Hey, happy summer, everyone!
School ended a week ago, and I would like to report on our free-range plan for the summer of 2017, but I keep being interrupted by the free-range children. Kevin has been working from home in his new “office,” on the upper deck of the front porch, but this morning he had to go to his office-office, so it’s just me and the kids and dogs, with no buffer in between. Since sitting down, I’ve fielded the following questions/observations: a) how do you turn the hose off in the back yard? b) where is my swim suit? c) do we have the third book of Amulet? I already looked on the upstairs shelf. d) hey, the NDP is having a leadership race [from the child reading the newspaper at the dining-room table behind me].
Could be worse. And I’m just blogging. If I were trying to write, my response would be ARGHH!!!
In fact, Kevin has been home because I have been trying to write this week, trying to shape my months of handwritten, circling narrative into novel-form, and I’m at the point in the project where, frankly, it all falls apart. My current philosophy (and by current, I mean, as of yesterday afternoon), can be summed up thusly: just finish it, including all of your bad (wild, implausible) ideas, and see what happens. As I counselled a student yesterday in my office: the perfect story you’re holding in your head has to get out of your head in order for others to read and experience it—and in order for that to happen, you have to accept that your perfect story will be wrecked in the process, at least to some degree. You can’t take that perfect story out of your head and place it on the page intact. No one can. But there isn’t another way to be a writer. Let your perfect imaginary story become an imperfect real story.
I’m trying to take my own advice.
Here. I present to you something that brings me joy every time I see it. [insert little arrow pointing up] You could call it a chore board, but that’s a rather pedestrian title given the magic it has created in our house this past week. Every morning, I write down chores that need doing, and the children sign up for them; the later you sleep, the less appealing your chore. Today, the last one out of bed got: “clean upstairs bathroom.” We’ve also banned video games or shows between the hours of 9am – 4pm. (Exception: older kids use their cellphones; I’m not great at monitoring this.) It’s still early days, but the chores are getting done with minimal fuss, perhaps because the assignment comes from the board, not from a nagging parent.
Other summer observations: I’m not waking up very early. This is the natural consequence of staying up too late! In addition to the kids running riot over regular bedtime hours, and soccer practices lasting (unofficially) till sundown, I’ve also been staying up late to watch feminist movies. Must explain. I’ve gotten myself, somewhat unofficially (?), onto the board of a locally run feminist film festival and my inbox is now full of films to view and consider. (Anyone out there with ideas for must-see recent feminist films, give me a shout!) But the only time I have to spare for movie-watching is rather late at night, post-soccer practice. Ergo, not waking up early. Ergo, early morning exercise-rate, somewhat reduced.
Oh, I want to mention one more lovely addition to the routine: a shared journal with my eldest daughter. We write back and forth to each other, or draw back and forth, or quote poetry back and forth. I’ve devised a quick summarizing list that is easy to complete, if we’re writing late at night, when we’re too tired for originality. Filling out the list has become something I look forward to, every day. My answers are sometimes long and rambling, sometimes brief. (Want to try answering the list in the comments, below? I would love that.)
- Something that surprised you today.
- Something you’re proud of today.
- Something silly.
- Something happy.
- Something sad.
- Something you’re thankful for today.
I will return with deeper thoughts (or not) as the free-range summer permits.
If you’re following along at home, week two of my experimental creativity course is underway. I’m titling this week’s theme “Brain/Play,” because we will be learning about the brain and doing exercises that call on us to be playful and let go of expectations.
A paradox I’ve noticed, as I design this course, is that I am attempting to teach two different art forms at the same time. The first is Lynda Barry’s speciality: cartooning. The second reflects my own developing interest: drawing from life, or realistic drawing.
(None of these cats were drawn from real life.)
Cartooning relies on symbolic representations: what is the essential form (there will be variations, of course) that says CAT or CAR or CASTLE? What says TREE? It always surprised me how easily my children, from a very young age, could identify a representation of a tree—any representation of any tree—in their picture books. Tree, sun, boy, girl. They could point out any of these forms, and it amazed me, because every tree in real life is a unique tree, every boy a unique boy, every girl a unique girl; and all real things are constantly changing. Not to mention that the real sun in the real sky looks nothing like its symbolic representation.
I finally understand: these symbols, and our ability to recognize them from infancy, are evidence of our brain at work, busily categorizing and simplifying, so as to make the world and all of its unique things comprehensible to us.
So that is cartooning. Learning to cartoon is learning how to make use of the symbols that represent things, in ways that are creative and yet easily grasped by the observer/reader.
Drawing from real life is a totally different undertaking: here, we are representing a figure that looks real and three-dimensional despite being nothing more than scratches on a flat page. In order to draw realistically, you have to see the uniqueness of the form you are attempting to recreate. Instead of drawing an eye, you draw the unique lines and shadows that will make an eye seem to appear on the page. In fact, in order to make an eye appear on the page, you can’t think about it being an eye that you are drawing at all. Instead, you have to look past the symbol of EYE and let yourself see purely in shapes and lines. Further, the eye you reproduce will be a very particular eye, a recognizably individual eye. It is a mind-boggling and mind-blowing experience to discover one’s capacity to see (and reproduce) shapes and lines rather than symbols. (If you already know how to draw from real life, this will come as no big revelation at all; but to those of us who believed we couldn’t draw, it is a positively exhilarating discovery.)
Now, the question is: will learning two paradoxically different art forms at the same time help or hinder our exploration of creativity? (An irrelevant question at present, as the experiment is in motion.)
Ultimately, the coursework is aimed toward creating a short book that combines text and illustration, and my sense is that some of us will choose cartooning for our final project, while others may choose more realistic drawing: our individual styles will emerge. That’s the hope.
Subject: Writing as an outsider. My chosen venue: a basketball game in a high school on the west side of the city.
When I first arrive, I sit on the wrong side in the wrong set of stands, then notice a dad I vaguely recognize heading in the other direction, and try to discreetly switch ends. It is hard to focus and write because I want to watch and things happen so quickly, end to end and back again. Coach whacking her clipboard on the sidelines, shouting, “Whoo!”, the team scores. My daughter is on the bench looking small in the red and black jersey. The coach wears red too. The other team is white and blue. Girl misses her free throws.
Shoes squeak. Ball pounds on the wooden floor. The sounds are particular to this space. Close your eyes and you would know what you are hearing. Echoing.
Girls are up 4-0 when the teams take an inexplicable break. They have been playing for mere minutes. I don’t understand. The team huddles up with a tall assistant coach who is not wearing red (blue, instead), and the head coach, who is also tall, animated and vocal. I recognize one of the refs from soccer.
The teams play for another minute and take another time out. The refs stand together at the far end, side by side, like identical twins in their black and white striped shirts, long black pants, black shoes, and round heads, one bald, one with short white hair. I know the bald one. They run up and down the court with whistles in their mouths. I don’t know much, but I can see that the coach plays the same five players most of the time. Nine girls sit on the bench and wait.
Bright lights. Echoing chamber. Blue plastic benches, terminally uncomfortable. “Home of the Highlanders.”
I should watch instead of writing.
At half-time, the ref who I recognize from soccer comes over to chat. “You don’t watch while your own daughter is on?” “Oh no! When was she on?” “She was on for the last minute.” “Oh man, I totally missed that.” “This is a good team.” “Yes.” “She’s in grade nine, your daughter?” “Yes.” He tells me about how he used to coach basketball and why he quit (a long story).
The buzzer counts down and the next half starts and now I watch with great duty and attention. My daughter does not play again. I don’t know much about basketball, but the same nine players sit on the bench and don’t move for the final quarter. My attention drifts to the clutch of slender teenage boys watching and horsing around with their phones on the lower benches. I recognize one from soccer.
I understand soccer, but not basketball. The team wins by more than 10 points. That seems sufficient.
Afterward, walking across the parking lot, my daughter, who is glowing, says, “Have I converted you to basketball yet?” “I’m really sorry,” I say earnestly, even though I’d intended to keep this opinion to myself, “but I have to admit that I’d rather be watching you run cross country.” “Oh Mom,” she says in a fond tone, “but I want to play basketball.” “I know,” I say, “and that’s what counts. You’re the one who’s doing it! I’m just here to watch.” (And today, I didn’t even do a good job of that.)
Saturday morning, just as kids were gearing up for soccer tryouts (parents too, as we’re both coaching rep teams), Kevin came into the kitchen and quietly said, “The vet just called.” I could tell from his expression that the news wasn’t good. One of our beloved dogs, DJ, has a suspicious lump in her mouth, and the vet thought it might be cancer.
And it is.
And so, with tears in our eyes, we told the kids, all of them gathered around the dining room table playing a board game together, in their soccer gear. There were many tears. We don’t know what will happen next, but as F (age 11) and I walked the dogs later on that day, she had many questions, many thoughts. “DJ doesn’t deserve this!” (No one deserves this.) “Do you think DJ knows she has cancer? I don’t think she knows. Maybe it’s good that she doesn’t know.” “I don’t want DJ to feel any pain!”
We decided that we would be grateful that DJ is currently her usual self, not showing any signs of pain or distress, eating well, and enjoying her walks and naps. But it is still hard not to worry about the future.
I have no time for this post, it has been written in a hurry. But I must explain that photo at the top of this post.
The kids had the Terry Fox run at their school last week, before we had DJ’s diagnosis, and CJ (age 8) came home with a large sticker which he stuck onto our kitchen counter. It reads (and I’m correcting his spelling): “Terry ran for me. I am running for … my step-grandma and maybe my dog.” F also ran for her step-grandma.
There are too many people to run for. I’m sure you have your people too.
Sending love and hope out into the universe.
A funny thing happened yesterday morning. I started reading old blog posts, from 2009/2010, and F and CJ sat down and read along with me. They loved the photos, but they also loved the snippets of dialogue and descriptions of our daily life — adventures in which they played starring roles as 1 and 4 years olds. We were in stitches laughing and remembering. I mean, I’d almost forgotten about our “cooking with kids” experiment, and how we would hold family meetings using a “talking crayon.”
I’d forgotten, too, how openly I wrote about my own writing struggles. This was a quiet and difficult time in my writing career. I was three years away from publishing The Juliet Stories, and five years from having published Hair Hat, at the time, my only book. Yet I shared when I finished a new draft of a manuscript — even though the manuscript would ultimately be sent back to the drawing board by my kind agent. I shared when I felt aimless and unsure. I shared the small joys, too. I didn’t seem afraid to let others see me fail.
I’m much more afraid now, I understand.
Why haven’t I shared my ups and downs since publishing Girl Runner? Why hold my cards so close to my chest? I would like to be as brave as my former self. I would like to tell you when I’m excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published.
I am excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published. It sprung from out of an abandoned idea, and tapped me on the shoulder, and I worked on it in a torrent of concentrated obsession for the past number of months, in locations that seem woven right into the book, in my mind: beside several different soccer fields, sitting in my little white car, or the camping chair I keep in the trunk, or at a windblown picnic table, and in a cool calm classroom in New York State that allowed me to find an ending. I wrote some of the book by hand. I drew cartoons of the main characters. I drew sequences and storyboarded scenes. It was fun. It was super-fun.
And I want to share that with you, whether or not the manuscript is ultimately destined to be published. Because it’s part of the story.
Because the writing felt like play. Because I’ve had a sense of well-being as I’ve worked on this manuscript, and that is a good, good thing. Because I’ve had a sense of spaciousness, of enough, but not too much, these past few months.
Now to go walk the dogs around the block with my Fooey and CJ, who have grown to the enormous ages of 11 and 8. Wow. I love that I can learn from my former self. I love that my kids have this virtual scrapbook to flip through, if and when they’re interested. And I’m glad, glad, glad it’s still summer.
PS Home again. CJ led us in an around-the block heptathlon. He got gold, Fooey got silver, Suzi took bronze. DJ didn’t appear to have Olympic ambitions, and I blame my sandals for my poor showing. That, and the late-afternoon inertia. We were having a grand old time right up until CJ stepped in dog poo (not ours) on the sidewalk, which Fooey found disproportionately amusing, which in turn put CJ into an even worse mood. “This is just a bad day,” he said, although he did take my hand as I tried to cheer him up, to no avail. By the time we reached our back yard, he was so mad that he took off his hat and kicked it into a small tree. The hat-kicking had a salubrious effect on his system. He and Fooey are friends again, and they are playing at the dining-room table with a craft kit dug up from heaven-knows-where that can be used to make miniature cakes and pastries, and probably, also, a major mess. What is this stuff? “It smells terrible,” says CJ. “Don’t worry,” says Fooey. “We’re using it all up.”
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.
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