It's the last day of summer. Not officially, and yes, we still have the long weekend before school starts. But it feels like the last day of summer. Today will be the last Friday, for awhile anyway, that my kids spend with their grandma. And yesterday we said goodbye to the babysitter who has given them (and me) many wonderful summer days of activity and creativity.
The end of a chapter is upon us.
So to mark the occasion, this morning Kevin and I went for one last summer swim in our favourite outdoor pool. The water temperature had dropped significantly since we were there last; cooler nights, I guess. The sun is shining today, and it's hot, but after forty-five minutes in that chilly water we were both numb, much the way we felt after our lake swims last week.
So we climbed out, showered, and had lunch together. Sweet. Once in a blue moon, I tell you.
I'm planning to spend the long weekend holed up and writing. I've spent the last few days doing exactly that, disappearing, emerging to whip together a passable supper, or to take a kid to soccer practice so I can go for a run, but otherwise absent from the happenings of the household. Which is a bit sad, in some ways; to spend these final days of my kids' holidays lost inside my mind. But I'm taking the chance while I've got it, and while energy and inspiration run strong.
Yesterday evening, I did something I've never done before. I went to a local big-box-bookstore and sat at a table just inside the front doors, behind neatly stacked piles of The Juliet Stories and a little poster that said, "Meet the Author!" All of this had been arranged in advance, of course, but I hadn't really known what to expect.
In the opening moments, I had the sinking feeling that it would be humiliating in the way that certain exercises in one's literary life can be -- readings to which not very many people turn up, or readings to which many people turn up to hear the other person on the bill, leaving one sitting behind a stack of books that no one is interested in buying because they are all lining up to have the other person sign his/hers. Yes, this has happened to me. If you're a published writer in Canada, it's probably happened to you, too.
I'm not complaining. Like Margaret Atwood says (and I paraphrase), "Don't whine. You chose this. Nobody made you be a writer."
In any case, as the evening proceeded, I discovered quite a lot to enjoy. I smiled at everyone who walked through the doors, and almost everyone smiled back in a seemingly genuine way. The few who didn't interested me too: they would pretend not to see me at all. Approximately a fifth of all customers were immediately drawn to a lamp that was also in their sightline. (I had to check it out too, finally, and it was quite pretty; but no one actually bought it.) I started to feel more comfortable in my role as "Meet the Author." Strangers approached and bought the book. My mom arrived and bought two copies! (I was embarrassingly excited to see her, as that was early on and I was worried no one might actually approach.) Acquaintances from Twitter and Facebook dropped by too.
Almost to a person, those who came up to talk to me approached in the same way. Enter customer through front door. Smiles exchanged. Customer takes second glance at table. Customer heads off into greater store. Fifteen minutes later (or so), customer returns, pauses beside table, touches a book. I stand and ask if they'd like to know more. We chat, often at length. I sign book.
One woman had never met an author before. Several had children who were curious to know more about making books. "Do you have a really big printer at home?" One woman laughed at everything I said as if I were wonderfully witty (I'm not). The only person who approached, chatted, and didn't buy the book was also the only man who approached (other than the fellow who thought I was a store employee and wondered where to find books on Japan). I got the biggest smiles from the men, on store entrance, but only one returned. Maybe most men don't read fiction? Or maybe they don't read fiction with a girl in a bathing suit on the cover?
All in all, it was a genuinely pleasant evening, and I'd sign up to do it again without hesitation.
I haven't read from The Juliet Stories all summer. May and June were heavy with readings and appearances, and it was a relief to take a little holiday. But readings start up again in September, so it seemed wise to reacquaint myself with the words on the page -- which is what I did during the slow moments yesterday evening. It reminded me why I'm doing what I'm doing.
This morning I was digging in the attic through old boxes of manuscripts, and came across early versions of The Juliet Stories. Wow. In various drafts, the titles included "American Sandinistas," "Photograph Never Taken," "Blackbird," and, simply "Beautiful Book." I remember giving that particular draft that particular title because I needed to feel hopeful about the work ahead. I needed to believe in it. I was still two years away from finding the form that The Juliet Stories would inhabit. A long haul, and yet, reading over those printed words in the store last night, it felt worth it. I'm glad that I stuck it out.
This is a very different point in the publishing process, but I need to stick it out, similarly.
I'm fairly certain that everyone who bought a book (with the exception of my mom, and one Twitter friend) wouldn't have found The Juliet Stories otherwise. One of the great mysteries, as an Obscure CanLit Mama, is how to reach people who might like the book, but who will never hear about it. Which is, let's be honest, the vast majority of the reading population. That's why independent booksellers, who hand-sell the book, are so important to writers like me. That's why friends who tell friends who might tell more friends about the book matter so much. And that's why I'm more than willing to sit behind a table in a big-box-bookstore smiling at everyone who enters.
Sunday, day one. Pack up post-successful-soccer tournament and drive east 281 km to spend night in hotel, booked in advance. Eat pizza in truck. Feed dogs by roadside. Arrive after dark only to discover hotel has no adjoining rooms. And the gym is already closed. Split up into two rooms, boys and girls (with dogs in boys').
Monday, day two. Take dogs to vet (it's a complicated story). Spend morning at hotel, swimming, running on nearby lakeside trail. Pick up dogs mid-afternoon and drive east 111 km to visit new nephew/cousin. He's only five days old!
Tuesday, day three. Visiting with family, swimming in the basin of a nearby lock, running/hiking on a beautiful wooded trail, playing badminton and soccer, walking dogs on rocks, staying up late to watch silly tv (everyone) ... oh, and doing that 11-year-old specialty: the I'm-bored flop.
Wednesday, day four. Brunch with grandma, aunt, uncle, cousins; say goodbye. Pack up and drive west and north 423 km. Threaten at various points during the journey to pack it in and just go home (arguing children, restless dogs, exhausted parents). Instead, surge ever onward. Until we get here.
Thursday, day five. Dogs cry all night; luckily only Kevin and I can hear them; unluckily, we are running dangerously low on sleep. Luckily, I find on the cottage shelves a light and fluffy book into which to disappear for the better part of the day: The Nanny Diaries. And the children play. And we swim. And we walk the dogs around the rocks and woods. And we celebrate Fooey's birthday (again!), this time on a boat in the middle of the lake.
Friday, day six. Dogs sleep better. Kevin and I sleep better. Motorboat and water skiis tested out. More swimming. I disappear into past issues of The New Yorker, discover the journals of Mavis Gallant from Spain, early 1950s. As the writers of The Nanny Diaries would say: "Swoon." (Only they'd say it about the hunky guy upstairs.)
Saturday, day seven. More water-skiing and boating. A long swim out to "Poop Island," accompanied by kids and Kevin and my dad in canoe and kayaks. More long-form essays in The New Yorker devoured. More food eaten. Dogs happy in shade. Ahhhhhh.
Sunday, day eight. More swimming, skiing, boating, eating, reading, all crammed in before a late lunch. Pack up. Boat out. Drive west and south 302 km, with interlude by the side of the road due to vehicle trouble. (Should have gotten a photo of that for posterity.) Four kids, two dogs, two parents, seventeen bags of dirty laundry, and by golly, we make it home. CJ: "This doesn't feel like my bed! It feels different."
'Til next summer, then.
A brief addendum, applicable only today. I'm signing books this evening at Chapters in Waterloo from 6-8. Stop by if you've got a few minutes. We can chat about The Juliet Stories. Or swap summer holiday stories.
A few posts ago, I reflected on how "deep rich writing" requires going deep, developing layers (kind of like composting, come to think of it), and that takes time. Which is true. Except I feel sometimes that I would love to write a book that is not at all deep, not particularly rich, just for fun, because it would amuse me. I wonder whether I could.
3. Because when they arrive, you'll have to do something about it.
4. Problem solved.
(Made a different sauce this year. 8 litres of tomatoes + 1 and 1/4 lb of butter + 4 onions + 4 tsp salt = butter tomato sauce. Yields 7 quarts. I doubled the recipe. Thanks to my friend Ann, for the recipe.)
The team made it to the final. They'd lost to the other team in the first round.
Then their goalie got a nosebleed partway through and had to be subbed off until it had completely stopped. Yeah, that's my kid. The coach says that his team loves to give him a heart attack. It seems to motivate them.
Not to worry! She's back.
"Mom, I heard the trophies are HUGE!"
Well, you get take one home. Somehow you kept the ball out of the net during those last panicked moments. You won!
I have the best husband with whom to co-host birthday parties for children. Give him an idea (say, an Olympics theme) and the next thing you know odds and ends from the garage, basement and attic appear in the back yard, arranged into an obstacle course, or high jump (with bouncy landing pad), or relay track.
This was a three hour party. At least two hours were spent on the Olympic events in the back yard. For a full hour, kid you not, the mostly-seven-year-old crowd lined up and took turns jumping over a pool noodle onto a mattress to great cheers and applause.
Went to hot yoga yesterday, the first time in months. The focus for the class was "gratitude." Just what I needed! Talking with a friend yesterday afternoon had already got me thinking about the unhappiness that's caused by comparing oneself to others (see the lovely Soule Mama). Caught up in wishing I had sheep and five homeschooled children and cupboards of freshly preserved home-grown goodness, I completely ignore and minimize all the goodness in my own life, right here and now.
Comparing lives is foolish, and possibly even worse than that -- insidious. Now, that isn't to say that inspiration can't be found from investigating with interest the choices other people make. I wonder what the distinction is between comparison and inspiration. Is it my own frame of mind?
Here's a good reminder as I go about my every day activities: I'm doing things that I've chosen to do, that I enjoy doing (mostly), and that, by necessity, cancel out my ability to do other things. There is only so much time and energy in one life (or in one family's life).
Here are a few choices we've made:
We live in the city, a very short walk to the uptown core (because I also dislike driving and relying on cars). Therefore, we don't live in the country on many rolling acres with paddocks and fields and a truck patch and barn. Nevertheless, we enjoy a lively herb garden, and lots of fresh tomatoes from our patches around the yards, front and back.
I write, and I need quiet time on my own to do it. Therefore, we've chosen not to homeschool our children, the responsibility for which would fall on me. Nevertheless, the kids have lots of freedom in the summertime, and also pursue extra-curricular activities they enjoy.
I love exercising: swimming, training to run long distance, taking early morning classes with friends. Therefore, most of my free time, which could otherwise be spent baking muffins before breakfast or canning food or tending a garden, is allotted to exercise instead. Nevertheless, I bake bread fairly often and cook locally sourced meals from scratch.
As I've hinted, I've been writing. In fact, I've been writing pretty steadily. But I think it's pre-writing, telling the basic story to myself in order to understand my characters more deeply, so that I can distill their lives into something more meaningful. As with The Juliet Stories, I wrote many early layers of politics, of explication, of developing characters and relationships and plot that did not make it into the book itself. This is necessary writing, but it isn't the most satisfying. Every time you sit down to write, you want to believe you're landing on the perfect shape and form. Instantly. But that's rare, if not impossible. A deep rich work requires deep rich work. The book that deserves to be read will come out of the disheartening and ultimately invisible work underpinning it. I write in hope!
Overnight camp was not a huge part of my childhood. But I did work at a wild and beautiful camp the summer I was sixteen (I was the pony girl). And I remember well the feeling of waking early, eating communally, singing around a campfire, and being someplace where the only thing on the agenda, really, is to have fun. To be outdoors as much as possible, and to play.
This week, my biggest kids are away at camp. No ponies at this one, but lots of friends, and already a few years of happy history behind them: this will be their third summer. They know what to expect, and they were looking forward to it when they left yesterday. I could detect not a whiff of anxiety in their goodbye demeanour.
And actually, I feel pretty okay too.
I've found babysitting for the week, so I can keep plugging away. Our schedule will be a little lighter without the extra soccer practices to go to. And the two little kids can soak up some time and attention.
Meantime, I'm glad the two big kids get the chance to experience a bit of independence, a bit of freedom, and the beauty of what feels like wilderness (even though, in reality, it's only a few minutes from the nearest town).
The week will go fast. I'm looking forward to hearing the stories and the songs. To seeing what changes the week has brought (last year, both seemed taller, and more mature, after just one week.) And to doing piles of laundry.
This summer, I have yet to can a thing. I've frozen a few odds and ends here and there in small batches, usually leftovers from a meal (ie. too much corn on the cob).
I haven't found the energy for it, and I'm not sure why.
This morning, Fooey and I looked at Soule Mama's blog together. She loved the photos of children feeding chickens, playing with pigs and sheep, and picking veggies in the garden. "The children have to do a lot of chores," she observed. I said they were homeschooled, and she said, "Well, of course! Because they have so many chores, they don't have time for school." Let me add that she said this with a very positive tone. Not "chores" as in drudgery, but "chores" as interesting activities.
I felt a pang for the seasonally lived life. "It's lot of work," I said. "It's their whole life."
I know that's why I read Soule Mama's blog: to live vicariously, just a tiny bit. To imagine pulling off muffins baked before kids come downstairs and weeding with baby riding on my back and preserving food and painting rooms pretty colours and renovating an old farmhouse and being a homesteader. When I was a young teen, I spent many happy hours imagining life as a homesteader, out in the middle of nowhere, building a self-sustaining life from scratch. I don't know why it appealed to me, but I know it was a fantasy that hasn't had much impact on my actual day-to-day life, even though remnants of the fantasy remain, fondly.
Maybe I'm too lazy.
Today, I am thinking with admiration about all those hard-working people who live seasonally. Right now, in Canada, if I were living truly seasonally, I would be canning like crazy. Now is the time! Grab the moment! Preserve summer. Instead, I'm lost in thought before a computer. I'm at a soccer field until dusk. I'm going for a run. I'm vacuuming dog hair.
But I have some angst over not canning. I feel like I should be. And I feel tired too, worn out, a bit, by the continuous nature of living, the daily demands, being unable to catch up or keep up. Laundry, meals, basic family hygiene, household demands. We attempted to get the kids doing regular chores earlier this summer, and we didn't stick to it. (We should try again, for their sake and for ours.)
Maybe that's what impresses me most about those people who are growing our food for us, and those people who are living off the land: they stick to it. Nature won't let them stop, and they don't. I'm sure they'd like to, sometimes. I'm sure weariness sets in.
I need something similar to attend to, a project larger than myself, more meaningful. (Or is this just August talking--a wistful month, I always find, during which I feel nostalgic for what's passing even though it's still right here all around me?)
We kicked off the first of several birthday celebrations yesterday. (Friend party still to come.)
"Your homemade pizza" was requested. I was flattered. I thought all the kids preferred bought. Albus and I went shopping for supplies and taste-tested several types of pepperoni. He attempted to keep me focused and on-budget. "I think you're buying too much cheese, Mom." Yes, we were at Vincenzo's, and yes, I bought several small and expensive creamy stinky cheeses that had nothing to do with pizza making.
I topped one pizza with a mixture of onions, grated zucchini, cream, thyme, salt and pepper. That was my favourite. I topped another with seasoned oil, green pepper, mushroom, and ribbons of mild thinly-sliced salami (the meat we'd decided tasted best). That was for my lactose-intolerant brother, and it looked pretty good for a cheeseless pizza. The rest of the pizzas had some combination of salami, green pepper, mushroom, romano, parmesan, mozzarella, on a tomato base. I made five pizzas. There was not a lot leftover.
I also turned the extra onion/zucchini/cream mixture into a base for a salad. Added more grated zucchini, chopped cabbage, salt and pepper. It was pretty oniony, it must be said. But I made a new discovery: cream is an oddly delicious salad dressing. Just cream.
The cake was yesterday's project for the kids. Their babysitter Emma planned it all out, with input from the birthday girl, and it was pretty spectacular. We had to invite Emma and her family over to help us eat it all! Four layers! Marzipan! A beach scene! Edible letters!
The dogs were introduced to their sweet dog cousin Winston, with predictable results. Frenzied violent barking from Suzi. Some backing-up-my-sis barking from DJ, who quickly mellowed and made friends. Continued frenzy from Suzi. We are trying to reward good behavior with treats, so when she stopped, she got rewards. Within about fifteen minutes all three dogs were loose in the yard, though it still felt like an unpredictable situation. We would love to take the dogs out and about (say, to hang out on the soccer sidelines), but we will need to solve the frenzy before we're comfortable doing that.
And I'm back to talking about the dogs again, I see. I'm becoming a bore!
But there wasn't much left to tell re birthday celebrations. Gifts. Happy Birthday singing (CJ has a surprisingly powerful, and in-tune, voice!). Candle blowing. Cake-eating. Sugar-induced bedtime meltdowns. The day was done. And now my baby girl is seven.
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.