this photo is unrelated to this post’s content; but I digress
Last night, I was invited to read at The Bookshelf in Guelph, which is not far from where I live. It also happens to be the city where my husband and I bought our first house. (I always drive by and peek at it; yesterday, I thought that it looked like it had been sold again; it was a smallish house, a “starter” home, on a fairly busy street.) Our first two children were born in that house. And I spent many an early morning at The Bookshelf with my eldest. He was an early riser (and I was not). Mid-morning was a foggy slog, for me. It helped to put him in the stroller and walk somewhere. It helped, also, to have a destination. So we often walked to The Bookshelf, which was open early. We would sit in the children’s section and read. Our home library is stocked with many board books that came from The Bookshelf.
But I digress. It’s what I do.
I was invited to read with Andrew Hood, whom I’d never met. Originally from Guelph, he now lives in Halifax, and he’s launching his second collection of stories, The Cloaca, with a tour. Catch him tonight in Toronto at the Gladstone. I read first, and then sat back and enjoyed Andrew’s performance of his work. Let’s just say I laughed a lot. He has a talent for dark humour. We shared the stage for a Q&A.
Toward the end of the Q&A, a question came from a young man in the audience — a Nicaraguan doing graduate work at the university. I’ll admit that when he introduced himself I felt a twinge of fear; if I worried about anything during the writing of the book, it was whether I could accurately capture a country not my own. (Okay, I might have worried about a few other things too; but that was top of the list.) But what he wanted to say was that he felt there was another character in my book: the character of Nicaragua. And he wanted to know how I had gotten Nicaragua so right. At which point I started breathing again. I didn’t have a terribly deep answer for him, but I think he’s right, the place is a character too, and if I got it right it’s because I wrote about it the same way I write about all my characters: with great affection. Maybe too much. I really love my characters. I know they’re flawed, but I love them anyway — or, not even anyway — I love them because of their flaws. And so I love Nicaragua for its noise and its smells and its danger and its wild beauty. I mentioned how loud Nicaragua is, and he said that when he first moved to Canada, he thought Canadian cars must not have horns. That’s how quiet we are here, by comparison.
I’m going to digress again.
We subscribe to The Walrus, and yesterday the June edition arrived. In it is a really fine review of The Juliet Stories. I can’t link to it, because it doesn’t appear to be online, but here’s a taste: “Snyder’s new book is the rare successful execution [of a novel in stories], a stream of sensual imagery that grows more sophisticated with each page.” Isn’t that lovely? Just as lovely is the reviewer’s excellent summary of the book: “The Juliet Stories highlights the lessons we learn in youth and with age, and the conflict between the freedom we value and the security we desperately need.” Love that.
One more digression.
Sitting on my desk right now (atop a pile of possibly important papers) is a registration form for a senior recreational women’s soccer team. I’m thinking of joining! Agh! That would mean five out of six of us would be playing registered soccer this summer (CJ will join in on practices, since Kevin is coaching two of the kids’ teams). It would also put us at soccer fields six out of seven days a week, sometimes at multiple fields on the same day. Is this too crazy? The funny thing is, the kids are totally excited. They want to see me play. I’m still wavering, wondering whether it’s too much. Also wondering whether I’ll totally suck. I haven’t played soccer since the age of TEN. That’s a mere twenty-seven years ago.
Wait, I have a final digression. It’s short.
Just discovered this amazing new Canadian magazine called Eighteen Bridges. It’s got excellent writers, long-form journalism, quirky and interesting subject matter, and I’ll give you a link to an article that shows what I mean. Jessica Johnson (an old friend from my National Post days) writing about, ahem, waxing. Girls, you know what I’m talking about. Or maybe you don’t. I personally lack any experience with it, and it was comforting to read about another woman in the same position. Um. Okay, it’s impossible to write about this without sounding all wink-wink. Forget what I’m saying; read Jessica’s piece instead.
And on that note …
Usually on Monday mornings, I post my “week in suppers.” Today, I’m going to change the routine to honour where I’m at. Which is not to say I’m cooking no suppers. Suppers have been and will be cooked. But this has been an emotion-filled weekend. I’m not even sure where to place myself in the midst of the emotions and events. Am I observer? Participant? Witness? Conspirator?
On Saturday, parenting alone, I enjoyed the company of six children for part of the morning. I have difficulty describing how happy it makes me to be with my kids and their friends. To be part of their conversations. To listen to them relating. To laugh. To consult. To make plans together. And to allow myself to be swept along by their energy.
One of my closest friends lost her father on Saturday. He’s been our neighbour for the past few years, too. Thinking about him as I drove across town to pick up my soccer girl, I thought about how life sweeps us along, and how we are both at the mercy of a greater current, and yet blessed to be a part of it. I sat in the parking lot and wrote the poem I posted here on Saturday (typed into my BlackBerry; first BB poem of my life, I must admit). Then I picked up my soccer girl, and watched her transform into piano girl — and win a prize at a piano competition.
Piano and competition are two words that fit together rather uncomfortably. I considered my emotions as we listened to the competitors playing their songs, and I found myself disliking my instinct to contrast and compare rather than simply appreciate and celebrate. Nevertheless, to see my daughter rise to the occasion and play her song with imagination and flair, and then to see her rewarded with a ribbon … it was such a joy. I kind of wonder at myself for taking so much pleasure from the achievement. Why should my pride be any greater for her winning than for her purely being willing to try, practicing, working hard, and performing her heart out? You know?
We stopped at home to get changed before going to Grandma’s (where the other children already were). My friend called just then with the news of her dad’s passing. “His spirit has left his body.”
When I think about her dad, I remember a man who lived with an almost casual generosity. It was so much a part of his being. There was nothing forced about it, not like he had to remind himself that others needed caring for. Simply: he wanted to help, to be of help, and he did, and he was.
I almost want to stop this post right here, but there’s more. It was such a weekend. A big birthday party had been planned for Saturday night, and I was hosting it here at our house (hence the children off to Grandma’s). With my friend Zoe in charge of vision and decorating, we transformed our house into a … hm, how to describe it? Indian colours and food and music and bindis and a mehndi artist and hanging silks and mango lassies and women. It was a party of many layers. I’ve never cried at a party before — good crying. I’ve never om-ed at a party before. I’ve never limboed under a platter of Indian funnel cakes, either. It was a beautiful night in honour of a beautiful friend.
By morning, the house was spotless (true story). I picked up my soccer girl and drove her to another game, and watched her play a position she never played even once last year: forward. I watched her make passes and chances and exciting runs and assist on a beautiful goal. And then I watched her play the second half in her usual position in net. She played the whole game with intensity, and such happiness. Pride doesn’t cover my emotions.
When I brought all the kids home, we snuggled in our rearranged living-room (there are a lot of pillows on the floor right now). They watched a movie, I napped, they were all around me. And then Kevin arrived home from Ottawa, putting us all back together again.
So, you see, I spent a lot of the weekend on the sidelines, just watching and taking it all in, doing what needed doing, being of use, being present.
I have this feeling that life is filling me up. I might be here for awhile. When I’m full, it will be time to share and process and, maybe, who knows, to write another book.
This morning started at an earlier hour and less pleasantly than anticipated. A certain small soccer player decided she didn’t feel like playing for her team this morning. Too early, too tired. The Marshmallows would have to struggle on without her. Except her dad coaches said Marshmallows. And there are scarcely enough kids on the team to make a team when everyone shows up. She had to go. Team spirit. Letting her team down. Being a team player. All concepts not best discussed at 7 o’clock in the morning. The unhappy debate woke the house.
At last, small defiant Marshmallow off to play for her team, I returned to my bed, hoping for a wee lie-in. CJ followed.
“Come for a snuggle?”
He climbed in, sat up with blankets over knees, alert and happy. “Should we have a Cookie Monster story?” he asked.
“Do you want a long story or a short story?”
“Whatever you think.” Eyes closed, hoping to drift back to semi-sleep.
“I think a long story.”
“Okay. A long story.”
He thought for a moment, and then launched in. “One day Cookie Monster didn’t know what to do. So he was looking out his window. And his mom was baking something!”
“Maybe it was bread?” I suggested, thinking of the bread I planned to bake this morning.
“No. It was something better than bread.”
“Like strawberry blueberry cookies!”
The story continued, with jumping garbage cans and birthday parties and magic birthday gifts and hiding gifts under the carpet, and lots of mms and ohs from the drifting audience.
I am baking bread right now, but maybe I should consider baking something better, too. The two littlest are playing in the snow (we have snow! it’s cold! just like winter!). They’ll be in before I know it, requesting hot chocolate with marshmallows (and not the soccer-playing kind). Strawberry blueberry cookie recipes, anyone?
blue sky, yesterday afternoon
Yesterday I was writing to deadline, pulling together some notes on the context and writing of The Juliet Stories for the ebook version that will be published alongside the printed book. Ebooks offer flexibility, room for extra material, and mine will also include one of my character’s songs. The essay is a short piece with photos scattered throughout. Distillation was key. I think you’ll like it.
But this morning I came across a longer meditation on the same subject, written while I was in the middle of discovering this book’s potential to be what it has become. So if you’re interested in a more detailed, mid-process version, visit “Midwife to Stories.” (Interesting also that the story I was in the midst of writing did not make it into book; goes to show how much gets discarded along the way; and how important it is not to worry about whether or not it will be discarded when you’re working. You can’t get at the story any other way. It all matters.)
Yesterday evening, as promised, I went for a walk in the dark during soccer practice. I walked briskly for six kilometres, which took about an hour; I could run twice the distance in the same amount of time. The air was crisp and cool and more like mid-October than early February. I’d dressed differently than I would have for a run, and I regretted that; I was too cautious. When I go for another walk tomorrow, I will leave behind the heavy winter coat and the big boots. Both completely unnecessary. The good news is that I was able to march without pain; and that being outside had an excellent effect on my body and mind. I’m still finding acceptance difficult — accepting that I can’t run for now — but there are alternatives and the alternatives can be good, too. Different, but good. If I had to give up running, I decided last night, I would get a dog. I would hike in the woods. I would hike long distances. One way or another, I would cover the ground.
After the walk, I got to watch my Soccer Girl scrimmage for fifteen minutes. As you may remember, she was a rep goalkeeper last season, and will be again this summer. But if you’d happened across the field yesterday evening, you simply wouldn’t have believed it. She looked for all the world like a centre forward. She scored four goals, and came close to six. She handled the ball with such confidence, dribbling through defenders, keeping control, biding her time. She made lovely passes to teammates. She waited patiently, using the space on the field, knowing the ball would come to her. It was so fun to watch. Sometimes parenthood is sweeter than anything else on earth. (And it only takes a smidgen of sweetness to make up for the underlying anxiety and vicarious pain that is so much a part of parenthood too.)
I was hoping for the best yesterday. Good to stay optimistic. Also good to set expectations LOW to MIDDLING. Yesterday, swim lessons began again, plus soccer, plus more soccer. The unpromising start to swim lessons included bringing the wrong bathing suit for Fooey (much much too large–her sister’s, in fact), and CJ declaring he would NEVER duck his head under the water. (“Just tell the teacher no thank you,” I advised. “But the teacher ALWAYS wants me to.” “I get that. Just tell her no thank you, not today.” “NOT EVER!”) This led to full meltdown on the pool deck. Somehow, two kind lifeguards hauled him off me and got him into the pool. “Go! Give us five minutes!” By the time I got up to the seating area, he was fine. So fine, you’d never have guessed he’d recently been in full mutiny. We ended this fine opening swim session by losing one child’s underpants. Found later in her pocket to everyone’s amusement.
Remember how I’d planned to read to the little kids during AppleApple’s soccer time? Turned out it was in a school gym, with loud music pumping–more of an aerobic workout than a soccer practice. The girls had a blast, including Fooey. Meanwhile, ever-jolly CJ made me cover his ears basically the entire time. We couldn’t read anyway. Too loud. This is not a problem easily solved. No brilliant brainwaves came to mind as I contemplated another ten weekly sessions in this gym, staring at the little Canadian flag pinned to the wall, watching a bunch of lively girls leaping joyfully, whilst trying to remain compassionate toward a constantly-complaining three-year-old. Nope, not seeing the bright side.
At the end of that, we drove across town to pick up Albus and Kevin, who were at a different indoor field for their soccer practice (one-car family, remember?). CJ spent the opening minutes lying on the floor declaring life not worth living (to summarize), or at least not worth living given the lousy choice in snacks his mother had brought. Finally, I found a candy cane in my pocket. This proved to be “too spicy,” but worked as distraction. AppleApple got some playing time with the boys’ team; we all went in to watch. Fooey picked artifical grass. CJ complained about not having a ball to kick.
Basically, CJ is at a stage/age where he can effortlessly suck the fun out of just about any situation. For example, grocery store this afternoon. CJ in full tantrum seated in the cart wailing over and over the touching phrase: “Multi-coloured mini-marshmallows!” My skin must be elephant-thick by now, and thank heavens. Nothing draws the gaze of passersby like a screeching three-year-old kicking the sidewalk and declaring his lower legs–yes, the lower legs, to be specific–“too tired!” to go on. I’m not saying all gazes are critical. Some are closer to pitying, some to gratitude–thank God that’s not me. Which is admittedly how I feel now when I hear a tiny infant wailing from inside a baby carrier. I know the mother’s pain–how the baby is probably hungry and wants to nurse and she’s pulling a toddler by the hand and they just need to get this one final errand run, please, please, please just make it baby.
This too shall pass, in other words.
This too shall pass.
Yesterday morning, I carried my three-year-old to nursery school, nearly one kilometre away, in the rain. Why? Well, he wasn’t in a walking mood, that’s why he was on my back. But the reason I was walking was bare bones basic: I didn’t have a car at my disposal; Kevin had an early appointment to which he needed to drive. About six months ago, as part of our family’s Green Dream plan, we downsized to one vehicle. Are we a greener family than before? Yes, mostly because having fewer options forces us to make different choices.
Such as carrying a kid on my back in the rain to nursery school.
Listen, if I could have driven, I would have. I’d been up early swimming, I’d gotten four kids fed and organized and three of them out the door. That left one little guy, and he couldn’t get to school by himself. I wanted my quick restorative morning nap. It was too wet to fire up the bike stroller. If there had been a vehicle in the driveway, would I have chosen to walk? Not a chance. So the omission of the vehicle itself is feeding into the success of our Green Dreams. It’s so easy to take the easy route when it’s easily available.
Sometimes, I’m grumpy about it. If you see a bedraggled woman, surrounded by a pile of kids in raincoats, shaking her fist at you as you drive by, think of me. In fact, hey, that is me! And yes, I just cursed you and your car for blocking my family’s passage across the street. Or maybe just for being inside a warm dry moving vehicle. Sorry. It’s wet out here. And we’re moving so slowly.
I am not a naturally patient person, but do subscribe to the notion that by walking (or biking) rather than whisking along inside the sealed world of the car, I am experiencing life differently. Out here, I know the weather. I know the seasons. I know the geography. Plus, I have to leave on time, or I’ll definitely be late. There is no such thing as breaking the speed limit when walking with four children.
But here’s my confession: you’ll still see me in a car pretty frequently these days (maybe that was you shaking your fist at me.) We do have ONE after all and I can’t imagine life without it. Well, I can, but life would include a whole lot less soccer. There are no direct bus lines to either of the two sports facilities that draw members of our family upwards of nine times a week. One is 5.5km away, the other is 9km. In other words, not terribly far, and probably biking distance (though not for short legs on tiny bicycles); but in addition to there being no direct bus routes, there is also no safe bike path to either place (not to mention, as the season changes, we’d be biking after dark.)
It’s one thing to complain about this, but another to ask: Would we choose to bike or ride public transit if it were an option? And truthfully, I think we would not. Not unless we had to. Because we’re usually in a hurry. We’re dropping one kid here, and racing to get another there. We’re cutting corners, juggling schedules, trying to cheat time. Having a car allows us to schedule our lives in a way that cannot be transposed into a car-free life.
So, I’m resigned to carrying some Green Guilt. In fact, our family’s increasingly busy sports schedule also means we consume more water than we used to. I’m telling you. The laundry. Wash those socks as quickly as possible! I hang everything to dry, with the exception of giant loads of towels, which tend to go in the drier. But still. Green, it ain’t.
Maybe it was the Green Guilt over the car and the sports that led me to introduce our latest experiment: we’ve gone vegetarian at home. We are neither buying nor cooking meat (with the exception of seafood, on occasion). The kids are missing ham on their sandwiches, and I am constantly brainstorming ways to get more protein into all of us (like starting the day with eggs for breakfast). And if a grandparent invites us for a meal that includes meat, we’re happy to eat it up. But at home, we’re meat-free. It’s been about a month, and I’m sticking to it, despite the odd complaint, because a meatless diet is one sure-fire way to shrink a family’s ecological footprint. And we’ve got such a big (sweaty) one. We’ve got to try.
Even if it means grumpy walks in the rain. And children fantasizing about summer sausage.