Three years ago, I started this blog. Those were my opening lines. I couldn't have guessed how it would expand my world, but on that first day, I wrote three separate entries, so it's safe to say that I took to it quickly.
Here's an excerpt from my second entry, on that first day, published at 11:46am:
I have three hours a week right now to write. I'm down to my last half hour of the week. I've rewritten a couple of poems and started this blog. I think I'll be heading downstairs feeling distinctly disappointed, restless and aimless. Kevin's had a hard morning with the kids. There has been a lot of conflict. Right now the kids are in the room next door "cleaning" up the girls' room and Kevin is in and out of my working space with the baby in a sling, my working space being the changeroom/toyroom/soon-to-be-baby's-bedroom/my computer on tiny computer table; and now Kevin is speaking with great frustration to the kids: "This is worse than before!" Time-outs and threats and warnings. We have four children ages seven down to four months, two boys as bookends, two girls in between. It feels, today, like I've been unable to shut out the mundanity and get to work.
Okay, resolve for next week's writing day to go better. Next week I will start a new story instead. I'm afraid of the new story, that's today's real problem. I've written two in a collection that was previously a novel, and it's material almost too close to my heart, and too painful, and I am terrified of failure. That makes working on it with any level of success very difficult. Requires more bravery than apparently I've got today.
Ear plugs out. Sigh.
Wow. How many changes can I count three years on? It's quite amazing. Not just the growth of my children (baby now three-year-old), but the growth of my relationship with my family, and my growth as a writer. That story I was afraid of writing? In one form or another, it's part of The Juliet Stories; I just sent the line edits back to my editor last week. Next up: one more round of back-and-forth discussion with my editor, then copy edits, and cover design, and, in March, the launch of that very book.
And even as I complain about not having enough time for myself this summer, it puts it into perspective to consider all the time I didn't have for myself three years ago. Nursing a baby, caring for small children, three hours a week for writing (!?), disrupted sleep, and I hadn't even discovered yoga.
I'm so grateful for this blog. It was a leap to go public, and it's been a learning experience -- learning out loud -- but am I ever glad I didn't get to that story three years ago, and instead decided to publish as I typed.
So here it is. Another morning, another August, another post.
There's a post I wrote awhile ago, a year and a half ago, to be precise, to which I keep returning. (Read it yourself, here, if you'd like).
The question I was asking then (and which I continue to ask) boils down to what kind of life I'm seeking to live: is it a life with unexpected twists and turns and seemingly disconnected variety, or a life of intense and singular highly focussed work; or is there perhaps a third way, a way in between those two extremes?
A year and a half after articulating that question, I can't say an answer has appeared. Has life, as it's been lived since then, spoken? Not in any expected way. Not loudly. Not directly. But also, have I been listening to the universe in the same way? Expecting it to reply? I have not. And I'm not sure why.
Instead, I've been running.
Is that a metaphor? Have I been running away? Or toward? Or is running a question and answer contained in itself? This morning, I woke up a bit later than usual, but realized that without a run, my day would be consumed by negative energy, and that I needed to run as far and as fast as I could in the time available, in order to burn that energy off.
Where is this negative energy coming from? It manifests itself in a general grumpiness, irritability, sometimes in a muddled mind, or I get lost in thought. Not practical, useful thought, but distant drifting foggy thought in which I cannot find my way. There is something about running (or biking or swimming or any exercise that gets me working physically) that burns off the fog, that releases me, even if only briefly, into a happy state. Afterward, I feel productive. Alive. It's like an energy exchange: bad for good.
What will you do with your life?
My youngest starts school in a year. A year, therefore, is my self-imposed deadline. Deadline for what? For direction. For the universe to point me wherever I'm meant to be going, or for me to point myself, to step off, to launch, to turn around, to choose. I type that as if it were absolute, as if I might choose the wrong path, as if there is a right path and a wrong path; and there's not. I believe many paths could be right. Success (happiness? contentment?) is dependent on how I walk the one(s) I choose. Nevertheless. My youngest entering school carries the pressure of a deadline. I'm at an age when it feels like, to paraphrase a character in The Juliet Stories, I'm holding in my hands a diminishing collection of possibilities.
So. I have a year to figure this out. I don't know about you, but a year doesn't feel as long as it once did. Turn your head, laugh, and it's vanished.
It looks like such a lonely position to play. But she's grown into it over this past season -- her first season ever playing goalie, in fact, which seems remarkable. On Saturday, her team played in a tournament against the other teams in her league. In each game, a loss meant elimination. The girls played with great heart, and never gave up, even when they were down by a goal with a minute left (as in the final game). They tied that game up, and went on to win in overtime by four goals. They also won a game on penalty kicks.
Penalty kicks are what the parents of the goalie pray never ever happen. But this was her second penalty kick experience, and she'd learned the hard way what to expect -- all of the girls had. The first time, she thought it was her job as goalie to stop every ball, and was devastated when she couldn't; we had to explain afterward that penalty kicks give the advantage to the kicker, not the goalie, and no goalie is ever expected to stop them all. This time, the first two balls went in, but she wasn't rattled by it. Her team was behind by one shot, but she stayed cool as a cucumber. She stopped the next shots cold, her teammates landed theirs, and that was it. Game over.
Tears and hugs on the sidelines, and a mad rush to congratulate the goalie.
It's a lonely position, but also a very visible position. What seems so remarkable to me is that she isn't bothered by either factor. She isn't fazed by failure, or success. When I complimented her on keeping her calm even after a goal had been scored on her, she said, "Well, I wouldn't be a very good goalie if I got bothered when a goal was scored."
It's also a dangerous position. Making one stop, she was run over by a girl on another team (no call made by the ref), and knocked in the head by the girl's foot. Her comment? "I think that girl needs to work on her jumping." But there she was, fearless among the feet, grabbing the ball. Amazing focus, and amazing instinct -- to dive toward danger rather than flinch away.
Her parents on the sidelines were playing a very different part in the story. It's so hard to watch, and to care so deeply, and to be unable to act. I've started to understand that my only role, on the sidelines, is to believe in her. She obviously believes in herself.
When the day was done, Kevin and I felt drained. The team was elated: they'd made it to the final, which they'll play in a couple of weeks. "Was that fun?" I asked Kevin. We couldn't decide. It was an experience. There are dimensions to parenthood that never entered my imagination when I was gestating my babies: the way your children will lead you to places and through experiences and emotions you never knew you'd be obliged to go -- and privileged to go, too.
This week has been a long and fuzzy one. And yet it's actually been quite short. We got home on Monday, late afternoon. I spent the evening in a state of intense irritation roasting and freezing a bushel of red peppers. ("Stay out of the kitchen. I'm sorry. I'm just really irritable right now." "Yeah, I already know that, Mom.")
The following morning, I took the kids to Vacation Bible School. Total flop. One day was more than enough and I did not send them back again. Albus's first question, when I picked them up: "Mom, what are sins?" Warning bells ringing loudly. Apparently, the language was heavily weighted toward sin and enemies and the devil and death angels (no joke). I have a fairly high tolerance for religious language, but no. Just, no. I can't abide the belief that we are born full of sin, fallen. I believe we're born human, and we will all make mistakes, and we won't always be right. But we're not stained by our mistakes; what a terrible and debilitating concept. What a staggering lack of compassion, to see our errors and the errors of others as sinful. Mistakes are inevitable, and come with great potential. We learn by them. We learn pain. We learn to forgive. We learn compassion. We learn critical thinking. We learn to say sorry (and to feel it). We are strengthened by discovery, and discovery comes through trial and error.
So, long story short, no "free" babysitting this week.
I spent all of Tuesday canning a bushel of tomatoes. The kids had to entertain themselves for the afternoon. Albus was helpful, AppleApple, too. Summer has had the effect of bringing the siblings closer together. That's a beautiful thing.
Wednesday was a scheduling day. My babysitter is back from Germany and we reunited that afternoon, but I hardly got any writing work done. It was all about the fall schedule, an intricate piecing together of interests and activities. I should have gone for a run afterward.
By yesterday, I felt fuzzy-headed and exhausted. But blueberry season is almost over, and there is an organic patch that friends have been raving about all month. We had to go. It looked like rain, and then it did rain, and then it cleared again. And the blueberry bushes did not disappoint, absolutely laden with fruit. We picked 14 pounds without really trying. More fruit to add to the freezer, and AppleApple and I made blueberry "hand-pies," which ended up being too sticky to eat by hand.
But despite this positive and happy activity, I had a moment of panic late yesterday afternoon. I'm having a breakdown, I thought. Why? Because I was paralyzed by the thought of supper. Something had to be made, and quickly, because AppleApple had soccer practice; and my brain stuttered to a halt. Pasta plus rice plus potatoes? Is that really what I had on hand? Thankfully, I recovered, retrieved hamburger from the freezer, made a rice/hamburger/zucchini mash-up, boiled potatoes and grilled them along with eggplant, and boiled a pot of sweet corn. All's well that ends well.
While standing in the kitchen paralyzed, it came to me: I need to exercise. I need to run. I need to stretch. I need alone time. Daily. This week, I've been so busy preparing for winter (canning and freezing), and planning for fall, that I forgot about today. It's not about training for a triathlon; it's about a daily practice of restoring and maintaining sanity, and peace.
I really should not be blogging right now. I should be in bed. But we arrived home late this afternoon, after a week's holiday, and I want to write. Need to write. There are many things on my mind, but I haven't got the capacity to synthesize them all, just now, even if they belonged together, which I suspect they do not.
So here they are, in no particular order.
We uglified the backyard, but it's nothing compared to what happened to the front today: our falling-down porch got ripped off, with a little bit left, stairs and such, so we can get to the door. As we drove up to the house, I got a glance, no more, and I just felt sick. The house looked so strange, so faceless. I couldn't take another look. But after a few hours, and before it got dark, I went out on my own with my camera and it looked ... okay, really. I could imagine what would be there in the future. Even a little office for me, out that side door.
So, we just went a week without doing laundry ... I can't even describe the pile in the basement. Being obsessive compulsive about tasks, I've been running the machine non-stop.
Oh, and on the drive home, we stopped for a bathroom break and discovered an awesome farmer's market. So Kevin made room in our already packed truck for a bushel of romas and a bushel of red peppers. The red peppers are already roasted and in our freezer. The canner is ready to go tomorrow.
But I am overwhelmed and exhausted and daunted by the tasks ahead this week. There seems too much. This is VBS week, assuming the children agree to go (CJ is the wild card; he spent large portions of today in fits over non-existent catastrophes ... nothing like a good half hour of crying in the car to make you feel like a holiday is really and truly over; even better if no good reason for crying can be identified by cry-er or his attentive family).
Lessons, schedules, organizing. Confirming manuscript ready to send, and sending. That's the week ahead.
But the thing on my mind most of all tonight is the passing of Jack Layton. What to say? There's no one like him in Canadian politics. And it seemed his optimism might carry him over yet another obstacle; after all, he made all kinds of seemingly impossible things happen. Cancer. The language we use to talk about it is the language of battle; but I've never liked that language because it implies that those who cannot fight it off somehow didn't fight hard enough, weren't strong enough, succumbed. A word that implies defeat. I really hate that. I don't know how to talk about it differently, though. Anyone's who's lost a loved one to cancer knows that it feels like they've been stolen, sometimes slowly, and sometimes suddenly, by an opponent. I don't know why we personify cancer like that. I'm trying to think if we personify other diseases in the same way, and it doesn't seem like it. Cancer seems personal. It seems crafty and sneaky and it doesn't fight fair. And this morning, it stole from Canada a real fighter, a tough and bright and incredibly energetic person who can't be replaced. Goodbye from us. We'll miss you, Jack.
No summing this mess of a post up, I'm afraid. Photos from holiday to come at some later time. Maybe when the tomatoes are good and canned.
I usually show photos of our house and yard looking its best. So here's an alternate view. This is our house and yard (and shed-like garage) looking, well, less than handsome. (The flipped-over wading pool and abandoned sprinkler don't help).
These photos were taken soon after we cut down several trees in our backyard. I'll admit that I felt despairing as I assessed the mess. I miss those trees. Taking them down is all part of a long-term plan to bring more sunshine into certain areas of the yard--and next summer, more vegetables. But short-term, let's just say it looks ugly. The rusty garage is exposed. (Weren't we going to cover that garage with siding?? It was at the top of our to-do list when we bought the house eight years ago. Funny how priorities change). The house itself looks sort of forlorn and crumbling, an old, shambling, rambling kind of house, like the one I imagine for Meg's family in the children's classic, A Wrinkle in Time. Which isn't so bad, really; it's just that I never noticed before.
The photo above, and the next one, were taken a few days later, when I was feeling better about the general state of our backyard affairs. In the interim, Kevin worked really hard to clean the yard. Either things really do look better, or I just think they do. Don't tell me which it is, please.
Owning a house means participating in a perpetual work in progress. It's very metaphorical. All the changing, shape-shifting, rearranging, and repairing. You can look at this yard and see who we are as parents, as a family, guess the ages of our children, get an understanding of our priorities, our finances, and our ability to put into action our intentions.
We recently cut down some big trees in our yard, to make room for more sunshine and more gardens. We were going to give away the firewood to friends with wood-burning stoves, but when Kevin was moving the stumps and the mulch, he got one of his inspired improvisational ideas. Give the man a pile of stumps, and he'll build a playground. Apparently, our new stump-jumping-obstacle-course is reminiscent of Kevin's own childhood schoolyard, which had, as he tells it, no play equipment other than a bunch of stumps and some tires.
We didn't have any old tires laying around (thankfully). And we've painted our stumps bright colours. They're dug right into the ground so they won't tip. No, this wasn't one of the backyard projects we planned to do this summer; but sometimes the most fun projects emerge spontaneously, with no planning at all.
(P.S. Please don't count heads in the trampoline pictured in the background of that middle photo. Yeah, we've already broken the "only two kids" rule. I'm not even sure that rule lasted a single day).
I bought a half-bushel of zucchini from Bailey's Local Foods. I happen to love zucchini, though apparently I'm alone, in the family, in this regard, though everyone else will eat it disguised in muffins and zucchini bread without objection. (Odd side note: Kevin can't tell cucumbers from zucchinis; he really can't, on visual inspection. Neither can several of his children. This has made for some sandwich-related disappointment over the years).
All of which is to say that the zucchini bruschetta, pictured above, was enjoyed only by me. But let me tell you, it's such an excellent lunch.
To make it yourself: Slice one or two zucchinis length-wise into two to four pieces, and brush lightly with olive oil (sprinkle of salt optional). On a tray, bake or broil the slices for a few minutes, until somewhat softened. Remove from oven and top with red sauce (in the photo above, that's actually a leftover sauce made with chopped zucchini and eggplant, so basically I was eating zucchini garnished with zucchini). Sprinkle on some feta. Broil on high until bubbly.
"You did a good job of keeping everyone busy this week, so you could write your book, Mom." -- AppleApple
I'm a bit of a beast when it comes to getting things done. I should modify that claim: it applies only to things that matter quite a lot to me. But when I set myself a goal, I figure out how to get there. No procrastinating. No excuses. Obsessive? Single-minded? Something of a perfectionist? And yet I'm extremely lackadaisical in other regards. You should see the living-room floor right now, for example. Apparently, clean house is not one of my goals.
Getting through the line edits for The Juliet Stories was.
Here's how it was accomplished. 1. A blog-friend put me in touch with her babysitter, who was able to entertain four children for several hours on short notice, so I could go over my editor's notes in detail. 2. Another friend took all four children for a morning of play at her house, and fed them lunch, so I could have a phone conversation with my editor before beginning the edits. 3. Kevin took Friday off, and spent the entire weekend with the kids, on his own, while I holed up in the playroom to work. 4. The two older kids agreed to go to soccer camp this week. 5. A friend babysat the little kids on Tuesday and Thursday, and another friend did the same on Wednesday: lunches, snacks, outings. 6. I sat in front of the computer and forced myself to concentrate on the minutiae.
The only part of the book that remains unwritten is the acknowledgments. I'm saving the writing of them for a rainy day, as a treat. Sometimes I find myself drafting all the thank-yous in my head, with a kind of dreamy gratitude. Because the above paragraph represents only a fraction of all the help this book has received from friends, and family, and babysitters who have come to feel like family. It's been a group effort.
And, lest I dare to compare, it's been different from the first time around, when I wrote Hair Hat almost secretively, and with a deep unwillingness to identify myself as a writer, almost as if I couldn't believe it myself. (Impostor syndrome, perhaps). This time around has been messier. The process has taken longer. It's involved way more people. I've had to ask for more help. And, thanks in large part to this blog, I've gone public with all the mess and agonizing and stops and starts and work and luck and gratitude; and that's made it all easier, actually.
Maybe it's gauche to go so public with the ups and downs, airing my dirty laundry; or maybe it's like opening the front door and inviting the neighbours in. I hope it's the latter. But it's a fine line.
Thanks to all who've accepted the invitation and walked in to my untidy house.
She decided not to have breakfast in bed. But we did follow the tradition of opening presents pretty much immediately upon waking.
Birthday cake, as decorated by a six-year-old and a three-year-old. Rules of hygiene not exactly rigidly adhered-to.
At her friend party. This is cake number two (cake number one was eaten the night before, at a small family party).
Six is the age at which we let the kids start having friend parties to celebrate their birthdays. Fooey sent out invitations way back in June, because she wanted to invite friends from her class at school, some of whom our family doesn't know. Who would show up was kind of a mystery. In the end, six girls came. It was fun, and it felt easy: craft, outdoor play, a pretend treasure hunt for the supposedly missing cake, the opening of cards, and jumping through the sprinkler. All planned by the birthday girl herself.
For supper, not pictured here, the kids and I went out for all-you-can-eat sushi, also planned by Fooey. She didn't care that her dad couldn't come along (he had a soccer game over the supper hour): the meal had to happen on her birthday. And I'll tell you, it was crazy fun. Yes, I spent a fair bit of time accompanying smaller children to the bathroom, but otherwise, I felt like I was out for dinner with four really entertaining personalities. We ordered surprises off the menu like "banana" (which turned out to be battered banana fried and served with chocolate sauce) and "golden bag" (which was not the hoped-for dessert item the orderer had guessed it to be; she ate it anyway). And I let them eat as many bowls of ice cream as they wanted.
There are times, it must be said, when being the mother of a pile of kids is just plain fun.
I am working again today, my third consecutive day, though perhaps with less enthusiasm and energy than on days one and two. Friday, I ploughed with confidence through the first two stories, slow and steady, and with the phrase "take heart," in my mind.
Yesterday, I tackled my nemesis and felt satisfied. I wrote a new scene for another story and felt calm. And then I spent hours waiting for a couple of words to arrive: dialogue that must say enough but not too much, that will illuminate, leave space for mystery, and not confuse the reader. Oh, and complete a story with a few final rhythmic beats, too. Harder than you might think.
And this is the easy stage. Except maybe it's not. Maybe there isn't an easy stage. Yes, the stories are structurally sound. They are thoroughly imagined. That intensive and demanding work is long since done. But we're down to the details, the nitty-gritty, the word here that could be stronger, the paragraph there that is too vague, the stray fluff that if left in might distract a reader, might sap energy from the larger story.
It's work that makes me feel like pulling my hair out, like running for hours (in the opposite direction). I know these stories all too well. Can I walk through such familiar terrain and observe with fresh eyes? I cannot. It is impossible. The best I can do is force myself to pay attention, slow down, creep along, praying for a depth of concentration that will allow me to finish what I've started. To see it through to the end.
It should be easy. A word here, a word there. Grace notes.
That's a musical term, but I'm hearing it differently all of a sudden. Notes that grace the whole; but also, notes that arrive by grace.
That sums up the work I need to do today, and the work I've been doing. Waiting for grace. Sitting with my stories, picking slowly through them, hoping for grace. I can't rip the words out of thin air. I have to invite them over. And be here when they arrive. They're whimsical, fickle, unreliable guests. There's no predicting how they'll surprise me.
Which is why I'm still hanging around waiting, I suppose. It's tedious. But somehow I trust I won't be bored, in the end. Neither will you, dear reader, I hope.
A few entries ago, I wrote briefly about reading Mary Oliver's Winter Hours. I would love to type out an entire poem here, but without having permission to reproduce it in full, will give you a link instead (and do read it in full), and quote the final four lines of what is probably her most well-known poem: The Summer Day.
She is writing about prayer. She says she does not know what a prayer is, but she does know how to pay attention: "how to be idle and blessed." She has spent the day in what might appear to be idleness, strolling through fields, kneeling in the grass, examining the grasshopper. She asks:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everyone die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Yesterday started with unexpected news from my mother's family: the sudden death of one of my cousins's spouses, mother of two, only 43. They live in another country, and I can't say we've seen them more than every other year or so. But the day was nevertheless altered by the knowledge of this family, not far removed from my own, suffering an unimaginable shock and loss. What comfort can there be for her boys? Her youngest son is the age of my eldest. There was no preparation, no advance knowledge, just in an instant, one precious life gone. She is no longer in this world with her family.
What waits around the corner? What secret end is hidden inside the body, waiting to reveal itself in time? Nobody knows.
And so, Mary Oliver's wise and bright words came again to me. No wonder they are quoted so widely. No wonder. Because, yes, everyone dies at last and too soon. And we are all alive, right now. If you are reading this, you are alive. Life is wild. It can't be tamed, or made safe. It's all any of us has really got. What are we to do with it? What a question.
Here's what I did yesterday: hung laundry on the line, made yogurt, smelled my children's hair, jumped on a trampoline, ran through the woods, cheered from the sidelines of a soccer game, drifted, fought impatience, struggled with my children arguing with each other, and wondered ... what more? Or even, what less? What do I plan to do with this one precious life?
This was an all-family project. At the start of the summer, we talked about getting a trampoline for the back yard. The kids seem to keep growing. And the old swing set looks kind of destructible with several ten-year-old boys playing on it. But trampolines are expensive. So, we started saving for it. In the end, the kids emptied their piggy banks (literally), we wrapped coins (a project still underway), used the money from the long-ago "reward jar," found a whack of Canadian Tire money, and, after a lot of online research, chose a trampoline. It's supposed to be the safest one around. Fingers and toes are crossed.
The trampoline came home from the store in three boxes. Putting it together was a two woman/man job requiring a lot of physical strength, and some smarts, too. Albus and AppleApple were both very helpful with the smarts.
We were hosting a double sleepover yesterday evening, so we had some extra help. After many hours of labour, the whole thing was finally built before it got dark.
The boys thought it would be funny to show this.
Followed by this. (I hope the trampoline doesn't laugh last.)
We do have rules. Our rules are: no shoes, zipper closed, and only two kids at a time (kids of similar weight).
The camera never got past the campsite (which was located very near the basketball net).
That means there are no photos of the pond where we swam, of the campfire where we sang, of the field where exciting boy versus girl soccer games broke out every evening (girls won both times, if I do say so myself, as a member of the team).
No photos of the stars, or of the friendly and entertaining staff.
No photos of the beach where I got to run early in the morning with my friend Nina.
I'm mother of four, writer, dreamer, planner, runner, photographer, taking time for a cup of coffee in front of this computer screen. My days are full, yet I keep asking: how can I fill them just a little bit more
-- with depth, with care, with pleasure.