Yesterday, I taught my last class of the term.
At the end of class, a student asked, “Does every class you teach feel like this one?” And I knew what he meant. I said, yes, it does. Every class, by the end of term, feels like our classroom felt last night: a buzzing, humour-filled, serious, safe space shared by interested thoughtful equals. There’s magic there. Every term progresses in the same way, from nervousness and skepticism and even a bit of boredom and wondering what we’re getting out of this, to a gradually increasing warmth and trust. Trust is the most important ingredient. How to build trust among strangers? It doesn’t happen all at once. We’re hesitant to share. We’re afraid of being judged. We’re dealing with our own private stuff; turmoil, sadness, anger, loss, stress, anxiety. And we’re writing all the while, often deeply personal material, material we weren’t necessarily expecting to discover, material that we want to protect.
So we have to figure out how to share, how to trust, how to listen, together. And every class, every year, it’s been the same, in my experience: by the last class, we reap the rewards of our work. It’s so hard to say goodbye.
For the last class, I like to read from Ann Patchett’s essay, “The Getaway Car,” from her collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, especially the section where she talks about studying creative writing with the great short story writer Grace Paley:
“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. … She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes, I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say. I would not begin to know how to teach another person how to have character, which was what Grace Paley did.”
Wow, I love that. I could read it over and over.
When I started teaching, four years ago, I needed money, and I was grateful for work. But it turns out that money was the least of it.
I teach because I love the process, and because I’m excited by possibility and potential in all shapes and sizes, and because it challenges me to be creative and constantly learning, and because I admire my students, each one of them, for being brave enough to go through this process, which isn’t always easy, and which they may not have expected to go through when they first signed up. There’s magic in the classroom. I’ve witnessed it. And I’m greedy. I want to keep witnessing it.
Should I have gotten that PhD, way back when it was a real possibility? Have I missed my calling? In some ways, I know I’m not a great teacher, and I’m no academic; I’m more of a coach, setting up practices and games, or a trail guide, leading a group into the woods for an adventure, or a host at a rather quiet party. Maybe I should be exploring possibilities outside of academia. Maybe there are other routes, other pathways, to teaching.
Maybe you have brilliant, simple, creative, helpful ideas you could share. Please, and thank you.
This is what happens when the kids don’t have school and the parents lecture them sternly about taking initiative, while also banning them from the use of video gaming devices between the hours of 9AM – 4PM …
Introducing the Back Yard Olympics!
This is multi-day event, involving all six family members (dogs not included), with sports like Badminton Whack-It (pictured above), Racewalking, Tug-of-War, Header Wars, Basement Juggling, and today’s final event, Tricycle Time Trials. We’re just suiting up for the Tricycle Time Trials, and all I can say is, why don’t we take this one all the way around the block?
I’m back. We should definitely not, no never, take the Tricycle Time Trials all the way around the block. First of all, in tricycle terms, all the way around the block is basically a marathon. Second of all, refer to the photo evidence, below. Best kept to the back yard. xo, Carrie
*I got silver in the time trial. Not that I’m bragging or anything, okay, yes, I am bragging. I’m exactly this cool. Now you know.
How to sum up an experience like Omega, you ask, sitting in your office, once again, with a dog curled alertly at your feet? A child has just rushed in to tell you that she has gotten to 7 juggles (of the soccer ball, with her feet) in the “summer juggling camp” organized by your husband, to keep your children active and entertained, while you were away.
You were way for six days, but it could have been months. It could have been that you fell down into a different world, unrelated to your own, as vivid, as real, but somehow without connection to your own. You crossed a drawbridge that let itself down, into a small, contained universe which you inhabited almost like you’d become a child again.
You drew pictures. You wrote by hand. You went to class. You ate meals provided for you, and you compliantly accepted the food that appeared, eating something called “chickpea scramble” for breakfast every morning, almost obediently. You napped on pillows under a table with your fellow classmates. In the evening before bed, you went to tuck shop and bought a snack. You swam in a swampy seaweed infested lake. You laughed till you cried with your friend. You had a camp name. You were, in fact, a child at camp, again.
There were marvellously awful moments, such as when you struggled in full-on sun, sweat pouring off you, to erect an enormous, ridiculous tent, while the campers nearby reminisced about recently hiking the Appalachian Trail, popping up their compact tents in mere minutes. You almost cried, running in the heat to seek out duct tape—for the love of God, duct tape!—to repair your ridiculous and broken tent. And then you slept in luxury on a queen-size mattress, inflated with a motorized roaring machine that irritated those hardier neighbours who had recently hiked the Appalachian Trail.
There was the morning you rose at 4AM to attend a two and a half hour kundalini yoga class, that consisted largely of sitting cross-legged whilst chanting under the instruction of a tone-deaf guru.
There was the heat, the thunder storm, and the morning you had to take the rain-soaked tent down and pack up in the mud, only to be confronted by a breakfast of turmeric-soaked lentils immediately afterward.
But this was bliss.
It was blissful to spend hours every day writing and drawing. You didn’t know you could draw. You didn’t know you had characters inside of you, their faces waiting to be seen, their hidden emotions so certain on the page, present in a few quick lines you’d sketched there. After class, you would find your way back to the classroom to work—writing and drawing, drawing and writing. Determined as a child. Delighted as a child. You would want to thank this genius teacher, whose genius is her delight in the process, and her generosity. There was no waste in Lynda Barry’s class. Time was honoured. It was honoured with work, and it was honoured with rest, and it was honoured with delight in what you were all making, individually and together.
You went on this adventure, and you came home again.
But you’re still there, you think. Half of you is still there, safe and bewildered and surprised and elated.
Thank you, Lynda Barry.
I had a small panic attack on Sunday evening, while doing the chalkboard schedule, which details the next three weeks of our lives. It takes us to the end of school, summer holidays, Canada Day weekend, and there is SO MUCH HAPPENING between now and then. AppleApple led me through the mindfulness meditation she does before bed, and that was quite helpful, actually. Except I need to keep doing it every time I look at the calendar.
We’re into the month of lasts and celebrations. Last violin lesson, last piano lessons. Track meets and field trips. Graduations and exams. Parties, too. To complicate this particular week, I’m also driving to Toronto on Friday to speak on a panel at the Canadian Writers’ Summit on “the shadow side of success.”
I’m not complaining about the content of June; just the pace.
I’ve been walking the dogs most mornings. I take them on a fairly long, leisurely route, even if I might have other things that need doing. We pass by many beautiful gardens. I stop and smell the peonies. I really do. I was inspired by something I saw a few weeks ago, on one of my short but very happy early morning solo runs through the park. I saw a young woman, also out for a run, who had stopped by the creek and was simply standing, watching the water. She was in the moment.
And now she’s planted in my mind, where I see her standing and quietly watching the water. The moments are here, they are everywhere.
My moments so far today include biking through the park to the track with Kevin to watch our younger “girl runner” run in several races. Yesterday, I loved watching the same girl play at her first violin recital, still wearing soccer pants, after we’d raced from the field to the music studio. Every day I get to do so many things that I love doing, with people I love, admire, and enjoy.
This is it! This is life! There is too much hatred, too much grief, too much fear, too much to grieve and mourn and rage against in this world. The least and the most I can do is one and same: be open to what surrounds me, and know that this is enough.
I just woke out of a stuporous nap. Not the best state in which to blog, but I’ve been wanting to blog all week and haven’t had time. So why not now, on this sweltering Friday afternoon in May, with the sounds of construction heavy all around the house, and nothing particular calling me.
Tuesday evening found me driving to Guelph to coach a soccer game, minus the daughter who is on the team; she had a dance class, the last one before the dress rehearsal, so she couldn’t miss it; Grandma drove her there, as Kevin was coaching both boys, back-to-back. It was a beautiful evening for a soccer game, warm and bright. I was proud of our team. I drove home listening to pop music, wishing Fooey had been with me. There’s a new song on the radio with the lyrics, “I’ve got guns in my head / Spirits in my head.” I heard it twice that evening, both directions. I really liked it. It took me back to Nicaragua, for some reason — childhood Nicaragua. In cleats and soccer shorts, I stopped for groceries. The cashier called me “Miss,” rather than “Ma’am.” It was night-time, completely dark, when I staggered through the door carrying all the basics that had been missing from our fridge and cupboards.
On Wednesday, I set my alarm and woke up early to walk the dogs, because Kevin had an early appointment, but it turned out he had time to come for the dog walk too. It was a beautiful morning. We walked around our neighbourhood together, admiring the gardens. We each took one dog. Mine pooped twice, so he won.
You are doing your best. That seems to be the only message that I’m currently capable of sending to myself.
At Tuesday’s soccer game, one of the players came up to me at halftime, quite keyed up. She’d played a couple of excellent shifts back to back, I thought, but she said, “I have to do better! I can play better than that!” Quite surprised, I replied, “I thought you played great! You were even in a new position for that last shift, and you looked really strong out there.” “No,” she said firmly, resolutely, “I can play better.” “Alright,” I said, “I believe you.” And wouldn’t you know, she went out and played even better in the second half to the game.
And I wonder: what was this child modelling to me? She wasn’t down on herself. She was determined, full of belief in what she had to offer.
Am I telling myself the opposite when I say: You are doing your best? Is this the best I can do? Is this the positive message that I mean it to be when my best is often so exhausted, so depleted, so flat and dull? Maybe I should be saying, Hey, coach, I can do better! I know it!
What would better look like? I’m pouring myself in, I’m pouring myself out. Some situations are pure triage. Sometimes I’m stealing an hour in a parked car beside a soccer field, escaping through imagination and words. Always, I’m sinking in to wherever I’m at, even if that means drifting into a stuporous nap in the middle of a hot day.
A single day can hold so much; a single hour; even a moment; here and gone.
Yesterday, she won the 1500 metres at the county meet with a gutsy long sprint to the finish.
Yesterday, the nice woman at the pharmacy seemed truly happy to do her makeup and hair on my behalf. This is not my wheelhouse.
Yesterday, she was ready for dress rehearsal. Whose child is this?
Yesterday, I managed a pain-free 10km early morning run, spent most of the day at a track meet cheering on my girl runner, dashed home in time to pick up the dancer from school early in order to get her hair and makeup done at the drugstore uptown, texted a supper idea to Kevin (hot dogs; not exactly brilliant, but it was something), picked up the kid who had scootered from school to a friend’s house, drove the runner to a babysitting gig, ate a veggie dog, changed into soccer gear, drove the dancer to her dress rehearsal, found another kind mother to look after her there, and headed to the soccer field for practice (once again, minus the child who is on this team).
It was another beautiful evening to be outside. Here I was, on a grassy field under a blue sky, directing drills, shouting encouragement, answering questions and listening to observations, playing. I thought about nothing else. The girls were having fun. I was having fun! This is what I mean about the hours of each day and how much they can hold: how I am submerged, yes, but I am not drowning. What would it mean to be better? Maybe it would mean only to pause to say thanks, to say yes to more early morning dog walks, to be witness to, to sing along to a new song on the radio even when the windows are down, to hold neither too tightly nor let go too easily. To continue to do my best.
Yesterday, I drove to Toronto for a reading, and stopped in for a jolly afternoon visit at my publisher’s new office. I was going to visit my sister too, and really make a day of it, but she was sick. (I should have brought her chicken soup, but my germophobe tendencies won out.)
I noticed that many of yesterday’s conversations revolved around the idea of space.
Space for the mind to think. Space to breathe. Space to relax. Time is a form of space, and when it’s packed, it can feel cramped and tight. But even time that is packed with events and duties can feel spacious, in certain moments. My goal is to make even a busy day feel spacious, by settling into the present event, and offering my full attention.
I don’t always manage it, it’s true. When I’m tired, when I’m anxious about what’s coming up next, when I’m pulled in different directions, when I’m longing to do something else instead … then there’s no space, no flow, limited attention. I can ruin my own fun in this way. I call it: pushing myself ahead. What I mean is, I’m pushing myself out of the moment I’m in by occupying the ones upcoming, rehearsing them in advance, usually with a worried or impatient furrow to the brow. There’s also the problem of pushing myself back, going over errors in the past. And what about pushing myself entirely out of the picture?
My meditation right now is focused on Generosity. (Fittingly, I use an app called Headspace.) “What would you like to give to yourself?” asked the friendly voice of Andy-the-meditation-guide this morning. What would I like to give myself? My mind went blank.
Finally, I thought, forgiveness … enjoyment …
Forgiveness? Well, I understand it. I’m feeling guilty for slipping out early after my readings these past two nights. Terribly guilty. Both evenings I had a long drive before me, and I was very tired. I’d given my best effort on stage. I wanted to go home and sleep. No matter the circumstances: slipping out early is antithetical to how I’ve disciplined myself to behave. So I’m crawling with discomfort at having prioritized rest over being gracious, polite, respectful of the readers yet to come and of my hosts. I don’t know what’s right. And clearly I don’t know how to forgive myself for this decision.
As for enjoyment … I had a fun day yesterday. Once it got rolling, I didn’t worry, I felt relaxed and content. My uncertainty came when it ended. I wasn’t sure when to end it, when to transition to the next part, the part where I drive home and go to bed. I didn’t know what was best for me; indeed, as I write this post I can hardly let myself pose the dilemma in those terms: what was best for me? Maybe I didn’t know what was best for me because I frequently fail to take that into account; I was genuinely stumped by Andy’s question, thrown back on my heels. When I do something for myself, I feel like I’m stealing it. I shouldn’t take this. It isn’t mine.
Of course we all do many things we don’t particularly want to, for reasons of necessity, and we can find ways to enjoy rather than endure many of these. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about those little things we do for ourselves. What are they? And do you give yourself permission to enjoy these little things, wholly, without guilt, without suspecting you’ll be penalized? Do you give yourself that kind of space? It’s occurred to me that I do this only rarely. And that if I were to give something to myself, that is what I would give: the ability to recognize what I want, and to enjoy it when it comes.
Sounds easy. Strange it should be so hard.
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