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.
DJ is posing for the camera, which we’re all finding hysterical
Somehow, last week’s brief thaw fooled me, despite knowing better, into thinking that spring-like conditions were in the offing. I keep stepping outside and registering the cold as a shock — as a personal affront — as if it weren’t absolutely to be expected at the end of February. The windchill registered at -21C on my run this morning, for heaven’s sake! AppleApple has told me that on April 1st, she is wearing a sweater to school no matter how cold it is. I was just glad she didn’t set that particular deadline for March 1st.
To further gather my thoughts regarding yesterday’s post on fear and unwinding, I would like to observe that there’s a fine line between acknowledging and reflecting on one’s fears, and becoming mired and stuck in an introspective feedback loop of one’s fears. I feel like I’m atop a small hill that I’ve been climbing for awhile, and this is a good place to pause and acknowledge that it was hard to trust my brain post-concussion. It was hard, and it was scary, but I don’t want it to colour my life. I’ve got other hills to climb.
That’s why I played soccer a few weekends ago. That’s why I write every day. That’s why I meet friends. That’s why I want to go out dancing and do kundalini yoga again and get a decent pair of snow pants and maybe some cross country skiis so I can play outside whatever the weather — take that, February! I’m a huge believer in imagining your way to success. You have to know where you want to go or you’ll never get there.
Writing and meditation and reflection are expressions I’m naturally drawn to as an introspective person. It’s why I’m a writer, I am sure. But life is lived concretely. It’s hands in bread dough. It’s running as the sky grows light. It’s vacuuming the dog hair (or teaching the five-year-old how to vacuum the dog hair).
Here’s what I’m visualizing. And doing.
My big (overarching) goals for the year:
* write the first draft of a new novel
* promote Girl Runner
* create a solid curriculum for my creative writing class
My small (everyday) goals for the year:
* write daily meditations
* run, weight lift, yoga, spin, bike, dance, play soccer
* help and support my family
* give the kids more responsibilities around the house
* offer and accept invitations to spend time with friends
* play the piano and sing
I could go on. But that’s a good start.
two Saturdays ago: this was taken after we all pitched in to clean the house together; I hope to blog more about this new plan, if all goes well
A total side note that spoke to the fitness guru in me: I read in yesterday’s newspaper that sprinting is more beneficial to the aging body than distance running (the caution being that you need to be a strong runner, and probably a distance runner, before attempting sprints, because non-fit sprinting an excellent way to injure yourself.) No wonder I love soccer so much — it’s basically sprinting, except you get to chase a ball.
I also read that going for a walk has an almost medicinal effect on the mind and body. Why don’t we build our cities and communities around that simple concept? Imagine the health benefits. Imagine how we’d all be walking off the edges of our worries. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?
I went away for the weekend.
I needed to be unwound. That’s what it felt like: a slow and steady unwinding of the tightly knotted self. It was almost like I’d forgotten how to have fun. How to partake of fun. How to be fun.
Responsibility requires armour, maybe.
I skiied on this frozen lake. I hadn’t been on cross country skiis since childhood, but it felt like I could have gone forever. It’s much easier to glide across the snow than to slog through the snow in running shoes. Winter’s long long iteration spoke so differently when I was gliding like a hot knife through butter into the wind. Isn’t this a blast, it said.
Our oven has been fixed, have I mentioned this?
AppleApple baked an apple-cranberry crisp to christen it. The crisp took all evening to prepare, and we devoured the entire pan in fifteen minutes flat. Fooey made brownies a few days later. I’ve used it to bake potatoes, but that’s all so far. I’ve got to get some veggies roasting while winter’s still on.
Oh, yeah, winter’s still on. I checked the 7-day weather forecast, and it’s going to be cold, cold, and also, cold.
I’ve come home thinking: I’ve got some work to do. I don’t mean the laundry or the scheduling or even writing. I mean something different. Maybe I don’t even mean work. I mean: I’d like to figure out how to unwind myself. How to be unwound. How to break down my fears.
I don’t like to think of myself as fearful, but it’s there, so why hide it or hide from it? I’m not afraid of external challenges; I accept many things I cannot change. What I fear is closer to the bone: it is the bone, and the guts, the heart, the spirit. I fear the limits of my mind and imagination, and the limits of a body that ages and changes. And I’m afraid of my fears, closing me off from laughter and lightness of heart.
But I’m not afraid to call them out. And I’m not afraid to chase the light — or maybe it’s enough simply to turn toward it. Throw open the windows and doors. Bask. It might be cold, cold, cold, but the days are getting longer, the sunlight is growing stronger.
AppleApple is obsessed with names. Yesterday, while we were sitting around the supper table, she looked up all of our names in one of her (many) baby name dictionaries: according to this one, Carrie derives from Caroline, which means small and strong. I like that very much.