Where I’m writing from (above).
Poolside, underneath a wonky umbrella, at a picnic table, with birds cheeping from a ventilation system nearby, and the sound of water moving rhythmically in the 50-metre pool. My eldest is taking a lifeguarding course, three hours every morning for the next two weeks. I decided to stay, this morning, and work here.
Where I was on Saturday (above).
I spent the better part of the day driving to and from the overnight camp where our kids have been going for many summers. I picked up the girls, who had been away for the week and were in varying stages of tired and hungry and happy. We stopped at a diner on the way home. Driving almost defines my summer so far, but this week and next will be a different flavour: swimming pools, staying close to home.
Maybe we’ll have more of this, too (above).
Yesterday, the kids spontaneously decided to make supper in two teams: boys v girls. Boys made dessert, girls made the main meal. They plan to switch it up for another evening this week. Kevin took them shopping for ingredients. I offered a few tips (such as you don’t have to tape parchment paper into a cake pan!!!), but mostly tried to stay the heck out of the kitchen, and let them follow their recipes and help each other out. I even went for a run to avoid the hovering. Unfortunately, it was hot and I kept having to stop and walk, which couldn’t have been fun for my running partner, who was totally fine. We made it 10 km, but I was all kinds of pitiful. I kept fantasizing that someone might have dropped a water bottle near the path, or maybe I’d see a puddle, or maybe that guy on the bike is carrying water and I can ask him for a drink … Moral of the story: on hot days, carry some damn water, Carrie.
The meal I returned to: French onion soup, caesar salad, and oreo-shaped cake for dessert with freshly whipped cream. Best of all, the food was excellent. The judges ruled that the teams had tied. Points for everyone. (CJ has been giving himself points lately: a point for feeding the fish, a point for emptying the dishwasher, watering the plants, reading a book, brushing teeth, practicing soccer, etc. etc. I like this very much. The simple self-reward.)
These three are home for the morning together (above).
This is a possible illustration of what’s happening right now. Jenga turned into a housing complex. Bananagrams as furniture. Go-go people. Random cars. And some ukulele playing. On Sunday morning AppleApple and I sat and played our ukuleles for at least an hour, leaning toward folk and spiritual songs. She wants to learn how to sing harmony, inspired by the musically talented counsellors at camp. She also may have a broken collarbone, but that’s another story. I will fill you in later this week when we get x-ray results, but it looks like that injury during the soccer tournament was more serious than we’d realized. A reminder than comfortably held patterns and assumptions may experience unexpected breaks.
How to roll with it? How to comfort anxiety? How to let yourself be carried along peacefully with the new direction of the flow? Always learning. Playing and singing spirituals seemed like a good way to go, yesterday morning.
PS Here’s what I’ve been clicking on, reading, and listening to this week: From Those People, a personal piece on race and unrecognized, unacknowledged privilege. I think this is a necessary read, especially if you have white skin; from the NPR, setting goals by writing about them; from The New Yorker, free podcasts of fiction writers reading and then discussing a favourite short story published in the magazine. AppleApple and I listened to two while driving together: Nathan Englander reading John Cheever’s The Enormous Radio, and Paul Theroux reading Elizabeth Taylor’s “The Letter Writers.” (No, not that Elizabeth Taylor.) One final link: from Hazlitt, I enjoyed reading Dreams Are Boring, by Sasha Chapin, about the romanticized and false link between madness and inspiration.
I have a list in my head entitled: Jobs That Kids Can Do Themselves! I can see the title written out in perky brightly coloured bubble letters on a piece of paper and I can see the children discovering the list, glancing at it, and sighing, Oh Mom. (On the imaginary list: pick up dog poo in back yard; clean shoes after stepping in dog poo in back yard; feed and water dogs; put away clean laundry; put dirty laundry into hamper; hang wet towels; empty dishwasher; put dirty dishes in sink; empty recycling and compost bins; make breakfast and lunch; clean up after breakfast and lunch; find friends to play with…)
I have driven many many kilometres this weekend. I have driven them in my new little car. On Tuesday we gave in to the ongoing overlapping scheduling puzzle that has been our reality, as a one-car six-person family, these past few years, and we bought a second vehicle, a little pod that can efficiently travel from the mothership.
Sunset over salt mine, Goderich, Ontario.
On Friday night I was with friends in Goderich — old friends. I was reminded that even within a larger group, I look for moments of intimacy amidst the noise. I like to listen. I like to hear.
On Saturday afternoon I read at a festival in Bayfield, in a space that had been the town hall, with four other writers, and the stories they told were essential and moving and spiritual, somehow, and as the last reader of the eventful first half, I felt myself pulled into the flow in the room, and saw how there was space and focus for what I was about to offer and I was so glad and grateful to the other writers for opening up that spiritual river. How I loved stepping into the water. How I loved Aganetha, speaking through me. On the way home, driving my new little car through the rain, I didn’t want to listen to the radio, I didn’t want talk or music, I wanted to hear my own thoughts, I needed space to let the emotions of the afternoon work their way through my system. I heard myself saying, Aggie Smart is a wonderful character. Give yourself that. Let yourself know it.
One of the writers at Saturday’s event told me afterward that they were embarrassed by the organizer’s introduction of me, which was particularly awkward—title of my last book wrong, said she couldn’t find any information about me online, except some weird site called Obscure CanLit Mama, which perhaps she didn’t realize was mine—and when I got up to speak, I tried to riff off her intro and said that I didn’t mind being obscure, and wrote for the words on the page and the stories I wanted to tell, which perhaps just made everything all the more awkward. And then I read. I dove right into those words on the page. I wasn’t upset by the intro at all, actually, even if the other writer thought it was infuriatingly dismissive of my career and experience. Oddly, I’d thought it was accurate and reassuring. How nice that she couldn’t find much about me online, I thought. Maybe I can do this writing thing and remain obscure. (Although, is that really true? I’m not going to Google myself to find out.)
An author at the event told a story about Alice Munro writing while her kids were at school, and covering her typewriter when they arrived home again; I like that un-precious approach to the work. It fits with how I see myself, as a very ordinary person living a very ordinary life, who happens to enjoy an imaginative extra-life, like a room in the attic full of dress-up clothes stuffed into old-fashioned trunks or with secret passageways that I can visit and escape to, but I’ll still be back downstairs in time to help make supper and coach a soccer game. Life has many rooms. I want to live fully in all of them, whichever room I’m in.
Yesterday, I delivered my youngest child to overnight camp, and he is away from me until tomorrow. This picture breaks my heart just a little. He looks so anxious, but also like he’s trying to reassure me that he will be okay.
The writing work that I’ve submitted recently sits out there waiting for responses and there is no guarantee that anyone will like it or want it. I want other writers to know this, especially writers beginning their careers: know that even the writers you think of as more established, or as having had some success, receive rejection, sometimes, or have to begin projects over again, or abandon them altogether, sometimes. In fact, I think it’s good for a person never to get so comfortable in her abilities that her work can’t be critiqued by thoughtful professionals. It’s good never to become so precious, so valuable commercially, that no one holds you to account. (Even though that sounds awfully tempting and a person can dream!)
The best things in life are never the easiest, even if the experience of them feels easy. Getting to ease is hard.
Maybe I exercise because it is a form of extremity, it removes barriers, can push the self beyond the beyond to a purer place that doesn’t traffic in the ordinary obstacles that come between people, that we use to keep ourselves safe and protected and apart.
Behind me, a daughter inhales her asthma puffer. I can hear her breathe out slowly, then pull the medication into her lungs.
Behind me, my other daughter and her friend practice what I think are dance steps, her friend instructing her, one-two-push. But when my older daughter joins their conversation, I realize that a soccer ball is involved, and the friend is teaching my younger daughter a fancy soccer move, in our living-room. Maybe she will use it in her game tonight.
The nervous little dog comes into this office and lies down near my feet. She is distressed by change and change is constant in our house, in the summertime.
If I were to write a poem today what would be my subject?
If I were to write a short story today what would be my subject?
Here is the blog post I’ve written today. What is its subject?
The American writer, James Salter, died recently, aged 90. His output, said the obituary, was modest: six novels, two short story collections, a memoir. I think that output sounds quite fantastic. Nine books in total, not much more than a book a decade. I think it must have meant he cared deeply about what he published and rejected a lot of his own ideas and attempts. This is just a guess.
Enjoying this room I’m in. Hope you are too, wherever you are.
Oh yeah …
… it’s the last day of school!
A list of interruptions, on this, the first day of summer holidays:
– monitoring 1 disastrously neurotic dog’s behaviour while small friends are here to play all morning
– baking 2 strawberry rhubarb crisps (worth it!)
– finding the person who left wet towels all over the bathroom and reminding said person to pick up after said self
– 2 loads of laundry, washed and hung to dry
– morning snack for kids and friends, of marshmallows and graham crackers
– 1 dead bird discovered behind barbecue on back porch (+ 1 FYI text to Kevin and these timeless words: “Just don’t look at it. Dad will take care of it when he gets home.”)
– 1 teenager wondering what’s for lunch, when he can play video games, and why he has to take swim lessons this summer
– 1 box of macaroni and cheese
– the remains of lunch, all over the counters, including 1 pan in which 1 dill pickle was experimentally fried (“It basically tasted like a warm pickle.”)
– 1 lost key, needed for cat sitting purposes
– many many phone calls from friends and parents of friends
– 1 child requiring sunscreen application and opinions on swim suit choices
– 1 child requiring a thank you card which she could last-minutely turn into a birthday card, cleverly incorporating the words “thank you for your kindness”
– 1 child requiring a walk to a birthday party
– making a list in preparation for a girls’ night getaway
– fielding multiple logistical questions about scheduling, babysitting requirements, and plans for the afternoon
It’s 1:45PM and suddenly the house has gone quiet. I’m alone in my office. I’ve got about an hour and fifteen minutes to put to use. This reminds me of the olden days, when I struggled to string together enough coherent thoughts and unbroken minutes to make, say, half a poem, or a quarter of a short story. The key is to have a goal, even a small one, and a plan, and to stick with it when the quiet strikes.
And so, I’m off.
(But I do intend to write a follow-up post to my previous one, discussing the important distinction between being a writer and writing. It’s the former I’m wrestling with, not the latter. It’s not the act that I find problematic or difficult, but the acting.)
I’m in Bayfield at their writer’s festival tomorrow afternoon, where I will do my best to be a writer. Check my events page, above, if you’re interested in finding out more (about the event, that is; not about being a writer).
I should be posting about back-to-school. But we only just arrived home last night from our brief family holiday, and my mind hasn’t caught up with end-of-summer quite yet. So this will be my holiday post. Yes, we had a holiday. We had a holiday! From everything! (Except each other.)
Somehow the summer had slipped by without all of us spending some downtime together. Sure, we got lots of projects done, including, while the big kids were away, painting the back porch, and varnishing the wood floors downstairs, which were starting to splinter.
There was the trip to the beach with the kids (but not Kevin), and the trip to Toronto with Fooey (just us), and Kevin and I dashed over to Stratford not once but twice to see plays. There were soccer tournaments and swim lessons, my sister got married, we hosted cousins, invited friends for a few meals, and the kids attended various day camps and overnight camps that fed their various interests. You know, we did a lot of stuff, and we’re fortunate that we could and can. None of this would I change.
But we also worked, Kevin and me. We worked pretty much straight through summer, both of us being self-employed and therefore loathe step away from any opportunity. Suddenly August was nearly gone, and we were nearly out of time.
And then, my dad and stepmother offered their cottage for a family getaway. Just us. (Plus dogs.) At 5AM on Thursday morning, Kevin discovered that our new vehicle (new last fall) doesn’t have a roof rack. “Um, we have a problem,” were his exact words. How to fit six people, two dogs, all our stuff, plus food for five days inside one relatively small SUV? It was 5AM and the kids were soooo excited (which is why we it was 5AM; no one could wait to go). So we just did it. Ditched the non-essentials, squashed bags under children’s feet, bought perishables close to our destination.
We really did nothing when we got to the cottage. Nothing but swim, play, eat, drink, sleep, read. I didn’t even swim, in truth, because the lake was really cold, and, besides, forget excuses, all I wanted to do was nothing. By day four of doing nothing, I felt like I’d forgotten how to do anything, which was a bit unnerving. But not so unnerving that I turned down the offer of a grapefruit beer in the afternoon. I needed the nothing. I needed to be somewhere that wasn’t our house, with its innumerable potential projects calling. I needed a few days of not pushing myself onward, nor being pulled onward. I needed to sink in. Stop. Watch my kids play.
The best part was watching the kids play. They had so much fun together.
Sometimes I think even if I’m able to give them nothing else, they have riches, because they have each other. That’s what I hope, anyway. Or maybe it’s the other way round. Maybe even if they give me nothing else, if they love each other and look out for each other, I have riches.
And I do.
After a quiet week, I was so looking forward to having everyone home. And they’re back, and all’s well with my world. But I’m glad they got to be away, free and independent and outside in a way that can’t be duplicated at home. I’m too tired just now to reflect more deeply on all that’s happened this summer, but I know the memories that seem to be sticking are located outside. Walking the dogs with the little kids in the evening, running in the early morning light or on shaded trails, sitting in sand beside water, swimming at noon, doing annoying running commentary beside children’s soccer fields (can’t seem to stop myself; sorry, everyone nearby!). I have no idea how to gear up for the fall, for back-to-school, back-to-teaching, travel, soccer tryouts, swim meets, music lessons & practice & homework, other than putting absolutely every little thing on the calendar, and then doing my best to show up.
But I don’t know how to put be still, outside on the calendar. Anyone figured that out?
There are so many moments in a week.
On Thursday, I felt like an adventurous mother, pulling off the feat of getting the kids organized and out the door by 9AM, with picnic lunch, full gas tank, sweaters, and gear for the beach. We drove two hours to a park I’d never been to, my hope for a fun day only dimming slightly when a) we had to stop by the side of the road for a bathroom emergency and b) when the sky went dark and rain spattered our windshield. The GPS, with its insistent female voice, kept sending us on a route contradictory to the directions I’d decided on independently, so with Fooey’s strident encouragement — “Trust your instincts, Mom!” — I turned it off. We found our friends’ campsite, ate lunch together, and tramped up enormous dunes to find Lake Huron in a wild state, more ocean than lake. The sun came out. The kids swam. I reclined in the sand with the wind whipping my hair. And I was able to get us organized and back home in time for soccer practice.
Then Friday. I met Kevin for lunch so we could discuss finances. We ate at a Korean place. Toward the end of the meal, I saw a woman standing and staring into the restaurant through the glass for a long time. “I think a character is coming in,” I said. She was elderly, squat and stooped and clothed in many layers, and seemed a rather unlikely patron. “What should I try here?” she asked us, shuffling directly to our table. “What do you like?” I said. “Oh, vegetables. As long as they’re cooked so I can get ’em down.” “Ummm….the food’s quite spicy,” I hedged. “Oh, I like the Chinese food.” “Well, this is Korean, it’s not really the same.” “How about that one with the egg?” [pointing to the colourful menu items posted on the wall] “Yes, the bi bim bap is very good,” said Kevin. “But does it have VEGETABLES?” “Umm…”
We got the story from the server, a young man with dyed pale orange hair who told us that the woman comes frequently, asks patrons for recommendations, sits at a table, but never orders. He hates to ask her to leave.
Then Friday, arriving home from lunch. I caught a strong rather strange sweet smell when I opened the front door. No one appeared. A large bath towel was on the kitchen floor in front of the fridge. DJ was licking the floor. It was definitely a what the hell? moment. Evidence was everywhere. A mostly empty container of tamarind sauce open on the counter. Brown spatters. Clean-up had clearly been attempted. I impressed myself (if no one else) by muttering and speaking firmly rather than yelling. Maybe I’ve grown. The next forty minutes were spent on hands and knees discovering new patches of stickiness, and then opening the fridge and discovering the accident had occurred inside there. Well, the fridge needed to be cleaned, I reasoned. I called the culprit in, but I did not yell. Instead I concluded this session by sending several bitter texts to Kevin, as if he were somehow to blame. “Just spent last 45 minutes cleaning tamarind sauce off floor and inside fridge. Lid loose!” “These are the perks of working from home, of which you are spared.” “I don’t think I will meet for lunch again anytime soon.”
He did not text back. I think this was wise of him.
Finally, this morning. Chilly, rainy, windy. I am running. I’d left the house saying I would go 15-20 kilometres, tops. I’d left the house not in the mood for a long run, not at all. Around 15 kilometres, I’m flying through a favourite wooded path quite far from home. I’m thinking, this is why I resist going on long runs — because once I’m out here, I’m all in. Distance breaks down resistance, changes my brain, changes my understanding of pain and suffering, I think. 15-20 kilometres tops?! Ha! I’m feeling way too good. I cover 25 instead, and maintain pace. I think this is how my brain works on writing too, that the challenge is jumping in, because I know it will be hard, it will take me far away, it will hurt, but I know too that once I’m in, I’ll be gone. I’ll only want to go further. And, like running, good writing breaks down resistance, breaks down the self-conscious mind and pulls me into its flow. And I’m away.
I can’t always be away. Maybe I have to come back and clean up the tamarind sauce and be surrounded by shouting voices of children and get filled up with energy and anxiety and stories, so that I can go out again. And go long.
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