Friday, January 21, 2011

Half a Grapefruit

I'm down to my last half-grapefruit.

As I write, it's been exactly a week since I landed back in snowy Detroit after nearly a week away in Florida with my daughter, my sister and my parents. We brought only carry-on luggage and our bags were pretty full when we left home, and fuller still after we filled them with the fruits of our shopping labours, so it's actually pretty remarkable that I still have citrus fruit left a week later.

We bought the fruit at a roadside stand my parents discovered, a half-hour or so outside Orlando. I think the place was to the southwest, but really I'm not sure. For me, directional uncertainty is quite a novelty. Normally, I'm the person who sits in the passenger seat, with maps spread open on my lap, enjoying the fun of navigating. But on this trip, I sat in the back seat, behind the driver, looking for armadillos, egrets, orange-filled trucks and mouse-eared hydro towers.

It was a good perspective, I tell you.

There was so much to fill my week. While we waited for my parents to sign the papers for their rental car at the airport, my daughter and I sat outside on a bench where all the diesel fuel from buses couldn't smother the fragrant warm air. She saw her first palm tree and I saw green after months of brown and white.

We went straight from the airport to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Actually, there they called it "all you care to eat" - avoiding those for whom proving stomach capacity would be taken as a challenge, I think. We sat at a table next to a Spanish runner who had just completed the Disney marathon. We ate as much as we could and tried to think of foods that were not on the menu. There weren't many omissions.

We swam - oh did we swim! We swam before nine a.m. on our first morning - noted that this would normally be the time we were putting on boots to trudge off to school. We snickered at that. We swam for four hours that first day - two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. We discovered the pool that played soothing New Age music and the one that played jazzy Big Band and Harry Connick Jr.

We shopped. My mom has been going to Florida for 20 years on a regular basis and she knew the good places to shop. I found a cashmere sweater for 70% off and had to choose between three glorious pairs of shoes (words I rarely put together). Megan bought toe socks, earrings, smelly pencils, hair bands, hair elastics, gummy centipedes, tee-shirts, and presents for a friend. We waited until late in the week to choose a Christmas ornament - we always try to bring back something we can hang on the tree to remind us where we have been - until we knew what we wanted to remember. We wanted to remember an alligator.

We did see alligators too at Gatorland, a breeding place for prehistoric-looking creatures. The highlight for both of us there was the aviary of rescued parakeets: we were able to stand among the hundreds of brightly-coloured birds, holding a birdseed-encrusted popsicle stick and letting the little creatures alight on our hands and heads. It was surprisingly wonder-full.

We spent a day - just the two of us - at Sea World. I admit I had been nervous about taking Megan, on my own, to a theme park. They seemed like prime loitering spots for pedophiles, and who would hold my purse when I went on a ride? The reality was very simple and I didn't see a single pervert in the crowd. I got tears in my eyes when I watched the orcas and Megan whispered, as we walked out after the dolphin show, that maybe someday in her vet career, she'd like to work with dolphins.

My mother planned and cooked every meal - from banana and blueberry pancakes to a ham dinner. We only ate out a few times - including a memorable meal of chicken-fried steak at The Pie Restaurant.

We did the crossword puzzle together every morning, we played word games in the evening and taught Megan to play euchre.

Megan and I shared a room and I found her as delightful at the end of the trip as I did at the beginning.

As I say, I rode in the back seat. Both literally and, as it turned out, metaphorically. By metaphor, I mean that my life was so full and so fun for the week and there was so little time alone, that for once, I had no time or space to think.

Which is why where I found myself at the end of the week surprised me. There were three changes I made as we returned, every one of them instinctive.

First, when I finally got computer access to print my return boarding pass, I checked in on Facebook for the first time all week. My reaction: meh. I'm not quitting it 100%, but I'm going to acknowledge the social void I let it fill and look for other, better ways to meet that void.

Second, I got mad at my husband. My sweet husband who looked after our boys beautifully all week and then drove all day to pick us up. I was less mad at him and more mad at the way we have let ourselves fall into ruts that involve Not Enough Fun.

Finally, I spent an afternoon culling my wardrobe. I'm generally aware of colours and textures, but our shopping trips and a television show my mom watches had alerted me to the importance of shape and fit. I squinted as I tried on all my clothes, looking for the ones that actually fit, that actually suited who I am.

I sat in the back seat and we drove to the citrus fruit stand. We sampled fresh squeezed orange juice and carried away bags of fresh fruit, jugs of juice and even a small bottle of orange blossom perfume.

We're down to that last half-grapefuit now. But it's half-full and I'm even more than that.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dear FB

Dear FB,

It’s not you. It’s me.

We met, three years ago, and I wanted to impress you with all my charms. I loved the friends you introduced me to – and was delighted to find out you could connect me to people I knew way back when. I loved that I could be myself with you – some people said that that could reinvent themselves with you, but I felt more like I could reveal all sides of myself.

And yet.

They say that people who live together grow to look alike, that even people and their pets often resemble each other. I grew different during our relationship: I began to perform, to seek applause, to try to be liked. I began to look at things in terms of how I would tell you about them. I started checking in with you, too often, obsessively.

Twice, I quit you temporarily. Always, I felt relief when we couldn’t be in contact- I felt rescued from my lack of resistance.

Most recently, I went on holidays without you. I had fun, hanging out with my daughter, my sister, my parents, traveling, reading, shopping, swimming, exploring, eating, learning. When I finally got back to you, what I saw was irony, cheap laughs, striving, flippancy. What I had been reading about – and doing - was being my best self. There was a disconnect.

Sometimes you can salvage the relationship and sometimes you can’t.

I once broke up like this before. Pretty much overnight, the scales fell from my eyes and I knew that I needed to end things.

Breaking up isn’t easy. Breaking up doesn’t end the work I have to do. It’s just the beginning.

It’s been fun, FB. But I’m going for real and for best and for a world in which every sentence does not start with me.



Saturday, January 1, 2011

Cultivating Success

When I did my Masters degree, part-time, course by course, I began to notice something. Every single course, I got the exact same grade: A-. After a few courses, I began to wonder what it would take to achieve an A or even a B+. It took until the final course to break through the barrier and to get that elusive A.

I'm feeling about like that right now with my writing.

No, that's not quite true. I'm feeling about like that right now with my writing career.

Having had one book published, I have learned that the very best part of the process is the writing. I love a good story and it is so much more fun and challenging and creative when I get to participate in the creative process. That truly was and is my favourite part. That is not in question at all.

But my second favourite part was people getting what I wrote. I love doing readings and sensing people holding their breath, seeing eyes well up with tears, hearing laughter at the right moments. Having what I sent out into the world be received.

The problem is that apparently I may be an A- writer. And, in a competitive market, A - may not be enough.

Further, the A- minus may not even be a reflection of my ability or effort. I had a rejection yesterday from someone high up in publishing who read my book over Christmas and loved it but felt that the Canadian setting would work against it, and also said that the demand these days is for bigger stories told on bigger canvases.

When I get disheartened (like now), I think it doesn't matter whether I'm an A- or a D- writer. My agent says the fact that the book was read in its entirety at this time of year is an encouraging sign. He says that I am getting thoughtful, intelligent rejections from those who know literature and its market - that many writers get form letters or silence. He is actually right, but I'm still not exactly feeling the warmth.

For the last couple of years, I've chosen a word as a sort of theme or talisman for the upcoming year. Last year, the word was sculpt, and I did sculpt in many ways. This year, the word I know to be mine is cultivate.

The word cultivate comes from the medieval Latin cultivare, from cultiva (terra) ‘arable (land)’, from colere ‘cultivate, inhabit’.

Its definitions include:

1. prepare land for crops
2. grow plant: to grow a plant or crop
3. loosen soil: to break up soil with a tool or machine, especially before sowing or planting
4. nurture something: to improve or develop something, usually by study or education
5. develop acquaintance with somebody
6. make somebody cultured

I like the work implied in this word. To cultivate anything takes time and labour. It recognizes that anything worthwhile must grow, and even growth must be preceded by preparation.

A big challenge for me, though, is to think about what it means to cultivate success in writing when what I want does not depend solely on my effort. I would be embarrassed to admit the depth of my ambition and drive to see my books find an audience, but every crop depends on more than the effort of the person cultivating it.

Maybe I will be able to enjoy success if my goals become ones that are within my control.

I'm also haunted by the possibility that writing fiction may very well be for my own pleasure, and that my purpose in life may be something I discount or devalue. And maybe the books will find a home within that purpose.


This year, I will write and I will learn to write better and will fall in love with my stories. And I will try not to let my longing for readers sour into thwarted ambition.

Those will be good crops to cultivate.