Category: Writing

The Small Stuff

Sometimes it’s the smallest of changes that make room for a happier daily life; it’s also easy to forget the small changes, and assume that life has always been just like this. But as I puttered around my kitchen this morning, in the pre-dawn, I realized, no, life has not always been just like this. This would have seemed unthinkable a year ago. What’s changed?

1. Sunday night scheduling. Sounds dull. But how incredibly helpful it is to sit down with Kevin and discuss what’s on the menu (literally and figuratively) for the week ahead. I jot down meal ideas for each day. We plot out car use, and any blips in the routine. No longer am I stuck for meal ideas. And we find or make extra time.

2. Exercise. Guess what I do with my extra time? Some of it is spent going to yoga, or running. I am currently holding steady at two 90-minute yoga classes each week, and two 6-8km runs. This would be unthinkable were it not for advance planning. And because it’s scheduled out, I’m much less likely to skip the chance to go, knowing what I’d be sacrificing.

3. Date night. Part of our problem, typical of partners working and raising young children, is that we are often like two ships passing in the night (is that the phrase?). Kevin plays hockey and soccer, both fairly late at night. My yoga classes are over the supper hour, so on those days, he runs in the door, and I run out. I also schedule evening outings, occasionally, with my siblings, and, about once a week, with friends. So when do we get together to be ourselves and not just to talk about schedules and kids? Earlier this fall, we began booking a regular sitter, and committed to taking one evening a week just for the two of us. Marriage is for the long-haul. We need to stay connected beyond schedules and kids, because before we know it, it will just be the two of us rattling around our house, reminiscing about these crazy busy days.

4. Getting out of the house. This could have come first, actually. It’s a huge change for me, not really a small one. During my early years of motherhood, I was a hard-core stay-at-home mama. I could go months without leaving the kids for an evening (and, no, that is not an exaggeration). I wanted to do it all myself. I loved that time with them and did not resent it. But this new stage is good, too. I think the rule of thumb is: to thine own self be true. And know that part of being true is recognizing shifts and changes within one’s own self, as they happen. The kids have become so accustomed to me getting out of the house, without them, that it’s old hat. I kiss them goodbye, and they know and trust that I will come back. No drama. No fuss. (And no, it wasn’t always like that; and all the fuss and crying and drama made it so much harder to get out).

5. Nursery school. As a hard-core-stay-at-homer, I didn’t even consider nursery school for my oldest kids. I provided them with crafts, puzzles, baking projects, singing, playdates, regular trips to the library, park, Children’s museum, and swimming at the rec centre. But after eight years, or so, I was growing weary. I realized my interest and enthusiasm were flagging. Those two youngest were not getting the enriched childhood they deserved. Almost exactly a year ago, I landed on the idea of nursery school. It was a HUGE leap for me. CJ started a year ago in January, one morning a week, which by April I’d upped to two mornings. And this September, I cheerfully threw him into three mornings a week. I would consider sending him daily next September when Fooey heads off to first grade. (She’s also gotten to tag along to the nursery school experience, going every other Friday when she’s not at kindergarten). And here’s the thing: CJ loves it. I’m not saying the older kids were deprived. But I would be the last to judge or criticize either version of early childhood: either/both can work.

6. Spirit. My word for this year. Bless that word. I don’t know whether I would have necessarily turned down experiences were it not for that word (turning down experiences is not in my nature), but I may not have sought out so many experiences related to the spirit. I don’t know why I need permission or nudging to move me in certain directions. Maybe I don’t. But I like having projects. Especially projects that spread over a long period of time, and require regular attention. The 365-project falls into that category. As I approach this solstice season, and Christmas, and my birthday, and the coming new year, I want to take time to reflect on the projects ahead: small and big, new and old. What word will come to define this year?

7. Confidence. As I walked past my own reflection in storefront windows yesterday evening, I realized my self looked unfamiliar to me: older, probably. I looked like a grownup woman, occupied, on her way somewhere. And I thought to myself, how interesting that as I grow older, I am becoming more and more known to myself on the inside, while on the outside, I know myself less and less. Maybe that isn’t entirely true, given the 365-project. Or maybe it’s just this: the outside seems to matter less. I’d like to believe that who I am shines through, and always will, no matter how much I change on the outside.

8. Portfolios. One last small change. This brilliant, brilliant, brilliant idea, which I may have mentioned before, came from friends of ours, who split up the household tasks, and call them “portfolios.” Bathroom cleaning would be an example of a portfolio. Dentist. School lunches. Kevin has taken over those last two portfolios, and what a difference it’s made in my life (and maybe in his, too).

Women’s Writing: Discuss

Must must must link to this provocative and well-argued piece, by Kerry Clare, on women’s fiction, and how it continues to be viewed by critics as being of lesser value than men’s fiction, even now, long after Virginia Woolf wrote about the issue in A Room of One’s Own: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop–everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.” 
In her essay, Clare posits that the gestational approach to plot in a book like Lisa Moore’s February is indeed very much unlike the conclusion-driven fiction that we consider to be traditionally male; but that the layered and continual sock-folding nature of “feminine” fiction should not and cannot be dismissed simply because it approaches time and human transitions differently.
I guess my question is: do women really understand time and action differently than men do? Is this a feminine quality, or does it relate more to the fact that more women than men, even now, spend time folding socks, and completing repetitive daily tasks? Do our bodies call us to observe and reflect upon repetition and a less linear understanding of time, are women by nature gestational beings? Just asking. I don’t know.
Read the article. And then comment, because I really want to know what you think (… as I sit here, writing what seems to me to be a prototypically feminine book).

The Car

Pickle Me This has posted its picks for 2011: Canada Reads Independently, and this year I was asked to champion a book, not an easy thing to do as it turns out. How to choose? In the end, though I wanted to go with something newer or more obscure, I had to champion a writer who has been with me for many years (in my imagination, I mean), and who has deeply influenced my own writing–and whose work I return to perhaps even more often than L.M. Montgomery’s or Agatha Christie’s. (My taste is not highbrow). Interested in finding out more? Click here.

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In other news, I find myself obsessed with an accident that occurred in our neighbourhood, in which a twelve-year-old boy was struck by a vehicle while crossing the street (in the crosswalk). (He survived, but will have a long recovery). The boy was outside, on his own; not unlike I hope for my own children and other children of the neighbourhood to be able to be. And for all my primitive brain fears of losing a child to a stranger, my rational brain understands that the car is a much greater danger to them, outside, on their own.

My children have walked with me since they were very small, all over town; a fairly large proportion of our conversations, while walking, have related to how we are negotiating with traffic. Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of teachable moments while walking with my children. My conclusion is that our city is not a safe place to walk. Pedestrians can follow the rules of the road, but this will simply not guarantee their safety: they must use instinct and constant attention; a lot of ask to anyone, let alone of a child.

How many times have my children and I waited at a crosswalk, with the signal telling us that it is our right of way, while a driver, who wishes to turn right on a red light (her legal right, too), inches forward, head craning to look the other way: she will step on the gas and go if it’s all clear on her left and never look to see what’s before her: a child, a mom, a stroller, a cyclist. My kids have been taught to make eye contact with drivers before making the decision to cross the street. On their walks to school, they’ve waited for vehicles whose drivers are backing out of driveways without ever once checking behind for children walking on the sidewalk. An elderly woman waved to my daughter at a crosswalk, typically a sign that the car is waiting for the pedestrian to cross; fortunately, my daughter had only taken a step before the woman zoomed through the intersection. Apparently she was just saying Hello to the cute little child, as she hurried on her way. These are not isolated incidents; similar things happen every day. We might call them minor, but they are inches away from being major.

As pedestrians, of course we have to stay vigilant. But pedestrian vigilance is surely not the only or even the best answer to this problem, which seems to go much deeper, and speaks to the many sacrifices our culture has made on the altar of the car. Our cities are built not to move people, but to move cars.

The way we think about driving is mixed up, too. We consider driving to be a right; getting a driver’s licence is also a rite of passage. We forget that driving is actually a privilege and a responsibility.

To get inside a car is to enter a sealed bubble; it distances us from the world we’re driving through. How often am I hurrying to get somewhere, or late, or distracted by grumpy children behind me? Getting into the car does not make me a kinder, more aware, more empathetic person; it makes me quite the opposite. I become impatient. It’s the last place I want to be–in between, en route from somewhere to somewhere else, and not enjoying the journey. Inside the car is about the only place you’ll ever hear me swear (oh–though you might hear me swearing at cars when I am walking).

Yet I am very very appreciative of our vehicle. I use it primarily to ferry kids to activities that our family considers valuable: theatre school, music lessons, horseback riding. I’m not prepared, voluntarily, at this moment in time, to live entirely car-free. But I do want to try to live as car-free as possible. I want to remind myself, always, of the heavy responsibility that I bear as a driver: for lives both inside and outside of my vehicle. And I want to be able to walk safely in my city.

What are some next steps, as I consider how to bring about real changes? At the very least, a letter to the editor. But I also need to clarify my thoughts on the subject. Should I consider researching and writing about the car, about walkable cities, about how to get from where we are now to where we could be? How does change happen, especially change that feels enormous and structural? Any ideas?

Friends, I Signed the Contract … and other news

I wonder what picture I create–of my life, and of my character–here in Blogland, and whether it relates, even somewhat accurately, to reality. I don’t mean that I deliberately attempt to misrepresent myself, only that I often blog about best intentions, questions, hopes and plans, and forget to follow up with the hey-here’s-what-happened-with-that post.

So here’s what happened with a few things …
1. Kids playing outside, alone.
The most wonderful thing happened this weekend: two boys from Albus’s grade, twins who live up the street, spontaneously appeared on our front porch, dressed in winter garb and throwing snowballs, to invite Albus to play with them! Seriously! No parents were involved (though we did give Albus permission to go). Off the three of them went, tumbling like puppy dogs, to have a snowball fight. And the twins came back again yesterday, and Albus spent about three hours playing outside with them, all over the neighbourhood, all on their own. I am thrilled. And I had not a moment’s pang about his independence and freedom to wander. I think this has to do with several factors: he’s old enough, and he’s not alone, but with friends.
2. The book. The publisher. 
Okay, I’ve been wanting to make a formal announcement for awhile, but the truth is that no moment ever feels quite momentous enough, and in any case the good news has leaked out in dribs and drabs and you probably already know what I’m going to say. But just in case … I signed a contract with a publisher! The publisher is the wonderful, independent, Canadian House of Anansi Press. (Please visit them, and pick up some of their books for Christmas gifts, which you can get directly from them for 30% off. Yes, I am shilling on their behalf; but only because I think the books are that good. Offhand, for grownups, I would recommend: Far to Go, by Alison Pick; Annabel, by Kathleen Winter; February, by Lisa Moore. Their children’s imprint is Groundwood, which publishes the Sam and Stella books, by Marie-Louise Gay, and the classic Zoom, by Tim Wynne-Jones, illustrated by Eric Beddows. Good, good, good.)

The tentative pub date may sound like a long way off to anyone not involved in writing and publishing books, but sounds plenty soon to me: Fall, 2012.

I’ve been working with Anansi’s editor, Melanie Little, for several months now, and if you spot me mumbling to myself on the walk to school, or looking particularly grumpy/lost/absent, please be kind. The transition between writing time and mama-time is not always smooth, especially if I’ve had to leave a story unfinished (which is most days). Don’t take offense, run in the opposite direction, or report me to the authorities, please. Really, I want you to approach and talk to me. Throw me a lifejacket. Pull me out. 
I am thankful for yoga, which gives me time to empty my mind so that it can be filled anew. I am thankful for a recent writing week, which yielded another story and a half, and solid new ideas to boot. I am thankful to Kevin for doing more dishes and cooking more suppers than he did even a few months ago. I am thankful for an excellent nursery school, public school, and babysitter. And I am most thankful to have a publisher’s support backing this work. I won’t say it’s erased all anxieties or doubts, but it’s a true gift to know others are out there, rooting for this book, and doing their best to make it all that it can be.
3. Green dreams. Confessions.
People, I am dreaming green and living grey. I drive my kids to swim lessons (yes, it is walking distance). On a rotten weather day last week, I drove to pick up the kids from school. I had no excuse except convenience and comfort. And I keep using the drier! (There continue to be lice outbreaks at school, but still …). Last Wednesday, while Albus was at piano lessons, I lost my mind at the grocery store (at least I’d walked there), and in a sleep-deprived haze grabbed off the shelves several boxes of snacks and treats. Packaged up in plastic and cardboard. With ingredients I can’t pronounce. Better versions of which I could have made at home. There. I won’t go on. Just know that my intentions are good, but they are not good enough.
4. Is there anything else?
Probably. But that’s all for now. I am inches from finishing a Really Good Story. I’ll let you know how it turns out … or will I?

Writing Week

Today was supposed to be the start a writing week, which would include this weekend, and every day of the coming week. Though I’m still not prepared to announce details, I am already working with an editor on the latest draft of The Juliet Stories, and expect the ink to dry on the publishing contract fairly soon, at which point I will shed superstition and tell. Suffice it to say, there is work to be done, and I am glad to be doing it. But twelve hours a week does not feel like enough time in which to accomplish what I want to do. So, Kevin kindly offered to help me make more time. Writing weeks are hard on everyone, require a ton of extra scheduling and planning, and are, frankly, a gruelling way to produce new work. But I’ve found them to be an extremely efficient use of time. The last writing week, I wrote two new stories while spending my days and nights completely lost in my own head. I need that level of focus. Therefore, the planned writing week. But early on in the planning, it seemed the week was already being chipped away at: AppleApple’s eighth birthday happened to fall during the week; there were necessary parties and cakes to be made; then The New Quarterly contacted me about their fall launch–yup, during writing week. But we decided to go ahead, largely because this was the only week that could work before the new year.

Yesterday morning, my grandma passed away. How quickly plans change. How easily they can be changed, when something critical arises. How little the little problems matter. Of course, we will be at her funeral–no matter when it falls. What could be more important than taking time to honour her life?

I am looking at a photograph of my grandma holding Albus. He is six months old, a drooling fat baby, nearly wriggling out of her arms. She is so completely herself in the photograph. A small smile crosses her lips as she gazes down at him. Her hair is done, like it always was. I think of all the ways that she was there for me, even though we lived at a distance. I remember the angel food cakes that she made for many of my birthdays: with strawberry icing. We were frequently travelling on my birthday, which falls between Christmas and New Year’s; I remember on several occasions that we blew out candles and ate Grandma’s specially-made cake for breakfast, before my family set out on a long birthday drive home. Her recipe for sugar cookies (a very unusual cookie that looks and tastes like a muffin top) was the last recipe she gave me: I phoned to get it a few years ago. She was already showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s, but she was able to read me her recipe, which was for a batch twice as large as the one I make (and which is posted on the blog). She had lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren to bake for. She not only produced enormous batches of cookies and other baked goods, pickles, and all manner of canned foods; she also worked outside the home for most of her life. I never heard her complain. She was possibly the most composed person I’ve ever met. She could be relied upon to bring calm and dignity to any situation.

So. This is what this writing week will bring instead: memories, family time, and a batch of sugar cookies. Who knows, it may bring some stories home, too.

House of Leaves

Thinking about commitment today. It has been a week since I last ran or went to a yoga class … the longest stretch in this past year.

It’s been a busy seven days. I even got my hair cut early Saturday morning, and glammed up for a party on Saturday night. And just to bump life up into an extra level of exciting, on Sunday/Monday, I was honoured to doula at a birth: friends from the neighbourhood. Like most babies I’ve met, this little guy decided to arrive in the wee hours before dawn. I was home in time for a Thanksgiving dinner, but not home in time to have to cook the turkey. Kevin’s rookie attempt was delicious, and we feasted for what seemed like an entire afternoon. Thanksgiving might possibly be my favourite holiday: please pass the gravy, thank you! But I woke up yesterday morning with a scratchy voice, which is no better and perhaps worse this morning. Are you hearing all of my excuses in this post? All of the logical reasons that have conspired against a week’s worth of exercise? Oh, there’s one more. I am also getting treatment for a shoulder injury that hasn’t budged for two months. Truthfully, though, during my spurts of inspiration, none of the above would be enough to stop me.

Which is why I am thinking about commitment. Is this dip in energy temporary? I believe that it is. I will get back to yoga and running as soon as I’ve gotten past tired. Real tired. (Or would yoga and running help me get past tired? There’s that to consider too). There are other commitments, too, perhaps more ascendant right now, like simultaneous plot-lines that arc and fall in a novel. Plot-line a) triathlon project (taking a cold-weather nose dive). Plot-line b) writing/editing a book (orange level priority). Plot-line c) children (always, pervasive, distracting, the core of my story). Plot-line d) side projects like doula’ing and photography (hanging in there; daily photos are easy to take; doula opportunities don’t come often, and are richly rewarding when they do). Plot-line e) health (so critical, yet unpredictable; make hay while the sun shines).

I’m off to make some ginger/garlic cold-fighting brew. And to write. Because the house is quiet this morning, and I am alone with my thoughts.

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