I’ve been paying attention to my reading habits more closely this year, and I’ve been surprised by what draws me, by what I find my appetite craving. In children’s literature, it’s the classics that pull me in, even on the millionth read. I’ve also enjoyed without reservation reading fiction by men, this year (which, although I haven’t deliberately avoided in my long reading life, seems anomalous somehow). And I’ve been pulled, relentlessly, to non-fiction, especially memoir.
I enjoy a variety of styles, and often stand back to admire the craft involved in, say, a light and amusing “easy” read, as much as in a book that is complex and innovative. Sometimes I want to be entertained, pure and simple. Sometimes I long to be challenged, or to gaze in awe and wonder. The lightness or darkness of a book’s subject matter or intellectual heft does not matter greatly to me. My taste is broad.
I don’t read idly, however. I read professionally. I really enjoy this aspect of my reading life. It’s hugely energizing and inspiring.
Always, always, as I read, I look for clues. I read to discover how to write better — how to write what I would want to read. And what I want to read is a book that connects.
Here’s another way of putting it: I want to want to keep reading.
The books I love are not a chore. They do not bore.
I’ve observed that certain issues get in the way of my pleasure. Some are fixable, some perhaps not. Lazy copy editing is troubling and very fixable. Laziness in general is troubling. If I’m mentally editing out unnecessary passages, paragraphs, or stray words, it’s going to cause me to stumble in my enjoyment. I can forgive a story an enormous flaw, because I truly believe that sometimes stories are bettered by their flaws. (Consider, for example, Little Women, and Jo never getting together with Laurie, instead marrying that shambling professor who, despite Louisa May Alcott’s valiant attempts to tell the reader how much we should love him too, simply cannot measure up to what might have been — that is a flaw that doesn’t ruin the the reading experience, but keeps it going in the imagination ever after.) But I can’t excuse the lazy flaw, the needed-another-draft, the published-too-soon flaw.
A writer who works, that gives me pleasure.
The evidence of a writer’s work, craft, and practice comes across clearly, to me, in a book’s structural and narrative coherence and imagination. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s not brought about by the kind of writing people imagine writers to be doing: the fevered, drunken, mad creative flurry whose allure appeals in adolescence and fades sharply thereafter. I outgrew it too many years ago now to remember, without some effort, why I ever found it appealing (which I did, and which many aspiring writers/artists do).
What I admire now is the invisible work behind the seemingly effortless offering. Brilliant, I think. And also, thank you. Thank you for your work!
I’m reading two works of non-fiction right now (yes, simultaneously). One I’m enjoying enormously. The other, not so much. The comparison is not entirely fair, as comparisons never are, but there it is.
The one I’m adoring and rationing out while wanting to devour is The Books of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon, a memoir that defies easy description because it is about matters moral, ethical, disturbing, and deeply enlightening. The one I just finished, hurrying because I wanted the essays to end, please, is Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, a memoir on spirituality that felt sloppy, incomplete, and, yes, that dreaded word, lazy. It was a book that seemed to want to give me advice. It told me what to think, rather than opened me to new thoughts. Hemon is telling stories. Lamott distracts with anecdotes. Stories are puzzles that go deep and don’t necessarily tell us what to believe, but instead ask us what we do believe and why, and we wonder how we got to where we are and whether we might change, and how. Where does an anecdote take us? Back to the writer herself, who sure as heck doesn’t want us to forget she’s there. Be brave enough to get out of the way, I wanted to tell Lamott, and let your stories speak for themselves.
I don’t think this necessarily divides along gender lines, although I’ll admit it troubles me slightly that the books I’ve been loving this year have mostly been by men. I don’t know why that is, and there may be no conclusions to be drawn. But here’s what I’m learning from my reading this year: I want to get out of the way when I write, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction. I want, also, to connect. And I do not think those ideas stand in opposition.
on Birthday Eve, still eleven years old
on Birthday Morn, twelve times ’round the sun
I’m feeling compelled to sum up this month, even though it’s not quite over. It’s been such a month, and I’ve been unable to share some of the crucial details of its ups and downs and whirling arounds, which has forced me into awkward positions on this blog, made me into something of a contortionist. My ambiguity has caused a few friends to contact me with concern, wondering if all is well.
Well, all is well. And I don’t mean that in a Rob Ford way, whistling past the suddenly emptied offices of his communications team.
It’s been a good month.
It’s been a good month, but I won’t pretend it’s been easy. Decision-making is never easy, even when one is making decisions about excessively positive things, opportunities one has called out for, and hoped for, and pursued with determination. As I wrote in an earlier post, the doors are open. An open door is a blessing, and I feel blessed to be welcomed to enter.
But I have come to recognize, also, this month, that I can’t walk through every open door, not at the same time. I may contain multiplicities, but I am only one. I can only be in one place at a time. (I know you already knew that, but it’s taken me some convincing.) I am mother to four children. I am a writer. I would like to become a midwife. All those doors are open for me, right now. And I feel blessed. You, however, have probably already jumped ahead to the very obvious question that I somehow managed to avoid throughout this whole process: You are probably asking, okay, Carrie, that’s wonderful and all, but how, exactly, do you plan to go to school full-time, remain involved in your children’s busy lives, and continue to write?
Somehow, I thought I could do it all. I wasn’t going to not do some of it, oh no, I was going to do it all.
Magical thinking, perhaps. I am the sort of person who thrives on juggling responsibilities. Quietly, I told myself I could set aside the writing for the summer months. I did not need to attend so many soccer games and swim meets. We could get a dishwasher. The kids could learn to cook. Quietly, I thought, bring on the challenge.
But then the doors opened, all at once.
And suddenly I had to confront my own limitations — of time and of energy. I had to ask myself: what am I prepared to sacrifice? And I had to accept that now is not the right time to become a midwife. That is a hard sentence to write, and it’s taken me all month to carry myself toward accepting what I’m realistically capable of, right now.
For a good part of the month, I thought that this was an existential question about midwifery versus writing. Do I want to be a midwife or a writer? Well, the fact is, I’d like to be both, and I still believe it’s possible. I am already a writer, married to it for better or for worse and enjoying a happy stretch of career momentum right now. And I’m grateful to midwifery for being a career that does not discriminate against age: expect me to apply again sometime in the next decade, as my children grow up and get their driver’s licences and learn how to cook. No, what I’ve come around to recognizing is that this is not a question about midwifery versus writing. It’s not even, really, a question. It’s about being where I’m at, right now. And right now I have four children in the thick of their young and developing lives, and I want to be at the soccer games and swim meets. The shortened work day might drive me crazy sometimes, but I want to be here after school to gather them in, to follow up and dig around and take care of their lives in this very hands-on way. Juggle and spin it however I like, I can’t commute to another city for school and be here for this now that won’t always be.
How fortunate that I have an office, here, that I have quiet space to work, solitary time that is sandwiched on either side by frenetic activity and demands. I even have time to run and play soccer myself, to cook from scratch, see friends, and go on the occasional field trip. I go to bed done, and I sleep well at night.
I’d still love to doula at friends’ births.
I’d still like the kids to learn how to cook.
And we’re getting that dishwasher anyway — on Thursday, in fact.
When the time is right, I still hope to become a midwife.
But for now, my heart is full with the life that is all around me, right here, right now.
Here’s a poem that wrapped itself around me a few days ago, coming from a book of essays I’m reading by Anne Lamott, called Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.
“Late Fragment,” by Raymond Carver
And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Being ambitious is good when it motivates and propels you. But what if it prevents you from enjoying what you’ve accomplished, because you’re forever pressing ahead with the more that you could be accomplishing?
Kevin offered me that perspective, yesterday, when I was pushing for more, more, more, better, better, better, as I always, always do.
I am thinking about that today.
I am thinking, too, about running. How it’s such a piece of me, now. I only started running regularly about three years ago, so it hasn’t always been a piece of me. But it is, now. It seems fundamental to my health and well-being. When I am feeling down, like I was yesterday with my more, more, more-ness, I drag on my stinky old running clothes and squeeze time to find space for a run.
Yesterday evening, with a thundershower threatening, and a less-than-ideal location (busy semi-rural roads, some with bike lanes, some without), I dropped my daughter at her soccer practice and off I ran, beating a steady rhythm on the pavement, watching out for cars. Around the sixth kilometre, I struggled, worrying I’d gone out too fast, knowing I couldn’t turn around since my route was one big loop. But by the next kilometre the difficulty had vanished and all I heard was the steady drumbeat of feet and breath.
I felt powerful. I felt alive.
“You are your own best medicine,” Kevin said afterward.
It’s a hard thing to do, to run. It doesn’t really get easy. It shouldn’t, anyway. That’s not the point of it. The point of it is to throw yourself into effort and to be present inside your body’s work. And then your head goes quiet. And you enjoy what you’ve accomplished, even as you are accomplishing it.
I’m afraid that writing has been and will always be for me a place of intense discomfort as well grace.
I’m afraid that writing costs me in ways that are physical and emotional, that in order to pour myself into words on the page, I have to make payment. I don’t say this lightly. Creativity cannot be taken for granted. It may be a gift, but it cannot be freely received. The very act of creating means holding something unfinished and imperfect to the light, and loving it for what it might be, even while accepting all it cannot be. It means you’re never really satisfied with what you make. Because you know (and only you do) what you imagined you could have made. It means living an every day life uncomfortably suspended with your unfinished work.
I suppose we all have unfinished work. Unfinished business. Longings. Discomforts. I suppose this is not unique to the writer and it sounds self-pitying to suggest so. Let me be clear: I’m not sorry to be a writer. I’ve chosen this as much as it’s chosen me. I could have been, and could yet be, something else.
I think it’s just that I’m beginning to understand what it is I’ve chosen, by being a writer.
And why I need to run, if I am to write. I am not running away. I am not running toward. I am running. It can never be like that with writing. So I’m thankful, thankful, thankful to be able to run.
Quiet in the house. Construction noises loud outside.
Outside, 20 degrees C, sunny, windy. Clothes on the line whipping in the breeze. Small dog settling into dead leaves in raised garden bed, beside newly greening rosemary and thyme.
Thinking of the books I will write.
Seeing their spines in my mind’s eye. Sweet imagination.
Even while pressing down anxiety, clothespin in hand: What’s happening after school? Where do I have to be, when? Which carshare car have I booked? How early does supper need to be on the table?
I think, pasta with the last of the tomatoes.
Small dog stands, alert, to warn me of approaching pedestrians, big diesel trucks, other dogs, a squirrel.
Locating myself in time, to this moment.
Thinking of all the books I will write.
Everyone will get to where they need to be, even if they are a little bit late. Even if we are always, perpetually, just a little bit late. Rush, rush. “Mom, we’re fast-pokes, you and me.” (Fooey, age 7, and always organized and ready to go.)
Thinking a run in the woods. Touring the science fair. Soccer under this swept sky. What good kids I have. I will write them a book.
Clothes flapping to dry under a promising sky.
All the books I will write. All the books I will write.
patterns of play
Last night I played with the boys. Not these boys, above, but with Kevin’s men’s soccer team. I scrimmaged with his team two weeks ago, and came home feeling too down on myself to try the following week. It wasn’t that I’d played badly. It was that I wasn’t comfortable with the dynamic of being the only girl. I felt like I had to prove myself. I’m a small woman. I’ve played soccer for less than a year. None of my shots on net went in. That’s what I kept telling myself, remembering all of the errors.
Kevin, being the awesome coach that he is, focused instead on all the things I’d done right. He was disappointed when I skipped.
So I came back to play again. I came back despite playing a game of unfulfilled potential on Sunday afternoon with my women’s team. I’ve learned how to get myself into good space, into the clear. I get lots of chances to run onto the net with the ball. And the damn ball just doesn’t go in. Albus tagged along to my Sunday afternoon game, and had a few tips afterward: “You need to learn how to shoot, Mom. You’re not doing it right. It sounds like you’re kicking it with your toe.” I also need to learn how to receive the ball in the air, and how to head the ball, and, oh, a few other things too. I was proud of my kid for being so knowledgeable — he’s playing rep soccer for the first time this season and he’s worked very hard to improve his skills, and I love that he knows what he’s talking about. But …
Me: “I’m going to need some positive feedback, too, lest my spirit be crushed.” Him: “Oh … yeah … um …” Long pause. Me: “Seriously? Nothing good?” Him: “I’m thinking. It’s hard! Oh, yeah, there was that time you ran really fast and kept the ball in. I thought it was going out.” Long pause. “Me: “That’s it?” Him: “Um … ”
My spirit was a wee bit crushed, my initial reaction being, Oh, God, I’m too old to improve. But then I thought, hey these are technical skills I’m lacking, and I’ve got the other stuff that belies my age, the speed, the strength, the grit. And there’s only one way to improve my technical skills, and that’s to keep practicing. Plus, it’s fun. I love playing.
So I laced up again last night, and went back to scrimmage with the boys. When I heard my inner voice saying, I’m not good enough to be here, I countered with, it’s up to me to decide whether or not I belong, whether or not I’m good enough. So I played like I belonged — or tried to. And I felt a subtle difference by the end of the game. Yes, I made lots of mistakes. But I also set up plays, used space well, challenged for the ball and won sometimes. I even used a couple of turns I’ve never tried before. The boys were passing me the ball. They knew my name. I got some high fives.
I grew up with three younger brothers. As a child, I always played with the boys, though it was usually baseball. My brother Christian taught me how to throw. Then, as now, I was quick and strong, small but wiry. I’ll admit that I often felt more comfortable playing with boys than girls, and it was hard, during my teen years, to understand that boys were no longer looking at me as being one of them, but as being different. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a girl: I just wanted to be a girl who knew a lot about sports (I learned by osmosis), who could play as hard as the boys. But somehow my sex got mixed up in it. My prettiness became a power I didn’t know how to manage. It made me feel vulnerable. Subject rather than participant. I stopped talking sports sometime in my early teens, stopped trying to perfect my overhand throw, stopped playing with the boys.
I haven’t played with them since. Until now. It makes me realize that I’ve kind of missed doing that. I think it’s a desire to transcend the assumptions that go along with my female body. It’s a desire to play, pure and simple, no matter who’s on the field.
all of these photos look even better viewed in full: click on them to see
I ran on Tuesday evening: 10 kilometres. I ran again on Wednesday morning with a friend: 8.8 kilometres. I ran again on Thursday evening, in a light rain: 10.5 kilometres. I ran again on Friday evening, in a wind that took the breath away, cursing with fury the weather: 7 kilometres. On that run, fist at sky, a grin broke across my face somewhere in the second kilometre. Running makes me happy, no matter how irritable my mood, no matter the weather. That’s when it came to me. I had run every day since the explosions at the Boston marathon. I hadn’t chosen to do it consciously.
I have six more kilometres to run, and then I will have completed the marathon distance, spread over six days rather than an afternoon.
It is Sunday afternoon. I have one more indoor soccer game today. I’d like to shut the computer down and run those last six kilometres, but I also want to take time to process photos and to write. I am trying to train myself to be disciplined with my time. On Friday, for example, I had an hour alone in my office, the kids being home on a PD day. I forced myself to turn the hour toward my new manuscript, a children’s novel.
Kevin is playing top forty dance music while he does the dishes.
I took my camera with me this morning when I drove to pick up AppleApple from her swim practice. It was my third trip out already this morning, and I thought, let’s document where I spend so much of my time: inside a vehicle, driving these familiar roads. Seen through the lens, the landscape looks bleak, somehow, empty, under construction. I like the resulting photos. Processing them, with Kevin’s music in the background, has given me a curiously crushing happiness this noon, a demolished happiness, like the happiness I associate with being young, with being alive to a potential and possibility not quite defined but present, a streak of light, a flare of anticipation, excitement mingled with melancholy, premature nostalgia. Nostalgia for a moment already happening.
This is the mood I’m in when I want to play the piano and sing.
This is the mood I’m in when I want to write a new story.
Or create photographs. It’s a happy mood. It’s a split-the-world-open mood. It doesn’t happen every day. I am thankful.
P.S. Just ran those last six kilometres. With love to all the long distance runners out there.