Well, we got one home from camp. Albus has returned: freckled, dirty-footed, exhausted, and craving his screened devices. It’s been an odd two weeks without him, and a portent of life to come. He’s already twelve years old, and given that I left home when I was seventeen, my sense is of us entering a different stage of parenting, of trying to figure out how hard to hold on, and how much to let go. I intend to do a lot of both. For example, our ten-year-old, who is quite enormously tall, asked to snuggle with us the other night. She just needed to be hugged and held, despite her long legs and muscular shoulders and ability to make me hot lunches.
I’m serious about the hot lunches. She’s made me several this week, thinking up a menu, preparing it, presenting it on a plate, and knocking on my office door. I could get used to this.
The fourth week of our summer holidays is coming to a close. This week has been cool, and marred by ridiculously noisy street-work going on directly outside my window, occasionally causing my entire office to vibrate in such a way that ear plugs become quite useless. It’s also been a tough writing week due to the work that I’m doing. I will come through this and look back on this time fondly, I’m sure, as I always seem to do, but it’s a grind. Instead of entering directly into the book this morning, I skimmed my FB feed, making all kinds of connections and discoveries (or so it felt; nice when procrastination takes on a purposeful aura).
* First I read an article on success by a young tenured professor who believes in giving, doing favours, taking time to do one thing and go deep, and making strong connections. I also appreciated his point that the most highly successful people, whatever their fields, were rarely the most outstanding performers as children, and that in fact it was their motivation and grit that set them apart.
* Which leads me to a blurb I read next explaining why creative people are often eccentric. This is science, folks! Apparently, creative people (and eccentrics) experience cognitive disinhibition, which means their brains fail to filter out extraneous information — I assume this includes sensual and aural information, in addition to the collection of random facts about celebrities while standing in line at the grocery checkout. It’s the ability to process this excess of information without becoming overwhelmed that leads to fascinating breakthroughs. But it can also inspire peculiar behavioral traits. Like Bjork wearing the swan dress at the Oscars, according to the blurb — which was awesomely cool, I thought.
Okay, so stay open and make connections and get gritty.
* I took an online assessment to determine my “Decision Pulse.” It’s quick and easy, and I usually avoid these things like that plague, which shows you how determined I am to be distracted this morning — to open myself to vats of cognitive disinhibition! I make my decisions, according to this quick and easy quiz, based on 1. Humanity 2. Relationships 3. Achievement. Apparently, I don’t care about safety or security at all. (Sorry, family!) I think by “Humanity” the test means humanitarian impulses and the desire to serve a greater good. Which sounds lofty, and may or may not be accurate, though I do spend time each day praying that the work I do will help in some way. That it will heal and nourish rather than hurt.
* Finally, I guffawed with enormous appreciation as I read Anakana Schofield’s brilliant and hilariously written take-down of the shallow, missing-the-point-entirely publicity machine that one steps into when one publishes a book. Anakana is the author of Malarky, which I’ve given to my husband to read right now, and she’s damn funny, and doesn’t seem to care who she’s offending (which is a trait I would dearly like to grow into, but haven’t yet). She’s out in Vancouver and we’ve never met in person, but have enjoyed some back and forth via email regarding exercise habits and, yes, readings and publicity and such. She’s put her finger on something really critical here, too: that it seems everyone wants to be a writer, but no one wants to be a reader. (Consider the proliferation of blogs!) What book publishers should be doing is nurturing readers; and what every writer knows it that public appearances inevitably turn into mini-sessions on “how to be a writer.” But it’s readers writers need, isn’t it. People who love books. People who find solace in words. People who soak up a story, who think about the characters afterward and worry for them. People like me, actually. I love reading. Books are like old friends, companions, sparring partners, comforters, moral compasses, inspirations, teachers.
With that in mind, I’ll turn off my distractions and step into the book I’m making, hoping it will ultimately offer both escape and comfort to a reader like me, sometime, somewhere, somehow.
click on photos to see in full
I haven’t been getting enough sleep and it may be due to my late-night reading material. I just finished Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which should not be dismissed merely because it has an Oprah book club sticker on it. I really loved this memoir. It was everything I hope for in a book: I was entertained, I was moved, I learned new things, I met fascinating characters, it touched me, it felt relevant to my own experience without being preachy, it expressed a deeper human truth while remaining particular and individual, and it had a compassionate moral outlook. And it was written by a woman. Hurray! I’ve been mildly troubled by my male-author-heavy recent reading trend. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading books by both men and women, but I kept waiting for the female-authored book that would speak to me with authority. And Wild did.
I won’t give a detailed plot synopsis, because you’ve probably already heard about the book or even read it yourself, but the narrator is hiking 1100 miles of wilderness trail, by herself, age 26, several years after the death of her mother, as a way to recover her life from a seriously scary downward spiral. Because I read it as an ebook, I can’t easily thumb through to find favourite bits, but I loved when this troubled spirit recognized that her efforts to get out of herself, to escape, had been not actually what she longed for. What she longed for was to get in. It was such a simple and profound way of expressing the paradox of the human mind and spirit: how the easy way out is always a trap, because it prevents us from finding what we really crave, which is a way into ourselves — and the way in is hard. And yet, it’s also not hard because it’s so right, because it lines up who we want to be with who we are, I think. Peace. Grace. Stillness.
So, two things I loved about the book. One, it was about hard physical effort. I related to that as a path to entering into one’s life and self. Two, the acknowledgements. I read the whole book with pleasure and ease, and it almost came as a shock to see the author thanking mentors, grant-giving institutions, writers’ festivals, and writing retreat centres. Right! I thought. This effortless-seeming book was written by a writer. Obvious, I know. But it gave me a feeling of kinship to recognize the work behind the scenes, to remember that every wonderful piece of writing began as an idea, and was supported by an invisible web, and brought to being by the same hard yet right process of steady work. That it didn’t just emerge whole. Cheryl Strayed wrote this book the same way she walked the trail: with help, alone, in doubt, and in hope. Sure, there are some ecstatic moments along the way, but writing a polished and complete book is kind of like walking 1100 miles of wilderness trail (or so I imagine): it’s a grind. You’re going to hate that you’re doing it some days, and think you might actually be crazy. You’ll be afraid and have to tell yourself that you’re not. You’ll be humbled by all you’re not, and also by all you are.
It’s the grind that yields.
In other news …
Most of the fallen tree is now piled in our front yard.
I spent yesterday afternoon deliberating with other members of The New Quarterly’s story jury, as we picked out a winner and runners-up for their emerging writer story contest. I learned a few things that I hope to apply in my creative writing class this fall. One is a total ban on sex scenes — I mean in their stories, not in the classroom; well, actually, I mean both, but the latter does not generally require mentioning. Only well into one’s writing career should one should attempt to write a sex scene, and even then … which reminds me, Cheryl Strayed wrote a really good sex scene. So it’s not that it can’t be done well, it’s just not a promising place to begin. Everything I type right now seems to be loaded with double-entendres. Which is probably part of the problem.
Anyway, that was yesterday, and I also zoomed all over town on my bike. My muscles are aching from lifting weights yesterday morning, and they’re still aching from a push-up extravaganza on Friday morning, not to mention the general battered and bruised feeling I carry following my evening soccer games (now on Thursdays and Sundays), and Saturday’s long run. I’m taking today off except for yoga stretches.
I scored a replay-worthy goal in Sunday’s game. It’s the goal I’ve been envisioning for months. I believing in envisioning, by the way. I believe if you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it in real life. The goal came off of a beautiful cross on a strong run up the left wing. I was on right forward, and running hard. The ball crossed ahead of our centre forward and I caught it on my right foot at the top of the box, controlled it like I knew what I was doing. The centre forward, behind me, told me I had time, take my time, and I did, somehow calmly positioning the ball and as the defender rushed me, I shot it over the goalie’s fingertips, skimming an inch under the bar, and swishing the back of the net.
I get to describe it in detail because it may never happen again. But it happened once. I could not stop grinning for about ten minutes. It was one of those magical sporting moments that keep a person coming back to a game–when it feels like the moment is unfolding separate from thought, purely on instinct, and you know in advance you’re going to do exactly the right thing. You have utter confidence in yourself, and it seems like it’s suddenly so easy. (Of course, it’s not). Everyone who’s played a sport knows what I’m talking about it. Come to think of it, it’s another example of grace.
AppleApple got a goal of her own in last night’s game. CJ and Kevin and I all came along to watch.
And now it’s back to work. The younger kids are at daycamp. Albus will be home from camp in two more sleeps. AppleApple is watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, which she read this spring. And I’m writing scenes that are kind of like candy. They are so fun to read, and to write, it’s weirding me out.
Well, the heatwave broke. And rather dramatically, from our perspective. I was on the phone with a friend when suddenly the sky went dark and the wind blew high. She lives just up the street, so we were both looking out our windows at essentially the same storm, unable to comprehend what we were seeing as the trees were whipped into a furious tumble and the rain came down, lashing so thickly it looked like a descending fog. “Um, what’s happening?” we asked each other.
I think it takes the mind a little while to catch up to an unusual and unexpected event. For whatever reason, I was slow to grasp that there might be any danger.
My kids were standing on the back porch filming the storm with our little camera — I’d told them they were allowed on the porch, not to go into the yard. Suddenly the phone line went dead and a sound like an electronic buzzing — like a paper bag being torn close beside the ear, as a Facebook friend put it — filled the air. It was incredibly loud and innately disconcerting. I ran onto the porch and called the kids inside (we have video of this). That’s when AppleApple and I watched, through the kitchen window, half of a tree come down in our backyard. It fell silently and smoothly and without any ceremony whatsoever.
Our brains couldn’t seem to register what we’d just seen. I said, not at all concerned, “Oh, a tree’s come down.” The winds seemed to turn branches into paper versions of themselves, tossing them wildly.
And then I snapped awake, and we all ran for the basement, dragging the anxious dogs with us. Kevin had left, just before the storm hit, to go to a soccer game. I was thankful for texting. The power went out soon after. The storm passed almost as quickly as it came.
We left our dark house and joined neighbours gathering at our intersection to survey the damage. Every street had big limbs fallen, power lines down, branches and debris everywhere. We walked the dogs slowly around the block, keeping a sharp eye on the trees over our heads, many of which had dangling branches.
Kevin was training in Toronto all day yesterday, so the tree stayed down in the yard. I almost wanted to leave it there. The split down the side of the tree is so long that I’m afraid the half that still stands can’t be saved. I found myself touching the smooth skin of the newly split tree, just under the bark. It was soft, almost silky, though it has since gone hard and dry. It smells like cut boards in a lumber yard, faintly sweet.
The branches spread over the picnic table, creating a little shelter. Miraculously, a blue glass bowl that had been left out on the table, filled with watermelon rinds, was untouched, perfectly intact.
The kids pretended to hold up the tree.
Today, Kevin and AppleApple have spent the entre day slowly removing the fallen tree. Our front yard is now piled with cut branches. It is an enormous job. The yard is a mess. Even half of a tree is huge.
I realize as I write this post that I’m mourning the loss of the tree. But I don’t mean it to be a sad post. In fact, as the kids’ smiling faces show, we came through the storm just fine. We’ve been sleeping better with the cooler weather, especially once the power was restored and we could run the fans again.
Yesterday, I managed a long run during the afternoon while AppleApple was at her goalkeeping clinic. We’ve been biking there, and we passed many fallen trees in Waterloo Park, but the area beyond Columbia Lake, where I ran, seemed untouched by the storm. It was a highly localized event, it would seem. In the evening, after we ate takeout fish and chips, and I did yoga (read: napped on my yoga mat in our living-room in shavasana heaven), we walked uptown, dogs too, to Open Streets, which had a lively relaxed street festival vibe. We listened to a young woman with a huge voice perform in front of the Chainsaw: AppleApple’s face was shining with delight. “I would give up a lot to have a voice like that,” I admitted. Meanwhile, Fooey talked her “very nice parents” (her words) into letting her buy a new pair of earrings from a craftswoman on the street nearby.
She was sunburned from a happy afternoon playing in a soccer game and then swimming. We all had frozen yogurt. The dogs were well-behaved. The kids and I skipped rope in the street. And we walked home in the gathering darkness with paper lanterns lighting our way.
Summer rolls along, sweet and languid, with sudden flashes of strangeness and wonderment. Tomorrow, a good friend and her family leave for year of sabbatical. The following week another good friend and her family will be leaving too, for the same. I wonder what will have changed, again, in another year. Things we can’t guess at, I know, even if we can predict some, and hope for others.
The problem with these before and after photos, is that the “afters” remain works-in-progress. You’ll see what I mean.
Living-room, before: giant TV cabinet in mid-removal. (Why base a room around a piece of furniture we almost never use?)
Living-room, after. Removal of TV cabinet reminds us, screamingly, that we haven’t repainted this room since moving in TEN YEARS AGO. Ouch. So that’s on the new to-do list. Also: move art, or change art, now hanging way too high above couch on wall that desperately needs painting. But the good news is that the room, as you see, is being used as we hoped: for reading and socializing.
Basement, before. I didn’t take the before-before photo, which would have shown this area looking impressively disastrous, jammed with futon frames and soccer equipment. In fact, this is after Kevin cleaned, in anticipation of the arrival of something you’ll see in the photo below. When I saw how nice it looked, I had the brilliant and possibly tequila-fuelled idea of moving the TV cabinet down here and turning this space into a games room. The idea seemed much less brilliant the next day as we dismantled the damn thing outside in a sudden rain shower in order to get it to fit down the basement stairs. I can assure you, it’s never coming back up.
Basement, after. See: we made room for a foosball table! All the kids can play!
But it still looks like a basement. Like an unfinished basement, to be precise, and that is what it will probably always look like. We may move the foosball table to the far end of the room in order to make the Wii/TV cabinet more accessible, but we don’t have any grand plans for this space. It’s got low ceilings, exposed pipe, stone walls, and ugly old shelves. Someday I’ll get around to clearing the shelves of all the things we’ll never use, but that’s about the extent of my grand plans, and I find myself in no great rush to knock that one off the new to-do list.
the bonfire of the schoolwork
beach bound with dogs, who behave superbly–guess we can take them anywhere!; water’s cold, and wind’s chilly, but you’d never know
hosted by my bro and sis-in-law, we all play “Pit” late at night and mid-morning (no photos); and I lounge half the day reading Agatha Christie (also no photos)
writing at soccer practice
This was me, yesterday evening. I was stuck on a plot point that just wouldn’t fix itself, so I took my notebook and pen to soccer practice, rather than taking my running gear (nasty head cold, so that made the choice easier). An hour and a half later, I had the full outline for the second half of the book. It’s a short book, let me add. I still use writing advice bestowed upon our sixth grade class by a teacher I remember fondly: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. I even like the Stupid part of the saying, which would probably be dropped by teachers now (would it?). I’m not that smart when it comes to plot. That’s where I really need to apply the KISS principle.
These photos crack me up because I’m clearly not writing. Pen does not meet paper. I’ve had a few portraits taken by photographers who want me to “look like a writer,” by which they mean, “look like my idea of a writer, please.” I am then instructed to pose with a pen and paper. I can explain til I’m blue in the face that I write my books on a computer. But people want to see their writers writing. (Nancy Forde, you are the exception to this rule!)
Occasionally, apparently, it happens. I write like I look like a real writer. (Now, if only I can decipher my own scrawl …)
see, pen not touching page
Kitten update: Turns out Fooey would be happy with a fish. She just wants a pet of her own. I guess the dogs are too communal as far pets go? We had to break it to her that a kitten would not sleep in her bed, or not for long. I still kind of want the kitten, but I’m not telling her. Maybe I have a diagnosable problem: the desire to collect living beings to care for, possibly in volumes greater than I can actually manage.
Manage. Well, even if I can’t manage them all, I can still care for them all, right? Manage and care not being the same thing, when you get right down to it.
I’ve got some news. It’s small and I haven’t signed on the dotted line, but I’m going to tell you anyway, because it’s really kind of out there news for me: I’ve had an offer for the text of a children’s picture book!!! Details to come, assuming it all works out, and dotted lines are signed, etc. I’m so looking forward to saying, “Why, yes, I do also write for children,” when asked, which is regularly. In fact, the notes, above, are on the plot to a children’s novel I’m in the midst of.
The thing I’ve discovered about being productive is that you just have to sit your butt down and write. KISS. One word after another. And if you get stuck, it’s good to have a few projects spread out and on the go in different stages of completion. It’s pleasant if the projects are quite different in nature, too.
I’ve got my ideas basket over here. My opening paragraphs bin over there. My lonesome disconnected short stories haunting the cobwebbed corners of my office. My research files stuffed into the cupboard behind me. The half-written manuscript that hasn’t found the right structure lying in wait. Meanwhile, the completed manuscript that is looking for a home is not mine to worry about, not right now. Do the work. Let it go.
The other thing about being productive is that it’s nice not to be productive sometimes. To leave your desk and computer (or pen and notebook, as it were), and go have lunch with your husband to celebrate an offer on your first ever picture book. Woot! I’m off!
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