I’m a bit distracted this week.
I’m up early, I’m exercising, I’m napping, I’m ferrying children to activities, I’m sitting with good intentions at my desk, I’m making lists and plans, but my attention is a wanderer. I’ve found myself dissolved in tears. I’ve found myself bizarrely flat with calm, and the next moment zapped with elevated emotion.
It was a year ago, tomorrow, that I got the news about Juliet being a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. Strange that this same season, a year later, should occasion another, altogether different heightened career moment. I note also that apparently it’s been a year since I last got a haircut. What with all the glamourous travel, I splurged. But I haven’t had a good excuse to get one since, and may have inherited a few parsimonious personality traits that will prove impossible to kick. The children enjoy mocking me for my regular (and joyful) 50% off purchases at the grocery store (“Really, Mom? Fifty-per-cent-off yogurt?” “What? It’s organic!” “When does it expire?” “Everyone knows expiry dates are inaccurate!”) Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’d like a haircut, but need to convince myself that there’s a good reason to get one.
This morning marked the start of what promises to be a new era in our lives. AppleApple has begun early morning swim practices, thrice weekly. I woke her at 5am on the dot. She was excited, ready to go when her ride arrived (thank goodness for carpooling). I set off through eerie fog on a brisk walk, punctuated every eight minutes by one blissful minute of running. I was alone in the neighbourhood except for the man on the bicycle who was scavenging bottles from people’s trash. He said good morning, and I felt ashamed for having been afraid, momentarily, of someone up so early, working so hard.
I managed an hour’s exercise. A shower. A breakfast of poached eggs on buttered toast. All before picking up my swimmer and her friend from the pool. AppleApple devoured two bananas on the (short) ride home. She had to leave for school, and running club, while I went for a nap. Oh boy, did I need that nap.
I’m worried about her. I hope she will learn to nap, or to go to bed early. This is a big challenge, and much as I love early rising, it works only when lost sleep gets replaced.
Other sports currently being practiced by my children: football (Albus, who’s up at 6:30 twice weekly for practice); karate (Albus); swimming (CJ: “We did dolphin jumps!”); gymnastics (Fooey). And we haven’t even started soccer.
So … distractions. Work. Edits. Revisions. Readings. Reading. Teaching. Ferrying. Truck needing repair (again!). Vertigo. Permission forms. Agendas. Signatures. Homework. Piano practice. Field trip volunteering (what was I thinking?). Local food (why am I irresistably drawn to ordering a half-bushel of eggplant for pickup on Friday? Along with a half-bushel of tomatoes? Talk me down, someone?).
Tonight, the start of what I can only hope will become a mini-tradition. I’m taking my family out for hamburgers to celebrate selling the US rights to Girl Runner. We should have celebrated the Canadian rights with … pancakes and maple syrup?
Hey, our green living-room is on the CBC’s book site today. It accompanies an interview I did with them on blogging — on being a blogger as well as a fiction writer.
This morning, I walked again. But I’m restless nevertheless, so it occurred to me to try something different. What I’m missing about running is not just the physical release, but also that sense of taking part in a moving meditation.
But in challenge is opportunity!
Yesterday afternoon, I had time to listen to the radio and bake bread, and I tuned in to Tapestry on CBC Radio One, where I can always find peace on a Sunday afternoon. The subject was “crazy busy,” as in, “Hi, how are you?” “Oh, I’m crazy busy!” More to the point, the subject was finding stillness in a culture that has latched onto the concept of being so busy we just can’t slow down.
Now, I like busy. I’ve even been told that I scare people a little bit with my busyness. But I also like still. Or say that I do. I say that I like stillness, but perhaps in truth I privilege busyness over quietude. I sit in stillness at my writing desk, but my mind is whirring with energy and imagination. I find stillness of mind when I run, but it’s curious, isn’t it, that I need to be in motion to fall into such calm. So here’s a radical challenge for me: how to be still, while being still?
Meditation, of course.
If you listen to the Tapestry program (if you’re not too crazy busy, they’ve got podcasts of past shows), you’ll hear that it ends with a discussion on meditation. The man being interviewed suggests starting by repeating a mantra, word or phrase, preferably in a language not your own: he gave “maran atha” as an example, which is from the Aramaic, and means “Come, O Lord.”
This morning, I tried meditating. I set a timer for twenty minutes. The dogs were very interested as I sat on the floor, knees crossed, eyes closed, within licking range (not helpful, dogs!). I thought the words maran atha over and over, and it kind of reminded me of “marathon,” which seemed just about right on a number of levels. I ended up meditating for half an hour, and what worked best was to say the words in combination with this four-cornered breathing pattern I remembered learning in yoga a few years ago. It probably has a name.
Breathe in for a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Breathe out for a count of four. Hold for a count of four.
I found it easiest to breathe in, hardest to breathe out. I like metaphors, so I decided this means I’m in a place where I’m more prepared to take it all in, rather than pour it all out. It was really really really lovely and when I opened my eyes I felt like I’d been quiet for awhile and gone somewhere, quietly. I’m thinking of setting my alarm early so I can take time to start my day like this. Even if I’m not rising early to run — to meditate in motion — I can keep to a routine of rising early and entering the day with a practice.
This morning, I walked. It wasn’t a run, and it didn’t flood me with world-conquering endorphins, but it was sanctioned by a health care practioner, and I was glad to be moving through the world, no matter how slowly. “Try a thirty minute walk,” the physio said. “And if you feel fine after 24 hours, bump it up to thirty-five. When you get to an hour without symptoms, you can try 5-10 minutes of easy jogging.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’m on it!
This is progress. And the pace, on this misty-moisty morning, suited me just fine. Everyone who passed on the sidewalk said hello. I noticed people sitting on their front porches, quietly observing, one of the many details I miss when running down an early morning street.
I’m still humming after yesterday’s creative writing class. As I sat there, in our acoustically challenged bunker of a classroom, listening to four different animated conversations rising and falling, and all of them about a poem, I just felt good. I saw why the teachers I know love doing what they do. My mushy general goal for the class is engagement: with words, with language, with emotions. Beyond that, I’d really like it if on occasion we were all transported just a little bit, to somewhere not quite ordinary. Maybe I’m secretly trying to recreate my poetry book club in classroom form: a safe place to talk about big ideas, like mortality and love and what really matters to us, and why.
I discovered another fascinating, inspiring and moving obituary in yesterday’s paper: Anne Goodman, a professor of adult education and community development at OISE, and a woman who was many other things, too, in a life cut short by cancer. She led the kind of life I admire, shifting her energy to different work as she felt called, with deep engagement at every step, always true to herself. The title of today’s post is a quote from the obituary. In 1999, a pivotal experience altered Dr. Goodman’s life’s direction. She met a man, a stranger, on a path somewhere in Toronto who needed immediate help. The remains of his murdered teenage daughter had just been found, down that path — he was going there, now, he told Anne Goodman. She walked with him, listened to him, and stayed with him when they came to the place where the police were. She said that she couldn’t let him go alone.
I am struck by this story. So often all we have to offer is a willingness to walk along with someone else. Maybe we’re the listener, or maybe we’re the one talking, but without a shared willingness to connect, we can neither give nor receive. One more thing: that we really don’t know what’s ahead, we just don’t. So prepare a carefully plotted path, but stay open.
All of which is to say: I loved saying good morning, this morning, to strangers on the sidewalk. I did not wish I were running instead, because I was thrilled to be walking. There is agency and there is circumstance, and right now, circumstance is ascendant: I’d love to be waking early, racing trails, and swinging kettlebells, but instead I’m doing less, not more, and reflecting on stillness rather than motion. You know me. It’s not what I’d choose, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring and embracing while it lasts.
Side note: I will be reading at Word on the Street tomorrow afternoon, 4pm, an event that’s paired with Doors Open. So you can tour a heritage site (I’ll be at the Walper Hotel) and pause to listen to some readings while you’re at it. Lots of terrific, big-name authors are coming to town.
A few things, on this very Monday morning …
1. The vacuum cleaner did not get used this weekend.
2. Instead, I drifted to my office to work hour after huddled hour on intensely challenging revisions, which I simply could not leave alone. I expect to be doing the same all week. It will look like I’m here, but I’m not here.
3. I ran 20km on Saturday morning. I was grateful.
4. While running, I had a Big Thought: I don’t run because I’m strong, I run because I’m not. I run for courage. I run for nerve.
5. With courage in my heart, I return to my imaginary worlds, and write.
6. The only trouble with this formula is that I don’t, it seems, so much care whether I return to the real world, with courage in my heart, and vacuum.
Well, the heatwave broke. And rather dramatically, from our perspective. I was on the phone with a friend when suddenly the sky went dark and the wind blew high. She lives just up the street, so we were both looking out our windows at essentially the same storm, unable to comprehend what we were seeing as the trees were whipped into a furious tumble and the rain came down, lashing so thickly it looked like a descending fog. “Um, what’s happening?” we asked each other.
I think it takes the mind a little while to catch up to an unusual and unexpected event. For whatever reason, I was slow to grasp that there might be any danger.
My kids were standing on the back porch filming the storm with our little camera — I’d told them they were allowed on the porch, not to go into the yard. Suddenly the phone line went dead and a sound like an electronic buzzing — like a paper bag being torn close beside the ear, as a Facebook friend put it — filled the air. It was incredibly loud and innately disconcerting. I ran onto the porch and called the kids inside (we have video of this). That’s when AppleApple and I watched, through the kitchen window, half of a tree come down in our backyard. It fell silently and smoothly and without any ceremony whatsoever.
Our brains couldn’t seem to register what we’d just seen. I said, not at all concerned, “Oh, a tree’s come down.” The winds seemed to turn branches into paper versions of themselves, tossing them wildly.
And then I snapped awake, and we all ran for the basement, dragging the anxious dogs with us. Kevin had left, just before the storm hit, to go to a soccer game. I was thankful for texting. The power went out soon after. The storm passed almost as quickly as it came.
We left our dark house and joined neighbours gathering at our intersection to survey the damage. Every street had big limbs fallen, power lines down, branches and debris everywhere. We walked the dogs slowly around the block, keeping a sharp eye on the trees over our heads, many of which had dangling branches.
Kevin was training in Toronto all day yesterday, so the tree stayed down in the yard. I almost wanted to leave it there. The split down the side of the tree is so long that I’m afraid the half that still stands can’t be saved. I found myself touching the smooth skin of the newly split tree, just under the bark. It was soft, almost silky, though it has since gone hard and dry. It smells like cut boards in a lumber yard, faintly sweet.
The branches spread over the picnic table, creating a little shelter. Miraculously, a blue glass bowl that had been left out on the table, filled with watermelon rinds, was untouched, perfectly intact.
The kids pretended to hold up the tree.
Today, Kevin and AppleApple have spent the entre day slowly removing the fallen tree. Our front yard is now piled with cut branches. It is an enormous job. The yard is a mess. Even half of a tree is huge.
I realize as I write this post that I’m mourning the loss of the tree. But I don’t mean it to be a sad post. In fact, as the kids’ smiling faces show, we came through the storm just fine. We’ve been sleeping better with the cooler weather, especially once the power was restored and we could run the fans again.
Yesterday, I managed a long run during the afternoon while AppleApple was at her goalkeeping clinic. We’ve been biking there, and we passed many fallen trees in Waterloo Park, but the area beyond Columbia Lake, where I ran, seemed untouched by the storm. It was a highly localized event, it would seem. In the evening, after we ate takeout fish and chips, and I did yoga (read: napped on my yoga mat in our living-room in shavasana heaven), we walked uptown, dogs too, to Open Streets, which had a lively relaxed street festival vibe. We listened to a young woman with a huge voice perform in front of the Chainsaw: AppleApple’s face was shining with delight. “I would give up a lot to have a voice like that,” I admitted. Meanwhile, Fooey talked her “very nice parents” (her words) into letting her buy a new pair of earrings from a craftswoman on the street nearby.
She was sunburned from a happy afternoon playing in a soccer game and then swimming. We all had frozen yogurt. The dogs were well-behaved. The kids and I skipped rope in the street. And we walked home in the gathering darkness with paper lanterns lighting our way.
Summer rolls along, sweet and languid, with sudden flashes of strangeness and wonderment. Tomorrow, a good friend and her family leave for year of sabbatical. The following week another good friend and her family will be leaving too, for the same. I wonder what will have changed, again, in another year. Things we can’t guess at, I know, even if we can predict some, and hope for others.
I love the summer photos. Bright skies, bright colours, squinting eyes.
This past Thursday evening illustrates our family’s collective obsession with soccer. With surprising ease, between the hours of 5:30-8:30pm, five out of six of us were involved on soccer fields in multiple locations. Kev and Albus scarfed down hot quiche and were at their practice at 5:30. Using the carshare car, I dropped AppleApple at her practice at 6:45, then drove CJ and Fooey up to another field where Fooey had a game at 7:15 (Kevin coaching). We met Kevin and Albus in the parking lot with a picnic snack, and I zoomed over to Cambridge to play a 7:30 game with my indoor team. Kevin and kids picked up AppleApple on their way home, and serendipitously saw me, just after I’d returned the carshare car, walking home with my gear. Talk about coordination. It felt effortless.
Of course, Thursday also marked the end of regular season play for Fooey — we’ll have to find a new groove, all over again.
On Saturday, Kevin and Fooey had an end-of-season “festival,” and we all came along to cheer. In the afternoon, AppleApple had a goalkeeping clinic, and I brought my yoga mat to stretch. Afterward, we biked to a nearby pool for a cooling dip.
On Sunday, I drove around southwestern Ontario, retrieving one child from a friend’s cottage and dropping two at overnight camp (one not my own): Albus will be gone for two weeks. CJ is already bereft. I arrived home in time to drag my well-numbed butt off to my evening soccer game (we won!).
I’ve been doing a lot of training. Training for what? Not sure, exactly. I’ve signed up for the Toad (25km trail run), and that seems to have given me the drive to follow a regular training schedule. I’ve gone steadily, from weight classes to soccer games to runs, for over two weeks now, without missing a day. Thankfully, I’ve got time for long runs again. I’ve gone out the past two Saturdays, aiming to run approximately an hour and a half to begin. I made it 15km the first week, 16km this past week (in the same amount of time). Sloooow.
It feels different to train myself back up, having done this before. The first time I trained to run long distances (two years ago), I was doing something I’d never imagined I could. So it was a pretty amazing process. Every extra kilometre felt like a miracle. But now I know what I’ve been capable of, and I’m so far from it. It could be discouraging — and I’m grateful that I don’t feel discouraged. I do feel slow. But I recognize that long runs are about reminding yourself that you’ve always got more than you think you do. That’s another way of saying: you have to learn to trust your body. That’s what endurance is actually about, as much as it’s about putting on mileage (though mileage is critical, too).
(And maybe, too, it’s harder to trust your body after injury. I am running on an ankle that is improved, but still not perfectly healed.)
Training for what? On reflection, I think the what doesn’t matter, it’s the why. Training is just a way for me to keep going. I’m in the midst of some very challenging work. I could get discouraged or weary, and I need, somehow, to remain calm, focused, and strong. Training seems to remind me of my own capacity to work hard. It gives me a parallel (and easier) kind of work to counterbalance the extremely quiet interior efforts required here in my office. Training every single day toward an end that isn’t obvious doesn’t feel frivolous or extreme, though it may look that way. I couldn’t sit still — hold so still — without some sense of being in motion. I’d go crazy, I think.
I’ll admit this is not an easy time in my professional life. It’s a lovely time in my personal life. I’m a truly fulfilled mother of wonderful kids. But professionally I feel a constant low-level anxiety. I wonder about the choices I’m making. I question my direction. I’m unsettled.
This may be a function of being a creative person. I wonder: am I by nature an unsettled and restless woman? Then I need a firm, sound body to carry me through. My mind settles when my body is working hard. It gives me peace.