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.
The worst has happened—in terms of your literary life in Canada, that is, which are terms admittedly insular, and insignificant, perhaps, to all but those who’ve published a book of literary fiction in this calendar year. But there it is. Within this specific framework, at this specific moment in your publishing life, the worst has happened. You’re not on the long-list of the premier Canadian fiction prize.
This has just happened.
You’re surprised (and relieved) not to feel envy for those upon whom the light is shining. But you don’t. They need the light too. You don’t begrudge them a single spark.
What you feel, immediately, perhaps inexplicably, is shame and very little else. You feel like vanishing. You feel as raw as if you’d been sliced open, as vulnerable as a scurrying animal exposed in an alien environment. Shame is the most powerful emotion right now. You can’t imagine going outside of your house ever again.
So what are you going to do?
So you sit here writing. You sit and write because what else could you possibly do, especially if you can’t go outside ever again, even though it is a beautiful sunny day? You sit here writing, laughing at yourself, saying, you’re right here, breathing and alive, and you aren’t going to die from this. Your family is beautiful and funny and active, and they love you no less for this. You haven’t done anything wrong or evil. You haven’t hurt anybody. You haven’t actually failed, because there was nothing you could have done differently to pass. You are the same woman you were this morning, and you will be the same woman tomorrow. You will find your footing.
You are not made for the sprint distance, but for the long hard lonely run.
It isn’t meant to be easy, because if it were, it would count for nothing in your mind.
It’s meant to be hard. You learn most when it’s hard. You learn how to access reserves of strength and humour you did not know you had. You learn how to feel things deeply. You learn compassion for the deep, painful feelings of others. You learn repair. You learn self-governance and self-control. You learn discipline. Maybe, after you’re through writing this post, you’ll learn perspective, too, letting go, you’ll go eat some lunch. So, this is the worst that could happen? So, your reward is not going to be a bright prize and audience applause? You don’t know what your reward is going to be. It doesn’t matter. You aren’t doing this for the reward, you never were, and you never will. You’re doing this for life. You’re doing this to pattern words into story, to carry a reader into another world, to share your ideas in ways that can be taken in deeply and felt.
You want readers to find your book, so this is a disappointment. You know disappointment. It’s a totally non-lethal side effect, a condition of being who you are, someone with high hopes, dreamy and possibly delusional optimism, joyful dogged effort. And joyful dogged effort can’t be stopped by disappointment, only paused briefly, stalled briefly, here in this little rut of a moment that must be walked through to be gotten through.
It’s going to hurt, yes. It hurts, yes. This too is life. This too shall pass. Already it occurs to you that you may, in fact, be able to leave your house and go outside again. Perhaps even later this afternoon. It’s going to be okay.
And tomorrow you’ll write something else because tomorrow this will look different to you again. This is of the moment. This a record of what is happening now.
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.
There is so much in this interview with Alice Munro, from 1994 in The Paris Review, that I want to go on quoting and quoting from it. Here is a sample. I urge you to read the whole thing (pour yourself a cup of tea and enjoy the length, depth, and breadth of the conversation). And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction.
MUNRO I was like a Victorian daughter—the pressure to marry was so great, one felt it was something to get out of the way: Well, I’ll get that done, and they can’t bug me about it, and then I’ll be a real person and my life will begin. I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, This was a hard-hearted young woman. I’m a far more conventional woman now than I was then.
INTERVIEWER Doesn’t any young artist, on some level, have to be hard-hearted?
MUNRO It’s worse if you’re a woman. I want to keep ringing up my children and saying, Are you sure you’re all right? I didn’t mean to be such a . . . Which of course would make them furious because it implies that they’re some kind of damaged goods. Some part of me was absent for those children, and children detect things like that. Not that I neglected them, but I wasn’t wholly absorbed. When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I’ve told her that. This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me. I feel I’ve done everything backwards: this totally driven writer at the time when the kids were little and desperately needed me. And now, when they don’t need me at all, I love them so much. I moon around the house and think, There used to be a lot more family dinners.
And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction. After a while, Munro took us to Goderich, a bigger town, the county seat, where she installed us in the Bedford Hotel on the square across from the courthouse. The hotel is a nineteenth-century building with comfortable rooms (twin beds and no air-conditioning) that would seem to lodge a librarian or a frontier schoolteacher in one of Munro’s stories. Over the next three days, we talked in her home, but never with the tape recorder on. We conducted the interview in our small room at the hotel, as Munro wanted to keep “the business out of the house.” Both Munro and her husband grew up within twenty miles of where they now live; they knew the history of almost every building we passed, admired, or ate inside. We asked what sort of literary community was available in the immediate area. Although there is a library in Goderich, we were told the nearest good bookstore was in Stratford, some thirty miles away. When we asked whether there were any other local writers, she drove us past a ramshackle house where a man sat bare chested on the back stoop, crouched over a typewriter, surrounded by cats. “He’s out there every day,” she said. “Rain or shine. I don’t know him, but I’m dying of curiosity to find out what he’s up to.”
This is excerpted from a long interview called “The Art of Fiction” with Lorrie Moore in the Paris Review, from 2001. You can read the whole thing here. (With thanks to Anakana Schofield for pointing me to it.)
INTERVIEWER Could you talk about the moment you decided to become a writer, if there was one that you can put your finger on? Or was it always obvious?
MOORE It’s never always obvious.
INTERVIEWER Some writers seem to think it was inevitable—they were writing poems when they were five and never stopped.
MOORE Does that mean it’s obvious? I’d like to see some of those poems.
INTERVIEWER So you don’t feel you were destined to it, that you had no other choice but to be a writer?
MOORE Well, that’s all very romantic, and I can be as romantic as the next person. (I swear.) But the more crucial point is the moment you give yourself permission to do it, which is a decision that is both romantic and bloody-minded—it involves desire and foolish hope, but also a deep involvement with one’s art, some sort of useful self-confidence, and some kind of economic plan. One’s life, especially one’s artistic life, is an interplay of many things and the timing of encouragement—from teachers or parents—is also one of the most important elements. Although both my parents are creative people in their way, I was not especially encouraged by them, which might have been good. I certainly don’t blame them. I think they believed you threw things at your children—lessons, books, music—and then let the children sort it out, that if you were too present or too committed to a child’s accomplishment in any area, the child would run away. This, of course, is not really true. Or rather it’s not extremely true. But I received most of my initial encouragement in college, from professors, and by then I was ready to absorb it. I didn’t have the financial freedom to be a writer and have always struggled with that, but I also knew I didn’t want to find myself sixty-five years old and ruing the moment in my youth when I became prematurely practical. I wasn’t at all sure whether I would be able to survive as a writer for the rest of my life. But I decided to keep going for as long as I could and let someone else lock me up for incurable insanity.