugged every child. In the morning, in the whirl and bustle of getting us all ready for school and work, nobody even asked: hey, Mom, how was Winnipeg? I though that was funny. It was a short trip, and I enjoyed it immensely, and I’m glad that it was so easy to slide back into home life, so easy that no one seemed to notice much that I’d come and gone. Or maybe they just accepted me back, as if I’d never left.

There’s a bit of that to travelling too. Being present in the moment. And then it’s gone, and it reverts to being almost dream-like in memory, vivid snippets, densely packed. I wonder which vivid snippets from Winnipeg will stick with me most strongly? There’s no telling.

This is what a holiday with four kids and two dogs looks like

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Sunday, day one. Pack up post-successful-soccer tournament and drive east 281 km to spend night in hotel, booked in advance. Eat pizza in truck. Feed dogs by roadside. Arrive after dark only to discover hotel has no adjoining rooms. And the gym is already closed. Split up into two rooms, boys and girls (with dogs in boys’).

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meeting their new cousin
Monday, day two. Take dogs to vet (it’s a complicated story). Spend morning at hotel, swimming, running on nearby lakeside trail. Pick up dogs mid-afternoon and drive east 111 km to visit new nephew/cousin. He’s only five days old!

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Tuesday, day three. Visiting with family, swimming in the basin of a nearby lock, running/hiking on a beautiful wooded trail, playing badminton and soccer, walking dogs on rocks, staying up late to watch silly tv (everyone) … oh, and doing that 11-year-old specialty: the I’m-bored flop.

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best picture ever
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Wednesday, day four. Brunch with grandma, aunt, uncle, cousins; say goodbye. Pack up and drive west and north 423 km. Threaten at various points during the journey to pack it in and just go home (arguing children, restless dogs, exhausted parents). Instead, surge ever onward. Until we get here.

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birthday on the boat
Thursday, day five. Dogs cry all night; luckily only Kevin and I can hear them; unluckily, we are running dangerously low on sleep. Luckily, I find on the cottage shelves a light and fluffy book into which to disappear for the better part of the day: The Nanny Diaries. And the children play. And we swim. And we walk the dogs around the rocks and woods. And we celebrate Fooey’s birthday (again!), this time on a boat in the middle of the lake.

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Friday, day six. Dogs sleep better. Kevin and I sleep better. Motorboat and water skiis tested out. More swimming. I disappear into past issues of The New Yorker, discover the journals of Mavis Gallant from Spain, early 1950s. As the writers of The Nanny Diaries would say: “Swoon.” (Only they’d say it about the hunky guy upstairs.)

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it's a beautiful world
Saturday, day seven. More water-skiing and boating. A long swim out to “Poop Island,” accompanied by kids and Kevin and my dad in canoe and kayaks. More long-form essays in The New Yorker devoured. More food eaten. Dogs happy in shade. Ahhhhhh.

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Sunday, day eight. More swimming, skiing, boating, eating, reading, all crammed in before a late lunch. Pack up. Boat out. Drive west and south 302 km, with interlude by the side of the road due to vehicle trouble. (Should have gotten a photo of that for posterity.) Four kids, two dogs, two parents, seventeen bags of dirty laundry, and by golly, we make it home. CJ: “This doesn’t feel like my bed! It feels different.”

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‘Til next summer, then.

:::

A brief addendum, applicable only today. I’m signing books this evening at Chapters in Waterloo from 6-8. Stop by if you’ve got a few minutes. We can chat about The Juliet Stories. Or swap summer holiday stories.

Just one small thing

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She’s at camp. And I miss her.

All the way home, after dropping her off, I felt a vague uneasiness, an undercurrent of anxiety. When I expressed it to Kevin, he understood. We were both feeling it. The feeling of not being near one of our children, which is a luxury we completely take for granted in every day life.

It came to me: this is parenthood. Our children are going to grow up and away from us, but we may not exactly grow up and away from them. In some fundamental way, we will always feel that they belong to us; even when they are quite certain they don’t.

I’m not talking about this little one, of course. She still makes her claims on me as strongly as I claim her. But in ten years? Twenty? Thirty?

Will it feel then, as it does right now, that a small piece of me has been mislaid?

Notes from a scattered mind

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Everything is winding down, summer holidays are nearly upon us, and the truth is that I’m feeling a little bit flat. A little bit weary. I sense that I’m jealously guarding my reserves of creative energy as if in fear they might run out, which is perhaps not the best strategy; after all, creativity feeds on its own bubbling forth. And I don’t actually believe it can be spent, entirely.

But my instincts feel protective, somehow. Cautious. Inward-looking.

I spent yesterday writing. My working title is The Girl Runner; but that might not last. All I will say of what I’ve written is that it’s unexpected in tone and content, and the writing itself feels like disappearing into a daydream. From which it can be hard to emerge. It’s like getting lost. But I’m often not aware I’m lost until I realize how much I’m struggling to connect with what the kids are saying to me, or to respond with coherence to their requests.

It’s possible that their mother memories will include them prompting me to finish sentences, reminding me of what we were just talking about. It’s convenient to blame the writing; but it’s not always even that. Sometimes I’m distracted by a scheduling conflict, or by some errand I’ve just remembered needs doing, or by a voice on the radio, or a newspaper article, or a conversation or dream freshly recalled. I don’t know why it is sometimes so difficult for me to ground myself in the present moment. There are times when I must deliberately force myself to follow a spoken response through to its conclusion, force myself to pay attention to the reply, force myself to hold the thread rather than to drift.

Scattered. I wonder, and worry: How can such a scattered woman manage a functional daily life, manage to keep her children fed, manage deadlines, and plotlines?

Perhaps this explains why I wrote The Juliet Stories as a fragmented narrative: why I ask the reader to piece together clues, and take leaps. I was honoured to read an extremely sympathetic review in The Winnipeg Review posted earlier this week; the reviewer understood and was not frustrated by the leaps in the book. Read her review here.

And if you’re interested in listening to me (try to) talk about the connections between the book and my own experience, earlier this week the CBC ran my “riff” on Shelagh Rogers’ book show, The Next Chapter. Click here, and find me at 37:13 (with thanks to the friend who figured that out).

At the very end of the interview, I mention that I haven’t asked my siblings how they feel about the book, and I say something air-headed like, “I hope that’s not a bad thing! [Giggle]” *(Aside: I should probably make it policy never to listen to interviews of myself.) Anyway, my brother Christian heard the interview, so he dropped by the other evening to let me know that he really liked the book. We ended up having a funny conversation about the real events he recognized, and how they were dropped into such different contexts, all mixed up; and I was relieved to hear that he didn’t read himself as the brother Keith. In fact, I think he might be the perfect degree of closeness to recognize exactly how fictional the Friesen family is. He said his wife, on the other hand, is exactly the wrong degree of closeness, knowing just enough about our family to imagine that the book is somehow veiled history. If you know just a few things about our family’s past, I can imagine it would be easy to make the leap. But if you were there for it too, there is no leap, because it isn’t what happened, and we’re not the characters.

If I ever write a book about my family, it will be a very different book, about a very different family; and, frankly, I can’t imagine attempting it. But there’s no doubt families are enormously compelling, and if I ever storm up the nerve to try, it would make for an interesting exploration.

If asked, I will tell you that I pray none of my children become writers. Personally, I think it would be a bit of a curse to have a writer for a child. We’re dangerous. And probably maddening. *(Another aside: I read a tweet recently in which a writer noted that writers of fiction are constantly being asked “what’s real?”, while writers of non-fiction are constantly being asked “what did you make up?” Obviously, audiences have a compulsion to understand the links between fact/fiction, life/imagination, memory/invention. Etc.)

Which brings me round-aboutly to The Glass Castle, which I’ve been reading all week. In fact, I went to bed extra-early last night in order to finish it. It’s a memoir about a family of such incredible dysfunction that it staggers the mind. What amazed me most profoundly was the love expressed throughout — love of child for parent, and parent for child — despite the author’s childhood of parent-induced agony and chaos and hunger and violence. Love is so complicated. It isn’t reasonable. It guarantees nothing. It can be the source of terrible wrongs. And yet even the most disastrously-expressed love seems to answer something in us; seems to be something we need and crave, and could not survive without.

I’m not bringing this post around to any kind of coherence. Other than this: writing can be an act of love. But it is sometimes — often? — an act that feels more like dire necessity, or selfish need; it takes me away from my children, it removes me from the present moment, it deposits me in imaginary spaces. I don’t know where it comes from, or why I need to do it. I just hope it does ultimately create artifacts of coherence, and patterning, and some kind of connection and truth. Because that’s what love is, isn’t it? Love is connection, no matter how tangled.

On readings, writings, and riding the big (metaphorical) waves

at the Starlight on Tuesday, photo credit Zara Rafferty
photo credit Zara Rafferty

 No, I’m not a real surfer. But life feels a bit ocean-like these days, rolling, never steady. I spent yesterday in Toronto. It turned out that parking was easier to find than anticipated, so that bike never left the back of my vehicle. (Although parallel parking on Queen St. West at rush hour was an exciting opportunity to test my driving skills.)

Some fine moments from my day …

:: smiling at people passing on the sidewalk, some of whom seemed shocked to be making eye contact with a stranger

:: meeting another Snyder from Kitchener-Waterloo at Book City, and trying to piece together our geneological connection

:: eating Korean stew with my lovely little sister on Bloor street; and hanging out together, not in a rush at all

:: making an it’s-a-small-world connection with Daniel Griffin (who also read last night at Type)

:: mingling with the awesome crowd at Type Books before the reading, and putting faces to blog-names

:: being introduced by the lovely Kerry Clare

:: reading a story to a group of people who were really listening

:: getting teaching-creative-writing advice from Heather Birrell (who is a high school English teacher, and who also read last night)

:: finding all the dishes done when I got home

Some less-fine moments …

:: worrying about my dress

:: the chilly wind that swept Toronto all of yesterday

:: forgetting someone’s name during the book signing (AUGH! This happens virtually every time, and every time I curse my name-bank-blank-spot. This is how bad it is: I have literally blanked on the name of a family friend, known for twenty-five years, and seen on a regular basis. I don’t know how that’s even possible. And I hope it doesn’t indicate early onset dementia.)

But this is all to say: Life’s good. It’s messy and it’s good. It’s crazy and whirling and I couldn’t quite believe that I was up at 5am this morning for a spin/kettlebell class, and there’s dirt all over the basement, and I have a basket of laundry waiting to be hung, and no, I will never catch up on my emails — or, really, on anything at all, ever — but this is it. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything less. I love the doors open policy that brings five boys into my house on a Wednesday after school (and leaves behind sweaters not belonging to my kids; be sure to check our lost and found pile, parents). I love seeing my kids excited about moving dirt into new garden beds (yesterday’s major project, overseen by Kevin, bless him). I love lifting kettlebells over my head (is that too weird?). I love getting to read my stories out loud.

Keep the waves coming.

Photos for the Christmas letter: the outtakes

Let’s begin by gathering together the joyful participants in this afternoon’s all-family project. Joyful, I said. Joyful participants.

Kevin (silently): What the hell, son? What the hell?

It’s always thrilling to discover new talents in one’s offspring.

Apparently, we have a natural born ham. Please, sir, may I have some more?

CJ acts out another scenario unseen by the rest of us.

Giant robot coming! Must defeat it with laser eyeballs!

I include this just because it’s so supremely awkward. CJ is about to do a runner. I’m, you know, smiling! Fooey’s vogueing. Enough with the jazz hands. And we’re done.

It would be nice to report that the photograph chosen to grace our Christmas letter (yes, we’re going to do a Christmas letter this year!) is far superior than these. It would be nice.

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