One child home sick since Tuesday. Ginger ale, tea with honey, boredom, sleep.
One child about to lose his first tooth! “Is it still there? Is it still there? Is it still there?” “Yes. You’ll know when it’s gone. There will be a little hole for your tongue to go through.” Brief pause. “Is it still there?”
One child knitting a pink leg warmer for a dog using four small double-sided needles purchased with birthday money. “That’s amazing. How did you figure out how to do that?” “Oh, Mom. You’re underestimating yourself. All you’d need is half an hour looking at instructions on the internet and you could do it too!”
One child practicing the violin. “I’ll only play when you listen.” “I’m listening.”
One woman lying on a yoga mat in the living-room, doing her physio exercises. Opens her eyes, sees her daughters hanging over the back of the couch to peer at her from close range. “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” Dogs arrive on scene, one begins licking woman’s face, the other sits on her foot. A game with a balloon is being played, solo, with every move narrated out loud. “Mom, you have to see this great play this guy just did! Who are you cheering for? Fire or Fireplace? Or wait, no, the teams are Happy or Fire. Remember, you cheered for Happy last time. Happy’s the best.” “Okay, I’ll cheer for Happy.” “Dad’s cheering for Happy.” “Ok, I’ll cheer for the other one.” “Fire? They’re okay, Mom, but they’re probably not going to win.” “I like underdogs.” “So you’re cheering for Fire? Sorry, Mom, they just got scored on. You have to see what the guy just did!” Dog continues frantic licking of woman’s face.
One daughter begins timing physio exercises with digital watch. Other daughter begins practicing the recorder. “I’ll start from the first song I learned.”
Woman calls out to husband: “I need a snapshot of this moment!”
Husband can’t hear. Husband is playing his favourite songs in the kitchen while washing up the dishes after supper.
And that’s all she wrote.
I had my students write about home yesterday evening. I joined them on the writing exercise, as always, and found myself feeling prematurely homesick. I imagined walking through our front door into the hall strewn with shoes and school bags and discarded socks and dead leaves and muddy patches, the living-room to my right strewn with musical instruments and sheet music and toys and books, the dining-room table ahead strewn with newspaper sections and homework, the breakfast counter beyond strewn with home folders and asthma inhalers and hairbands. I mentally picked up abandoned cereal bowls and cups of tea and carried them to the kitchen, where the counter was strewn with several apples going soft and permission forms and butter knives slathered in peanut butter and honey. There were towels and more socks on the bathroom floor. I could imagine the sound of a French horn being played in the backyard (Star Wars theme song), and footsteps thumping down the stairs, “Hey, Mom, what’s for supper?,” and the phone ringing (a child’s friend on the other end). I could hear the sound of a piano being practiced by a 6-year-old. Kevin coming in the door carrying a grocery bag with milk and eggs and checking his email on his phone, the dogs dashing to greet him excitedly.
And I won’t be here for any of this for the next ten days. What will they do without me to pick up their socks and sign their permission forms and carry their cereal bowls to the kitchen? Well, that’s just the surface stuff. What I’ll really miss is the music and the reading and the chaos and the hugs-in-passing and the many requests.
The feeling of being both surrounded and needed.
Where I’m going, I’m not quite so necessary. I’ll miss the active mothering stuff I’m so accustomed to managing all day, every day. That said, I hope to be useful and to make good use of my time away.
And I also hope to have fun. All work and no play makes Carrie a dull woman, to steal an old proverb. Damn, but it feels true right now. Lighten up, I remind myself, shoulders scrunched, hurrying off to something or other, always a few minutes late and therefore rush, rush, rush.
This, I must change. That is my goal for this trip. Lighten up.
I’m heading out West. First to Wordfest in Calgary, then the Summit Series in Banff, then to the Vancouver Writers’ Fest. Click here to find my events listings. When I’m home again, I’ll be back and forth to Toronto, and other places in Southern Ontario. I’m entering my personal literary marathon-season.
CJ told me yesterday that they were talking about Making Healthy Choices in Health class. (He’s six.) “I said, EXERCISE. And FRIENDS.” Wow, I replied, thinking, this is wise advice, young guru, which I shall take to heart.
Right now, I’ll admit that I’m missing my friends. If there’s one element absent from my fall schedule it’s time for friends. (And, to a lesser degree, for exercise.) So I’m hoping to connect with people on this tour out West, to make new friends and see old friends, to push myself out of my introspective shell, be brave, and in this way to alleviate or even prevent the homesickness from setting in. But also to lighten up.
To lighten. As in to brighten, hearten, gladden, illuminate, restore.
Taking the train to Toronto, yesterday morning. “We’re going in fast-forward!”
“I am going to the aquarium with only mom.” – Fooey, age eight, almost nine, recording the event for posterity on her train ticket.
Observation: it’s really hard to get good photos at an aquarium. This stops no one from trying repeatedly, including me. There must be thousands of terrible shark photos now in existence that were directly spawned by those who squeezed, squawled, and wandered with giant strollers around the aquarium in Toronto yesterday afternoon. Here are mine.
Good selfies are even harder than good shark photos. “This one looks eerie.” “What’s that mean?” “Like this.” “Oh.”
It was a very special day, with only us.
There is so much in this interview with Alice Munro, from 1994 in The Paris Review, that I want to go on quoting and quoting from it. Here is a sample. I urge you to read the whole thing (pour yourself a cup of tea and enjoy the length, depth, and breadth of the conversation). And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction.
MUNRO I was like a Victorian daughter—the pressure to marry was so great, one felt it was something to get out of the way: Well, I’ll get that done, and they can’t bug me about it, and then I’ll be a real person and my life will begin. I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, This was a hard-hearted young woman. I’m a far more conventional woman now than I was then.
INTERVIEWER Doesn’t any young artist, on some level, have to be hard-hearted?
MUNRO It’s worse if you’re a woman. I want to keep ringing up my children and saying, Are you sure you’re all right? I didn’t mean to be such a . . . Which of course would make them furious because it implies that they’re some kind of damaged goods. Some part of me was absent for those children, and children detect things like that. Not that I neglected them, but I wasn’t wholly absorbed. When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I’ve told her that. This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me. I feel I’ve done everything backwards: this totally driven writer at the time when the kids were little and desperately needed me. And now, when they don’t need me at all, I love them so much. I moon around the house and think, There used to be a lot more family dinners.
And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction. After a while, Munro took us to Goderich, a bigger town, the county seat, where she installed us in the Bedford Hotel on the square across from the courthouse. The hotel is a nineteenth-century building with comfortable rooms (twin beds and no air-conditioning) that would seem to lodge a librarian or a frontier schoolteacher in one of Munro’s stories. Over the next three days, we talked in her home, but never with the tape recorder on. We conducted the interview in our small room at the hotel, as Munro wanted to keep “the business out of the house.” Both Munro and her husband grew up within twenty miles of where they now live; they knew the history of almost every building we passed, admired, or ate inside. We asked what sort of literary community was available in the immediate area. Although there is a library in Goderich, we were told the nearest good bookstore was in Stratford, some thirty miles away. When we asked whether there were any other local writers, she drove us past a ramshackle house where a man sat bare chested on the back stoop, crouched over a typewriter, surrounded by cats. “He’s out there every day,” she said. “Rain or shine. I don’t know him, but I’m dying of curiosity to find out what he’s up to.”
I keep a record of the books I’m reading here (which is to say, there), but occasionally I feel the urge to write about a book I’ve read here (which is to say, here).
Last night, up far too late, I finished Miriam Toews’ ALL MY PUNY SORROWS. This is the kind of book for which book clubs were invented — a lot of book clubs are about friends getting together and drinking wine and the book is the excuse, I get that, but nevertheless there’s a genuine need underlying the concept of the book club. After finishing a heartbreaking resonant emotionally complex narrative don’t you just want to gather some friends immediately and talk about it?
ALL MY PUNY SORROWS is a semi-autobiographical novel about the relationship between sisters, one exquisitely talented and suicidal, and the other a bit of a mess and desperate to save her sister’s life. As in all of Miriam Toews’ novels, the bit characters are as vividly drawn and unique as everyone else, and humour hums silvery through the anguish and grief. But this novel feels different to me, too. It is more raw and immediate, less polished, a straight throughway from beginning to end of almost (seemingly) unmediated experience. People don’t behave like you want them to. They behave like people.
The mother of these two sisters, who has also lost her husband to suicide, is the most brilliantly drawn loved and loving independent fearless woman I can remember reading in a book, ever. Her depth of soul and lightness of spirit anchors the narrative. But even her love cannot anchor her daughters. And that seems to be part of the book’s message (though it’s not a “message” book): that we are responsible for our own lives, that we can only carry the weight of responsibility for the things that are ours to change. And the lives of others do not belong to us, even when we’re mothers. We raise our kids up with love and care, and we offer love and care pretty much forever, as long as we’re living, but that’s all we can do. The mother tells her daughter near the end of the book that letting go of a grief is more painful than holding onto it, but it’s what she hopes her daughter will be able to do.
Maybe if you’ve lost a husband and a daughter to suicide, you understand profoundly how little your love can cure or save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to save someone. That means that life is not about problem-solving, even though we may wish it to be so. We may wish to pour our minds into solutions and fix what’s broken, especially on a personal level, especially in families, and that’s a good impulse, I’m not saying it’s not. But to survive trauma and grief without becoming bitter, we have to recognize that we’re not that important. We’re not in charge of other people’s choices. We’re in charge of our own puny sorrows.
What we can offer are small, ordinary gifts. But a gift is a gift, isn’t it. It doesn’t ask for anything in return.
There’s some strangeness to reading this book, knowing Miriam Toews’ personal history, which cleaves closely to the book’s story. It’s difficult to read it as fiction, I guess.
One final observation: it’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that references so many other books. Entire poems are recited by characters, for example. I loved that. Reading as comfort and connection, as a way to speak the unspeakable. Words might not save us, but they may just console us. We read and we are less alone.
smile for the camera!
1. I went to the mall two days in a row. TWO DAYS IN A ROW I WENT TO THE MALL. I hadn’t been to the mall since back-to-school shopping last fall. I kind of consider shopping, especially at malls, one of those rings of hell, though perhaps a lesser ring. But I did it. I did it! I even returned items, and got a refund for a torn pair of jeans without having the receipt, which felt like I’d pulled off a minor miracle. Inside a ring of hell, no less.
2. Due to my sufferings at the mall, I now have outfits appropriate for all occasions in London. With accompanying footwear. Fooey and Kevin have seen and approved everything, although Fooey was in a bad mood and was a bit unnecessarily harsh in some of her critiques. Getting older under the scrutiny of one’s children is an exercise in biting one’s tongue/laughing on the outside/crying on the inside.
3. Did I tell you that my other daughter, somewhat in conversational context, asked this recently: “Mom, did you used to be really pretty?” To which I did a sit-com-worthy double take, and then, with dignity, argued that I consider myself even more attractive (not to say “pretty,” perhaps) as I age, because of blah blah blah experience, confidence, etc., to which she replied that she didn’t mean that, exactly, she was just wondering if I was “prettier back then,” to which I suggested she perhaps stop digging the hole any deeper and we could just leave it at that.
4. Motherhood. I tell ya.
5. But hey! The sick boy has been reading and reading! I don’t allow electronic devices when he’s home sick, because I want to offer no enticements to stay home any longer than strictly necessary. The awesome part is that he devoured all three of Susin Neilsen’s books, including that one I hoped he would try and nearly killed with my overt recommendations: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larson. We even talked about the books, at least a little bit.
6. Today is publicity planning day. Apparently, I’ll be recording a little publicity video for Two Roads, my UK publisher, on Friday. As I also land at Heathrow on Friday, I’m a little worried about looking jet-lagged and in need of a shower. I will aim for a haggard glamour, as the fresh-faced variety may be out of reach. I will also aim for coherence.
7. That’s on Friday! Friday! Two days from today!
8. Also on Friday, I’m having dinner with my Canadian publisher, and on Sunday I’m having lunch with my American publisher. And there are parties on Monday evening. Wowza. It feels like I’m about to step out of one world and into another completely different one.
9. I still have to fit everything into my bag. And leave room for souvenirs. I am not to return home without bringing souvenirs, says Fooey, who will not object if I note that she is my bossiest child, because she knows this, and is proud of the fact. (Or rather, as per the Boss Not Bossy campaign, she is my exceptionally-gifted-in-the-senior-executive-skills child. She really is too.)
10. The boys both need haircuts. I will not have time to attend to this detail until after I get back from London. I suppose there are lots of other details I will have to leave until then, when I dive right back in where I’d left off. Including this: please note in the events calendar on the RH side of this page that I’ve got readings coming up in Waterloo and Toronto, almost immediately upon my return — and come if you can.
11. Deep breathing. Deep breathing. Speaking of which, my cold is much better. It must have needed the rest.
12. It’s time for the piano lesson run. And, go!
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