Writerly Things & Perpetual Second-Guessing

There’s so much adjusting going on that I can’t see our situation with any clarity right now. There are very particularly American anxieties that I’m sure I’ll soon be absorbing as my own. I am writing from within the fog of flu-like symptoms of a possibly ill-advised juice cleanse I’ve undertaken. The sun is still bright, the sky still blue, the air still hot, but the rest of the news of life from Riverside will wait until I have a little more perspective. So here are things going on with me as a semi-professionalised (emerging? professionalizing?) writer & reader.

1. I am now going to be helping to produce and edit content for the Echolocation blog, so if you are interested in writing reviews or interviews, or being reviewed or interviewed, or if you have any other ideas for content, email me at ec.harmer [at] gmail [dot] com.

2. My story “No Violence” is now out with Grain Magazine. I wanted to write something about the darkness of parenting young children. Around the time I wrote I told someone that potty-training was, in all seriousness, a kind of horror. Publishing in Grain is one of those long-held dreams, since the time I used to sit in the downtown library in Hamilton as a teenager and pore over it, attempting to crack its secrets.

3. “This Great Experiment” a story about a man who leaves his comfortable life in Toronto to live in an RV with a hippy and her daughter, is out with the Dalhousie Review. I share table of contents with the lovely Trevor Corkum and Michael Prior, unstoppably brilliant poet and my partner on the Echolocation blog.

Both of the above stories I wrote while we were in Toronto, having a really hard time, and I told someone at the time that all of the stories I was writing were about “having no prospects”. Terror equals art. Now all of those scary stories are out in the world, the third being “Grievances”, published last year by Little Fiction.

4. “Attention” is coming out very soon in Little Brother no. 5the magazine helmed by Emily M. Keeler. This issue will also feature work by another couple of talented Toronto writers: Andrew Sullivan & Naben Ruthnum. This story was an experiment where I tried to write as many of the sentences as I could as from the messages we receive daily: news reports, subway announcements, songs, advertisements, etc. And also about being trapped in a subway car. (I wish I were in Toronto for the launch of LB… :( )

5. I still listen to Q, The Current, Wiretap, etc. instead of switching over to NPR. I have not switched my interests from Giller long lists to National Book Award ones. In these ways I shall pretend to being in Canada. Jian’s Ghomeshi’s interview with Ethan Hawke really touched me.

6. I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild for a book club and I cannot believe how compelling it is! It is well-fleshed-out nonfiction one can only hope to imitate, paley. I’m happy for all that the book has brought Strayed & now I want to try hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

7. Lastly, to round out my life, since it is most deeply immersed in the joys and horrors of parenting, I read this beautiful essay. It moves between the difficulty of the decision to have children, the feeling of dissatisfaction, and the hard lives many children have to face:

As I was saying all this, I was lying on the cheap platform bed we’d bought in anticipation of a steady flow of out-of-town company. The curtains were lifting gently in the breeze. Outside, there was bougainvillea, along with bees and hummingbirds and mourning doves. There was a grassy lawn where the dog rolled around scratching its back, and a big table on the deck where friends sat on weekends eating grilled salmon and drinking wine and complaining about things they knew were a privilege to complain about (the cost of real estate, the noise of leaf blowers, the overratedness of the work of more successful peers). And as I lay on that bed it occurred to me, terrifyingly, that all of it might not be enough. Maybe such pleasures, while pleasurable enough, were merely trimmings on a nonexistent tree. Maybe nothing—not a baby or the lack of a baby, not a beautiful house, not rewarding work—was ever going to make us anything other than the chronically dissatisfied, perpetual second-guessers we already were.

That’s all for now from me, another chronically dissatisfied, perpetual second-guesser.

I’m Better Off Not Knowing What That is in Celsius; or, some Canadians in California

What’s it like moving a whole family this far away for a job? It’s hard in the many  ways you’d expect–paperwork, legal stuff, not having any credit that registers here, living out of suitcases for weeks, and, perhaps worst of all, having to entertain a two-year-old in an airport and then during a five-hour flight.

However, we are settling in with greater ease than I had expected. I like it here, for the most part, and tears haven’t been coming as often or as torrentially as I’d worried. It’s nice having some time together as a family, which we’ve had little of for the past two years.

Part 1: Moving, Waiting

The old apartment, all boxed up.

The old apartment, all boxed up.

 

 

First we left the place where we went from a family of four to one of five, and the children went from 3 and 1 to 6, 4, and 2.

Two bedrooms with no outdoor space was feeling pretty cramped.

Then we said goodbye to familiar things, like friends and coffee shops.

It’s possible we have spent too much money on coffee.

It took fifteen days for our things to get from Hamilton to Riverside. We spent the first five of those with my parents, where we amused ourselves as cheaply as possible with as few of our toys as possible.

First test of ability to manage and amuse children was our stop at the US border to tie up some loose ends. One afternoon we all drove down and then sat in the customs waiting room for TWO FULL HOURS without snacks or toys or ANYTHING.

So we (1) watched the glass elevators go up and down for at least forty-five minutes, (2) made up a story about a raccoon in my writing notebook, and, when that bored us, we (3) ran around the decks of chairs and over the ankles of other people waiting and yelped when told to slow down and be quiet.

After all that, finally, and for the kids’ first time, we saw this:

NiagaraFalls

Niagara Falls

It was a proud moment for me as a parent and Canadian (we got little flags!), and I hope it will be the sort of memory the kids use as an example of what their childhoods were like. (“We made so much of so little! Our mom was so patient and good humoured!). Even if that would be mostly fiction.

We also did this:

2. It Sounds Like Longer in Kilometres

Then it was time for the flight. A car ride to the airport that takes about and hour, then about three hours at the airport, then five hours on the plane added up to a very long day for me. We were fortunate that Juliet only screamed loudly for ten minutes total and that our only other seat mate was a very calm gentleman who did nothing during the flight but eat an enormous Ziploc bag full of sunflower seeds. Later I found out he was a pilot.

Headphones were one of the things that could amuse her for 90 seconds at a time.

Headphones were one of the things that could amuse her for 90 seconds at a time.

It was not easy and I do not relish the idea of doing it again.

3. Los Angeles

Our things weren’t due to arrive for another week and a half, so we spent some of that time having our first vacation in over three years. We stayed in a very pretty house in Northeast LA overlooking a canyon.

4. Riverside, after that Idyll, Rudely Awakens Us to Our Predicament 

Riverside is ten degrees (F) hotter than LA. We arrived at our place ten days before our stuff! We didn’t even have–quelle horreur–a way to make or drink coffee in the morning. We had to buy air mattresses, cushions, etc., reasoning that camping out in our rented house was cheaper than staying in a hotel.

What an adventure!

I’m still figuring things out here, obviously. It’s draining not to know where anything is or who is best to ask–all those things you take for granted in a place you’ve called home for as long as we did Hamilton. I have been a little bit snappish at times. I have collapsed in tears so far only three times, which is actually not that out of the ordinary for me. (Should I be worried that there are not enough tears? Is it related to the general lack of torrents and humidity?)

I miss our local library in Hamilton, and I miss my neighbours, and I really, really miss my friends.

A few Riverside highlights:

And this is how blue the skies almost always are: 

 

And this is how blue the sky is most of the time!

 

 

Blog Hop & Writer Tag

In grade school, I think I believed that being tagged meant people liked me. I also used to interview myself while doing chores about what it was like to be so long-suffering and dutiful a daughter.

I can’t resist a good round of writer tag.

My dear friend Amanda LeDuc, who wrote an incredible novel about ambiguously angelic and demonic people, and then published essays all over the place (the Rumpus!) as well as long-listing the CBC Canada writes prizes for both fiction and nonfiction this year, was kind enough to tag me, and I gladly obliged.

She also tagged Kevin Hardcastle, writer of excellent short stories, whose work, besides being contracted for a collection with Biblioasis, has appeared in the Journey Prize anthologies and Best Canadian Stories.

I am trying very hard not to be envious of these people, because I like them so much.

Now I get to interview myself:

What are you working on? 

Too many things. Short stories, essays, an incubating book of nonfiction, and the novel which is going to be my thesis for next year.

This novel began as a time travel story and morphed into a post-apocalyptic and as well as being a satire of, I think, smartphones.

How does your work differ from others in its genre? 

Most of the apocalyptic stuff I’ve read (and watched) is scary and/or sorrowful. My work plays against that standard (though I do love that standard, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker to The Walking Dead), and indulges in a positive way in one of my favourite elements of the genre: the way everything as we know it is turned upside down, made surreal, and all of those things we currently treasure become trash and vice versa.

Why do I write what I do? 

I didn’t mean to write any kind of genre story, but it started as a few short stories I was playing around with until I realized how fun it was to invent things like time machines. This writing is enjoyable because it requires so much imaginative work.

Also, as I said, I love the genre, and can’t get enough of literary crossovers to genre writing (like Colson Whitehead’s cerebral zombie tale, Zone One), and I think Toni Morrison said you should write the book you want to read.

I write (and read) stories for those little crystalline moments of insight. For example, in my story “Right, Right, Right”, I wrote “A person married to a stone becomes a river,” which I hadn’t thought until I wrote it. Fiction excavates gems.

Also, writing for me is basic and compulsive and I have long ago accepted that.

How does my writing process work? 

Haphazardly and messily. I have a notebook for scrawling ideas and making lists of the projects currently on the go. Normally I have several pieces I’m actively working on. Today, for instance, I am mid-chapter in the novel, in the revision stage for the two creative essays and one story, and beginning work on another short story. I like to have more than one thing to do in a session of work, because I believe in cross-pollination.

Once I have a completed piece, revision methods include retyping the whole thing from scratch, rewriting it in longhand, reading it out loud to my husband (he cringes, I cut), and sharing it with writer-friends. Most of my deep revision happens as the first draft goes on–I can’t get to an ending if the story isn’t working, and I make a lot of false starts. Often if I put the work away for a while and read something or let my mind wander the answer comes.

As for when and where I work, I have tried to figure out how to work anywhere. Currently the distraction of the internet is a more formidable beast than the distraction of (3) children. I have been very productive in coffee shops and university libraries–because often I have to leave the house and its chaos–but I am setting up an office to use at home when we get the kids settled in school and preschool next week. I rarely have more than a few hours in a row to work, but I’m amazed at how many words I’ve managed to get down in only those short spurts.

And now….

I pass the baton to my fellow writers, kind and smart and lovely people, both of whom live in my (sniff) former hometown of Hamilton.

Krista Foss recently published her first novel, Smoke River, which is receiving rave reviews. Before that, she was a two-time finalist for the Journey prize. She is also the brains behind the first Grit Lit festival in Hamilton, which is now in its eleventh (?) year.

Brent van Staaldinuen is currently working on his MFA at UBC. His work has appeared recently in The New Quarterly, is forthcoming in The Dalhousie Review, and earned a spot in the 2014 CBC Canada Writes long list.

Find their entries in blog tag on September 1!

 

Two Quotes: Writers and Determination

From Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby: 

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and solitude, that I came out of that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much the talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose and vocation, which manifests itself in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. 

 

From Kevin Hardcastle’s website:

So, after years of being told a load of weird shit by a bunch of people in this business, and a pile of rejections for stories and novels, this one little story read by the right person at the right time led to all of this magic. I always say that you should never be just sitting around waiting on other people to do something with your work, and, when you are waiting on worthwhile things, you should keep at the writing. Since 2012 I’ve just tried to lay down as many stories as possible, and to get better at it as I go. A lot of things didn’t work out the way I thought, but the stories kept on getting written, and people started reading them, and this is where it all ended up.

 

 

There Are Prizes

It has been over a week since I won a gold National Magazine Award for “Blip”, and I suppose it goes without saying that this was a good thing. It was also surreal and wonderful in strange ways I suppose I’ll find a way to write about later when I have some distance. A year ago I was attending the Vanderbilt/Exile awards events, filled with anxiety because I didn’t know what to do or how to act, and feeling very out of my element. The twelve months in between the two events were very good ones for my writing career. And I now know maybe a little better that, as Regina Spektor sings, “People are just people, they shouldn’t make you nervous.” I went, I talked to the wonderful people from The New Quarterly, I survived the heart-pounding walk up on to stage to receive the certificate, I spotted writers I knew and recognized and failed to speak to them, nervous as I was, and I didn’t really realize how much my feet hurt until we left the building.

It was a lovely evening, spent with my husband, and I had fun.

Standing next to the Best New Magazine Writer display, the award I didn’t win.

Prizes are nice, and prizes are problems. It’s nice to be recognized even though it always (for me) hurts to lose. Except for those times it feels better to lose, if losing means less attention, even though attention, as a writer, is what you’re after. The prize isn’t about you, about your value, or you can’t let it be, anyway.

Later that week my good friend and very talented young novelist Amanda LeDuc posted this picture of the two of us (among others) after we were awarded writing prizes as teenagers.

I’m the scowling blond with glasses and black turtleneck. Amanda’s to my left.

Power of the Pen winners, 1998, Hamilton, Ontario.

Power of the Pen winners, 1998, Hamilton, Ontario.

I don’t need to tell you that I was an angsty teenager, but I was also, despite my low self-esteem, a paradoxically over-confident one, and sometimes early success can do as much harm as good since it makes success feel like magic instead of like the result of hard work. It took me too long to figure out how to work at my writing.

But I did figure that out, so maybe it’s alright anyway.

Incidentally, I also happened to listen to this gem of a podcast while out walking the other day, a short story by Janet Frame read by Miranda July. It’s worth listening to just for the conversation between Deborah Treisman and July, since they discuss Frame’s fascinating life. (Frame was  diagnosed with schizophrenia and saved from lobotomy only after winning a prestigious writing prize). The story is called “Prizes”:

In “Prizes,” the narrator recalls the great lengths she went to in order to win awards as a girl, and her eventual discovery that she could “no longer use prizes as a fortress.” Here are the story’s opening lines:

Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought. One knew of the pit ahead, of the grownups lying there rewarded, arranged, and faded, who were so long ago bright as poppies. One learned to take one’s own deserved place on the edge, reading to leap, not to hang back in a status-free huddle where bodies were warm together and the future darkness seemed less frightening. Therefore, one learned to win prizes, to be surrounded in sleep by a dream of ordinal numbers, to stand in best clothes upon platforms in order to receive medals threatened upon black-and-gold ribbons, books “bound in calf,” scrolled certificates. One’s face became, from habit, incandescent with achievement.

Because prizes are something, but, like money, not everything. Always most exciting is the next thing, always easier to focus on is the failure, always happiest is the woman who learns to live in the moment with the people she loves. Or who, at least, gives that a try.

Preliminary Reflections on the Festival of Faith and Writing: Canadian Pronunciations & “Rapt-Capacious” Minds

My two mugs from my two festivals. And the gorgeous guidebook.

My two mugs from my two festivals. And the gorgeous guidebook.

 

I have managed now to go to two of Calvin College’s FFWs without writing much about them. Short story: I loved this festival, which happens biennially in Grand Rapids. In 2012, they hosted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Marilynne Robinson, and this year they had plenaries with Anne Lamott and James McBride. Amid numerous other erudite and fascinating writers from all over the US and Canada.

I have found the festival both spiritually and literarily nourishing.

A few memories from 2014:

1. I saw Christopher Beha (author of the universally lauded What Happened to Sophie Wilder) in the stands just after James McBride’s speech (where he made some confusing claims about God–more on that in a later post). I had just bought his book after hearing him give a really interesting talk about the relevance (or lack thereof) of Catholic writers in current literary climes which ended up being about the relevance (and lack thereof) of thoughtful literature in general to our culture. So, rather awkwardly, I approached him for an autograph.

“Can I do this?” I said. “Can I just accost you like this while you’re milling about?”

He said something very charming, and then I apologized some more, and then I apologized for apologizing, and then I confessed that I was Canadian. “I could tell,” he said. “You said ‘milling a-boot.'”

Whaaaa? I say a-boot?

And then his friend wondered why Canadians are always so surprised that they have an accent.

In sum, Christopher Beha is charming, smart, and talented, and I was pretty starstruck by the whole thing.

2. I went to a few sessions on Creative Nonfiction, a form I’ve been dabbling in and which seems more flexible and exciting than I once thought. Though, as I told a friend yesterday, writing it is a much more difficult process for me than is fiction. These panels were all really helpful and intriguing, too, and one highlight of the weekend was hearing Amy Leach read from her book of nature-nonfiction called Things That Are. AmyLeachHer prose is unlike anything. (A blurb from Lawrence Weschler calls her voice “gamin-sly, rhythm-rhymey” and her mind “flint-flighty, rapt-capacious”, which seems about right.) (I feel like that blurb needs a blurb, too, being so artful and interesting). But anyway, here’s a taste of Leach, from an essay called “Radical Bears in the Forest Delicious”:

What does a panda know, who studies just a few cloudy-mountain miles of the world? From her experience she must know about fallibility. Icicles melt, flowers fail, intangibly small babies grow tangible and autonomous, and one day when you come back from foraging to collect yours from the tree fork where you left him, he is gone. Mushrooms, moonlight, everything is ephemeral, with one exception: bamboo. Bamboo never fails, bamboo is eternal, evergreen, green in the orange season, green in the white season, green in the green season, poking up sweet little shoots into the spring rain. Blessed is the bear that trusteth in bamboo.

The whole thing is the kind of delightful that makes me read long passages aloud to anyone else in the room.

3. And, in other news, we have a place to live in Riverside and ballpark timing for the move. I’m taking one last academic course on Religion, Secularism, and the Novel, finishing up some short stories, and starting work on (eep!) another novel for my thesis project. (The other one is stewing in a bottom drawer). It is going to be post-apocalyptic, sort of. And today I got a monster bruise (attacked by the box I was jumping on during my CrossFit workout so that I was knee-down numb and crying for a while); this may be a good thing to show off in my dress for the National Magazine Awards Gala in two weeks, which I am attending as a double-nominee. I’m pretty proud of those nominations, and also of the swollen scraped bruise, which will go well with my nominated essay on pain.

 

“The Making of a Story”

When a story-draft is done I put it away for at least a month. Longer is better, because I’m in love with my fiction and myself; almost certainly the story needs more work. Often I have 3 or 4 in process at once, so I turn to another and concentrate on it for a while, then set it aside in turn. When I go back to a draft unread for weeks, often what’s needed is blindingly, embarrassingly clear.

–Cynthia Flood

I had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Flood about her wonderful short stories for Echolocation. See the rest here: The Deepest Pleasure’s in the Making of a Story

The Winter is Over, Maybe Forever

This semester’s door is creaking closed. The end of a busy stage never comes with as much relief as I hope it will, since the busyness of the semester has been concealing all sorts of other things that have needed tending all along. For example the children, with whom I’ve been enjoying Easter weekend by trying to bite my tongue about how much candy they are eating and by belting out tunes from Frozen, just like everybody else.

They made me tear up a little bit yesterday, these songs that seem really to speak to the difficulties children face, particularly that line about “be the good girl you always had to be/conceal don’t feel”. And winter is over symbolically and actually, here in Hamilton, Ontario: the snow is gone, the tulips are up, it’s Easter and love has the power not only to melt magical eternal winters but also over the power of death. And we have news: it may be our last winter here, our last winter experienced as a non-tourist. My husband landed a miraculously good tenure-track job in Philosophy all the way across the continent in Southern California. Thus, a frigid and difficult winter of too many illness, too much to do, and too many weekends on my own with the kids so he could travel has borne unbelievable fruit. A friend asked us, what do you do with this? Because you can’t conclude that it is just because he’s deserving–lots of people are deserving. What do you do when something great befalls you? I suppose you have to find a way to be grateful, to meet it with some kind of grace or dignity. You have to, at least, start acting like a proper adult. There are too many aspects of this move that I haven’t yet processed. I will be blogging about all of it, I’m sure, as we become a fully fledged instead of fledgling academic family, as we move from striving to settled. I’m actually going to be the professor’s wife I’d been half-unready to be all this time.

I’ve found myself praying this weekend to be more like my younger children (which is also to be more like Anna from Frozen): to be a more perfect mirror of my surroundings, as Buddhism would have it. When sad to cry, when happy to smile, when angry to show anger, etc. These two children feel their feelings, express them, and move on. That is also to be in a clear and not-ironic relation to life.

Last weekend, at the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing, I had the chance finally to meet in person someone I’ve been interacting with online: a fellow writer named Ian Hilgendorf. (or Follow him on twitter). He sent me this article about David Foster Wallace and the cynicism that is destroying our culture; the article ends on a hopeful note, calling for sincerity and engagement that is not the same as endorsement or blind belief.

But David Foster Wallace predicted a hopeful turn. He could see a new wave of artistic rebels who “might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels… who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles… Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.” Yet Wallace was tentative and self-conscious in describing these rebels of sincerity. He suspected they would be called out as “backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic.” He didn’t know if their mission would succeed, but he knew real rebels risked disapproval. As far as he could tell, the next wave of great artists would dare to cut against the prevailing tone of cynicism and irony, risking “sentimentality,” “ovecredulity” and “softness.”

Since I tend to be overly engaged, hyper-feeling, sincere, and even credulous, I could relate to much of it. Risking the possibility of failure is necessary to make art.

….a move toward something greater is to reject the safety of ironic remove and risk the possibility of failure.

Rereading Beloved

This semester has been so busy–very nearly unbearably busy–and the last six months so hard. More on all that in some future post. For now, speaking to you buried beneath a pile of books and papers and marking, I only want to share the joy and horror of reading Beloved for a second time.

It’s a very painful book under any circumstances, and for me this pain was somewhat bodily–I felt most acutely as I was reading the presence (if she was nearby) or absence of my littlest daughter. I had a little one also the first time I read it, but then I hardly took the novel in, as though I couldn’t bear to see what it was showing.

Beloved_by_Toni_MorrisonThis time, I could look, unafraid since I already knew it. Rereading enriched, as it seems to do: the other books I’ve reread in the past few years–Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Austen’s Emma, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–get more affecting and more beautiful with second and third readings. (I read somewhere about spoilers actually making a thing more enjoyable to watch or read–this though we’re always told to be so conscious of plotting, of making the plot move.) In any case, Beloved was incredible to read a second time.

Lines like this, for example:

and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her–remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.

I would love for her to be my teacher. I found this short clip after it, where she explains how she needed as a writer to make the babies in this story her babies in order to write them:

Reading Beloved made them also into my (the reader’s) babies. I want to know how to write this well. So the novel had the double effect of making me feel how I will never ever be this good at the same time as it made feel how important it is that someone is.

EVENT! & Read My Semester

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Image credit: Troy Palmer.

Little Fiction/Big Truths is hosting their first ever live event, and I’m reading! I’m reading with three marvelous writers (Trevor Corkum, Diana Davidson, and Andrew F. Sullivan) at a pretty sweet venue in a very cold city. I hope by February 5th it won’t be quite so icy. See the News/Events tab for details.

The semester is off to a roaring start, and I’ve got the January jitters. Always too much to do. Among the things I’ve got happening are a class on The American Pastoral (and ecocrit), a writing workshop with Robert McGill, a writing workshop with David Bezmozgis, a writing workshop that I’m teaching, and a TA assignment. Between the five, I’ll be doing an enormous amount of reading and writing.

If it doesn’t kill me first. My feelings about my first semester are (to put it characteristically dramatically) that I barely made it out alive. I realize that’s ridiculous, but there were moments when I felt that my brain actually might burst, that my seams were beginning to show.

My seams did show, I’m afraid, in the form of me forgetting things and missing appointments and writing essays not up to my usual standard of overachieving obnoxiousness. But I’ve been in recovery from my overachieving ways for a number of years now, and I’m trying live with more imperfection.

I need to get better at denial–it’s useful, and I’ve never been good enough at it. Pretending the dishes aren’t piling and my husband’s job search isn’t happening, fingers-in-ears-style, la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you, pretending its okay with me that I’m not super mom.

Going to go make a list of things I need to do. (1. Find a better answer than “busy” for when people ask me how I am….)

Resolve

I haven’t checked my Twitter or Facebook feeds in three days. Seems like not that much, but my dependence on those feeds is almost like my sugar habit. It is not a New Year’s Resolution, but I’m hoping to last the month. I don’t think that resolutions are about perfection or purity, and I’ll very likely break this fast. It’s just that things were falling through the cracks, and there isn’t any time, and I don’t want to give that time over to the bottomless pit of social media. They are adding to my general panic that there are more things to do and more books to read and more things to know than I’ll ever have time for. Facebook really rubs that in your face.

And that’s without considering the other issues I have with it: the need for approval, the desire to share everything instantly so that it feels like trees really don’t make a sound if they fall and no one tweets them, the privacy stuff, and the icky persona-building stuff. Most of the time I can deal with that all because there’s much to be enjoyed there. Which is why I’m not closing my accounts.

And which is why I’m blogging today, because of this troubling need to share.

In honour of my resolve and I hope not to add to anyone else’s general panic, here is part of a poem called “The Unfriending” by Jon Paul Fiorentino over at Lemon Hound.

You did a real stupid thing there
for your career when you
unfriended me.

I’m so tired of my online presence and my stupid career!

And to further undermine my attempt to disengage myself from the internet, I share this thoughtful and interesting essay by Roxane Gay. It is also related to Twitter. A quote:

I don’t want to feel sorry for Sacco. I don’t even know if I feel sorry for her, exactly. Instead, I recognize that I’m human and the older I get, the more I realize how fallible I am, how fallible we all are. I recognize that Justine Sacco is human. She should have known better and done better, but most of us can look at poor choices we’ve made, critical moments when we did not do better.

Really fabulous and fascinating.

Fast Feasts

threedaughters

(photo above: Eric Jones [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

This was the year that we realized that Christmas wasn’t about us at all. It was about them. It was about the children, and the gifts they’d get, and the magic they needed to believe in. The credulity of children is amazing. I didn’t ever believe in Santa, but our kids do. On Christmas morning, our eldest, after expressing momentary skepticism, said, “I guess Santa is magic and Christmas is a miracle!”

My childhood Christmasses were thoroughly Christian–hymns, no Santa, church on Christmas day before opening presents, and few presents at that. My husband’s were thoroughly secular–no Jesus, all Santa. Now, with our kids in public (rather than Christian) school and two traditions to consider, we find ourselves both outside and inside of the holiday. Inside the holiday is crass consumerism, presents to tear open, heavy foods.  Outside is the wary believer who wonders whether this has anything to do with Christ.

Outside is Mary’s magnificat, in which “the Lord sends the rich empty away.”

It doesn’t need to have anything to do with Christ. At least not more so than anything else we do. On one day last week, two people, thinking they had got the better of me, expressed how absurd it is to celebrate the birth of Jesus on a day which was not actually his birthday. Whether or not Jesus was really born on December 25th on our calendar is really not the point. The point, for me at least, is that this is the time of year where the solstice celebration and the Christian one converge: it is a celebration of new life, the green of spring, and light during the darkest time of the year.

I read this and this on Christmas day. The first article, by a Christian and beautiful writer, Tony Woodlief, moved me. The second at first felt affirming and helpful–we were digging troughs in our children’s brains that would give them deep pleasure in all of the Christmasses to come. But then I started to feel unsettled about the addiction comparison in it, because I think Lambert’s right to point out that the anticipation of Christmas is for humans like the anticipation of a hit for an addicted lab rat. And addiction is, as a friend pointed out to me, the kin of idolatry: lives are destroyed by our dedication to the things that will not satisfy us. Are we–us Santa-celebraters, that is–addicted to Christmas? To feast during a winter that no longer has any real darkness, and, for most of us, little discomfort? To feast when we are always feasting is no feast at all.

We need a fast for the feast to mean anything. That’s the feeling we’re trying to get at when we say “the Christmas spirit”, but I find I’m taking shortcuts to that spirit of hope, of comfort and joy, and getting nowhere.  And the shortcuts are everywhere.

I want to find a way to live slower next year, and more in spirit of Ecclesiastes. For everything there is a season.

English: Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, &q...

English: Thomas Nast’s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Instead of Advice, I Want Pictures

I didn’t mind reading loads and loads of parenting advice when I just had one child. Up until my blissful second pregnancy ended with a traumatic bang, I believed that parenting was fairly easy. It was a matter of setting aside one’s own needs for a while, and I actually enjoyed that. Naptime and early bedtime allowed for plenty of me-time; I was really happy. At that time I read Sears’ The Baby Book hungrily and without hesitation. Oh, should we just keep co-sleeping until the child decides she doesn’t want to anymore? Oh, should I keep breastfeeding through my pregnancy and then tandem nurse a toddler and a baby? No problem.

By the time it was already too late. I believed that weaning my child would be violence. I used the word traumatic. 

And in the horror-show that was my life after the second child was born I had already found my parenting identity in martyrdom. All I knew how to feel was guilt. I had no idea that a new baby would find all of the breathing room in my full life and take it for herself. I had no idea that the toddler would respond to my being overwhelmed by cranking up her own despair.

At this point, any parenting advice was a smart to the open wound I’d become. I felt terrible whenever someone insinuated that I was being too hard on my kid. I felt terrible whenever someone insinuated that I was being too easy. Really any advice at all was taken badly, no matter how kindly it was meant, or how benign or forgiving it was. If someone said, “well, all that matters is that you love them,” I’d think: do I love them? If someone said, “well, we turned out okay,” I’d think: um, did I? 

Now I have an allergy to parenting advice. No matter what it is, if I start reading any book at all that doles it out I become anxious about my children and their past and the damage done and their future and the unknowns and I lose my tenuous grip on faith and on this little shattered-and-reassembled self. I become anxious, and then my daughter becomes anxious, and it spirals downward from there.

Here’s what helped instead:

1. Maurice Sendak. I read a blog post on a feminist/academic/parenting blog on one really tear-drenched day titled “I’ll eat you up, I love you so” and it made me feel slightly better. It was partly about how the need for children to behave and the need for mothers to behave were related cultural problems–that there was not enough space for broken or limited human beings in the world. (Which we all are, btw.) Spoke to the way I felt then, that I was no longer fit for human society.

Anyway, after that, a frequently read story by Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are made me feel better (the title of that post alludes to a line from that book.)

 wildthings

2. Elmo’s Dad. This is going to seem really stupid for lots of reasons, but in those days lots of the characters in Sesame Street with their optimism and gentleness ended up parenting me a little. We hadn’t even let our older daughter watch TV at all before the second one came along, so watching television with my kid became symbolic of the way my parenting was falling apart. Anyway, there was this one series called “Sesame Beginnings” which just had babies and parents playing together spliced with baby Big Bird, baby Cookie Monster and their caregivers. You get the idea. These muppet parents were so patient and happy. For some reason, it helped.

3. Sarah Garland’s books. These are a series of very short British kids’ books with titles like Doing the Washing and Going Shopping. In Doing the Washing, a favourite of mine, the mom character hoists laundry up and down stairs and hangs it to dry, all with a toddler following behind. By the end, she’s so exhausted that she drops down to the floor to read stories with the kids. These books depicted the loveliness of an unlovely life: the work involved in the daily chores, the mess, the exhaustion, and how it fun or normal it might seem to a child. I needed these books. I might even buy the set of them just for myself.

doingthewashing4. Peepo by the Ahlbergs. 

Partly, it’s that I read these books as a child myself, and the illustrations pressed down on some happy memory centre in my brain. This book has a similar effect as the Garlands, with the added benefit of it looking a lot like my own cluttered life, the one I’m always apologizing for.

peepo1

At this point, I find The Baby Book a little bit sexist. Anybody with me?

Forthcoming

Some wonderful news: I have two personal essays forthcoming.

On November 6, I have an essay called “Temper, Temper” that will go live on Big TruthsI got the chance to work again with editors Troy Palmer (editor of Little Fiction, Big Truth’s big sister) and with Amanda Leduc, the multitalented novelist and basically my neighbour in Hamilton. “Temper, Temper” is about different kinds of rage, and being a parent, and the serenity prayer.

Also in November, my essay “Pain: A Brief History of my Intensity” will be printed in Issue 128 of The New Quarterlyafter having been first-runner-up for the Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest. I have for many years dreamed of being published in TNQ; it’s one of my favourite lit journals and I’ll be in the same issue as some short story writers I really admire, like Miranda Hill and Rebecca Rosenblum. I wrote a little blurb on their blog about a book I recently read.

 

CVC3And, if you’d like, you might want to pick up a copy of the CVC anthology my story was featured in. It’s filled with good things: all of the stories are great, and I particularly loved Greg Hollingshead’s “Mother/Son” and Helen Marshall’s “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects”.

All of this is lovely. And, if I may admit it, kind of scary too. Because in these essays I am very forthcoming. They are personal. One is about my bad temper (a deep source of shame), and the other addresses some other very deep and precious things, like childbirth and my teenage bout of anorexia.

I have for a long time subscribed to a philosophy of art that states that the artist must go very far in an effort to tell the truth and must not hide from herself. To paraphrase Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, the artist is naked so that everyone else doesn’t have to be. But this is much scarier now that it comes time to have these things consumed by others.

All that said, this is really amazing. I’m terribly antsy to see them out there in the world.