Here’s where I’m spending this week. My favourite part of the photo, above, is CJ’s tiger overseeing the situation (ironically, it’s the part that gets cut out of the photo when this blog is posted online; I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something). I’m marking. That’s what I’m doing. By the end of this evening, I expect to be more than halfway done. (That’s the sound of me knocking on wood.) If all goes as planned, I will finish on Friday. (The knocking is getting louder.)
Maybe then I can fold that basket of clean laundry at the end of the table, which will no doubt have expanded into two wildly overflowing baskets of clean laundry if left until then.
Anyway, if you don’t hear from me between now and the weekend, you’ll know what I’m up to. And why my posture is deteriorating by the hour. And why I suddenly have the urge to write. In broken. Oddly, punctuated, sentences. Grumpy oldster comment ahead, but I don’t think anyone’s teaching kids grammar anymore (did anyone, ever, come to think of it?). It’s like they’re on their own, trying to negotiate a sea of inexplicable commas. I want to help them!
Here’s an awkward transition. I’ll just throw it in like this.
Can you spot the common theme in the following two photos?
new art area
I’m signing off. Pencil in hand, freshly sharpened, back to the table, back to the tiger. I can see it, even if you can’t.
coming from behind in the 200-metre BR
This wasn’t my whole weekend, but it was part of it: another swim meet, a warm-up for the big meet in two weeks, which takes place near Ottawa, and to which my girl will be going without me. She will travel with her team, stay in a hotel with teammates, and race without me there to cheer her on in the stands. “I’ll be fine!” she told me this morning, when I was fretting over it. “You’ll be fine,” Kevin told her, “but I’m not so sure about your mother.”
And here I thought I was prepared to send her off. I was being all grown-up about it and practical (it would be expensive; I’d have to drive myself and stay in my own hotel room), especially knowing how excited she is to be going on an adventure all her own (well-chaperoned by coaches, of course).
I think I can do it. I think I can.
This is what I did in the stands on Saturday, while trying to practice good posture. I’m really enjoying this book, which I’d purchased awhile back before it won the Giller, because I love short stories. Looking down at my little pile, I realized how reliant my afternoon was on electronic devices. The phone to text updates to Kevin and my mom. The Kobo reader. The camera to take photographs. And then the meet sheet print-out, old-school, for keeping track of events.
The late afternoon sun on the water was striking. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that make me feel satisfied, creatively. Even with only a point-and-shoot camera at my disposal, there are moments of beauty to notice and to capture.
She was pleased with her races, but especially with her 200 metre back, where she took 16 seconds off her previous personal best, swum only three weeks ago. This despite thinking she was done with a lap still to go, and stopping at the end; her coach had to yell at her to keep going. (She still won her heat). She loses count during the long races, she says. A similar thing happened in the first race, the 200 metre breast, when she thought she had a lap left to go, and held back a bit rather than sprinting as she usually would in her final lap. She was quite disappointed with that race because she got the same time as her previous best. She’s just moved up to the 11-12 age group, which means no more medals till she grows a bit. Luckily, she doesn’t seem to race for the medals, but for the personal bests.
The sky was beautiful when we stepped out into the parking lot. We were both famished. Kevin made burgers and fried potatoes on the barbeque, and we were home in time to eat together as a family. The conversation was all about dreams. There was also some gentle mockery of my lousy advent calendar activities last year. So I surprised them with chocolate advent calendars yesterday morning, which felt extravagant, I’ll admit.
Also yesterday, we put up the Christmas tree and decorated it. Fooey cleaned up the art area, a massive task, to make room for the tree. That kid can organize! Advent feels unexpectedly real and important to me this year: waiting through the darkest days for the light to come again. The kids interpret this time as anticipatory, and I love that, and would love to grab a bit of that emotion for myself, rather than worrying about all that needs to be brought about, and whether I’ll have the energy to do it. Looking forward to, rather than waiting it out.
I didn’t run this weekend, not at all. On Friday night, feeling flattened by the week, I hung out with the soccer parents at the bar instead (drinking tea). Aha! So this is what they do while I’m out racing around in the dark, thought I. Saturday, I chose not to wake early for a run, and my day was otherwise occupied with the meet. Sunday, the girl had an early soccer game. I’d planned to run when we got home, but instead went to bed and slept for nearly two hours. And then staggered up to make buttermilk biscuits and turkey gravy for supper (a huge hit!), folded laundry, read the kids their bedtime story, and returned to bed early despite that long nap. I do feel better today. So maybe going for a run isn’t always the answer. What do I know?
It went and got cold.
AppleApple had an outdoor practice in a snowstorm on Saturday morning, at which I could have chosen to go for a run in solidarity. Instead, I stayed in the car letting the sunshine warm me while starting Hell Going, by Lynn Coady, which I’d purchased on my Kobo awhile back. We passed three car accidents on the way to the soccer field, all fender-benders caused by drivers who had forgotten how to drive in winter conditions. As in: slow the heck down, people! It was a white-knuckle trip, and we were most terrified that someone, travelling too fast, would simply slide into us.
Other activities this weekend included a date night out with friends (no children) on Friday evening, three soccer games and two more practices, one gigantic homework project (still unfinished), and a birthday dinner at a sushi restaurant that was appallingly, and ultimately comically, dreadful. “The only logical way this can end is in food poisoning,” observed one of my brothers. He was hungry — we all were, as wait staff appeared to “lose” our orders in a potted plant near the cash register — but was hesitating to eat what looked like leftover stir-fry rice fashioned into a maki roll, battered, and deep-fried.
I squeezed in a run yesterday afternoon, double-layered, and relished the wind and snow flashing into my face. All was well and good.
But then I crashed. I left Kevin with the supper dishes and crawled into bed early. This turned out to be the perfect medicine. Three of the kids (including my very biggest) snuggled with me and I read them several chapters in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is the book we’ve chosen post-Little-House. They’re loving it. CJ almost couldn’t get to bed he was so caught up in wondering when the Lion would come in to the story, and would it be a real lion?
Then I read for pure pleasure for another hour, and then two, and then, finally, slept. Up early for kettlebell class. Dithered a bit, considered skipping, but couldn’t sleep anyway. I’ve trained my body to wake like clockwork around 5AM. I knew class would be hard, but worth it, and it was, and it was. I so appreciate having a comforting, familiar place to go to in the early morning, and a friend to go with.
Fooey’s Christmas wish list, my copy; also on desk right now: inspirational “go!” artwork, also by Fooey; and a much-scribbled-in calendar
I can’t believe it’s almost advent.
Will I put up the advent activity calendar that so disappointed my children last year? Can I slow down even the slightest in order to prepare for the season? So many things I would like to do: bake cookies, put up a tree, take a family photo for Christmas cards, buy something special for each of the kids, dream up delicious menus for dinners …
Yesterday, while grabbing a book to bring along to a soccer field I mentally composed a perfect blog post. Maybe I’ll blog on my phone beside the soccer field, I thought. But the post vanished, and instead, beside the soccer field, I chatted with other parents (whom I see far more often than I do my closest friends) and watched, mesmerized, our daughters pass the ball with great skill and determination. The book stayed unopened in my hand.
The perfect imaginary blog post is not unlike the perfect imaginary book, I suspect, a subject Ann Patchett addresses in her very funny and quite serious essay on writing, “The Getaway Car,” in her new book of essays, THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE.
Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it … But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart.
Two things in that passage. One, the obvious point that writing is not a natural act; and two, that we narrate our lives, and it’s the second I’ve been thinking about most.
Yesterday, I imagined writing from inside the new car. I would tell you about the sudden shock of snow, the windshield wipers working, the warm hum from the vents. I might add in a snippet of caught conversation between me and a child. I might even admit to a burst of irritation at the stupidity of another driver. There would be the hush of tires turning. The flash of lights and the smear of their colour across the wet windshield in the early dark.
It’s fitting that I put my book advance toward a new vehicle, as the new vehicle has become my second home in a way that seems almost outrageous when I add up the hours. I’ve undone every green dream I ever had, whilst supporting my children in their extra-curricular interests. On Monday, between 5:05pm and 9:15pm, I spent a total of two and a half hours in our new vehicle, including an hour and a half venture, around town, that had me climbing out at home with a numb posterior. During that particular round, “Aggie” and I visited a far-flung indoor soccer field, a gymnastics club on the opposite side of town, and a pool, before returning home. And it snowed the whole time. The best part was when the eldest voluntarily joined me for the final trip of the evening. “What should we talk about?” he asked cheerily, and, as we’d already covered the intricacies of the PS4 gaming system he’s hoping for, we moved on to music, and soccer, and the mall, and fantasizing about food we’d like to eat.
That’s the one good thing about all this time in the car. It’s time with the kids, and we talk, a lot.
But later, home again, kids in bed, I said to Kevin, “When I’m all done driving these kids around, I’m going to be old. That’s what’s going to happen. I’ll be done driving them, and I’ll be old.”
photos in this post taken by child in passenger seat
Meanwhile — and this may save me — I’ll be “narrativizing” my life.
Yesterday afternoon, I listened to a Writers and Company podcast: Aleksandar Hemon interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel. Hemon uses his own experiences in his fiction, without qualms or apology: “The way I write fiction most often is that I imagine a different outcome of a situation.” Hemon observes something unfolding and ending, a snippet, a glimpse, or a straightforward hike from A to B, and he wonders: what if X had happened instead? A character might appear to be based on himself, yet he seems to harbour no worries about being mistaken for a character. In short, the line between fiction and non-fiction does not seem to trouble him. He’s writing stories, not history, whether they are “true stories” (non-fiction) or fiction. “We go toward the things we do not know in literature. To go in the opposite direction is to write only about the easy things.” (I’m paraphrasing; I took notes while listening, as non-fiction versus fiction has become a bit of an obsession while I try to teach it to my students, and while I reflect on what writing/publishing The Juliet Stories has both given me and cost me.)
I feel myself urgently wanting to use what I’ve got at hand, and to spin it into something different; “to arrive at something,” as Hemon puts it. There is life. There is the rendering of life into story. I’m missing quite a few pieces in my life, right now. Apparently I can’t squeeze everything in to satisfaction, not while driving for hours a day. What gets lost? Wouldn’t I love to host more suppers? Yes. My social life is pinched. I’m tired far too early in the evening. The laundry overwhelms. But there’s something about writing that can set life into balance, for me. I arrive at something there that I can’t here.
our Canadian celebration: fast food at Harvey’s, Sunday evening, 6:15
Sometimes it looks, from the blog, like I’m hyper-productive. And sometimes that’s true. But not always. Today, for example. Today I got up at 5am, yet I’ve done nothing more productive than a load of laundry. I just heard the washing-machine buzzer go, so if I get up off of this twirly stool (formerly part of a drum kit) and toss that load into the drier, that will be two loads of laundry, making me twice as productive.
I exaggerate only slightly.
office, with dogs, Monday, around noon
I took photos of most of the places I’ve been over the past two days. Maybe I need a day like today to do nothing and not be productive, who knows. A body can get tired, and so can a mind, worn down and flattened to dullness by the necessity of production. My energy and drive are renewable resources, but maybe to renew them, I need to sit fallow now and again.
Here’s where I’ve been, since leaving the wild Wild Writers Festival on Saturday afternoon, flying home filled to brimming with words and names and ideas and emotion.
That same evening, Kevin and I went out together to a dinner hosted by the festival, and then to a reading afterward. It really is a treat to be surrounded by writers, to hear about their struggles, and their secrets to survival. I rely on this blog, frankly, to keep me connected to other writers, because I really don’t move in literary circles. My actual physical circle is basically my neighbourhood, and includes friends I’ve known for years, and friends I’ve made since having children. In some ways, I think I’ve been protected by this, and allowed to make my own mistakes and explore my own interests, but in other ways, I miss the camraderie of running into people who do what I do. It’s why I love the Wild Writers Festival, and feel blessed by its existence, and thankful to those who put their energy into bringing it into being.
Kevin and I did not stay late. That is the theme of our lives at present. We do not stay late. Ergo, our social lives are somewhat shrunken. I wilt around 9 o’clock. That’s my glass slipper hour.
Wayne Gretzky Sports Complex, Brantford, Sunday afternoon, 1:15
Sunday saw me and swim girl driving rainy country roads to a swim meet. It was her second day, and she’d already won a bronze medal in the 200m breaststroke (looked after by her coach, as neither Kevin nor I could be there). I failed to appreciate the significance of this accomplishment until arriving at the meet: it was a big meet! Teams from all across southern Ontario, from Toronto to Windsor, and there was my kid in her purple suit swimming to another medal — silver, this time — in the 100m breaststroke. I got to hug her immediately afterward. I spent much of the meet crouched on a stair-step on the jammed pool deck, reading Ann Patchett’s THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE, and wishing myself more tolerant of violations of personal space. I’m so Canadian that way.
Home from the swim meet, we went out for a family meal at Harvey’s. We had a gift certificate, that’s why. It was ridiculously fun. Hey, maybe we can count it as our Canadian celebration.
Up early yesterday for kettlebell class. I’m back! And symptom-free! And my muscles ache! So yesterday was kettlebells, followed by nap, followed by getting kids to school, followed by office time. Blissful peaceful office time, with dogs snoring underfoot. I’m sifting through my HAIR HAT stories. Not much happened for many hours, and I enjoyed it. Because by 3pm it was kids home, and snacktime, and laundry folding. So much laundry! Three days of laundry! Despite a full half hour invested in folding, I had to abandon the still-overflowing basket because it was time for the hellish Monday swim commute. From our house to UW’s pool (where AppleApple swims) to the Rec Centre is probably less than 4km, all told, if we could go by bike or on foot through the park. But we can’t (aka don’t want to) because it’s dark and snowing. This trip via car, is beset by road closures and heavy traffic, and takes us a full half an hour. We arrive at CJ’s swim lesson just in time, every time.
swim lessons at 5:30 on a November afternoon
I sit in the stands, and breathe. I watch him kick, kick, kick, and move less than an inch, yet he doesn’t seem discouraged. His googles (as he calls them) are too tight and leave marks around his eyes, yet he doesn’t me to loosen them. He talks non-stop in the shower, by the locker, in the parking lot, all the way home. This is a good stop along the way.
At home, there are 15 minutes in which to devour a tofu stir-fry that Kevin’s whipped up in my absence. My mom has arrived too, to babysit and let us borrow her car for the next portion of the evening’s adventures, as Kevin and I will be going in two different directions.
soccer field at RIM park, 7pm
I get to go to Albus’s indoor soccer game! I don’t do enough with his boy, and he notices, so I’m making a conscious effort to do more. I believe showing up is a big part of parenting, and matters more than anything I could try to say with words. And it’s doable: it just means shifting things around a little bit, here and there. Kevin will take the gymnastics run (Fooey and her friend) and pick up AppleApple from swimming, instead. It’s companionable with my boy, and I manage not to embarrass him with my (inevitable) running commentary and encouragement from the sidelines, if only because he claims afterward not to have heard me (phew!).
gymnastics club, 8:50pm
We’re home again. I help load the dishwasher. I dress CJ in pajamas and leave the bedtime tucking to Kevin, because we’re off again, me and Albus, to stop at a convenience store for milk and bananas on our way to pick up the gymnasts. “I forgot my camera!” I say, and Albus reminds me that phones have cameras these days. I finish off the mini-this-is-where-I’ve-been session with a few terrible shots from the gym.
blurry gymnast daughter: damn you camera phone
And that’s where I’ve been.
Friday night, full moon. I went for a walk/run while AppleApple had soccer, and my ratio was down to 1:1. One minute of walking to one minute of running. Yesterday afternoon, I ran again, again while AppleApple had soccer, and it actually felt like running, as I upped the ratio to 1:2. One minute of walking to two minutes of running. Boy did I fly on those two-minute stretches of bliss.
This morning I woke up early to stretch. On Saturday, we moved the dog crate out of my office and installed it in the living-room, where it takes the place of an end table beside the sofa. Classy, I know. But it means I can unroll my yoga mat on the office floor, turn on some kundalini music on YouTube, and stretch. I didn’t want it to end. The only irritatant was that YouTube played ten-second mini-commercials between songs, which sort of broke the vibe. Drink milk! Soothing spiritual music. Special K breakfast shakes! Chanting and flutes. More milk!
It’s a packed week. I needed to start it off with chanting and flutes. And apparently a breakfast shake (I went with egg on toast instead).
she’s in the purple suit: 100-metre IM
Saturday evening saw me standing for four hours in the steamy warmth of a pool observation deck, watching AppleApple’s first meet. I still don’t quite get swimming as a spectator sport, but I completely get it as an individual challenge. It’s so different from soccer in that way. As a swimmer, AppleApple chooses for herself how much effort to pour into her practices, and how much pain she can tolerate in races. As a soccer player, so much depends on your team, on your coaches, on ephemeral unquantifiables like chemistry, and equally ephemeral quantifiables like politics. You can pour enormous effort into practices, work and compete fiercely in games, but your fate is ultimately at the mercy of other people’s opinions. I suppose it’s a bit like a writer’s career, now that I think of it. The work is an enormous part of the challenge, but not everyone is going to like your style, no matter your technical skills or intensity of focus; in a strange way, success is not up to you, as the writer. And it’s not up to the soccer player, either. You do your best, and hope it pays off. But as a swimmer, the responsibility is all yours. Assuming you have access to quality coaching and the financial support needed to train hard (a big assumption, I recognize!), the only barrier (and this is huge) is your own body, and your own mind. You earn the time you’re able to earn. Period.
Amazing news yesterday: two Canadian women have broken the Canadian women’s marathon record, which had stood for an astonishing 28 years.
Ok. I just got totally side-tracked reading Lanni Marchant’s blog. She doesn’t post often, but had written a play-by-play from her marathon at the World Championships this summer, which didn’t go well for her. I’d like to read her play-by-play of what worked in her record-breaking race yesterday. Fascinating stuff (to me), even though I can’t call it research anymore, the book having been already written. My next area of research, I think, is going to take me to the U.K. Someday. Optionally, I may start in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, that being easier to access while still getting home for supper. If it’s still possible to get back and forth to Toronto, an open question given Toronto’s major traffic woes: I’ve got two possible trips to Toronto planned in the next week and I can’t figure out how to get there and back in a reasonable amount of time. Tips, anyone? I’d love to see Aleksandar Hemon’s interview at IFOA on Saturday afternoon, and am this close to buying a ticket, if only I can figure out how the heck to get there and back. (I’ve got my class reading an essay from The Book of My Lives.)
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