We visited Kev’s family for the long weekend. Lucky for us, they live just down the road from this spectacular tourist attraction: Jones’ Falls locks on the Rideau Canal. That’s a view of one of the locks, above, and it’s on top of the hill, with this big reservoir that feeds the lower locks (not pictured). The reservoir is a great place to swim. Even when it’s not that hot out.
The kids had fun getting me to photograph them jumping in.
Then we tried to get everyone jumping in at once. CJ had to think about it for awhile. He had a lot of encouragement.
Here we go!
(Kevin and I swam too, but no one got photos of that, which was probably a good thing, since I insisted on wearing my swim cap and goggles. My swim cap is bright orange. Every time I put it on, I wonder why I chose that colour??)
And now for some obligatory adorable cousins-together photos. C’mon, you know you want to say awwwww.
The weekend’s entertainment also included a round of par-three golf (Kev and the older kids), a 21.6km run on a gorgeous trail (me, with Kev accompanying on bicycle), and a whole lot of backyard badminton and soccer (pictured below).
Goodbye, farm. We’re headed home to new adventures that must wait for another day’s telling.
click on photos to see in full
I haven’t been getting enough sleep and it may be due to my late-night reading material. I just finished Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which should not be dismissed merely because it has an Oprah book club sticker on it. I really loved this memoir. It was everything I hope for in a book: I was entertained, I was moved, I learned new things, I met fascinating characters, it touched me, it felt relevant to my own experience without being preachy, it expressed a deeper human truth while remaining particular and individual, and it had a compassionate moral outlook. And it was written by a woman. Hurray! I’ve been mildly troubled by my male-author-heavy recent reading trend. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading books by both men and women, but I kept waiting for the female-authored book that would speak to me with authority. And Wild did.
I won’t give a detailed plot synopsis, because you’ve probably already heard about the book or even read it yourself, but the narrator is hiking 1100 miles of wilderness trail, by herself, age 26, several years after the death of her mother, as a way to recover her life from a seriously scary downward spiral. Because I read it as an ebook, I can’t easily thumb through to find favourite bits, but I loved when this troubled spirit recognized that her efforts to get out of herself, to escape, had been not actually what she longed for. What she longed for was to get in. It was such a simple and profound way of expressing the paradox of the human mind and spirit: how the easy way out is always a trap, because it prevents us from finding what we really crave, which is a way into ourselves — and the way in is hard. And yet, it’s also not hard because it’s so right, because it lines up who we want to be with who we are, I think. Peace. Grace. Stillness.
So, two things I loved about the book. One, it was about hard physical effort. I related to that as a path to entering into one’s life and self. Two, the acknowledgements. I read the whole book with pleasure and ease, and it almost came as a shock to see the author thanking mentors, grant-giving institutions, writers’ festivals, and writing retreat centres. Right! I thought. This effortless-seeming book was written by a writer. Obvious, I know. But it gave me a feeling of kinship to recognize the work behind the scenes, to remember that every wonderful piece of writing began as an idea, and was supported by an invisible web, and brought to being by the same hard yet right process of steady work. That it didn’t just emerge whole. Cheryl Strayed wrote this book the same way she walked the trail: with help, alone, in doubt, and in hope. Sure, there are some ecstatic moments along the way, but writing a polished and complete book is kind of like walking 1100 miles of wilderness trail (or so I imagine): it’s a grind. You’re going to hate that you’re doing it some days, and think you might actually be crazy. You’ll be afraid and have to tell yourself that you’re not. You’ll be humbled by all you’re not, and also by all you are.
It’s the grind that yields.
In other news …
Most of the fallen tree is now piled in our front yard.
I spent yesterday afternoon deliberating with other members of The New Quarterly’s story jury, as we picked out a winner and runners-up for their emerging writer story contest. I learned a few things that I hope to apply in my creative writing class this fall. One is a total ban on sex scenes — I mean in their stories, not in the classroom; well, actually, I mean both, but the latter does not generally require mentioning. Only well into one’s writing career should one should attempt to write a sex scene, and even then … which reminds me, Cheryl Strayed wrote a really good sex scene. So it’s not that it can’t be done well, it’s just not a promising place to begin. Everything I type right now seems to be loaded with double-entendres. Which is probably part of the problem.
Anyway, that was yesterday, and I also zoomed all over town on my bike. My muscles are aching from lifting weights yesterday morning, and they’re still aching from a push-up extravaganza on Friday morning, not to mention the general battered and bruised feeling I carry following my evening soccer games (now on Thursdays and Sundays), and Saturday’s long run. I’m taking today off except for yoga stretches.
I scored a replay-worthy goal in Sunday’s game. It’s the goal I’ve been envisioning for months. I believing in envisioning, by the way. I believe if you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it in real life. The goal came off of a beautiful cross on a strong run up the left wing. I was on right forward, and running hard. The ball crossed ahead of our centre forward and I caught it on my right foot at the top of the box, controlled it like I knew what I was doing. The centre forward, behind me, told me I had time, take my time, and I did, somehow calmly positioning the ball and as the defender rushed me, I shot it over the goalie’s fingertips, skimming an inch under the bar, and swishing the back of the net.
I get to describe it in detail because it may never happen again. But it happened once. I could not stop grinning for about ten minutes. It was one of those magical sporting moments that keep a person coming back to a game–when it feels like the moment is unfolding separate from thought, purely on instinct, and you know in advance you’re going to do exactly the right thing. You have utter confidence in yourself, and it seems like it’s suddenly so easy. (Of course, it’s not). Everyone who’s played a sport knows what I’m talking about it. Come to think of it, it’s another example of grace.
AppleApple got a goal of her own in last night’s game. CJ and Kevin and I all came along to watch.
And now it’s back to work. The younger kids are at daycamp. Albus will be home from camp in two more sleeps. AppleApple is watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, which she read this spring. And I’m writing scenes that are kind of like candy. They are so fun to read, and to write, it’s weirding me out.
hot and grumpy
Inevitably, having said I was doing a lot of training, along came a random stomach bug (food poisoning?) to lay me low early yesterday morning and now I’ve missed two planned runs. But I prioritized rest and recovery, and am feeling back to normal today, if normal includes being covered in a sheen of perspiration. We don’t have air conditioning. The upstairs thermostat reads 89 degrees (why Fahrenheit? I don’t know).
hot but less grumpy
Kevin gets to go off to his air conditioned office every day, but the rest of us are here, making do with a few fans and running low on popsicles. I’m wearing clothes I’d wear to hot yoga (see photo above), and brainstorming cool foods for supper: gazpacho and fattoush!
even the dogs are grumpy
I don’t envy AppleApple her babysitting duties
On Monday evening, I took the kids to the pool for two hours (two hours!), and discovered that CJ swims far better than I thought he could, given his general sinky-ness in swim lessons, while Fooey swims rather worse (she needs to learn the flutter kick, mainly, and become more efficient at breathing between strokes). CJ wanted to practice, but Fooey was annoyed by my instruction. It’s funny how my kids break down along these lines: Albus and Fooey are similar in many ways, while AppleApple and CJ are similar in others. The latter two accept my instruction as helpful, while the former two loathe it.
I’m more like the latter two. But I try to work with what works for each kid. So Fooey played and splashed, while CJ played and practiced and splashed, and AppleApple did laps and dolphin dives and dove to the bottom of the deep end and found $2.50 in change. When we clambered out two hours later, we were actually, wonderfully, briefly, COLD.
This morning I received a letter from a reader, through my publisher. She’d read both of my books, going so far as to track down Hair Hat, which is out of print, at U of T’s Robarts Library, and she wanted to tell me that she foresaw a bright career developing for me, if I could keep my focus.
Because I do wonder about that: are my chances for success, for a long and happy career, all wrapped up in the focus, in the drive, in the setting of high expectations? At this stage in my life, I’ve come to think the answer to that is No. There’s luck, too, and striking the geyser of zeitgeist, which is beyond unpredictable. And yet, I’ll tell you too, that I keep operating as if the answer is Yes. Because it’s what I’ve got, and I seem to have lots of it. (It being focus, drive, high expectations, etc.)
I operate with the knowledge that failure is ever-present and ever-possible, and that it can only harm me if I let it get in the way of trying. Knowing failure keeps me oddly serene, oddly comforted.
I just keep writing. Like Dory hums in Finding Nemo (yes, I’m quoting a kids’ movie): “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming,” only I hum writing instead of swimming. I’m nearly midway through my revisions of Girl Runner, or at least midway through the manuscript. I’m writing lots of new scenes and loving my main character ever so much. I think you’ll love her too. My editor said she thought readers would Google the character’s name, believing her to be real, and I almost feel that way about her too. What a strange job I have, making people up from scratch. I can’t explain why it makes the slightest bit of sense to do it.
Am I keeping my focus in order to have a bright career?
Probably not, though I’d welcome it if it landed on my doorstep. I keep my focus because I love telling stories. I love digging into the lives of others. I love having them say and feel and do things I could never say or feel or do. I love asking enormous questions. I love being allowed to wonder.
The problem with these before and after photos, is that the “afters” remain works-in-progress. You’ll see what I mean.
Living-room, before: giant TV cabinet in mid-removal. (Why base a room around a piece of furniture we almost never use?)
Living-room, after. Removal of TV cabinet reminds us, screamingly, that we haven’t repainted this room since moving in TEN YEARS AGO. Ouch. So that’s on the new to-do list. Also: move art, or change art, now hanging way too high above couch on wall that desperately needs painting. But the good news is that the room, as you see, is being used as we hoped: for reading and socializing.
Basement, before. I didn’t take the before-before photo, which would have shown this area looking impressively disastrous, jammed with futon frames and soccer equipment. In fact, this is after Kevin cleaned, in anticipation of the arrival of something you’ll see in the photo below. When I saw how nice it looked, I had the brilliant and possibly tequila-fuelled idea of moving the TV cabinet down here and turning this space into a games room. The idea seemed much less brilliant the next day as we dismantled the damn thing outside in a sudden rain shower in order to get it to fit down the basement stairs. I can assure you, it’s never coming back up.
Basement, after. See: we made room for a foosball table! All the kids can play!
But it still looks like a basement. Like an unfinished basement, to be precise, and that is what it will probably always look like. We may move the foosball table to the far end of the room in order to make the Wii/TV cabinet more accessible, but we don’t have any grand plans for this space. It’s got low ceilings, exposed pipe, stone walls, and ugly old shelves. Someday I’ll get around to clearing the shelves of all the things we’ll never use, but that’s about the extent of my grand plans, and I find myself in no great rush to knock that one off the new to-do list.
the bonfire of the schoolwork
beach bound with dogs, who behave superbly–guess we can take them anywhere!; water’s cold, and wind’s chilly, but you’d never know
hosted by my bro and sis-in-law, we all play “Pit” late at night and mid-morning (no photos); and I lounge half the day reading Agatha Christie (also no photos)
I’m suspicious of leisure, but why? If it’s too easy, if I’m enjoying myself too much, if there is too much time in the day for sitting and sipping coffee, I feel uncomfortable. What should I be doing? (There is always more to do, and perhaps my anxiety arises from the fact that often the reason I’m relaxing and sitting is because a) I’ve forgotten about something I’m supposed to be doing or b) am ignoring things that need doing.)
I could fight this character trait, or I could give in to it. Generally, I give in because I feel better about myself. Somehow, all of this doing gives me a sense of purpose and progress, or even just basic maintenance. Which could be utterly false, even self-deluding, and I get that. I get it, but, still, I crave the sense of purpose and progress.
Today I am thinking about photography. On the weekend I read Ian Brown’s essay on being a judge for a photography contest in which no prize was awarded — none could be, because none of the hundreds of photo essays submitted met the criteria of not just being aesthetically appealing, but also narratively significant. In other words, none of the photo essays needed to be, in the judges estimation; their beauty was superficial because it did not matter, as nothing was at stake.
Brown wondered whether with our excessive photo-taking and recording of our lunches and pets and children’s every move, we’re losing the ability to recognize, tell, and maybe even to look for the deeper stories, the essential and underlying and specific stories that make us look and think and stop, rather than entertain us. I feel myself guilty of exactly this: pulling out my camera to capture “a moment.” Am I looking for a story? Or have I already decided what the story is simply by pulling out my camera to snap the photo? What’s the difference? In the latter scenario, I’m thinking of my photos as illustrations. X marks the spot. We were here. I was here. I’ll admit that I find poignance in snapshot, but I’m kind of nostalgic, I guess. I’m hyper-aware of the passage of time, and of change.
The former scenario, is, however, more interesting and more challenging and more difficult. Looking for the story means admitting from the get-go that I don’t know the story. That the story might only become apparent through work and time and effort, that it isn’t immediately available, even if the technology is instant.
When I took the pool photos on Saturday afternoon, I pulled out my camera because I noticed the way the light was hitting the water. That was what I wanted to capture, as much as the event itself, and then I saw through the zoom my daughter waiting for her race, drawn into herself, looking solitary and private even while surrounded by crowds of others. There was a story waiting to be told. The picnic photos, on the other hand, are merely decorative, illustrative: I wanted to note what we were up to. The noting was almost as important as the doing, maybe. I carried my camera out along with the dishes and food. I sense that there is a difference between motivations.
The year that I spent taking a self-portrait every day, I began to get bored of my own face and of our house and yard. Toward the end of that year, I found myself experimenting with composition, trying to tell stories that weren’t my own, that were projections (see above). The limitations forced me to become more creative. Every day, I struggled to choose just one photo. But the whole project was stronger because of it. I believe in limitations, in art and in life. Boundaries, strictures, rules, natural or artificial, make us work, make us choose, make us care.
This week, Brown’s article has me stopping myself from automatically picking up the camera. Asking, is this necessary? Or does it just add to the noise? (Hence, the recycled photos in this post …)
Maybe I photograph the moment because I’m caught up in wanting to do, do, do. Or maybe, sometimes, if I am to be honest, to distract me from what I’m stuck doing. Maybe it makes me feel less anxious about all I don’t understand. Maybe I photograph the moment because I am terminally nostalgic. Maybe because a photograph seems to make living itself more real, by committing it to images that give the illusion of permanence. And maybe, too, I’m looking for the larger narrative. I’m hopeful. I think I’ll find the story here, and that it will make sense. Maybe that’s what we’re all doing as we snap away with our digital cameras, creating too much, not knowing what to do with what we’ve made, nor how to keep it once we’ve got it.
Maybe the story comes in the curation afterward. The cull. The work. And also the pause, the stop, the stillness. That could make all the difference. I suppose it does.
One more thing: the photos I like best are the ones that are a bit askew, the mouth open or the eyes closed — something is not quite right, not quite perfect, and that makes it interesting.