photo credit: Shari Lovell
This morning began unusually. I woke at 6AM, refreshed after a very very long sleep, having crashed out just after 9PM last night. Teaching takes a lot of energy, at least for someone who would skew toward introverted on the personality continuum, and I had my class on Wednesday night (a happy place to spend three hours, I must tell you, even though our windowless brick room in a hive-like building resembles a bunker, and gets very muggy when packed out with creativity and debate). What a day to go and teach. I think it was a good thing, as it forced me to be focused and to pay attention to something other than the noise.
There was some noise on Wednesday. There was this lovely interview done by the Canadian Press, which ran in various media outlets. There was the phone call from the Writers’ Trust to confirm that Girl Runner was on the list, and various emails to note upcoming appearances and media requests associated with the award. I checked my calendar a lot. And my phone. Twitter and Facebook kept pulling me in. It was a lot of noise, as I say, and I found myself unable to settle and reflect, or even, quite, to feel what was happening.
So I was grateful to my students for occupying my evening. We talked about poetry. There was so much to learn from the discussion, so many reminders of why poetry matters, why words matter.
photo credit: Shari Lovell
Kevin had gotten take-out ramen for supper, which I reheated in our shiny new microwave when I got home, nearing 10PM. (Yes, we finally got a microwave, and I must confess my leftover lunches are much more enticing than those consumed during our long, cold pre-microwave era.) After eating, all the kids in bed, Kevin dug through his scotch collection (so many bottles, each with an inch or three of liquid, leftover from our years of hosting scotch parties), and pulled out a particularly choice selection. I don’t have the name handy. But he went online to check its current value, were it full and unopened, and announced that we would be celebrating with a $5,000 bottle of scotch. I mean, seriously?! There was just enough for two wee drams.
One of the pleasures of the scotch party is hearing our friend Mike read the tasting notes, so to keep with tradition, I will tell you that this ridiculously pricey scotch tasted heavily of oak barrels, with overtones of straw (or was that the colour?) and undertones of turmeric and cinnamon. Or something like that. Maybe it was nutmeg. And a bit of blue sky.
It was a lovely celebration. I was up five hours later to run with my speedy friend Heather, who kindly slowed down for the occasion; also because that will be my last run before I attempt the Toad, tomorrow morning: 25 kilometres of likely-to-be-muddy trail. God help me.
The book I was reading this morning is called A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I’m going to keep talking about it until I’m done, and probably for a long time thereafter, and the next reader I’ve got in mind is my 11-year-old daughter.* We’re both of us possessed of a lot of energy and drive (I hazard to suggest she’s got even more of both than I do), and we both of us need to find ways and reasons to turn down the noise and become still. (And not because we’re crashing!)
my girl runner
Wednesday, after the prize announcement and before teaching, I dashed over to her school to watch her run a cross-country race. She came second out of a large field of 7th and 8th graders. “I’m so tired! Weirdly tired! Like way too tired!” she told me immediately afterward as she lay prone on the grass. “You just ran three kilometres really fast,” I pointed out. “That’s not it!” “Well, maybe you’re too frail and shouldn’t run more than 200 metres,” I suggested, tongue in cheek. She’s read Girl Runner. She smiled faintly. Then she sat up and took off her shoes. “My feet are too hot!”
At first, she was quite disappointed in her performance, and it mattered not when I pointed out that the girl who finished first was two heads taller and a grade older. She insisted on expecting better of herself. I kept assuring her that she’d been wonderful, that she’d given her all, that I was very proud, and finally, much later, before bed, she smiled to reassure me that she was happy with the race. Mostly. I can’t argue with her. Her expectations are her own. She isn’t discouraged when she doesn’t meet them. Instead, her expectations seem to fire her with greater focus and renewed intent. Yeah. I get that. There will always be someone faster, smarter, more talented. But I think she already knows: that it’s not about comparisons. It’s about finding one’s own voice, one’s own passion.
But what about stillness? What about releasing expectation? What about rest for the mind and body?
A Tale for the Time Being is the story, in part, of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who’s offered decades to the practice of meditation, prayer, ritual gratitude for each gift, no matter how small. She bows with her whole body to the world. She is at peace with mortality. The humility of her daily practice gives her SUPAPOWAs! Even her physical frailty is a strength.
So I wake this morning, early, thinking about how whatever I have to offer must come from a grounded place, a place where I sit in stillness and silence, practicing gratitude, bowing with my whole body to this beautiful, difficult, scary, noisy world, with openness and with humility. A gift is a gift. What to do with it? How to give thanks? How to give, no matter how tired, frail, mortal, flawed? How to be still. How to listen.
PS I’d like to point you toward a review of Girl Runner by a blog-reader who is an Ironman athlete and writer; he also digs into the history of women’s long distance running.
* Note: after writing this post, I finished A Tale for the Time Being, and discovered that in the final third of the book, there are several extremely dark scenes relating to extreme bullying, attempted rape, and child prostitution, and although my 11-year-old is a mature reader, I don’t think the book is meant for her–not yet. But sections of the book are meant for her! However, I can’t figure out how to carve out the darkness to show her the light. I think this Tale for the Time Being will have to wait, for the time being. Nevertheless I highly recommend it to a mature adult audience. What is light without shadow? (The book also contains the clearest explanation of quantum mechanics that I’ve ever read.)
Insects buzz. Insects with a vibrating hum and insects chirping at regular quick intervals, like a racing pulse. Cars pass. Engines roar, mildly, louder when accelerating, heavily whirring before changing gears, puttering, brakes squeaking, a rushing sound like wind that is not wind, that is mechanical, a hush of white noise.
Shadows on yellow brick, moving as the wind moves the trees, patterned, like lace.
The dogs begin to bark. What have they seen or heard? The first to begin is DJ, loudest, the leader of this pack of two. Suzi joins, confused, eager, uncertain. DJ stops, stiffens behind the raspberry patch, behind the cluster of dead flowers, and sniffs the air. Whatever she has seen is gone. The yard is safe, again.
On the clothesline a few items hang, shirts upside-down, athletic gear airing in the breeze and sunshine. The leaves are turning colour. The sky is steady opaque blue, not quite dark, not quite light, clear behind the flame orange leaves, like an artificial backdrop for a photograph I took last year, and the year before, but not yet this year.
photo of the changing leaves, last year
I have not taken any photos of changing leaves this year. This is not because the leaves have not changed. I don’t know why I haven’t brought my camera outside to catch the season on its cusp of coming.
I am sitting in a green plastic fake Adirondack chair, bought uptown at the hardware store for cheap. The floorboards beneath my feet are painted a rich blue, the paint also bought uptown at the same hardware store.
I turn to examine the pile of sandals by the open back door, and see instead a large spider, suspended in its web, very near me. It hangs upside down. It is alive, its legs twitch, each leg thin and ringed with a pattern of pale tan, dark brown, and a shade in between the two colours that looks mottled. Its body is fat, and also patterned in shades of brown. I would fear it, but it has lived on our porch for much of the summer, moving its web higher or lower when disturbed by one of us. I have watched it through the kitchen window suck clean the body of a large fly, a bee, draining each to a dried husk of its former self.
I am writing this because I’ve given the students in my creative writing class the same exercise. I want to feel what they feel while forced to sit and focus for 15 consecutive minutes, uninterrupted except by what they observe, their objective to seek out the details, no matter how small, and place them on the page, without judgement, without critique, simply observing and noting and describing.
It is an exercise I’ve given myself at times throughout this past year. It asks not: is this interesting; but rather: what is here to be found?
The timer rings. I don’t want to finish yet. The dogs have gone inside, and are working themselves into a sudden frenzy of emotion, howling and yipping at something they’ve seen through a window. Gradually, the noise diminishes, then stops abruptly. Here is Suzi, come to find me, her little body quivering.
Here am I, glad for the excuse to sit still and think of nothing but what is, right now.
New things are happening around our house.
The kids started school. Yeah, that was a few weeks ago already. I’ve been a touch distracted.
this was as happy as I could get them to look, and oh how we tried!
New instruments are being played. CJ has started the piano. Fooey has retired from piano and taken up the violin. AppleApple has the opportunity to play both the French horn and the cello through her school, and on Tuesday evening practiced that horn for an hour and twenty minutes. I kid you not. Then she went outside and practiced some more. The neighbours kid you not. “It doesn’t sound quite so much like an elephant’s butt,” her helpful father told her. And Albus joined the school orchestra (he plays the viola), because, he told me, participants will be rewarded with a trip to Canada’s Wonderland at the end of the year. Hey, whatever works.
I’ve newly begun teaching, again. It’s much easier the second time around. So much easier. It helps not to be suffering the effects of concussion, too. (How did I manage that last fall??)
Also new: swim kid is no longer swim kid. She’s just going to be soccer kid, field hockey kid, cross country kid, music kid, theatre kid, hanging-out-with-friends kid. This was no small decision. But I think I’m mourning it more than she is, which means it’s absolutely the right decision (she had tears, but moved on). Truth be told, we couldn’t fit the extra commitment into our lives. It’s hard to stop doing something you’ve enjoyed, and that has brought you success. But success doesn’t always mean you should keep doing it. When you’re good at lots of things, you’ve gotta choose what you absolutely love. (I mean, this is a kid who will obsessively focus on whatever is before her. She’s playing the damn horn again as I type. I mean, the melodious completely non-elephant-butt-like horn. She’s trained herself, with literally hour upon consecutive hour of practice over the summer to juggle—with her feet—a soccer ball 379 times without dropping it, when she could barely manage 2 back in June. Discipline is not her issue.)
Here is the reward: she would have been swimming for two hours last night. Instead, when I walked through the front door, home from teaching, I was greeted by this sight:
Sweeping toward me, decked out in feathered mask and cape, she burst forth in low dramatic tones. Shakespeare? Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, to be precise. “She’s in a mood,” said her father, fondly.
One more reward: eating supper together as a family.
See? We tried. We really did. It’s what we do around here.
Eleanor Catton, the 28-year-old writer who won the Booker last fall for her novel The Luminaries, continues to win further prizes too, and recently declared her intent to set up a grant with her earnings that would give writers time to read. Yes, you read that right. Time to read. Click here to read the entire article in The Guardian.
“My idea is that if a writer is awarded a grant, they will be given the money with no strings attached except that after three months they will be expected to write a short piece of non-fiction about their reading …
“We’re very lucky in New Zealand to have a lot of public funding available for writers, but they generally require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn’t understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing. I’m also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.”
I’m making several connections as I read this.
I’m thinking about generosity, creativity, and the many reasons a person may feel compelled both to read and to write. I’m thinking about teaching creative writing again this fall, and agonizing over how best to encourage in my students a love of reading and words and ideas and stylistic play and leaps of connection and openness and generosity, yes, creativity, yes. It’s the necessity of marking that troubles me, not because it takes time and effort, but because aiming for a particular grade is not necessarily conducive to developing a love of writing and reading.
Which leads me back to Eleanor Catton’s idea for a grant that does not require of the writer a full-fledged project at the end or the beginning, but rather openness, curiosity, patience.
(And she’s coming to the Eden Mills Writers Festival on Sunday, Sept. 14, where I do hope we’ll get the chance to meet.)
Here’s where I’m spending this week. My favourite part of the photo, above, is CJ’s tiger overseeing the situation (ironically, it’s the part that gets cut out of the photo when this blog is posted online; I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something). I’m marking. That’s what I’m doing. By the end of this evening, I expect to be more than halfway done. (That’s the sound of me knocking on wood.) If all goes as planned, I will finish on Friday. (The knocking is getting louder.)
Maybe then I can fold that basket of clean laundry at the end of the table, which will no doubt have expanded into two wildly overflowing baskets of clean laundry if left until then.
Anyway, if you don’t hear from me between now and the weekend, you’ll know what I’m up to. And why my posture is deteriorating by the hour. And why I suddenly have the urge to write. In broken. Oddly, punctuated, sentences. Grumpy oldster comment ahead, but I don’t think anyone’s teaching kids grammar anymore (did anyone, ever, come to think of it?). It’s like they’re on their own, trying to negotiate a sea of inexplicable commas. I want to help them!
Here’s an awkward transition. I’ll just throw it in like this.
Can you spot the common theme in the following two photos?
new art area
I’m signing off. Pencil in hand, freshly sharpened, back to the table, back to the tiger. I can see it, even if you can’t.
I taught my last class yesterday evening.
We ended with a “poetry slam,” and the students got to read/perform something they’d written for the course. I brought snacks. It was fun.
At the very end of class, I handed back an assignment and said, “And I’d like to give you all a copy of my first book.” Was I ever surprised when the class erupted in cheers. “Really? Wow, I’m so relieved,” I said. “I thought maybe it was kind of lame on my part, like, hey, guys, here’s my book …” “It feels like we’re on Oprah,” someone said (of course with irony). “Like we should be checking under our chairs.” “Yes, there’s a publishing contract for everyone under your chairs,” I said. That was a joke. But I did give them all a copy of HAIR HAT, which isn’t obtainable anyway by other means, since it’s out of print, a fact I’d shared with them in an earlier class during my inspirational lecture on “Being a Writer is All About Rejection and Disappointment”; though I had to revise my lecture somewhat after selling GIRL RUNNER the very next week. “Being a Writer is All About Rejection and Disappointment, Except When It’s Also About Your Dreams Actually Coming True!”
A few students were curious to know whether I’d teach again. I got the general impression that they hoped I would, and that they hoped I’d enjoyed teaching them. I know it will/would be easier next time, having laid out a curriculum that worked quite well, and would work better with a few minor tinkerings and adjustments. But I can only do it if I have the time. And that remains to be seen.
I do think it was good and useful work, and I’m glad to have been given the opportunity to do it. It felt, I’ll admit, like a major responsibility for which I have no training; in other words, a fairly daunting task, now undertaken, and accomplished. Except for the final marking. Oh, right. The marking.
I’ll miss the room, above.
I’ll miss the warm, comfortable atmosphere that developed in the room as the term progressed and we all got to know each other. I’ll miss hearing the students’ stories, too.
I won’t have to miss my office quite yet, however, as I’ll be back to visit regularly over the next week or two in order to plough through that aforementioned marking. I like marking there. It’s quiet and I’m not distracted, and it feels like it’s what I’m there to do, so I do it. Also, I work hard because I want to get done and go home. There’s food at home.
Wish me luck.