“I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am bliss, I am, I am.” —from the song “I am the light of my soul”
These are the words that came into my head as I finished today’s meditation, which was for thirty minutes. It amazes me that I am now able to sit still for thirty minutes. Me! Sitting still, doing, apparently, nothing but breathing. Today, as I was falling into and out of my breath, feeling the stillness and comfort of my body, I heard a car zoom by on the street outside, and I had a strong and joyful sense of the world going on around me in its whirl and bustle, and yet here I was, still and at peace. Still and at peace and not necessary. That sounds odd. It’s what I felt.
It was a very peaceful feeling. I felt the world whirling on around me and without me and it didn’t need me to whirl too. I could sit here in stillness and all would be well; maybe I even understood in that moment that sitting here in stillness was as important as all of the whirling I do.
I have filled my life up with responsibilities and cares. I love being in motion, driving somewhere with somebody to something, or setting goals for myself in everything I do, from swimming lengths to running miles to lifting weights, to the word count I keep track of with pleasure on my new novel. I am also keenly aware of the needs that must be met to keep this family operating in a healthy and happy way. The dog hair that must be vacuumed. The meals planned and prepared.
So it is somehow profoundly soothing to also see the flip side, to recognize that I am not as necessary as I tell myself. That if I am busy, it is because I’ve chosen to be busy, not because busyness is essential to my being. That there is always room to sit still for a few moments and breathe, and pay attention.
I feel hopeful today.
I am hopeful about my writing. I am hopeful about my children and my relationship with each of them. I am hopeful about what meditation is bringing into my daily life. I am hopeful about practice. I am hopeful about today. And right now.
Earlier this week, I walked the two little kids partway to school, the uphill part.
The tall snowbanks make the sidewalk narrow, so it’s hard to walk three abreast, which is what they want to do, each holding one of my hands. CJ tends to fall behind. He was hanging onto my hand, walking behind me, and I felt like I was pulling him along.
So I told them a story that I think is at least partially accurate. I’ll have to ask my dad, because it’s really his story. I remember him telling it to me when I was little. I loved horses and I loved stories about horses. In my memory of this story, Dad was living in Puerto Rico. He wasn’t very old, perhaps 7 or 8, and he had a little pony. Was the pony called Star? I could be making that up. I could be making all of this up, which is why I don’t trust myself to write a memoir. In the story, as I told it to my kids, my dad was riding his pony up a steep hill, and it got steeper and steeper as they got close to the top, so he got off and held onto the pony’s tail, and the pony pulled him up the rest of the way.
I told CJ that I felt like my dad’s little pony, pulling him up the hill.
Telling the story made our walk so much easier, not just for the kids, but for me too. It reminded me of my own power, as the adult in the situation, to change the tenor of an experience by introducing a creative element, such as a story.
When the older kids were little, we used to pretend things all the time when we were walking places–and we walked a lot of places, and we walked really slowly. So it took patience, and in all honesty, I am not a patient person by nature. It could have been really boring. But instead, we were in the arctic or the desert, we were explorers, the cars were polar bears, the streets were rivers of ice, we were going up mountains, we were looking for our home, it was really cold, or really hot. The story would expand, mostly just describing what we were doing; sometimes we were hiding or hurrying from an imaginary threat. It turned our walks to the library or school or on errands into little adventures. We had to be doing these things, and yet we were enjoying doing them—the errands became bigger than what they appeared to be, on the surface. It’s something I’ve tried to pass along to my kids, to give them the tools to recognize and experiment with creative solutions to momentary problems: creative ways to overcome boredom, to soothe the self, to interact with others. (Whether it’s worked, I don’t know; my kids nevertheless seem to like best to self-soothe and fight boredom with a variety of glowing screens ….)
But this little uphill climb got me thinking about the power of a story. And the power of a storyteller. It’s also the power of play and imagination, two things I get to tap into regularly in my writing life as well as in my parenting life. I recognize that it’s a luxury–that play is a luxury and imagination is a luxury–because you have to have the patience and energy to locate and use your creative self. You have to know it’s there, in the first place. You have to trust yourself. But it’s a luxury anyone can afford, which is the only kind of luxury that really interests me, access to which I would love to somehow spread out into the world.
Daily meditation, in slightly increasing increments of time, has given me plenty to think about … even while I’m practicing standing a small distance away from my thoughts, trying to observe rather than control or judge them.
The thinking never really stops.
Here’s an observation applicable throughout the day, and in parenting situations too. The physical state of the body greatly affects the mind’s ability to focus. Obvious? Yeah, I know. I spend a lot of time discovering the obvious. Or, more accurately, rediscovering the obvious. You’d think you’d remember all the wise and useful things you’ve learned, at great cost, over years of experience, right? Well, I don’t seem to. I need reminders.
Yesterday, I struggled to sit quietly for the full twenty minutes, and not only because I could hear my kids rolling around wrestling and mock-arguing in the next room. I struggled because it had been a morning without much activity. I’d snuggled a grumpy kid in bed, read the paper, eaten breakfast, sipped a coffee. All was ease and leisure. And then I sat down to meditate and my body, it turned out, was flaring with unshed energy. I hadn’t noticed! If I’d noticed anything, I would have said I was feeling a bit grumpy or anxious—I would have interpreted my physical state as being a state of mind, as if the two were quite separate.
Those twenty minutes felt endless. I was crawling out of my skin with wanting to get up and move.
This morning’s meditation, by contrast, felt easy. I was alert, steady, and twenty minutes flew by, so quickly that I couldn’t believe it was already over. The difference being quite simple, I think: this morning I got up early, and exercised. My body, by the time I sat down to meditate, had shed plenty of energy and was prepared for quiet and stillness, and therefore my mind was capable to quiet stillness too. This is more than enough reason to get up early and exercise, in my opinion. (I set my alarm for 5-ishAM, five mornings a week, and for that habit to stick, I need a good reason, frankly.)
I applied my new-found/re-found observation yesterday when the kids were practicing their instruments. The six-year-old was getting frustrated and impatient, so I sent him running a loop around the house—once, and then twice—pretending to time him. (Side note: funny how much he loves being timed for activities; maybe the opportunity to lay down a “best time,” no matter how arbitrary, is endlessly exciting.) Anyway, after setting a new course record, he sat back down at the keys, panting a bit, but with a much happier spirit. Same for the nine-year-old violinist. (She didn’t need to be timed, however.)
It made me appreciate that three out of four kids walk to school every morning, and the fourth kid usually gets up to do some exercise before breakfast.
Makes me ask, too: How often is our physical state affecting our mental state, and we’re completely unaware?
And here’s what she’ll look like — a proud Canadian! And yes, although the maple leaf had not yet been chosen as our flag in 1928, a maple leaf did indeed adorn the shirts of the Canadian athletes at those Olympic Games. (Note: Girl Runner isn’t quite yet available in Sweden; I’ll keep you posted on the upcoming pub dates there and elsewhere. The book is newly available in the US and the UK & Australia — and looks super-pretty in both those places too; click on the link to see all the different book covers.)
If you’re in Waterloo, please note that I’ll be reading at Conrad Grebel College as part of the Mennonite Writers’ Series on March 4, and at Wilfrid Laurier University on March 5. Both events (and others upcoming) can be found on the Events page on this web site.
Sorry to be so business-like today. My mind is bustling with ideas and I’m scarce on time, but I really wanted to share that lovely book cover. Thanks for checking in.
PS One last thing: a link to a story about Mavis Gallant, the Canadian writer known for her short stories, who died last spring in Paris. I’ve read and re-read her work as often as Alice Munro’s; so that’s a lot. I was lucky enough to take a grad course on Munro and Gallant, just the two of them, many years ago. Lucky because I got to read their stories for eight months straight. Mavis Gallant died penniless in Paris at the age of 91. She’d made a living as a writer for the better part of her life. A story that interests me particularly about her is how she tried and failed to write a novel on a particular subject, not for years, but for decades. She tried for decades to write this novel, and failed. You could say that was a tragedy, and you could say too that dying penniless was a tragedy; but you could also say that she appears to have lived her life quite as she wanted to, and that she remains an enormously admired writer. I would have wished for her greater financial success during her lifetime, mostly because it would have eased her life, especially in old age. But I’m glad she stuck to her chosen course, and drank good wine sometimes, and had good friends, and wrote such stories. They’re such stories. Read her, if you haven’t. “The Ice-Wagon Going Down the Street” is a story that’s stayed with me over the years, and “When We Were Nearly Young,” but if you’re starting from scratch try her Linnet Muir stories, which are loosely autobiographical.
I’m thinking of not trying to be the best at everything.
I’m thinking of cutting myself some slack, maybe a whole lot of slack.
I’m thinking of what my inner life would look like, were I to celebrate my successes, and accept my failures.
I’m thinking of exploring even more closely the work that comes naturally to me.
I’m thinking of not wishing I were better at [fill in the blank].
I’m thinking of letting myself attempt things for which I have no discernible talent.
I’m thinking of taking pleasure in the wonders of life as it exists right now. Right now!
The sound of a garbage truck idling outside the house. The icy blue sky. The brightness of sun on deep snow. My feet in warm socks chilly against one another, toes touching. Life. Breath. The way my kids head boldly out the door every morning to take on the world in their own brave ways. The way my kids crash through the door every afternoon and shout a greeting, Hey Mom! Are you here? The ebb and flow of multiple conversations washing over me. The smell of dirty hair and of clean hair.
I’m thinking of frightening things that have no good answers and I’m thinking of prayer and of love.
I’m thinking of how brief I am. I’m thinking of the spaces within myself. I’m thinking of atoms and of stars.
I’m thinking of how much I like hanging around laughing and talking about stuff that doesn’t matter, that has no substance, that is lightness itself, utterly irreverent, in moments that mimic forever.
I’m thinking about not being the best, or even distinguished, or even accomplished, or even any comparative description at all. I’m thinking about being.
Holiday yesterday in Ontario: Family Day. We celebrated by having a really fun weekend together, not doing anything much out of the ordinary. There were five soccer games, four of which were coached by us (Kevin, mainly). The truck stopped working in the extreme cold; thankfully, we belong to a carshare, and have friends whose cars still turned on, so we got around where we needed to go–and went nowhere else.
I was running this morning with a friend (yes, running! slowly, but without pain). She mentioned that in just six weeks or so we’d be leaving our state of hibernation. Can I admit something? I’ve really been enjoying the cold and the dark this winter. There’s a peacefulness to hibernating, to inhabiting the season. I can feel it settling all around me. Permission to sit in front of the fire and read.
Or to listen to podcasts. This holiday weekend, I spent a lot of time folding laundry, cooking, and washing dishes — far more than I needed to, but I need to do something other than snack while listening to podcasts. First, I tuned in to one recommended by a blog reader: On Being with Krista Tippett. I wanted to hear Mary Oliver’s voice. Listen, if you’ve got time. It’s totally worth it. And then, having discovered that it was possible to listen to podcasts whilst doing dull tasks around the house, I recklessly started listening to Serial, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages — just couldn’t figure out where “listening to podcasts” might fit into my schedule. I’m probably the last person on the planet to discover this show, but I can’t stop listening. Can’t stop! I need to bake some bread or something today …
Other hibernation-season activities ongoing …
daily meditation; writing; story-reading; playing ukulele while the 9-year-old practices her violin (at her request, I must add); reading with six-year-old and listening to his philosophical observations about life (especially while reading Calvin and Hobbes together); watching old episodes of Friends while doing physio exercises; spontaneously making plans with friends–yes, socializing!; and cross-country skiing, which I was lucky enough to do with a friend in the cold and the dark one evening last week while a kid was at soccer practice, an hour of genuine bliss
This sounds like a Grade One writing topic, but hey, I want to know: what are your favourite things to do in the winter? Do you like hibernating? Or are you longing for light and mud and spring?
〉 A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry, by Mary Oliver
bought on impulse from Amazon when shopping for photo albums for Christmas gifts
* Mostly, I just want to give you quotes from this book, which is wonderful. It’s slim, precise, measured, and deeply practical: a book about the poetic craft, with useful examples to illustrate the vocabulary necessary to discuss a poem. If I teach again, I will have my students buy and read this book. I am only sorry I’m so late in finding it. Here is a taste.
I was drawn to this section because she speaks of meditation. It is a different way of looking at the practice:
“We experience the physical world around us through our five senses. Through our imagination and our intelligence, we recall, organize, conceptualize, and meditate. What we meditate upon is never shapeless or filled with alien emotion—it is filled with all the precise earthly things we have ever encountered and all of our responses to them. The task of meditation is to put disorder into order.”
Oliver is a believer in patience and will, time spent in honest labour. She quotes Flaubert: “Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation.” She says:
“What a hopeful statement! For who needs to be shy of any of these? No one! How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them. … You can attend to them, you can do better … When people ask me if I do not take pleasure in the poems I have written, I am astonished. What I think of all the time is how to have more patience, and a wilder will—how to see better, and write better.”
How to have more patience, and a wilder will….
Today is the official release day for Girl Runner in the UK, and it is now also available in the US. You might wonder what this means for me in terms of publicity expectations, and I have to tell you: not very much. Unless the book takes off running, so to speak, I don’t anticipate being called upon to fly around the world to promote it.
So Girl Runner runs on her own–but not entirely on her own. She’s being well-taken care of in her new homes. There was just a knock on the door and a delivery person handed me flowers. The note is from my UK publishers: Thank you for bringing Aggie to life, and for letting us be part of her race.
I’m continuing my daily meditations; I think this is going to be my project for this year and I’m excited about that. I like having a year-long project on which to focus my attention. Today, I observed that my mind tends to wander into categories of distraction. Planning; Memory; Critique; Judgement; and a category I call Meta, in which I can feel myself thinking about my thoughts. What’s most interesting to observe is how often my mind tracks a subject without me even noticing what’s happening, and the subject may be drawing forth emotions or desires, but I’m not even conscious of the changes in interior direction. All that busyness. Going on without notice. Meditation is making me look a little more closely, ask: what’s happening here?
A friend asked if I’m writing a poem every day, as intended. And no, I’m not. Mostly, right now, I’m journalling in a more traditional sense. But every once in awhile, yes, a poem comes along when it might not have before, had I not been considering the possibility of writing a poem every day. Here’s one I like. I wrote it on the bench outside my kids’ piano lessons, with two of them clamouring for snacks. So note to self — there’s no excuse, no reason not to try to write or to create absolutely anywhere.
Note to self
To write is to fear
Is to write against the fear, into it
Is to let the fear hover, to hold it while it vibrates
Like a trapped bird
To write is to be spurred by fear
Sent by fear, pressed by fear deeper into the woods
Not to go into hiding, but to seek what you’re tracking
To write is to track, not to hunt
Is to follow your quarry through dangerous terrain
Is to be wrong, dying on the wrong path
Thirsty and hungry and tired and wrong
To write is to meet your imperfect self
In an argument about annihilation, uselessness
To write is to find
In the woods on the wrong path
Your self crouched in the thicket
Watching this strange animal move
Like nothing you’ve ever seen before
Nothing you could have imagined
And you are trying to write its name
You are trying to send news of this animal home
My day is split into chunks of time. Often, I set the timer to remind myself not to let time slip away. Forty minutes of spinning. Thirty minutes of napping. Fifteen minutes of meditation. Ten minutes of blogging.
Today’s post includes a bit of horn-tooting (for which I dearly want to apologize, and am telling myself that I needn’t and probably actually shouldn’t, and so am compromising with this lengthy expository aside).
A friend sent me a photo from a review of Girl Runner in Bust magazine (US): Look, they gave me 5 out of 5 boobs! Or could be nipples! But definitely bust-related!
Also, the lovely people at Two Roads in the UK made this graphic with actual quotes from the Daily Mail review, and look — no nots between the nice words. (I still haven’t read the review because I don’t read reviews, and I’m not just saying that; I really don’t. We can chat about this later if you want, but basically, I find it stirs me up inside, for good or for ill, and whenever possible, when it relates to my writing life, I like to avoid being stirred, shaken, or otherwise muddled.)
In other parts of my life, I don’t object to being stirred. Fun is stirring, for example. And this was a weekend when I didn’t feel I needed to try to have fun or be fun; fun was just there, inviting me out, into the world, to share in its exuberance. See the above photo: cross-country skiing yesterday with friends in a winter wonderland, the trees blossoming with hoar-frost.
Ding-ding-ding. That’s my time.
Welcome to obscurity
Subscribe to obscurity
My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm mother of four, writer of fiction and non-, dreamer, planner, mid-life runner, teacher, photographer, taking time for a cup of coffee in front of this computer screen. My days are full, yet I keep asking: how can I fill them just a little bit more, with depth, with care, with light.
Purchase signed & personalized books
Friends who blog
- 4 Mothers
- This is glamorous
- The orchard
- Conversations with Ada
- My tragic right hip
- Prairie daze
- Hearth strings
- Nancy Forde, photographer
- One Little Peace
- Savour the Crazy
- Pickle me this
- Oh, my word!
- The afterword, National Post
- All things said and done
- Born to blog
- Rose coloured
- Sheree Fitch
- House of Anansi
- Writer in residence
- Shaena Lambert
- Words Worth Books
- The 49th shelf
- Brian Francis
- English at UW
- Meags Fitzgerald
- Bailey's local foods
- Thrift at home
- 101 cookbooks
- Fertile ground
- The Macs
- Caker cooking
- Feisty red hair
- Little city farm
- Edge of Evening