Monday, November 29, 2010

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?

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Unsupervised Child, Outside

A couple of nights ago, I read a bedtime story to Fooey: Danny and the Dinosaur. It's a book many decades old, in which a boy befriends a dinosaur, and they spend the day wandering around Danny's city, eating ice cream, and playing with Danny's friends. When we got to the end, and Danny said goodbye to the dinosaur, and they parted and went their separate ways, Fooey looked at me with puzzlement. She couldn't understand: Why were the children outside all by themselves? Where were their parents?

That question has haunted me ever since. Fooey does not see children outside in our neighbourhood all by themselves. It is so foreign to her that it leaps out as an aberration when she sees the idea illustrated. Of course, she is only five, perhaps too young to run around the neighbourhood without parental oversight. Perhaps; but perhaps not. I remember playing outside at the age of four or five with my brother (younger) and a friend (my age), by ourselves, unsupervised. We were given the freedom, and trust, to walk from our house to his, to cross backyards, to play in our unfenced yard and garage while my mother made supper, or put the baby for a nap, and checked us occasionally from the window. When I was not much older--seven, eight, nine--I played freely outside in my neighbourhood. I don't remember having to check in regularly with my mother, or any other mother, nor do I recall being "street-proofed" in any way. We explored beyond our own yards, we crossed quiet streets, played on the college campus nearby, went sledding in winter, had imaginary adventures in the small woodlots on campus, and dipped our toes in the creek. By ourselves. No parents. Hours spent on our own.

My children don't get to do that. (They play unsupervised in our fenced yard; and they walk to school with friends; but these are activities with obvious boundaries and safety features built in). My eldest is nine. We don't live in a small town, and we do live on a busy street, but there is a little park nearby, and the neighbourhood is full of other kids ... few of whom I've ever seen walking alone, let alone just going out to wander around and play. Something about the lack of kids out and about makes sending my own kids out and about feel much less safe. If the little park were frequented by neighbourhood kids, on their own, if the sidewalks were full of kids roller skating and scootering and building snow forts, without parental involvement, if it were the habit of kids to wander around the corner to knock on friends' doors to see whether someone was home and could come out and play ... how different would this neighbourhood look and feel?

What are my kids missing out on? What should I be doing differently, as a parent? Why am I so afraid to let them be on their own for long stretches of time, without me knowing exactly where they are or what they're doing? (I know what I'm afraid of--terrified of losing one of my children--but I don't know why I am so afraid. Is the fear irrational? Is my control over my kids' activities hindering their development as autonomous individuals?).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dear Diary,

I am in between. This is perpetual. Why do I need to keep discovering it as if it were brand new?

The dishes will never be done: I will turn around only to discover someone eating another bowl of granola with pearsauce. Today's batch of bread will get eaten before the week's out--all four loaves. And the cookies. And the yogurt, and anything else that I make. We will run out of canned tomatoes, perhaps before spring.

I will sign a book contract. It will feel provisional rather than triumphant. I will remember all the steps yet to be completed. (Like the manuscript.) It will remind me that Hair Hat never felt quite done either, even after I saw it in print.

My children will grow, but I won't be done with them.
I will fill pages, but I won't be done with words.
I will get up at 5:40am to run. But I won't be done running.

None of this is discouraging; or, it shouldn't be. To be in between is to be alive.

I am in between.
And I need my bed, just now.

Yours, Carrie

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Birthday

How could I not have gotten a photo of this beautiful child, dressed in her new sparkly black wizard robes and an elegant black hat, as she accompanied me post-cake, post-presents, to The New Quarterly's fall launch party last night? Let's just say I was filled with pride.

We juggled a packed schedule yesterday and celebrated eight years of AppleApple. She is quick, hard-working, serious and silly, talented, creative, thoughtful, perceptive, eccentric, independent, an old soul.

I'd planned a chocolate cake, but when consulted, AppleApple said, no thanks, she doesn't like chocolate cake. Friends on Facebook had just posted a retro-sounding easy-to-make cake recipe: yellow cake mix, vanilla pudding mix, coconut, sour cream (we substituted crema, because it makes anything just that much better). Kevin and the little kids baked the cake yesterday afternoon, and AppleApple decorated it herself after school, with leftover Halloween treats. It was tasty and old-school.

We'd organized a birthday brunch for family, and let the big kids stay home from school for the morning. A horse theme was apparent from early gifts, but later gifts revealed a taste for Harry Potter, too. After a somewhat rushed supper (chicken noodle soup and devilled eggs, as requested by AppleApple), and the candle-blowing, the cake-eating, and some fracas over who could pass out the gifts (Fooey was in a state), AppleApple and I raced out the door to our literary date. She and Kevin traded places after 8pm, and she spent the rest of her evening at home putting together her Harry Potter Lego. She still has her friend party, tomorrow (and, I must add, so do we ... send us strength). Our house will be transformed into Hogwarts, potions and wands will be made, unicorns sought, and some more of this cake will be eaten--it was such a success, we're reprising it for tomorrow.

May this year to come be blessed, my child.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Almost Eight


Today is the last day that AppleApple will be seven. So, as is tradition, we took a photo to mark the occasion. Her sister appears in the background of one with a most pitiful expression and a gash on her head, self-inflicted (which may be better than the alternative; not sure), when she was jumping with excitement to get into the back of the truck. I was at home trying to write another story, and Kevin was managing all the kids. It was a picture of gore when they arrived home--gore and chaos. We cleaned her up and steri-stripped the wound (Kevin's job; mine was to hold her and remind her take calming breaths). At one point, post-supper, I was fielding information that required a response from all four children, simultaneously, while trying to clear the table and do the dishes. With today's story rattling slightly unfinished around my head. AppleApple was going down the party agenda, in detail; CJ came to report that Albus was being mean to him; Albus explained that he just needed some Alone Time; and Fooey desperately wanted to be held, too (I was holding CJ). I looked at Kevin and said ... I am feeling some stress. He agreed. 

But onward. This is the pace. I will do my level best to keep up. And tomorrow my seven-year-old will be an eight-year-old.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Trespasser

Part of me wants to write a blog. Part of me thinks it would be more appropriate to write in a journal and close the pages afterward.

One thing to note: I had an excellent writing day on Saturday. For some reason, focus landed in a heap. Better than focus, it was creative energy, and all I had to do was follow the flow of images and ideas. It was a story that I had not planned to write, that came up the day previous; we'll see whether or not it holds long-term, but it certainly climbed out of me whole, like it had been waiting to be written. I love when that happens.

In terms of the book's structure, I am seeing it in a very complete way in my mind, seeing what remains to be written. Today is meant to be a writing day. But I have not entered into the manuscript yet, despite the empty house, and the empty cup of coffee. I feel tired, and contemplative. I am thinking about my grandma, whose body was buried yesterday, and I am thinking about what that means ...

And this is where I should get out the journal and write privately. But something in me wants to tell how moved I was to stand beside her body, and to speak quietly to her. It was a moment that may not have happened, had Fooey, five years old, not been utterly fascinated by her great-grandma's body: she asked me to hold her up. She had questions about every detail: Why was Grandma wearing her glasses when she couldn't see anymore? Why were her hands folded? Why was she wearing a necklace (I hadn't looked closely enough to see that she was). As we stood there together, I found myself becoming comfortable with the presence of a body emptied of its spirit self. In the past, in similar situations, I have felt--well, frightened--but instead, I felt ... okay, somehow. It wasn't my grandma lying there, it was her earthly body. It was what remained after a long life had ended. We could say goodbye to her.

At the burial site, the minister said that this was as far as we could walk with the body of (she said my grandma's name, which I won't). I found that profoundly moving. We could only come this far.

AppleApple said something that struck me afterwards. She said that she felt like she was trespassing, as she looked at her great-grandma's body. That was the word she used: trespassing. It wasn't how I felt, and I'm trying to understand what she meant: maybe that without the self to animate the body, the body is somehow unprotected. That there is a fundamental vulnerability. That she is gone, and just like it would feel like trespassing to walk through an empty house and take things that do not belong to us, everything we take from her is now one-sided, forever after, because she is no longer here to offer these things herself. Or maybe AppleApple simply sensed that we were trespassing on something too private, on the  body's still and silent forever rest.

I don't know.

Rest in peace, Grandma.

Friday, November 12, 2010

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.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dance Like You Mean It

I've been thinking about how to move between the variety of activities that I do every day: some of them on my own, some with individual offspring, some as a family, some with friends, some with people I don't know, who I may be meeting for the first time of many, or the first and last time. What seems to work best is when I can apply that cliche of "living in the moment." How to live in the moment? It's not a superficial pursuit, in my mind. It's a way of being present and committed to whatever I'm doing at any given time. Actually, it makes life way more fun. Throw myself in: that's how it feels. Just plunge in.

Going to church has been a helpful reminder of how to live in the moment. Going to church is not always an activity which I feel like prioritizing; but if I do it without thinking of all the things I might otherwise be doing, or all the things I have yet to do, if I simply go and be, it's a very lovely experience. I talk to people I wouldn't otherwise; I hear and sing music; sometimes I listen to messages that are interesting or valuable; I am with family. I realize it's not for everyone, and I realize also that there are times in a life when it is next to impossible to commit energy to anything but sheer survival, but when the luxury of time and energy exists, a great deal of pleasure comes from entering fully into a moment.

I'm not against multi-tasking; sometimes multi-tasking is what saves a really dreary day from mind-numbing boredom ... but it's really freeing to do just the thing that one is doing, and nothing else. That sense of impatience, of wishing one were elsewhere, disappears.

:::

I got to go and dance for a few hours last night. My youngest three siblings have a band called Kidstreet, and they were opening for another Canadian band called Shout Out Out Out Out at a local club. We got us some babysitting, and I put on dancing shoes and sparkly eye shadow (couldn't waste the stuff I bought for Halloween), and off we went, ready for a good time. It was so fun. Dancing itself was wonderful. Seeing my brothers and sister get the crowd happy and excited was wonderful. Being out without children was wonderful. I would love to take my kids to see their uncles and aunt play sometime, too (well, the older ones, anyway). My brother Karl is teaching AppleApple drums and Albus guitar, and he's also doing a lot of musical education: giving them ear training so that they can pick out the different instruments and parts of a song, and also having them listen to some real cool music. I would love for my kids to come to experience music as something they love and have opinions about, but also as something that they can play and make themselves. Music is so easily shared. And music can make those "living in the moment" moments absolutely effortless.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Thought of the Day

It's a blessing, not a burden, to be this busy.

Yes, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Yes, my life is written out in point form in advance. No, I don't always feel like doing what I've planned for myself. But it's amazing what can be squeezed into one day, what can fit.

Today, for example: breakfast, big kids out the door, swim lessons with little kids, home to start laundry, walk to a friend's house, play, home for lunch, prepare supper, listen to podcast on CBC radio on beauty ("beauty will save the world"), plan via email a talk I'm preparing to give on Sunday about being a "Mennonite" writer (quotation marks necessary?), walk to school to get kids, bring friends home, trade off parenting duties with Kev, walk briskly to yoga, 90-minute yoga class, walk briskly home, blissed out and thinking semi-deep thoughts, eat leftovers, listen to kids play drums and guitar, tag-team the dishes with Kev, head out with sibs for a drink, walk briskly home, chat with Kev before trading off as on-call parent, watch video of beautiful youngest singing along to the Cranberries, plan tomorrow's crock-pot supper, write blog. There's still time for a small snack before bed.

Taken from the radio program (Tapestry): when you embrace beauty--the beautiful, the moment of grace--you accept that it will pass, that you can't keep it. What is beauty? Goodness, kindness, compassion, acts of selfless impulsive grace.