Adjustments

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It’s so easy to type out “I’m going to take myself seriously as a writer”, but it’s another thing entirely to actually do that. I’ve filled out the forms for daycare, and today I’ll drop them off. There is a wait list. It could be months before I’ve got even those eight hours child free per week. And already, those eight hours don’t feel like enough.

So what’s a gal to do in the mean time? It’s limbo, but I can’t sit on my hands while I wait. I have to continue to make things happen, in little ways.

My word for 2017 is “practice”. I’d intended to write every day, and for almost two months, I did. Sometimes it was only a few sentences, or journalling. Sometimes a poem or a blog post. It felt largely aimless, but I was doing it. And then I fell off the wagon. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written daily, but I’m trying to find my way back. This is what my writing life looks like. This is what being a writing mother looks like. You get into some kind of routine, and then everyone gets sick and it’s all you can do to make it to a seven pm bedtime and you pass out wedged between two stuffed up, coughing babies.

This morning, when the ache in my lower back became unbearable, I determined to get up and write morning pages. Charlotte turned towards me, wanting to nurse, so I nursed her, willing myself to stay awake. It took me four attempts. Four times I made my way out of bed in increments, stepping lightly down the stairs, getting to the bottom and hearing her cry for me. Once I got all they way to the kitchen, began to write in the bright light glaring off the glass table top. I’m doing it, I thought.

Then I heard her creaky voice over the baby monitor: “Mama, are you? Mama, are you? Mama!” Heard Paul try to shush her. Heard her insistence for me. I slammed my journal shut, my feet heavy on the stairs. I sat down hard on the edge of the bed, determined not to nurse her.

“Go to sleep, baby,” I whispered, patting her back with a firm hand. And she did. And she stayed asleep, and I wrote two more pages and then I turned on my computer and I fiddled with two poems. And when they all woke up I felt so accomplished. This. This is what I’ll do. I’ll be the mom who wakes up an hour, two hours before her kids in order to write. I’ll do this for years, until they don’t need me so intensely anymore. Or at least, I’ll do it for the rest of the week.

And what of the rest of the time, when I can’t be writing? I’ve been thinking of this, too. I read as a writer, closely, with more curiosity. I don’t read just to finish a book, which is how I used to do it. I glean little bits as I go, about form and style and also just ideas, information that I squirrel away for the future.

In her essay “Upstream”, Mary Oliver writes “Attention is the beginning of devotion”. I’ve been turning this over in my mind for weeks. She writes of attention to the natural world. Of giving our children and ourselves the freedom to inhabit wild places and to notice every detail, to fall in love and cherish the world.

And then yesterday, this blog post from Shawna Lemay on how to live more poetically. She writes:

How to live more poetically? Cultivate elegance, a tender heart, an attentiveness, a generous integrity.

There it is again: attention. I’m well aware that attention to my daily life is not my strong suit. If I could be wandering green fields and forest streams all day long, I’m sure I could be a little more attentive. But my job now, as a writer and a mother, is to find a way to bring attention to the runny noses, the toy battles, the endless chatter about dragons, the complaints over dinner. The sweet moments, too, but they aren’t as common as I’d like. Or maybe I’m missing them. This, too, is a practice. It’s all practice, and I must come back to it again and again, a thousand times, until it’s like breathing.

Little tweaks, little changes here and there. Adjustments to my day, my outlook. Just as I’m getting discouraged, I have to remind myself: come back. See what can give, apply a little pressure until it clicks. Make space and see what happens.

Book Review: Ravensong

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The book: Ravensong by Lee Maracle (1993)

What it’s about: This novel is set in the 1950’s, in a small First Nations village on the Pacific Northwest Coast. The main character and narrator, Stacey, is the only one in her community to attend and complete school in “white town”. She dreams of going to university and coming back to teach the kids in her village. The village is devastated by a ‘flu epidemic, taking the lives of elders and infants alike. Throughout the book, Stacey grapples with the divide between her traditional culture and the encroaching influence of white colonialism.

What I thought: This is not an easy read. The story begins at a funeral of an elder on an grey, rainy day, and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Maracle is unflinching in her portrayal of the hardship faced by this First Nations village, and, by extension, First Nations people in Canada. Through Stacey’s thought process, and also through the voice of Raven, Maracle is critical largely of “white town” and colonialism, but also at times critical of the villagers who seem caught in limbo; who wish to keep their old ways without acknowledging the threat of the tides of change sweeping over them and washing them away. There is hope in Stacey, who comes to serve as a bridge between cultures, but it is only a glimmer. The oftentimes bleak truths of the story are tempered with the innate sense of humour the villagers possess. It allows them to move through the many tragedies of the story with a certain amount of grace. I believe it’s an important book that invites readers, particularly white readers, to ask ourselves how we’ve been complicit in the devastation felt by First Nations people, and how we can do better.

From the opening pages: “Change is serious business–gut-wrenching, really. With humans it is important to approach it with great intensity. Great storms alter earth, mature life, rid the world of the old, ushering in the new. Humans call it catastrophe. Just birth, Raven crowed. Human catastrophe is accompanied by tears and grief, exactly like the earth’s, only the earth is less likely to be embittered by grief. Still, Raven was convinced that this catastrophe she planned to execute would finally wake the people up, drive them to white town to fix the mess over there.”

Taking Myself Seriously

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A serious writer.

I find and place three pairs of socks. Brush three sets of teeth. Pack snacks in two different bags. (Also, spend an inordinate amount of time finding containers with lids for said snacks. Finally give up and just pack an entire sleeve of crackers.) I physically dress or coach the dressing of the kids.

Together, my husband and I buckle them into three car seats. I drop the husband at the hotel. Drop the oldest at kindergarten. Try to keep him focused on undressing and writing his name on the sign in sheet. Kiss goodbye. I take the other two to a friend with whom I’ve worked out a childcare exchange. Undress kids, chat for a moment, say goodbye, and run.

I am here, in my cold little office. The electric kettle is boiling and I’ll make a cup of tea. I light a stick of incense because I like doing something to mark the shift from my mundane to my sacred time. My writing time.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

It’s not enough.

I’ve come to realize that in the past week or so. There are two projects jumping for attention in my brain. Two projects that are languishing right now because all I can afford is an hour here, two hours there, of sporadic time. It’s hard to take myself seriously as a writer when time for research and writing comes second. Comes third.

I’ve decided that it can’t be something I fit into the spaces that may or may not open up in my day. I’ve decided that writing has to come first. That I have to look at this as a business that I am starting myself. As it stands, writing feels like a hobby. I want it to be my vocation.

I am the one who keeps myself from this. I am the one who is afraid to take the risk of finding more permanent, regular childcare and sitting down and researching and writing and maybe publishing my words. I tell myself that because I didn’t have “a Career” before having kids, that I have to be a stay at home mom. Talking to my husband about this, he answers: “Why? Says who?”

I feel like some kind of monster for not wanting to spend all of my time (literally, all of it) with my kids. But then, upon further reflection, I realize that many women don’t want to do this. They had jobs that they loved, or that they needed, before having kids. After having kids, they go back to them. I certainly don’t think they’re monsters. So why am I one?

The answer lies in the risk I’m taking. In diving into my writing like it’s a real, live thing that I want to spend a big chunk of my time doing, I’m taking a huge risk. It is essentially a business endeavor that may very well fail. I might never get published. Or I might choose to become my own publisher, and then suck at marketing myself.

Or, I might become my own publisher, market the shit out of my books, and become a successful author-entrepreneur.

But I won’t ever know if I don’t try. And I want to try NOW. I don’t want to wait three more years until the last baby finally goes off to kindergarten. Those three years will be miserable. I want to get started. I want to take the risk.

I am worthy of my dreams.

I am worthy of the risk.

And I am worthy of some form of childcare!

Finding Home

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Since I first left Ontario for the Yukon in 2005, I have made my home in many places. Run-down trailers, bedrooms in shared homes, wall tents, apartments, and a log cabin in the woods. I’ve lived here in Dawson City, back in London, Ontario and in Quebec City. I have bounced around so much over the last 12 years and friends, I am tried of it.

I want my roots to reach down deep into the soil. I want to plant perennials in my garden and enjoy them the following summer. I want to unpack my suitcase. I want to put my damn suitcase in a closet somewhere and forget about it for awhile. I want the boys to have their own bedroom, with their own beds and dressers and secrets whispered under covers. I want to renovate my kitchen (except not really because there are a lot of decision to be made in renovating a kitchen).

We’ve been living in a rented house in town since November, and our time there is fast coming to an end. And if you’re not from Dawson then let me tell you that finding a family home to rent here is next to impossible. And buying a home here, while possible, would mean taking on another big load of debt for us. It seems reckless to do when we’ve got this lovely log home just sitting there waiting for us 40 kilometers out of town. Sure, there’s no indoor plumbing, and our closest neighbours are birds…but it’s ours. We own it and I planted perennials in the garden last year and I want to see if they come up or if I killed them. I want to step out of my door and walk the forest trail to the nearby pond. I want to sit down there and not think about getting up again for a few years, anyway. I want to put in a septic field and indoor plumbing and build a guest cabin and an outdoor sauna. I want to fill my green house with basil and tomatoes and nothing else.

We’ve decided to move back there at the end of March. We’ve decided to try and make this place work. Close friends and family will be worried right now. But I’m the one who has been pushing for this move. Maybe it’s the pragmatic Virgo in me, or maybe, at the other end of the scale, it’s me going off of my gut feelings. But this is what makes the most sense. And it feels right, too.

Truthfully, of all of the places I’ve landed in the last 12 years, this is the place that makes me feel home. Which is bizarre, because I’ve had such a difficult time there. But the children are that much older now, that much more independent, and I am that much further along in my own journey. I feel better able to meet the challenges of rural living. I know what I need to function, and I’m getting better at honouring those needs.

It will mean more driving. It will mean that sometimes I spend a night, alone, in town. For a little while, it will mean showers in town and laundry in town and pooping outside. I’m ready for it.

We’re making plans to finish the inside properly (no more plywood floor and insulation ceilings for us!) and over the summer we’ll look into a septic field and building an addition that includes a real bathroom, with a flushing toilet and everything. Dreamy.

I suppose this is an aspect of accepting where I am, and what I’ve got. Much of the suffering (I use that in the Buddhist sense, which is to say, the dissatisfaction) of my life comes from me pining for things I don’t have, for things that are not my reality. I won’t promise to love every moment of living out there, but I will promise not to let the rough spots take over. I will accept the bad with the good. I will stay present through all of it, so that when I’m cursing having to go to the outhouse in the cold, I might also look up and see the northern lights. Both of those things can co-exist.

It will be a challenge, yes. But one I feel much better equipped to handle.

 

A Bartender’s Work

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On Sunday mornings, at twenty past eight, I walk to work in the dark. My good black boots with the pointed toes squeak on the hard-packed snow like pieces of styrofoam rubbed together. Outside of the bar I might pick up a few empty cigarette packages from the ground, sometimes a crushed beer can, evidence of the night before. I go inside and knock on the tavern door. The night cleaner lets me in. We chat about his evening, then he disappears to sleep. I take off my coat, turn up the lights. I count my float, take inventory of the cigarettes and the beer, wine and hard liquor we sell for offsales. I line the bottles up on the bar, the Christmas lights causing the amber coloured whiskey to glow. I load the hot dog machine, unlock the coolers, brew a pot of coffee, turn on the classic rock radio station. 9 a.m. I open the blinds, unlock the door.

Some mornings there is a rush of last night’s revelers: they belly up to the bar, order beer or coffee and Baileys. Their stories tumble out amid laughter, their eyes darting beneath heavy lids. They spend a few hours with me as they come down. Soon the stories slow, the eyes grow heavier. They wander home to bed or grab a half-sack of beer and head out to see if the party is still going.

Some mornings, for the first hour I sell only offsales. These folks move more slowly. Shaking hands pull out of coat pockets in a spill of crumpled bills and coin. I help them count out what they need, then pass the bottle across the bar to be tucked carefully inside their coats. Often I’ll see them again in the early afternoon.

There are quiet mornings when I get to chat with one or two people over coffee. Together we watch the light fill the sky, the details of the world coming into focus through the big windows in the front of the bar. We talk about the weather, or someone’s upcoming trip to Whitehorse, my kids or their grandkids. Rarely the talk forays into politics: it’s dangerous ground that we all generally try to avoid.

Always, they bring me their stories: of addiction, failed marriages, suicide, and very rarely, residential school. Stories of the old days. Of bush life, of hand-mining and shaft digging. They brag of being the best CAT operator in the territory, the best barmaid of their day. They share with me their journeys, both outside the territory, and in. Stories of last night’s party, last week’s canoe trip, Passions, heartbreak, dreams realized or not, birth, disease and death. We make our money on liquor sales but we trade in stories and I try my best to hold space for each one. To let each person tell their story as it needs to be told, whether it’s full of careful omission or gross embellishment. They all want to be heard, and that is the true work of the bartender.