At the Wild Writers Festival this weekend, here in Waterloo, I took my daughter along to volunteer. At lunchtime, I gave her some money and she went across the street to the grocery store to buy herself something for lunch.
Something for lunch, as purchased by AppleApple: a 500 ml tub of lime-flavoured Greek yogurt; a plastic-wrapped English cucumber; a loaf of Italian-style bread.
She found me in the green room, chatting with a handful of writers/editors/publishers, sat down beside me at the table. “This must be your daughter,” was a refrain we heard all day. “What’s that?” said the editor. “It’s my lunch,” said my daughter.
And then, this-must-be-my-daughter proceeded to eat the cucumber, whole, in great munching bites. I didn’t see what happened to the bread. The yogurt she polished off directly too. I could not have been more proud.
The thing about blogging is that so much gets left out. I haven’t, so far, made this a particularly political space. It’s not terribly ideological either. That doesn’t mean I lack for political thoughts and opinions, simply that I haven’t felt this to be the place and space to raise them.
I’m struggling with this choice at present. There are zeitgeist moments when an issue seems to get ripped open and demand conversation. But the conversation is never ever simple, that’s why issues are buried and need an almost shocking violence to bring them to the surface; we don’t want to have these conversations. Why would we? They’re painful. They tear us apart. They challenge our safe ideas of who we are. In Canada, that issue is sexual harassment and violence against women, and underlying it, biases and beliefs so entrenched that we don’t even notice they’re there. It’s distressing and depressing to be talking about this again or still. I suspect that no one wants to talk about this less than women. I consider myself an equal. I consider our culture much-changed and for the better. But it hurts my head to try to make melodic the dissonant chords of experience.
Consider this. A woman on stage presenting her book: she looks like she doesn’t care, she gives off an aura of irritation, responds to questions with her own personal grievances, cuts others off, and appears to be drunk. Would this ever happen? I’ve never seen it. But I’ve seen a man on stage doing that. (Granted, it’s unlikely to win him fans, but he still feels like he can do it.)
Maybe that’s a bad example. I would never want to feel like I could do that.
What about this? A woman writer on stage making fun of the other writers on stage, all in good fun. This also almost never happens, but if you think about it, friendly mockery is frequently the patter between men on stage, and it is funny, it’s appealing, not negative. So why do women rarely do it? Could we get away it? I wonder. It’s not that women can’t be funny on stage. I’ve seen a lot of funny women on stage these past two months. But here’s the difference: women on stage make fun of themselves. (So do men sometimes; I’m not suggesting otherwise.) That’s funny too. It’s self-deprecating. But it’s not the same thing.
I think that’s the difference between the privilege of being taken at face value, of being given the benefit of the doubt, and not. Some of us women would like to be joking around in public with the men (and women), joining in the joke—really, that’s what it is. Some of us would like not always to be so damn self-deprecating in order to get laughs. We would like to be taken seriously without having to be so serious. I would like that very much, at least on occasion. I would like it to be an option. This is a small small observation, and you may think it unrelated to the issue at hand, and certainly it’s not serious in the way that sexual harassment and violence is serious. But I think it’s a small piece of the larger picture. It points to a difference in the parameters of public behaviour open to women who wish to be taken seriously, versus men.
Listen. I’m a polite Canadian woman. I fear offending. I’m not especially brave. (And may not be very funny, either.) I prefer to be liked. I can’t help worrying as I push publish on this post. But I’m going to push it anyway.
There is so much in this interview with Alice Munro, from 1994 in The Paris Review, that I want to go on quoting and quoting from it. Here is a sample. I urge you to read the whole thing (pour yourself a cup of tea and enjoy the length, depth, and breadth of the conversation). And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction.
MUNRO I was like a Victorian daughter—the pressure to marry was so great, one felt it was something to get out of the way: Well, I’ll get that done, and they can’t bug me about it, and then I’ll be a real person and my life will begin. I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, This was a hard-hearted young woman. I’m a far more conventional woman now than I was then.
INTERVIEWER Doesn’t any young artist, on some level, have to be hard-hearted?
MUNRO It’s worse if you’re a woman. I want to keep ringing up my children and saying, Are you sure you’re all right? I didn’t mean to be such a . . . Which of course would make them furious because it implies that they’re some kind of damaged goods. Some part of me was absent for those children, and children detect things like that. Not that I neglected them, but I wasn’t wholly absorbed. When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I’ve told her that. This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me. I feel I’ve done everything backwards: this totally driven writer at the time when the kids were little and desperately needed me. And now, when they don’t need me at all, I love them so much. I moon around the house and think, There used to be a lot more family dinners.
And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction. After a while, Munro took us to Goderich, a bigger town, the county seat, where she installed us in the Bedford Hotel on the square across from the courthouse. The hotel is a nineteenth-century building with comfortable rooms (twin beds and no air-conditioning) that would seem to lodge a librarian or a frontier schoolteacher in one of Munro’s stories. Over the next three days, we talked in her home, but never with the tape recorder on. We conducted the interview in our small room at the hotel, as Munro wanted to keep “the business out of the house.” Both Munro and her husband grew up within twenty miles of where they now live; they knew the history of almost every building we passed, admired, or ate inside. We asked what sort of literary community was available in the immediate area. Although there is a library in Goderich, we were told the nearest good bookstore was in Stratford, some thirty miles away. When we asked whether there were any other local writers, she drove us past a ramshackle house where a man sat bare chested on the back stoop, crouched over a typewriter, surrounded by cats. “He’s out there every day,” she said. “Rain or shine. I don’t know him, but I’m dying of curiosity to find out what he’s up to.”
I would like to announce that this blog post is being written while my feet are in motion. I’m going nowhere, but that’s the beauty of a treadmill desk. I can walk while writing. I can’t walk particularly quickly, lest I get all caught up in a thought and forget where I am (dangerous), and also because for reasons of practicality I can’t really type while sweating and moving my arms, as one does while pacing at a good clip. So I’m trying out a conservative pace of 1 mile an hour.
One nice thing I’ve noticed so far: I often drift off while writing, and need to stare out the window and wait to figure out what comes next. Now I can drift off and yet my feet keep moving, so there’s a sense of continuity, of going somewhere. I am a woman who loves motion.
One not-so-nice thing I’ve noticed so far: I tend to feel a little nauseated for the first few minutes after I step off the machine. I do tend toward motion sickness, and can’t read while in the car, or even turn around to fetch drinks or settle disputes, which is why I am the driver on long trips, and Kevin is the mediator/snack-dispenser. The queasy feeling doesn’t last long, so I’m optimistic that I will get my sea legs, so to speak. My treadmill desk legs. If not, this set-up will still work just as well as a standing desk. The point is not to sit all day.
Photos have been requested. AppleApple took these this morning.
It’s surprising how easy it is to type and walk. But I hope that by typing while walking I will not limit myself to typing about walking, if you know what I mean. I do not intend to announce my writing location every single time I get on here to write.
I want to thank the many people who responded to my blog post on making mountains out of piles of dirty laundry. Seems I’m not alone in my parenting angst. To update you: little has changed regarding the bedroom floor, but it has been nice to talk about other things with said child. And said child did spontaneously remove clean folded clothes from the laundry basket and deposit clothes into their proper drawers without being asked. So there’s hope.
I feel like this blog is kind of a many-headed monster. It roams the court. One day, you check in and it’s nothing but cute photos of my kids. The next, I’m deep into writer-territory. I get philosophical at times, and at other times I aim to entertain. I have no idea what’s going to come out when I
sit down stand up to write. That’s the joy of writing a blog, although I suppose it keeps this blog from being neatly categorized as one thing or another. On FB I follow the Canadian writer Richard Wagamese whose poetical and inspirational status updates are well worth receiving on a daily basis. He posted lately about giving yourself permission to write spontaneously on any subject that comes to you for 15 minutes every day: a writing practice, if you will.
That’s what this blog is, really. A writing practice.
I’ve spent the day doing chores. It’s made me nothing but grumpy. I’ll never be done. And the house will never quite be to satisfaction no matter how much I do. I did cut one son’s hair, which felt like an accomplishment (that he didn’t hate it felt like an even greater one). But the rest of it: changing bedding, vacuuming under things, sorting and discarding and filing and emptying and washing and folding. Argh!!!!! That sums up my feelings on the subject. The day began with the dogs whining before 7am, so I got up and walked them, hoping the rest of the house could sleep a bit longer. Me and two little eager doggies traversing the neighbourhood through freshly fallen snow. I’ll admit I enjoyed it. But I started at 7 with duties and responsibilities and it’s been nothing but duties and responsibilities ever since. Sometimes I don’t feel like an adult at all.
Or maybe it’s that I’m tempted to play the artist card — as in, should I really be spending my precious time on drudgery! Last night, the two older kids and Kevin and I watched part of a movie on the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy (AppleApple is doing a school project on environmental/nature art). The documentary was a bit slow-moving and I fell asleep, but before I fell asleep I simultaneously found myself admiring the art and the process, and thinking: wow, this man is privileged. “Did he remind you of yourself?” Kevin asked this morning, as we were talking about Goldsworthy’s artistic process. “No,” I said. “He really didn’t.”
And then I went off on a (chore-accompanied) diatribe about how there is a reason that women who have four young children don’t go off and stick icicles together in foreign countries in pursuit of their art (in the documentary Goldsworthy has four children under the age of 10). The reason is: we really can’t. I’ve yet to meet a woman artist whose husband takes care of the day-to-day minutiae, the child-care, and the domestic logistics so that she can be free to roam inside her own head, pursuing her vision, and disappearing, even if only metaphorically, for days at a time. Sure, those of us with artistic inclinations, who also happen to be women and the mothers of young children, find ways to pursue our ambitions and get things done. But in my experience, it’s squeezed in. It’s one among a cascade of urgent and important calls. I’m not sure I’d want it any other way, because I’m not over-keen on the notion of artistic privilege. I think it’s good to get my hands dirty with the day to day, and I accept the challenge of learning to alter my focus and not on my own whim; to let go. It keeps me from feeding my obsessive compulsive side, at least over-much.
So, as much as I’d like to play the artist card, I think it’s best that I can’t. It isn’t what got me here. (And while I’m on the subject of privilege, this also got me thinking about the privileges I have that I may not recognize: privileges that I live inside of, quite possibly in daily ignorance of the advantages granted me by birthplace, skin colour, class, religion, education, and on and on.)
Okay, one final observation about writing while walking. I really do go on and on! I just don’t seem to know when to stop! My sincere apologies for this over-long post, which seems to defy tidy categorization, and which has taken me nearly a mile to write. (And I promise not to report that at the end of every future post.)
Hi there. For some reason this old blog post, titled “Where mom-at-home meets working-mom” has gotten a ton of hits this week, so I went back to re-read it, and found myself entirely drawn in to the conversation (if you go to read it, too, definitely read through the comments).
It was originally written in October, 2011: nearly two years ago.
I was asking myself some tough questions.
**When I unpeel myself from them [my kids], who am I? **Who am I outside this home? And the question I’m most scared of, the one I really want to ask: **How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at-home?
It’s funny how these questions have answered themselves. The good fortune of having The Juliet Stories recognized danced me outside of the house, and unpeeled me from them. And it turns out that the answer to those questions is: I’m pretty much exactly the same person, except in nicer clothes (maybe: ask my stylish daughter).
What about this question: How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at home?
Now there’s a tougher one. Clearly, my career has developed in the past two years. I have publishing contracts for two new books, essays in three upcoming anthologies, and a new teaching job. I field regular invitations to do readings and host literary events. That said, it’s not a career that involves full-time hours and the corresponding full-time pay. It’s a pretty insecure career, built around a constant flow of push and energy that must be generated by me alone. Funny, kind of sounds like parenting. Turns out that my working self is not all that removed from my mom-at-home self. Both roles have developed and changed, but it’s not like one cancels out the other. Maybe my original question framed it wrong: it’s not either/or. How could it be?
What’s gotten cancelled out is other things I didn’t expect. I miss my playgroup, meeting up with other women once a week — the regular, routine warmth and connection that I have yet to replace. I rarely bake anymore, and haven’t canned a thing this summer; probably won’t. I don’t have the energy, even if I had the time. We now have a dishwasher and I drive much more than I’d like to, ferrying older children to extra-curriculars. I’m alone a lot, which I relish and appreciate (it is essential to my work), even while missing contact that can’t be replaced by social media. Oddly, the thing I thought I’d miss — full-on time with my children — I don’t, because, as it turns out, we still share a ton of activities, scheduled and unscheduled. You never stop being a parent, no matter what else you might be doing.
But here’s a confession: this past winter, I tried to find a traditional job. You know, a job-job. This is an insurance town, so most of the openings were inside insurance companies. We were going through a tough financial spell, and my writing career had never seemed more risky and indulgent. I sent out a dozen resumes. I received one reply. ONE. It was a no-thank-you, but I was grateful even for that. The worst thing about the experience was discovering that I wasn’t even qualified for jobs I didn’t want, let alone jobs I did. Thankfully, we got through the very bad month and the slightly-less-bad next month, and our fortunes steadily improved again. But the fear lingers: that if my family were to need me to find a job-job, to keep us afloat, I would be useless as tits on a bull, as my mother-in-law would say.
It’s been a decade since the famous (infamous?) “Opt-out revolution” article was published, interviewing women who’d given up promising careers to become stay-at-home moms. I’m not sure I gave up a promising career when I became a stay-at-home mom at the age of 26, but I had recently been promoted, and the opportunity to advance and develop within my chosen field of media / publishing / editing / journalism was there. I can’t remember whether I related to the women in the original article, but I remember thinking it was annoying, setting up this dichotomy between women, making it so either/or. Aren’t we all in this together, I thought?
I also thought, secretly, quietly, that there would be time for everything, and I didn’t appreciate being told that one choice might disadvantage me in another area of my life.
Recently, a follow-up article was published on those same “opt-out” women interviewed a decade ago: what had happened to them? (“The opt-out generation wants back in.”) Well, the economy had happened to them (all were American). Most had gone back to work, whether they wanted to or not; most had found it difficult to re-start their careers, and many had taken jobs that were below where they had been or could have been. Those whose marriages had ended were particularly disadvantaged and struggling. Few, however, expressed regret about their original choice. One woman struck me particularly — she had been in a traditional media job (like me), and found it virtually impossible to find work in a much-changed industry. The article ends with her landing an exciting job, after searching for several years, but at much less pay than she would have earned a decade before, only to have the project shut down six weeks later, and everyone let go. She was back to square one.
Let me tell you, I sure related to that article with a pang of recognition. Yet, I can’t feel regret, either. Because there are other interesting questions posed in my post, two years ago, questions that seem at least as significant, and more mysterious. I can’t answer them, especially the last one, but that’s why they’re so fascinating.
**Where am I heading, at my breakneck pace? **What am I failing to stop for? **What if I can’t squeeze every fascinating everything in? **What matters? **Will I always be so impatient? So goal-oriented? **Can I be both ambitious and content, or do those two states of mind cancel each other out?
Because it isn’t all about money, is it? If I look directly into my fear, and stare over the precipice of what would happen to my family were we thrown into financial crisis, and it were suddenly up to me alone to support us, I see many possibilities beyond disaster. I see family and friends. I see lifestyle changes and probably a lot of creative improvisation. I see a web of connections. We’re not without resources — I’m not without resources. That’s what I see, two years on, despite my recent experience of hunting for jobs I didn’t want and for which I was not qualified.
Because, I see, too, that I am already qualified for other jobs — ones I do want. This work might not offer the same security and stability, but maybe that just keeps me a step closer to reality. Stability is an illusion anyway, as we all secretly know.
It’s a gift to be doing what I love. I love being a mother. I love writing. I love thinking things through. My hope for myself, now and future, is that every time I doubt or question, I return to this: gratitude.
I’ve been paying attention to my reading habits more closely this year, and I’ve been surprised by what draws me, by what I find my appetite craving. In children’s literature, it’s the classics that pull me in, even on the millionth read. I’ve also enjoyed without reservation reading fiction by men, this year (which, although I haven’t deliberately avoided in my long reading life, seems anomalous somehow). And I’ve been pulled, relentlessly, to non-fiction, especially memoir.
I enjoy a variety of styles, and often stand back to admire the craft involved in, say, a light and amusing “easy” read, as much as in a book that is complex and innovative. Sometimes I want to be entertained, pure and simple. Sometimes I long to be challenged, or to gaze in awe and wonder. The lightness or darkness of a book’s subject matter or intellectual heft does not matter greatly to me. My taste is broad.
I don’t read idly, however. I read professionally. I really enjoy this aspect of my reading life. It’s hugely energizing and inspiring.
Always, always, as I read, I look for clues. I read to discover how to write better — how to write what I would want to read. And what I want to read is a book that connects.
Here’s another way of putting it: I want to want to keep reading.
The books I love are not a chore. They do not bore.
I’ve observed that certain issues get in the way of my pleasure. Some are fixable, some perhaps not. Lazy copy editing is troubling and very fixable. Laziness in general is troubling. If I’m mentally editing out unnecessary passages, paragraphs, or stray words, it’s going to cause me to stumble in my enjoyment. I can forgive a story an enormous flaw, because I truly believe that sometimes stories are bettered by their flaws. (Consider, for example, Little Women, and Jo never getting together with Laurie, instead marrying that shambling professor who, despite Louisa May Alcott’s valiant attempts to tell the reader how much we should love him too, simply cannot measure up to what might have been — that is a flaw that doesn’t ruin the the reading experience, but keeps it going in the imagination ever after.) But I can’t excuse the lazy flaw, the needed-another-draft, the published-too-soon flaw.
A writer who works, that gives me pleasure.
The evidence of a writer’s work, craft, and practice comes across clearly, to me, in a book’s structural and narrative coherence and imagination. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s not brought about by the kind of writing people imagine writers to be doing: the fevered, drunken, mad creative flurry whose allure appeals in adolescence and fades sharply thereafter. I outgrew it too many years ago now to remember, without some effort, why I ever found it appealing (which I did, and which many aspiring writers/artists do).
What I admire now is the invisible work behind the seemingly effortless offering. Brilliant, I think. And also, thank you. Thank you for your work!
I’m reading two works of non-fiction right now (yes, simultaneously). One I’m enjoying enormously. The other, not so much. The comparison is not entirely fair, as comparisons never are, but there it is.
The one I’m adoring and rationing out while wanting to devour is The Books of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon, a memoir that defies easy description because it is about matters moral, ethical, disturbing, and deeply enlightening. The one I just finished, hurrying because I wanted the essays to end, please, is Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, a memoir on spirituality that felt sloppy, incomplete, and, yes, that dreaded word, lazy. It was a book that seemed to want to give me advice. It told me what to think, rather than opened me to new thoughts. Hemon is telling stories. Lamott distracts with anecdotes. Stories are puzzles that go deep and don’t necessarily tell us what to believe, but instead ask us what we do believe and why, and we wonder how we got to where we are and whether we might change, and how. Where does an anecdote take us? Back to the writer herself, who sure as heck doesn’t want us to forget she’s there. Be brave enough to get out of the way, I wanted to tell Lamott, and let your stories speak for themselves.
I don’t think this necessarily divides along gender lines, although I’ll admit it troubles me slightly that the books I’ve been loving this year have mostly been by men. I don’t know why that is, and there may be no conclusions to be drawn. But here’s what I’m learning from my reading this year: I want to get out of the way when I write, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction. I want, also, to connect. And I do not think those ideas stand in opposition.
patterns of play
Last night I played with the boys. Not these boys, above, but with Kevin’s men’s soccer team. I scrimmaged with his team two weeks ago, and came home feeling too down on myself to try the following week. It wasn’t that I’d played badly. It was that I wasn’t comfortable with the dynamic of being the only girl. I felt like I had to prove myself. I’m a small woman. I’ve played soccer for less than a year. None of my shots on net went in. That’s what I kept telling myself, remembering all of the errors.
Kevin, being the awesome coach that he is, focused instead on all the things I’d done right. He was disappointed when I skipped.
So I came back to play again. I came back despite playing a game of unfulfilled potential on Sunday afternoon with my women’s team. I’ve learned how to get myself into good space, into the clear. I get lots of chances to run onto the net with the ball. And the damn ball just doesn’t go in. Albus tagged along to my Sunday afternoon game, and had a few tips afterward: “You need to learn how to shoot, Mom. You’re not doing it right. It sounds like you’re kicking it with your toe.” I also need to learn how to receive the ball in the air, and how to head the ball, and, oh, a few other things too. I was proud of my kid for being so knowledgeable — he’s playing rep soccer for the first time this season and he’s worked very hard to improve his skills, and I love that he knows what he’s talking about. But …
Me: “I’m going to need some positive feedback, too, lest my spirit be crushed.” Him: “Oh … yeah … um …” Long pause. Me: “Seriously? Nothing good?” Him: “I’m thinking. It’s hard! Oh, yeah, there was that time you ran really fast and kept the ball in. I thought it was going out.” Long pause. “Me: “That’s it?” Him: “Um … ”
My spirit was a wee bit crushed, my initial reaction being, Oh, God, I’m too old to improve. But then I thought, hey these are technical skills I’m lacking, and I’ve got the other stuff that belies my age, the speed, the strength, the grit. And there’s only one way to improve my technical skills, and that’s to keep practicing. Plus, it’s fun. I love playing.
So I laced up again last night, and went back to scrimmage with the boys. When I heard my inner voice saying, I’m not good enough to be here, I countered with, it’s up to me to decide whether or not I belong, whether or not I’m good enough. So I played like I belonged — or tried to. And I felt a subtle difference by the end of the game. Yes, I made lots of mistakes. But I also set up plays, used space well, challenged for the ball and won sometimes. I even used a couple of turns I’ve never tried before. The boys were passing me the ball. They knew my name. I got some high fives.
I grew up with three younger brothers. As a child, I always played with the boys, though it was usually baseball. My brother Christian taught me how to throw. Then, as now, I was quick and strong, small but wiry. I’ll admit that I often felt more comfortable playing with boys than girls, and it was hard, during my teen years, to understand that boys were no longer looking at me as being one of them, but as being different. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a girl: I just wanted to be a girl who knew a lot about sports (I learned by osmosis), who could play as hard as the boys. But somehow my sex got mixed up in it. My prettiness became a power I didn’t know how to manage. It made me feel vulnerable. Subject rather than participant. I stopped talking sports sometime in my early teens, stopped trying to perfect my overhand throw, stopped playing with the boys.
I haven’t played with them since. Until now. It makes me realize that I’ve kind of missed doing that. I think it’s a desire to transcend the assumptions that go along with my female body. It’s a desire to play, pure and simple, no matter who’s on the field.