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.

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Six hands, six feet

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On Friday morning, I drove my children to school. S, being a preschooler, requires a chauffeur; N usually rides the bus, but our schedules were complicated by some early-morning commitments, so I delivered both children to their classrooms. S went bravely to his seat at the tiny table alongside the other little people with neither tears nor a succession of strangulating hugs. In the maternelle wing, N was embraced so heartily by her teacher’s assistant that her feet left the ground. I love that the staff aren’t afraid to show affection. Is it because they’re francophone? Whatever the reason, it helps to know that the children in their charge are genuinely cared for.

N’s teacher offered her congratulations on the baby-to-be. I’m starting to look as though I’ve swallowed a volleyball, especially in my winter coat, which is becoming more difficult to zip. At my weightlifting class later in the morning, an older man asked me shyly when I’m due. “Is this your first?” It’s not the first time I’ve been asked – I’m small, apart from the volleyball, and my hair, though increasingly salted with white, is still mostly dark. I always laugh, confessing that it’s my third. It’s almost unbelievable to me, too.

It took me ages to decide. Two children is a comfortable number of children to have. There is a certain peace in symmetry. I was pleased to think that my all-done twenties were my decade of acquiring degrees and newborns, though not at the same time, and all that was behind me. But every month last summer I watched the moon sail west and wondered if I was really done, and the autumn’s answer to the question was no. It is not rational. I am going to miss my quiet days alone. I have projects that I fear will lose what little momentum they have, and never be finished. Possibly most frustrating, my re-entry into the world of paid work will be delayed that much longer. I probably romanticize it, but it’s important to me to be reminded that I am capable of it. All this will have to wait a little longer.

It’s such a gamble: leaping, and hoping the ground will accept us with gentleness. But I am banking on the untempered gratitude of my future self. “if my husband had wanted another, I would have gone for it,” said our friend P, mother of two, over dinner in the big city last weekend. “I wish I’d been able to have more,” admitted the man at the gym as we dismantled our barbells, “but I only have one.” When it comes to love, we never want less of it, and this is the soft landing, this is the net.

Reading, not reading

Contrail, January, morning

February, and I’m trying not to spend too much time scrutinizing the lengthening light. The eastern sky is blue-tinged when I fill the coffeepot and put on the oatmeal, and when I clear the supper table I can make out the treetops to the west scrabbling at the clouds. It’s cloudy more often than not. The snow is scant; last week the temperature soared and destroyed the finally-skateable outdoor rink at the local park. I’d gotten out just twice, once with N, who turns 5 next week; a successful outing, but necessarily slow. (I like to go fast, preferably in the dark.) I felt like I’d failed the Canadian parenting test when in mid-January her school had a mandatory – mandatory! – morning at a nearby arena and I realized that she a) had no skates and b) worse, had never been skating before. The boy next door has, by contrast, been taking lessons since age three. Fortunately, she is always happy to try new things, and was joyful and giddy with imbalance, not afraid to get back up again, and again, and again.

My reading has slowed with the cold. I need a big, thick, propulsive novel right now – maybe one of the standalone Ferrantes? I’m wading slowly through Grace Paley’s collected stories with no desire to rush, but I need something on the side. I abandoned Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello in the middle of one of the title character’s vegetarian exhortations a month ago to read other things, and haven’t felt pulled back to it yet. I have had to give up, permanently, on Louise Penny’s Gamache mysteries. (So many typos! The inhabitants of Three Pines are witless! The fourth time that she reminded me that Myrna, the used bookstore owner, is large and black and likes to eat a lot – this was in a span of 120 pages – I threw the book across the room.) Is it too much to ask that Tana French put out a new book every six months? I’m still reading a lot: the New Yorker, my big print-subscription indulgence, every week, and probably way too many ephemeral things online. I always read The Toast‘s daily link roundups, grateful to have smart feminists curate some news of the world for me.

What I have been reading in droves are children’s books. N received James and the Giant Peach for Christmas, and we raced through it in a couple of days. In early January she asked me to read Charlotte’s Web, and I was happy to oblige, though the timing could have been better; we finished it on the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death, which meant that I spent the last chapters weeping uncontrollably, the children rubbing my arms in consolation. “It’s OK, mum, Charlotte’s babies are safe! She saved Wilbur!” N and S reassured me, which only set me off again. But then, watching an adult weep at the ending of an EB White book is basically a rite of passage.

On Friday, we finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in what can only be described as a binge. N had A and I reading it in the mornings before our departure for the school bus, in the afternoons after her post-school refreshments, and before bed at night. It’s such a trip. N’s whole body was tense with anticipation and worry that Charlie Bucket would starve or, possibly worse, fail to find a golden ticket. I realized a couple of things: first, my childhood copy (or, childhood library’s copy) was not illustrated by Quentin Blake. I’m not sure how this could have been, but I’d never seen his hairy, dishevelled little Oompa-Loompas before. I remember a succession of grainy, almost pointillist illustrations; Mike Teavee looked more like the cowboy in Toy Story than Blake’s Tarantinoesque mini-villain. I also felt a strange, decidedly adult discomfort with the wholesale relocation of the tribe to Wonka’s factory on the basis of his reading of their culture – they no longer have to eat caterpillars, ergo, their new lives of underground servitude must be an improvement. It reminded me of Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, and Norton Perina’s adoption of dozens of children from the archipelago he’s casually and obliviously destroyed. I have other problems with Dahl as an adult reader (namely, how few adult women are worthy of trust and love, and don’t try to tell me Miss Honey is a real grownup), but as he makes plain, I’m not really his intended reader, and it’s impossible to deny the joy that his imagination brought me as a child, and now, my kids. S, 2.5, loves him, too, and will spend twenty minutes examining the page in James where the mouthy centipede is coated with rainbow paint and rendered totally immobile. “He’s got paint on him,” he tells me happily. I imagine I’ll be revisiting the whole oeuvre in the not-so-distant future.

The Blue Flower

with bonus baby seal bookmark

No-one in Weissenfels looked forward very much to the Hardenbergs’ invitations, but they were so rare – this was not thought of as meanness, everyone knew of their piety and charity – and so formally expressed, that they seemed less of a celebration than a register of slowly passing time, like mortality itself.

– Chapter 43, “The Engagement Party”

Sophie reappeared, without pen, paper, or ink. It seemed that she had been playing with some new kittens in the housemaids’ pantry. ‘So that is where they are,’ said the Mandelsloh. She was reminded now that she had brought the bucket of water to drown these kittens. The servants were faint-hearted about their duty in this respect.

– Chapter 26, “The Mandelsloh”

***

Among other revelations, 2015 was the year I finally discovered Penelope Fitzgerald. My brother-in-law and his family visited from out of town on my birthday, and they babysat while A. and I went out for dinner and met my sister for a drink. In between, we had time to stop at our local bookstore, where I bought Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and, from the bargain bin, a three-in-one Everyman edition of Offshore, Human Voices, and The Beginning of Spring for a mere $6.99. Cheap at twice the price, as my dad would say.

I devoured all three in quick succession while we were house-sitting an empty bungalow during our renovations in April. Living without an internet connection is massively inconvenient to modern life, but the opposite of detrimental when it comes to reading. I especially loved The Beginning of Spring, which is the most perfect English Russian novel (Russian English novel?) imaginable; having come to it after the first two books, I began to see that Fitzgerald is probably the only writer capable of both conceiving of and pulling off such an audacious mongrel of a book.

In the fall I picked up her short story collection, The Means of Escape, and though the cadence of her short fiction is different, it was no less delightful. Why not set a brief, muscular love story in a Tasmanian penal-colony town? What’s stopping anyone from attempting such a feat, except a bit of research and a lively imagination? Perhaps most importantly, Fitzgerald reminds me that serious fiction is no less serious for making us laugh. I don’t think I read anyone funnier last year.

Why, then, have I been stuck in the middle of The Blue Flower for a month? Partly it’s because I’ve been unfaithful. A. has finally waded into AS Byatt’s Frederica Potter quartet, and I stole Babel Tower right out from under him in the long week after Christmas when the kids had a stomach bug. (It is so nice to have someone to talk with about one’s feelings of intellectual inferiority after reading Byatt. “I mean, have you read Mallarmé?” A. demanded. I haven’t.) I also finally read A Canticle for Leibowitz, which has been on my to-read list since I came across this piece in The Toast. I think it has something to do with the structure of the novel. At just over 200 pages, there are 55 chapters that are just disconnected enough from each other that it’s necessary to re-orient oneself constantly – now I’m reading a letter; now I’m reading a diary; how much time has just elapsed? It’s as if I’m reading a novel comprised of many very short stories, only each story contains about as much as a thirty-pager by anybody else, and demands an equal amount of attention. I’m lucky to manage two chapters per day.

There’s also something about the trajectory of this kind of historical project that affects the book’s momentum. The pacing is off, somehow, bent slightly to accommodate prescribed events. I remember feeling this way about Alice Munro’s “Too Much Happiness,” her novella about Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevsky. These are ambitious projects, and I’ve enjoyed them, but compared to their other works, it feels as if they’ve been executed with one hand tied behind the writers’ backs. It’s another reason to read them, though – what Fitzgerald can do single-handed is more than what most writers can do with two, plus toes.

Peak colour on the ground

November for Beginners

Rita Dove

Snow would be the easy
way out—that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield. No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain won’t give.

 

So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,
memorizing

 

a gloomy line
or two of German.
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!

 

 

***

 

I promised myself a return to this space some time ago, but the summer was one of long, full days, or what felt like the same long, full day lived over and over: damp laundry drying in the backyard, walks to the market under the searing sun, late afternoons spent catching my son as he jumped into the neighbourhood pool again and again and eventually, late in August, jumped into the pool and swam, immersed, to my outstretched hands.

Now we’ve begun a new routine. My eldest is at school all day, every day. It seems like a more sudden change than it must actually be. It feels like cheating. Indeed, in other parts of the country, four-year-olds (or their parents) are spared the indignities of bursting into tears over hairbrushing, of marching to catch the school bus. Meanwhile, my youngest is attending preschool two days each week, and I have two expanses of time in which to do what I like. Luxurious, yes, and yet I struggle at the end of those days to feel satisfied with how I’m spending my time. I’ve always been a dasher, a last-minute finisher, and I’m trying to unlearn that, to teach myself to work slowly and patiently on a story, to let the drops collect in a bucket. It feels possible, if not easy.

On other fronts, September was a productive month. Renovations begun in the spring are finally finished. A cheerful and noise-tolerant Italian has taken up residence in our bright new basement, which has offset the cost of said renovations, and has made me feel better about failing to net interviews for jobs applied for in September (to say nothing of afternoons spent bingeing on Elena Ferrante and ignoring the housework). I did pick up some editing work that mitigated my disappointment somewhat. I’m left wondering if this is something I should pursue more seriously.

I’m trying, in my restlessness, to sink into moments of beauty. Early in October, I drove my son to preschool under a saturated blue sky rippled with high cirrus clouds and sundogs. The leaves were turning, not yet littering the sidewalks and prompting the return of the city’s bizarre leaf-vacuum truck, and on the radio was Cuff the Duke’s cover of the Rheostatics’ “Claire,” a moody song that reminded me of heading off to high school in my mother’s white Buick, occupied with the drama of adolescence. I dropped him off and the morning was wide open to me. Now the days are shortening; we won’t have this much light again till February, and I’m tumbling into my winter life, dark in the morning, artificially lit at night, the lives of our friends and neighbours becoming secret and interior. How grateful I am that these hours to myself won’t shrink correspondingly.

Year of hours

I.45

Rainer Maria Rilke

You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a shudder.
Of all who move through the quiet houses,
you are the quietest.

We become so accustomed to you,
we no longer look up
when your shadow falls over the book we are reading
and makes it glow. For all things
sing you: at times
we just hear them more clearly.

Often when I imagine you
your wholeness cascades into many shapes.
You run like a herd of luminous deer
and I am dark, I am forest.

You are a wheel at which I stand,
whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up,
revolve me nearer to the center.
Then all the work I put my hand to
widens from turn to turn.

From The Book of Hours, trans. Barrows and Macy

***

Tonight after I got the baby to bed I ate the last of the peppermint bark. It’s official: the holidays are over.

The older I get the more ambivalent I grow towards New Year’s Day. On the one hand, I am increasingly troubled by melancholy at the letting go of another year. Aging is making me maudlin on so many planes of my life. On the other, I am full of faith that this is the year I will change in ways both positive and fundamental, ignoring the facts: that I am still biting my nails even as I type, that I  was less than beatifically patient with my children between the hours of four and six p.m. (also, regrettably, a.m.). I fail at so many things every day; why should 1 January and all the days thereafter be any different?

And yet I can’t kick the feeling that this year promises a sea change. I’m not sure to what I can ascribe it – the looming approach of a milestone birthday, the fact that this is the year I may well be finished with the parenting of infants, or the fact that said infant has basically stopped sleeping at night, which makes me feel light-headed, impetuous, like I might as well go for broke. Under the fatigue is a thin rod of resolve that this year, I will work on a whole host of projects that are near and dear to my heart. Chief among these is simply learning to work. It is my fiercest hope that by the end of this year, I will have developed a creative practice that will sustain me through the vicissitudes of young parenthood and the broken hours that are available to me.

There is so much I want to do. Over the last year – which was by most measurements an excellent one – I was frequently frustrated with my inability to make the most of stolen hours as they were available. I had that terrible Annie Dillard adage running on a loop through my mind: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, and it was depressing to see how slowly the labour of my days was adding up. I mean what I think of as writing work, not the necessary and unending labours of parenting and housekeeping and finances. I hope that in a year’s time, I’ll have aligned my days with my hopes for my life in a way that satisfies me.

Photo Friday: abundance

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Back in the winter, when I realized that I would have a three-month-old baby at prime canning season, I resolved to approach the summer with abject hedonism: I would buy and greedily consume all the fruits of the season without feeling any pressure to blanch, freeze, pulverize, water-bathe, or otherwise process them. I would eat my way through the summer sticky-faced and content, babe in arms. And then the peaches came.

We have one elderly peach tree in our backyard. It is wizened and bent, and full of carpenter ants, as we discovered the summer we bought the house and removed a dying branch. Last year there was drought, and it failed to produce. In April and May of this year hundreds of small, prickly, green baby peaches appeared and I watched them suspiciously, wondering if there would be enough rain to sustain them. Lo and behold, it was a mild summer with regular rainfall, and August came and suddenly there were peaches all over my dining room table. These are terrible pictures, but they capture approximately 1/3 of the total crop.

We picked them one evening while the children were sleeping. We distributed bags to the neighbours. Neither A. nor I grew up in a climate warm enough for the softer fruit-bearing trees, so to be able to walk outside and pick and eat a peach from our own tree is a miraculous thing. Surveying the bounty, I thought of my mother, who on a trip to Arizona could not be coaxed away from an orange tree, despite the fruit hanging just out of her reach. The next morning, I batted at the fruit flies and despaired that we could never eat them all, that we’d run out of people to give them to, that I had a three-month-old and a 2.5-year-old and would require about eight additional arms to do any preserving whatsoever. I may or may not have shed tears at the prospect of wasting the beautiful haul.

Enter my helpful husband, who took charge of the children for the morning so that I could make four litres of jam. And who assisted well into the evening so that we could do a batch of lazy-person canned peaches (peeled and pitted and packed in syrup, then frozen instead of canned, because while we may have been a little unhinged from residual sleep deprivation, we are not that crazy). Our efforts made hardly a dent, so the rest were tossed into bags and frozen whole.

A neighbour, one of the recipients of our surplus, told me that the drought had made for a similarly staggering crop of apples this year – that after a lean year with unfavourable conditions, the trees made use of rainfall and sun to flourish beyond their normal capabilities. I guess it might be true of peaches, too. I hope it will be true for me after these years when I feel so pulled out of myself to focus on the nurturing of others. There is virtue in it, of course, but I am full of anticipation for a time when I can turn towards an examination of myself, consider the resources I have close by, and direct some of my energies towards other pursuits of my choosing. I can wait, knowing that the time will come in due course; and when I forget, I can eat jam.

Photo Friday