Just before my reading yesterday (Wednesday) evening, the skies opened up. Talk about raining and pouring. And hailing. It was dramatic. Perhaps it purged my anxious mood, because by the time I got to the event at the library, everything felt magically relaxed. Or maybe that’s experience coming into play. After all, I have been reading and speaking in public on a fairly regular basis for the past few months.
A friend commented yesterday that she hoped I would find hidden value in my decade of at-home-with-children work; and there is no doubt it’s made me who I am.
I’m less self-conscious, for example. Any public outing involving infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and yes, even 11-year-olds, toughens the hide considerably. And my children have taught me how to ask for what I want — on many levels. If your child has ever been in need, you will discover within yourself reserves of grit and determination, you will knock on doors, you will be persistant and annoying and you won’t give a damn about being judged. On a different level, asking a child to do a task requires simple, straightforward communication. Forget fancy, forget dancing around a subject — state what needs doing in three words or less. So these are hidden assets I’ve gained over the years.
But other skills are rusty …
Alright, I started this post many hours ago, this is how far I got, and I’d like to finish it before bedtime. What has this crazy day held? I worked all day on a story on dinosaurs that is still not quite done. I set up an interview for tomorrow morning. I discovered we have a meeting at our eldest daughter’s new school early tomorrow morning; and that Kevin can’t attend due to work. I managed to make supper from scratch in about twenty minutes flat. Instead of eating it, I worked on the dinosaur story. Soccer girl and I biked to her soccer practice. The weather was gorgeous! I went for a run, and discovered speed — for the first three kilometres. And I hacked it out for the next two, and ran 5km in 23:38, my fastest time yet; and then I hacked out another kilometre and a bit, making it 6km in 28:52. (This is not record breaking time for anyone but me; but it felt good.) After soccer practice, the two of us stayed and practiced penalty shots — AppleApple in net, and me kicking. Addictively fun! Then we biked home. Dishes awaited. Laundry still on the line. Supper still on the table. Exhausted children to put to bed.
Man. I’m tired. I should not be typing, I should be reading in bed right now. I’m currently reading about the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I spend a lot of time turning to my husband to report on the crazy things she’s getting up to. Did you know she was one of the most famous women in America in the 1930s? A poet! She sold 68,000 copies of a book of poems in eight weeks in the middle of the Depression.
More on Vincent to come, methinks.
For now, to sleep, perchance to dream.
So often, starting a project is the hardest part. Last month, a literary friend, Kristen den Hartog, whom I know only virtually (another reason that I love blogs!) asked whether I’d like to write a guest post on her blog, which is charmingly titled “Blog of Green Gables.” In fact, hers was the first blog I ever subscribed to by email, and I’m always happy to find an update in my inbox. (You can subscribe to my blog the same way, if that sounds appealing.) Kristen posts beautifully illustrated, thoughtful, informative, long-form reflections on reading books with her daughter. Most recently, they’ve been reading through Roald Dahl, and her last post was on Peter Pan.
I was thrilled to be asked to contribute on the subject of reading to/with my kids.
And then I got stuck. I tried this, I tried that. The subject seemed suddenly vast, my thoughts on it scattered and disparate. I set the attempted essay aside. And I waited. It took me several weeks to understand why I was feeling overwhelmed and disorganized: because the shared reading experience has changed so much over the years. There have been more stages than I can count. Many detours. Memorable moments. So many amazing books discovered. And perhaps just as many tedious ones too. When I think about reading with my children an entire photo album of memories comes flooding into my mind.
Once I understood the problem, I embraced it. I decided to write about the many stages of reading. And here is the essay. I love the way Kristen has illustrated it. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.
P.S. Met my deadline without breaking a sweat yesterday. Now onward to writing week. Talk about starting being the hardest part …
Today, I am experimenting. Can I compartmentalize and work on two projects at the same time? I am going to attempt to develop my new character (ie. creative, not-yet-for-profit work), even while keeping several irons in the fire for a freelance piece I’m writing (ie. less creative work-for-pay). The new book, of course, has no due date, no deadline. The freelance piece does. I am obsessive about meeting deadlines (not necessarily a bad thing); except I’m so obsessive that I frequently meet deadlines well ahead of schedule. And honestly, I’m not concerned about meeting this one. I know I can do it. Things are moving along nicely. I know this. Still, my instinct is to worry it until it’s done. Thing is, I can’t finish this morning. There are interviews yet to do and other people’s schedules to take into account. More to the point, I don’t need to finish this morning. The deadline isn’t until next week.
So. Can I step back, set it aside, not worry about it, and work productively on something completely different?
As I say, it’s an experiment. It had better work, because, frankly, this could be my life for a long long time. It already is my life, you say? What with the children, and the cooking, and the triathlon training, and the book-writing? It’s funny, but those things all fit together in a long-term way that doesn’t trouble me. They’re all part of a steady routine, an ebb and flow that isn’t exactly predictable, and yet seems symbiotic somehow. More of this, less of that; more of that, less of this.
If I don’t write a blog post today, I’ll write one tomorrow. If supper is on the table late, well, eat some crackers and cheese, kids. If I have to drop a writing day to take a kid to the doctor, my book doesn’t know it. In all of these circumstances, I’m flexible. But give me a deadline and I focus to the point of compulsion. Hm. Maybe this goes back to childhood: feeling a sense of responsibility as the eldest of five, wanting to please, anxious over any perceived failure, stomach in knots if we were late for school. I was “high-strung.” Maybe, maybe, in some circumstances I still am.
My goal for today: Trust myself. I will get the job done. All in good time. And meantime, there is other work to be done, and it’s just as valuable, even if invisible.
Yesterday, a client of Kevin’s brought him a ripped-out page from the latest issue of Elle Canada. “Tracking the best in movies, books, music and art,” says the page. “This month, we’re inspired by free spirits.” And there is The Juliet Stories! I love that Juliet is being identified as a free spirit. (Wasn’t “spirit” my word of the year when I was writing Juliet?) There’s a dark side to being a free spirit, of course, and I suppose that’s partly what the book is about; but sometimes I wish I were more free of spirit — colourful, creative, adventurous, alive. Writing is my window into all those things I couldn’t actually be.
Finally, two exciting reading discoveries.
1. CJ is “reading” to us. I’m pretty sure he’s essentially repeating memorized text, but he links the words on the page with the words he’s saying. Out and about, he notices and reads signs (STOP is a good one), and he notices words and points out letters and letter sounds that he knows. Exciting!
2. Fooey read bedtime stories to CJ last night. For the record, I still love reading bedtime stories to the kids, but I’m not always available — last night I was walking Albus home from piano lessons. I got home in time to hear the tail-end of the last story, and give goodnight kisses. Sweet.
I quietly declared yesterday a mental health day. And so I did not blog. Not that blogging negatively affects my mental health. It’s just that it’s one of the many things I try to do every day. And yesterday, it felt like there were perhaps already too many things on the must-do list and that I should therefore ease back, breathe, take a long nap.
And then the power went out. For hours and hours.
CJ ran around the house trying every light switch and reporting back. “Not even the cold cellar, Mommy!” “Not even in my room!” Meanwhile, I cooked supper in an eerily quiet kitchen over the blue gas flame. Partially cooked, would be more accurate. I’d started preparing it rather late, and planned to warm ingredients in the crockpot, leave everything simmering on the counter, and race back home to eat in between piano lessons and “Performing Arts Night” at the kids’ school (see: already enough things to do). I was sauteeing onions when everything but the stove stopped. This is one of those situations when it is extremely handy to work from home. Dump still-frozen ingredients from crockpot to stove. Thaw. Beats arriving home to a chilly house and an unfinished supper waiting on the counter.
Mental health day really only lasted an hour. But it was a good hour. I napped peacefully while CJ watched a movie. He had minor surgery yesterday morning (and it was very minor, no worries), so I kept him home from nursery school. Sleep is good. So good. And it is something I’ve found lacking post-launch-party. Something about coming down off the mountain. Too much oxygen down here. The clutter of the every day. The feeble human mind whirling as it tries to absorb all the good stuff and keep it–and exhausting itself in the process.
After a truly restorative nap, it was back to work. More movies for CJ. Plus some playtime on my office floor. I find myself fearing that what my children will remember of this time in our lives is their mother saying in a voice tinged with the frantic: “Just a minute, please, I’m trying to finish some work!” Or: “Wait, wait, wait, I just have to get this work done!” Or: “Mommy’s working, can’t you get a glass of water yourself?”
You know, that’s not the worst thing ever, come to think of it. A little water-fetching independence never hurt anybody.
This morning the girls were wondering when I might start baking again. It’s true. I bake bread on the weekends, but my cookie and treat-baking has fallen right off the map. Fooey was browsing longingly through a kids’ cookbook from which we used to like to bake banana muffins — together. And I looked at the girls, sitting side by side at the breakfast counter, and I said, “Hey, you’re big enough to try baking together!” “Really? Can we?” “Of course!” (If they’re big enough, I should be big enough, too: to let them learn by trial and error; ie. make a mess, and possibly bake something inedible.)
I’m not going to declare today a mental health day. Nap: check. Power: check. Blog: check. Kids safely to school: check. Supper planned: check. Early morning exercise: check. Discovery of a new blog (by me!) up at the amazing Canadian literary hub The 49th Shelf. The house is quiet. It’s not even 10am. And I’ve got messages like this waiting for me in my inbox:
“I finished reading The Juliet Stories this afternoon. That ending!!!—I’ve read it over and over.”
and this: “My 90 year old mom finished your book. She said something to the effect that you “have an absolutely incredible way with words”.”
and this: “Just wanted to tell you how much I’m enjoying Juliet. In fact, it’s hard to put down! It’s a gorgeous book.”
(If any of you are moved to write such kind words to me, please also consider taking time to let Amazon and Chapters know how you feel too. You don’t have to buy the book from them, but as Tuesday’s post explains, personal reviews and good ratings move the book higher in the rankings.)
Okay, now it is 10am. What am I going to do with my one precious life today? And you, what are you going to do?
party venue, yesterday afternoon, pre-cleaning
party venue, one hour later
Let me tell you about the party. Ah, the party. The party!
All of my dreams last night were an extension of the party. It was like I got to drift through its pieces again as I slept, moving around the room, standing on stage, hearing the song being played to a still room filled with people. What I’d hoped for was to create a moment we could all share.
Good grief. I was so nervous before it was time to read. So nervous my teeth were chattering. Every clump of people I greeted, I blurted out “I’m so nervous! Gah!” or some variation on the theme. I was grateful for the distraction of laughter and silliness. And then it was showtime. My publicist introduced my editor who introduced me. My editor’s words had a weirdly calming effect. I stopped shaking. I could feel myself preparing — and prepared.
Stepping on stage. I was surprised by the lights. I couldn’t see anybody. I could hear and sense and feel, but not see. I felt so happy to be there. There is no other way to express it. Pure joy. As I read the words, I felt as though I was also standing apart, observing, watching, savouring. I thought about the years of work. But I also thought about how it had seemed this occasion might never happen, how I’d fallen down and gotten back up again, considered giving up, but been somehow unable to. I thought about the friends who believed in me — many of whom were there last night. I thought about how lucky I was to be reading these words out loud, to a room full of people who had come just to hear them. Actually I can’t even express my feeling of great fortune.
On stage, I felt like I was doing my job. That sounds pedestrian. It’s not. I felt like I was doing the job I was meant to do. My job is to bring everyone along to a different place, in their imaginations, all of us together. A writer standing on stage and reading is asking of her audience a huge favour: have faith in my words, take a leap with me, come along.
That’s what I wanted. And it felt like that’s what happened. Thank you, generous room of listeners.
Afterward, signing books, only occasionally forgetting a name, I kept wondering at how effortless it felt. I mean — everything. The nerves beforehand were as they always are. It’s been a long time, but I used to act in high school and university. I’d feel the same way. Eaten up with anxiety, just get me on stage, please. There is something magical about being on stage. I feel so free. Free to be myself, or some comfortable projection of myself. I can hardly remember anything from the hour or so before reading, though everything was perfect, the room was insanely beautiful (thanks to the incredible efforts of my party planning committee — Zoe, Rachel, and Nathalie), so many people kept arriving, drinks were offered and many well wishes, yet it was a total blur.
But time on stage was so different — it seemed to stretch and expand. I could relax into the moment, drink it all in. I can’t explain it. I guess that’s what I mean when I say it felt like I was doing my job. The very definition of work/play.
When I came off-stage, I was greeted by an absolutely bursting AppleApple, whom we’d let come along. The pride in her face — I wish I could have stopped time and drunk it in. And then it was on to book signing. The bookseller (Words Worth Books) sold out — every last Juliet. The party planning committee seamlessly took down our event’s decorations and packed up, and at 10pm the club opened the doors and their DJs started spinning, and those of us who felt like dancing stayed and danced until finally the place was completely changed. From intimate candlelit book launch to grinding club floor. And then it was time to go home.
“You throw a good party!” someone shouted to me on the dance floor. And it felt like, yeah, this was a good party. Listen, I will happily throw a party like this, say, once a year, if you’re willing to come. As far as readings go, it will be hard to top. I ended the reading by playing the song, the lullaby I wrote for my character Gloria, who is a musician and performer herself. I didn’t say it was me singing; I introduced it as Gloria’s song. One of the most thrilling parts of the evening was hearing from so many people that they LOVED the song and could not believe it was me — and where could they get a copy? I don’t have an answer to that yet, though the song is embedded in the ebook, within the story to which it belongs. Frankly, I’d like to record more Juliet songs and put together a little EP and make that available in conjunction with the book. But that’s still a dream.
Last night. Last night wasn’t a dream. But it felt like one. I couldn’t have imagined a better celebration for the book, the perfect punctuation mark for all those years of work.
I didn’t take my camera along. But my friend Nancy was snapping photos all evening, and she promises to send me the best and I promise to post them here for you.
We’ve got flocks of crows in the neighbourhood. Occasionally, they choose the trees in our yard and gather in the bare branches. Even when they are silent, their wings rustle heavily, a sensation of suspended watchfulness. It’s hard not to think of them as being a sign. Though of what? I often hear them calling loudly in the early morning. On a less poetical note, their poop is everywhere.
This early morning my alarm went off, and I thought, no, I don’t feel like swimming. I’m fighting a cold that has claimed part of my voice, and I’m on the mend, and somehow submerging my head in cold water for an hour didn’t seem terribly wise. So, as my friend Nath would say, I “logicked” myself out of getting up, turned off the alarm and napped restlessly for another twenty minutes. But I couldn’t return to peaceful sleep. Apparently I’ve now trained myself to be AWAKE at 5am, alarm or no alarm. Exercise every day was the mantra that shoved me out of bed. I didn’t feel like going to hot yoga, but went anyway. I wanted to be doing something that amped up the lungs and the heart, rather than strengthening and stretching and being all zen and calm and whatnot.
This will be good for you, I told myself.
And I won’t deny that it was.
Sometime in the future, however, I can imagine rising early to write. Yes, it’s early, but I feel so AWAKE. The house is so PEACEFUL. I could write for four hours and it would only be 9:30 or so. Then I could nap. Then I could meet someone for lunch. Then I could exercise. Then I could write some more. Then someone would make me supper. And do the laundry and the dishes. (The children would be able to care for themselves.) Wait, this is turning into full-fledged fantasy.
Clearly something at which I excel.
Here is the crow just landing, or just taking off, from the larger photo above. The wings are a blur. There is something about the colour and tone and the scratchiness of the branches that looks like brush-strokes on mottled paper. The density of the silhouette.
This morning I’ve been taking pencil to page and crossing out words here, pointing arrows there, timing myself reading passages out loud and noting the times down. I’m turning this copy of Juliet into my reading copy. I’m not sure whether I’m just landing, or just taking off.