Discernment is something Mennonites are expert at; in fact, Mennonites are so good at discernment that it sometimes seems it’s code for clearly we don’t all agree so let’s keep discerning in perpetuity so as to never make a decision. Given that this is my cultural background, perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy process so much. But I do also like to come around to decisions now and again. That said, discernment is rather brilliant, in my opinion. What it does is allow a decision to unfold slowly, with voice given to many different opinions and angles; it’s a process of listening as much as speaking.
This post is a continuation of my thoughts from yesterday’s confession: that I don’t like being the speaker at the front of the room.
I’ve been trying to discern why.
It isn’t that I don’t like being in a leadership position. In fact, I enjoy taking the lead, to which my younger siblings could attest. But there are different styles and types of leadership, and the leadership I prefer to practice is the kind that asks questions, that operates in relationship, that collaborates with, that is creative and responsive and in the moment. I want to ask questions. I want to hear stories, I want to hear and try to understand other perspectives. I want to see my small ideas opening up small ideas in someone else, and I want to be opened up too; I want to learn too.
It’s the reason I like reading and writing short stories, the kind that end in a questioning, open way that unfolds into the reader and the reader’s experience, rather than telling the reader what the answer is. Resonance. That’s what I’m looking for, in everything I do.
Yesterday evening, off I went with my eldest son to coach his soccer team. I was as tired as I’d been all day. There wasn’t time to eat supper. But when we got onto the field, the hour flew by, my exhaustion vanished. I love coaching soccer. I don’t love it because I’m an expert. I’m not. I love it because it’s a creative undertaking, and because I find myself, in this role, engaged with the kids on the team: trying to figure out what will motivate them as individuals, assessing their levels of interest and skill, and asking them to push themselves in small ways—for each player this will be different. I also love it because it’s fun. We’re meeting up so they can play a game.
I think we all need to play. We should all be doing something every day that feels playful, just for fun, something that lifts us out of the ordinary. Something we don’t have to do for any reason other than it makes us happy.
When teaching is going well, it’s for the same reasons. It’s because we’re engaged in a creative enterprise together. Writing and revision should feel playful. I know this won’t always be the case, and writing is work, no doubt about it, but for me—and what I want to share—is that writing, especially fiction, is play. You get to live inside your imagination like you haven’t had permission to do since you were a child. You get to explore whatever interests you. You get to ask questions and wonder and roam freely around your own mind, making it all up, drawing from the back of your mind “perishable moments you hadn’t even noticed that you noticed.” To paraphrase Lynda Barry.
And that’s about where I’ve gotten in my process of discernment. Expect me to release a mission statement in the next decade or so.
P.S. Read this, from the New Yorker (wish I had a subscription!): an inspiring and moving essay by George Saunders about his own creative writing teachers. (Side note: how the heck did Tobias Wolff have time to help parent three children, work full-time leading graduate classes in creative writing, thoroughly read every submission to the program, and write and publish his own books?)
P.S. 2 Here’s how I started this morning. I slept in until 6:45. Then I listened to this song and did kundalini exercises for about half an hour, while the older kids started their day too, but before the younger two got up. It was a good start and I feel much more rested. First discernment decision: I’m limiting my 5AM exercise to no more than three times per week; I’m open to dropping to even less if I’m still really tired. I will reassess in six weeks.
I’m not going to write in detail about Canada’s federal election last night, other than to say that I heard the news about a new government being voted into office as I was driving home in stormy weather from Grimsby, Ontario, after reading to a packed house, along with Peter Kavanagh (author of The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times). (Side note: That the Grimsby reading series could pack the house on the same night of the Canadian federal election AND the Blue Jays’ first home game in their best of seven series is an enormous tribute to the organizers. For the occasion, I wore my lucky jeans and t-shirt, which I’ve been wearing for the last three Jays’ victories — and when I don’t wear them, they lose, which means I have to wear them again tonight, even though tonight I’ll be coaching my eldest’s soccer team for the first time and the jeans and t-shirt are decidedly un-coach-like garb! Superstitions are so inconvenient. And yet so alluring to a certain personality-type. Busted. That’s me, clad in the same jeans and t-shirt for days on end, thinking it will change the outcome of a baseball game. But they won last night! They won! So …)
This photo dates from last week when the Jays clinched their best-of-five series. It marked the second time I wore the lucky shirt/jeans combo. And look at how they won!
Where was I?
Here I am, on a dull fall day in October, relieved to know that a new government will be setting the tone in Ottawa, a new government will be speaking for Canadians on the world stage. To be perfectly candid, I burst into tears when I heard the news on the radio, driving along the wind-whipped Skyway, alone in my little car. I burst into tears because it felt like the end of an angry and fearful man’s government. It felt like Canadians were saying: enough with the fear and anger—we want to be united not divided. Politicians disappoint, and I’m not naive; there are disappointments to come with this new government. But I’m also not willing to be cynical about the difference tone can make, at the highest level of leadership: if you think Canada is not a racist or xenophobic country, check out some of the letters to the editor in the Globe and Mail over the past few weeks, opinions unleashed and legitimized by the fearful, angry campaign run by the guy who is now our former prime minister. I burst into tears because the guy who won last night said: A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.
Maple leaves collected by me and CJ on our walk home from school yesterday.
Now to see those words put into policy. Now to see the reversal of the damage done.
As she comes on stage, the stadium lights up, the plastic rubbery wristbands we’ve slipped onto our wrists suddenly alive and pulsating with colour, to the beat of a song I don’t recognize. There is a collective inhale, a gasp, as we prepare for this spectacle, and recognize its announcement, its arrival.
She is here.
She is wearing sunglasses and a jacket and very high heels. From where we are sitting, high up in the highest, remotest seats of this concrete bunker, she is dollhouse-sized, but her face, her stride, is simultaneously captured and broadcast onto two wide screens that flank the stage. I don’t know the first song: Welcome to New York. But she’s just getting warmed up.
The third song is Style.
She strides down the narrow runway, but doesn’t come quite far enough. It’s like she’s teasing the audience, walking forward and back, but never to the end of the platform that stretches out into the audience below, those who must have paid astronomical fees for their tickets. I want her come to the end of the runway. I wait for her to come all the way down, where we will be able to see her clearly. I think that she is deliberately teasing us, and I am impressed that desire can be invented so easily, so strategically, by the simple act of denial. The semaphores in this show are simple and effective, the narrative clean and crisply delineated.
She takes off her sunglasses, she pulls off the jacket, as if now we will see her for who she is—a doll-like creation of red lips and pale perfect skin and arched brows. She is dressed in black, the outfit cutting across her pale skin, sectioning her up into pieces. I wonder how she can stride the stage in such a short skirt with such confidence.
But is it confidence? I think, but do not say to my daughter, that Taylor Swift is not singing. She is not even doing a particularly good job at lip synching. After having heard the first two performers, both young men, sing and play their guitars with flair and emotion and talent, this is disappointing. I admit to initial disappointment, as she whips off her sunglasses and disrobes before us, and holds the mic at an unlikely distance from her lips, her mouth moving out of synch with the words that are soaring through the air: We’ll never go out of style, we’ll never go out of style.
But I will forgive her for this lapse later in the show. Because the singing is the least of what she is attempting: What she is attempting is the creation of spectacular flashing moments, a montage that tells a story—the story of Taylor—replete with fleeting images, shimmering, an illusion of perfection, an illusion of intimacy, as gutsy as it is implausible. Later in the evening, when she is spinning around in the air at the end of the runway, which has been tilted and raised high up on a mechanical arm, later, when she is being whirled counter-clockwise before us, grounded to the platform by thin wires, playing or fake-playing chords on an electric piano, balancing in her high heels, hair swinging and swooping over her forehead, chased by high-wire cameras, projected onto enormous screens, all while singing into a microphone, I will forgive her for singing over a recorded track, singing only partially. I will admire her willingness to be on display in this feat of daring, and to display for her audience only the most idealized version of her experience of this moment.
Even when she struggles to move the microphone from her hand, where it has been strapped, into a microphone stand, she does not comment on the trouble she is having, she smiles and continues to talk to us about friendship, about how she has an easy way with friends, and can feel as close to someone she’s just met as to someone she’s known forever, if this someone (could we all imagine it is us?) is authentic and trustworthy. Finally, the microphone slides into the stand. She has not burdened us with this technical irritation. She doesn’t complain, she refuses to draw attention to it. The show churns onward, making its own pace.
The plastic wristband warms my wrist oddly, in an electrical manner that disturbs me, but I do not take it off. When we arrived, we found that wristbands were taped to the back of every seat in the stadium. When we first slid the wristbands onto our arms, it seemed almost cultish, all of us willingly submitting to the mysterious plastic band, with no concern for what it might do to us. We trusted implicitly the glossy promises of Taylor Swift, her relentless optimism projected onto the screen before the show began, along with her stories about her cats, whose names my daughter knows. “Really, you know their names?” She shrugs. Sure. As if everyone does.
When the wristbands light up and flash and fill the stadium with a pulsating glow, I willingly wave my arm in the air, as instructed, even though my skin gets hot underneath the plastic, and even though I have to wrap the plastic around my palm to keep it from sliding down under my coat sleeve. The woman next to me, who has also come with her pre-teen daughter, dances wildly in her seat, sings breathlessly, gasping and giggling, while her daughter sits rather rigidly; I catch the girl observing us when I glance in her direction. The woman stops herself sometimes, as if embarrassed, but is again overcome by emotion. She knows the words to every song.
I know the words to three songs.
My daughter knows the words to a few more, but not many. We are here because her dad and I thought it would be an exciting and surprising birthday gift; she had written in a school project last spring that this was one of her dreams, to go to a Taylor Swift concert. That’s something we could actually do! we thought, her dad and I. So. We are here for the show, for the novelty of it, and for Taylor Swift whom we both like, if only abstractly—we turn up the radio when her songs come on and sing along, but our admiration doesn’t go a great deal further. We are here together, witness to what the power of money and imagination can create on a vast stage, for the consumption of a broad audience.
“Hi, I’m Taylor,” she says as she marches down the runway, early in the evening. She sounds nervous, swallowing her words, but even this might be an act.
Because I have so recently been so exhausted after performances on a completely different scale, I wonder at her ability to pull out this magnitude of a performance, night after night. I wonder at her willingness to go on, city after city, show after show. But when she stands at evening’s end to receive the applause ricocheting off the closed stadium roof and the girls’ screaming, I think, how could this not be addictive? How could you not believe the stories being told about you? You are a blank slate for the projections of millions of people, and your words are being sung back to you in unison, and your very body, your very flesh and blood is a recipient of this adulation. You absorb the warmth from all these people, here for you, and you become in this moment as near to being one of the gods as a human can get.
When I first heard the lyrics to Style on the radio, I said to my daughter, “I don’t really like this song. It’s not my favourite.”
“I’m doing a dance to it in gym class,” my daughter said.
“She’s kidding herself if she thinks she’ll never go out of style. Style comes and goes. She’ll be old someday too.”
I might have been missing the point. My daughter might not have been listening.
“Also, it’s such a vapid style she’s describing. ‘I’ve got that good girl thing in a tight little skirt.’ Is that what she’s saying? It sounds like that’s what she’s saying.” It is approximately what she is saying. I look up the lyrics later: “I’ve got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.”
That’s a bit different, message-wise, a bit richer.
But I don’t like songs about good girls, because it’s us against them, good girls v bad girls, and who are the bad girls? What do they do that’s so bad? And what do the good girls do that’s so good, come to think of it? Who is telling them they are good or bad? I also don’t like models for girlhood who teeter in high heels, their exceptionally skinny bodies exposed and hairless. But I do like that this young woman is an extraordinarily powerful presence on the stage, and that she talks to her audience in a way that appears personal, promoting messages of trust, vulnerability, no shame, and strong female friendship.
And I do so very much like that the next morning, after the concert, when my daughter crawls into bed with me, and I say, “What do you think Taylor Swift does when a show is over?,” my daughter says, “Well, she probably has to help take down the stage. And she probably needs to eat something. And maybe take a shower and go to bed. I think she sleeps in a trailer.”
She probably has to help take down the stage.
One of the best things about our family holiday was seeing the kids settle in and really enjoy each other’s company. I still can’t believe how easy it all felt, to travel so far and make collective decisions, with late bedtimes and no set routine to guide us.
In truth, we’re not the world’s most adventurous family, and nobody was disappointed if a day consisted of a little walking, a little swimming, and a made-up game, like the above, where we attempted to throw pebbles through this perfectly shaped hollow log. Points for multiple consecutive through-stones.
This was perhaps the most adventurous outing we attempted: we followed a map drawn by our host to a nearby logging road and hiked a trail in search on a large and ancient tree. And we found it! The kids agreed to pose while I tried to take the perfect family photo. And tried. And tried.
And gave up, eventually. Too much personality on display, and who would want it otherwise? The forest was eerily empty of any sign of animals (neither cougars, nor bears, nor even squirrels could be seen). But as we were leaving, this marvellous slug was spotted on the path. Everything’s bigger on the West Coast, it seems, even the slugs.
While I’m blogging lots this week, and because I won’t be blogging much (I suspect) in the week or two ahead, I’ll take this moment to highlight another tab, above, on my web site: Upcoming Events. It’s not new. But it’s handy. It’s where I keep track of readings, speaking engagements, festivals, launches — everything book-related.
For starters, next week I’m heading to the Sunshine Coast Festival in Sechelt, B.C. This is my first time at the festival, which I hear is amazing, and my first time on the Sunshine Coast, and my first time bringing the whole family along to an event like this (they likely won’t come to the reading itself, but the organizers have kindly invited our family to several other events and found us a family-friendly cottage by the ocean to stay in, while we’re there — see, amazing!). This is also our first major summer family holiday ever. The last time we flew somewhere together, we spent Christmas in Nicaragua — and we only had three kids. That’s a long time ago. (Note to self: must find a way to return to Nica again; I’ve visited once a decade since childhood.)
Then, in September, I’m going to Spain! I’ve been invited to the Hay Festival in Segovia, with the Spanish-language version of Girl Runner: La corredora. This trip will be a whirlwind, hosted by my Spanish publisher, Alfaguara, which is launching the book this fall. (The family is staying home; sorry, guys.)
I return home in time to visit the Halton Hills library, which has chosen Girl Runner for its One Book: One Community program (very exciting!), and then just a few weeks later, in October, I’m flying out to Victoria (solo) where I’m a guest speaker at the Victoria marathon. Sadly, there’s no way I’ll be in shape to run the marathon, but in my dreams I somehow manage to conquer the half. This hasn’t been a high-mileage summer. I’ve been averaging three runs a week, rarely more than 10km, often less. One change is that I rarely run alone anymore. Almost all of my exercise is social, right now: meeting a friend is motivating, and it’s fun. But if I’m going to add more miles, I will have to do some longer solo runs.
Kevin is recommending that I start listening to podcasts while running. He’s become a convert to the short story form by listening to The New Yorker fiction podcast while running around the neighbourhood with the dogs. I listened to one just this morning, while making poached eggs for Fooey (it’s her Birthday Eve!): a story called “Love” by Grace Paley, as read by George Saunders. If you think you don’t like short stories, try out this podcast. It combines the reading of a story with a conversation afterward between a well-known writer and the New Yorker story editor: it’s like listening in on a really informed book club discussion.
Love is poaching eggs for your almost-ten-year-old; love is kicking a soccer ball for two hours with your seven-year-old; love is watching a leader’s debate (Canadian version) with your twelve-year-old; love is driving back to camp to fetch your fourteen-year-old; love is sharing earphones and stories with your husband.
Hm. That was really cheesy. I feel compelled to apologize a) for writing it and b) for not erasing it. But hey, maybe you’ll want to make your own list? Enjoy your weekend.
Oh yeah, I’m a month late: this guy graduated from grade eight. Here’s how he looked on the big night. In June.
Last week I had a very Carrie idea, the sort that might make my children wish they had another mother, at least just a little bit. Our eldest doesn’t read much. And I’d noticed that some of my children seemed to have forgotten how to spell since leaving school last month. What to do, what to do? The idea came to me and breathlessly I spat it out! I said I would now be assigning a book report, once a week. Yes, they would have to read at least one book a week and write a report on it, which (I was spitballing here) they would then present to the family, every Sunday evening this summer.
I then dropped the mic and excused myself to go work on my Favourite Mother of All Time acceptance speech. Just in case. Because you never know.
(This comes as such a surprise! I’m in shock, look at me, I didn’t even brush my hair — and am I wearing my nightgown? Yes I am and screw it, who cares!! They love me, they really love me!)
Albus wasn’t so keen on the reading part, especially when I specified that the book must be at or near his actual reading level. As an option, I said he could read a magazine or newspaper article, and he made a lame attempt, flipping through a Chatelaine magazine (he was drawn by the picture of an indescribably scrumptious-looking burger on the front, amusingly, the same picture that had inspired me to buy the magazine in the first place). But nothing spoke to him (really? nothing in a women’s lifestyle magazine speaks to you, young man??), and I wouldn’t let him present on a burger recipe. So he requested a special pardon—could he instead write a story rather than read a book and write a report?
COULD HE WRITE A STORY??!
Ding, ding, ding, the judge says Yes.
Sunday evening. We gather round (most of us in pyjamas, me in my nightgown, as it happens). One by one the kids read out their book reports and stories. CJ reports that he likes a certain picture book called The Candy Conspiracy (his original report read, in total, “I like this book,” but he was pushed to go a bit further) because of the tips, and the Juicy Jelly Worm, and the kids. He did write this all down, so the judges give him a high five.
Fooey doesn’t want her report read out loud. It’s on Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, a book that she couldn’t put down, it was like being swept up in a river, she writes, an inventive metaphor that pleases her mother very much. Printed by hand, three pages long, very tidy writing, and hardly a spelling mistake to be found.
AppleApple reads her report off of her Google Drive account: a thoughtful three-page reflection on Jane Eyre, with particular interest in its religious content and pre-feminist qualities. So yes. She did her homework.
Albus reads an entertaining story he’s composed on the computer about a character who lives in the dishwasher, and who is haunted by a tale told to him by an oldster in the midst—a wooden spoon who has visited the back yard and is certain he’s seen a fox chasing a bear. (The comical part is that from the spoon’s description it’s clear the fox and the bear are nothing more than squirrels.) Well structured, excellent comic stylings, and winning characters; I suspect he put more effort into this than he did into the bulk of his school projects all year, but I am nevertheless beaming with pride.
Kevin reports on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was recommended to him by me—he reads out a passage about education, in which Miss Jean Brodie says that she believes education is meant to draw out from the student what is already in her, while the principal of the school believes education is meant to insert information into the student. Draw out or thrust in?
Discuss. (We discussed.)
I finish with the sad story of Wave, a memoir by a woman who lost her husband, two young sons, and her parents in the tsunami of 2004. The book is about her life after this loss, although it opens with an intensely riveting scene in which they are lost while somehow she survives in this massive sudden wave of destruction. I promise the kids we live nowhere near a tsunami-zone. But I can see that the younger two are quite upset at the thought of a mother losing her children, or her children being lost. Good job, Mom. So perhaps not the best note to end on.
But back to Wave: It is a powerful memoir, if you want to take it on. It isn’t as hard to read as you might imagine. Sonali Derayinagala is a lovely writer. And she carries you right into the void of what it would be like to lose all of the people who make you who you are, most fundamentally. Who is she, without them?
It isn’t a question any of us would want to answer.
Oh dear, I’ve reproduced our evening rather too perfectly. I’ve ended on a downer. I do apologize. Now, keep reading, keep reporting. And get back to me on Sunday.
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