Category: Spirit

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.

International day of the girl

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Last night I dreamed that I was lying on the floor of our local independent bookstore wrapped in a sleeping bag. Beside me was a shelf of books that had mine on it. I was trying to sleep, but kept reaching up to check my book, just the cover.

Interpretations, anyone?

I’ve just spent a sleepy and tired day doing … next to nothing. I suppose there is clean laundry, and that’s something. And fresh chicken stock. But, yeah, that’s it. Lots on my mind, but it’s all too scattered to amount to action.

Today is the International Day of the Girl. I’m thinking about the girl shot in the head in Pakistan because she attended school and became a public voice by blogging about it: her writing leaves behind a permanent record of her experience, like Anne Frank’s did. (Though there is still hope, apparently, that she might survive the shooting.) Malala. I don’t know what else to say about this because it is too sad, knowing that all over the world girls are treated differently because they are girls. Some beliefs are just plain wrong. I am not a person eager to split the world into right and wrong, but this is wrong.

In what small way could I mark today, for girls everywhere?

A day out of ordinary life, with thanks and mile-wide smiles

reading at the launch of Waterloo’s Wild Writers Festival, yesterday evening

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with Tamas Dobozy, fellow local writer and GG finalist

with my husband, Kevin, who told me my hair looked fine (but I think it’s a bit wild, no?)

So. That was quite a day.

Apparently I only stopped grinning ear to ear when it was entirely impractical, such as while doing a reading from The Juliet Stories.

I know it’s cheesy to say so, but yesterday was truly special. It was a day out of ordinary life, yet still grounded in it. I don’t expect to have many days like it in my lifetime. Below, at the risk of sounding giddy and foolish, a few highlights.

– I’m glad that I posted early on yesterday, when the news was still so fresh and astonishing. That post is a keepsake in words. (And I’m glad for all the moments my blog has captured over the years that I’ve been chronicling our family’s adventures, big and small.)

– I rode a wave of excitement yesterday, generated by the goodwill of friends and family. Thank you, all who joined in to share the moment. (It reminded Kevin of when we had our first baby: the genuine outpouring of happiness that greeted that arrival.)

– A friend arrived, early afternoon, offering Goat cheese and “Grapes” (wine): get it? Double Gs to celebrate the GGs. And bless her heart, because I hadn’t eaten lunch. And I needed someone to hug. And the glass of wine didn’t hurt either.

– My kids! Oh my goodness, they arrived home all together in a clump, and Kevin had met them partway and shared the news, and they were positively giddy (at least the older ones were). Beaming. Everyone fighting for hugs. Albus’s first question, which he kept repeating in hopes of receiving a different answer, was: “Are we going to be millionaires?” Um, sorry, kiddo, you may not realize this but I’m a CANADIAN LITERARY WRITER. That will never happen.

– When a TV camera arrives at your doorstep, you will discover where you draw the line in terms of what you’re willing to share publicly. Did I rush to shovel the Lego off the floor? Did I brush my hair? Did I make my children turn off the wii? No. But I did remove my crocs, which I wear as slippers around the house, and put on shoes instead. So apparently that’s my line and there ain’t no crossing it: crocs.

– The publicity. I’ve got to tell you, it will sound crass, but it’s sweet to know that news of my book’s existence is being broadcast around the country. I’m not sure a writer can ask for anything more than that. Here are links to the articles: I spoke to Mark Medley at the National Post first (he caught me literally within 15 minutes of the announcement, smart man); Victoria Ahearn at The Canadian Press interviewed me next, which was lovely because a lot of papers carry the CP stories (and everyone used Vincent Lam’s photo, which makes sense as he’s the most well-known of the five finalists); I spoke to Paul Irish at the Toronto Star next (mid-wine, actually); then I spoke to Robert Reid at The Record, and they also sent a photographer to last night’s event. Apparently I’m on the front page today, but I haven’t seen this to confirm it. And then the TV crew showed up while I was making lentil soup for supper.

– Can you believe the beauty and candour of those photographs? My friend Nancy Forde took them at the party last night. She also took my author photo, which appears on the inside cover of The Juliet Stories. How lucky am I to have a personal chronicler of life’s big moments on the scene with camera in hand? (She also took photos at my book launch, way back when.) If you want more Nancy, visit her work on Flickr. She’s got a gift.

– I squeezed in a run before the reading. Thank goodness for running. There is no better way to burn nervous energy, quickly and efficiently.

– My mom reminded me that occasionally things come along that are more important than a good night’s sleep. Isn’t that the truth.

On The Juliet Stories being nominated for the GGs (surreal! and for real!)

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This morning I felt like disappearing into music. I searched around for Lindi Ortega’s version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and for some reason also felt like hearing Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” and I landed for awhile on Danny Michel’s beautiful and joyful new album “Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me.”

I prepped for a reading I’m doing tonight here in town, in support of the launch of Waterloo’s own brand-new Wild Writers Festival.
I worked on a grant application.
All the while, I avoided the internet. Because this morning was the announcement of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the last major prize listing of the season here in Canada. I wasn’t sure I could bear the disappointment; well, that’s not true. I knew I’d be fine, but I knew, also, that the emotions would be unpleasant. It would suck. I was irritated with myself for feeling that way, so I plugged into headphones and listened to a soundtrack of my own creation, which seemed to answer perfectly whatever it was I was lacking. Suddenly I said to myself, hey, let yourself believe you could be nominated, right up until you find out you’re not. Why not? Why not be hopeful? The worst that could happen is that you’re disappointed, and at least you’ve spent a little while in happy fantasy.
Why be afraid of an hour or so of happy fantasy?
So I let myself go, in the music, and got to work.
And then, just after 10am, I saw that my inbox had suddenly filled up with messages. Could it be??? The first message I opened was from Jared Bland, senior editor at Anansi. It was titled: congratulations! And it said simply, “I just saw the wonderful news about your GG nomination.”
What happened after that is a blur. I’m pretty sure I started crying and laughing and shouting all at the same time. I know that I leapt up and scared the dogs, who had been sleeping peacefully in my office. I was shaking so much that I almost collapsed. This is not an exaggeration. “I can’t believe it!” might have been the words coming out of my mouth, over and over. 
I wanted to tell Kevin — instantly. But I’d temporarily lost the ability to use my cellphone. When I finally got through to him, he had no idea what I was saying for the first minute, I think because my words were essentially nonsensical. 
So, dear reader, that is what it feels like to be nominated for a literary prize. It feels dumbfounding and it feels thrilling, and it makes a mess of one’s physical and emotional self for a smallish moment in time. I’ve since collected myself. Mostly. I’m not even sure I should be blogging under the influence of such heady emotions. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life (other than that I really shouldn’t start a sentence with the phrase “if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life”), it’s to jump into the good moments with both feet. Dive in. Get submerged. Be joyful. These occasions come rarely and the time to celebrate and savour them is while they’re happening. Don’t worry about looking like a giddy fool! Be giddy, be foolish.
So I’m being giddy. I’m being foolish.
Oh, oh, oh, and I get to read at the International Festival of Authors with the other nominees in Toronto on October 22nd!!!! And let me just say a few words about the GGs themselves. I’ve been a fan since high school. Basically all of my favourite CanLit authors have won the GG. I’m a nominee, not a winner, but it’s like dipping my toe into the waters of Canadian literary history. It’s like being a tiny part of it. I’m blessed and I’m damn lucky.
Also, I have yet to see or hug anyone in person since the announcement (aside from dogs), but I’ve been loving the emails and phone calls and texts and FB posts. (Like this one, from a friend who lives near Kingston, Ontario: “[My husband] and I are at Boston Pizza in Brockville and your book is on the T.V.”) What more can I say? (I’ll think of more soon, I’m sure.)
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