Category: Work

Ups and downs

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So … it’s been a week of ups and downs.

Our 11-year-old suffered what appears to have been a migraine, sending us to the emergency room rather than to soccer practice on Tuesday evening. She’s already the kid with asthma, and with big athletic ambitions. Thankfully, she seems completely blasé about the whole experience; I’m the one who needs to sort out my anxieties. I tried doing yoga in my office yesterday morning, with this accompanying soundtrack. It helped. At least a bit.

Occasionally I find myself believing in some kind of cosmic scale that insists on balancing things out. Seems superstitious. But when I was writing THE JULIET STORIES, for example, I got this very weird infection on my eyelids that was both ugly and painful, bulbous red bumps that made it difficult to look up or to the side. It lasted for six months. When I was writing GIRL RUNNER, I was covered in a very weird maddeningly itchy rash that doctors thought was an auto-immune disorder, but which turned out to be bedbugs. That lasted for about six months too. I don’t know whether this (i.e. physical payment for creative grace) is a common experience for other writers, but I was fascinated to discover, in Rebecca Mead’s MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH, that George Eliot suffered from debilitating headaches and other health issues while working on her masterpiece, MIDDLEMARCH, which she wrote over a fairly short but intense period of time.

This was not what I sat down to blog about this morning.

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Sure there have been some downs this week. But also some terrific ups.

Such as …

* Shopping at the mall with my 13-year-old, who was badly in need of clothing that fit, and it not being a complete embarrassing disaster for him. In fact, we kind of had fun. And we both hate shopping, so that’s saying something.

* A bowling birthday party for the same kid that was super-fun (and that I did not supervise; it’s best to leave the super-fun outings to Kevin, as I can’t help myself from reining in certain kinds of silliness).

* Getting my course curriculum for the fall laid out, and readings chosen. Big item off of my to-do list!

* A reading at a midwifery clinic last night, babies in attendance, funny breastfeeding essay on offer — and all of the timing and planning actually working out.

* Convincing my 8-year-old to play in a piano recital on Sunday. (Though it may be her last, as she’s thinking of retiring.)

* Summer babysitting plans, as detailed last night (the older kids will be babysitting the younger ones, which worked really well last summer): “Mom, I was thinking of having a ‘Shakespeare-themed’ summer. I could tell them the plots of the plays, maybe a few comedies, a few tragedies, skip the histories because they’re boring, and they could choose one they like, and we could perform it. But we might need more kids. And I was also thinking I could teach them some of Shakespeare’s insults….”

* It’s a PD day and we’re practicing for the summer. One babysitter in charge. One kitchen covered in jam and peanut butter. One gigantic Playmobil disaster upstairs. One mother out running errands on her bicycle. File this under “up.”

The truth about holidays

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This photo is essentially unrelated to our weekend. What I like about it is the small picture within the bigger picture: the mirror looking backward at a scene that appears to be rendered in black and white, while the almost colourless landscape whooshes past out the window. It’s like a metaphor for a blog post.

I haven’t had a lot to say this week, here in Blogland. I think my thoughts have turned to subjects too large to be confined to this space. It isn’t the medium for the long-form essay; nor is it Twitter-sized. It’s like a scrapbook: photos, captions, a snapshot capturing a fragment of the here and now. I’ve been thinking about renovating my blog so that it can display photos more prominently and text more colourfully, but that’s a big project for a solo artist who can’t seem to keep the counters clean in her actual abode, though she did just fold several days’ worth of laundry, leaving it in yet another basket for her children to put away in their drawers, which they may someday do, someday. One lives in hope.

I ran 23 kilometres yesterday. It was about two kilometres more than my legs wished to go, but I’d planned my route slightly ambitiously. I was aiming for a two-hour run, and it took me slightly more than two hours. I’m oddly un-achy today. Yet oddly grumpy, it must be confessed. I’ve run the vacuum cleaner down the stairs, threatened to give away one child’s computer (as in, physically picked up said computer and carted it toward the great outdoors where I promised to hand it to any stranger passing by), and now I’ve wisely barricaded myself into my office. One of my goals for today is to plan out the summer: last summer I paid the older children to babysit the younger children, including making lunches, and not using video games as entertainment, an entirely successful experiment we intend to recreate this summer.

It’s Victoria Day, and a holiday here in Canada, so I’m getting a taste of the summer that must not happen: everyone underfoot and bored and sulking about the paucity of electronic time and asking for snacks and ignoring the simplest instructions whilst I fold laundry and howl about wasted opportunities and my envy of Mordecai Richler, whose biography still haunts me several years after reading it. (I’m not making this up. The howl of “I wish I were Mordecai Richler!” arises surprisingly frequently when I’m in a self-pitying mood: imagine having someone to cook you fine meals and take your children to their appointments and keep the daily annoyances at bay while you work your ass off doing the only thing you really want to do).

Except take a small step back, Carrie. Do you really want to wallow in envy?

And another small step, please. Mordecai Richler was making a killer living doing the only thing he wanted to do, and while I’m doing fine as far as these things go, basically Kevin and I must share the domestic and professional tasks between us to keep our family afloat. In short, we both have to: cook the meals (some of the time), take the children to their appointments (some of the time), and make space for the things we really want to do (some of the time).

And, hey. Would I really want it any other way? I appear to be feeling better, suddenly. It must be the barricade. And the writing. The writing always helps. I can hear, through my ear plugs, children gathering to make their own lunches (ramen noodles) and the vacuum running (Kevin). And now the piano is being practiced. And the sun is shining. Here are some flowers from our backyard:

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Let me leave you with a few of the wonderful things I’ve read this weekend:

* Ian Brown’s essay on the mulberry tree that once stood in his back yard (aside: I harbour a deeply held fantasy of becoming the female version of Ian Brown)
* Anakana Schofield’s books Q&A in The Irish Times, which is as enormously amusing as one could ever imagine a books Q&A being
* Oy! Feh! So! by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Gary Clement, a children’s picture book that is CJ’s absolute favourite right now, and which is quite a lot of fun to read out loud, especially if you, like me, enjoy doing voices at great volume right before bedtime
* All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews, which is kind of wrecking me even while it opens me, like all great books do, taking you apart and putting you back together, emotionally and morally, without telling you what to think. I love Miriam Toews.

Strange opportunities that arrive

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I sponsored the two older kids’ rep soccer teams this season by “buying a sleeve.” We decided to add “A NOVEL” to the title GIRL RUNNER, thinking that a team of 13-year-old boys might not appreciate having to wear that label during games.

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This was our dining-room table, Monday afternoon. Two sets of page proofs, one galley, one sharp red pencil, and one mother announcing to all who entered after school, “There will be no eating or drinking on or near this table until I AM DONE!”

I am done.

All may eat and drink here again.

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Last night’s reading at DVLB was really fun. I even indulged in a scotch, thanks to the kindness of a friend who treated. Imbibe ye scotches while ye may. Life’s too short not to enjoy the pleasures that arrive. Even if that happens to be on a Tuesday night and you’re running the next morning. And so I did. (And I ran this morning too: Run ye many kilometres while ye may.)

No scotches tonight, however. I’ll be driving to and from Hamilton, where I’m reading at Bryan Price Bookseller, 7pm, with other M Word contributors. (Note to self: look up directions!)

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Anansi offices working on publicity plans for Girl Runner. (Note to self: more directions! Look up!)

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Can you read the above? I can’t. File this under Strange Opportunities that Arrive via the Internet. Last month I was contacted by an editor at Unitas, a Chinese-language literary magazine in Taiwan, who wanted to interview me for a special issue they were planning on Alice Munro. (They’d found and loved my review of Alice Munro’s Dear Love in the National Post.) I agreed. And this month, two copies of the beautifully produced magazine arrived in my mailbox, in an envelope covered in fancy stamps. Sometimes the world seems very very small.

I’ve never met Alice Munro, and can’t imagine what I would say to her if we were to meet. It’s an entirely one-sided relationship based purely on my reading of her stories over many years. I’m immersed in MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH right now, a truly wonderful book that combines biography with memoir, and in some way I feel like my relationship with Alice Munro is similar to Rebecca Mead’s with George Eliot; but Mead has the benefit of distance and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable exploring Alice Munro’s life and work in quite the same way, given that she’s still living, and that our worlds literally overlap in time and space. It wouldn’t be historical exploration. There’s a freedom to digging back into the past, way back. I’m aiming to do it now, in my next novel. Nothing can be perfectly recovered from the deep past, and so one may imagine quite freely.

Yet I’m so admiring and relishing this memoir/biography mash-up on George Eliot — I would do it, if I could figure out my relationship with non-fiction, a form I’m still learning. I’m thinking out loud here, brainstorming as I type. Perhaps not the best way to compose a blog post on which one is about to press “publish.” But if I could figure out how, yes, I would write about Alice Munro.

I think the NMA nomination was especially thrilling (and perhaps seductive) because it was earned for “personal journalism,” aka non-fiction. It’s a form that interests me more and more, that I find myself devouring more and more, and that I want to learn how to master.

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Girl runner

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focus

Yesterday was devoted to running.

I started by running 10.5 km early in the morning, before and then during the rain. My Tuesday running partner couldn’t meet up, so I headed out alone. It was very dark and extra-early, because I’d taken swim girl to the pool first. On early dark mornings I stick to neighbourhood streets, when what I really want is to run out toward the open sky. But on early dark mornings that path feels isolated and unlit; I err on the side of caution. I’d gone a dull 4 km when I saw a familiar jacket ahead. I ran faster to catch up. A friend! (Not my usual running partner.) Running with her livened up my route immensely.

Basically, aside from the odd evening out, my social life is anchored by early morning exercise with friends. And texting. And threshold conversations, such as when dropping a kid off, or waiting on the sidelines/poolside/at music lessons. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

I spent the day reading through the Girl Runner galley, sharpened pencil in hand. This is gruelling work, I’ll admit. Because I’m still reading as the writer, still working to improve (not to say perfect) the words on the page, I can’t read as a reader. After many hours of this, all I wanted to do was run.

Maybe I was inspired by Aganetha.

Kev and I were tag-teaming supper prep, but it wasn’t ready in time for soccer girl to eat before soccer practice. I was taking her. I grabbed a handful of almonds, dashed upstairs and came back down in running gear.

Kevin, in the kitchen, puzzled: “Didn’t you already run this morning?”

Yes, but. That seemed ages ago, like it belonged to another day, another season. Plus, at soccer practice I can run out under an open sky. And it had stopped raining.

So I went, and I ran. And as I ran, I didn’t think about anything in particular. I didn’t think about punctuation or trimming words from sentences. I didn’t think about publicity planning. I thought about running. I repeated a few key phrases that remind me to improve my form, or push harder, or to relax. Quick feet. Tuck in. Shoulders down. I decided I would complete a half-marathon distance in one day, this run being the second stage. And so I did. And that’s what I thought about, really. That’s all.

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change of focus

Daily life is a mixture of noise and quiet, connection and interiority, an ongoing attempt to stay focused on whatever is the priority at the moment. To not get distracted. I spend a lot of my daily life trying not to let myself get distracted. Maybe I need a few key phrases, like those I use while running. If I’m with someone, I want to be with them. If I’m working on something, I want to be working on it. It’s where squeezing everything in breaks down, attempting to do too many things all at once, splitting one’s focus. Am I tuning out the right things? Tuning in to the things I mean to? Our brains seem wired to get off on distraction. Quick hits of excitement. But really it’s focus that’s deeply satisfying. It’s running and emptying the mind. It’s reading a stack of picture books to a kid before bed. It’s listening to what a friend is saying, not jumping ahead to what you’ll say next.

What’s precious

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We spent the Easter weekend on the farm where Kevin grew up, and his mom still lives.

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We helped her begin to sort through and organize the rooms, the closets, cupboards, drawers, nooks and crannies. This is no small project in a house that’s been home for nearly forty years.

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I boxed up books to give away, many of which had been bestsellers at some point in the past four decades, already out of date, out of style; some were too musty even to donate. It was an odd conflation of realities, having just spent several days at the British Library, where I pored over printed texts that were four or five centuries old. By what random chance did those books survive? Nothing I read in the BL would be considered great or lasting literature, though some was popular in its time; survival over the centuries was a matter more of being kept by generations of someones who were not like me, I guess, as my instinct is to purge, rather than to cling to, at least in a general sense.

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The work got me thinking about how transitory and brief are our lives on this earth. Consider my files of manuscripts in our attic. I wonder, should I burn them now so as to spare my children having to decide what to do with them, some day? What’s precious, after all?

I come home thinking that what’s precious is today.

But today is also ephemeral, which is why we keep so much, trying to keep what can’t be kept. We’ve all got our means and methods, our junk drawers, our shoeboxes. I say this as an inveterate collector and curator of the daily now, in the form of this blog, knowing that what I’m compelled to do is only fractionally more lasting than the day itself, and then only because it freezes and distorts the complicated layers of each beautiful breath and heart beat into a small, glancing story.

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I come home thinking that it’s really really important to pay attention to what you’re pouring your life into. I think: don’t worry about whether or not you’re making things that will last. Don’t worry period, actually. Make and do the things that bring you and those around you some daily sense of being loved and cared for. Be as alive as you want to be, while you’re here.

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