Category: Writing

Make Room

Cooking with kids: AppleApple’s menu yesterday was vegetarian. She had a hard time narrowing down her menu choices, perhaps because I went to the library and got out some kids’ cookbooks, most featuring foods of different cultures. In the end, she made iced mint tea with mint picked from our backyard patch (not from a recipe). For the main course, she served freshly made pear/applesauce with mashed potatoes, and a Caribbean-flavoured squash soup, with a red and yellow pepper salad on the side. Dessert was canned cherries from Bailey’s and peaches canned by my mom. It was such a local meal!

Fooey’s up next weekend.

And last weekend, Albus’s German sausage hotpot did the body good.

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Day of rest, two Sundays on: all is well. With church in the morning, it’s impossible to make elaborate plans for the day, and that actually works out fabulously if one is ‘re able to let go of the idea of getting other things done. It does mean piling more into Saturday, perhaps; and I am also now planning to use my Tuesdays home with the little kids as baking days; but if the redistribution of tasks results in more days like yesterday, where I had time to play the piano, work on homework with Albus, and doze off (while trying to read a book), I’m sold. 

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Also thinking about how to fit everything in, and reminding myself that a little every day adds up to a lot. As I prioritize my goals for this coming year, I think about the 365 project, and how committing to spend between 5 -30 minutes a day on that has added up to an ongoing master class in photography. The same goes for the triathlon project, which dovetails with my more general goal to be fit both mentally and physically; this morning, instead of mucking around the house this morning, I chose to go to yoga class, and not only feel stretched out and fit, but I enjoyed a burst of acute organizational powers in the forty minutes afterward, sitting in the sunshine at a picnic bench, waiting till it was time to pick up CJ from nursery school. Lots of notes were taken.

The first step to fitting everything in is to set strong priorities. And then make leaps. Put into play whatever needs to happen to make those priorities become a part of the routine. But stay flexible, because if something’s not working, you can always make changes, even drastic ones. Here’s what went onto my “fitting it all in … a little at a time” list of priorities: triathlon project (including swim lessons for me); photography; fiction writing; church; friends. (That list does not include the daily priorities of feeding and caring for my family, which kind of goes without saying, for me).

Extra! Extra!

Publishing alert: my latest published piece is in The New Quarterly’s Extra!, which can be purchased online, or will be included as an added bonus if you choose to subscribe to this wonderful Canadian literary journal (and, please, do subscribe if you don’t already; you will savour the lively mix of fiction, poetry, and essays; and the chance to get acquainted with new and rising writers).
Note that my contribution is a personal essay, not a work of fiction, though the further I get from having written it, the more I wonder … does it really lie somewhere in between, and how the heck can I know?

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I will also take this opportunity to let you know that I’ll be reading at Kitchener’s Word on the Street, which takes place in Victoria Park, Sunday, Sept. 26. The time has yet to be pinned down precisely, but it will be sometime during the afternoon. More info forthcoming.

Look What We Got Done!

My office has been touched-up, tidied, desk debris cleared (dusty three-year-old “must-do” piles purged into the recycling bin); we purchased a proper adjustable chair (and removed the folding chair which had replaced the exercise ball both of which had rendered me nearly lame on writing week; seriously, I temporarily lost all feeling down one leg), and Kevin used the skill-saw to customize the tiny computer desk I’ve been using since 1998 (now there was a worthwhile $99.00 investment in pressed-fibre technology). And suddenly, I am sitting in well-organized comfort before my computer screen, in a sunny room that is, yes, still a playroom; but the toys are easily hidden in cupboards and closet, and the bookshelf holds kids’ books on the lower shelves and my books on the upper shelves. I’m ready for the new year.

Because of course this is the real new year. Forget January 1st. I am filled with excitement and energy and ideas and plots and schemes and plans and routines, and my calendar is chock-a-block from one end to the other with everything we’re going to do.

I have spent today baking in preparation for school lunches and after-school snacks: chocolate sunflower granola bars; granola; banana muffins; bread. I didn’t feel much like baking all day, but put my head down and gutted through it–not unlike my run this morning–and it’s done, and I feel ready. The school bags are filled with supplies and new shoes. The lunches have yet to be made, but as part of our re-division of household labour, Kevin has offered to take over the packing of the lunches (YESSSSSS!!!!), as well as breakfasts, and Sunday evening supper–aka cooking with the kids. He’s also been noticing and doing dishes more frequently. I can’t express to you the difference this makes, but if you are the regular dish-doer at your house, then you will appreciate the change, too. The kids will pack their snacks on pizza day and sub day; I’m not sure whether we’ll also work to transition them into packing their own lunches more often. Baby steps. If I could get them to throw their dirty laundry into the basket, or down the basement steps in the direction of the washing machine, and to put away their individual piles of carefully folded clothes each evening … well, those seem do-able goals for the near future.

Feast

It’s been a good summer, a fast summer, a hot summer that felt like a summer. I’ve ticked most items off of my “summer to-do list.” I’ve canned enough tomatoes to last us through winter (I think), and have filled one whole freezer with fruit and veggies and herbs, too. This morning, I dumped the water out of my canner and put it back into the basement. I’m all out of jars, and my pantry shelves are full. And my mom has promised to can peaches for us, so what more will we need? Yesterday’s canning session took all morning, but it wasn’t hard: one last 1/2 bushel of tomatoes, whose beautiful red flesh I’m looking at right now, glassed in on my countertop.

I fully intended for this week to be about letting the kids enjoy what’s left of their holiday and that’s what it’s been (I hope they’ll concur): sleepovers, playdates, and yes, computer playing. We’ve biked to afternoon swim lessons; we’ve been on one evening picnic; we’ve bought shoes, had eye check-ups and gelato, and we’ve shopped for school supplies at Shoppers Drugmart. Actually, that spree coincided with a moment in my life which I may never forget. The kids were mile-a-minute enthusiastically comparing bandages (Barbie? Star Wars? Pooh Bear?) in the first-aid aisle when I got a call from my agent. It was the kind of call for which every writer quietly waits. She said, Have I caught you at a good time? I said, I’m standing in Shoppers with my kids. She said, check your email when you get home.

I’m struggling with how best to share this news, because it’s tenuous in-between news, neither signed, sealed nor delivered; on the other hand, anyone reading this blog has suffered through the dregs of naval-gazing and self-doubt, and it seems more than fitting to share with you the flip side of the equation–the moments of affirmation. I found myself weeping–not in Shoppers, but later, when I’d had a chance to let the news sink in, yet while it was still fresh and utterly thrilling and overwhelming. Why are you crying, Mommy? Because I’m so happy! (Apparently, that’s how I do happy; it ain’t pretty).

My agent was calling to tell me that I have offers on my Nicaragua book; though the offers didn’t quite arrive in a lump, they came close, in the feast or famine style that is a writer’s fate. Wow. I almost can’t type those words out or trust in them. Might it all evaporate if I look at it too closely, or wave it around too excitedly?

Because it is now the long weekend, I have several completely quiet days to think and to imagine. My agent, who has been with me and with this book for the years that I’ve committed to it, said she wished for me to relax and just enjoy the moment for what it is. Savour it. She, like my husband, gets an inside view of my efforts, hopes and ambitions, and I hear what she’s saying: This is where you are, right now. It took a lot of work to get here. There’s a lot of work ahead. This is one of those rare peaks along the climb, an opportunity, if I let myself take it, to stop for a moment and breathe in the view.

Dial-Up Carrie

Why do I feel so slothful while on holiday? Is slothful even a word? My holiday brain cannot compute. Slowly, surely, holiday drains away my ambitions and intentions. I have to work to remind myself that rolling out of bed in the morning isn’t THAT hard.
Cottaging seems to strip me down to a more basic Carrie, a more primitive version of the 3.5 Carrie I currently enjoy. This is dial-up Carrie. This is Carrie attempting to cook delicious meals for nine on two wonky burners in three cottage pans (why do cottage kitchens supply such an eccentric selection of cookware and devices? and could we please ban the production and sale of all non-stick pots and pans? though I did read somewhere–in a study no doubt commissioned by non-stick purveyors–that Teflon is not absorbed by the human body, but passes right through; phew).
So, what are the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between 3.5 Carrie and the dial-up version? The dial-up version washes dishes, folds laundry, sweeps the crumbs and cleans the bathroom, and tries to get the kids to sleep at a reasonable hour. But the routine is off-kilter. This Carrie also drinks a shandy after lunch and sits in removed fashion reading a book (“Okay, Mommy, are you listening for real now?”).
Having worked so hard to develop 3.5 Carrie, I find it jarring, almost troubling, to revert to this more basic version; she has no interest in taking creative photographs (this will be a low spot in the 365 project); she has very little creative interest whatsoever; she slows to a crawl, scarcely able to force herself to keep up some reduced version of exercise. Maybe this is what a holiday is for? To vegetate and sink into words and thoughts, or float amidst them without thinking at all, to check out, to retreat.

:::

Of course, one must also observe that “holiday with kids” is not precisely the same as “holiday.” Last night we resorted to turning out every light in the cottage in order to impress upon CJ that we were indeed all going to sleep, RIGHT NOW. It was nearly 10pm. He was wired. He’s taken to saying, “I tell you a story,” and then launching into long detailed dramatic inventions about elephants and little lions and turtles who eat persons and wear pants. He had us spellbound after supper the other night (I’ll post video footage). But well after dark, being regaled by the tales of a two-year-old is not on the holiday agenda. No. On the holiday agenda is eating some freaking amazing cheese, a ripened sheep’s milk pebbled with blue purchased at Wendy’s Wigwam, reading a book, and drinking a beer. In adult company only.

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Two book recommendations: Truth and Beauty, by Ann Patchett, a memoir by a writer about her friendship with another writer, Lucy Grealy–if a relationship so intense can be pinned down by the word friendship. I’ve never been in a friendship like that. I am not sure whether I envy the author, or feel grateful to have been spared such a friendship. It’s also a fascinating portrait of writers in their developing pre-fame years (because, yes, both women became successful writers). Kevin’s reading the book now, or I’d look up some quotes. I particularly liked one from Lucy’s letters, in which she says that at least, as a writer, there is some measure of glamour to be gleaned from the drudgery and poverty of the occupation. I need to look into that.
The other book, which I’ve not yet finished, is a series of excellent short stories disguised by the publisher as a novel: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. It’s set in a newspaper, so it has the additional appeal of taking me back to my brief fling with the industry; and it’s currently on bestseller lists. But I’ll bet it wouldn’t have made it there if the publisher hadn’t cleverly marketed it as a novel rather than as what it is: a collection of linked stories. If I feel a touch of bitterness over this necessity, yes, it’s personal. The book I am currently finishing is a collection of linked stories. Maybe my agent will find a publisher who will pretend it is a novel, and we’ll find success together. But I (selfishly) wish more people would embrace the short story (and in particular, linked stories) as a legitimate and complex and pleasurable form.
Now, for the glamour. I must pour myself a shandy or something.

Climbing Out

Tired. So tired, Kevin and I could have laid in bed with the curtains drawn till suppertime. As it was, we managed to sleep till after 9, with the children (those who were also not sleeping) playing video games on the computer. We’ve canceled the cable.

Writing week ended with a steady, sure march of writing. Wednesday, hump day, was the least productive outwardly, but led me to switch directions entirely with one story. Thursday and Friday were spent writing this new story from scratch. Monday and Tuesday also brought forth a brand new story. Neither were planned and plotted, but emerged. There is no other way to describe the process. I had planned and plotted two very different stories. Instead, the characters took me where they needed to go. In both, I felt as though I were merely observing and recording, rather than inventing. It allowed me to go places I would never ordinarily let myself go; the first story is deeply sad. Oddly, neither is remotely autobiographical; I say oddly because the early material that began these stories was rooted in autobiography. It’s gradually shifted so entirely away from autobiography that it’s given me a more confident appreciation for fiction, and for the way that the shape and haunt of fictitious characters can make sense of life in a way that’s not accessible to us in real life.

I don’t need to experience these things for myself in order to write about characters who do. I just need to be open, and to pay attention.

I have one more story to write. It may take weeks or months, with so much less time to give to it. This writing week made me question whether three hours at a stretch is enough; I do not think I could have written either of these stories in piecemeal fashion. To get there and to live there took going underground, and staying. I’ve decided that parenting and story-writing don’t fit together terribly well. Parenting requires being on the surface, available at any moment–go ahead and write a blog, while simultaneously being the on-call parent, but don’t try to dive for the story underneath. The focus itself is exhausting. I would find myself needing to take mini-breaks, not to plot ahead, but to breathe, to rest my mind. Very brief mini-breaks, I might add; just a couple of minutes. Maybe the way some people run/walk a marathon. And by suppertime each day, I felt spent of originality and syntax and emotion.

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At the conclusion of writing week, we went directly to Hillside Festival, dragging the kids with us; an annual event for the past three years.
The best year was the first, when CJ was an infant, and I sat in the shade and nursed him and listened to music while Kevin wandered around with the three other kids. We didn’t stay long, just as long as the happiness lasted.
Last year, we went for two full days, and it rained almost non-stop, and there was a thunderstorm of epic proportions that shut the place down temporarily. We slogged through but it didn’t feel super-fun, and definitely wasn’t relaxing.
So this year we decided to go just for one day–Saturday–buying our tickets in advance (as one should; it’s a popular festival). As chance would have it, we picked the day that it rained–not dreadful stormy rain like last year, but rain that persisted into the evening. Albus complained that there was nothing to do, though he was free to walk around with a friend–a new independence. As I sat in a puddle and listened to Jason Collette with appreciation, and looked around at all the other parents with kids, I thought, what isn’t working about this for our family? And I concluded that none of our kids is remotely interested in sitting and listening to the music. And it is a music festival. Additionally, the festival has lost its novelty for us. It’s too familiar.

Well, and then something frightening happened, late in the day, during the last set for which we’d planned to stay–we lost Fooey. Not for long, but for long enough to send us into a frantic panic, our friends hunting the festival grounds, me sprinting in bare feet to the security booth with CJ in my arms and screaming at the security guard who seemed not to be paying attention–apparently, in a crisis I do not turn into a pleasant and patient person. I am mother-who-is-going-to-scream-for-help-until-her-child-is-found. She was found. She was not missing for more than fifteen minutes, at most, and had wandered off on her own (though we did not know that at the time). The crowds are so thick, it is easy to lose sight of one, especially when herding four. Kevin and I were both shaken.
“I don’t think I can do this again,” said Kevin, as we slogged out in the dark through thick mud to our vehicle. That part went pretty well, all things considered; I’d expected the kids to be beside themselves, and they were quite humourous and in good and willing spirits. In retrospect, it might have been my favourite part of the whole day. CJ walked the entire distance from the festival grounds to the parking area–a good kilometre or more through grass and mud. In the dark. By the time we found our vehicle (it was foggy as well as dark, and there were no lights), we were disgusting. We did not care; isn’t that the beauty of spending the day outside, no matter the weather? We found a tap and washed ourselves, climbed into the vehicle and prayed that we’d find a way out of the mud-field.
My first response to Kevin was: well, we could come back next year with no kids. But the terror and shock of losing Fooey, even for such a brief amount of time, is now forefront in my memory of this year’s Hillside, and I’m not sure I want to go back next year either.
I’ll sit with it.

:::

Today, I’ve done piles of laundry (the sun is shining). I’m attempting to make kimchi–get a girl fermenting and she won’t be stopped. And AppleApple helped me make cheese bread, which will be baking in the oven for supper any minute now. Evening menu: cheese bread, red beets, green salad with fruit, and steak (we grill just one; everyone gets a bit, and no one wants more than that).
After watching Fooey and CJ scrub the garage floor with rags this morning, Kevin concluded that our kids are happy with very little; perhaps even happier with little than more, or much, or too much. Just give them a “job,” or let them rearrange the living-room, and the day is a success.
I’m back at full-time parenting tomorrow. Wish me luck.

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