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!
I would like to announce that this blog post is being written while my feet are in motion. I’m going nowhere, but that’s the beauty of a treadmill desk. I can walk while writing. I can’t walk particularly quickly, lest I get all caught up in a thought and forget where I am (dangerous), and also because for reasons of practicality I can’t really type while sweating and moving my arms, as one does while pacing at a good clip. So I’m trying out a conservative pace of 1 mile an hour.
One nice thing I’ve noticed so far: I often drift off while writing, and need to stare out the window and wait to figure out what comes next. Now I can drift off and yet my feet keep moving, so there’s a sense of continuity, of going somewhere. I am a woman who loves motion.
One not-so-nice thing I’ve noticed so far: I tend to feel a little nauseated for the first few minutes after I step off the machine. I do tend toward motion sickness, and can’t read while in the car, or even turn around to fetch drinks or settle disputes, which is why I am the driver on long trips, and Kevin is the mediator/snack-dispenser. The queasy feeling doesn’t last long, so I’m optimistic that I will get my sea legs, so to speak. My treadmill desk legs. If not, this set-up will still work just as well as a standing desk. The point is not to sit all day.
Photos have been requested. AppleApple took these this morning.
It’s surprising how easy it is to type and walk. But I hope that by typing while walking I will not limit myself to typing about walking, if you know what I mean. I do not intend to announce my writing location every single time I get on here to write.
I want to thank the many people who responded to my blog post on making mountains out of piles of dirty laundry. Seems I’m not alone in my parenting angst. To update you: little has changed regarding the bedroom floor, but it has been nice to talk about other things with said child. And said child did spontaneously remove clean folded clothes from the laundry basket and deposit clothes into their proper drawers without being asked. So there’s hope.
I feel like this blog is kind of a many-headed monster. It roams the court. One day, you check in and it’s nothing but cute photos of my kids. The next, I’m deep into writer-territory. I get philosophical at times, and at other times I aim to entertain. I have no idea what’s going to come out when I
sit down stand up to write. That’s the joy of writing a blog, although I suppose it keeps this blog from being neatly categorized as one thing or another. On FB I follow the Canadian writer Richard Wagamese whose poetical and inspirational status updates are well worth receiving on a daily basis. He posted lately about giving yourself permission to write spontaneously on any subject that comes to you for 15 minutes every day: a writing practice, if you will.
That’s what this blog is, really. A writing practice.
I’ve spent the day doing chores. It’s made me nothing but grumpy. I’ll never be done. And the house will never quite be to satisfaction no matter how much I do. I did cut one son’s hair, which felt like an accomplishment (that he didn’t hate it felt like an even greater one). But the rest of it: changing bedding, vacuuming under things, sorting and discarding and filing and emptying and washing and folding. Argh!!!!! That sums up my feelings on the subject. The day began with the dogs whining before 7am, so I got up and walked them, hoping the rest of the house could sleep a bit longer. Me and two little eager doggies traversing the neighbourhood through freshly fallen snow. I’ll admit I enjoyed it. But I started at 7 with duties and responsibilities and it’s been nothing but duties and responsibilities ever since. Sometimes I don’t feel like an adult at all.
Or maybe it’s that I’m tempted to play the artist card — as in, should I really be spending my precious time on drudgery! Last night, the two older kids and Kevin and I watched part of a movie on the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy (AppleApple is doing a school project on environmental/nature art). The documentary was a bit slow-moving and I fell asleep, but before I fell asleep I simultaneously found myself admiring the art and the process, and thinking: wow, this man is privileged. “Did he remind you of yourself?” Kevin asked this morning, as we were talking about Goldsworthy’s artistic process. “No,” I said. “He really didn’t.”
And then I went off on a (chore-accompanied) diatribe about how there is a reason that women who have four young children don’t go off and stick icicles together in foreign countries in pursuit of their art (in the documentary Goldsworthy has four children under the age of 10). The reason is: we really can’t. I’ve yet to meet a woman artist whose husband takes care of the day-to-day minutiae, the child-care, and the domestic logistics so that she can be free to roam inside her own head, pursuing her vision, and disappearing, even if only metaphorically, for days at a time. Sure, those of us with artistic inclinations, who also happen to be women and the mothers of young children, find ways to pursue our ambitions and get things done. But in my experience, it’s squeezed in. It’s one among a cascade of urgent and important calls. I’m not sure I’d want it any other way, because I’m not over-keen on the notion of artistic privilege. I think it’s good to get my hands dirty with the day to day, and I accept the challenge of learning to alter my focus and not on my own whim; to let go. It keeps me from feeding my obsessive compulsive side, at least over-much.
So, as much as I’d like to play the artist card, I think it’s best that I can’t. It isn’t what got me here. (And while I’m on the subject of privilege, this also got me thinking about the privileges I have that I may not recognize: privileges that I live inside of, quite possibly in daily ignorance of the advantages granted me by birthplace, skin colour, class, religion, education, and on and on.)
Okay, one final observation about writing while walking. I really do go on and on! I just don’t seem to know when to stop! My sincere apologies for this over-long post, which seems to defy tidy categorization, and which has taken me nearly a mile to write. (And I promise not to report that at the end of every future post.)
Dark. Fresh snow. 6:30 in the morning.
Ready to go! Lists made, lists checked and double-checked. Bags packed.
Parking lot. Big bus. Forty swim kids waiting to board. Excitement. Frigid wind.
Headed for Ottawa for the big meet. Without me.
Excited for her. Really, deeply, truly excited for her.
But a bit bereft.