photo credit: Shari Lovell
This morning began unusually. I woke at 6AM, refreshed after a very very long sleep, having crashed out just after 9PM last night. Teaching takes a lot of energy, at least for someone who would skew toward introverted on the personality continuum, and I had my class on Wednesday night (a happy place to spend three hours, I must tell you, even though our windowless brick room in a hive-like building resembles a bunker, and gets very muggy when packed out with creativity and debate). What a day to go and teach. I think it was a good thing, as it forced me to be focused and to pay attention to something other than the noise.
There was some noise on Wednesday. There was this lovely interview done by the Canadian Press, which ran in various media outlets. There was the phone call from the Writers’ Trust to confirm that Girl Runner was on the list, and various emails to note upcoming appearances and media requests associated with the award. I checked my calendar a lot. And my phone. Twitter and Facebook kept pulling me in. It was a lot of noise, as I say, and I found myself unable to settle and reflect, or even, quite, to feel what was happening.
So I was grateful to my students for occupying my evening. We talked about poetry. There was so much to learn from the discussion, so many reminders of why poetry matters, why words matter.
photo credit: Shari Lovell
Kevin had gotten take-out ramen for supper, which I reheated in our shiny new microwave when I got home, nearing 10PM. (Yes, we finally got a microwave, and I must confess my leftover lunches are much more enticing than those consumed during our long, cold pre-microwave era.) After eating, all the kids in bed, Kevin dug through his scotch collection (so many bottles, each with an inch or three of liquid, leftover from our years of hosting scotch parties), and pulled out a particularly choice selection. I don’t have the name handy. But he went online to check its current value, were it full and unopened, and announced that we would be celebrating with a $5,000 bottle of scotch. I mean, seriously?! There was just enough for two wee drams.
One of the pleasures of the scotch party is hearing our friend Mike read the tasting notes, so to keep with tradition, I will tell you that this ridiculously pricey scotch tasted heavily of oak barrels, with overtones of straw (or was that the colour?) and undertones of turmeric and cinnamon. Or something like that. Maybe it was nutmeg. And a bit of blue sky.
It was a lovely celebration. I was up five hours later to run with my speedy friend Heather, who kindly slowed down for the occasion; also because that will be my last run before I attempt the Toad, tomorrow morning: 25 kilometres of likely-to-be-muddy trail. God help me.
The book I was reading this morning is called A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I’m going to keep talking about it until I’m done, and probably for a long time thereafter, and the next reader I’ve got in mind is my 11-year-old daughter.* We’re both of us possessed of a lot of energy and drive (I hazard to suggest she’s got even more of both than I do), and we both of us need to find ways and reasons to turn down the noise and become still. (And not because we’re crashing!)
my girl runner
Wednesday, after the prize announcement and before teaching, I dashed over to her school to watch her run a cross-country race. She came second out of a large field of 7th and 8th graders. “I’m so tired! Weirdly tired! Like way too tired!” she told me immediately afterward as she lay prone on the grass. “You just ran three kilometres really fast,” I pointed out. “That’s not it!” “Well, maybe you’re too frail and shouldn’t run more than 200 metres,” I suggested, tongue in cheek. She’s read Girl Runner. She smiled faintly. Then she sat up and took off her shoes. “My feet are too hot!”
At first, she was quite disappointed in her performance, and it mattered not when I pointed out that the girl who finished first was two heads taller and a grade older. She insisted on expecting better of herself. I kept assuring her that she’d been wonderful, that she’d given her all, that I was very proud, and finally, much later, before bed, she smiled to reassure me that she was happy with the race. Mostly. I can’t argue with her. Her expectations are her own. She isn’t discouraged when she doesn’t meet them. Instead, her expectations seem to fire her with greater focus and renewed intent. Yeah. I get that. There will always be someone faster, smarter, more talented. But I think she already knows: that it’s not about comparisons. It’s about finding one’s own voice, one’s own passion.
But what about stillness? What about releasing expectation? What about rest for the mind and body?
A Tale for the Time Being is the story, in part, of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who’s offered decades to the practice of meditation, prayer, ritual gratitude for each gift, no matter how small. She bows with her whole body to the world. She is at peace with mortality. The humility of her daily practice gives her SUPAPOWAs! Even her physical frailty is a strength.
So I wake this morning, early, thinking about how whatever I have to offer must come from a grounded place, a place where I sit in stillness and silence, practicing gratitude, bowing with my whole body to this beautiful, difficult, scary, noisy world, with openness and with humility. A gift is a gift. What to do with it? How to give thanks? How to give, no matter how tired, frail, mortal, flawed? How to be still. How to listen.
PS I’d like to point you toward a review of Girl Runner by a blog-reader who is an Ironman athlete and writer; he also digs into the history of women’s long distance running.
* Note: after writing this post, I finished A Tale for the Time Being, and discovered that in the final third of the book, there are several extremely dark scenes relating to extreme bullying, attempted rape, and child prostitution, and although my 11-year-old is a mature reader, I don’t think the book is meant for her–not yet. But sections of the book are meant for her! However, I can’t figure out how to carve out the darkness to show her the light. I think this Tale for the Time Being will have to wait, for the time being. Nevertheless I highly recommend it to a mature adult audience. What is light without shadow? (The book also contains the clearest explanation of quantum mechanics that I’ve ever read.)
New things are happening around our house.
The kids started school. Yeah, that was a few weeks ago already. I’ve been a touch distracted.
this was as happy as I could get them to look, and oh how we tried!
New instruments are being played. CJ has started the piano. Fooey has retired from piano and taken up the violin. AppleApple has the opportunity to play both the French horn and the cello through her school, and on Tuesday evening practiced that horn for an hour and twenty minutes. I kid you not. Then she went outside and practiced some more. The neighbours kid you not. “It doesn’t sound quite so much like an elephant’s butt,” her helpful father told her. And Albus joined the school orchestra (he plays the viola), because, he told me, participants will be rewarded with a trip to Canada’s Wonderland at the end of the year. Hey, whatever works.
I’ve newly begun teaching, again. It’s much easier the second time around. So much easier. It helps not to be suffering the effects of concussion, too. (How did I manage that last fall??)
Also new: swim kid is no longer swim kid. She’s just going to be soccer kid, field hockey kid, cross country kid, music kid, theatre kid, hanging-out-with-friends kid. This was no small decision. But I think I’m mourning it more than she is, which means it’s absolutely the right decision (she had tears, but moved on). Truth be told, we couldn’t fit the extra commitment into our lives. It’s hard to stop doing something you’ve enjoyed, and that has brought you success. But success doesn’t always mean you should keep doing it. When you’re good at lots of things, you’ve gotta choose what you absolutely love. (I mean, this is a kid who will obsessively focus on whatever is before her. She’s playing the damn horn again as I type. I mean, the melodious completely non-elephant-butt-like horn. She’s trained herself, with literally hour upon consecutive hour of practice over the summer to juggle—with her feet—a soccer ball 379 times without dropping it, when she could barely manage 2 back in June. Discipline is not her issue.)
Here is the reward: she would have been swimming for two hours last night. Instead, when I walked through the front door, home from teaching, I was greeted by this sight:
Sweeping toward me, decked out in feathered mask and cape, she burst forth in low dramatic tones. Shakespeare? Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, to be precise. “She’s in a mood,” said her father, fondly.
One more reward: eating supper together as a family.
See? We tried. We really did. It’s what we do around here.
After a quiet week, I was so looking forward to having everyone home. And they’re back, and all’s well with my world. But I’m glad they got to be away, free and independent and outside in a way that can’t be duplicated at home. I’m too tired just now to reflect more deeply on all that’s happened this summer, but I know the memories that seem to be sticking are located outside. Walking the dogs with the little kids in the evening, running in the early morning light or on shaded trails, sitting in sand beside water, swimming at noon, doing annoying running commentary beside children’s soccer fields (can’t seem to stop myself; sorry, everyone nearby!). I have no idea how to gear up for the fall, for back-to-school, back-to-teaching, travel, soccer tryouts, swim meets, music lessons & practice & homework, other than putting absolutely every little thing on the calendar, and then doing my best to show up.
But I don’t know how to put be still, outside on the calendar. Anyone figured that out?
Sunday morning soccer, Owen Sound, Ontario
The house is so quiet.
You know when you wish for something and then it arrives and you wonder why you were wishing for it? That’s what this morning feels like, and it’s a taste of the months to come, after the kids return to school: house empty during school hours, just me and the dogs, no one dashing into my office to demand/beg/complain/tattle, no need for ear plugs, no discoveries en route to the bathroom of kitchen disasters and the remains of lunch. Just me.
Interrupted by my own distractions, demands, hunger, anxieties.
This week, one child is at a friend’s cottage. Two are at overnight camp. The fourth is home, but is at a soccer camp during the day.
Here he is at supper last night, playing the part of only child without apparent effort. “I can’t see without my glasses,” he joked. He helped Kevin clean the back porch, which we are finally painting after years of neglect. He was affable, talkative, and snuggly after supper, playing a game with Kevin, brushing teeth, putting on PJs, reading a story with me.
But then it came time for bed. And suddenly the emptiness of the house struck him too. His lonely room, no sister reading by flashlight or humming her “Suzi dog songs” in the bunk overhead. Couldn’t he sleep with me? At the end of the bed? On the floor? Here, or here?
It’s kind of how I feel this morning. I can’t quite settle. After longing for alone time, I miss the mess.
I don’t know how someone so strongly inclined toward solo pursuits got so lucky as to acquire a life filled with chaos, but lucky I am. And oh how I appreciate the gift of disruption in this quiet quiet house. Kevin and I took advantage of having built-in babysitters home on Saturday, and slipped out to see Boyhood. We loved it. It’s the parents who stick with me, complicated, loving, mistaken sometimes, sometimes wise, trying even while they know they’re failing in some profound way, but that’s what we do as parents–try even while we see ourselves being clumsy, repeating mistakes. The scene that haunts me today is the mother crying in her kitchen as her son packs up his room to leave for college. “This is the saddest day of my whole life,” she says (or I remember her saying). “I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know you’d be so happy to be leaving.”
The other piece that sticks with me is how much advice the boy is given by well-meaning adults over the course of his boyhood. And how rarely that advice is what he wants or needs. Yet how compelled the adults are to offer it. Makes me want to hold my advice-giving-tongue and instead listen, ask questions, be around.
* A note on the photos: these are #unedited #cameraphone. My photo computer died last week, and until it returns to life, I am without editing options, or the ability to download pictures from my Nikon. So for the meantime, I’ve exchanged quality for spontaneity. There’s always an upside to the down.
There are so many moments in a week.
On Thursday, I felt like an adventurous mother, pulling off the feat of getting the kids organized and out the door by 9AM, with picnic lunch, full gas tank, sweaters, and gear for the beach. We drove two hours to a park I’d never been to, my hope for a fun day only dimming slightly when a) we had to stop by the side of the road for a bathroom emergency and b) when the sky went dark and rain spattered our windshield. The GPS, with its insistent female voice, kept sending us on a route contradictory to the directions I’d decided on independently, so with Fooey’s strident encouragement — “Trust your instincts, Mom!” — I turned it off. We found our friends’ campsite, ate lunch together, and tramped up enormous dunes to find Lake Huron in a wild state, more ocean than lake. The sun came out. The kids swam. I reclined in the sand with the wind whipping my hair. And I was able to get us organized and back home in time for soccer practice.
Then Friday. I met Kevin for lunch so we could discuss finances. We ate at a Korean place. Toward the end of the meal, I saw a woman standing and staring into the restaurant through the glass for a long time. “I think a character is coming in,” I said. She was elderly, squat and stooped and clothed in many layers, and seemed a rather unlikely patron. “What should I try here?” she asked us, shuffling directly to our table. “What do you like?” I said. “Oh, vegetables. As long as they’re cooked so I can get ’em down.” “Ummm….the food’s quite spicy,” I hedged. “Oh, I like the Chinese food.” “Well, this is Korean, it’s not really the same.” “How about that one with the egg?” [pointing to the colourful menu items posted on the wall] “Yes, the bi bim bap is very good,” said Kevin. “But does it have VEGETABLES?” “Umm…”
We got the story from the server, a young man with dyed pale orange hair who told us that the woman comes frequently, asks patrons for recommendations, sits at a table, but never orders. He hates to ask her to leave.
Then Friday, arriving home from lunch. I caught a strong rather strange sweet smell when I opened the front door. No one appeared. A large bath towel was on the kitchen floor in front of the fridge. DJ was licking the floor. It was definitely a what the hell? moment. Evidence was everywhere. A mostly empty container of tamarind sauce open on the counter. Brown spatters. Clean-up had clearly been attempted. I impressed myself (if no one else) by muttering and speaking firmly rather than yelling. Maybe I’ve grown. The next forty minutes were spent on hands and knees discovering new patches of stickiness, and then opening the fridge and discovering the accident had occurred inside there. Well, the fridge needed to be cleaned, I reasoned. I called the culprit in, but I did not yell. Instead I concluded this session by sending several bitter texts to Kevin, as if he were somehow to blame. “Just spent last 45 minutes cleaning tamarind sauce off floor and inside fridge. Lid loose!” “These are the perks of working from home, of which you are spared.” “I don’t think I will meet for lunch again anytime soon.”
He did not text back. I think this was wise of him.
Finally, this morning. Chilly, rainy, windy. I am running. I’d left the house saying I would go 15-20 kilometres, tops. I’d left the house not in the mood for a long run, not at all. Around 15 kilometres, I’m flying through a favourite wooded path quite far from home. I’m thinking, this is why I resist going on long runs — because once I’m out here, I’m all in. Distance breaks down resistance, changes my brain, changes my understanding of pain and suffering, I think. 15-20 kilometres tops?! Ha! I’m feeling way too good. I cover 25 instead, and maintain pace. I think this is how my brain works on writing too, that the challenge is jumping in, because I know it will be hard, it will take me far away, it will hurt, but I know too that once I’m in, I’ll be gone. I’ll only want to go further. And, like running, good writing breaks down resistance, breaks down the self-conscious mind and pulls me into its flow. And I’m away.
I can’t always be away. Maybe I have to come back and clean up the tamarind sauce and be surrounded by shouting voices of children and get filled up with energy and anxiety and stories, so that I can go out again. And go long.
Be warned: this is a photo-heavy post, and a little behind the times in terms of news items. Apparently summer has decided to kick into fast-forward and honestly, I can’t keep up. I don’t even want to. This morning, driving with a friend to our spin & kettle bell class, we saw that it was dark. It was also early, and for most of the year, darkness is to be expected at this hour, but we’ve been spoiled by summer’s long light, and it didn’t seem like it should already be contracting. August is a melancholy month. Always is. I fight against the melancholy because after all, it’s still summer. But even the youngest of our crew is noticing: “Is it fall?” CJ asked yesterday, as we sat out in the back yard watching Kevin dismantle our rotting picnic table. “No! It’s still summer!” I said. “Why did you think it might be fall already?” “The leaves are falling,” he said. And so they were, some of them, enough to dot the grass, into which a path has been worn by the soccer ball being played back and forth, back and forth, obsessively this summer.
We haven’t gotten to all of the tasks we’d meant to. Our to-do list seems as long as ever. But we’ve also had afternoons like yesterday, mild, breezy, sunny, when I sat reading out loud to the kids from a book of old English folk tales. And weekends like the one before, when cousins came to stay. And two visits to the Stratford Festival in just over a week: first, with Kevin to see King Lear (and celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary), and then on Saturday with the girls to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As we walked uptown to the carshare, we realized how unusual this grouping was: me and my girls, just the three of us. We really had fun. We got dressed up. We had a picnic by the river and named the swan and seagull who tried (unsuccessfully) to befriend us (Swanda and Seagram). We chose a feathery mask in the gift shop that we all could share. And we got a treat at DQ afterward, tapping into a gift card Fooey had gotten for her birthday. “This day feels like an adventure,” one of them observed as we drove home past fields of corn and turning wheat.
Party cake, number one.
And Fooey has had her birthday, celebrated now many times over. I’m weak, speaking parentally. We allowed her, as her birthday gift, to purchase her own iPod Touch. Our three eldest now have this electronic device, and I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it, either. Here she is on birthday eve.
Selfie, with brother.
And here she is on her actual birthday.
Party cake, number two.
She planned her friend party months ago, with an ever-shifting menu and lists of crafts and games and activities. We ended up serving Kraft Dinner and potato chips for the main course, which I supplemented with bowls of raw veggies and fruit, met with a chorus of, “Mom! It’s not a veggie party!” Moms know how to have fun! (In my defence, the veggies and fruit were devoured.) The whole party was easy, and I was glad to see that Fooey’s friends didn’t mind her stern organizational tone, as she herded them out to go “bowling” with a basketball and a bunch of plastic honey containers, or instructed them to “design your own book cover,” as the opening craft. Be still my beating heart. I was smitten all over again with this kid of mine, now nine.
And I think that catches us up on the news front, minus a soccer tournament on the weekend, to which I brought my camera but then forgot to pull it out of my purse to take photos. Guess I was engrossed in the match. Sorry, Albus. (He doesn’t want his photo posted on the blog these days anyway; or at the very least, wants to curate the photos of himself that do appear. We’re all growing up. More evidence of the time, and its passing.)