There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby's diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin), and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.
It's been a week of brick walls. Of wheels spinning in ruts. Of other stagnation cliches.
Good writing comes from a mentally relaxed place: the mantra I repeat to myself, first gleaned a few years ago from Susan Swan's essay in Dropped Threads. So simple, so basic. Good writing comes from a mentally relaxed place.
I've been approaching the work lately from an uber-analytical place. I'm revising a novel. I'm looking at it with judgmental eyes, mapping it out, finding its holes, determined to get a hold on this thing once and for all. I'm trying to maintain rigid control of my material because I want to get it right this time, dammit, I want all my characters and plotlines to add up to the right thing, to work. Before I even begin, I want to control the outcome of every sentence, to be sure that each paragraph and scene is going to make the book better and never be edited out. I'm really tired of devoting a lot of time and mental energy and emotional focus to stuff I end up editing out.
I need to rediscover, I realize from this brick-wall place, that space of freedom to meander, discover, fail.
Approaching a revision of a novel that I've been convinced more than once was finished and then realized was not, permission to fail (again) is not something I've been all that gung-ho about allowing myself.
But today, a start. A few hours in a cafe, a comfy chair instead of the hard table, a notebook and pen instead of the laptop. I deliberately relax, let my mind wander, release my charts and outlines, and explore.
I write multiple pages of rambly scenes that will probably never end up in the book.
I keep my pen moving.
I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be a parent, and my greatest fear in having children was that I would no longer be able to write. I knew few mother-writers. I was terrified it couldn’t be done, and that in choosing parenthood I was sacrificing my artistic goals.
That fear drove me, and instead of losing my writing I became more disciplined, more efficient, and more dedicated as a writer, bypassing inner resistance and procrastination and the paralysis of perfectionism because there wasn’t time for that anymore. Motherhood turned me into the writer I had striven for decades to become: a writer who shows up (at 5:30 in the morning, if need be). A writer who just does it. A writer who writes.
Becoming a mother required a huge metamorphosis and opened up a deep layer of thought and inquiry in me, and so it's also become a richly inspiring topic for my writing. Much of the creative non-fiction I’ve published since becoming a parent has focused on this journey: maternal ambivalence, grappling with what it means to be a mother and an artist, choosing to mother in the unconventional way that I did—namely by becoming a biological and adoptive mother simultaneously—and finally my evolving relationship with the two precious humans I am privileged to call my daughters.
I spent a morning this week thinking about the ways in which being a parent has inspired and challenged my creative life. This thanks to the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which is a fantastic non-profit I learned about only recently whose mission is to support artists and writers with families. Given that being a parent has inspired and challenged my creative life a whole heck of a lot, I am beyond appreciative that somebody out there is actively working to help artist parents flourish. As they say:
Too often, creative impulses are set aside to meet the wonderful, but pressing, demands of raising a family. The foundation's goal is to encourage parents to continue pursuing their creative passion, and to rekindle it in those who may have let it slide.
How much do I love this? I love this very much.
If you're a writer or visual artist who is also a parent of a child under 18, they have a grant deadline coming up Sept. 8.
I'm honored to be the inaugural interviewee in writer and editor Erika Westman's brand new video series with emerging authors, ever-so-cleverly called Pre-Authorized. She aims to capture the thoughts, experiences, and wisdom of people who've been writing for years but whose debut books are still on the cusp of representation or publication. We sat down together in her dining room a couple Saturdays ago and I answered her questions about my novel, my writing process, and how I got to where I am now.
I wish my glasses weren't covering my eyes for most of the interview, but Erika assures me that a person's IQ jumps from highly intelligent to genius when wearing glasses.
"A story is a medicine that greases and hoists the pulleys, shows us the way out, down, in and around, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, doors which lead us to our own knowing."
Writing instructions by poet Jane Kenyon, as quoted by writer Dani Shapiro in her book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, as read by me today at the bistro table in the back garden:
Be a good steward to your gifts.
Protect your time.
Feed your inner life.
Avoid too much noise.
Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.
Be by yourself as often as you can.
Take the phone off the hook. [These days: Disable the internet.]
Work regular hours.
I read these instructions and I recognized them. I recognized them because they are the principles by which I live my life now, or at least (on the less great days) am striving to live it. And I recognized them because I've read them before, somewhere, sometime in the last decade or two of my circuitous journey to get to where I want to be. And I knew reading these words today that the last time I read them--whenever exactly it was--they did not resonate with me in this affirming, satisfying, yes kind of way, because I was not at that time following most of them with any regularity or even any understanding that they were important. I was desperate to be a writer and I was lacking a practice--I did not work regular hours, I did not protect my time, I yearned and tried and talked about being a writer, and I gave up when it was hard and when I was afraid of the blank page and the blank screen and the great empty swaths of time all by myself in the quiet.
And I'm pretty sure, sitting here now at the bistro table, that I owe everything to the fact that I eventually stumbled and struggled and landed into the way of being and living and writing outlined in these simple instructions.
It's a pretty powerful list.
My friend Julia Zarankin, writer and fellow contributor to The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, has tagged me in a literary blog tour that's been going around, and I'm happy to finally sit down and think about the answers to these questions. Julia is a talented and entertaining writer whom I recently had the pleasure of hearing read from her memoir-in-progress at the Draft Reading Series, and it was fantastic. As is her essay in The M Word, and the various other essays of hers that I've read around the web Her contribution to the blog tour is here.
And now...here's mine.
What am I working on?
I'm writing a novel about a conflicted mother-daughter relationship. It's also about theatre, conservative Christianity, and the question of whether it's possible to be a devoted mother and a devoted artist. It grew out of my previous novel, which has a lot of coming to terms with the kinds of mothering my main characters were or weren't given, and in the middle of writing it I became a mother myself (with a bang) and woke up to a whole other side of the equation. Namely what it's like to be the provider rather than the recipient of that mothering. I wanted to explore the challenges, losses, and conflicts from both sides.
The book takes place in a theatre over the course of one opening night, with much of the story being also the story performed on the stage. That element is thanks to twelve years with an actor, a life I have not lived firsthand but to which I have been granted, so to speak, a front-row seat.
How does my work differ from others in the genre?
I grew up out of step, shall we say, with my generation. Consequently I have a bit of a skewed outsider perspective that I like to think is useful instead of detrimental as a writer. Freedom and equality with men are hard-won personal gains for me, not something I ever took as my birthright in the way that most girls born in North America in the 1970s did, so I approach the questions of women and feminism with maybe a bit of a fresh take. There is also just the particular me-ness that any writer brings to her or his work--the particular workings of brain, the ways that language occurs to us, the experiences and struggles that comprise who we are as people and therefore as writers. I don't have an MFA, either--does that make me unique these days?
Why do I write what I do?
I find the questions of women's lives fascinating, rich, complex, and important. The models of womanhood that are handed down to us, the struggle to emerge into a self of our own making, the expectations and constraints from outside and within ourselves, the identity-exploding choice to mother, the choice not to, the ambivalence either way, the oft-confusing navigation of relationships (of all sorts) with men, the friendships (and otherwise) between women. So much of my life has been defined--in wonderful and constraining ways--by the fact that I'm female, and so I find myself constantly grappling on one level or another with what it is to be a woman. And what I grapple with, of course, I grapple with on the page.
I love novels. I love their breadth and depth and scope, sinking deep into a character or characters and staying there for a long time. There are few things (maybe nothing?) I find more wonderful.
How does my writing process work?
I'm a morning writer, starting ideally around 6. These days, I feel compelled to confess, I'm stumbling out of bed closer to 7 or 8, but I'm trying to work back to earlier because it's so productive and nourishing for me. I love this time, when I am not yet alive to the world but am very much alive to the world of my book. It's best if I do nothing else first. Turn on email or phone or internet and I'm sucked away. It is death to the world of the novel. Wake up children, and the effect is similar. The hardest part is getting into the work, and it's easier if I can put as little time, distraction, and input between my unconscious dreaming self and the writing.
I write a combination of longhand in my notebook and typing in Word, depending on what stage I'm at. With this new book I originally wanted to try writing solely in a notebook, but either I couldn't hack the discomfort of all the lack of control and the circles I was writing in, or it actually wasn't proving effective in a sustainable way. Now that the book--or at least the early part of it--has found its feet, I tend to switch back and forth a little erratically: a new scene by hand, then the next day typing it up and expanding and shaping it on the computer. Or, if I'm stuck, switching to whichever method I'm not currently using. Sometimes if I'm in need of a third format to jog myself out of a funk, I use OmmWriter, which is a trance-inducing single-tasking writing environment that can really help me enter the zone. I start most writing sessions by hand to loosen myself up and connect with a more playful and embodied state, sometimes with some free writing or a writing prompt, often with a self-pep-talk/affirmation. I also meditate first, just for a bit.
I'm a reviser. I write fairly messy (a la Anne Lamott's Shitty First Draft) and sometimes don't discover the essence of a character or relationship or plot until many drafts later. It feels like all the layers along the way were necessary to get there. Which doesn't mean I wouldn't be grateful to stumble onto a shortcut.
I save my late mornings/afternoons for freelance editorial work, activities with my girls, administration, scaring up income, life stuff. I try to keep the early mornings sacred. I take Sundays off. Otherwise, I try to write Monday to Saturday. My commitment is 15 minutes a day, which means I actually achieve it on even the busiest and hardest of days, but two to four hours is what makes me happy. I've learned through hard experience (depression, desperation, loss of self, wanting to go jump in a lake) that a non-negotiable commitment to writing every day but Sunday is necessary to my well-being. So I pretty much try to just make myself do it.
Over the last year I've also added partnered writing to the mix, meeting in a cafe with two fellow writers once a week (or more, or less), and that has proven nourishing in a way I never imagined before I did it. To have colleagues, coworkers, people who understand intimately what it is you're doing, who are doing the same, who hold space with you across the table--it's invaluable. There is, granted, a lot more chatter and interruption, but those conversations are also nourishing in their own right.
And that leads me to tagging the next two writers in the blog tour, who happen to be those very writing partners. I introduce to you Sarah Henstra and Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, two writers and two women of immense talent and heart. I'm a little bit in love with them, and so grateful for their support. They both have debut novels coming out in 2015: Suzanne's is a literary novel called Circle of Stones, coming out from Dundurn Press in the spring, and Sarah's is a YA novel called Mad Miss Mimic, publishing with Penguin in the summer.
And check out some of the other great contributions to the blog tour:
Rebecca Rosenblum * Julia Zarankin * Maria Meindl * Ayelet Tsabari * Angie Abdou * Kathy Para* Theodora Armstrong * Eufemia Fanetti * Janie Chang * Lorna Suzuki * Barbara Lambert * Matilda Magtree * Alice Zorn * Anita Lahey * Pearl Pirie * Julie Paul *Sarah Mian * Steve McOrmond * Susan Gillis * Jason Heroux
It was cool this morning at 6:30 at my back garden bistro table. I wore fingerless gloves, a hoodie, wool socks. Pleasant for July, this coolness in the air, and the mourning doves cooing, and Junction trains in the distance thumping along. Birds, train--it was noisy for how quiet it was. And I was happy at my bistro table. Not happy--content. I was there, being myself, doing what I do.
All the rejections, all the setbacks and disappointments, all the pressing forward for years with so little to show. All the No's, and the Not Right for Us at This Time's. And I was content, this morning, because this is what it comes back to: the words and the pages, the early mornings alone in brisk cool air, the showing up despite. The doing what I do. It is--it really is, ultimately, elementally--its own reward.
When the creative process meets you halfway--god, I love that. Funny how it only shows up when you do, though. I've been showing up this week, showing up and writing in circles, stilted bits of attempted character exploration and horrid stalled non-scenes, and yesterday I finally stumbled into some forward-moving plot. Stumbled is disingenuous--I think, often, especially at the beginning, this circling is necessary, the exploration and discovery that feels blind in the moment but can, does, at last explode you into a clearing where you can see that actually you were going somewhere all along.
I love that moment, when you find out you're actually going somewhere.
I used a grant deadline earlier in the month to spur me into 4,000 solid, polished words on the opening of my new novel. All that blind exploration had to be turned into something readable. I doubted the wisdom, at first, of forcing myself to get analytical at this early stage, to trade my creating hat for my editing hat, but in the end it was really helpful to show myself that what I've been working on in my rambling notebook is indeed a novel. I sent those 4,000 words to my trusted first reader, and I read her response over and over with a dreamy smile. She used the words engaging, gripping, and marvelous. She is the person I write to, the only person I could, my ideal reader who is the only person I allow myself to think about as I write, if I think about anyone at all. I'm writing these pages just for her, she's waiting for the next installment, and I'm going along crafting it solely for her enjoyment.
(And then I went and sent it to a grant jury but, you know, I'm hiding that bit of intelligence from my creating self.)
But now, it is back to discovery draft on the remaining 86,000 or so words in this baby book. I'm showing up every morning, sometimes only for 15 minutes because it's all I've got, and it's been circuitous and dead-endy this last week or so, until yesterday when, bam, I've stumbled out of the brambles into the clearing.
I love that moment. I love when I remember why I'm showing up. When something bigger than myself rises up to meet me. I'm still showing up when it doesn't, but god, when it does, that's golden.
In last month's Creativity Rising workshop we wrote on wallpaper with Sharpies. The point, of course, being to get playful, to get out of our analytical minds, to shake up our accustomed writing habits. I, the facilitator at the front of the room, wrote merrily away for my ten minutes on my big glossy wallpaper sample, left to right, top to bottom, in a straight line.
Then I looked up. Every single other person in the room had covered her wallpaper with beautiful, meandering text that followed the contours of the design on her page. Words went in circles. They were breaking loose. They were not toeing lines. It was brilliant.
It hadn't even occurred to me.
Clearly, my linear being still needs a bit more shaking up.
Kerry Clare, editor of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, has cooked up a fun event to expand the conversation into the children's books some of us spend so much of our time in. Six of us M Word contributors will be discussing the portrayal of mothers in children's literature, and ways in which these portrayals tie in with some of the themes in The M Word.
I'm going to talk about Sarah Garland's Eddie series, specifically Eddie's Kitchen. I like how there are hints of the mother having a life and a self outside her children, even as she is clearly there for them and clearly mired in the daily minutiae. She seems not to have a partner but she clearly has community--neighbours, parents, friends, people she supports and is supported by. She usually looks a little rumpled and ever so slightly overwhelmed, but she's doing it--raising her children, engaging with them, while also doing other things that have nothing to do with them. And I really hope she's getting it on with the handy new single-dad neighbour in Eddie's Toolbox.
It's been rough, the last couple weeks. Writing on the new book isn't going so well. There is floundering. There is uncertainty. There are writing sessions that consist of me writing "This is crap this is crap this is crap" repeatedly. There is also the completed novel, the one making its rounds in the please-want-my-book-osphere. I put so much into that book--years and years and tremendous devotion and energy and grueling work. I know what it takes to bring a book to fruition, and I look at my notebook of "this is crap" writing and wonder whether I have that much in me for another round. It seems ludicrous to start all over again, absent any evidence that any of this, ever, is going to pay off in any sort of tangible way.
But this morning I got up and I took my green smoothie to my backyard bistro table and I meditated and I wrote. Just a tiny bit. And then I got up and looked at the scene in front of me:
1 - New novel notebook (the big one).
2 - Writing prompts notebook (spiral).
3 - Spiritual (for lack of a better word) growth notebook, notes on challenges and inspirations toward the person I want to be.
4 - My husband's Complete Works of Shakespeare, through which I'm currently immersing myself in The Tempest because my character is playing Miranda. (Twelve years with an actor have finally caught up with me.)
5 - Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, a novel that's providing some structural inspiration.
6 - Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. (Looking for help.)
And I thought, we're stuck with each other, writing and I. I don't know any other way to live. These books and these notebooks and these pens...how else could I possibly be? For better or worse, it's who I am.
The Creativity Rising Facebook event page is an interesting place right now. I came across this quotation today and posted it:
"Things are not difficult to make. What is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mine to make them."
- Constantin Brancusi
My friend and colleague, editor Franklin Carter, responded with this:
Steven Pressfield writes: "Our enemy is not lack of preparation; it’s not the difficulty of the project, or the state of the marketplace, or the emptiness of our bank account. The enemy is resistance. The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do what we know we need to do.
"A professional distances herself from her instrument. The pro stands at one remove from her instrument – meaning her person, her body, her voice, her talent: the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological being she uses in her work. She does not identify with this instrument. It is simply what God gave her, what she has to work with. She assesses it coolly, impersonally, objectively.
"Does Madonna walk around the house in cone bras and come-fuck-me bustiers? She’s too busy planning D-Day. Madonna does not identify with 'Madonna.' Madonna employs 'Madonna.'"
My sister Leah pointed me to this intriguing RadioLab episode, called Me, Myself, and Muse, in which various creatives grapple with how to put themselves in the path of creativity. Including Elizabeth Gilbert, who wants to find a way to "live a creative life without cutting your ear off."
And I loved these thoughts from my friend and writing buddy Sarah Henstra on How to Write Without Writing, which are so in line with everything I've been thinking as I prepare for our Creativity Rising workshop tomorrow. She writes:
"[It] sounds simple, right?: get out of your own way, avoid perfectionism, give yourself permission to be messy and proceed with half-measures. But I need to hear it again and again–I need even to find my own, silly trick for enacting it–because for me, starting is always the scariest part of writing. The self-discipline it takes is an utter paradox to me, in that getting to work means giving up control."
Tomorrow we're going to see if we can't put ourselves in the state of mind to make some things.
I'm so excited to announce the collaboration my sister and I have been working on for a while now, a beautifully synergistic pairing of our passions and training. Our first workshop is May 10 in Toronto.
I have a guest post up on the Literary Mama blog today. I'm happy to report that I wrote it several weeks ago, and that yesterday my daughters and I met our man at the airport with a bouquet of flowers and much relief. But solo parenting or not, it's still a place I must return to regularly: the need to write, for my sake and theirs.
Writing for My Daughters
My children need me to write. It is imperative, for the well-being and security of my children, that I write.
This was my thought as I left the house and stalked down the street in tears, having uttered the words, "I don't want this life." Having left my children alone, left them behind.
Last week, I began the second leg of a four-month solo parenting stint. I’m between books, first novel completed and languishing in a weigh station on the path to publication, second novel embryonic, barely living, in my head and in my notebook. I’m waiting. Stalled. In limbo. For my partner to return, for my own life and writing and career to begin advancing with direction and momentum.
Mothering—especially full-time, solo mothering—is a handy excuse for the low-grade depression and inertia I’ve been in. For the new book that is not progressing, for my inability to haul myself from bed before dawn as I did through months of finishing the previous book, for the sense of purposelessness that drags me down some days amid the domestic minutiae and the unrelenting need-meeting.
It is so hard to begin a new novel. There's so little to latch on to, to run with, to shove yourself off from. It's so ethereal -- look sideways at it, and poof, there's nothing there at all.
Read the rest here.
Last night, walking down Bay Street toward the launch of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, I looked up to see the sign above Ben McNally Books and flashed to a memory of the last time I walked down Bay Street and passed this bookstore. Maia had been with us for all of one week, and I was maneuvering her stroller through the flood of well-dressed professional people, noting how glaringly I stood out from them. Late to meet up with Richard. Overwhelmed and near-defeated at the logistics involved, now that I had a child in my care, in the gargantuan task of merely going downtown. And I looked up and there was the bookstore, and I went Oh. I have been wanting to go to that bookstore.
Not that I couldn't have gone in, but at that point in my sudden and ill-fitting mothering role, the orchestration of door-opening, stroller-hefting, diaper-bag-and-child-wrangling, was almost more than I could manage. Also, I was late. Also, I wanted to really go to the bookstore, I wanted to wander and browse and soak in and enjoy, quietly, peacefully. And in the preceding week, I had learned that such pleasures were no longer mine.
"With hindsight I understand," writes Rachel Harry in last week's National Post review of The M Word, "that the gift of motherhood, shared by every woman who wholly accepts the lifelong commitment of loving a child, also comes with a loss — a loss most mothers don’t communicate, because its definition tends to lack language and vocabulary, in what becomes this new and uncharted maternal world."
Oh, that day on Bay Street, I was feeling the loss.
And last night on Bay Street, I entered Ben McNally Books, and I was greeted by stacks of books that contain an essay that I wrote, and I stood in front of an audience and read from that essay. The essay is, in part, about Maia, about my experience of becoming a mother in the sudden and unconventional and overwhelming way that I did, about how I felt in those early novice-stroller-wrangling days. About the loss. The choice. The love. I read out loud from this excellent book, in the company of other women writers articulating their own thoughtful and nuanced experiences, and I signed books and had my book signed, and there was so much warmth and attention, a standing-room crowd.
And I thought, This is a pretty good way to finally enter Ben McNally Books.
(Another thoughtful review, from Angie Abdou, here.
“I need to be writing,” I wrote to my best friend Anena a couple weeks ago, “because that's the only thing that will jump-start me out of this low-grade depression and inertia.”
I felt, that week, stuck in a slump, like I am doing nothing with my life. Like wife and motherhood has turned out to hold all the traps and terrors I feared it would. Though I can hold this thought in my mind—motherhood wrecked my life (yes, please tell me others have thought this thought?)—at the same time as I can watch my adorable daughters, their animated faces, their thoughts fascinatingly expressed, with so much love it's practically obsessive.
But low-level depression and inertia. That’s what I wrote, that day. Husband away, full-time solo parenting, a never-ending winter, but most of all: I haven’t been writing.
I have a new project. A book I have begun—barely—to write, that I have waited four years to begin writing, since I first had the idea while in the middle of writing the book that I’ve recently finished. I even have a small grant giving me the go-ahead, the validation, the extra padding in the bank, to help me begin writing it. There’s an outline in my computer. There are a dozen pages long-hand in my notebook.
The space between books? The completion of a work that is so solid and established, characters you know as though they are yourself, the leap to the new, the un-nailed-down, the nebulous floating maybe possibility? Scary.
I downloaded an interview with Dani Shapiro on the Good Life Project later that day. Dani Shapiro said, "The time between books is a time when a kind of low-level inertia and depression sets in. It's almost as if the world has less colour in it when I'm not writing."
And I cried, hearing that, because my condition had been named, using the very words I'd used to describe my symptoms.
A diagnosis with a cure.
I’ve been writing since then. Writing the new book. Writing for my life.
Also, spring, finally, has arrived.
I will be there! It's going to be excellent. More events listed here.
I immersed myself in The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood over the course of a couple days, simultaneously gobbling and savouring, and here is what I have to say: I am so excited to be part of something so damn excellent. This book is excellent.
In fact, excited isn’t the word—the book is so excellent that I’ve been unable to pinpoint an accurate adjective for how I feel about my inclusion in it. Thrilled, delighted, proud, honoured—these don't do justice, though they're all true. Lucky. Full. Something. I am something to be part of a project that is so excellent. The essays, individually and collectively, capture the complexity, and that is what is stunning and gratifying. At last, the complexity of motherhood has been captured. It feels like an achievement, a feat, a milestone. Like landing on the moon, or summiting Everest. The complexity of motherhood has been captured! Let's plant a flag! Let's throw a party!
The party is April 15 at 6pm at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. If you are a woman, or a man, or interested in mothering, or in not-mothering, and in hearing this topic engaged with all its nuance, please do come. I will be reading, alongside some stellar writers in whose company I am thrilled, delighted, proud, honoured, lucky to be.
This company of writers (in the book, that is--not all will be at the launch) comprises Heather Birrell, Julie Booker, Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, Kerry Clare, Myrl Coulter, Christa Couture, Nancy Jo Cullen, Marita Dachsel, Nicole Dixon, Ariel Gordon, Amy Lavender Harris, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Deanna McFadden, Maria Meindl, Saleema Nawaz, Susan Olding, Alison Pick, Kerry Ryan, Carrie Snyder, Patricia Storms, Sarah Yi-mei Tsiang, Priscila Uppal, Julia Zarankin, and Michele Landsberg.
I was frustrated from the beginning of my experience of motherhood (which began long before I was actually a mother) by the one-noted-ness around discussions of it. It was to essay anthologies that I turned, desperate for some nuanced and in-depth exploration of what exactly being a mother means, and also what choosing not to be a mother means, because I was on the fence and could see myself on either road. It was an essay anthology, in fact, that was instrumental in my ultimate decision to take that forbidding fork in the road--an essay by Susan Olding, who also has an essay in The M Word, just a few pages from mine. I love the full circle of this.
And the truly great thing is that this book isn't only capturing the complexity of motherhood as it relates to giving birth and raising children. It's the complexity of being a female person, ie. a person who must, even if she isn't a mother, make a decision about this topic, think deeply about it, deal with the situations and repercussions that arise from it. It's a book for us all.
My Grandma died one week ago at the age of 85. I stayed up late the night before her funeral with a notebook and pen, trying to articulate what I was feeling about her and about the devastating loss of her. The funeral was a beautiful, celebratory, all-day affair. The service itself was two hours long, standing-room-only. We sang, and sang, and sang, as Mennonites in general and my family in particular do. My uncle built her casket, a beautiful unfinished pine--a bit of sawdust still lingered on an edge--and my cousin Darlene and sister Marja sewed the lining and the pillow. My mother, Grandma's only daughter, and my sister Becky and cousin Darlene dressed her for burial and did her hair. I love these elemental, grounded connections to the fact of the loss, and I love that to the very end, it was the hands of those who loved and knew her--those to whom she gave life--that touched her body and laid it to rest.
This is what I wrote the night before, and read at her funeral:
My first thought when I learned that Grandma had died was: I’m not prepared for this. It felt shocking in a way that objectively the death of an 85-year-old should not. But I wasn’t prepared—I was shocked and overcome and heartbroken. Because you’re never ready to lose a person who has been a fixture of your life from birth.
It’s a luxury and a blessing to have such a thing as fixtures in your life, such a thing as a person who will always be there. To have had, in my case, almost 37 years with her.
I’ve been thinking about heritage. Legacy, about what’s passed down, about the thread from woman to woman, from one generation to the next.
My daughter Aphra is a baby in a 4-generation photograph in which Grandma is the eldest. I am a baby in a 4-generation photograph in which my mother looks quite a lot as I do now. In a recent photo of myself, I am smiling a smile identical to the one Grandma’s wearing in her wedding photo at age 19.
There’s a grimace Grandma would make when she was opening a tight jar of peaches or jam. I catch myself making the same face in the same situations. She told me once, in her kitchen, not to bother filling a dirty pot with water for soaking—just set it in the sink and it will soon be filled through the normal course of kitchen activity, as the tap runs for hand-washing and cup-filling and purposes unrelated to soaking the pot. I think of this in my own kitchen nearly every time I set a dirty dish in the sink. Her water-saving tip always bears out.
We moved into a new house at the same time that Grandma and Grandpa were moving out of their home of 53 years on Moxam Drive, and we inherited many items they no longer had use for. I make soup in Grandma’s stockpot. We have two threadbare quilts that hold a lot of history. Our living room lamps are so old they’re cool—a friend told me she was sure she’d seen the exact set selling for a lot of money on Queen West. I cherish these small tangible connections to my past and to the people I come from. I think of Grandma regularly, when I’m making soup, and when I’m opening jars.
I make soup in Grandma’s pot. Afterward, I do not fill the pot with wasted water.
The thing I treasured most about the year and a bit my grandparents lived with my parents was that my children got to develop a genuine ongoing relationship of their own with their Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa. I love that they loved her, that they’ll remember her at least a little bit. That they knew her--certainly with less energy and ability than I did--but with the same puzzles and cookies and delight in seeing their faces. They knew from her the same love—a love that was so unforced and ever-present that it felt normal and unremarkable, that I now know was in fact extraordinary.
On Sunday, March 23 I'll be reading in the Draft Reading Series, upstairs at the Black Swan Tavern in Toronto. After some internal debate over whether I'd feel less vulnerable up there hiding behind some fiction, I'm going with a personal essay, an unpublished creative non-fiction piece called A Real Woman. I'd be delighted to see you there. A limited-edition publication called Draft will also be available. I'm reading alongside Laure Baudot, Anne Elizabeth Carson, Jann Everard, Daniel Karasik, and Koom Kankesan.
Sunday, March 23, 3 p.m.
The Black Swan Tavern (upstairs)
154 Danforth (at Broadview)