I have a wise future self, who I consult sometimes through drawing or writing, or meditation. But I also have a wise past self, who reminds me that there is wisdom in that which has already been discovered, and which I’ve lost track of along the way.
From my notebook, April 10, 2016, written on a writing residency in France:
There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged. Whatever are you make, celebrate its potential to meet someone else in the occasion of their need. Don’t wish you were writing something different. Be at peace with whatever comes from you.
On July 26, I’ll be publishing my new novel, Francie’s Got a Gun, which has a title that’s a little bit terrifying to me, I’ll be honest; but it’s also frank and open about a particular theme that obsessed me when I was writing the very first draft and persisted into the iteration that is coming into existence at the end of next month. The novel is an anti-gun allegory, but the gun also serves as a metaphor for danger, for adult failure, for a problem that’s bigger than a kid can solve. And it asks something else too: Can adults solve these big problems? How do we respond, as a collective, and as individuals, when a child, children, are struggling?
When I wrote the first draft, I had no inkling that a pandemic would disrupt our lives. Even when I wrote the final draft, last summer, I didn’t fully grasp the reverberations and costs of being distanced from each other, so profoundly, for so long. It is only in returning to more normalcy that I can sense my own grief, especially for my children who have had several important years of development stalled or disrupted; I wonder what the consequences are; and I hope for reunion, for occasions at which we can come together, collectively, to celebrate and have fun and be together. Be together. Feel together. Pull together. Thrive together.
Francie’s Got a Gun is about people trying their best, individually, and collectively, to respond to challenges in their midst — within their own families, their closest relationships, their friendships, and their community. They are flawed, or distracted, or struggling, or sheltered, or raw, or imaginative, or hungry, but they’re all hopeful in some way; and they are trying to come together.
This is what I’m thinking about today, on the last day of the month of May, when usually I’d be writing my “May Reflections.”
Here they are, in brief:
What felt good this month? Running in the park. Feeding lots of people around the table. Writing funny scenes in a new novel.
What did you struggle with? How to parent. Setting boundaries. Waking in the middle of the night, mind racing. Disaster thinking.
Where are you now compared to at the beginning of the month? Less certain. More questioning, more worried than I’d like to be. Thankful for my notebook. Thankful for habits that re-set my mind, and direct my focus toward my heart.
How did you take care of yourself? Drawing, writing, attempting to get to bed on time. Good food. Walks with friends. Laughter. Listening to music. Running and yoga. Planting seeds for future social events, big and small. Pouring out my thoughts on paper. Weighing my words and actions. Participating when invited.
What would you most like to remember? What it feels like to soak in the atmosphere at a big, collective event organized for young people: to be specific, yesterday, at my youngest’s junior high track meet — the first meet that’s been held (for my kids anyway) since 2019!
At least an hour ago, I sat down in my newly cleaned and organized office with the intention of writing a blog post. The post has been writing itself in my head for the past few days, while I vacuumed, organized, biked on errands, walked the dog — at any time when I had a few uninterrupted moments to myself. But when I sat down, at least an hour ago, instead of writing this post I answered emails, created a rough outline for the new course I’ll be teaching this winter (Creativity Unplugged), scrolled news headlines, and even watched a short video on “Coach Burnout.”
In other words, I’ve done everything except write the blog post I’d been meaning to write.
My new office is brilliantly organized (if I do say so myself). It feels peaceful. It’s amazing the difference this makes in my mind, opening space both literally and figuratively. A critical organizational piece is a filing unit discarded from one of my daughter’s rooms: in it, I’ve labelled a set of accessible folders to collect material that has been piling up, related to projects of immediate importance. Maybe a photo of this would be the easiest way to share the news I seem to be avoiding — it isn’t bad news, not at all, just a shift in my energies, and that feels … well, a recurring theme in my dreams is our house being torn apart, or moving into a new house, or not recognizing rooms that should be familiar.
Change. Risk. The potential for failure.
Change. Adventure. The potential for … success? That seems too limited in its definition, too vague. The potential for … hiking new trails, seeing the landscape from new perspectives, learning new things about myself, my limitations but also my gifts. They’re one and the same, in some fundamental way.
The labels read as follows (not weighted in any particular order): ENGL 332, The Shoe Project, Soccer Coaching, MA Theology, ENGL 335.
Let me break it down, by category.
ENGL 332 is the new course I’ve been contracted to teach this winter. It will be based on Lynda Barry’s workshops, and on her books What It Is and Syllabus. The exercises and projects will be a combination of text and drawings, largely hand-drawn, and the outline is taking shape in my mind (and on paper, as mentioned above) even now.
The Shoe Project is a *big* project I’ve been working on all summer, since reading an article about it in the Globe and Mail in June, and contacting The Shoe Project’s executive and artistic directors about starting a local version of the project here in KW. It’s a writing & performance workshop that connects local artists with women who are immigrants, to write, shape, and tell their stories. This project is currently being fuelled on energy, connection, and collaboration, and the next step is funding, which is a high bar indeed, but not, I believe, impossible.
Soccer coaching continues even as our season winds down. We played our last league game on Tuesday, but still have practices and a final tournament that will take us into September. Whether or not I coach again next season has yet to be determined, but remains a strong possibility.
MA Theology is the wild-card, about which I’ve offered no hints, in part because I applied only recently on something of a whim when a spot opened up, and in part because, well, I must be feeling some hesitance about it, some desire to explain why, even to myself. The full title of the program is MA (Theology): Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy. I *think* my interest was sparked last fall when a student discussed the idea of leading writing workshops in different settings and for different purposes — therapeutic purposes. But I think, too, that as I continue to coach and to teach, I’ve been craving more tools and knowledge with which to approach conflict, as well as a way to frame my beliefs around the value of creativity in nourishing and healing the spirit. I will be attending part-time. As my sister said, “Well, you know your limits!” to which I replied, “Or I know how to test my limits!!” “Haha yes, that’s more accurate.”
ENGL 335 is the final file, and that’s my usual creative writing course, which I continue to update and revamp in an attempt to simplify the marking scheme, and ease the workload, which I think has become too heavy and rigid over the years. I’ve been asked to teach this course in both the fall and winter terms, which means I’ll be teaching two courses this winter, plus going to school part-time. I’ll confess this thought woke me at 4AM two mornings ago. (Knowing my limits v testing my limits?)
My writing is not, you may observe, in those files. Instead, my current project, a collection of stories, is much closer, piled at my left elbow, very much a presence on my desk, and in my mind, and a very pleasurable presence indeed. It feels peaceful to work on these stories as they call out to me; I work on them with contentment and patience, not as if they are a crisis or emergency (which is how other writing work has felt, sometimes).
What I think is this: I’ve got too much energy to pour it all into my writing. Whenever I’ve tried to do so, tried to live the fantasy of “being a writer,” I’ve been mostly unhappy, plagued by self-doubt, banging my head against immovable plot points, overcome by inertia, thinking thinking thinking — and that’s no way to solve a problem or write a book or help the people around you. You need patience for all of these pursuits, patience and clarity, not anxiety. You need to clear your mind, and weirdly, my mind is clearer, my purpose stronger, my focus keener and energy smoother, when I’m occupied on a variety of fronts. I am a woman who requires a certain amount of extremity to thrive. The calm comes from being within the whirl; when all is calm and little is required of me, my mind becomes the whirl.
Did I already know this?
But it feels like a brand-new revelation: to stop fighting who I am, and get on with living the life that’s pulling on me.
I am sitting near the window in my dining room. The kettle is rattling on the stove. So far, I’ve scarcely glanced out the window, except to acknowledge that I am sitting near enough to it to see out. But it occurs to me that it’s the window over the kitchen sink where I should write this, and the kettle is now nearly at the boil, so I will be going there — now.
I choose a tea made for relaxation and stand at the window looking out over the sink. My timing is poor — the subjects I’d intended to observe are coming inside. Why? Because they are done — the older child beat the younger one at a game of soccer, played with a mini ball and nets. The older one tells me the score but I do not remember it long enough to write it down. I see now that the yard is growing dark and it will be difficult to observe much of anything. A neighbour’s porch light glows bright yellow from beyond the back fence — far away, but the brightest thing there this is. Green leaves still hang on the branches of the big maple, moving fitfully in the breeze. The leaves on the black walnut are of a lighter green, almost yellow, pointier, and hang like drips, trembling. The sky has gone the colour of bath water, clouds pale like veins or striations of veins.
I have the sensation of already having written all of this, of having stood here writing these words, already, before, as if there were nothing new in them. And yet. And yet the very sureness of their existence is the surprise — that they are known or flow from me as if already known. I hear the youngest begin to sing in the shower; the bathroom’s just off the kitchen. He is singing his own version of the Spanish words to Despacito.
I see plane lights blink red and white across the darkening sky. By the time I write down the words that prove they exist, they are gone. I glance back up to confirm it — gone. The leaves now look like hair overhanging swampland. I see in the window my own face, reflected against the blackening surface. This is not what I came here to see. Tired and ghostly. The youngest emerges in a towel, leaving sopping wet footprints across the tiles.
“I’m cold, Mama.”
All the writers I read about, the ones I long to emulate, write in longhand on lined yellow notepads. Well, I think, this will have to do.
I am writing this in block letters into a notebook, standing up, staring out of a dark window at my own face whose reflection can’t escape being sectioned by the shining porch light, while the youngest, now in pajamas, returns to guzzle water. He stands far too near to me. The sound of the water being gulped and gasped down his wide open throat — “Dogs can’t drink water like people, Mom!” — disgusts me irrationally. He belches. His chest is bare. He is gone.
I’ve now written long past the clock. Will my students do the same? Will they get lost in their own windows?
New things are happening around our house.
The kids started school. Yeah, that was a few weeks ago already. I’ve been a touch distracted.
this was as happy as I could get them to look, and oh how we tried!
New instruments are being played. CJ has started the piano. Fooey has retired from piano and taken up the violin. AppleApple has the opportunity to play both the French horn and the cello through her school, and on Tuesday evening practiced that horn for an hour and twenty minutes. I kid you not. Then she went outside and practiced some more. The neighbours kid you not. “It doesn’t sound quite so much like an elephant’s butt,” her helpful father told her. And Albus joined the school orchestra (he plays the viola), because, he told me, participants will be rewarded with a trip to Canada’s Wonderland at the end of the year. Hey, whatever works.
I’ve newly begun teaching, again. It’s much easier the second time around. So much easier. It helps not to be suffering the effects of concussion, too. (How did I manage that last fall??)
Also new: swim kid is no longer swim kid. She’s just going to be soccer kid, field hockey kid, cross country kid, music kid, theatre kid, hanging-out-with-friends kid. This was no small decision. But I think I’m mourning it more than she is, which means it’s absolutely the right decision (she had tears, but moved on). Truth be told, we couldn’t fit the extra commitment into our lives. It’s hard to stop doing something you’ve enjoyed, and that has brought you success. But success doesn’t always mean you should keep doing it. When you’re good at lots of things, you’ve gotta choose what you absolutely love. (I mean, this is a kid who will obsessively focus on whatever is before her. She’s playing the damn horn again as I type. I mean, the melodious completely non-elephant-butt-like horn. She’s trained herself, with literally hour upon consecutive hour of practice over the summer to juggle—with her feet—a soccer ball 379 times without dropping it, when she could barely manage 2 back in June. Discipline is not her issue.)
Here is the reward: she would have been swimming for two hours last night. Instead, when I walked through the front door, home from teaching, I was greeted by this sight:
Sweeping toward me, decked out in feathered mask and cape, she burst forth in low dramatic tones. Shakespeare? Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, to be precise. “She’s in a mood,” said her father, fondly.
One more reward: eating supper together as a family.
See? We tried. We really did. It’s what we do around here.
We’ve added an element to the house: FIRE. It’s a gas stove, not wood-burning, placed in the centre of the wall in our main room. I’m sitting in front of it as I type, with my feet up (sorry, treadmill desk; I’m cheating on you with my new flame). As you can see from the photo below, this room remains a long-term work in progress. Kevin and I have two plans, one a total dream and the other something we could hack together ourselves with some help from Ikea. The latter is likely the route we’ll take… when we get a spare moment. Meanwhile, the room looks like this:
I read to the kids in front of the fire last night, snuggling up for the first chapter of Farmer Boy, which CJ had strongly objected to reading (but I can’t read any more Calvin & Hobbes comics, which he loves but totally doesn’t get, requiring a lot of difficult explication). After some stomping around, and “I’m not listening to that,” he came around to “Fine!” when he realized what he’d be missing out on — namely the snuggling in front of the fire.
Farmer Boy begins with children walking through deep wintry snow to a schoolhouse that seems remarkably lawless and dangerous, the scene of potential violence and humiliation where big boys want to “thrash” the teacher and the teacher is considered especially kind because, unlike previous teachers, he does not beat a little boy for not knowing how to spell. The Wilder children are close in age to our family: Royal is 13, Eliza Jane is 12, Alice is 10, and Almanzo is 8. Almanzo, the littlest, has to carry the dinner pail (CJ, the littlest: “That’s not fair!”). By chapter’s end, CJ was hooked. Here’s what the Wilder children found in their dinner pail: bread and butter and sausage, donuts and apples, and one big flaky apple turnover each. (CJ: “Do they only have one nutrition break?” Me: “Yes, but they call it dinner, not nutrition break.”)
We only read one chapter, but it took ages; the conversation around the story could have gone on and on. The little kids were tucked into bed quite late, and Kevin left for hockey. When I came downstairs, the big kids were so perky and happy and chatty that I couldn’t send them to bed. It was the fire. We just couldn’t help but gather and linger and talk … about everything and anything. I learned more about Albus’s school day than I’ve heard all year. They wanted to know what school subjects I was bad at (domestic science and art), and what I looked like in grade 7 (plain and unfashionable: I mostly wore my hair in braids), and I could see them wondering, would I have liked Mom? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been cool enough for Albus. But I grew up so differently from them: never staying in the same place for more than a few years, often the new kid at school, shifting between countries and cultures. By age 12, I’d lived in four different countries, and moved approximately 10 times. The life I’m offering to my children is a settled one, rooted, with privileges that they take for granted, and that I remember not even bothering to envy as a child, because they weren’t things I wanted or needed. Swim lessons, sports teams, fancy gadgets and the “right” shoes and clothes. I was a clueless 12-year-old: dreaming about getting a pony. At the end of grade seven, we moved to a farm and I got a pony! I never felt deprived.
It’s funny how we want to give our kids the things we didn’t get (i.e. swim lessons); but also give them the things we valued from our childhood. I valued my freedom to explore, and I valued being an outsider. It gave me a special status, a special vantage point from which to observe. My kids aren’t getting those things; they’re getting rides to soccer fields instead, and new jeans. What terrifies me is raising entitled kids. I struggle constantly not to do too much for them, to ask them to pitch in for the benefit of the family (and not to earn an allowance, another perk they have, which I did not grow up with). I want them to do the right thing; but more importantly, I want them to choose to do the right thing, not be forced or punished into doing it. You know? I want their inner fires stoked.
So here’s my slow-burning hope. Gathering, talking, sharing, instilling values (one hopes), connecting, laughing: these years go by so fast. Last night, I let the kids stay up late. It seemed like a rare occasion, but I hope it happens often, now that we have something to gather around, something warm and ever-changing and comforting.
Alert: rambling post ahead. My thoughts are failing to cohere around a single theme, and so I shall offer a messy multitude.
Above, my desk. Coffee cup, cellphone, book I’m currently reading, computer-now-used-mainly-for-processing-photos-as-it’s-dying-a-painful-death, and calendar. Good morning, this desk seems to greet me. I didn’t run because the roads are super-icy, so I didn’t set my alarm, so I overslept, so the getting-everyone-out-the-door portion of the morning was hairy, so I decided to walk the little kids partway to school, so Fooey forgot her glasses, so I had to run back home to fetch them, so I had to drive anyway to get them to her, so I drove her big sister as well, so I stopped for coffee and a croissant at Sabletine on my way home. Ergo, I’m over-caffeinated.
the days are packed, and so is this office
I’m not sure my office could accommodate much more than it already does. It’s a small space. And yet it feels almost miraculously expansive. At times I think that could be a metaphor for life itself. Look at what’s going on here: we’ve got a reader and exerciser walking on the treadmill (she read for TWO MILES on Monday evening!); we’ve got another child, legs and arms just visible in the bottom of the photo, lying on the warm tile floor soaking up some doggie affection; we’ve got books, light, art, work, family, all tucked into this small space.
Some days feel like they have themes or threads tying them together.
Saturday was “free stuff” day, as mentioned in my previous post. By early afternoon, we’d received a free treadmill and a free foosball table. That evening, Kevin and I went to the Princess theatre for dinner-and-a-movie, using a gift certificate given to us over a year ago. (We saw Philomena, which I recommend, although we were a good twenty years younger than anyone else in the theatre). We also scored “free” babysitting from Albus, who agreed to be in charge during our absence in exchange for pizza. On the walk to the theatre, I found a pair of i-pod headphones lying in a puddle, which I decided to rescue rather than leave to ruination in the puddle. I feel slightly guilty about that free find.
Yesterday’s theme was good news on the professional front, with hairy/heart-rending complications on the domestic front.
The professional news is nothing to share, particularly; more to do with ongoing conversations and future plans. But it was lovely to receive pleasant messages in my inbox sprinkled throughout the day.
Not much else went smoothly. I’d planned to pick the younger kids up from school to take them to swim lessons. I sent a note to CJ’s teachers to tell them “no bus,” please. I arrived just as the bell rang to discover the note had been missed, and CJ had been sent to the bus line. I tore through the school to retrieve him (thankfully, in time), but by the time we got back to our original meeting spot, Fooey had come and gone, all in a panic at not seeing us there, so we waited and waited and waited not knowing what was happening while Fooey ran around the school (it’s become very sprawling since they built on an addition). By the time we found each other, she was breathless and in tears, and we were late.
Meantime, Albus texted to say he was at a friend’s house, which left me worried about AppleApple, home alone — did she even have a key to get in? Did she know about her soccer practice, starting early? I texted Kev to call home, and added, “You will have to do supper.”
I’d planned to run at the track during swim lessons. By the time people had changed and gone to the bathroom and made it into the water, I had about twenty minutes total to run. So I ran as fast as I could, round and round and round, blowing off steam. As I helped CJ shower and change, I realized I was pouring with sweat … and that my best-laid plan did not include time for me to change (let alone shower!) between dropping the kids at home and racing with AppleApple to the early soccer practice. Suffice it to say that we arrived slightly late at the indoor field, my face lightly splashed with water from Fooey’s shower, wearing decent clothes.
The heart-rending bit went like this. I met a friend for lunch. We had a lovely time together. On the walk home, the weather warmer and sunnier than expected, we passed the social services building, and a young mother exited behind us. She was berating her child, who was no more than two, and who made not a peep. Her tone was loud and angry and caught our attention. My friend and I both kind of froze, went silent. We kept glancing over our shoulders as we walked, keeping the young woman and child in view. Should we intervene in some way? We asked each other. We didn’t know. I think it haunted us both — not knowing whether to speak up, and haunted even in the moment by the fate of this child, and by extension the fate of every child made to feel unwanted or unloved. (I must add that at no time did the child appear to be in any physical danger.)
I’m currently reading a book sent to me by my UK publisher (Two Roads): The end of your life book club, a memoir by Will Schwalbe. Read it. It’s a meditation on the shared reading experience, and the mother/son relationship, and all the while it illuminates and reflects on the particular life of the author’s mother, who is described as a woman always open to the world around her. She’s a natural leader and visionary who believes in action. She meets everyone’s eye. She asks questions of everyone she meets. She listens and responds. She never feels she knows too many people or has friends enough or worries about having too many relationships to sustain — she faces the world (and its pains and problems) with genuine welcome. I’m a bit in awe of her. I want to learn from her.
I wonder whether she would have found some entrance into the young woman’s life. I wonder, thinking it over later, whether it would have been helpful to approach and offer to watch the child or carry him to the bus stop, so the young woman would have had a moment to collect herself and burn off steam. (I didn’t think of this in the moment.)
I felt that my posture and response to the situation was fearful. I was afraid of appearing judgemental and intrusive rather than helpful. I was afraid of getting in over my head. I was afraid of having the young woman’s anger turned on me. I was thinking of the invisible enormity of the problems, hidden like the tendrils of mushrooms, underneath, and I was overwhelmed and paralyzed.
In the end, we walked on (after observing the young woman reach the bus stop with her child), unable to speak of anything other than what we’d seen, weighed-down and saddened and heart-broken, a bit. Truthfully, I don’t know whether we should have done anything differently. But I haven’t been able to let it leave my mind either.
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