Category: Spirit

Take care, make way, stand still

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Life is about taking care of what you’ve got.
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And it’s about making way for new things, too.

I’m pleased to report that our vehicle has been returned to us, after a week in the repair shop. After doing some serious number crunching, we’ve decided to keep it for now, although ideally we’d love to be driving a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle. Put it on the wish list. (Speaking of which: we’ve got one of those hanging on the fridge from the fall of 2011, and our wishes now look wildly out of date; most of them didn’t come true, and we find ourselves no longer wishing for those things. Curious, huh.)

I’m also pleased to report that my manuscript has left the house. I’ve put it into the good hands of my agent, whom I trust to tell me yea or nay, or some combination thereof. It will be awhile before she gets a chance to read it, and I’m grateful for the mental break. My writing days were getting obsessional in the extreme toward the end of the editing process, and it’s a relief to have space.

I would like to tell you more about where I’m at, right now.

I am standing in the middle of a wide field. I am looking at everything that surrounds me, and it is filled with possibility and potential, and vivid striations of colour and texture and weather. I could turn and walk to the east, to the west, to the south, to the north, or even to explore in a curving, meandering, curious path that does not follow any one direction. I am waiting. I am weighing. I am listening. I am gathering clues. I am open. I am not afraid of stepping the wrong way. I know there are many ways to explore this field. There are many rich and rewarding destinations. Fortune will call me, one way or another, and I will go.

I’ll tell you when I start moving. But for now, I’m quite still.

Love letter project

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Recently, I wrote and delivered an anonymous love letter to a neighbourhood friend; I also received an anonymous love letter from a neighbourhood friend.

Trust me, this was not a project I would have undertaken on my own. And the truth is that I felt a certain amount of resentment over the assignment. And it was an assignment — given to a group of friends by one amongst us who was inspired to have us each pick a name out of a hat and write a love letter, anonymously, to the chosen friend. (She was inspired by the site “The World Needs More Love Letters.”)

It took me a month or more to work up the nerve to try. I just didn’t know where to begin. I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually written a love letter, and I was feeling the pressure, being a writer and all, to perform. I was finally inspired/shamed into attempting it by a friend with whom I’d shared my trepidation and resentment.

Here’s the funny thing. I started writing with these very mixed emotions, but as I shaped out the letter, I began to feel this deep welling of emotion. Let’s just admit it and call it love. The very act of thinking about the person who would receive this letter, and attempting to honour her in some small way, made me feel very deeply. It was almost as if I was briefly possessed of an all-enveloping spirit that seemed to go beyond the recipient, as if through my words I could reach out and embrace the whole muddled and unknowable and beautiful world.

Sounds cheesy. Is cheesy. I know, I know.

When I received my own letter, it really hit the spot, too.

And so I have to say thank you to the friend who instigated this experiment. If you’re feeling particularly grumpy, this might be something to try. Or maybe you know someone who could use a little lift in his or her life. This may seem like an odd undertaking, but trust me, it will feel amazing — for you, the writer, and for the one who receives your offering.

Two things I needed, today

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“Hope is the thing with feathers …” 

Can you see the crows perched in the branches of the trees, above, so thick they almost look like black leaves? Less hopeful, perhaps, than ominous, but extremely compelling. We stood and watched them for ages last night. (Click on the photo to see in full.)

*

Two things I needed, this morning:

1. I needed sleep. And sleep was received, sound and deep, all through the night. I chose not to set my alarm and wake early.

2. I also needed this (though I didn’t know it): a hand-delivered card from the book club I visited on Monday evening. “Fortune befriends the bold” – Emily Dickinson, is printed on the front of the card. I opened it and read the handwritten message inside and sat on the floor and almost cried. It’s the little things, isn’t it. The small gestures that go such a long way toward giving a person that necessary spark. I needed a little spark this morning, as I slog through the manuscript one last time, and hope for the best.

“We were grateful for the opportunity to hear you read; to hear how stories are born in the writer’s imagination; and then, the hard work needed to share that creation with the reader.

“We joked about becoming your fan club, but, in fact, a book club is a fan club of sorts. We celebrate words on the page and we appreciate the courageous few who choose writing as their life work.

“How fortunate we are for your willingness to share your gift with us.”

Thanks to all the book clubs who have bravely and warmly welcomed this writer in. You may not know it, but I consider it a gift, too, to be able to share what I’ve got.

Dark days

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I took a holiday from electronics over the weekend. The word “electronics,” aka ‘lectronics, is heard often in our house, and is often a source of conflict, as I, responsible mother, repeatedly refuse my children time on their ‘lectronic devices.

Yesterday, driving home from a soccer game, the whole family in the car, the youngest in tears because we weren’t watching a movie or letting him play on his brother’s Playbook — during the relatively short car ride — I had one of my ranting moments, this with the theme “Addicted to Electronics.” It’s kind of like a Ted talk, only unedited, and interactive.

“But what about all the time you spend on Facebook, and doing your blog, and writing?” my eldest pointed out. “What about email? And you have your Blackberry that you’re always checking.”

So we drew some lines. Games and Facebook are kind of the same thing: entertainment. Email/texts are, for me, and for better or for worse, like the telephone; they connect me to friends and family. Writing and blogging can be useful and creative. “If you want to write a story on the computer, I will make sure you have a computer to use,” I said. “But an hour of wii-time on Saturday and Sunday seems like enough.”

I don’t want to ban ‘lectronics from our lives. I want us to use them in ways that are positive, that don’t cause conflict, and that don’t prevent us from exercising our brains and collective selves in non-‘lectronic creative ways.

This is what passes for family meetings these days. I actually think it was a fairly effective conversation, by the end. I had my rant, the kids got to counter with their arguments, and we all finally agreed that Facebook and computer games needed to be limited, but that there are occasions when ‘lectronics are useful tools.

*

I’ve spent the weekend in a kind of hibernation. I’m sick, but functioning, up all night coughing, slogging through during the day. “How can I feel so yucky, and still rock a 10 kilometre run?” I asked Kevin on Friday night. I took two extra-strength Tylenol and ran for fifty minutes at soccer yesterday — our team had no subs. I felt terrific during the game; chilled and feverish afterward. I’m a believer that exercise is curative. But I still feel sick.

I don’t think my electronic hibernation this weekend was about feeling sick, though. I think it was about the latest shooting in the United States. I didn’t hear about it until late Friday afternoon. I’d spent all day setting up my new book in Scrivener, cut off from the world, marvelling at this brand-new-insanely-useful tool, feeling like I could have happily chained myself to my desk for the next three months and just lived in my imaginary world. Which isn’t practical. So at around 4pm, I turned it off to get ready for our complicated Friday evening ritual, which involves a carshare car, a picnic, soccer equipment, and me in running gear.

But first I checked Facebook.

And then I saw the news. And then the news was all I could see or think about or handle, except I couldn’t handle it. Fury and rage. That was my gut response. The thought that these weapons are legally obtainable. The thought, maybe, that these weapons even exist. Tell me why we need them. Why does anyone on earth need a gun that can rapid-fire hundreds of rounds of deadly ammunition? And if you think you need something like that, I’m pretty sure that should disqualify you from getting access to it. As I ran, sick and sad and furious, on Friday night, I thought, this could be my hill. This could be where I take my stand. But I drove home, alone, weeping so hard that I had trouble seeing the road ahead.

How to pick one hill? I feel a familiar sinking. The injustices and wrongs and evils are too numerous to list, let alone to comprehend. Child soldiers, dictatorships, unsafe factories where people work like slaves so we can buy our clothes for cheap, repression, rape, self-interest, tar sands, money and the lack of it and the greedy excess of it, drones, refugees in Canada denied health care, hunger even right here in our very own wealthy country. Is evil ordinary or extraordinary? Can it ever be contained? What is the meaning of safety and security? What is the meaning of prosperity? How can I do no harm? Or even just do less harm? How can I help.

This is the darkest time of the year. The holidays at this time of year celebrate the coming of light, and all that that means.

I don’t know that I know what it means.

These are the words that come to me: Pour out your love, you won’t run out.

Here’s what it feels like, right now

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squirrel on our back fence, yesterday, sheltering itself from the rain

I’ve been quiet.

There’s a time to be quiet and a time to make noise, and it’s time to be quiet. I’ve made a lot of noise this fall, that’s what it feels like. I’ve done my best. And because I chose to write about every stage of this journey, it seems only fair to close up the chapter begun on October 2nd, when my book was named a finalist for one of Canada’s biggest literary prizes.

A quirk about the GGs is that there is no instant reveal ceremony. Instead, all the finalists are informed of the results in advance, and then asked to keep their knowledge secret until the day of the announcement. I’ve tried to play by the rules, but you can read me like a book. I carry my happiness and my sadness in my body. I’ve been through a massive range of emotions since Oct. 2nd, and I’ve tried to accept every shift, every climb, every jitter, every fall. I’ve tried not to resent what I’m feeling. Just feel it. Just be there with it.

I’ve known for over a week, now, that The Juliet Stories was not chosen by the jury as the last book standing.

I’ve felt quite alone in that knowledge. It’s a lonely place to be, accepting good wishes for a result that you already know will disappoint. I suppose that’s been my rawest emotion: the sense that I am disappointing friends and family with this result.

I told my two big kids on Sunday, after I’d had a difficult day, struggling with how I would get through one more day until the announcement. I was so weary, so distracted, so short-tempered, it wasn’t fair to them. So I told them, to give them context; I make a habit of naming my emotions (and encouraging them to name theirs) so we all know what we’re working with. This was late on Sunday evening. They were sad to hear the news, yes, but mostly they were purely compassionate, empathetic. They forgave me my snapping.

I said, “I’m really sorry to be disappointing you.”

And my daughter came across the room like a heat-seeking missile to hug me, hard. She said, “You’re not disappointing me, Mom. I’m just disappointed in the jury’s choice.”

I needed to hear it, and I’m blessed to have heard it from my own thoughtful child.

It’s not like I ever felt that my book deserved to win over anyone else’s. I still believe it was luck that landed me on the list. But if luck got me that far, it meant I might get luckier still. And I got pretty close to that light. I’ve lived a simple life, propelling myself toward this possibility from a young age. Writing books was the one thing I consistently wanted to do and so I figured out how to write books with a singular focus: reading, studying, practicing, and working toward this goal — which is an amorphous goal, and I’m not sure one that should rely so heavily, in my own judgement, on prizes or sales, but I’m also not sure how else to measure my success in meeting it. Essentially, it’s been the goal of signing my name amidst the names I’ve read and studied and admired.

It’s been the goal of writing a beautiful book. Or two. Or more.

I’m not sure, now that I’m here, what I imagined it would be like. What if this is as good as it gets? The festivals, the readings, meeting other writers — all things I’ve truly enjoyed this fall, but also things that are new and strange and exciting because they are out of the ordinary. Would I enjoy them so much if they became ordinary? The prize part has surprised me most of all. It’s left me drained. I’d say humbled, but it’s more a sense of helplessness, a lack of control. I ask: wouldn’t I do this all over again? And yes, I would. Without question. Crazy, huh.

I’m still feeling quiet. November is a good time for quiet, and I’m craving winter’s hibernation. But I’m going to try not to hide out completely, not to avoid people. Now you know how I’m feeling. Now we know where we are. Right?

Falling into a powerful book

I finished reading a beautiful and powerful book last night. It’s called Out of Grief, Singing, and was written by Charlene Diehl, who is a poet and also a friend and mentor. It is a difficult book to read, in some ways, because it is about a mother experiencing something no parent wants to imagine: the death of her child. But it is not as difficult to read as you might imagine before opening its pages. You only need to be prepared to be moved profoundly and deeply as you follow this mother on her journey out of grief, singing. I started reading the book in an airport, which I cannot recommend unless you are comfortable sobbing in public. I finished it in the privacy of my own bedroom, and I let the tears flow freely.

In a sense, the book is about the grieving we do in public and in private — the ways in which we are permitted to welcome grief (or not) into our daily interactions, and the discomfort (or fear) that many of us feel when we hear about someone else’s experience with death and loss. I’ve been thinking about the book all morning. I’ve been thinking how I’ve felt awkward and anxious about approaching someone who has suffered a profound loss. I’ve felt at a loss myself. At a loss for words, or actions. The people who help Charlene on her journey show love, compassion, patience. They don’t tell her what she’s feeling or what she’s supposed to be feeling, but honour where she is. They don’t pretend nothing has happened. They are open to her story. They are open to her daughter’s existence, and to the fact that her daughter lived and died.

That may sound really obvious, but I think it is not.

The greatest hurt seems to come from strangers who make assumptions, and so many assumptions are made about women of childbearing age; I know I’ve made thoughtless assumptions myself. Is this your first baby? is maybe not the best question to ask the pregnant woman standing behind you in line at the grocery store. Or, be aware that you may be expounding on the wonders of natural childbirth to a woman who has delivered prematurely, her baby kept alive by machines: and in your ignorance that you are suggesting that this woman has done something wrong, as if she had choice in the matter. Know that your childless neighbours may or may not have chosen to be childless; or that they may have suffered losses, that they may be parents without living children. Know that not everyone gets to choose their story. Know that people’s experiences are not all the same.

This is profoundly hopeful book, full of grace.

Charlene’s two living children, born after the death of their sister, hold her in their lives in ways that are completely natural. The older sister they never knew is present in their family. In the book, Charlene relates how her son says that his older sister is there whenever he has a feeling that surprises him, or that he can’t know — much like he can’t know this sister, yet she is mysterious and present.

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me and Charlene in Winnipeg earlier this fall

Charlene was my professor that November many years ago when she went into early labour. I remember the shock of hearing the news, and hearing, less than a week later, that the baby girl had died. I was twenty, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to respond. I signed a card that someone more thoughtful than me bought and sent on behalf of our class. I never thought to visit. I think I would have imagined it an imposition. I think, also, that it’s okay to be where we’re at, and I wasn’t in a place where I could have been helpful. We aren’t, always, are we.

I hope I’m somewhere else now. I hope, if called upon, that I could be like the friend who listens to Charlene’s story over and over again, and because she is present and listening, is able to reflect back to Charlene that her story is not repetitive, nor is it a trap, but it is ever-changing, changing with Charlene as she moves through that long first winter after the death of her daughter.

I don’t know why the book has come into my life now, but it came and I am glad for it. Thank you, Charlene.

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