Monthly Archives: February 2014

On Being Told (a lot) To Cherish This Time

Oh, cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow,
But children grow up, as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust, go to sleep.
I’m rocking my baby. Babies don’t keep.
(from Song For A Fifth Child, by Ruth Hulbert Hamilton)

Dear Blog,

We’ve all been there. The moment in the mobbed grocery store when the cart is nearly full and you stop your toddler from pilfering raisins from the bulk bin, “we have to buy them first,” and he looks at you like this is the greatest, cruelest injustice he has ever faced, opens his mouth in a tremendous wail, and collapses bonelessly to the floor. So you are trying to wrestle him into the cart, and because you are a fucking pro, you get both of those windmilling legs into the leg-holes, and then the other kid, who now has a suspicious sugary dusting around his mouth that can probably be traced to another bulk bin, loudly declares that he needs to pee. So you pull the wailing, boneless thief back out of the cart, and he kicks you in the chest in the process, and the other one screams with sudden, terrible urgency REALLY I HAVE TO GO NOW I HAVE TO GO RIGHT NOW NOW NOW. You abandon the cart and grab his hand, the other kid under your arm like a howling parcel, and you slalom-run through the crowds to the bathroom. He makes it partway but his underpants are wet enough to warrant a change. So you help him change his undies with one hand while basically pinning the other kid to the wall with your other hand to keep him from playing with the toilet, and the older one, content now, randomly wants you to explain how the postal system works, and why airplanes have two engines, and why the biggest stars have individual names but the biggest trees don’t, and the little one is screaming the whole time “RAISIIIIIIINS!” You let them wash their hands for as long as they want because that calms them down, then you mop up the soap and water they’ve splashed everywhere with handfuls of paper towels, feeling guilty because The Environment. You take a deep breath. You hold one cold, damp hand in each of yours and pull them out into the store to go look for the cart, desperately hoping it will be where you left it. And that is the moment when somebody, usually an older women whose children are grown up, swoops in and tells you, “Cherish this time while they are little, my dear! It goes by so fast!” and you paste a fake smile on your face while thinking to yourself, Not fucking fast enough.

“Cherish this time!” People say this kind of thing to parents of small children All The Time, and somehow it’s never at a cherish-worthy moment. Just enjoy them. Don’t sweat the small stuff. As if the days aren’t made up of small stuff that needs to be sweated. They mean well, but they have forgotten what it’s like, and they don’t realize that they are just feeding the guilt monster its very favorite food. I get it, of course. They are speaking from a place of longing, even regret. No mother of grown kids, no granny who stops us in the street with shining eyes, really thinks we ought to prioritize, say, making puzzles with our kids (while cherishing every moment, of course) over practical matters like making dinner. You can’t eat a puzzle, as we have all learned from Curious George. What they are talking about is shifting our perspective. They are talking about gratitude and being in the moment. They are talking about not having a shitty attitude. In the meantime, we are cleaning up shit. This is the real balancing act: variations on Cherishing This Time vs. Oh-god-this-is-so-gross.

I am halfway out of the trenches. My older son is four and a half and my younger son is almost three, and the grocery store scenario above is more than a year old. When we are at home, I ignore my kids a lot. I hear myself, throughout the day, saying “not now,” and “I’m busy” and “maybe later.” Sometimes I am ignoring them because I am writing, which I take fairly seriously. Sometimes I am ignoring them just because I’m kind of a jerk, which I take slightly less seriously. Sometimes I am ignoring them because I have to do the dishes, or put away the laundry, or make their breakfast / lunch / dinner /snack, and these are things that need to get done whether I take them seriously or not.

For all the ignoring I do, there are still hours for playing outside, where I will applaud the millionth leap from the snow mountain and try to keep them from eating dirty ice. We eat every meal together, we read together and chat and tell stories and build nests to cuddle in, and sometimes I am bored out of my mind and sometimes I think I will burst from love, and sometimes I feel both of those things at the same time, which is weird and disconcerting, but in any case, I don’t feel like my kids are deprived of my attention. Denying it sometimes is fine, I am confident of that. The stickier question, for me, is how to feel about my own feelings. Is it awful to wish the day was over? What does it mean if I sometimes think I love my kids most when they are asleep? Is it OK to not cherish this time, sometimes?

The problem with “cherish this time” and “it goes by so fast” is that it doesn’t help to hear it. We know. This love is bigger and brighter than anything that came before. This love has made me both more and less than what I was. There are plenty of times, snuggling them close and kissing their squashy cheeks, listening to their little voices struggling to articulate their big thoughts, when I wish we could hold on to this time forever, and I am painfully aware of how fleeting it is. But then there are the other times, when I am just trying to get through it.

It is not helpful to feel like I ought to be cherishing this time when I am sleep-deprived and hungry and worn down to a nub of who I’d like to be, when the dishes are piled on the counter at home and my arms ache already from these big bags of groceries. The sun is going down, it’s been a long day, I just want to get home and start dinner, but the kids want to splash in the giant puddle of melting snow outside the grocery store. It’s time to go, I say, unconvincingly, and they shout BUT THIS IS SO FUN! They run to fetch slabs of ice from the side of the road, toss these into the puddle and smash them to bits, cheering gleefully, and the groceries are really heavy but the ground is wet, there is nowhere to put them down, why didn’t I bring a backpack?

And then this lady comes out of the store and beams at my kids. I know what’s coming. I brace myself. The lady looks at me, and I try not to look like I hate my life, because in spite of how I am feeling right now, I know that I am lucky, that I am ridiculously lucky to live here, to be safe and well, with healthy, laughing children. I know it can all change in a heartbeat. The possibilities for loss wake me up in the night. It is obscene to complain, but gratitude can coexist with feeling like crap, and never feeling like crap is a tall order, even in the luckiest life. The lady approaches and I ready my fake smile, because she’s going to tell me how fast it all goes, and I am going to nod like this means anything to me right now, or she is going to tell me to cherish this time, and I am going to try and pretend I am cherishing it rather than wishing to be home.

But instead she says, “Your children are so beautiful.”

I say thank you. She carries on, and I keep standing there with the groceries, hungry and cold and tired, watching them splashing and crowing and smashing ice, and I think, Yeah. They really are.

Yours, with love, gratitude, and a pretty shitty attitude,

Catherine

 

The Secret Door, The Sudden View, The First Page of a Great Book

Dear Blog,

Readers and writers have been talking up Erin Bow all over the internet for quite some time now. I am always late to the Everyone-Is-Reading-X parties, but one evening last month I put down a book that I wasn’t enjoying at all and thought, bah, not going to finish this, and I picked up Plain Kate instead.

When I was ten years old, my family moved to Oxford, England, for a year, and we rented an apartment in a beautiful old house. At our entrance, there was a piano against a door that looked like a closet or something, and then the stairs that led up to the rest of the flat. One lazy afternoon, my younger brother and I thought to squeeze behind the piano and check that closet. It turned out, of course, that it wasn’t a closet. Crumbling stone steps led down to a cellar. We explored with flashlights the passageways under the house, full of broken old pottery. It was like stumbling into another world: this ancient, secret place that had been there all along, and we hadn’t thought to look. It felt like something out of a book. The secret door. That moment when the thing you expect is not what you find at all.

I remember that day so well, and that feeling: our boredom and irritation falling away as we stared down into the dark, my brother and I shoulder to shoulder, the tense whisper – Get a flashlight! We’re going down! – and it felt like our whole lives were about to change. It’s a feeling that since has been replicated a number of times by the first page of an extraordinary book. When I opened Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, I got that same breathless tightening in the chest, that same sense of stumbling onto something entirely beyond what I’d been expecting. Like hiking a misty, twisty, wooded path in the mountains, and suddenly there is a break in the trees, the fog lifts, the view opens up and you can see for miles, the whole world laid out before you, and you want to weep with how lovely it is. Like how I imagine it would feel for pirates stepping into a cave and seeing at last the treasure they’ve spent their whole life searching for, lying there in a great gleaming heap before them.

On page seven of Plain Kate, I cried. I’m not a big crier-over-books. Two books made me cry in 2013: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Erin Bow gave me an early start on weeping this year. I’m not sure if I was crying for the character, even, or simply for the spare and lovely writing about her grief as, in those first gorgeous pages, she loses everything. As I read, I thought about how skilled you have to be with words to pull of this marriage of compassion and ruthlessness. There are brilliant, beautiful writers whose books shine with empathy, and there are a good many cruel geniuses too, who seem to write with a knife, murderously or surgically, depending on the story. I can be won over by either of these gifts, but both together is a rare and wonderful thing. When trying to think of writers whose work requires both a hot heart and a cold eye, I think first of Alice Munro. Erin Bow has that double gift too.

I finished the book and went to check out her blog. Was I surprised to find out that she is a poet? No! I was not surprised to find out that she is a poet! Obviously, if you read her prose, you can tell that she is a poet. She has published two collections under the name Erin Noteboom. The day that I checked her blog, there was a poem at the top called The Common Swift (see below), and I had that same feeling of wondrous discovery all over again: the pirate treasure, the secret basement, the dizzying view.

It is exciting discovering somebody this good. So if you haven’t already, go forth and discover her. And read the poem below, if you need more convincing, and also if you don’t.

Yours, proselytizingly,

Catherine

The Common Swift – by Erin Bow

Consider in its turn the common swift.
There is new evidence that over the dark dunes
of the Sahara, a swift will stay aloft
two hundred days.
Scientists are puzzled, not over how, but why.
Consider the work, they note, of sleeping in flight:
The alertness demanded,
the tacks and turns it takes
To ride the wind. Even a gliding bird would expend
a small but constant effort.
For such cost, there must be benefit.
That is the equation of science, which is only
half a twist from love. Consider in its turn
a marriage, surely no less common
Or marvelous
than swifts. Surely no less a nest
built in the air.

A Winter’s Tale: Then and Now

Dear Blog,

I spent the autumn of 2005 in Beijing, not entirely happy about it. I’d left behind enchanting Kyoto for love. My boyfriend was studying Mandarin and applying for graduate programs in the US. I was teaching English at Berlitz, trying to finish a novel that I was just beginning to sense was an unpublishable disaster, and missing everything about Japan. I didn’t have high hopes for the year, but all that changed following this conversation with my boss, V.

V: Do you remember when we talked about you going to work on an oil rig?
Me: Um… no.
V: Yes, yes, we talked about it last week! I’ve got a contract for you!
Me: I don’t remember that conversation. I’m an English teacher…
V: Well, they want a woman.
Me: … What?
V: Have a look at the contract and see what you think. But I need an answer by Friday.
Me: It’s Thursday.
V: *hands me contract and sails out*

Several weeks later, I was on a helicopter that looked to be held together with duct tape, bound for the FPSO Ming Zhu, an oil processing ship in the middle of the Bohai Bay. My job was to give English lessons to the one hundred plus Chinese employees, from supervisors to deck crew, in order to facilitate communication between them and the handful of British and American operations managers off-shore. The foremen and supervisors were keen students, as they needed a good grasp of English to move up in the company (a British-US oil company that shall remain nameless). The deck crew saw English class as an opportunity to come inside, sit down, and drink coffee, and so they were fairly keen too. I worried a bit about being the Only Woman out there, but the guys were, to a man, for the entirety of my contract off-shore, absolutely lovely to me and entirely respectful. We all worked on rotation off-shore. In my case, that meant that I was working 6 months out of the year for twice as much money as I’d been making before. I’d work four weeks, and then I’d have four weeks off (and a bundle of cash) to go traipsing around China with my boyfriend. Things were looking up.

In December the sea was rough, the ship pitching about so that I often had to chase my whiteboard-on-wheels across the classroom (much to the delight of my students) and it was frigid outdoors. Not that I had much occasion to go outdoors. Twice a week, though, I taught classes over on the WHP (Well-Head Platform – the drilling rig itself), and getting there was no small feat.

At 5:30 a.m. I was out on deck, in the pitch dark and the snow, bundled absurdly into what was called a “survival suit” – a giant rubber outfit that I could barely waddle around in but which would apparently keep me alive for an extra five minutes should I happen to fall into the freezing water. The Safety Officer strapped me into a contraption inexplicably called “The Frog.” This was a pyramid-shaped thing with three seats and a big hook on top. A crane lifted it from the huge processing ship and lowered it down to the deck of the transfer boat.

The Safety Officer pulled the straps tight across my gigantic rubber body, brushed the snow off my helmet in a rather motherly way, and waved my T-card (indicating my presence or absence from the ship) in my face. “You must give this to the frogman when you leave the FPSO!” OK, I nodded, thinking, the frogman? Although it sounded like a comic-book villain, this apparently referred to the bosun, standing by and beaming. “The frogman will give it to you when you get back and you must put it back at your muster station!” OK, I nodded again. And then he said my favorite sentence that has ever been uttered to me, with an intensity that made it sound almost like a threat: “When you get back, THE FROGMAN WILL BE WAITING FOR YOU!” (Da-da-DUMMMM!)

He backed up, waved, the crane lurched, and I was dangling in the black sky over the FPSO Ming Zhu, snowflakes spinning around me. Down I went, onto the deck of the transfer boat, where some other rubber-suited crew members helped me out of the frog, which went sailing upwards again. The transfer boat was a small vessel that crashed and lurched on the great waves. The crew suggested I might want to go inside, but I was sure I would get seasick if I did, and besides which, I was transfixed by the sight of the drilling platform.

It took about fifteen or twenty minutes to cross from the ship to the rig, depending on how rough the sea was. I remember that approaching the rig in the dark winter sea that first time, it struck me as one of the loveliest sights of my life. Ugly by day, in the dark it glittered with lights in a whirlwind of snowflakes, towering on great legs above the black, surging water. Giant icicles many times larger than a man hung from its lower platforms in fierce, jagged formations, lashed by foaming waves. It was like some kind of sci-fi fairyland, icy and twinkling and terrible, magical.

The rig had fewer men on it, and there was a charming sense of scrappy camaraderie among them. They were all terribly concerned about me and how I was faring off-shore for the first time, wondering if I was going to (metaphorically) jump ship now that I saw the reality. I admitted that my ears got cold on the transfer but that otherwise I had no complaints about my life off-shore. When it was time for me to go back in the evening, I found attached to my helmet a thick leather cap with ear-flaps, and a note that read: “Dear Miss Kat, Keep your ears warm! From the boys on the WHP.”

I waited on the heli-deck while the crane operator waved to me and brought the frog up from the transfer boat. I was lowered down, wearing my fetching new cap, and we went bouncing back over the waves, leaving the twinkling rig behind us for the larger, rocking FPSO Ming Zhu. I was full of the thrill of being out of my element, wide awake with brand new experiences. When I got back, the Frogman was waiting for me.

***

Winter now is dripping snowsuits hanging by the door, assembling pairs of mittens, hot chocolate, shoveling the car out and then shoveling it out again, my artistic failures bemoaned by my children because I cannot make a snow-fox that looks like a fox, my voice shrill and unfamiliar yelling: “No snow in the face! No snow in the face!”

The truth is, I love winter with my kids because they love it and happiness now means something different than it used to. I am anchored by love and obligation. For most of the guys I taught off-shore all those years ago, it was a hard job, not a good story, and they did it for the money. I did it for the money too, but still, my not belonging (and the temporary nature of the gig) made it something else for me, not just a job but an adventure. I think of that year alternating off-shore rotations and travel as a kind of last hurrah, before I moved to the US, got married, tried to start a vegetable garden, had children. I think of it, maybe a bit sadly, as the end of my youth and freedom. Back then I didn’t belong to anybody. I could tell my boyfriend I was going to work on an oil rig and he could laugh and then say, “seriously?” and it was all OK, because I could do whatever I wanted.

I used to feel like all I wanted was adventure: the new, the strange, the unexpected. If you think of the hours of your life as a kind of currency you trade in for experiences, then travel and living abroad have always given me the best bang for my metaphorical buck. Now, all the tired old routines, all the been-there-done-that-old-hat I fled for unfamiliar places and odd (to me) situations, all that is new again with my kids. Vicariously, at least, the simplest things become great adventures. Like getting a Christmas tree – a tree in the house, strung with lights and tinsel and decorations! The two-year-old stands before it, marveling: “It’s so beautiful,” he whispers, again and again. “It’s so beautiful.” They catch snow on their tongues, crowing at their whole world buried in white, changed utterly, the trees encased in ice that rains down, tinkling, with every gust of wind. We read a Little Golden Book version of the Christmas story, and my space-obsessed four-year-old wants to know: “OK but where is heaven? Is it in the solar system? Is it in the milky way galaxy? How big is it? Are angels real or is this just a story? Mom, is this true?” and I have no answers that suit either of us. The look of blissful concentration they get once I’ve peeled them out of their wet things and they are warm and dry and drinking hot chocolate. Everything is new. Nothing is old hat, for them, not yet. Their enthusiasm, their wonder and delight, even their fears: this is the antidote to the anesthetizing grip of habit and routine.

The difference, maybe, is that I’m no longer at the center of my own story. I’m in the background now: arranging wet boots on a towel, mopping the slush off the floor, pouring the hot chocolate. I send the sled roaring down the hill and watch them fall off at the bottom, a tangle of booted feet and snowy scarves, shouting with laughter. My joy isn’t in the thrill of the descent anymore, but the sound of their laughter. That might be sappy, or kind of pathetic, but either way, it’s the new truth. I would be lying if I said I never missed going at my own speed, starring in my own story, doing my own thing. I miss it all the time. But I was going at my own speed, starring in my own story, doing my own thing, for years and years, and at some point none of it was any good because it all got buried in the totally irrational longing for children. So here we are. I go slipping and sliding down after them, the two-year-old starting to get agitated because he can’t get up in his puffy snowsuit, the four-year-old already shouting, “Again!” I help the little one to his feet, and we all pull the sled back up to the top of the hill.

Yours, nostalgic-but-OK-with-it,

Catherine

The Last Days of Tian Di, in 3 sonnets

Dear Blog,

Last week I went to the OLA Superconference in Toronto, which was fun and fascinating. I was taking part in the CANSCAIP book launch, and because I have no idea how to pitch my books, I tried to sum them up in sonnet form. I know how you love a sonnet, blog, so here they are:

Book 1: Shade & Sorceress

You see them coming from the sky – these things
Shining above the clouds – how could you know
That you are seeing, in the morning glow,
Your childhood’s end descend on golden wings.
Here’s what you know: You are not what they say
This destiny does not belong to you
Here’s what you’ll learn: when you’ve got things to do
Not even destiny can bar your way.
The secrets peel away and leave behind
A sliver of the bare and shivering truth
You cross two worlds armed with a dragon’s tooth
Into the realm your awful foe designed.
So what are you? Whatever else, it’s plain
That you will never be a child again.

Book 2: The Unmaking

You think by now you have it figured out:
Whom you can trust and who is on your side,
The good and evil thing, the sharp divide
Between your separate selves. You cast about
For help in learning both roles: how to be
The Sorceress you think the world needs
And how to be a girl. Though each impedes
The other, you still think you can be free.
Then she comes back like a storm and in her wake
She leaves a ruin of all you thought was true
Her swift revenge, her monstrous will – this you
Must comprehend in order to unmake.
You’ll find that as both girl and Sorceress
You’re more than what you thought, and also less

Book 3: Fog, Bone, Ash & Star (to be published September 2014 – this is a sonnet-preview!)

In the bright palm of the deluder’s hand
You watch the world end, you watch them die
And time rolls on without you. In this lie
You dwell a while, until you understand:
You may not be the hero after all
Your heart may not be right, but it is true
You can’t unchoose your choices, can’t undo
The things you’ve done for love, while duty’s call
You barely heard. Now this: your ruinous quest
will shake the worlds and lead you back to her,
your dearest foe. And as the Ancients stir
you’ll find the truth, and face your final test.
Chasing the awful drumbeat of your heart
Your dearest wish may tear the worlds apart.

Yours, in iambic pentameter,

Catherine