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October 20, 2016

How to Get Over Literary Envy

so-much-loveMy friend Rebecca Rosenblum’s forthcoming novel, So Much Love, is publishing on the same day as mine is, March 14, 2017. This coincidence is as delightful to me as it is amazing (or even miraculous). Rebecca and I went to graduate school together more than ten years ago, and when I’d read Ann Patchett’s memoir Truth and Beauty later, about friends Ann and Lucy in their post-MFA years when they were “writing to save their lives,” I’d think of Rebecca, who is the most important thing I picked up at school. About the friendships that can form among writers in a  workshop, the intimacy of the experience, for better or for worse.

When our program ended, Rebecca and I started meeting weekly and writing together for a few hours after work at coffee shops and food courts, and this lasted about two years. We danced at her wedding. She brought baked goods over when my children were born. We’ve had brunches and dinners and fun dissecting literary feuds. We’ve attended readings and taken road trips to festivals, and we’ve celebrated the books we loved and moaned about books we hated. And it seems entirely perfect that are books are coming out on the same day because we’ve been going down the same road for so long. Except we haven’t been. And that this never really seemed like the case is a credit to the goodness of Rebecca.

I still have such a vivid memory of buying The Journey Prize Stories 19 in 2007 at the old Book City at Yonge and Charles. I was on my way to meet Rebecca for our weekly writing date, and it was so thrilling to consider that my friend was in a book. This book. I had her sign my copy. (A bird shat on my arm that day, which I dared to believe might be a sign that I could be in a book too.)  A year later, I was there when she set eyes on her very own book for the very first time, the story story collection, Once, which was an award-winner from birth—we were at the Eden Mills Festival. A few years later, I’d get to interview Rebecca at the launch of her second collection, The Big Dream. And somewhere in between then and now I got the chance to read the manuscript that would eventually evolve into Rebecca’s debut novel, So Much Love. (Full disclosure: I loved it.)

You’d imagine it might be hard, watching your friend publish one book and then another, while your own manuscript went into a drawer forever. At a certain time in my life (before I got on such familiar terms with failure), I would have thought so. I remembering reading somewhere (where?) that Carol Shields had declared she did not suffer from literary envy, and thinking about what I would give to get myself to a place where I could say the same. And it turned out that I did not have to give anything at all. I just had to be friends with Rebecca.

How to Get Over Literary Envy.

  1. Surround yourself with good people. Good people are generous in their success and make you feel like you can own a bit of it.
  2. Have a surefire thing. When no one wanted to publish anything I wrote, I still had a blog. It was a thing that was mine that nothing could take away from me. It helped me grow and learn as a writer, gave me an outlet and a platform, and made me feel fulfilled as a creative person.
  3. Keep on doing what you’re doing, but…
  4. Grow. Change. Learn. The best antidote to Imposter Syndrome is to get better at doing what you do.
  5. Paradoxically, success always turns out to be smaller when it happens (and when your friends are successful, you learn this), and yet there is probably still enough to go around.
  6. Take advantage of the fact that everyone around you is smarter and more successful that you are…by taking notes, listening carefully to their feedback, counting your blessings you have access to these founts of wisdom.
  7. Don’t take yourself seriously. Take your work seriously, but not all the time.
  8. Make sure you’re doing what you like, so that even if nobody else likes it, you’re having a good time.
  9. Cultivate friendships instead of connections.
  10. Do your best to fulfil yourself in all the ways you actually have control over. Writing is only a part of life. A side-effect of it, even.

I am so grateful to Rebecca for her friendship over the last ten years, and can’t wait for the world to discover So Much Love. You can preorder it now! 

July 3, 2016

Summer Starts

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There is no better way to travel then on trains, where the leg room is ample and there is so much time to read. When we booked this weekend away, the train journey itself was the destination, but we had to arrive somewhere, so we chose Ottawa, where we have best cousin-friends and even other friends, and cousin-friends who were kind enough to offer us a place to stay. And it was Canada Day Weekend, so what better place to be…even if the place we mean to be specifically on Canada Day is our cousin’s beautiful backyard across the river in Gatineau. And it really was amazing.

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As we’d hoped, the train journey was a pleasure. I had more time to read than I’ve had in weeks. I finished Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam, which I liked so much and will be writing about, and started Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which was lovely and so much fun. They also had my favourite kind of tea on sale (Sloane Tea’s Heavenly Cream) and so all was right with the world.

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It was such a nice weekend—the children had children to play with and I got to spend time with some of my favourite people. We had an excellent time with our cousins, and met up with my dear friends Rebecca who took us to the Museum of  Nature, and last night I got to visit with my 49thShelf comrades who I’ve been working so happily with for years but have only ever hung out with a handful of times. Apart from one traumatic episode of carsickness (not mine) and the night the children took turns waking up every twenty minutes, it was a perfect long long weekend. I also learned that it is possible to eat my limit in cheetos and potato chips, which I had never suspected. Also that it is probably inadvisable to start drinking before noon.

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We came home today, another good trip, this time with me reading Nathan Whitlock’s Congratulations on Everything, which I am really enjoying, I also started reading the graphic novel of A Wrinkle in Time with Harriet, which we will continue this week. And we arrived home to find that our marigolds have finally bloomed, third generation. We planted them a couple of months back in our community planter, and have been waiting for the flowers to emerge. (Sadly, our lupines didn’t make it.) Summer is finally here proper, what with school out, and even 49thShelf’s Fall Fiction Preview being up (which is my main project for June), and my work days shift with the children being home. I’ve also decided to write a draft of a novel this summer, which is only going to make a tricky situation trickier, but who doesn’t like tricks? We shall see. We will do our best. And there will also be ice cream and holidays and barbecues and sand between our toes, and splash pads and ferry rides and picnics and pools and flowers. It will all go by so fast.

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June 6, 2016

The people we used to be

IMG_20160601_084118I was crossing the street in April when I heard somebody calling my name. I turned around to see a familiar face, a friendly one, but I couldn’t quite place it. My first instinct was that this was my best friend from grade 7, but as we spoke I realized it wasn’t her after all. This woman had a different job, a different narrative, it emerged. But I’d greeted her with such familiarity, that she had no idea I was confused. We kept on talking, and then finally I realized that it was my friend’s younger sister, who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in about twenty years, though our parents in our hometown kept tabs on our whereabouts. I knew a bit about what she’d been up to and we reconnected for a few minutes, and she informed me that her sister, my friend, was about to have her first baby, had gotten married, had found herself in a pretty nice place in her life.

So naturally I went home and googled my friend and her husband’s name, and I found them on Instagram. And since then it has been really nice to get a glimpse into her life and to provide her a glimpse into mine, because while we drifted apart when we went to different high schools, throughout grades seven and eight, she meant a whole lot to me. Our friendship was hugely formative. We were two weird and awkward adolescent girls, but we were weird and awkward in such complementary ways—both of us had our eyes on bigger prizes in life, though we didn’t know what they were yet. Both of us were utterly unimpressed with popular culture at the time (and for good reason—this was 1991) and obsessed with nostalgia. We used to listen to “American Pie” over and over again, and feel like something essential was forever lost to us. I was crazy about the Beatles and wanted to be a hippie, someone bohemian, and my friend had a bit of that bent herself—her parents weren’t into materialism, and I recall that she didn’t have cable or perhaps a TV, which was as radical as it got in the circles I travelled. What I don’t think we ever articulated but were forever circling around was longing, for the kinds of lives we’d heard about in songs our parents sang. I didn’t want to live a conventional life, but I was so conventional, I didn’t even know how to go about articulating that.

And I can’t help but think how useful the internet would have been to a couple of funny girls like us. Yes, the internet and adolescent girls is a disaster, but not entirely. I recall how lonely it was to be a weirdo in 1991, to love old music and want to wear flowers in our hair. Yes, grunge was starting to happen, but we were sheltered, and we were never wild enough to do teenage rebellion proper. We weren’t grungy. There wasn’t any kind of culture out there that we knew about, that we could tap into, so we made our own instead, in the songs whose lyrics we memorized and analyzed, and the objects we revered, and all  the things we talked about, the questions we tried to answer in circles. I recall we kept a notebook in which we wrote each other back and forth, and I remember lists like, “Things I want to be,” “Things I want to do.” I remember the goodness of a friend like that who made those things seem possible.

I sent my friend a message on Instagram this morning. I wrote to her, “Do you remember that 23 years ago today we went to see Paul McCartney play at Exhibition Stadium?” My dad took us. It was magical. I think the weather was terrible all day long, and then it wasn’t just in time, and then a guy offered us a free rickshaw ride. And then there was an actual Beatle on the stage, Paul McCartney promoting his album, “Off the Ground.” I have never felt so small in my life as I felt in that crowd, one of so many fans in the stadium, and Paul McCartney couldn’t see me—it was first time that it had occurred to me that he had no idea who I was. But I could see him, and it felt like I was engaging in something real for the first time in my life, a religious experience of a sort. I was part of something bigger than myself, and gave me an inkling that there could be a place in the world for a girl like me after all.

I didn’t get a reply from my friend. Not long after, a photo popped up on her husband’s instagram feed—their baby had arrived. On June 6, I marvelled to myself. How auspicious. It probably hasn’t occurred to her, but it means something to me, and  how wonderful anyway, to paraphrase Joan Didion, to check back in once in a while with the people we used to be.

March 15, 2016

If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends

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My friends at Plenty are talking about friendship throughout March, and I was pleased to contribute an essay I wrote about my nearly 25-year-old relationship with my best friends, Britt and Jennie (pictured above in Grade 10 French class, I think). I wrote about how with friendships that old, you eventually have a million things to apologize for, and also about how the Spice Girls taught us how a person should be, how our boyfriends were quite disposable, and how (in a numerical feat as remarkable as “2 Become 1”) 3 becomes 12.

Read the whole thing here.

December 8, 2015

On Needing and Feeding

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My friend Melanie, who has just been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, wrote the most terrific blog post last week on how women are so reluctant to ask for help when they need it and how particularly strange that is seeing as how we tend to be very good at responding to others’ needs when required. How particularly strange too because the help is there; people want to give it. We’ve just got to open ourselves to receiving it, which can be tricky because it involves admitting our limits, crossing personal boundaries; letting other people into our personal spaces; and other possible transgressions. It involves needing, which has so many negative connotations in our society that so prizes self-sufficiency, independence, and so much reserve. A society that finds it simpler, tidier, to imagine that “social network” is a theoretical thing that lives online. And yet.

Inspired by Melanie’s post, and by the fact that we were two weeks into an illness that was not abating and running my husband ragged with caring for me, the children, our household and everything, I put the call out. “Is there anything I can do,” people asked, to which I responded, “Bring us food.” Already, we were pretty supported. My mom had been coming into the city every other day to take care of Harriet and Iris, and so that Stuart could actually, you know, go to work. And she’d been bringing food. But then on Wednesday, our friend Denise brought over turkey pot pie. Our friend Andrew brought over vegetable stew and rice that I ate for lunch the next day. Rebecca came on Friday with a batch of cookies. Athena dropped off a batch of broth. Our next-door neighbours delivered soup. My friend Lexi brought over more soup, and a loaf of challah bread. Erin came on Sunday to play with the children and give Stuart a break, and she brought so much soup. Our downstairs neighbours delivered latkes. My dad and his partner dropped in yesterday while I was sleeping, with more food and also the most delicious cookies. I got home last night to find a container of chickpeas on the step, from our friend and neighbour, Kripa. There are rumours my aunt is dropping off a casserole. And just now, my dear friend Julia let herself into my kitchen to drop off an actual chicken. So I know what we’re having for dinner tonight. All week, we’ve known what we’re having for dinner tonight. And I don’t know if I can convey what a difference that’s made for us.

The point is this: that people are terrifically good at taking care of each other. This very salient fact gets lost in a world that fills our news feeds with violence and despair. It especially gets lost too because we’re so reluctant to ask for that care, to admit that we need it. That human connections are not just theoretical, but actual, and we’d be very lost without them. That these families we build too are fragile things, and everybody needs a hand sometime to keep the machine in motion. That nobody is alone. That nobody should be.

Families facing what Melanie and her family are dealing with need this kind of help in the long term—before I got sick, it never occurred to me how much this was true, how debilitating it can be to have a parent who is ill. And how important it is that people like us to keep on bringing the soup so that mothers like Melanie can face the vital business of being well and loving her children ferociously. That we help too by giving money to support metastatic breast cancer research so Melanie ends up eating so much soup for such a long time that she eventually gets tired of it and asks for the menu to be changed.

September 7, 2015

Cake and Back to School

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Back to school tomorrow! Which means that we spent much of today at the CNE, which was excellent, and the prize-winning celery was as wonderful as I’d hoped for. (It’s basically the reason I go.) And we are so very hot, the weekend spent dripping with sweat and entertaining people in high humidity. Last night our best friends from kindergarten came for dinner, one of our now-regular togethers that involves too much wine and so much cake. Meeting these families was one of the best parts of last year, and I will miss them as our children move onto new classes and schools and our daily lives are no longer as connected. Although friendships can and do endure, as evidenced by tonight when my friends and former roommates Kate and Erin (and Kate’s husband Paul) came over last minute for pizza. The last-minute thing remarkable because Kate and Paul live in Vancouver, and we’ve not seen them in three years. But here they were tonight, with a cake even.  And what a cake? If my book ends up looking half as excellent as this one, I will be satisfied. (Apparently the image was inspired by my Mitzi Bytes pinterest board, because there is indeed such a thing.) I have the most terrific friends. Anyway, the convenient thing about all of this is that Harriet’s first day of school lunch is leftover pizza and cake, so her year is off to an excellent start. Wish us luck tomorrow as all the madness and fun begins!

July 19, 2015

Summer Days

IMG_20150719_174417Sunday night, we are sunburned, all of us (oops) and everything is gritty with sand. On the cusp of a new week, a summer going swimmingly, but much too fast. Last week Harriet began the first of two weeks of day-camp at the museum, just for the afternoons, and she’s having a great time. She comes home and tells us stories about Hatshepsut and how blacksmiths fashioned knights’ armour. We’re enjoying our mornings together, hanging out with friends and going to the library, but there has been no time to clean the house and it’s become a disaster. All the sand we brought home today isn’t helping. And our weeks are hung on a routine that includes the farmer’s market, soccer, hammock afternoons. Yesterday for the second Saturday in a row, we went to Christie Pits pool to cool off from the heat, and it was perfect, straight out of Swimming Swimming. Though it was still plenty hot when we went to bed, and got even hotter when we lost power at 1am, our trusty box fans silenced. Out the window the sky was so bright, and I decided there’d been some kind of disaster, or that this was going to be a blackout lasting days and in our attic bedroom it would only get hotter and hotter. Although lights in tall buildings on the horizon suggested otherwise, but my mind was taking me to crazy places. Only settling down when Harriet woke up at 3 concerned that she’d gone blind like Mary from Little House on the Prairie, because she couldn’t see anything. By this point, Iris had taken over my spot in bed so I went to sleep on the couch, awakened by Harriet and every electrical appliance in the house when the power came back on around 4. At approximately 4:46, the sunrise began, and I watched it from my living room window, and the night was declared an official disaster.

IMG_20150719_174815Though I roused myself for a trip to Centre Island today, a day with our friends that was so absolutely perfect. No line-ups at the ferry docks, happy children (who spent the day pretending two flat stones were smartphones via which they had fascinating conversations), splash pad fun, swimming at the beach, and lots of relaxing. Iris slept in the stroller en-route to Ward’s Island, and once we were there the thunderstorms threatened for days by the weather report finally arrived, but we were sheltered by a big old tree that mostly kept the rain off as we ate dinner and drank beer and began to feel exhaustion set in in the most terrific way. Followed by ice cream, of course, and the ferry at the dock’s so we caught it back to the mainland and that might be one of my favourite journeys in the world, how we’re always sated. How every island day always seems like the best one ever. But this one really really was.

April 23, 2015

Vacation Book Seven: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

ALayout 1 quick post on my phone before we depart tomorrow. We’ve had an excellent last few days with lots of sunshine and fun. Our trip to London included The London Review Bookshop and their cake shop, and I finally found Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey, plus gorgeous picture books. We visited the British Museum with my friend Rebecca, and played in Coram’s Field. Iris napped in the carrier as we went to the Persephone Bookshop, and I got the Dorothy Whipple novel I’d chosen because she’s a Lancashire author… not realizing that all her books were doorstoppers. It was a very good day and the children were heroic. We took things easier today with a day in Windsor that was made brilliant with a visit with Sarah from Edge of Evening. I am so fond of and inspired by her blog, and it was a pleasure to meet her in person. We had a terrific lunch at a pub called Bel and the Dragon where the table top was a chalkboard, and watched the guards march at Windsor Castle. Her son was adorable and we had a wonderful time, and if that wasn’t enough–she gave us books! Tiny editions of a Katie Morag and Owl and the Pussycat for Harriet and Iris, plus a London book, and the Elena Ferrante for me. Remarkable because I’ve nearly bought this book so many times, and now it’s mine, and I’m about to read it now. It was meant to be. And if I get a chapter read on the flight tomorrow, we will consider the journey a success.

March 25, 2015

After Birth: Redux

after-birthRedux is the wrong word. I haven’t stopped thinking about After Birth since I finished reading it last week. This morning I had the most interesting conversations with a woman who is a newish friend of mine (and don’t you find that new friends become more and more precious as one gets older?) with whom I’ve had the pleasure of so much company over the past few months while she’s been on maternity leave with her third child. Fortuitously, her house is a stone’s throw from mine, her son and Harriet are passionate friends, she’s so ridiculously smart and funny, and she just read After Birth. (I wish every woman a friend with whom to discuss After Birth.) So this morning we sat around my living room while my baby mauled her baby, and we talked about the book, how it made us both uncomfortable. Because, I think, I said, trying to put my finger on it, it doesn’t tidy up. Nothing is resolved, it moves is a circle. It is an unsatisfying book, which I mean as the highest literary praise. Like another fine book, Harriet the Spy, After Birth is about a female person who doesn’t change, who doesn’t stop ranting, who doesn’t stymy her anger. And we need this anger, I think—to seize on its power—, and we need this insistence on circuity, as opposed to the narratives we’re being sold most of the time about how we should tuck our anger and our lives, our selves, inside tiny tidy boxes. We’re being sold narratives of binary—breast and bottle, wohms and sahms. Just today, there is an online fracas because someone wrote an inane justification for stay-at-home-momming (don’t seek it out or read it. Nothing new under the sun. Argument is best articulated and refuted here). The writer articulating her lifestyle in opposition to somebody else’s, and I just though, how boring. I thought about the writer’s argument in contrast with the vibrant thinking I was a part of this morning, and all I could think of to say to her is, I wish for you the freedom to live your life on your own terms. Not to care anymore. Not to have to purport to have all the answers, or believe there even needs to be an answer. We’re all cobbling together our pieces, and the patterns don’t have to be the same. And yes, I wish for the public conversations about motherhood to be like the ones we’re having in private: the passionate, expansive ones that are challenging, rich and about the whole wide world.

August 30, 2013

Peach Pie in Progress

IMG_20130829_163127The best part of living with me is my insistence upon baking when it is 37 degrees outside. Pictured here is a pie in progress, peach, baked to be taken away on our trip this weekend with my best friend of 20 years and her wonderful family. (When they were just starting to be a family, I wrote about them here. There are three of them now in their family, all excellent.) And I am just checking in right now as we’re waiting to confirm that Iris really is asleep before we watch Mad Men. I had a really wonderful visit to the doctor’s today where it was pretty much confirmed that my career prospects for neck modelling are shot. I am to invest in turtlenecks and pretty scarves, and live with this lump as long as I possibly can. (I can’t help but feel that Nora Ephron had no idea; I also think that if I end up with as few years on earth as Nora Ephron, I am going not to spend none of them feeling bad about my neck no matter how lumpy or eventually scarred it becomes. The great thing about never having been particularly good looking in the first place is that you’re not really losing much when you start to be hideously disfigured.) My biopsy results were inconclusive, as there were so few solids in the sample, but as my lump is cystic, the doctor assures me that the chances of it being cancer are slim. I believe him. This lump will be an ongoing concern, but not so concerning, and anything “ongoing”, of course, means that I am not going to die. It also means that I have to stop getting so excited whenever I have it tested, because it’s going to happen every six months. And so it goes. This is life with a body. I feel very, very lucky.

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