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Vignettes from a small island

One.

A job ad is posted by a local organization. A job for which I am amply qualified. It’s half-time, walkable. The deadline is the next day. I prepare the documentation. I pause. Doubt fills the pause. If I don’t get the job, as has happened many times over the last seven years, I will be flattened. If I do get it, how will I manage with three children, one not yet a year old, and a spouse who has no fewer than three upcoming trips scheduled? Who would do childcare? How would I manage work-schoolbus-babyfood-bedtime-preschool-laundry-readingaloud-diapers-lunchboxes-hygiene plus childcare coordination? I will never have the luxury of taking a job without thinking of everyone else. The doubt boils over. I recycle the application. I resolve to return to the question in the autumn once two children are in school full-time and the baby has turned one.

Two.

Three men, friends from other places, stay with us for a few days during a conference. All are awed to some degree by my husband, whose credentials are impressive, who publishes productively, who is a committed vegan, who volunteers, who runs vast distances, who teaches a spin class for triathletes on the weekend for fun. “How does he do it all?” one wonders aloud. His dedication is strong, to be sure. But he has help. In general I stay home with the kids, plan the meals, cook the suppers, do the laundry, tabulate the budget, get up with the baby at night. Willingly, more or less; and he is not a hands-off parent, either. Across the years the labour has expanded to fill my time. In advance of the conference I cleaned the guest spaces of the house in fits and starts while caring for kids and it felt like an accomplishment. In my diary I wrote, “I never thought I would be the sort of woman for whom a vacuumed floor constituted an achievement.”

Three.

I stand behind my bench at weightlifting class, shivering slightly. The gymnasium echoes with the chitchat of the retirees who arrive twenty minutes early and take all the plum spots. Before she switches on the thumping warmup music the instructor explains the theme of the month’s workout: nothing changes if nothing changes. Together we clean and press our barbells and settle them onto the meat of our shoulders. We sink into deep squats, the burdens calculated deliberately. We want to put on enough weight that we risk failing to complete each set. This, we learn, is how to become stronger.

Everything but making things

It’s the most important thing in my life, making things. Much as I love my husband and my children, I love them only because I am the person who makes these things.

AS Byatt, interviewed in the Guardian, 2009

***

“You’re always getting ready for the next thing,” my sister remarked a few weeks ago after supper. I was enjoying ten minutes’ respite on the couch before embarking on my late-evening drudgery (literal bottle-washing, preparing night feedings, scouting lunchbox fillers in the fridge) after completing my early-evening drudgery (kitchen sorted, baby bottled, bedtime hugs dispensed). It’s true. There is always a Next Thing, and I like to be ready for it, even though this often comes at the expense of Other Things I’d rather be doing, hence the long silence here and the fact that so far I’ve read just six books this calendar year, two of which were slim volumes of poetry.

I finally replaced my computer that died a sudden death at the end of November, right around the time I was organizing Christmas, dealing with a child’s head lice, and losing out on a lucrative editing contract that would have paid for a new machine. I thought that buying a new one would cure the feedback loop of drudgery and turn me into someone who makes things again. But I find myself climbing into bed at night thinking of all the things I’d have liked to have done during the day, none of which I’ve had time to do.

I know that the time is coming, but it seems far away. Six months. In six months Mr. S will begin school, there will be no preschool fees, and I will hire a sitter for Baby L two or three mornings each week. It shouldn’t be hard to find one, and as she’s the chillest baby in the universe, I don’t think she’ll mind much. I will no longer be pumping milk five times each day. I’ll probably not be faced with a counter full of used bottles to scrub daily. There will still be supper (there will always be supper), laundry, deep breaths, but there will be space in each week for making.

Before then, forms of sustenance:

* The landscaper came back to us with a plan for our sad, bare-earth front garden. It is glorious. Come May, we will no longer have the ugliest yard on the block.

* I submitted a story to the CBC Story Prize this year (not for the first time), and I was proud of it. Its existence is all the more miraculous because I typed it out in fifteen minute bursts over the baby’s head as she slept on me in the sling. The word limit is paltry, so lots got cut, but not to the story’s detriment. I don’t really think I’ll be longlisted, but I look forward to seeing the longlist in April.

* Several good friends from different times and places in our married life will congregate under our roof in three weeks for a conference hosted by A’s department. Seeing everyone together will be a bit mind-bending, but in a good way.

* My birthday is approaching. Bring on the cake.

Linaria cannabina

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Every night before I go to bed, I take a piece of paper I have divided into eighths and write down these headings: medication, pumping, feeds. In the course of the next twenty-four hours, I will write down the times of day when I administer or perform or offer each of these three things, because if I don’t, I will from one thing to the next forget what’s come before, and when. Life moves quickly, and I find it difficult to distinguish the tasks of one day from the tasks of the next. This makes things sound worse than they are. The baby is four months old. Things have levelled off. I could probably stop soon, but I’m not quite ready yet.

This time around, life is what I expected it to be, but also not. This is different from motherhood 1.0, where nothing was what I expected, and version 2.0, which exceeded my expectations pleasantly. Now, when the baby demands to eat hourly or condescends to nap exclusively on a person? Yep, seems about right, and I oblige mostly without weariness or resentment, knowing that this too shall pass, glad to have problems I understand.

Baby L. arrived seventeen days early in the middle of a warm July night, opting not to be a Leo after all. It was the first of my births where I can remember the midwife’s arrival. “Thanks for calling me early,” she said cheerfully, hanging her equipment on a clothes rack in the basement bedroom. Her backup nearly woke the older kids upon entering, and I wanted to hit her when she chirped, “You’re going to meet your baby so soon!” “I know,” I howled, enraged, between pushes. Then: there she was, the baby I’d had such trouble imagining, substantial on my chest, looking so like my others that I thought, Ah, it was you all along. We named her for a Mavis Gallant protagonist and our favourite of Canada’s Nobelists. In the morning her brother burst in to meet her, then her sister. We took a photo. In it, I am dishevelled but happy, bordering on smug.

We had a good first week. In the second week an innocent-looking birthmark, a narrow pink stripe running from her nostrils down into the skin of her upper lip, darkened alarmingly to claret, and a small black speck appeared on it. “What is this spot,” muttered the midwife, puzzled by the baby’s gain of only one ounce in a week. “You’re asking us?” we said, equally unsure. The spot grew bigger, bled, scabbed over, bled again. The baby stopped nursing, began to scream in pain when offered a bottle. We went to Emergency.

It is difficult not to take it personally when your two-week-old is afflicted with a tumour on her face. A benign tumour of infancy, thank goodness, etc. But still, there were moments during our brief hospital stay when, having had perhaps three hours of sleep in thirty, I thought of every terrible thing I’d ever done and felt very low. I am living in a future memory, I repeated to myself to keep afloat. It was not my fault – there is no discernible reason for hemangiomas to occur – but I looked down the dark hall inhabited by parents of sick children and thought, Please, what did I do, let it be me instead.

L. was put on medication normally reserved for infant cardiac patients, a drug which was serendipitously discovered to erase this sort of birthmark only eight years ago. I don’t like to think how she would have fared ten years ago, or fifty, or five hundred. But the wound, once open, kept growing. Whenever she brushed her face with her hands in the way newborns can’t help, it would bleed everywhere and she would cry miserably. We grimly adjusted to a new normal: medication, Tylenol for pain, antibiotic ointment, Vaseline, plus dealing with pumping and bottles, because she was in too much pain to breastfeed. A. would take her for a few hours in the evening so that I could sleep. I began to feel that we would survive the summer.

And then, a week later, A. came down with acute appendicitis and was abruptly hospitalized himself. He went straight from an exploratory doctor’s appointment to Emergency (where he ran into the paediatrician who’d admitted L., who exclaimed, “What are you doing back here?”). I found myself jiggling an irate baby in one arm, trying to place an online grocery order with the other, all while supervising the two older children, who ran endless circles of the downstairs shouting, “We’re in the Olympics!” Mercifully, this occurred while my sister was back in town on a break from her PhD fieldwork, and with her help I limped through those first days of A’s recovery, during which he could not lift the baby. Then she was off again, and we survived through the kindness of our friends and neighbours, who took the big kids and made us wonderful meals. I felt supported by community in a way that I haven’t before, and I was so grateful.

We were referred to a thoughtful specialist one hundred kilometres away who will oversee L.’s care until she is at least a year old. After seven long weeks on the medication, the wound closed; the stubborn mark remains, growing as she grows, but if all works as promised it will soon fade. There will be a scar. No longer in pain, L. has grown rapidly into a cheerful chubby baby, possibly my easiest, definitely the easiest child of the three as they are now with her simple, answerable demands.

I still feel the occasional pang that nursing has not worked out, as though I’ve lost a language, and the bottles leave me feeling as though I’m performing a kind of beneficent gavage. We tried, after the wound closed, to return to nursing, but L. had already forgotten how, and the effort made us both miserable. I wrote myself a note on my phone to refer to when attached to the pump at four in the morning. It says, You are doing your best. I have never had much self-compassion, but it occurs to me that I did not understood the necessity of it until now. It’s less a weapon than it is armour, and thus fortified, I go forward.

On not writing.

Schriesheim, Schloss

Schriesheim, Schloss

I’m not writing right now. It goes without saying that this blog post doesn’t count. I haven’t really written since April, when I set a writing goal and failed spectacularly to meet it. It’s a testament to how preoccupied I was and am with other things (see: gestation of third child; preparation of house, spouse, and other children for birth of third child; quietly freaking out about becoming a parent of three children) that I didn’t mind the failure. This is not the season for writing productivity, and that’s OK. I will get back there again.

By the time the third child (another daughter, have I mentioned?) is here and nicely fattened, I will probably be tearing out my greying hair, cursing my past self for not seizing every minute of free time before her arrival to write glorious polished prose and incisive illuminating poems. Here is a note to my future self: you couldn’t have, even if you tried. Oh, phrases float by me, and I note them down; ideas for stories occur, rising like whales from the depths, only to dive down deep again. Time is flowing quickly, surreally now, and it feels impossible to grasp free moments and wring them for all they’re worth. Mostly I don’t mind this. I’ve been through it twice before, and I have faith that writing will wait for me, if I am prepared to listen.

Two years ago, we were spending the summer back in Germany. We sublet a house with a garden in a town not far from Heidelberg, where we’d lived previously. The kids were just over 3 and newly 1, and I was so tired. Mr. S was still nursing and waking constantly at night, N was at her most tyrannical, and A was busy at work, preparing to host a big international conference. My German had somehow improved in the two years I’d spent completely ignoring it, which made it possible for me to understand our absurdly charming neighbours, even if I couldn’t speak to them very well.

I was writing in a dogged but bitter way when we arrived. I was trying to get in fifteen minutes each day, but was dissatisfied with what I was producing. But then a couple of things changed. First, A’s fellowship was generous enough that we were able to hire our regular babysitter as our au pair for six weeks, which improved my life in a huge way. I was able to leave the kids for several hours each day, shutting myself in our stifling attic bedroom to write and edit non-native English speakers’ academic work for cold hard cash. Second, we were living in an affluent suburban German paradise with no car. Our little neighbourhood abutted fruit-heavy orchards, wineries, and a stable. We biked everywhere, hauling the kids along in the Chariot left to us by the regular tenants. The town, cascading down the Odenwald mountainside, was crowned with a ruined castle. The views from the valley where we lived were of gorgeous, forested sandstone cliffs from which paragliders flung themselves into thin air. Whizzing along the bike paths to the city, joyfully moving my fatigued body and breathing in the scent of ripening fruit, I started hearing poems again. My relief was intense. I hadn’t lost the ability; only the time required to pay attention.

Though the baby isn’t yet here, I’m back in that place where I can’t quite hear the words. In truth, I’m not listening hard enough right now, but this is only half the issue. I think of myself as an astronaut orbiting a heavenly body, feeling its gravitational pull, but isolated and discrete in my spacesuit. The time will come to descend to the surface, and until then, there’s little point in wasting my reserves feeling frustrated. This begs the question: am I happier when I am not struggling with writing? Does it improve my life to set it aside? I don’t think so, no. I will return to it. I need only wait.

Scarcity, abundance

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Waiting for perennials

How does a writer confess that the printed offering is a tissue of imagination? The whole force of moral imperative rages against such a whimsical presentation: lying, inventing, daydreaming. In desperation early fiction writers supplied their narratives with implicitly understood framing devices like: This is a tale found in an old trunk. This is a story related to me by an ancient gentleman. This is a dream recorded by an angel.

From Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing, ed. Anne and Nicholas Giardini


This winter I read more new-to-me-writing by Carol Shields than I’d expected to. First it was Eleanor Wachtel’s Random Illuminations, a collection of interviews and correspondence shared by both women over Shields’ career. I’ve long enjoyed listening to Writers & Company, though Wachtel is a more formal interviewer than, say, the endlessly earnest Michael Silverblatt of the Bookworm podcast. This book felt more personal. In the introduction Wachtel tells of meeting a woman who, having read through most of Shields’ oeuvre, is nevertheless saving her novel The Box Garden to have something left to anticipate. I have no such restraint, and realizing that this was the only one of Shields’ novels I hadn’t read, I immediately borrowed it from the library. Life is short. I regret nothing.

I came to Startle and Illuminate when I already felt both satisfied and fortunate, and even still, it was such a pleasure to encounter Shields’ gracious and encouraging voice on the page again. The book features a series of essay-style chapters on different elements of the craft, and ends with snippets of correspondence with developing writers that show, helpfully, Shields’ attention to mechanics, the nuts-and-bolts of sentence-making. Too many dreams, she advises one writer; perhaps too much food, she counsels another. “The other thing to remember is that if you write one page a day, you’ll have a novel in a year,” she says, making it sound not easy but within the realm of the possible. Advice for which I’m grateful, entering my third round of infant parenting, anticipating how my hours and days will soon be filled.

***

I spent May in a fog of baby preparations and list-making, interspersed with two trips to the big city for a wedding and visiting with old friends – out-of-the-ordinary stuff, a sort of last hurrah before my body becomes too cumbersome to haul on and off buses and streetcars in the frazzling heat. I am trying to combat the sensation of scarcity, that time for myself is about to be compressed into minuscule and unsatisfying increments, with the idea of abundance. I want to feel that there is more than enough, and I’m not talking about squabbling, dirty dishes, or the Lego Situation On The Living-Room Rug. Knowing that this is the last time helps, as does looking at N and S and how far from their infancies these few years have carried us. All of a sudden (more vitamin D, maybe?) they’re both taller, skinnier, gangly-legged and spangled with bruises from tree-climbing, cycling, jumping off the patio furniture.

What was already there

What was already there

I’m trying, also, to give myself a through-line to the future. I understand, now, that not everything needs to grind to a halt with the arrival of a new baby. My perennials were delivered last Friday, ninety minutes before I planned to leave to catch the 12:30 Greyhound to meet my friend in Toronto. It was hot and humid, and the bareroots needed immediate attention. “I don’t have time for this right now!” I hollered through the window to my long-suffering husband, who helped me figure out which way up the baffling astilbes were to be planted. It wasn’t pretty, but I got it done, and though the bed is still bare dirt, growth is happening under the surface. Metaphor, schmetaphor, I know. And of course, this week I realized that I’m not so flower-poor as I thought, because out came the irises.

Two birthdays

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Mr. S turned three. For weeks leading up to the day – since his sister’s birthday in February – he planned his cakes: a cake with Smarties to eat at home, and a Rice Krispie cake to be sent to preschool. He held up the requisite number of fingers when asked how old he would be, and said with solemnity, “Free.” He is so tall, whizzing down the sidewalk at terrifying speeds on his balance bike, and genuinely helpful. He planted radishes for me last weekend, squinting at the tiny seeds, spilling none, and he stuck his Smarties into chocolate buttercream with contented absorption, eating hardly any in the process.

Oh, the nights are still prone to interruption thanks to his final, intractable molar, and he did attempt to celebrate the actual moment of his birth at just past five in the morning, but truly, I felt more nostalgia than annoyance as he wiggled between us in the big bed, thumb stuck firmly in his mouth. Later in the day we took a nap together, and I remembered spending his very first afternoon the same way, though I was considerably more shellshocked – he had arrived almost two weeks early, and in such a hurry that I’m not sure I’d have made it to the hospital, had that been the plan. It was a marvellous time, not without its challenges, but happy.

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S’s birthday falls within a week of my mother’s. This year she would have turned 70. I don’t know how to mark it. Her absence feels a little less like a phantom limb than it used to. I’ve written about my grief before, and it’s aged, mellowed, to be sure. It’s no longer as acute as it once was; now, it’s a non-life-threatening heart condition, and I know the kinds of exertion I need to avoid in order to prevent its aggravation.

When we first bought our house – the fifth anniversary of our purchase is in a few weeks’ time – she had only been gone a few months, and I was terrified to move. Partly this was due to logistics. Baby N was three months old, and had only just gotten over being throttled by two months of colic. The house was filthy, reeking of mothballs, and the foyer wallpapered lavishly in gold. We had two months to get it ready for tenants before we left to spend a year in Germany. In reality, I was terrified to move because then my mother wouldn’t know where I was. This is the worst kind of Didion’s magical thinking. I was afraid that she would come back, and knock on the door of the century-old duplex we were renting in a different neighbourhood, and the new tenants would answer, and she would not be able to find me. Impossible; irrational. For we couldn’t have bought the house at all without her legacy, the sum of money that was meant to fund her retirement. To be spent on food, rent, a camper, plane tickets to visit her grandchildren. The incompatibility of these stories – of our house, and of my mother, visiting it – is the source of that time-muted heart-cramp, that familiar ache.

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What do I do? I order perennials. I plant my garden. I let myself say ridiculous things that she would say without hesitation if she were here, things that make my husband laugh in recognition and possibly horror. I scrub five years’ worth of black fingerprints from the stairwell walls, no longer papered gold, despite being a modern woman who should have better things to do with her time, because I feel she would approve and that feeling is the closest I will come to her approval. I bake birthday cakes. I celebrate with those who are here.

Weekending

shelf awaiting anchor, fiction

shelf awaiting anchor, fiction

It’s suddenly spring. Two weeks ago, I took the kids to the bus stop in driving snow; today, the grape hyacinths are blooming in our wreck of a front garden, with tulips on the way. Temperatures are supposed to be more seasonal, as in cold, next week, but for now, we are slathering on sunscreen and putting the snowsuits into estivation.

The weekend was such a maelstrom of activity that I need another weekend to recover. On Saturday, two birthday parties, one for a four-year-old neighbour, and one for a sixty-year-old colleague of A’s. You can guess which involved a hired bouncy castle and rainbow cake. Poor S was so knackered by three hours of jumping that he asked tearfully to take a nap. At the second, slightly more staid late-afternoon party, the waxing moon hung in the cloudless sky, and the kids ate so many cheezies that their whole bodies were spangled with fine orange dust.

Sunday, A took everyone to church, where they’re gearing up for Holy Week, and I was free to clear last year’s dead vegetation from the front garden. It is a long-term goal to landscape it to replace the ground cover, goldenrod, monstrous hostas, mismatched shrubbery, and aged lavender with grass and low-effort perennial beds, but probably not this year. We say this every year. N was invited on a bike ride, A went for a ride of his own, and I stayed home with an overtired S. A coached in the evening. Finding it suspiciously quiet after the kids had been put to bed, I returned upstairs to find that N had loosed her collection of live ladybugs all over her bed. “Classic N,” my sister texted when I told her this morning.

I’m now sufficiently pregnant that I find it impossible to focus on any single task at once. It is maddening. This must be what squirrels feel like all the time. Last week A was travelling for work, and despite having a vehicle at my disposal on both days that the kids were in the care of others, I felt like I accomplished nothing in that time. I can’t write verse; I skip along on the surface of things like a flat and disposable stone. It is powerful pressure to know that one’s time will be unavoidably crunched in the near future. Impossible not to want to achieve something real in the intervening hours. And yet experience has taught me that my distraction is so strong that it’s almost fruitless to try. Understanding that it’s temporary is a comfort. Reading Ellen Langer’s books on mindfulness has been a help.

Despite my squirrel-brain, projects are ongoing, some nearing completion. Our bedroom, the last bastion of painted-over wallpaper in our 1927 house, is now stripped and patched and sanded and awaiting new white paint. I’ve ordered albums and printed photos to make each child a baby album, something I’ve intended to do for ages; and let’s face it, it’s now or never. The littlest clothes have been located and sorted. Somehow we all continue to need to eat, and I feed everyone. It’s noteworthy, though, that on Saturday A made breakfast, and the parties provided us with lunch and supper, making it the first day in post-children memory that I have not had to cook anything for anyone. It was a feeling as glorious as the weather.