the house next door
“Mom, you have to come and take a picture!”
“No, really, Carrie, you should come right now!”
“Maybe you can write a blog post that says ‘Look, we have new neighbours!'”
look, we have new neighbours
The house next door. What can I say? If you live in our neighbourhood, you have probably expressed curiosity about it at one time or another. If your curiosity got the better of you, you might even have called to ask me if the house next door is for sale (this happens), or knocked on my door sheepishly, as if you might be the first person ever to think of doing it: “Sorry, I know this is weird, but I walk by here every day and I’m just wondering ….”
It has been exactly a decade since we bought our house and moved in. The mysterious house next door has been unoccupied for at least that long. It is a beautiful structure — good bones — and the property is maintained, but it is empty. Except for the wildlife. Living next door to a beautiful empty house is a worry, of course, for a number of reasons, and I keep a sharp eye on the place.
To lighten the worry, a few years back, I began riffing with the kids about the animal families who live next door. We didn’t make up whole stories, but it was funny to think about the characters who might populate stories in the house next door. Our neighbours, so to speak.
This is the first I’ve actually gotten photos.
This photo illustrates my feelings about our weekend. Life’s a whirl. The weekend was extended by the fake ice storm on Thursday (deemed a snow day, kids home), followed by the real ice storm on Friday (no electricity til bedtime, camping out our friends’ house). By that point, the laundry was already crawling up the basement stairs.
See, I took a picture.
The ice storm made the trees quite beautiful, but dangerous. A limb crashed down in our yard, and narrowly missed crushing the trampoline.
Despite an odd and dislocated day on Friday, I tried to stay focused on Saturday morning’s task. When I arrived home, around 1:30 in the afternoon, I was drained. The laundry was still crawling up the stairs. Kevin was working in Toronto. The sense of dislocation and uncertainty remained. I went out with friends after the kids were in bed, feeling like a shadow of myself. Also, I was wearing dog-hair-infested yoga pants and a hoodie because it took every ounce of energy just to get out the door, and I couldn’t work myself up into changing first. I knew I had before me another early morning, and long day.
But it would be a day spent with these people, so, really, I have no complaints. I took this photo on Thursday evening, pretty much convinced I was living my dream. Book-reading children on the couch snuggling with dogs, while the piano is being practiced. Plus the house looks really clean here. Oh, that’s right — I spent Thursday cleaning. Let’s just say it doesn’t look that clean anymore.
Kevin was working in Toronto again on Sunday. CJ had a swim lesson, bright and early. I felt comfortable leaving the older children on their own for the hour we were gone. I put on my running gear, and dashed around the park for 21 minutes, exactly, arriving back at the pool one minute late to pick up CJ. Almost perfect timing. Back home, had time to shower and gather up supplies, and we were off again. AppleApple had an afternoon swim meet in Etobicoke. The “little ones” were dropped at Grandma’s house, while the “big ones” came with me.
It was her first long-course meet. This is the warm-up session. Points for locating the blur in a green suit on the left-hand side of the photo. By the time she swam her first race, I’d been waiting in the stands for three hours. Along with this guy.
Oh boy, he’s really feeling that smile. He was briefly happy when I gave him some change and sent him off to find a vending machine. Kevin finished work early, and drove over to join us: the first meet he’s been able to attend. But neither of my companions showed great stamina for the proceedings, and left after watching her second race. Two more to go! It was sauna-sweaty in there. I tried to read my poetry book club’s next choice: Seal up the thunder, by Erin Noteboom. I tried to be patient, and to sit up straight on the backless benches. I tried to be supportive and encouraging when the races, with the exception of one, did not go as she’d hoped.
It was nearly 7:30 by the time we made it home. Kevin had supper waiting for us on the table: fresh take-out Middle Eastern fare.
The laundry was still crawling up the basement stairs. I set my alarm for my early Monday morning exercise class. And this morning, when the alarm went off, and I figured out what that terrible noise was and why it just wouldn’t stop, I got up and got on with the brand-new week.
I’ll admit that I’m feeling off-balance, a bit overwhelmed, out of sorts. In between. Waiting. Struggling to be patient on a variety of fronts. I hope to have news to share, by early May, perhaps, and I hope it will be good. (And here’s an update I should have done ages ago: the bad news always less pleasing to pass along than the good. For those still wondering, no, my friend Tricia and I will not be contestants on The Amazing Race Canada. We did, however, go out for a drink to celebrate our effort. Efforts should always be marked, no matter the outcome!)
Meantime, there is no way to plan toward a particular direction without knowing what that direction will be. Betwixt and between. Betwixt and between.
transforming my office
This is my birthday gift from my dad. It’s still a work in progress, as you can see, but already I sense how it will alter and expand my space in this lovely little room.
When I first moved into my office, just over a year ago, I loved the blankness of the space, the empty walls, the echoing newness. I wanted to spend time in the room before building anything permanent into it — to see where the light fell, to see what was really missing or necessary.
I set up my wheelie computer desk, which I’ve been writing on since grad school, c. 1997; my chair; a plastic office organizer with drawers, formerly Kevin’s; my great-aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair (she was a tiny woman); and a cast-off cupboard with doors, inside which I hid my piles of paper. After we got dogs this summer, the dog beds somehow migrated here too. The dogs love the heated floor and finding retreat from the constant attention of the children. (The children know to knock.)
It didn’t take long, really, for the blankness to be replaced by clutter.
And darned if I could no longer blame the clutter on other people — for the first time since about 1999, I had a space that was all mine. Which meant the mess was all mine too. The room began to seem small. Piles of books teetered atop stacks of paper. Soccer cleats took up residence on a windowsill. Framed artwork was stacked in the corner, facing the wall. Behind the doors of the cast-off cupboard, items became so crowded and sprawled as to be basically unfindable.
I couldn’t afford built-in shelves and desk, but thought maybe I could put my GG finalist earnings ($1000) toward Ikea shelves and a desk. And then my dad got wind of my plan. Before he became a professor of Anabaptist history, he seriously considered apprenticing as a carpenter instead. He used to make our Christmas gifts out of wood when we were kids. Now he’s retired. He’s got a wood-working studio in his garage. So he volunteered to take on the job of Carrie’s office.
I’ve been working in here for the first few days of this new year, still using the old wheelie desk, c. 1997, but with the architecture of the shelves in front of me, giving my eye some relief from the blank wall. I’ve been writing steadily. For my birthday, I bought myself Scrivener — no longer a trial version. This promises to be a big book. I’m not sure how big, but it seems quite big already and it’s not done yet. Oh, and it’s a novel. I’ve also started believing my character is a real historical figure, which is weird. I’m making her up but I feel like she really lived.
I’m imagining a hibernating winter with these shelves warm with books and pictures, the dogs in their beds, the clutter temporarily wrangled and contained. I imagine a filled space, and the comfortable march of words. I’ll be writing.
A funny thing. I’ve started to enjoy the trips in the car to deliver and collect children from their various activities. If I’m alone, I turn on the radio and cruise between CBC Radio One (talk) and CBC Radio Two (music). If I’ve got a kid or two in behind, it’s a chance to talk. We drive through the dark that comes so early at this time of year, watching carefully for pedestrians and cyclists. (Side note: we didn’t spot one cyclist wearing a helmet, let alone reflective clothing or lights, on the university campus yesterday; we even saw a young man skateboarding in the bike lane of a busy street, going the wrong way! Needless to say, he wasn’t wearing a helmet either, because really, if you’re skateboarding in the bike lane going the wrong way after dark, you’re clearly not concerned about head injury. This sparked a conversation about safety and being young and feeling invincible. “Why is it that the things people think are cool are risky or dangerous?” my daughter asked. Well. Why indeed?).
But anyway. The conversations range. It’s always interesting.
And as long as we’re not late, I have a feeling of contentment, of easily-fulfilled purpose. It’s emotionally uncomplicated. It’s relaxing, even. Maybe that’s because it’s so much simpler to drive from swimming to soccer, to tie a shoelace, to greet other parents, to drop off a carpooling extra, than to be at home with the remaining children over the same time, supervising piano practice and homework and doing dishes and laundry. Four out of five weeknights, that’s where I am. Last night, I asked Kevin to trade places, since he happened not to be coaching anyone. When I returned home from my drive, I noticed he had a harrassed impatience about him that is often mine as snacktime gets dragged out and children begin lying on the floor and complaining about tooth brushing.
Situations do that to a person. And I could walk through the door, all fresh and relaxed after completing my pleasant errands, and be the voice of reason. Which is really irritating to the person who’s been stuck at home with the homework and the dishes. Which makes me think that the more we share jobs, the happier we all will be; or at least the more sympathetic.
Halloween planning is in full swing at our house. Last night was pumpkin carving. Costumes are at the ready. And candy is coming … candy is coming … CANDY IS COMING!* [*scary voice]. The eldest has plans for a two-part evening, involving stopping home mid-route to dump off loot, anticipating of course that his bag will get too heavy to haul. Maybe we should make a rule, however. When your bag gets too heavy to haul, you’re done.
I had a small breakdown yesterday evening. I had to go outside and stand on the porch to collect myself, and even then, I wasn’t fully collected. I took note of how many hours of domestic labour I do every day, just to keep our household squeaking along, and it was frightening. By my calculation, I spend five hours every day on chores. Five hours! This work includes: laundry, dishes, cooking, overseeing piano practice and homework and checking backpacks, bedtime, errands, and driving children to and from extra-curriculars. From 4pm until 9pm or later, day in, day out, my energies are consumed by basic household tasks. And Kevin makes the lunches. And only occasionally do I have time, during those hours, to, say, scrub the toilet or vacuum. (I have actually cleaned the shower while showering; do other women do this too? Wash the bathroom sink while brushing one’s teeth? Clean fridge drawers while trying to make supper? This is multitasking at its least pleasurable.)
Far and away the bulk of that 4-9 shift is spent on those first three items: cooking, dishes, and laundry. Cooking from scratch takes time, effort, and advance planning. Cleaning up a day’s worth of dirty dishes and containers from lunch boxes for six people, for three meals plus snacks, is an enormous job. (Sometimes Kevin does the dishes, not me.) It often takes us a full hour, minimum, to clear the kitchen from one end to the other. And I do laundry every day, usually two loads. Sports-related gear does not marinate well, shall we say.
Anyway. Yesterday. Yesterday, at the start of this 4-9 shift, I made a leek and potato soup, and roasted eggplant and zucchini to make a zippy baba ghanoush. I also served children snacks and fielded an endless stream of complaints from the two youngest, who were, frankly, exhausted after school. The complaints got louder and louder the nearer we came to mealtime, until they were a droning background hateful hum. “Garlic? I hate garlic! You always ruin supper. Onions! I hate onions. You promised supper would be done in three minutes! You lied! I’m starving!” Things improved briefly once I’d convinced the two youngest to set the table. Except this turned into a pitched battle over who would do what. By the time Kevin walked in the door after dropping AppleApple at swimming, supper was on the table, and two children were literally weeping and gnashing their teeth (because of the colour of their plates, if you can believe it, and if you have small children, you will).
I’d had it.
Almost two hours of work, a lovely meal prepared from scratch waiting on the table, most of the family present to eat together, and … a household in tears.
I went outside, leaving behind barking dogs and wailing children, and stood for a few moments in the cool autumn evening. Nearly all the leaves were blown off the trees in Monday’s wind. It’s been raining off and on for days. The world could hardly look more bleak.
But there was no solution for it. I didn’t want to go for an angry stroll in my crocs. I was hungry and tired. I went back inside and sat down in silence at the table, and in silence we ate. Everyone seemed apologetic. One of the after-school complainers was particularly penitent and even tried the garlic-laden baba ghanoush, just to make me feel better. After that we weren’t so silent anymore. Life went on.
We need to find some way to direct that after-school exhaustion and angst elsewhere, because, as I explained last night, I’m a person too, even though I’m Mom, and my feelings get hurt too when people yell at me and say mean things. Sometimes I think I get the yelling and the mean things because I’m the most loved and most trusted person in their lives — know what I mean? If you’re feeling really rotten, you want to get it out, and you direct your unhappiness at the safest target — the one who will understand and love you anyway.
But it’s not ideal.
And it’s not ideal that the daily labour of keeping this house ticking falls largely on one person. My children get a free ride, basically, and that’s been my doing, not theirs. I haven’t trained them to do much in the way of helpful household chores, and have expected little help from them, but good grief. I think it’s time to start. How many chores do your children do? And what chores are they? Do you have tried-and-true methods of assigning chores and splitting up work?
For about 48 hours after the GG announcement, I found it very amusing to narrate my life by captioning all activities with “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder …”, as in “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is going to finish these supper dishes before anyone gets a bedtime snack,” or, “GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, would like a cup of tea and a back rub.” I’m not sure anyone else found it quite so amusing.
But it amused me this morning too, as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, stood on a stool in the downstairs bathroom attempting to remove spiderwebs with a wad of toilet paper, and a giant nest fell down her sweater sleeve. (“I told you that bathroom is infested, Mom!” “Yeah, there’s definitely a weird looking nest above the sink.” “That’s an orb spider.” “A what?!” “Don’t worry, it’s not poisonous.”) It continued to amuse me as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, trudged upstairs to clean the bathroom floor. (“Someone peed on the floor!” “There’s pee in the upstairs bathroom!” “Somebody missed the toilet!”) And the fun kept on rolling as GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, sorted a dark load of laundry while repeatedly shouting up the steps, “I’m in the basement, come down if you want me to zip you up!” Apparently, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, had misheard the request. “He said that he wants you to pick him up from nursery school.” “Oh.” Sorry kid, but GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is leading a writing workshop for high school students this afternoon, and can’t. GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, also has a vague toothache in the very same spot where the dentist put in a filling last winter (remember that?), which seems like ominous timing given she’s flying to Vancouver in two days. GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is also panicking slightly about what to pack for her trip (how many shoes can she fit into a carry-on bag?). GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, got up in the middle of the night to turn off her alarm and did not go to yoga this morning. Despite getting extra sleep, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, did not look fabulous in the mirror this morning; she really should have gone to yoga.
GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, is putting the hammer down. Stop this now, GG finalist, Carrie Snyder.
This feels like a miscellany day. I’ve been having some random and more serious thoughts on a related subject.
It’s the subject of being paid for one’s writing. The Globe and Mail (a newspaper in Canada) is going to attempt a “paywall,” by asking subscribers to pay for content; apparently, readers are not pleased. The New York Times does this as well, and the truth is, ever since it did, I’ve stopped reading NYTimes articles online. And I’m a writer! I get that writers and editors need to be paid for the work they do, and I respect the work that they do; so why not pay for quality online content? I think the answer is three-fold: one, I’m lazy and it seems like too much work to set up an account and try to remember passwords, etc.; two, I still get most of my news from the daily paper and from CBC radio; and three, there’s a ton of free content online.
Let’s address that final issue. I write a blog. I provide free content, practically every day! I understand why professional writers dislike bloggers — professional writers would like to make a living doing what they do, thanks very much. Most bloggers, like me, do this in our spare time. I have no desire to monetize my blog, nor to figure out how to make money off of it, mainly because I do it for fun. It would change everything to try to blog for a living.
That said, here I am, trying to write for a living. It’s dismal to report, but freelance rates, per word, have actually gone down since I first started freelancing, over a decade ago. I’m not sure freelance writing (for magazines and newspapers) was ever an excellent money-making occupation, but in today’s climate it’s an excellent way to sponge off your spouse. So, is being a writer a sustainable occupation?
GG finalist, Carrie Snyder, has yet to figure out how to make it so.
And it isn’t for lack of trying. I’m beginning to wonder whether being a writer, a serious writer of fiction with hopeful freelancing on the side, is in actual fact a hobby, or an act of volunteerism, or of love, or of obsession, rather than being what one could legitimately call an occupation. A job.
This isn’t meant to be a pity-me rant. I don’t feel pitiable, not at all; I’ve been doing exactly what I want to do; and I do make (some) money at it. Nevertheless, I feel prepared to look at coolly at my options and draw some fairly harsh conclusions. Our four kids need more than I can offer them as a writer; and I don’t believe the burden should be carried unequally by Kevin. The question is: what, then? Well, I’ve got some ideas, to be revealed in good time. For the immediate present, I’m sticking with the status quo, doing the freelance jobs that come in, working on a new book, applying for grants, hustling, and jumping up and down for The Juliet Stories. And blogging.
I love writing. I never started writing fiction thinking that it would earn me a living; and that wasn’t why I started blogging either. With my writing, every step along the way has felt like a gift: the first time I had a poem accepted for publication; the first time an editor at a magazine wrote back to tell me she liked my story (even though she was turning it down); the first time I earned a grant for an unfinished manuscript; the first time an editor called to tell me that she loved my book and wanted to publish it; and on and on. In between all of these steps were innumerable impersonal rejection letters, fat self-addressed envelopes stuffed with rejected stories, and, once I’d acquired an agent (another exciting step), calls of reassurance that also brought news of “no, thanks.” None of this could have been undertaken if it weren’t answering an extreme personal call — a deep probably irrational desire — to keep writing, keep learning, keep practicing the craft. None of this would have been undertaken if I hadn’t loved doing it.
Certainly, none of it was undertaken with an idea of dollar signs dancing in my head, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I’m a highly impractical person, and I encourage my kids to dream impractically too. To pursue doing what they love, no matter what it pays in monetary terms.
But the thing is, we also have to figure out how to pay the bills. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m doing what I love, and I’ll keep doing it forever; but I’m going to have to do something else, too. My word of the year, this year, was actually two words: work and play. An interesting, difficult, troublesome choice, I think, and prescient.
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