That title is grammatically incorrect. Forgive me. It sounds perfect to my ears.
Here it is: good news, arriving in my inbox and waiting for me to get home from running errands on bicycle yesterday, with kids shouting in the stroller behind. I was so busy that I only had time to skim the message once before jumping back into the other projects in my life, namely, cooking, laundry, and children. (Laundry: how can there be so much of you? you never give up).
This was news from my other life, the one where I’m a writer. It was a long message from my editor, who had finished reading the draft of The Juliet Stories I sent awhile back. I’d written many new stories for the revision, and was praying she would like where I’d taken the book.
First, the “bad” news, which is easy to swallow: I will need to rework two stories from the opening section, possibly combining them into one. I like her suggestion to combine the two and will put on my thinking cap. I’m pretty much always up to a good challenge. I will have a month or so to do this. I estimate it will take me three full long days of work, assuming the ideas flow. If they don’t; well, I won’t go there. Why assume the worst?
Because the best is the rest of my editor’s message, of which I’ll share my favourite part here. The hard work, the isolated hours, the years of doubt, all add up to: “My heart was in my throat as I read these new stories.” Emotional connection: it’s what I crave for my writing. I also appreciated, and read with much relief, the line: “The book is cohering so beautifully now …”
I like to think this “Obscure Canlit Mama” blog, now in its third year, had something to do with the creation of The Juliet Stories. It’s brought me connections with other writers; allowed me to be vulnerable; and it’s given me permission to embrace myself as a writer. Sometimes just saying something out loud is enough to make it real.
And now to spend a weekend celebrating by eating cheese, swimming in a lake (I hope–in my borrowed wetsuit), and communing with friends who’ve been with me since I was way more mama than writer. (I’m still way more mama than writer, but I’m not intensive-pregnant-nursing-mama anymore; and somehow that’s changed how I imagine my life and explore other parts of the whole. They’re out of the cocoon, in a way, and so am I).
One last thing. My editor also described The Juliet Stories as “deeply feminist,” which surprised me. It’s not that I don’t see myself as feminist (I do! I am!), but I never imagined writing with the intention of expressing a political viewpoint. I hope she means that the book explores the emotional and physical potential in women’s lives. I do think of my characters, especially the women, as free, somehow; or as free as any human being can be, to claim their own lives and essential selves, and to make choices beyond the boundaries of gender, while still understanding and partaking in the potential of their bodies. “My soul felt decidedly less shrunken when I’d finished reading it,” my editor wrote.
Next up: a complicated rewrite for two thematically linked stories. Followed by the line edit. Followed by … book cover design? Copy editing? And the big intake of breath before the finished book exists and hits stores, and makes its attempt to kick out a place for itself in the tough and largely indifferent world. If I learned anything from the first time around, it’s to enjoy the moments when they come, and not try to put them away and save them for later. Enjoy in a big way. Laugh, cry, shout. Forget muted gestures. There is no way to store the rush of immediacy. Which is why I let myself bask in the feeling of relief yesterday afternoon, in the midst of busyness. Ahhhh.
Writing week. This is the official week of writing, planned many moons ago. Last week, I started the new year with an extra day and a half of writing, and a brand-new story, and inspired energy and spirit; which was quickly subtracted by losing a day and a half of writing at the end of the week due to a mild stomach virus. Thankfully, only the youngest succumbed, and it was never terrible (and when it comes to stomach viruses, I know from terrible, let me tell you; or, rather, I’d best not tell you).
Where was I?
Up and down, that was last week. I ended the week feeling low indeed, struggling with a story that has plagued me since its conception back in June. I’ve been telling myself (very helpfully) that the story is more ambitious than my talents. And it may be, that. Or, it may be that I’ve been shovelling into this one story far too much; stories can only hold what they can hold. I spent the weekend in a grumpy panicky state, distracted, anxious, wondering whether I’d lost my nerve here at the last minute; because the damn book is so close to done. This story is the last major story that needs to be written. After this, it’s tinkering and chink-filling and trim.
I did what I could. I tried to remember what works. I did not curl up in bed under the covers (though it was awfully tempting). I prepared for this upcoming writing week the only way I know how: in the kitchen. I baked a batch of granola, filled a container with oatmeal cookies, converted four litres of milk into fresh yogurt, cookied up a batch of tomato sauce for quick meals this week, and finished my Sunday evening by baking four loaves of wholesome bread. I also ran errands, restocked the pantry, went for two long runs, to church, and to a kundalini yoga class. But “class” isn’t the right word for this semi-regular event, led by a friend and shared with other friends; it’s more like a religious experience. It’s pretty much impossible to put into words. I just tried, and erased my attempt. But I think the feeling that is shared in that warm dimly lit studio room is of collective joy: individual effort that somehow becomes shared effort, appreciation, compassion.
I left that beautiful room believing myself capable of finishing the book. I also left knowing I’d scrap the story and start from scratch. I trust yoga to open me to big/simple ideas: that was my big/simple idea. I also understood the image this new story will revolve around.
I think this weekend was good for me. It was unpleasant in a lot of ways: hard not to be writing, hard to bide my time, hard to live with such uncomfortable anxiety and to be around others; but I’m proud of myself for slogging onward. It’s really all that can be done when staring down doubt. In the past, I might have holed up and gone even more interior. It’s difficult to talk to friends, to reach out, or even just to be out and about when in a state of anxious distraction; but that’s exactly when it’s so important to keep on keeping on. It’s not about faking it. It’s about continuing to feed yourself even when you don’t feel hungry.
My writing week started yesterday, with a bang: a brand-new story to fill another chink (though not the major story). Today, I attempt it. The big one. It’s going to be a whole lot smaller. Maybe it will be small enough to fit into a dimly lit warm room crowded with friends. Who are chanting. We’re all chanting.
Poetry book club … an idea hatched several years ago (though not by me), and never quite brought to fruition, finally became an actual factual multi-participant event last night. We read Pigeon, by Karen Solie (this year’s winner of the Griffin Poetry prize). The group was (mostly) self-selected from a Facebook status I posted a few months back. Turns out there are people out there willing to identify as poetry readers–or, more importantly, as readers willing to try chomping through poetry. And then to talk to others about it. Why does this often seem so hard, beyond impossible–both the reading of poetry, and then the talking about? As if the process revolves around a test that we will pass, or, we fear more likely, fail.
So. Can a group of people who don’t all know each other terribly well get together and talk about poetry? Um, yes, we can. Turns out that we can talk, and talk, and talk about poetry. After some introductions, we just hopped right in. Everyone had read the poems (a good start), and we all had opinions, favourites, lines that stuck with us, bafflements, questions, hesitations, dislikes; and few conclusions. A gigantic dictionary was referenced. Cheese was eventually eaten, wine imbibed, host’s children kept up by the seemingly inexhaustible interest we brought to this book of poems.
As one of us observed, we were talking about the poems, not (as novel-reading book clubs often do, ahem, been there, done that) veering away from the text to reference our own experiences. A poem addresses (or tries to address) a vast and existential question, in the most compressed form. It is almost too distilled to elicit an anecdote. It needs treatment both more personal and less specific. It has multiple levels. And like any artistic creation, it is partially made by the person who is consuming it, though in poetry this connection between poet and reader seems even stronger; what is the ephemeral creation being made and discovered on the page out of images and emotion?
We quickly threw out any pretense of knowing-nothing. Of course, we all know enough to talk about a poem. And it is ever so crazy much easier to talk about when others are talking about it, too. We filled a couple of hours with talking about poetry.
A few favourite moments: When we discussed a poem called “The Cleaners,” which ends with the speaker hearing a song piped out of a nearby shop, sung by a singer “who is a national treasure,” it turned out that at least three of us had imagined who the singer was, though he/she isn’t identified. I loved that. (Leonard Cohen; Anne Murray; Celine Dion). I also loved the debate around the poem “Pigeon,” which baffled many of us–especially those of us who were looking for an easy solution to the book. Ah, so this will tell us what it all means!, followed rapidly by increased puzzlement and disappointment. Except, after talking and talking about the poem, it began to seem that “Pigeon” was actually just that–the key to everything, the answer to the riddle (and a riddle itself). At least, that’s how it seemed to me. I never in a million careful solitary readings would have gotten at that idea.
Next up: Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House. I’m going to look up her more recent collection, The Door, too.
I’m guessing there will be some blog readers out there with suggestions. Please, please, please send your recommendations, favourites, must-reads. We just might–read.
The photo is totally unrelated, but there you see AppleApple heading for the finish line in her second-ever cross country race (it was about 2km in length), run late last week and sadly unrecorded up till now. She finished much better than she’d expected, and was filled with excitement. The same could be said of her mother.
We need some photos up here, a snapshot of our past week, a sampling of all the family activities we’re burning through on a regular basis. Above, what remained after the neighbourhood street party last weekend: face painting and tattoos.
This year, Albus and AppleApple are both continuing with conventional piano lessons (ie. reading music, music theory); but both are also being taught by my brother Karl, who is a professional musician (sample my siblings’ band’s music; they’re called Kidstreet)–Albus is learning guitar, and AppleApple is learning the drums. Karl is teaching them by ear rather than by sight, and Albus has started learning “power chords,” and is playing along with songs, while AppleApple is learning the basic drum riffs (the child is a drum machine; her foot on the bass sounds a thump that would reverberate in a dance club). CJ really really really wanted to play both drums and guitar; above, his big bro is letting him practice strumming.
Oh, and we had friends over for supper the other night, and it ended in a mud bath in the backyard (sorry, parents of friends). Of course, the kids were having the most fun ever, going primal and painting themselves and throwing mud balls. It all ended in the bath, but there were no tears.
Had a long conversation yesterday morning with Albus. He wanted to talk about two things: one, when can we get a Wii and why don’t we have one when everyone else does? and two, why can’t he have a friend birthday party with presents?
On one, at least there are still a few friends in the neighbourhood whom I could point to as being similarly Wii-less. But that’s not really the point. The point is that we don’t choose to do things just because our friends are doing it too. And the reason we haven’t gotten a Wii yet (though we may, eventually) is because Kevin and I prefer to encourage creative, active, cooperative play–and we see our children playing in these ways when they are given the freedom and time to do so. The best moments in my life, right now, are watching my children playing together–all four of them. In this play, they learn how to solve problems, how to compromise, and how to find ways to include everyone. It doesn’t always run smoothly, and there are plenty of moments which cannot be romanticized. I don’t think a Wii would ruin this. But I also don’t think it would enhance it. What I explained to Albus was that if/when we decide as a family to get a Wii, it will only be after we’ve come to an agreement about how often it should be played, and when, and under what circumstances (ie. special rules for holidays? after school? once a week? weekends only?). It would become like the television is for us, and the DVD player: something we have, but choose not to use without considering others activities first.
Did Albus hear what I was saying? Debatable. “So I can get one for my birthday?” “No, I don’t think so.” “So I can get one for Christmas?” “I don’t know.” “When can I get one? Could I get a DS instead?”
Onto question two … Albus is already planning his birthday party (which won’t be till May, on his birthday). “Could my friends bring presents this time?” “No, we don’t do friend parties with presents.” “But why? I would get so many toys!”
Since we started hosting friend parties for the kids’ birthdays (around age six), we chose to request no gifts. Cards welcome. We got a few phone calls from baffled parents who really really really wanted to bring a gift, but everyone has so far respected the request; the way I see it, the gift is the presence of friends. We also don’t hand out giant loot bags afterward, but like to send every kid home with something they’ve made at the party, or a related but inexpensive prop used at the party: ie. one year I found pretty little china tea cups and saucers at a thrift shop for a tea party; another year, Kevin designed and made personalized t-shirts that all the kids wore to a “bike rally.” Nothing fancy. The birthday child gets to the choose the party theme, what to eat, who to invite, what the cake should look like, etc. It’s a fair bit of work for us, and held in the child’s honour, and adding ten gifts into the mix never made sense to Kevin and me. Like over-salting the soup. We also always host a family party for the birthday child, to which aunts and uncles and grandparents are invited–and gifts are brought. They don’t need to mine their friends for extra treasure. There are already gifts in abundance.
Does this sound like an odd, puritanical rule? I appreciate that giving gifts is something that many people want to do.
But we’re trying to live a less wasteful life, less packaging, less of what we don’t really need.
And we live in a country that is enormously privileged and we sometimes forget that and want more and more and more, without recognizing how much we already have. (I’ve observed this phenomenon at other moments with the kids: If I put out a big buffet of a snack, everyone goes greedy, grabbing and hoarding, even though there’s more than enough. If I put out a small and simple snack, the greed disappears.)
By the end of the conversation (which wasn’t the lecture that appears above; sorry to be so dull today), Albus seemed reconciled to the basic principles of doing with a bit less. Somewhat reconciled might be more accurate.
This is just the beginning, right? Of my children testing our family’s principles and choices against what their friends are doing? I recently wrote a review of Craig and Marc Keilburger’s The World Needs Your Kid, and highlighted from the book ten suggestions for encouraging compassion in one’s children. Number two was to know and identify your own beliefs, as parents. It felt in the conversation with Albus that I did know, and I was grateful. But I also want to remain open and flexible to their changing needs, so that kids don’t feel like their living in a totalitarian regime, but in a living and growing ecosystem.
Which is why we might get the Wii, eventually. Maybe this Christmas. Maybe. We’re still thinking about it.
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