My book! She is here!
So, this arrived yesterday. It’s the finished book, freshly arrived at the Anansi offices this week, and sent directly on to me, so, no, it’s not quite in stores yet, but will be soon; and for sure by Sept. 6th, the official pub date in Canada (other countries coming next year). This will be my reading copy. I’m going to write that on the inside cover. Actually, I’m going to do that now, while I’m thinking about it, because that is how I’m approaching life, that is my survival strategy: think of it, do it, done.
My motto (for real): I don’t procrastinate. Oddly, this can cause problems.
But it solves more problems than it causes, and it’s been working for me for years, so I’m sticking with it.
“Reading copy. Aug. 19, 2014.” GIRL RUNNER
See? Thought it, did it, done. (And yes that is yesterday’s date, because yesterday is when I received the book, and that’s what I want to remember.)
This fall is already knocking down my door, and I want to welcome what’s coming, not greet it with anxiety or worry over all that I can’t control. Here is the visual that’s keeping me grounded these days. I am a still point in a fast-moving river. I’m not drowning. I’m not even swimming. I’m simply being pulled along, like a leaf or a branch, floating through all that is happening and trying to take it all in.
It’s going to be busy.
It’s already busy.
My strategy: stay very organized, and don’t get pushed ahead of exactly where I’m at — stay with what’s happening, here, present in the moment.
This morning, walking through the kitchen, I had a flash of memory that made me laugh. I was remembering standing at the counter stirring up a batch of biscuits for supper, a baby strapped to my chest in a sling, a toddler lying at my feet crying that she wanted to “help,” and the older two freshly home from school and in that state of exhausted, hungry, miserable transition. Chaos, noise, demands, needs abounded. The radio was on too. I grabbed the camera and took a video to preserve the moment, because it seemed very comical to me. And I thought to myself this morning: if I could be the still point in that storm, I can be the still point anywhere, anytime, but most especially, most easily, in this storm of my own creation, that I’ve been working toward for years now. It’s here. And I’m being pulled along.
Pouring my coffee this morning, I thought, this is my favourite moment of the day — the smell of the warm coffee, the anticipation of sitting down at my computer and tasting the first sip.
But then it occurred to me that my day is full of favourite moments.
Some are ritualistic in their daily repetition, such as the cup of coffee.
Others alight out of the blue, like sitting beside CJ on the stairs well after his bedtime while he tries to remember what worry he was going to ask me about, what worry is keeping him from staying in his bed and falling asleep, his face in profile to mine, fixed in thought, and it feels like I could go on looking at him forever without ever tiring of the sight of him in the late-evening half-light coming through the window. At last he says: “Why do we have to lose our baby teeth and then grow adult teeth? Why aren’t we just born with adult teeth?”
This is my favourite moment. And this. And this.
Leaping in the air to cheer my daughter who is suddenly rocketing into second place with a pure blast of speed as she comes around the bend at the end of the 800-metre race. Somehow, on the straightaway, her face turns toward mine, from the track to the stands, and it feels like our eyes lock and I can see the fatigue caused by her effort, and I am telling her that she can keep going, she can do it, and she is telling me that she already knows this, wordlessly, and the image becomes fixed in my mind in a way that feels quite permanent.
An email out of the blue from a senior editor at a major Canadian magazine, asking me to consider writing for them — goosebumps.
The light in the early morning as we approach solstice.
The scent of peonies in bloom.
Talking to a loved one, even though they’re not having a good day, knowing a loved one feels comfortable talking to me, even though they’re not having a good day.
Seeing a 4:10-kilometre split while out-running a thunder storm at soccer practice. Saying to my daughter after we’ve dashed to the car through driving rain, now I’m going to go for an under 4-minute kilometre. Just one. And she says, you can do it!
And anything seems possible.
What I love about our back yard is that it’s beautiful because of our efforts to make it beautiful. When we moved in eleven summers ago (eleven summers ago!), the yard behind the house was bare dirt. It was so bare, so dusty that my toddling crawling babies would be filthy after playing outside. One of our first projects was to build a fence to block off the view of the parking lot next door. Over the years we poured a concrete patio behind the house, supplemented with bricks, that the kids used to run their trikes on. The summer Fooey started walking, Albus and AppleApple and I used sidewalk chalk to colour each brick a different colour (while Fooey grinned and sucked on the chalk, according to photographic evidence).
Grass grows here now, and weeds, and dandelions, and moss.
Kevin’s dad, who died seven years ago this fall, planted some of the healthiest perennials — grasses and hostas — that thrive in hard growing areas of the yard. I think of him when I see them.
We’ve lost a few trees and branches, some to storms and ice, and others by choice. I’ve got two long laundry lines strung between trees and the back porch.
The raspberry canes we planted produce every summer, and we’re working on a rhubarb patch and blueberry bushes, and we bought our first cherry tree yesterday, with plans for a new row of fruit trees along the back fence. The back fence also has a ladder, new this summer, to assist smaller children taking a short cut.
There’s the trampoline, the soccer net, the play structure, the sand, the painted stumps for jumping on. The raised beds continue to be a work in progress, in the back yard and the front. The picnic table is rickety and needs replacing (that’s on our summer to-do list too).
We’ve never fixed the garage, which is as ugly and utilitarian as ever it was. When we moved in, we thought it would be among our first projects. Goes to show how priorities change.
I’ve been sitting out here often these past few weeks, as the weather has gotten warm. The flowering garden is at its peak in spring-time. It is luscious and thick right now, variegated greens, colourful patches of purple and pale blue and yellow from the weedier plants that return each year, along with pinks and whites, yellows and oranges. Mint flourishes here too, and chives, which I see have already gone to seed. The dogs love to be outside, although they’ve got a dreadful habit of rolling in newly planted beds. I don’t think the new strawberry plants are going to survive.
I’ve been sitting out here, soaking in the beauty. It’s strange how peaceful it feels here, despite the traffic rolling past non-stop on the busy streets that surround us. I hear wind in the branches. The colours are soothing. My heart slows down. The trees offer shelter, the sun warmth. I’m more blessed than I deserve. And so, to show my gratitude and to say thank you, I come outside, and I sit, here. I write. I watch. I listen. Think. Be.
I keep a record of the books I’m reading here (which is to say, there), but occasionally I feel the urge to write about a book I’ve read here (which is to say, here).
Last night, up far too late, I finished Miriam Toews’ ALL MY PUNY SORROWS. This is the kind of book for which book clubs were invented — a lot of book clubs are about friends getting together and drinking wine and the book is the excuse, I get that, but nevertheless there’s a genuine need underlying the concept of the book club. After finishing a heartbreaking resonant emotionally complex narrative don’t you just want to gather some friends immediately and talk about it?
ALL MY PUNY SORROWS is a semi-autobiographical novel about the relationship between sisters, one exquisitely talented and suicidal, and the other a bit of a mess and desperate to save her sister’s life. As in all of Miriam Toews’ novels, the bit characters are as vividly drawn and unique as everyone else, and humour hums silvery through the anguish and grief. But this novel feels different to me, too. It is more raw and immediate, less polished, a straight throughway from beginning to end of almost (seemingly) unmediated experience. People don’t behave like you want them to. They behave like people.
The mother of these two sisters, who has also lost her husband to suicide, is the most brilliantly drawn loved and loving independent fearless woman I can remember reading in a book, ever. Her depth of soul and lightness of spirit anchors the narrative. But even her love cannot anchor her daughters. And that seems to be part of the book’s message (though it’s not a “message” book): that we are responsible for our own lives, that we can only carry the weight of responsibility for the things that are ours to change. And the lives of others do not belong to us, even when we’re mothers. We raise our kids up with love and care, and we offer love and care pretty much forever, as long as we’re living, but that’s all we can do. The mother tells her daughter near the end of the book that letting go of a grief is more painful than holding onto it, but it’s what she hopes her daughter will be able to do.
Maybe if you’ve lost a husband and a daughter to suicide, you understand profoundly how little your love can cure or save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to save someone. That means that life is not about problem-solving, even though we may wish it to be so. We may wish to pour our minds into solutions and fix what’s broken, especially on a personal level, especially in families, and that’s a good impulse, I’m not saying it’s not. But to survive trauma and grief without becoming bitter, we have to recognize that we’re not that important. We’re not in charge of other people’s choices. We’re in charge of our own puny sorrows.
What we can offer are small, ordinary gifts. But a gift is a gift, isn’t it. It doesn’t ask for anything in return.
There’s some strangeness to reading this book, knowing Miriam Toews’ personal history, which cleaves closely to the book’s story. It’s difficult to read it as fiction, I guess.
One final observation: it’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that references so many other books. Entire poems are recited by characters, for example. I loved that. Reading as comfort and connection, as a way to speak the unspeakable. Words might not save us, but they may just console us. We read and we are less alone.
After re-reading yesterday’s post, let me rebut myself, point by point.
How do you manage to travel, to run to appointments, to make presentations, and dress professionally, and be brushed and unwrinkled and fresh smelling?
You do your best. Sometimes you fake it. You nap when you can, and drink plenty of water. You remember to smile. You find a good deodorant. You carry floss. You gain a few key pieces in your wardrobe that are trustworthy. You apply makeup, if necessary. You give yourself a break.
How do you exercise and eat well and keep a sharp eye on your children’s needs, both physical and emotional?
You do your best. You don’t get down on yourself if you can’t run as fast as you used to. You go as hard as you can, in the moment. You exercise with friends. You pay attention. You listen. You show up.
How do you clean your house and yard and fold laundry and cook food from scratch, and lovingly tuck your children in at night, and read them bedtime stories?
Forget the house and yard. The dog hair matters less than you think. Do the laundry when you get a chance. Let your husband cook. Make your kids do some chores too. And then you’ll have time to read to them and tuck them into bed most nights. And when you’re not there, they can look after each other, because you’ve taught them well, so be glad about that—plus they relish the freedom of independence, so it’s good for everyone some of the time.
How do you go to the soccer practices and piano lessons and swim lessons and travel tournaments and meets?
You don’t go to them all, and that’s the long and the short of it. You represent as best you can. Sometimes you won’t be able to be there. Support them in other ways. Schedule rides, carpool, ask questions, cheer when you can. This isn’t the end of your world or theirs.
How do you teach classes and welcome students and read essays and comment and mentor and remain open and flexible and funny and never bitter?
You treat this as seasonal work. It isn’t year-round, because you’re not a full-time teacher. If you’re fortunate enough to be asked to teach, it means you’ve reached a stage in your career when you have something to offer. Remember the wonderful teachers who nurtured and inspired you. You’re getting the opportunity to give a bit of that back to others. And you learn a great deal by teaching.
Also, you don’t want to be bitter. So don’t be. Easy as that.
Journal. Run it off. Don’t say yes if you really mean no. This is your life. Don’t sleepwalk, don’t idly wish or wait for someone else to point the way. Take responsibility.
you braid your daughter’s hair
How do you host meals and go to parties and celebrate birthdays and be a good partner?
You drop some things in order to do others. You compromise. This is seasonal too, in a sense. You accept that you can’t go to everything, and so you prioritize. You spontaneously dash out to a movie on a weeknight with your husband. You decide not to play soccer this summer so you can save your head, and suddenly Sunday evenings open up.
How do you meditate and feed your spirit and do yoga and stay fit and healthy of body and of mind?
You do. Because if you don’t, you won’t be you. You get up early. You pray. You read. You practice breathing. It works.
How do you continue to make art that is worthy of being called art?
This you cannot answer. All you know is that there is mystery in making art, and it’s none of your business as the maker to judge it worthy or not worthy of being called art. What you do is this. You begin. You dream. You research. You prepare yourself in a million different ways. And when you’re ready to write, you’ll know, and you’ll make time and space for it (with help from your husband, who is the person who reminds you that you still know how to do this).
Also, you keep short-term goals present in your mind. You make lists. You check them off. It all adds up.
my new book (essay anthology): The M Word!
Newsflash: Inbox no longer empty. I guess inboxes are like kitchens. Cleaning them is a process not an end.
A few newsy bits to record today.
I’ve started a spring yoga challenge: hot yoga every day for the next two weeks. I’m thinking of it as a bridge to get me through to spring. Like, the real spring. Or at least to get me through to London, and maybe when I’m back from London conditions will be favourable once again for running outside. But right now, I’m so tired of running on icy slippery windy snow-flecked streets. I need an exercise practice I can look forward to. (I’ll still be running during the next few weeks, of course; I’ll just be cursing as I go, which is not so good for the soul.)
the dogs say hello
I’ve been working on the children’s book: THE CANDY CONSPIRACY! And I can now announce that the illustrator will be Marion Arbona, whose work you can browse on her website here. I haven’t seen her concepts for the story yet, but I’m really looking forward to that. The illustrated imagination. I find people are often fascinated (horrified?) to learn that as the writer I have nothing to do with the cover design for my books, nor will I have anything to do with the illustrations for this children’s book, but I actually think it’s best that way. I’m not a designer or an illustrator. I write the words. And it’s a privilege to get to see my words interpreted by someone else. The words become shared. Maybe their meaning is altered too, to some small degree, but that’s the case every time someone reads them, because reading is a collaborative experience.
our yard, March 20, 2014: the dirty truth
Today has been a day of pleasant list-crossing-offing.
I went to a mid-morning yoga class, which felt entirely decadent. I got to the university library to gather some research material. I sent off forms for children’s summer camps. I met Kevin for lunch! I renewed library books. I’m an efficient relaxed version of myself. Plus it’s sunny.
Plus I’ve started playing the ukulele. It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s relaxing. I’m currently harbouring a small fantasy that we have ukes enough for the whole family to play, and we all sit around strumming and harmonizing together. Note: this has not even come close to happening. But Kevin and I did spend an evening in front of the fire, last weekend, playing 3-chord songs, him on guitar, me on uke. It was not in the least bit romantic, because I’m an impatient and grumpy teacher, and he is still learning rhythm, but he didn’t give up, which was very nice of him, and I got to sing, which was very nice for me, and now we want everyone to do it.
boy with viola
The thing about making music is that it is both creative and relaxing. The rhythm and repetition take you to a meditative place. You can do it for a long time and not get bored of it. You can do it alone, or with others. You can challenge yourself to learn something new, or you can comfort yourself by playing something familiar. When my kids are feeling down or tired or restless or bored or melancholy, I want them to consider turning to a musical instrument for consolation and for pleasure. I go to the piano like that. I play more often than my family knows.
I often start my day with a song.
I often have no idea what I’m going to play. I just sit down and discover it. It’s a creative process that’s much like free-writing. Our brains are wired to rhythm; it begins with the heartbeat. As much as I love sports and believe in it as a positive body-healthy outlet for all ages, I believe too in music-making as a way of connecting with our deeper selves, and with others. Music for the spirit!
Enjoy your weekend, everyone.