Category: Good News
I’m sitting in my cozy office, wearing reading glasses, listening to my favourite Spotify playlist (song of the moment: “Ya veras,” by Systema Solar), office door closed because my elder daughter is practicing piano obsessively. Kids are all home from school, which makes Rose-the-pup very happy. Kevin is mid-flight to Fort McMurray for a work trip. All schools, including the universities, are closed today due to freezing rain. I started teaching more than six years ago, and today’s is the class I’ve ever missed. (Not-Humble-Brag # 1)
I’ve decided that this post’s theme is the Not-Humble-Brag.
I’m uncomfortable with bragging. But it makes me even more uncomfortable to pretend that I’m not bragging. (Side note: Why call it bragging? Why not label it differently in my own mind, as good news, and own the sharing of it?) (Side note # 2: My superstitions are kicking in strongly, as all my instincts scream: if you announce that you have good news, you will be deservedly and instantly punished with bad news!)
Okay, superstitious self, what if the Not-Humble-Brags are less earth-shattering, more like gentle observations of loveliness? Hey?
For example, I’ve got a new story in the latest edition of The New Quarterly! (Not-Humble-Brag # 2)
The story is from an auto-fiction collection I’ve been working on steadily for a rather long time, and which makes me happy every time I dip into it, to revise, edit, polish, or write a brand-new story. On Monday evening, when I was in my office marking madly, my eldest daughter came rushing in. She was glowing. She’d just read the story in TNQ — “16th Century Girl” — and she’d loved it. She said, You should just do this, Mom. You should just write. She said she’d been thinking about writers who just wrote regardless of success during their lives, just wrote anyway, no matter what, and that could be me, as she saw it. You’re such a good writer, Mom, she said.
That night, I woke in the middle of the night and wondered whether I could “just write.” Would it satisfy me? What sacrifices would be involved?
Last night, I again woke in the middle of the night. This time, I asked myself: What is your ideal career path? Who is your role model?
I remembered that for a very long time, my ideal was Alice Munro. A mother and grandmother, devoted to the short story, who dabbled in other money-earning ventures, such as a bookstore she owned with her first husband, and teaching creative writing for a year or so early in her career; but mostly, who simply sat at her table, stared out the window, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Brilliantly. When I appeared at a literary festival named in her honour, I was told that she was known as a quiet, dedicated volunteer, serving pie at community functions to people who had no idea who she was, even if they’d come to the small town hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Even before her retirement a few years ago, she rarely engaged in readings or public appearances. Add the Nobel Prize on top of that, and could there be a more romantic ideal?
Next, I thought of Grace Paley, the American short story writer, teacher and activist. Here’s what Ann Patchett writes about Grace Paley, with whom Patchett studied in university: “Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story. Grace turned out a slender but vital body of work during her life. She kept her editors waiting longer than her students. 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.” (from “The Getaway Car,” an essay in Patchett’s This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage.)
In my mind, Alice Munro and Grace Paley don’t represent competing versions of “how to be a writer”; for both women, being a writer was not about performing as a writer, it was about doing what needed to be done. There are different ways to do this.
If I were an academic, I would keep very close track of every publication, conference, appearance, event, workshop, review, panel, and award. I discovered this lack in my own accounting last fall when a colleague and I were applying for an academic grant (a SSHRC). Creating a somewhat comprehensive CV involved picking through old calendars, emails, and boxes of clippings. The exercise was instructive, and weirdly buoying. Look at all these things you’ve done, woman! (Not-Humble-Brag # 3)
But there’s a reason I haven’t kept track of these things very well.
As a writer, what I’ve done is not as important as what I’m going to be doing. What matters is what I’m making, not what I’ve made. (I realize that’s not completely accurate; past publishing history opens doors unavailable to many, which is a privilege and not to be minimized.) But there is no tenure. No security.
To be a mid-career, mid-level literary writer is … well, it’s a form of invisibility, to be perfectly frank. It takes fortitude. It takes devotion to an idea of oneself, an aspirational self, and it takes devotion to a singular cause, which is craft. Like Grace Paley, I don’t (can’t) compartmentalize my writing from my life. And yet my life ranges rather widely and wildly. It sprawls. My attention is divided. My loves are many. If I were to “just write,” as my daughter says, what would that mean? What path am I carving, in this career my CV claims I’m building?
We were awarded the grant, by the way. (Not-Humble-Brag # 4)
Now, to spend the rest of the afternoon, this gift of unexpectedly free mid-week calm, “just writing.”
FIRE is my word of the year, and its many meanings are very present with me at present. On my run this morning, I thought about how a fire can be an emergency, how it can burn down a house, or raze a forest. Going through fire is a metaphor for suffering and surviving, for being tempered by a painful experience. But after a fire, the soil is enriched by ash and carbon, and new life begins to grow.
Like fire that is an emergency, loss changes the landscape. Losing Marg was like going through fire. Of course, it was also like many other things, too, because Marg was extremely generous in her dying, and did everything possible to show her love and care for us, despite how sick she was. She had clarity about what was happening, and her wisdom gave us clarity, too. The fire tempered her, and it tempered us, too.
After loss comes grief. Sometimes grief comes even before loss — as we see loss coming toward us on the horizon. Grief isn’t predictable. It doesn’t follow a set timeline. At different points this spring, I recognized that grief was my companion, and that it was helping me to set my course.
Immediately after Marg’s death, I felt like a sleepwalker, numb, too tired to think, but slowly and steadily I drifted toward a different phase of being in the world — of being in the world. I began to meditate outside in our back yard. I let myself rest. I let myself not do next to nothing; listen, pay attention, breathe. Instinctively, I gave myself space. And with space, with breath, with oxygen to feed it, my interior fire began to flicker to life again. It was in that burnt out quiet space, in the aftermath and ash, that new shoots of green began to grow. I thought about (think about) Marg all the time. She was and is present in my mind, in my decision-making. Her clarity guides me, and her willingness in life to step forward, to be responsible, to take charge and to lead.
Because fire has another meaning, too — fire as passion, as heat and light and desire. There are times when I live without noticing how I’m feeling, numbed by routine and responsibility and the relentless obligations of being a mother to four children, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer. These are times when I’m dull, ticking boxes, struggling to keep my weak flame lit. And then there are times when I’m on fire! I’m paying attention — my attentiveness becomes acute, and I can see clearly what matters and what doesn’t matter.
From a place of quiet attention, comes clarity.
I have been tempered by fire, and my sense of purpose is strengthened. This I know: to feed my spirit, to remain grounded and whole, I must live creatively. Living creatively means improvising, sometimes; it means pursuing work that may not have a financial value; it means making space for others to play too. Since Marg’s death, I’ve found myself making choices from a place that feels powerful and certain. I ask: what matters to me, and am I acting on what matters to me? Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at church because when I saw the call for volunteers, instead of questioning the impulse, wondering whether I had the authority to speak, or the time to prepare, or the courage to stand up, I just said yes: this matters to me, and I will do it.
Another example: This spring, as I heard about protests in Nicaragua, as the situation became ever more troubling and desperate, as protestors were being killed, I wondered: Why isn’t this news being covered in the Canadian media? What can our government do to help the situation? And then I asked: Is there anything I can do? Yes! I could use my resources, skills, and contacts to write an opinion piece appealing to the Canadian government and getting this news before the public, at least to a small degree — I pitched the idea to an editor at the Globe and Mail, and wrote the piece while sitting in a tent on a rainy afternoon last weekend. I consulted with Nicaraguan contacts to ensure my facts were accurate. I sought feedback. And the piece was published in today’s Opinion section of the Globe. It’s a small act, but it’s something.
I’ve discovered something powerful about acting on what matters to me: It gives me fuel for the fire, energy to do more.
There are so many small ways to be whole, to feel whole. I don’t seek a work-life balance, because my work and life are utterly intertwined. I’m not interested in the concept of balance. I’m interested in recognizing which fires need to be fed, and which should be smothered. That’s a different kind of balance. It means asking: what do I have control over and what do I need to let go of?
A fire can burn out of control. Some emergencies cannot be prevented or stopped, can only be endured, withstood, survived, contained. But there are many smaller fires: a candle, a campfire, the flame inside a wood stove. These fires draw us, warm us, soothe us, invite community. The constantly changing shape of the flame is meditative and centring. We gather with others around the light and heat.
I hope to have more news to share in the weeks to come. More irons in the fire. More heat, more light. Meanwhile, more summer.
I want to tell you about why I love coaching soccer. But I’ll begin with why I find coaching so bloody hard.
My U13 Girls team spent the weekend at a tournament, our first competitive tournament ever. I’m pretty sure we came in last, though I haven’t checked the stats to confirm that. We mostly lost games.
I was pretty bummed out after yesterday’s games, both against teams I believed we could have beaten. Things looked messy on the field. The grass was long. Our passes died. We struggled. I felt like a coaching failure, to be frank. Maybe I’m not cut out to coach competitive soccer, I thought — I’m not willing to short-shift kids who are trying their best but may not be as skilled as other players, for example; I want to win as a team or lose as a team, not just play my 11 best and bench everyone else. Maybe, I thought, my priorities and instincts are all wrong for competitive play. But luckily Kevin (who was coaching our youngest’s team at the same tournament) stopped by for half a game, and he offered a different perspective on what he’d seen. Sure, the players looked shaggy, sure, we were losing, but the kids on the bench were having a hoot. Everyone was talking and laughing. And on the field, no one gave up, everyone tried their best right to the final whistle. We were a bit disconnected, that’s all.
I took his observation to heart. The players had supported each other well off the field, and their spirits had remained high. We had some good stuff to build on. Could we transfer that connection and communication onto the field? I boiled down my message and set today’s team goal: MOVE AS A TEAM.
What a difference! The progress we made from one day to the next was astonishing. The support and enthusiasm I’d seen on the bench translated onto the field. (It helped that the grass was shorter too).
But what makes me proudest is what I witnessed from my team during tough moments today. When a player was struggling between games, the whole team surrounded her to express how valuable she is to them (I did not cue them to do this — it was a spontaneous outpouring). (This player went on to have a strong game.) On the bench, I heard many kind and enthusiastic words spoken. A player who was upset about a call got a big calming hug from a teammate. We took some hard calls in our second game, but remained respectful to the end. What I witnessed throughout was a desire for mutual success that was completely contagious. Empathy in action.
So, we didn’t win. Not a single game.
But the players grew miles as a team, we scored some awesome goals, and we progressed and learned a lot in a compressed span of time. It’s exciting to imagine what these kids will be able to accomplish, together, during our summer season.
And that’s why I love coaching.
I’ve got a new essay on mentorship up at TNQ, the local award-winning literary magazine that has accompanied me throughout my career: you’ll find all of the plot points in the essay, including publication, rejection and cause for hope. I hope you’ll read it.
We had crafts, we had games, we had dancing, we had a performance on the ukulele by my youngest child. Best of all, my whole family, even the teenagers, came out to support their mom.
A snapshot: Two adorable, serious-faced twin sisters come up to the signing table to meet me. They ask where I got the idea for the book. I explain that my little brother Clifford loved wearing pajamas when he was a boy, and that my story grew from there. Clifford happens to be standing nearby, so I point him out. Look, I say, Cliffy still loves wearing pajamas — he’s wearing them right now! Their minds are blown. A character from a book is standing beside them, weirdly all grown up!
Thanks to all who came out, thanks for the Waterloo Public Library for hosting, and special thanks to my dear friend Zoe for putting on her jammies and helping to lead and organize the fun.
PS Yes, I wore my jammies too!
I’d like to introduce you to Jammie Day, starring Cliffy!
In answer to a question I’m asked quite often, yes, I do have a new book coming out. It’s less than 800 words in length, and relies heavily on Brooke Kerrigan’s adorable illustrations, but I think you’ll find it genuinely heart-warming. My second picture book, Jammie Day, is due in stores on October 15, published by Owlkids, and it’s just received its first review. In fact, Quill & Quire has given Jammie Day a starred review.
I’m unashamed to report that the star has gone directly to my head. After reading the review, I spent an evening strutting annoyingly (endearingly?) around the house, informing my family of Jammie Day’s triumphs. “Aw, Mom, you’re so excited. You got a gold star.” Hear that being said in a teenager’s tone, and you have some idea of the supportive response I received. I’m pretty sure it’s my very first starred review ever in Q&Q, and let’s be honest, that star is for Brooke Kerrigan’s winning illustrations, but no one’s taking it away from me now.
I would like to pause here to marvel at the uplifting power of the gold star. We need to tap this power, people! I should be giving myself gold stars all day long! Gold star for holding that pike position for the last eight seconds of exercise class while dangling from TRX straps at 6:43AM! Gold star for making three sandwiches for school lunches before showering or eating breakfast! Gold star for a truly excellent nap on the couch!
Here is Jammie Day getting its very first read. It really is a wonderful book, if I’m allowed to say so. Well, no one’s stopping me, though it’s probably in poor taste. Have I mentioned that Jammie Day got a starred review in Quill & Quire??!! Insert winky-face emoji here. Totally unrelated: I’ll also be selling Jammie Day through my web site.
Now I’m off to earn gold stars for laundry, class prep, and writing another chapter in my next book (longer than 800 words, no illustrations).
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