I am starting off the new year with a writing push: this week and next. Yesterday was one of those terrific and productive writing days, which means it was also overwhelming and I got lost and could scarcely drag myself out to fetch a glass of water. I’m not sure there’s another way to do it, however, not if I want to get deep into the really good stuff, the access to the underground.
When I finished writing, around eleven o’clock, I was a restless ball of nervous energy. So I picked up a book. I gave it to AppleApple for her birthday (age 8), signed by the author, who is local: Plain Kate, by Erin Bow. Erin warned me that the book, written for young adults, is too dark for younger children, and should be read only by more mature adolescents and teens, but AppleApple is an avid and wide reader, and she wasn’t frightened by the Harry Potter series, which seem pretty dark to me. So, AppleApple started Plain Kate, and got nearly the end, absolutely devouring it; and then suddenly stopped, shut up the book, and could not go on. It was too scary, she said. Since she’d obviously been taken by it, I wanted to know why it was so scary. She couldn’t articulate it. When I picked up the book, I understood why.
Plain Kate is a gorgeously written evocation of a dark imaginary world that nevertheless feels not invented but real: the setting is vaguely Eastern European-feeling, and the time is time past, when superstition flourishes, and magic is real and feared. Kate, the protagonist, is an utterly unprotected and orphaned child with a gift for carving, an outcast accused of witchcraft who must flee the only town she’s ever known. I won’t give away more. (I should also add that, inspired by Kate, AppleApple requested “carving tools” for Christmas, which we tracked down, along with protective leather gloves, so she now has her own carving kit; one evening, while she was reading Plain Kate, we found her sitting outside, in her coat, in the cold, on the back porch, whittling a stick; let me tell you, I love this child!).
So, a dark world; and having now read it, I do understand why AppleApple was too scared to go on (my plan is to read her, out loud, the last little section, because, not to give too much away, the book ends with cathartic brilliance). (And to quibble with the young adult designation, please know, adults, that this could just as easily be a book for you).
I was most intrigued by the author’s conception of magic: a witch possesses true power, but has to give of him or herself in order to receive or use the magic. In the book, the giving is quite literal: there is blood, and a lot of it. And as I read obsessively to the end (staying up till all hours), I thought about the magic that I attempt to access, when writing; I know it’s there, and I know I can get to it, but not without sacrifice.
In order to open my mind to the words, I have to open all of my emotional self: it feels, when I’m going through the process, that I am raw, that by opening my mind, I am exposing myself to the darkness and danger depicted in Plain Kate’s world. Margaret Atwood writes often, especially in her poems, about going underground, going down, and that’s what it feels like to me, too; that the underworld of the Greeks is more real than not. That the passage between here and there is always waiting. I don’t mean that I write about horrible and sad things, or that underground and underworld are synonymous with a kind of hell or darkness, only that so much of human experience sleeps under the surface, and we all know it’s there. Is it something to be feared? Maybe, sometimes. Anything powerful can overwhelm, for good or for ill. Power/magic/the divine isn’t to be sought out lightly. But anytime you’ve been moved by a ritual or a work of art, you’ve been touched by something under the surface, a powerful human connection held in common. Someone has gone under to bring back a piece of light for you.
That’s what Erin Bow has done in Plain Kate.
As I work today, I recognize what it takes to do this work: that in order to receive, I have to give of myself. I’m making it sound perhaps more exalted than it plays out in reality: sitting still and thinking and searching around for the words and placing them and then going back and replacing them, many times over, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. The toll it takes is on my body (restless, cramped, and still), and my relationships (my children miss me: “You’re working again?”; my husband misses me; I’m largely shut off from the outside world); and on my mind. I staggered down last night for a glass of water, finally, and I thought, good grief, I could not live like this. Imagine having all the time in the world to write: I’m imagining a nightmare. But I’m not a magician of brilliant creative powers, I have a more modest gift: I aspire to be a healer. I hope I remember this when writing time is short, and I am complaining about the ordinary everyday: folding laundry, feeding children, exchanging hellos in the schoolyard, racing to meet the demands of routine. That is where life happens. Just because it happens up here, out there, on the surface, doesn’t mean it’s superficial. I couldn’t go under, from time to time, without all the spirit-feeding everyday to sustain me.
Now. To see what’s waiting for me today.
Yesterday, I did two things that scared me, and surprised me. Both happened spontaneously, arising out of situations that I could have chosen to walk by. Instead, I engaged.
First story: I was pushing the stroller (uphill, through heavy snow on sidewalks that hadn’t been cleared), which possibly put me into a grumpy mood. I entered a crosswalk, at a four-way stop where my kids have to cross every morning on their way to school. While I was crossing, a car pulled up at the stop sign behind me, and turned left, into the street that I was crossing. He was in such a hurry that he didn’t wait for me to cross the street to the sidewalk–worse, he didn’t even wait for me to cross half of the street. His car brushed right behind me, near enough to touch, on his way to somewhere very important. I was surprised and annoyed. And then I saw that we were headed in the same direction. And then I saw him pull into his driveway. And then I pushed the stroller faster.
“Why are you running, Mommy?”
“I think,” I said, “I think I’m going to tell this man that I thought he was driving carelessly.”
The man went into his house, leaving his car running (fancy car, fancy house, well-dressed sixtyish man), and by the time he came back out and got into his car, he’d seen me coming. I walked up the driveway and he rolled down his window. I said that I felt his turn had been unsafe, given that I was still in the crosswalk when he turned. He responded with anger, defensively: “You were never in any danger. I was not driving dangerously.” I asked him if he knew that a child had recently been hit by a car in our neighbourhood. He said: “What? By me?” I said, of course not, but likely by someone in a hurry and driving carelessly. He pulled out of his driveway, but his window was still down. I knew I hadn’t gotten at the crux of what I wanted to say, so I called after him: “Please, ask yourself, why are you in such a hurry that you can’t spare a few seconds to let a mother cross the street with her stroller safely?” The thought left my mouth almost exactly as coherently as I’ve written it down. He heard me. I don’t know what he thought. But it looked like his expression changed fractionally. Maybe he was thinking about what I’d asked.
In thinking it over, I wish I could have phrased my question a little bit differently. I really just wanted to say: Slow down, please! Be careful! You could hurt someone. His stance was: I knew you were perfectly safe, so it’s a judgement call, mine to make. And it’s true, when you get into a car, you make judgement calls all the time. I made a judgement call just the other day, when driving the kids home from piano lessons: I turned left even though a pedestrian had stepped into the crosswalk, because I was in a hurry, and I knew I wasn’t close to her. But I shouldn’t have, and even while I was doing it, regretted that I was making that choice. What if another left-turning vehicle had followed me blindly? Had that pedestrian been able to follow and question me for my choice, I would have felt awful–very much in the wrong, and very apologetic.
This man didn’t feel either of those things. But you know, I’m glad that I ran after him. It’s pretty rare that the opportunity arises, given that cars are usually speeding off to parts unknown. I’m still in awe that I was brave enough to talk to him. (I hate to use the word confront … it sounds so confrontational …). I was definitely upset by the interaction, and wished I could have felt calmer on the inside during our conversation (though I tried to appear calm on the outside). It took me awhile afterward to shake off the nervous energy. Let’s just say that conflict of any sort does not come naturally to me. And I don’t think conflict is necessarily a bad thing: we can’t always agree. But it’s a hard thing to learn: how to disagree respectfully, to discuss, to listen, to go to uncomfortable places, to find resolution, to compromise, to be challenged, to be willing to change. I’m trying. Having firm boundaries within one’s own self (to thine own self be true!) is the first step. The next is being willing to go to places of discomfort.
Story two: On my way to yoga class, I saw a child-sized person who looked lost. As I drew nearer, I saw that he was a small adult, developmentally challenged. He still looked lost. His coat was open, he had no mitts, he was wearing a backpack, and dragging another … and I couldn’t pass him by. But I was afraid, because I didn’t know him, and because it was dark, and because he was standing in a poorly lit spot where there weren’t other people around. I spoke to him, but tentatively, and he didn’t answer, but he started to follow me, which was good, because I was headed toward the parking lot which had light and people. I asked him again–“Are you lost?”–and he said, no, and told me where he wanted to go. I pointed the direction (he’d been going the wrong way). He thanked me. I said, it’s cold, you should zip up your coat. He smiled and showed me that he was wearing several layers of coats. I asked him to please be careful crossing the street. He thanked me and promised he would, and he walked on his way … maybe home? Maybe? I don’t know. I went inside the warm yoga studio, down to the changeroom, and started to cry. I was questioning myself: had I done the right thing? Did he really know where he was going? Even if he knew, was he going to be okay? If I were going to call someone for help, who would it have been? When we spoke to each other, he seemed calm and happy, almost content, very child-like and innocent, and terribly vulnerable … though, who knows, maybe I’m projecting my own sappy middleclass ideas.
Truthfully, I felt heartbroken by the situation. He seemed to embody the lost people of this world … whom I don’t want to pass by, but don’t know how to help.
A word came to me, and I reflected on it during class. Engage. How do I engage with the people I meet? With the situations that present themselves? With friends, with family, with issues that concern me? Am I strong enough, now, in spirit, to consider opening myself to more engagement–more risk? Because it’s risky to engage. There are so many potential pitfalls: there is over-engagement, and taking responsibility for problems that aren’t mine to solve; there’s the risk of pissing people off, and saying unpopular things, and not being liked (and I’ve gotta say, I really prefer to be liked); there is more potential for conflict, for saying the wrong thing, for error; and there’s the huge risk of being judgemental and self-righteous. And of course there are times when disengagement is the better choice. Am I wise enough to know?
This reflection is unfinished, in progress. What would you have done, in either of these situations? What would you want to do?
Sometimes it’s the smallest of changes that make room for a happier daily life; it’s also easy to forget the small changes, and assume that life has always been just like this. But as I puttered around my kitchen this morning, in the pre-dawn, I realized, no, life has not always been just like this. This would have seemed unthinkable a year ago. What’s changed?
1. Sunday night scheduling. Sounds dull. But how incredibly helpful it is to sit down with Kevin and discuss what’s on the menu (literally and figuratively) for the week ahead. I jot down meal ideas for each day. We plot out car use, and any blips in the routine. No longer am I stuck for meal ideas. And we find or make extra time.
2. Exercise. Guess what I do with my extra time? Some of it is spent going to yoga, or running. I am currently holding steady at two 90-minute yoga classes each week, and two 6-8km runs. This would be unthinkable were it not for advance planning. And because it’s scheduled out, I’m much less likely to skip the chance to go, knowing what I’d be sacrificing.
3. Date night. Part of our problem, typical of partners working and raising young children, is that we are often like two ships passing in the night (is that the phrase?). Kevin plays hockey and soccer, both fairly late at night. My yoga classes are over the supper hour, so on those days, he runs in the door, and I run out. I also schedule evening outings, occasionally, with my siblings, and, about once a week, with friends. So when do we get together to be ourselves and not just to talk about schedules and kids? Earlier this fall, we began booking a regular sitter, and committed to taking one evening a week just for the two of us. Marriage is for the long-haul. We need to stay connected beyond schedules and kids, because before we know it, it will just be the two of us rattling around our house, reminiscing about these crazy busy days.
4. Getting out of the house. This could have come first, actually. It’s a huge change for me, not really a small one. During my early years of motherhood, I was a hard-core stay-at-home mama. I could go months without leaving the kids for an evening (and, no, that is not an exaggeration). I wanted to do it all myself. I loved that time with them and did not resent it. But this new stage is good, too. I think the rule of thumb is: to thine own self be true. And know that part of being true is recognizing shifts and changes within one’s own self, as they happen. The kids have become so accustomed to me getting out of the house, without them, that it’s old hat. I kiss them goodbye, and they know and trust that I will come back. No drama. No fuss. (And no, it wasn’t always like that; and all the fuss and crying and drama made it so much harder to get out).
5. Nursery school. As a hard-core-stay-at-homer, I didn’t even consider nursery school for my oldest kids. I provided them with crafts, puzzles, baking projects, singing, playdates, regular trips to the library, park, Children’s museum, and swimming at the rec centre. But after eight years, or so, I was growing weary. I realized my interest and enthusiasm were flagging. Those two youngest were not getting the enriched childhood they deserved. Almost exactly a year ago, I landed on the idea of nursery school. It was a HUGE leap for me. CJ started a year ago in January, one morning a week, which by April I’d upped to two mornings. And this September, I cheerfully threw him into three mornings a week. I would consider sending him daily next September when Fooey heads off to first grade. (She’s also gotten to tag along to the nursery school experience, going every other Friday when she’s not at kindergarten). And here’s the thing: CJ loves it. I’m not saying the older kids were deprived. But I would be the last to judge or criticize either version of early childhood: either/both can work.
6. Spirit. My word for this year. Bless that word. I don’t know whether I would have necessarily turned down experiences were it not for that word (turning down experiences is not in my nature), but I may not have sought out so many experiences related to the spirit. I don’t know why I need permission or nudging to move me in certain directions. Maybe I don’t. But I like having projects. Especially projects that spread over a long period of time, and require regular attention. The 365-project falls into that category. As I approach this solstice season, and Christmas, and my birthday, and the coming new year, I want to take time to reflect on the projects ahead: small and big, new and old. What word will come to define this year?
7. Confidence. As I walked past my own reflection in storefront windows yesterday evening, I realized my self looked unfamiliar to me: older, probably. I looked like a grownup woman, occupied, on her way somewhere. And I thought to myself, how interesting that as I grow older, I am becoming more and more known to myself on the inside, while on the outside, I know myself less and less. Maybe that isn’t entirely true, given the 365-project. Or maybe it’s just this: the outside seems to matter less. I’d like to believe that who I am shines through, and always will, no matter how much I change on the outside.
8. Portfolios. One last small change. This brilliant, brilliant, brilliant idea, which I may have mentioned before, came from friends of ours, who split up the household tasks, and call them “portfolios.” Bathroom cleaning would be an example of a portfolio. Dentist. School lunches. Kevin has taken over those last two portfolios, and what a difference it’s made in my life (and maybe in his, too).
Stepping into the green dream confessional. Ahem.
Working more makes me lazier on the ecologically sound homefront.
I am not taking time to hang laundry very often; instead, tossing everything into the “home sterilizer unit” aka the drier. (This decision is also based on several lice notices from children’s classrooms, and not wanting to risk an invasion; but when will I stop? I haven’t gone back to the clothes rack yet). I am also choosing to drive on occasions when I could walk. Yesterday, I drove to swim lessons, a walk of no more than fifteen minutes one way. But with the vehicle, I could toss the kids in the car last-minute, endure thirty minutes in the pool with CJ, shower, dry off, dress, and return home in exactly one hour. Which shaved time and stress off of my day’s beginning, and allowed me to invite friends over for a morning play. And then I drove to school yesterday afternoon because doing so allowed me to nap for an extra ten minutes (I’d already napped for ten when the buzzer alerted me to walk-to-school time). I hopped up, added another ten minutes to the timer, and fell back to sleep instantly. I can fall asleep in two shakes, and nap virtually anywhere, including my favourite spot: flat on my back on the the living-room floor. Wouldn’t want to get too comfortable.
(Side question: is my instant-sleep ability a talent, or a symptom of sleep-deprivation?).
Have you read The Road? I ploughed through it almost against my will two nights ago, and it shook me to the core. I can’t recommend it–it terrified me utterly–but it is without a doubt a fabulously imagined creation. I won’t spoil the plot, promise; if you haven’t read the book and want to, you can safely read on. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it seemed to ask me: could you live without hope? And I’m not sure that I could. Is all of my spirit-searching a meaningless enterprise? Would I have the inner resources to cope with extremity? Are inner resources something that can be built or honed, a skill-set like any other? Of course, the nightmare world imagined in the book is extreme, but as an extended metaphor could stand in for any difficult experience that any of us might face (and most of us will face something–how could we not? We are alive and human, and our world is unpredictable, our fates perhaps unwritten, and certainly unknown to us). Most particularly, the book explores a parent’s love for his child, which might be the spark that keeps him hoping and alive. But the love is explicitly terrifying, because he cannot protect his child absolutely. None of us can. But somehow I let myself believe that everything will be okay, that we will all be strong enough to get through anything we need to, that my children will experience love and joy and comfort. I am almost incapable of contemplating the reverse. That is why the book terrified me. It made me contemplate the reverse, and question my inner strength, my resources. There is no way of knowing how–what? who?–we will be until the moment is upon us, and we are required to respond. This applies to everything we do. I am fascinated by the improvisational nature of living. Yet I also want to keep working–not to memorize my lines, but to trust in my responses, to trust in some inner core of calm and strength.
So, I’m floating a new concept here. New only for me; it’s one that’s occurred to generations, and I’ve just come around to remembering its existence and imagining it applied to our family: I am referring to the concept of a “day of rest.” What would it look like, for our family? We are so scheduled and so busy throughout the week, squeezing every last drop of wonderful living out of our days; but there’s the squeezing of life, drinking every last drop of every day; and there’s the sensation of being squeezed–out of juice. I don’t feel out of juice–yet. But it’s occurred to me that sometimes the pleasure in life does not come from being productive and energetic and squeezing it all in. Sometimes, the pleasure in life comes from resting, from allowing the body and the mind to relax, to take time to breathe, to experience beauty, to have conversations that go nowhere in particular, and to be with family.
With that in mind, we’ve come up with a plan for our “day of rest.” Yes, a plan. How else would it happen? On Sundays, I plan not to schedule writing or exercise, unless it feels like something I really want to do–like it would be a treat and soul-feeding, rather than pure duty. On Sundays, one of the kids will take a turn planning and cooking supper with Kevin (not exactly a day of rest for him, but something different that he enjoys doing). Sunday evening we will have our family meetings, during the meal. And on Sunday mornings, our family is testing out the possibility of returning to regular church-attendance, something that had dropped off the map for us in recent years.
But we’re planning to attend church in a slightly different way. Rather than going back to the neighbourhood church we’d been attending, we will take turns attending my parents’ churches. My parents divorced two years ago, and they each attend a different church now. The churches are of different denominations, and the services will be distinct. Though they are each very different people, I would describe both of my parents as deeply devoted to their churches, and quietly spiritual people. We don’t get the chance to talk about that much in our interactions. I am looking forward to being with each of them in spaces that are sacred and meaningful for them. I would like my children to understand that there is such a thing as a spiritual life, and that many people find comfort and strength and nourishment within the walls of a church. And that there are different ways to feed the spirit.
I am hopeful that by integrating grandparent time with church-going time, our family will be more motivated to attend regularly, and that the church-going experience may even be made more meaningful by sharing it with loved ones.
This is still in its experimental stage. Remember that my word for the year has been “spirit”? I am fascinated by how many different doors that word has opened for me–and for my mind.
What struck me, as I sat in my mother’s church, was how the restless spirit is so much a part of the human experience. Where do we go to find peace? There are so many possibilities.
Last night, I went with friends to a concert in Toronto by Deva Premal & Miten, with Manose. I went with an open mind, and found the evening very moving, as the whole audience sang and chanted together. I believe that there are many different ways to feed the spirit, to seek and to find beauty, and that exploring how other cultures and religions seek and find beauty, and feed the spirit, leads to greater compassion and understanding.
Wow. Some really interesting changes are taking place in my life right now. Changes are causing some conflict, and also opening up opportunities for discussion and potentially radical shifts (though I suspect these will be slow and steady rather than sudden and shocking).
This year, I’ve focused on my spirit, and that’s taken me to places of quiet reflection and also drawn out of me greater confidence and courage. My family has been noticing this is round-about ways, as I head out early in the morning to go for a run, learn how to swim, take time to bury myself in writing, head out as soon as supper’s on the table in order to take a yoga class, or set up the tripod and camera; all things that I am doing on my own, that don’t necessarily connect to their lives, and that might actually exclude them in one way or another.
Kevin and I have been struggling to find, in the midst of this extra-curricular activity, time to spend together. This morning it occurred to us that this is a problem of home economics. Kevin was the one who made this observation, not me. He observed that I am responsible for the bulk of the domestic work, and if I add in other work, whether or not it is of the paying variety, it means that my time becomes more and more squeezed. So I am writing down a list of all the domestic/household labour that I do (and that he does, too), with the idea that we work to split it more evenly, and also among the children, to some degree.
It’s quite a list.
Thinking about sharing this work, and therefore having time to focus more freely on the triathlon project and writing generally, brought me to a new revelation: I think part of me wanted to go back to school and become a midwife because then my time would be accounted for, my work outside the home acknowledged as important, and the family obligated to pick up (some) slack–because I wouldn’t always be there to do it for them, and with good reason. It is a little fantasy of mine to imagine children packing lunches for school and getting their own snacks after school, and then tidying up. (I did say it was a fantasy).
Kevin admitted that he has fallen into gender stereotyping–well, we both have. He works and earns the money, and I keep the home fires a’burning. Except I also try to squeeze in a side career, and it is indeed very squeezed. Partly this is practical: because he earns the money that keeps us afloat, his work-time isn’t optional, and mine, with its occasional grant/prize windfalls and trickle of odd-job cheques is nowhere near enough to feed and house a family of six. So, the divide has made sense. But we’ve also become trapped by it, and blind to it. Because of course my work will never add up to much if I can’t commit to or pursue freelance jobs that would require even moderate time commitment over and above what I’ve already carved out. And fiction writing is the kind of business that demands long-term investment, a risky investment at best. But without investment, it will add up to precisely nothing.
So, our question now is: how to go forward, treating what I do, outside of domestic duties, as work worthy of more time, and energy?