A few things, on this very Monday morning …
1. The vacuum cleaner did not get used this weekend.
2. Instead, I drifted to my office to work hour after huddled hour on intensely challenging revisions, which I simply could not leave alone. I expect to be doing the same all week. It will look like I’m here, but I’m not here.
3. I ran 20km on Saturday morning. I was grateful.
4. While running, I had a Big Thought: I don’t run because I’m strong, I run because I’m not. I run for courage. I run for nerve.
5. With courage in my heart, I return to my imaginary worlds, and write.
6. The only trouble with this formula is that I don’t, it seems, so much care whether I return to the real world, with courage in my heart, and vacuum.
Well, we got one home from camp. Albus has returned: freckled, dirty-footed, exhausted, and craving his screened devices. It’s been an odd two weeks without him, and a portent of life to come. He’s already twelve years old, and given that I left home when I was seventeen, my sense is of us entering a different stage of parenting, of trying to figure out how hard to hold on, and how much to let go. I intend to do a lot of both. For example, our ten-year-old, who is quite enormously tall, asked to snuggle with us the other night. She just needed to be hugged and held, despite her long legs and muscular shoulders and ability to make me hot lunches.
I’m serious about the hot lunches. She’s made me several this week, thinking up a menu, preparing it, presenting it on a plate, and knocking on my office door. I could get used to this.
The fourth week of our summer holidays is coming to a close. This week has been cool, and marred by ridiculously noisy street-work going on directly outside my window, occasionally causing my entire office to vibrate in such a way that ear plugs become quite useless. It’s also been a tough writing week due to the work that I’m doing. I will come through this and look back on this time fondly, I’m sure, as I always seem to do, but it’s a grind. Instead of entering directly into the book this morning, I skimmed my FB feed, making all kinds of connections and discoveries (or so it felt; nice when procrastination takes on a purposeful aura).
* First I read an article on success by a young tenured professor who believes in giving, doing favours, taking time to do one thing and go deep, and making strong connections. I also appreciated his point that the most highly successful people, whatever their fields, were rarely the most outstanding performers as children, and that in fact it was their motivation and grit that set them apart.
* Which leads me to a blurb I read next explaining why creative people are often eccentric. This is science, folks! Apparently, creative people (and eccentrics) experience cognitive disinhibition, which means their brains fail to filter out extraneous information — I assume this includes sensual and aural information, in addition to the collection of random facts about celebrities while standing in line at the grocery checkout. It’s the ability to process this excess of information without becoming overwhelmed that leads to fascinating breakthroughs. But it can also inspire peculiar behavioral traits. Like Bjork wearing the swan dress at the Oscars, according to the blurb — which was awesomely cool, I thought.
Okay, so stay open and make connections and get gritty.
* I took an online assessment to determine my “Decision Pulse.” It’s quick and easy, and I usually avoid these things like that plague, which shows you how determined I am to be distracted this morning — to open myself to vats of cognitive disinhibition! I make my decisions, according to this quick and easy quiz, based on 1. Humanity 2. Relationships 3. Achievement. Apparently, I don’t care about safety or security at all. (Sorry, family!) I think by “Humanity” the test means humanitarian impulses and the desire to serve a greater good. Which sounds lofty, and may or may not be accurate, though I do spend time each day praying that the work I do will help in some way. That it will heal and nourish rather than hurt.
* Finally, I guffawed with enormous appreciation as I read Anakana Schofield’s brilliant and hilariously written take-down of the shallow, missing-the-point-entirely publicity machine that one steps into when one publishes a book. Anakana is the author of Malarky, which I’ve given to my husband to read right now, and she’s damn funny, and doesn’t seem to care who she’s offending (which is a trait I would dearly like to grow into, but haven’t yet). She’s out in Vancouver and we’ve never met in person, but have enjoyed some back and forth via email regarding exercise habits and, yes, readings and publicity and such. She’s put her finger on something really critical here, too: that it seems everyone wants to be a writer, but no one wants to be a reader. (Consider the proliferation of blogs!) What book publishers should be doing is nurturing readers; and what every writer knows it that public appearances inevitably turn into mini-sessions on “how to be a writer.” But it’s readers writers need, isn’t it. People who love books. People who find solace in words. People who soak up a story, who think about the characters afterward and worry for them. People like me, actually. I love reading. Books are like old friends, companions, sparring partners, comforters, moral compasses, inspirations, teachers.
With that in mind, I’ll turn off my distractions and step into the book I’m making, hoping it will ultimately offer both escape and comfort to a reader like me, sometime, somewhere, somehow.
click on photos to see in full
I haven’t been getting enough sleep and it may be due to my late-night reading material. I just finished Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which should not be dismissed merely because it has an Oprah book club sticker on it. I really loved this memoir. It was everything I hope for in a book: I was entertained, I was moved, I learned new things, I met fascinating characters, it touched me, it felt relevant to my own experience without being preachy, it expressed a deeper human truth while remaining particular and individual, and it had a compassionate moral outlook. And it was written by a woman. Hurray! I’ve been mildly troubled by my male-author-heavy recent reading trend. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading books by both men and women, but I kept waiting for the female-authored book that would speak to me with authority. And Wild did.
I won’t give a detailed plot synopsis, because you’ve probably already heard about the book or even read it yourself, but the narrator is hiking 1100 miles of wilderness trail, by herself, age 26, several years after the death of her mother, as a way to recover her life from a seriously scary downward spiral. Because I read it as an ebook, I can’t easily thumb through to find favourite bits, but I loved when this troubled spirit recognized that her efforts to get out of herself, to escape, had been not actually what she longed for. What she longed for was to get in. It was such a simple and profound way of expressing the paradox of the human mind and spirit: how the easy way out is always a trap, because it prevents us from finding what we really crave, which is a way into ourselves — and the way in is hard. And yet, it’s also not hard because it’s so right, because it lines up who we want to be with who we are, I think. Peace. Grace. Stillness.
So, two things I loved about the book. One, it was about hard physical effort. I related to that as a path to entering into one’s life and self. Two, the acknowledgements. I read the whole book with pleasure and ease, and it almost came as a shock to see the author thanking mentors, grant-giving institutions, writers’ festivals, and writing retreat centres. Right! I thought. This effortless-seeming book was written by a writer. Obvious, I know. But it gave me a feeling of kinship to recognize the work behind the scenes, to remember that every wonderful piece of writing began as an idea, and was supported by an invisible web, and brought to being by the same hard yet right process of steady work. That it didn’t just emerge whole. Cheryl Strayed wrote this book the same way she walked the trail: with help, alone, in doubt, and in hope. Sure, there are some ecstatic moments along the way, but writing a polished and complete book is kind of like walking 1100 miles of wilderness trail (or so I imagine): it’s a grind. You’re going to hate that you’re doing it some days, and think you might actually be crazy. You’ll be afraid and have to tell yourself that you’re not. You’ll be humbled by all you’re not, and also by all you are.
It’s the grind that yields.
In other news …
Most of the fallen tree is now piled in our front yard.
I spent yesterday afternoon deliberating with other members of The New Quarterly’s story jury, as we picked out a winner and runners-up for their emerging writer story contest. I learned a few things that I hope to apply in my creative writing class this fall. One is a total ban on sex scenes — I mean in their stories, not in the classroom; well, actually, I mean both, but the latter does not generally require mentioning. Only well into one’s writing career should one should attempt to write a sex scene, and even then … which reminds me, Cheryl Strayed wrote a really good sex scene. So it’s not that it can’t be done well, it’s just not a promising place to begin. Everything I type right now seems to be loaded with double-entendres. Which is probably part of the problem.
Anyway, that was yesterday, and I also zoomed all over town on my bike. My muscles are aching from lifting weights yesterday morning, and they’re still aching from a push-up extravaganza on Friday morning, not to mention the general battered and bruised feeling I carry following my evening soccer games (now on Thursdays and Sundays), and Saturday’s long run. I’m taking today off except for yoga stretches.
I scored a replay-worthy goal in Sunday’s game. It’s the goal I’ve been envisioning for months. I believing in envisioning, by the way. I believe if you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it in real life. The goal came off of a beautiful cross on a strong run up the left wing. I was on right forward, and running hard. The ball crossed ahead of our centre forward and I caught it on my right foot at the top of the box, controlled it like I knew what I was doing. The centre forward, behind me, told me I had time, take my time, and I did, somehow calmly positioning the ball and as the defender rushed me, I shot it over the goalie’s fingertips, skimming an inch under the bar, and swishing the back of the net.
I get to describe it in detail because it may never happen again. But it happened once. I could not stop grinning for about ten minutes. It was one of those magical sporting moments that keep a person coming back to a game–when it feels like the moment is unfolding separate from thought, purely on instinct, and you know in advance you’re going to do exactly the right thing. You have utter confidence in yourself, and it seems like it’s suddenly so easy. (Of course, it’s not). Everyone who’s played a sport knows what I’m talking about it. Come to think of it, it’s another example of grace.
AppleApple got a goal of her own in last night’s game. CJ and Kevin and I all came along to watch.
And now it’s back to work. The younger kids are at daycamp. Albus will be home from camp in two more sleeps. AppleApple is watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, which she read this spring. And I’m writing scenes that are kind of like candy. They are so fun to read, and to write, it’s weirding me out.
Well, the heatwave broke. And rather dramatically, from our perspective. I was on the phone with a friend when suddenly the sky went dark and the wind blew high. She lives just up the street, so we were both looking out our windows at essentially the same storm, unable to comprehend what we were seeing as the trees were whipped into a furious tumble and the rain came down, lashing so thickly it looked like a descending fog. “Um, what’s happening?” we asked each other.
I think it takes the mind a little while to catch up to an unusual and unexpected event. For whatever reason, I was slow to grasp that there might be any danger.
My kids were standing on the back porch filming the storm with our little camera — I’d told them they were allowed on the porch, not to go into the yard. Suddenly the phone line went dead and a sound like an electronic buzzing — like a paper bag being torn close beside the ear, as a Facebook friend put it — filled the air. It was incredibly loud and innately disconcerting. I ran onto the porch and called the kids inside (we have video of this). That’s when AppleApple and I watched, through the kitchen window, half of a tree come down in our backyard. It fell silently and smoothly and without any ceremony whatsoever.
Our brains couldn’t seem to register what we’d just seen. I said, not at all concerned, “Oh, a tree’s come down.” The winds seemed to turn branches into paper versions of themselves, tossing them wildly.
And then I snapped awake, and we all ran for the basement, dragging the anxious dogs with us. Kevin had left, just before the storm hit, to go to a soccer game. I was thankful for texting. The power went out soon after. The storm passed almost as quickly as it came.
We left our dark house and joined neighbours gathering at our intersection to survey the damage. Every street had big limbs fallen, power lines down, branches and debris everywhere. We walked the dogs slowly around the block, keeping a sharp eye on the trees over our heads, many of which had dangling branches.
Kevin was training in Toronto all day yesterday, so the tree stayed down in the yard. I almost wanted to leave it there. The split down the side of the tree is so long that I’m afraid the half that still stands can’t be saved. I found myself touching the smooth skin of the newly split tree, just under the bark. It was soft, almost silky, though it has since gone hard and dry. It smells like cut boards in a lumber yard, faintly sweet.
The branches spread over the picnic table, creating a little shelter. Miraculously, a blue glass bowl that had been left out on the table, filled with watermelon rinds, was untouched, perfectly intact.
The kids pretended to hold up the tree.
Today, Kevin and AppleApple have spent the entre day slowly removing the fallen tree. Our front yard is now piled with cut branches. It is an enormous job. The yard is a mess. Even half of a tree is huge.
I realize as I write this post that I’m mourning the loss of the tree. But I don’t mean it to be a sad post. In fact, as the kids’ smiling faces show, we came through the storm just fine. We’ve been sleeping better with the cooler weather, especially once the power was restored and we could run the fans again.
Yesterday, I managed a long run during the afternoon while AppleApple was at her goalkeeping clinic. We’ve been biking there, and we passed many fallen trees in Waterloo Park, but the area beyond Columbia Lake, where I ran, seemed untouched by the storm. It was a highly localized event, it would seem. In the evening, after we ate takeout fish and chips, and I did yoga (read: napped on my yoga mat in our living-room in shavasana heaven), we walked uptown, dogs too, to Open Streets, which had a lively relaxed street festival vibe. We listened to a young woman with a huge voice perform in front of the Chainsaw: AppleApple’s face was shining with delight. “I would give up a lot to have a voice like that,” I admitted. Meanwhile, Fooey talked her “very nice parents” (her words) into letting her buy a new pair of earrings from a craftswoman on the street nearby.
She was sunburned from a happy afternoon playing in a soccer game and then swimming. We all had frozen yogurt. The dogs were well-behaved. The kids and I skipped rope in the street. And we walked home in the gathering darkness with paper lanterns lighting our way.
Summer rolls along, sweet and languid, with sudden flashes of strangeness and wonderment. Tomorrow, a good friend and her family leave for year of sabbatical. The following week another good friend and her family will be leaving too, for the same. I wonder what will have changed, again, in another year. Things we can’t guess at, I know, even if we can predict some, and hope for others.
hot and grumpy
Inevitably, having said I was doing a lot of training, along came a random stomach bug (food poisoning?) to lay me low early yesterday morning and now I’ve missed two planned runs. But I prioritized rest and recovery, and am feeling back to normal today, if normal includes being covered in a sheen of perspiration. We don’t have air conditioning. The upstairs thermostat reads 89 degrees (why Fahrenheit? I don’t know).
hot but less grumpy
Kevin gets to go off to his air conditioned office every day, but the rest of us are here, making do with a few fans and running low on popsicles. I’m wearing clothes I’d wear to hot yoga (see photo above), and brainstorming cool foods for supper: gazpacho and fattoush!
even the dogs are grumpy
I don’t envy AppleApple her babysitting duties
On Monday evening, I took the kids to the pool for two hours (two hours!), and discovered that CJ swims far better than I thought he could, given his general sinky-ness in swim lessons, while Fooey swims rather worse (she needs to learn the flutter kick, mainly, and become more efficient at breathing between strokes). CJ wanted to practice, but Fooey was annoyed by my instruction. It’s funny how my kids break down along these lines: Albus and Fooey are similar in many ways, while AppleApple and CJ are similar in others. The latter two accept my instruction as helpful, while the former two loathe it.
I’m more like the latter two. But I try to work with what works for each kid. So Fooey played and splashed, while CJ played and practiced and splashed, and AppleApple did laps and dolphin dives and dove to the bottom of the deep end and found $2.50 in change. When we clambered out two hours later, we were actually, wonderfully, briefly, COLD.
This morning I received a letter from a reader, through my publisher. She’d read both of my books, going so far as to track down Hair Hat, which is out of print, at U of T’s Robarts Library, and she wanted to tell me that she foresaw a bright career developing for me, if I could keep my focus.
Because I do wonder about that: are my chances for success, for a long and happy career, all wrapped up in the focus, in the drive, in the setting of high expectations? At this stage in my life, I’ve come to think the answer to that is No. There’s luck, too, and striking the geyser of zeitgeist, which is beyond unpredictable. And yet, I’ll tell you too, that I keep operating as if the answer is Yes. Because it’s what I’ve got, and I seem to have lots of it. (It being focus, drive, high expectations, etc.)
I operate with the knowledge that failure is ever-present and ever-possible, and that it can only harm me if I let it get in the way of trying. Knowing failure keeps me oddly serene, oddly comforted.
I just keep writing. Like Dory hums in Finding Nemo (yes, I’m quoting a kids’ movie): “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming,” only I hum writing instead of swimming. I’m nearly midway through my revisions of Girl Runner, or at least midway through the manuscript. I’m writing lots of new scenes and loving my main character ever so much. I think you’ll love her too. My editor said she thought readers would Google the character’s name, believing her to be real, and I almost feel that way about her too. What a strange job I have, making people up from scratch. I can’t explain why it makes the slightest bit of sense to do it.
Am I keeping my focus in order to have a bright career?
Probably not, though I’d welcome it if it landed on my doorstep. I keep my focus because I love telling stories. I love digging into the lives of others. I love having them say and feel and do things I could never say or feel or do. I love asking enormous questions. I love being allowed to wonder.
I love the summer photos. Bright skies, bright colours, squinting eyes.
This past Thursday evening illustrates our family’s collective obsession with soccer. With surprising ease, between the hours of 5:30-8:30pm, five out of six of us were involved on soccer fields in multiple locations. Kev and Albus scarfed down hot quiche and were at their practice at 5:30. Using the carshare car, I dropped AppleApple at her practice at 6:45, then drove CJ and Fooey up to another field where Fooey had a game at 7:15 (Kevin coaching). We met Kevin and Albus in the parking lot with a picnic snack, and I zoomed over to Cambridge to play a 7:30 game with my indoor team. Kevin and kids picked up AppleApple on their way home, and serendipitously saw me, just after I’d returned the carshare car, walking home with my gear. Talk about coordination. It felt effortless.
Of course, Thursday also marked the end of regular season play for Fooey — we’ll have to find a new groove, all over again.
On Saturday, Kevin and Fooey had an end-of-season “festival,” and we all came along to cheer. In the afternoon, AppleApple had a goalkeeping clinic, and I brought my yoga mat to stretch. Afterward, we biked to a nearby pool for a cooling dip.
On Sunday, I drove around southwestern Ontario, retrieving one child from a friend’s cottage and dropping two at overnight camp (one not my own): Albus will be gone for two weeks. CJ is already bereft. I arrived home in time to drag my well-numbed butt off to my evening soccer game (we won!).
I’ve been doing a lot of training. Training for what? Not sure, exactly. I’ve signed up for the Toad (25km trail run), and that seems to have given me the drive to follow a regular training schedule. I’ve gone steadily, from weight classes to soccer games to runs, for over two weeks now, without missing a day. Thankfully, I’ve got time for long runs again. I’ve gone out the past two Saturdays, aiming to run approximately an hour and a half to begin. I made it 15km the first week, 16km this past week (in the same amount of time). Sloooow.
It feels different to train myself back up, having done this before. The first time I trained to run long distances (two years ago), I was doing something I’d never imagined I could. So it was a pretty amazing process. Every extra kilometre felt like a miracle. But now I know what I’ve been capable of, and I’m so far from it. It could be discouraging — and I’m grateful that I don’t feel discouraged. I do feel slow. But I recognize that long runs are about reminding yourself that you’ve always got more than you think you do. That’s another way of saying: you have to learn to trust your body. That’s what endurance is actually about, as much as it’s about putting on mileage (though mileage is critical, too).
(And maybe, too, it’s harder to trust your body after injury. I am running on an ankle that is improved, but still not perfectly healed.)
Training for what? On reflection, I think the what doesn’t matter, it’s the why. Training is just a way for me to keep going. I’m in the midst of some very challenging work. I could get discouraged or weary, and I need, somehow, to remain calm, focused, and strong. Training seems to remind me of my own capacity to work hard. It gives me a parallel (and easier) kind of work to counterbalance the extremely quiet interior efforts required here in my office. Training every single day toward an end that isn’t obvious doesn’t feel frivolous or extreme, though it may look that way. I couldn’t sit still — hold so still — without some sense of being in motion. I’d go crazy, I think.
I’ll admit this is not an easy time in my professional life. It’s a lovely time in my personal life. I’m a truly fulfilled mother of wonderful kids. But professionally I feel a constant low-level anxiety. I wonder about the choices I’m making. I question my direction. I’m unsettled.
This may be a function of being a creative person. I wonder: am I by nature an unsettled and restless woman? Then I need a firm, sound body to carry me through. My mind settles when my body is working hard. It gives me peace.