I keep track of my book-reading life in a separate section of this blog (under Extras), but as this is the year of WRITE, I’d like to highlight the connection between writing and reading by sharing some of my book-related reflections here, too. Because really, it can’t be a year of WRITE if it’s not also a year of READ. (And if you ever want advice from me on how to be a writer, here’s the only decent answer I’ve got: PRACTICE your writing like you’d practice the piano; and READ all the time, everything you can get your hands on, especially but not exclusively in the styles and forms you admire.)
So. Reading life. Below are three books I’ve read recently. But first I want to tell you about the newspaper article I read this morning in the Globe & Mail, an interview with two young women, both 13, both in grade 8 (and therefore the same age as my eldest, who is a boy). It’s the most clear-eyed, clear-headed perspective on sex education that I’ve ever come across. I love these young women! (Their parents must be pretty awesome too.) I’d like to have my older kids read this interview and then discuss it with them. Here’s a brief excerpt: What do you wish boys would understand? “Boys need to understand that women aren’t sex objects or lesser people. … Girls aren’t this whole other world. Boys and girls actually aren’t that different and they should be treated like they aren’t that different. Otherwise nothing is going to change.”
What I’m reading …
〉 Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
* Christmas gift from Kevin to me
I’ve become a Sarah Waters fan. This book seriously creeped me out, but I could not stop reading it. It’s set in Victorian England and it’s gritty and dirty and full of evil plots and human foulness, and lots of things I’m actually quite squeamish about, but I was completely taken in. Plot twists? By the dozen. Never saw ’em coming. Waters is phenomenally good at storytelling, and at capturing the intimate details of an historical time period. I’m taking mental notes as I read her. I wasn’t sure what the message at the core of the book was, exactly — it seemed emptier at its core than The Little Stranger — but I didn’t really care either. I just wanted to devour the book and piece everything together. When I have time, I will definitely be reading more of Sarah Waters. (Problem is, I couldn’t put the book down, and was up late on a few nights, turning pages….)
〉 Fair Play, by Tove Jansson, translated from the Finnish, with a foreword by Ali Smith
* bought on my Kobo
This book challenged me. I really wanted to love it, and found that I could only like it. It is a series of small stories about two characters, loosely (or perhaps not so loosely) based on Jansson and her partner, a woman who was an artist. I kept mixing up the main characters’ names; they didn’t seem that different from each other, and that was one of the problems I had with the book. The other problem was the structure of the stories, which at times seemed overly and overtly plotted, even while most ended with a severe abruptness that seemed indicative of an undeveloped thought. Yet, even while my writer brain critiqued the stories’ structure, I was nevertheless drawn into this slightly odd world being portrayed, of two artists and friends (the specifics of their relationship are never explained, but they do live together at times and often share a bed), who share their lives and their work with each other. I can’t imagine having such a close friendship with another artist, one who would criticize my work even while I’m making it; that’s a level of collaboration that I really can’t fathom. I can’t fathom knowing another woman quite this well, I suppose, too. It’s a bit strange, as I’m thinking about this now, that we totally normalize pairing up and sharing our lives and space with a sexual partner, but a platonic friendship with the same depth of understanding and time spent together seems strange (or it seems strange to me, anyway). The exception to the strangeness was that brief period in my life when I had roommates, and it seems connected specifically to youth, pre-marriage. There were so many things I liked about being that close to my friends — sharing food, social lives, plans, down-time, the daily small miseries and joys. I know there were downsides too, and irritations; Jansson depicts these well. This book made me long for closer friendships — closer than is possible in my current life, which revolves around raising kids.
〉 A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker
* ordered on Amazon.ca as an impulse buy when purchasing photo albums for Christmas gifts
The opening chapters of the book are well-written and fascinating, and support my own style of writing, which he calls “classic prose.” I really loved seeing Pinker diagram and break down sentences to show why they work (or don’t), in terms of the basic structure. We can only hold a very limited amount of information in our short-term memories, so the order in which our brain receives new information matters in terms of the ease of making connections between parts. That’s why a poorly written sentence stops us up, makes us puzzle over the parts as we try to connect them in the sense the author has intended. And a well-written sentence simply skims by, clear and well-lit. In a sense, it explains to me why it’s easy to overlook excellent writing: because it’s easy to understand, a reader assumes it’s a) easy to write and/or b) simplistic. But in fact clear writing, or classic prose, a) takes great skill to write and can be used to b) effectively communicate complex ideas. Pinker gets bogged down in his final chapter, which put me to sleep night after night, in which he logically and rationally argues over points of grammar and usage. I found his arguments sensible, on the whole, until he started arguing for rather than against particular grammatical sticking points — then he sounded just like the grammar police he was railing against. Point being: grammar is not a science. Grammar is an agreed-upon set of rules that aid clear communication, and when not-agreed-upon, well, that’s where history and tradition butt up against popular usage. Unfortunately, I come away from the book without a clearer idea of how to teach students to punctuate their sentences “properly.” I simply could not wrap my head around Pinker’s “grammar trees,” in which he diagrammed sentences using different names to categorize the parts of the sentence than the names I’m familiar with. I don’t know if this is because I’m stupid about theory (which I am, in some ways), or whether grammar is just too complicated no matter how clear you try to make your explanation, especially when you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty bits. I couldn’t imagine trying to take Pinker’s trees to my students in an attempt to make common grammatical errors clearer to them.
Now, your turn. What are you reading?
PS A review of Girl Runner from the Daily Mail in the UK arrived in my inbox this morning. I’m too chicken to read it, but Kevin promises me it’s good. Apparently this is an accurate excerpt: “Original … moving … engrossing.” (Dunno what words came in between those, but I sure hope “not” wasn’t among them …)
Whenever I float the idea of not blogging anymore (and it’s an idea that keeps bubbling up, with somewhat alarming frequency, actually), I know exactly what I would miss most: connections. A friend texted after my last post to say it had reminded her of a cartoon she’s kept for years: a woman stands alone, thinking, “I wonder if I would be happier if I put as much effort into accepting myself as I do into changing myself.”
That got me thinking.
What if I were to focus on accepting myself? What would that look like?
It would mean I wouldn’t shame myself for wanting to share my thoughts out loud. I would stop calling it a compulsion (a pretty judgemental word).
It would mean I might see my writing in simpler terms. I would accept what I’m able to create and do.
It would mean, maybe, too, that I wouldn’t be so frustrated during these rough patches (like right now) when I’m squeezed for writing time and my days are spent looking after sick kids, out of routine; because these days are gifts too, and my work is not only to write write write, but to live live live. To be alive is to be with others, to be interrupted, to fail, to be frustrated, emotional, achy, tired, weak, and surrounded by the fruits of your labours, which sometimes feel really heavy. If I accept myself, I accept that my days are broken. I accept that I have limits and limitations. I accept, too, that I’m on a path of my own choosing and virtually everything I do is in service to something or someone I care deeply about–how fortunate is that!
I have a question for myself: if I focus on accepting myself, would I discover that I am an ambitious woman, or a woman who is content with muddling along? Can I be both?
This morning, when the plumber arrived to hopefully fix our toilet before our annual scotch party this Saturday, I was on the couch by the fire with the dogs, enjoying the last minutes of my nap. I answered the door, trying to appear not to have been recently asleep. We exchanged pleasantries and I showed him the problem, then removed myself to chastise and crate the dogs, who had threatened to remove the plumber from his leg. Then I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Now, I tell myself that the plumber has no idea what I ordinarily look like, so perhaps he wasn’t as frightened as I was by the sight of me.
My hair had dried funny and a sizeable clump was standing straight out over my left ear.
And I looked approximately a decade older than I actually am due to raccoon-like, circular, darkish, bruised-looking dents around my eyes. Goggle eyes!
Evidence of early morning swim. It lasts longer some mornings.
The good news is this: I got up to swim.
I’m managing to rise early every single week-day to exercise. More good news: I was able to run intervals at an indoor track yesterday. Very very slowly. When I tried out the running a couple of weeks ago, it’s possible I was going way too fast. Oops. That’s not like me at all. Ahem. But even a slow run is thrilling when it’s pain-free. Add in the daily walking at my treadmill desk, and I’m actually covering a lot of kilometres these days.
And I’m trying to meditate, just the tiniest bit. Ten minutes a day. It reminds me of swimming laps. I do a lot of counting and controlled breathing while swimming laps.
Today, AppleApple wondered why I don’t swim faster; this was not exactly a critique. Despite being a quite damning critic of the inefficient swimming styles she observes in the lanes all around us, she says my stroke actually looks like it’s being done correctly. But with such a proper-looking stroke, she thinks I should be going faster, and I agree. So perhaps there are unseen inefficiencies. Next time, on her suggestion, I’m going to try rotating my shoulders more — stretching forward on the glide like I’m making myself as long as I possibly can. (Why do I always imagine that I can improve, no matter what I’m trying to do? Is that a really irritating trait?)
The plumber has left. The dogs have calmed down.
It’s time for meditation, followed by walking and writing. Nobody will be here to see the goggle eyes or to judge the sticky-out chlorinated hair, not even me. I’ll be gone too; that’s what it feels like when I’m writing, like I’ve left the room, left this season and place and time. Away: inventing imaginary memories for imaginary people who seem so strangely real.
(Note to self: check mirror before picking up kids for piano lessons.)
It’s a long week, this one. I’ve had a lot on my plate, and therefore have been unable to put into practice, with regularity and insularity, my word-of-the-year: WRITE. The first two weeks of January stand out as this kind of cocooned ideal, during which there seemed just the right balance of, well, everything. Early mornings, quiet concentration during school hours, busy after-school activities, family suppers, time to unwind late in the evening. Add onto the schedule, and something has to give. And that something is so often this: WRITE.
To write takes inward focus. Publicity work pulls the energy outward. There’s attention, and there’s attention: two different meanings for that word. I can’t and won’t complain about receiving attention for my writing, because this is what sustains a career. But how to receive attention and also remain vigilant and protective of my quiet time? I haven’t figured it out. I’d like to ask someone who would know better than I do, someone who’s received far more attention and yet continues to make space and time to write. Someone like Miriam Toews. I wish I’d asked her last fall when I had the chance, when we were in the same place together, on several occasions.
It’s winter. This is good inward-delving time, always has been. The pull is to this keyboard and screen, which take me into my mind, into scenes that surprise and intrigue me, chasing characters I’ll never meet, yet who feel completely real. I don’t know why I want to do this, nor what practical use it could possibly serve, yet here’s where I’m drawn: into the imagination.
Maybe because real life is hard, sad? Maybe I’m seeking symmetry and wholeness and the balance only fictional framing can offer.
I wasn’t going to blog this morning, because I didn’t want to disappear into internet-land, where time melts away. But I wanted to share a morning thought, a fireside thought, so I’ve set my timer for 15 minutes, and here goes.
I spend a lot of time taking care of myself.
I didn’t always.
I spend a lot of time taking care of myself and my family seems to have benefitted, too.
Mothering doesn’t mean never doing anything for yourself. Okay, this is easier to state and to claim once your babies are weaned, potty-trained, sleeping through the night, and going to school full-time. Much much much easier. And maybe that period of mothering did mean never doing anything exclusively for myself, and maybe I didn’t feel like a martyr because I found the involvement in my babies’ lives so satisfying.
But now–now. Now, I wake up early to exercise. I don’t have to. No one’s making me. But it makes my whole day better. So I do it.
I do it even though the only way I can manage it is if I nap to compensate for lost sleep. So I do. I prioritize napping. Today I napped a little longer because last night I was at a book club in a restaurant, speaking and reading, and that took more energy than my usual evenings demand. And I wanted to get up early and meet my friend and go for a walk this morning. So I did.
I walked, I did physio exercises by the fire, I napped extra long. Tonight, I’ll be at the same book club, only with different ticket-holders. (4 minutes left on timer! Agh! The pressure!)
This morning, I also helped with violin and piano practice and getting kids off to school. I was pleasant and calm, without having to remind myself to be pleasant and calm — I was pleasant and calm because the walk was good, talking with a friend was good, the feedback from the book club was good, and even though I was extra-tired, I knew I could nap extra-long.
Does my life seem ideally rather than realistically organized? Maybe so. I’m extremely fortunate not to be working outside my home during school hours. And that I get to take my laptop to gymnastics and soccer and work at odd hours. And that I get to write for a living. I don’t know whether I deserve any of this (probably not), but I know that it’s taken deliberate work to arrange my days and hours, given life’s many variables, in a way that allows me to take care of myself. I’ve thrown out a lot of bad habits along the way.
And I’ve (noooo! 15 minutes gone by. Setting timer for another 7…)
What was I going to say?
Take care of yourself, people, that’s what I was going to say. Recognize what feeds you, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel cared for and loved, what challenges you to be your better self. Recognize it. And do it. I know this isn’t realistic advice for everyone. I know not everyone has support or financial resources or time. Maybe you’re in a whirl of despair or depression. This will sound naive and blinkered, this advice. Or maybe you’ve already figured all of this out!
What’s your recipe for self-care? What are the things you do that make your day better?
Here’s my recipe, right now, January 2015: wake up early, exercise, naps, friends, being with the kids, music while driving, Friends episodes while doing boring physio exercises, books, writing, and the phrase “I accept”
PS Timer totally went while I was typing that last sentence …
Sunday morning. Family reading by the fire. The French horn being practiced, drowning out the radio. Smoothies and eggs for breakfast. I’m sitting in comfy pants at my desk looking at photos I took yesterday afternoon out in the wintry countryside, for my brother and sister, who are the band Kidstreet.
I got up early every morning this past week, but not on the weekend. I wrote every day.
I write during the day, but because my working hours are foreshortened due to children arriving home from school, or music lessons, I’m always looking for additional time slots, especially useful if I’m in the flow of a project; less useful if I’m trying to manufacture a scene or story from scratch. On Tuesday I took my laptop to gymnastics and wrote, and on Friday I took my laptop to soccer practice and wrote. I even took my laptop to piano lessons, and wrote, although that was more of a challenge, as I had bored children waiting on the bench beside me, angling for snacks and chat. I couldn’t use the ear plugs I usually do, while writing. (I even use ear plugs when I’m home alone with the dogs in the middle of the day; it’s a physical cue that helps me focus.)
On Friday, I had a fascinating correspondence with my Dutch translators, who sent over a series of questions about the nuances of words and phrases in Girl Runner.
The coming week will be different, as I’ve got three book club appearances on three consecutive evenings — two involve a meal in a restaurant for a book club called “An Appetite for Reading.” Will I be able to get up early every morning? I’m going to try. But no running. I was going to say, no running, sadly, but you know, I have to accept where my body is at, and be grateful that I’ve got options: spinning, yoga, swimming, walking, strength-training. I tried doing run/walk intervals this week, and the pain re-appeared immediately. It had been gone, even through heavy spinning and swimming, so it appears to be running-induced. Which means that for now, I’m a runner in spirit only … religiously doing my physio exercises and testing out running shoes on the treadmill, while walking and writing. (Ironically, I just got a new gig testing running shoes for a running magazine and boxes of shoes keep arriving at the door.)
And now, I think it’s time to write a poem, before another Sunday morning vanishes. Piano being practiced. Swim lesson prep has begun. Ear plugs in.