Today, I want to write about the little things. Little things that might seem unimportant because they’re not on any to-do list, they’re not responsibilities. Little things that might seem incidental in a bigger picture, not the heart of any day, but the flavour. Little things that give me a little peace. I’m knee-deep in marking and have to stay on schedule, so this is not what I should be doing, but I’m going to make a list of “little things” to mark this particular moment in time. At other moments, I might put other things on this list. But today, now, here is what’s given me a little peace recently.
Playing the piano. Either my own improvised noodling around, or sight-reading cheesy Christmas songs, or accompanying my ten-year-old during her violin practice.
Crafting. I know, weird, right? Not my usual thing. But I’ve gotten into a latch-hooking project, initiated by my ten-year-old (who loves her crafts). Same child also initiated an ornament-making craft-time this weekend, and everyone in the family got involved. My personal fave are the Trudeau ornaments, crafted by my thirteen-year-old (who has a new haircut, very stylish, if I do say so myself; I gave both my teenagers haircuts recently, which is another kind of craft, in a way, I suppose).
Walking the dogs. I’m running very little right now due to injury, but I’ve found surprising peace in walking the dogs before bedtime, or on an early weekend morning when the neighbourhood is quiet. The pace is gentle. The dogs amuse me.
Swimming. To replace the running. Monday was my first day, and I went with my swim coach, who also happens to by my thirteen-year-old daughter. She should be your swim coach too. Our session was as tough as a boot camp. She’s demanding, encouraging and kind, and smart about correcting technical flaws in my stroke. (She also coaches Kevin and her younger sister on Thursday mornings. So this is a little thing many of us in the family are enjoying right now.)
Coaching. Right now, I’m coaching my fourteen-year-old’s indoor futsal team (similar to soccer), and I’m volunteering with my ten-year-old’s soccer team, too. I love working with both groups of kids — the teenaged boys and the younger girls. I’ve been practicing my deeper coach’s voice around the house, and every practice or game is another opportunity to learn something new, or put some new concept into practice (for me, and for them). It’s the perfect activity for a person with a growth mindset outlook. We can always get better! Hurray!
Writing. I haven’t had a lot of writing time, recently, so I’ve been taking my laptop to basketball and soccer practices at which I’m not involved. Earplugs in. Sweet vanishing into another world.
Stretching. My body needs to stretch, loves to stretch. I’ve been squeezing in a few yoga classes.
Reading. A couple of days ago, I thought I had a few free minutes. Ever have those moments? When you think, how strangely wonderful that I should have nothing to do? So I sat in front of the fire devouring Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name. I was so relaxed, so blissful — so blissfully forgetting that in fact I did have something to do. This strangely wonderful moment had been brought to me by a memory lapse. I’d forgotten to pick up my youngest at school; friends had to help out; and I felt embarrassed and somewhat shamed for my parenting lack as I jogged along the sidewalk, late, late, late. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wish for more of those rare “free” minutes for daytime reading.
All for now. Please comment if you have “little things” that give you a little peace, too.
Discernment is something Mennonites are expert at; in fact, Mennonites are so good at discernment that it sometimes seems it’s code for clearly we don’t all agree so let’s keep discerning in perpetuity so as to never make a decision. Given that this is my cultural background, perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy process so much. But I do also like to come around to decisions now and again. That said, discernment is rather brilliant, in my opinion. What it does is allow a decision to unfold slowly, with voice given to many different opinions and angles; it’s a process of listening as much as speaking.
This post is a continuation of my thoughts from yesterday’s confession: that I don’t like being the speaker at the front of the room.
I’ve been trying to discern why.
It isn’t that I don’t like being in a leadership position. In fact, I enjoy taking the lead, to which my younger siblings could attest. But there are different styles and types of leadership, and the leadership I prefer to practice is the kind that asks questions, that operates in relationship, that collaborates with, that is creative and responsive and in the moment. I want to ask questions. I want to hear stories, I want to hear and try to understand other perspectives. I want to see my small ideas opening up small ideas in someone else, and I want to be opened up too; I want to learn too.
It’s the reason I like reading and writing short stories, the kind that end in a questioning, open way that unfolds into the reader and the reader’s experience, rather than telling the reader what the answer is. Resonance. That’s what I’m looking for, in everything I do.
Yesterday evening, off I went with my eldest son to coach his soccer team. I was as tired as I’d been all day. There wasn’t time to eat supper. But when we got onto the field, the hour flew by, my exhaustion vanished. I love coaching soccer. I don’t love it because I’m an expert. I’m not. I love it because it’s a creative undertaking, and because I find myself, in this role, engaged with the kids on the team: trying to figure out what will motivate them as individuals, assessing their levels of interest and skill, and asking them to push themselves in small ways—for each player this will be different. I also love it because it’s fun. We’re meeting up so they can play a game.
I think we all need to play. We should all be doing something every day that feels playful, just for fun, something that lifts us out of the ordinary. Something we don’t have to do for any reason other than it makes us happy.
When teaching is going well, it’s for the same reasons. It’s because we’re engaged in a creative enterprise together. Writing and revision should feel playful. I know this won’t always be the case, and writing is work, no doubt about it, but for me—and what I want to share—is that writing, especially fiction, is play. You get to live inside your imagination like you haven’t had permission to do since you were a child. You get to explore whatever interests you. You get to ask questions and wonder and roam freely around your own mind, making it all up, drawing from the back of your mind “perishable moments you hadn’t even noticed that you noticed.” To paraphrase Lynda Barry.
And that’s about where I’ve gotten in my process of discernment. Expect me to release a mission statement in the next decade or so.
P.S. Read this, from the New Yorker (wish I had a subscription!): an inspiring and moving essay by George Saunders about his own creative writing teachers. (Side note: how the heck did Tobias Wolff have time to help parent three children, work full-time leading graduate classes in creative writing, thoroughly read every submission to the program, and write and publish his own books?)
P.S. 2 Here’s how I started this morning. I slept in until 6:45. Then I listened to this song and did kundalini exercises for about half an hour, while the older kids started their day too, but before the younger two got up. It was a good start and I feel much more rested. First discernment decision: I’m limiting my 5AM exercise to no more than three times per week; I’m open to dropping to even less if I’m still really tired. I will reassess in six weeks.
“We do not want merely to see beauty … we want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see.” – C.S. Lewis (as discovered on Twitter; follow @CSLewisDaily for more quotes)
Today marks the second week of summer holidays. I’ve put over a thousand kilometres onto the little car since Thursday morning. I’ve been across the border, stuck in traffic jams, meandering back roads, standing by soccer fields, hauling various bags, buying food that will keep in the heat, making and executing miniature step-by-step plans to get one kid safely to the places she needs to be at the right times. She is now safely at overnight camp with her sister. I am safely at home, in my office. But I couldn’t keep her entirely safe. Her team made the final at the tournament, but she was injured in their third game in a bad fall. This is parenting one doesn’t want to have to do: watching from the far side of the field as a medic checks out your kid, then, after the game, helping your kid understand and accept that she likely won’t be able to play for the rest of the tournament. We need to think long-term, the parent says, and the kid says, I really want to play! Maybe if I rest it overnight and ice it and … Yes, maybe, but, says the parent, taking the long view, knowing that injuries will happen in contact sport and a week or two of rest will pass in a flash, while an injury worsened by poor management could dog a player for weeks, months, more …
So she cheered her teammates from the bench in their fourth game on Saturday afternoon. She woke yesterday morning optimistic, and dressed for the match. Her coach let her play a few minutes in the final game, but she ran like she was stiff and in pain, so he decided, wisely, not to put her back on again. I was relieved. She understood. The long-view won the day.
Here’s part of what I wrote on Saturday morning, waiting for that third game to begin, the one in which she was injured, when I didn’t know she would be; I hadn’t read the C.S. Lewis quote, above, yet, either. But I think I was choosing to write for the very reason Lewis pinpoints: to be united with the beauty we see (if we go looking for it).
In Ohio. I sit in a collapsible chair behind my car in the shade on a warm morning, the fourth of July. It’s Independence Day in the United States, and I seem to be in a quintessentially American scene: wide blue sky, gravel parking lot, trucks and cars lined up, not neatly but askew, claiming space, because there is so much space, and just beyond the short grassy hill, a highway off-ramp. Noisy, constant noise of engines turning as they veer past on the other side of the guardrail. In the gravel lot, dust balloons when a car zooms by looking for a parking spot. I’ve returned to the same spot where we parked yesterday, just under a clump of bushes with pale green leaves flecked with tiny white spots that look like a fungus, an invasive disease, not native to the plant’s patterns. The breeze moves the speckled leaves. Wildflowers have pushed through the gravel near my feet, like flowers that belong in a desert, sparse pale purple blooms with spiked centres.
A man sits in a convertible opposite me, and talks on his cellphone, shaded under a ball cap. I choose not to look too often in his direction, although we must both see each other. Parked to his left is a junked-out abandoned trailer home with the brand-name Tag-A-Long on its faded front above a vented window, which has blue sheet insulation propped against it from the inside. The trailer’s hitch is rusted red and green, deep dirty brown-red, metallic green, a beautiful shade of green richer than emeralds, but what does it mean, to beautifully mark an abandoned object? What does it mean to flower in a parking lot? What does it mean to sit by a highway and write about the gravel scattered underfoot, embedded loosely into the clay-like dirt, pale ochre dirt, pale grey and white stones, some so small they are almost granular, worn down to sand?
“I’m gonna go now,” says the man in the convertible, on his phone, but he doesn’t. This is the way of conversations. You state that you are finished, but you don’t unstick yourself, not quite yet. You laugh. “You didn’t say that,” you say, and chuckle. A large 4 x 4 Ford pickup kicks up dust between us. The rumble from the cars on the off-ramp obscure what might be said, if I were closer and could overhear this half of a conversation.
I see a Canadian flag flapping on a truck down at the end of the lot, near field 14 where my daughter’s team will play their second game today. Beyond that, taller than the trees, are signs advertising gas stations and fast food restaurants. The street lights above the off-ramp look like objects from outer space, as you might imagine an alien spaceship to look, with lights suspended inside bright shiny metal pods like six vast aluminum mixing bowls, upside-down, and affixed around a slender pole, way up high, like cake tins stabbed onto pointy spikes high up in the sky.
What happens when you sit and write? You see differently, you fall down inside of yourself and go quiet and you receive whatever passes by, whatever dust and stray information and overheard conversation passes by, you reach up into the air and pluck it like fruit, ripe or unripe, doesn’t matter, you’re hungry for information.
It’s true. I was hungry. And in a gravel parking lot beside an on-ramp, I found some measure of satiation.
May you be united with the beauty you see.
A few things have happened around here and my reporting is not keeping pace.
The whole family went to Hamilton on Friday evening to cheer on the Canadian national women’s soccer team in a friendly against England, the last game they’ll play before the World Cup matches start next week. And Canada won! Fascinating to dissect the strategy on the field, and watch the play get more intense as the game went on (I sat beside my brother Christian, who had scored us the tickets, and it reminded me of watching baseball or hockey with him as kids, analyzing every play).
My kids will never quite appreciate (thankfully) the thrill that I got from attending a sports match in a packed stadium involving two women’s teams who were in no way being objectified: in their eyes, they were simply watching talented athletes battling it out. When I was a soccer-playing kid, there was no national women’s team that I knew of; if there was a team, I didn’t know the names of anyone on it; and women’s soccer teams did not compete internationally in the Olympics or World Cup. When CJ pored over the program the next day, asking for the pronunciation of names of his favourite players, whose numbers and positions he knew (Kadeisha Buchanan, for example), saying, “She was a really good defender,” honestly, my heart sang. He doesn’t know it, but by seeing those women as really good athletes, he’s seeing them as fully realized human beings of equal worth and value to male athletes; and he isn’t even doing a comparison between the sexes, he’s just cheering for his team.
On Saturday we had a little party for The Candy Conspiracy. It poured rain, so we were very glad to be indoors at the Waterloo Public Library. As a finale, I broke out a uke and played the Juicy Jelly Worm song. It’s a different crowd, that’s for sure, from the usual literary reading. It felt much more interactive, which I enjoyed.
Fooey with Sophie Schmidt*, who scored the winning goal. *cardboard cutout version
Fooey’s soccer team had another fun and winning game last night, coached by me and my friend Marnie; this coaching gig is turning out to be even more fun than I’d anticipated. It helps to have such an enthusiastic, friendly, coachable group of girls. I might get hooked on the job.
Lap three, 1500m. She’s the small one in blue trying to pass the taller one in yellow.
And today, I got to watch my girl runner tough it out in the 1500m and 800m distances at the regional track meet: she won the 1500m in a very competitive time, and came second in a hard-fought 800m, on rather tired legs. This means she will go on to compete again on Thursday in the regional final. It’s both a joy and privilege to get to watch her take her fierce self out into the fray and lay everything on the line. I honestly thought that watching her win that 1500m was the MOST EXCITING MOMENT in my whole life. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But in the moment, that’s how it felt. It was so surprising, so unexpected. I may have hugged a few strangers.
There are other exciting (and less exciting) moments that I could report upon here, but I’m out of time. Another evening is upon us, another early supper (chicken, rice, dipping sauce, maybe broccoli if I get back to the kitchen in time), many more soccer games, a bit of coaching, and lots of transportation of people hither and yon. Wish me … well, strength and calm.
Every now and again, I think, well this is a bit much. Last night, the power went out after Kevin and I had gotten the kids to bed … which was already really late in the evening. It had started to rain (though not enough to counter this drought we seem to be staggering into.) I showered in the dark, climbed the stairs to bed in the dark. Then, just as we were ready to sleep, the power popped back on, and with it all the lights we hadn’t turned off; and an annoying alarm began to sound loudly and regularly.
Kevin dashed to the basement to try various switches. Kids started coming to find me, one in tears: “I’m so tired, and I can’t sleep, and I’m scared, what is that?”
“I’m tired, too, and I can’t sleep either, but don’t worry, we’ll figure this out.”
But the alarm went on and on and on. Finally, fighting inertia, I went downstairs, where I discovered Kevin perched on a stool in the dining-room about to violently dismantle a smoke detector — except I realized in that moment that it wasn’t the smoke detector making all that noise, it was the carbon monoxide detector, plugged in to an outlet nearby.
“Wait!” I said.
Kevin paused, screwdriver in hand, curses temporarily stalled.
I unplugged the device from the wall.
Silence. Blissful peace and quiet.
Then Kevin had to clean up the mess he’d made from knocking the smoke detector around, and I plugged the carbon monoxide detector back in again, and all was well.
Because it had been a very long day already, this all felt a bit like the proverbial straw. But it wasn’t, I guess. I keep thinking the straw has landed, yet life goes on. We figure it out.
I went to CJ’s grade one class yesterday and read The Candy Conspiracy, and talked about writing and storytelling, and watched them make up their own stories about imaginary worlds made of candy. CJ and I walked home together, CJ chatting all the way. I ran twice yesterday, with a friend in the early morning and by myself at a soccer practice in the beautiful light of evening, covering 14km total, which is far and away the furthest I’ve run since last fall. Kevin took Suzi to the vet for a minor infection. I made quesadillas and beans & rice and asparagus for supper, and somehow we all managed to sit down together at 5PM to eat and share stories about our day, before rushing off to soccer and gymnastics. It was the usual jumble of quiet and rush, and being with others in so many different ways. So many different conversations I get to have every single day. Today I’ve done a radio interview to promote the launch, and met with my party planners to finalize logistics for Saturday. And that doesn’t include all the emails and texts to various friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances.
On today’s menu: samosas and pakoras for supper; piano lessons this afternoon; and this evening, two soccer practices and one rather-far-out-of-town game, necessitating reliance on the help of one grandma (my mom) and at least one friend (my co-coach Marnie). Maybe rather than worrying about needing to rely on others (for rides, for babysitting, for carpooling), I should embrace how much necessary connection it brings into my every day. Connection is good. Connection is community. Hopefully the giving and receiving is mutual or evens out in some cosmic way. It’s humbling to need help and to ask for it; I’ve gotten much better at it.
All for now.
Coach and soccer player # 1.
My meditation focus for this month is: anxiety.
I spend way more time not in my office, writing, than sometimes I’d like. But hey. This is Life. For the record, here is what I do when I’m not in my office, writing. This is not a lifestyle endorsement, trust me. After reading this, you may suspect that I need an intervention.
Yesterday. Pack laptop, leave house at 2:30 to pick up AppleApple early from school, drop her at piano lessons; drive back to different school, pick up CJ for piano. There’s a lag between the two pick-ups, so I edit in the car for 25 minutes, shutting down my laptop only with great pain; CJ wonders why I’m late. Drive back across town to music school. Arrive in time for CJ to do his home reading out loud before his lesson, while I attempt to listen and finish the edit I’d abandoned in order to pick him up. Fooey calls around 4 to say she’s home (Albus texted earlier, same message; now I know where everyone is). Fooey has a friend over—is that okay? Okay, so long as dogs are crated. Soon, a text from Fooey: Can another friend come over too? Parenting by text; answer, no. I’m now downstairs at the music store buying an intro to cello book for AppleApple, and discussing the launch party plan for Candy Conspiracy with my friend Zoe who works at the music store. CJ’s lesson done at 4:30, home again, I set out food for supper, start oven to make store-bought french fries, chop veggies to go with hummus. I also telephone my friend Marnie to discuss our coaching plan for the boys’ team and to arrange transportation/child exchange for this evening; while on phone I wash the walls going up the stairs, because I happen to notice they are filthy and my mother-in-law and her new boyfriend are coming to visit this weekend; I’m sure they won’t care, but this is the kind of detail one notices under these circumstances. Kev home at 5:10. I’m changing into soccer gear, urging AppleApple to pack a supper for herself and get ready for rehearsal, and by 5:30, we are back in the car driving across town. I’ve eaten a pita smeared with baba ghanoush and a few red peppers. Traffic is nuts. I’m oddly calm—no, it isn’t odd, actually. I’m calm because just after we pull out of the driveway, I ask AppleApple to entertain me on the drive, to take my mind off the many anxieties about our evening’s schedule; and she tells me cool things her class learned during a lecture on quantum physics from a visiting scholar. And my anxiety melts away.
Drop off AppleApple, enjoy a few minutes alone in the car by listening to pop music on the radio—Chandelier gets stuck in my head; in fact, is still stuck in my head. Windows down. Sweet. Switch station at 6PM to listen to CBC news about NDP win in Alberta. Back home, grab a few fries, locate a watch, briefly talk to Kevin, clear table and help clean up from supper. At 6:40 everyone in the house is back in the vehicle, with a bag of balls in the trunk. Drive up the street and drop off CJ, pick up Fooey’s friend who is also on her team (a fair exchange of children!), visit briefly with Marnie, pick up coaching stuff. Drive across town and drop off Albus and Kevin at their practice field. Continue on to our practice field. Find parking, haul balls to field, talk to a friend whose son is playing in the time slot before ours.
Coach and soccer player #2.
Realize the so-called planned club-led practice is not going to materialize: this practice is going to be Carrie-led. Set up drills and games and try to teach skills and make it fun for nine friendly funny nine-year-old girls for an hour. Make up a team cheer to go with new team name: The Fierce Green Grapes! Wait with child whose parent is late to pick up. Begin to quietly panic. Call parent. Parent arrives. Drive back to pick up Kevin and Albus at their field, discuss practices and strategies for future drills on the drive home. Drop Albus at home. Drop off Fooey’s friend, pick up CJ, chat with Marnie. Home to use the bathroom. Return to truck, drive across town to pick up AppleApple from dress rehearsal for play. Discover dress rehearsal is going late. And later. And later. Sit in parking lot, listening to an interesting program on CBC Radio’s Ideas, by Lynn Coady, on literary snobbery and the future of books. AppleApple finally done, arrives dressed in clown costume.
Drive home. So hungry. Kevin has made tea. I drink tea and scarf the rest of the baba ghanouj (not homemade) with very stale tortilla chips that I find on the counter. And a few leftover carrots.
Bed. Read two pages of Knausgaard. Sleep instantly.
Alarm goes at 5:30, and I’m off for a run, and at it again. More soccer tonight!
“I think I’m going to need therapy to get through the next two and a half months,” I told my friend at the soccer field, only half-kidding. So be it. The quiet during the day is keeping me sane, I think, and the early morning exercise, and the writing. Although the writing also consumes me terribly; or wonderfully. So maybe it’s good to be distracted and occupied by evenings spent outdoors with one’s children, even if it requires a whole lot of driving and elite-level scheduling acuity.
Wish me luck. I need it. Or better yet, wish me calm.
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