Thursday evening, Toronto airport, 5PM
Yesterday afternoon when I was standing looking out at the ocean, watching an old man walk into the freezing blue water and begin to swim, while his son and grandsons watched him too, I overheard two men talking in English about the monument to Canadian soldiers that is here, somewhere, in Dieppe. Dressed in business suits, they were perplexed; they couldn’t find the war memorial. I couldn’t find it either. In World War Two, this beach, with its smooth round stones that would fit easily into the palm of the hand, held a scene of massacre. It is impossible to imagine. Yesterday afternoon I walked the promenade all the way to the end, where the ferry was preparing to leave for Brighton, in England; you can’t see England standing on the beach in Dieppe. It is a four hour crossing. The afternoon was sunny, almost warm, and people were going for a stroll, small children on scooters, many breeds of dogs being walked; a couple embraced in the middle of a vast green field that separates the promenade from the line of hotels overlooking the ocean. The vendors were closing up their shops: board shacks selling crepes or sandwiches, postcards, brightly coloured tourist paraphernalia. The groups of teenage boys made me the most homesick, for some reason I could not explain.
Friday evening, Dieppe, France, 5PM
For supper, I walked into the town proper and bought a sandwich and an apple pastry, which I ate back at my hotel, after asking the woman in the shop to direct me to it. I was quite turned around, and lost, but the hotel was in fact just around the corner. I fell asleep at 8:45PM, which at home would have been 2:45 in the afternoon; and I slept for twelve hours. This morning I ate a fresh buttery croissant for breakfast in the hotel lounge. I also had a tiny amount of coffee diluted with lots of warm milk, a boiled egg, applesauce. The festival’s director found me in the lounge, reading David Sedaris on my mini-Kobo, and sat with me briefly, effusive over a review of Girl Runner (Invisible sous la lumiere) that just came out in Le Figaro. “I am so proud!” she said.
Tonight is the first reading, in a small town about 30 kilometres from here, called Envermeu. I will be meeting my French publisher for lunch today, too. At a certain point, a book takes on a life of its own. I feel this has happened with Aganetha, that she is making her way in the world, almost without me. I am following her, now.
I need to get up the energy to go for a walk or a run along the ocean this morning. I need to but I also just want to sit in my hotel room and do nothing at all. I wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep last night, I felt so greedy for it; even twelve hours was not enough. Yet most nights at home I sleep no more than seven hours. I wonder whether I will spend this time in France sleeping, catching up on lost sleep, reviving. I wonder how I will spend this time.
I see the days as I mapped them out on our calendar at home: three columns, seven rectangles in each column, each filled with tiny print in white chalk, of activities over which I have no control, and in which I will not be participating, even though in my mind I am still there too. This morning, lying in bed with the curtains drawn against the sun, I saw the columns and knew that I was not there, and thought of the days as blanks for me to fill as I wished, here, not time to be endured, but time to be filled in ways different from the ways I fill my time at home.
How much could you write in those empty rectangles, I thought?
Last night, at Fooey’s dance class I read an article in The Atlantic about the benefits of changing careers in mid-life, or, more accurately, the health benefits of doing something new and difficult and challenging, forcing the brain to learn new skills and patterns. Coincidentally, yesterday I also spent over an hour filling out a career-profile questionnaire at the University of Waterloo’s career site, which asked me to reflect on six “pride” moments in my life, and what skills I’d needed to achieve those; I filled it out thinking I would make an appointment with a career counsellor and get some professional advice on the subject, but the results were so baffling that it stopped me right there. The quiz claimed I was investigative and would be suited to careers like doctor, dentist, accountant, actuary, and a bunch of other jobs that didn’t sound like me at all. I was also entrepreneurial, and careers in that area include sales and marketing, publicity, human resources, which, let’s be honest here, are definitely not me. I scored extremely low in the areas that include work I’ve actually pursued: writer, artist, teacher, and coach.
I had to laugh. The quiz seemed so pointless. The results indecipherable, meaningless. Yes, I’m curious and organized, I’m a risk-taker and I’m logical, I’m assertive and introverted, I’m intuitive and practical, I like helping people and being independent.
(At this point, you may be wondering: why, Carrie? Why are you taking quizzes on mid-life career changes? And for that, I have no answer.)
Upon reflection, the quiz’s results were rudimentary, but the process itself was useful and perhaps revealing. In analyzing it myself (and I do like analysis), here’s what I observe: my “pride” experiences revolve around learning new things. Learning how to swim: I rated learning to swim at age 35 as my highest pride story. Learning how to coach. Learning how to teach. My other pride moments were watching and helping my children learn new things, gathering a group of friends to write together, and when The Juliet Stories was named a finalist for the GG’s, which was a moment that I felt (and feel) I could claim no credit for, yet was nevertheless a moment of enormous pride.
Another theme that I noticed: I love doing physical tasks. I love using my body. I love playing and coaching soccer. I love boot camp. I love walking and running. I love yoga. I loved cycling. I love doing these things alone and with others. Even when I’m injured, I’m physically confident and strong. It brings me great pleasure to move.
I also like helping people, and I like connecting people. I like working with kids. I like being playful. I like shared experiences, such as singing, game-playing, puzzle-making, eating together, gatherings.
In a similar vein, I cherish coming through something meaningful with someone else. It’s what I loved about being a doula. I was able to walk through an intense emotional and physical experience with someone else in a way that was respectful, caring, and supportive.
I don’t know what career these skills and interests are suited to, but I’m quite sure it isn’t an accountant.
My question is: is it a writer?
The Atlantic article suggested that the career change need not be drastic, it may be a matter of adapting one’s career in some way; learning something new but in the same field. The woman writing the article had been a broadcaster, and became a writer: in both, she was telling stories, but in different mediums.
The open doors before me are ones I’ve walked through before, in one guise or another: I’m going to France next week and I will write while I’m there, I will see my work presented, I will do some publicity for the French translation of Girl Runner; when I get home, I’m leading a full day of workshops at an elementary school; and in May, a writing workshop in the woods (click the link and scroll down to find info on “Words in the Woods”). The most unusual door I’ve walked through recently involves coaching soccer.
What I learned when teaching is that I’m a dreadful lecturer, but I’m good at devising hands-on tasks to illuminate ideas or concepts. I like workshops. In a sense, that’s what a coach does: devise practices around themes that get players physically involved in tasks they need to learn and master. I love the challenge of it. I even love the risk of it—that my plan may need to be adapted. That it’s an experiment. That the outcome isn’t known or guaranteed. I feel nervous before practices and workshops, but often elated and consumed while inside of them. And afterward I can reflect on what did or didn’t work; I enjoy the critical analysis.
When I think about doing this kind of work, it excites me.
So here’s my analysis of results.* I want a career in which I get to learn new things, be physically active, help others, experience intense emotions, be creative, and teach through practical and applied means. Writing may or may not be a part of it, from what I’m exploring, although right now, writing is what I know best; I can claim to be an expert because others have recognized my expertise. That said, with enough study and practice, I’m perfectly willing to believe that I could become an expert in another area.
*I have no job matches associated with these observations.
Yesterday, we gave the kids a snow day. This was not my idea, but Kevin was very keen on it, so I agreed somewhat begrudgingly as it meant sacrificing a quiet day at home in my office, alone. Quite a lot of snow had fallen overnight, but it was crisp, clear, and beautiful, as you can see from the photo above. In the morning, Kevin took the kids sledding; some safety boundaries were pushed to great hilarity, apparently (good thing I hadn’t gone along!). In the afternoon, AppleApple and I went cross-country skiing. We still had all of our regular after-school activities: piano lessons, soccer practice, and a soccer game. It was awfully late when we gathered together again for supper. The boys had been home alone, playing dominoes, waiting to eat until we’d all arrived. Well after 7PM, we sat down to a very popular meal of soft tacos. I could sense the difference the unofficial snow day had made for everyone. We were so relaxed, and especially kind to each other. We sat for ages after we’d finished eating, talking and laughing; everyone.
It’s a luxury to take a holiday in the middle of the week. Kevin and I are both very fortunate to have jobs that allow us this level of flexibility, and yesterday was a reminder to take advantage of that freedom from time to time.
Today, my office is quiet. The dogs are sprawled out napping near my feet. I’ve set the timer for fifteen minutes.
I have some news. I’m going to France in April. (!!!) I’ll be away nearly three weeks, attending events at an arts festival in Normandy, and promoting the publication of the French translation of Girl Runner (or, Invisible Sous la Lumiere, as it is being called). I’ve been commissioned to write a short piece as part of the arts festival, and will be given an artist’s residency at a museum for about ten days. I’ve been dreaming of a writing retreat for a long time … just never imagined it would happen in France!
One sad thing about the trip is that I’ll be missing the performance of AppleApple’s adaptation of Macbeth. Of course, in 18 days, I’ll be missing much more than that. I think I’m missing everyone and everything in advance right now. Premature homesickness. Adventures are so much harder to throw yourself into when you’re leaving behind children.
Two readings coming up this weekend. I’ll be in Hamilton on Sunday evening at an event called Lit Live, and in Toronto on Monday evening at the Rowers Reading series. Check my upcoming events page for more info.
Ding-ding-ding! That’s my time. Tomorrow I’ll try to remember to tell you about turmeric tea, the laundromat, and swimming.
Day One. We wake at 4AM, are on the road before 5AM, and arrive around 10AM at our first stop in Bluffton, Ohio, a town off the I-75 where my family lived during the Carter-Reagan era (in other words, a long time ago). No photos. Lunch with dear old friends. At noon, friends and I walk to the Bluffton Library where I do an hour-long book talk on Girl Runner. Then we are on the road again to Tennessee, a mostly uneventful trip, although I’m pretty sure the kids will never let me forget that red light I run somewhere in Kentucky when we are off the highway looking for a grocery store.
Day one ends successfully with arrival at aunt and uncle’s house (pictured above). It is dark and late, but not too terribly horribly late. We are giddy. Some of us have eaten McDonald’s sundaes.
Day Two. Everyone learns how to drive a golf cart! My aunt takes us to a super-cool “extreme sport” indoor trampolining place (Kevin and I are too tired to participate). After supper, we go to downtown Nashville to watch the Predators lose rather badly to the visiting Philadelphia Flyers, an entertaining outing.
Day Three. More golf cart driving. An international friendly soccer match with cousins. Running around outside. Starting a puzzle. Seeing deer.
And, after supper, packing up and driving south through the night.
Day Four. Drive through Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida (adults taking shifts at the wheel). Stop for breakfast at McDonald’s, with regret. Arrive at Grandma’s place in Fort Myers, Florida just in time for lunch. Nap. Swim. Watch competitive cooking shows on TV. Get fed meals by Grandma. Go to bed early.
Day Five. Super Bowl Sunday. Start 1,000 piece puzzle. Swim (all swimming happens in a big outdoor heated pool that everyone loves). Read. Nap. Jog. Look for alligators. Eat tacos while watching football game.
Day Six. Boat ride with Grandma. Kevin stays on dry land. Lunch out with Grandma and kids. See dolphins and many many birds. Swimming upon return. Finish puzzle. Try on Grandma’s hats in anticipation of beach visit tomorrow.
Day Seven. Family trip to the beach. No amount of photo-manipulation can disguise the fact that it is really windy and pretty darn cold. Beach hats in great danger of flying away. But here we are, at the ocean, really far from home. Lunch at weirdly wonderful sushi/burger joint. Souvenir shopping afterwards. Swimming in the late afternoon.
Day Eight. CJ jogs a mile with me. Kids start another 1,000 piece puzzle. Swimming and more swimming. A hunt for gators is successful! (Well, gators were spotted, though not a shred of photo evidence exists to prove this; same goes for the dolphins.) Puzzle gets completed before suppertime.
And after dessert, we pack up, say goodbye, and start driving north.
Day Nine. Drive through Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. Snow and ice are visible by dawn. Arrive at aunt and uncle’s in time for breakfast. Kevin and I nap all morning. In the afternoon, we return with the kids to the trampoline place, but this time we participate! I discover a flair for swinging from ring to ring over a pit of foam blocks. Impressed with my feats of strength, I climb up a rather tall wall only to discover that I’m now at the top, and must somehow get down while simultaneously preserving my dignity (have I mentioned my fear of heights?). We shoot baskets, jump, leap, balance, swing, and fall. It’s fun to play like a kid.
Day Ten. Drive home through Tennessee, Kentucky (under construction), Ohio (under construction), Michigan (giant pile-up on highway requiring detour), and Ontario (white-out conditions, snow storms). Finish listening to a recording of Agatha’s Christie’s Death on the Nile, which is a relief to most of the passengers. We highly recommend the chicken sandwiches at Big Boy (as eaten in Louisville), and sort of recommend the food at Taco Bell (as eaten in Windsor).
Day Eleven. Arrive well after midnight. Dogs happy to see us. That post-holiday malaise. And soccer, soccer, soccer as soon as we wake up.
P.S. I’d do it all again in an instant.
This morning I hosted the final session in my inaugural, experimental series of Writing Adventures. The feedback I received circled around the theme of welcome, I think. Participants thanked me for giving them space and and a place to write, as well as guidance throughout; the space felt safe; there was something spiritual or peaceful about the exercise, or about the environment that was created in the room. Several participants told me that the writing had been therapeutic. Some found it challenging or hard, while others expressed that they’d had a lot of fun.
Ultimately, the sessions confirmed for me that this is not a writing exercise, although it uses writing as its medium. It’s an exercise about making or creating, about shaping experience, about exploring the unknown. It’s about being led to a place we never meant to go, to find something we didn’t know we were looking for. It’s an exercise that can bring a sense of peace or resolution to a problem that your mind may be working on, quietly, behind the scenes—I frequently uncover an emotional theme, something I haven’t otherwise been able to acknowledge or recognize. That is why the same “map” or “guide” can be followed again and again on these adventures and never become repetitive; there is always another story waiting to be found. We live within ever-shifting emotional states that affect how we interact in ways both profound and mundane.
Finally, I observed again that there is no perfect time to sit down and write. Forget about finding the perfect time, writers of the world! There will always be external blocks rearing up—I’m too tired, my to-do list is too long, I should be spending this time with X, it’s been a long day, I can’t squeeze it in, I just don’t feel like I can go there, not right now, maybe tomorrow, I’m too distracted, I can’t sit still. All legitimate barriers. But these barriers dissolve as soon as I sit before the page and open myself to what’s waiting to be found. Maybe those moments when we are least inclined to force ourselves to attend are the moments when we most would benefit from stopping and listening to the quiet (or clamouring!) voice within.
I arranged the first Adventure as a three-session series because it’s an exercise that becomes easier to do with practice: you figure out what risks you can take, what rules you need to break (interior self-binding rules, mainly), and how to let go and follow where you’re led. It’s the letting go that’s the hardest. It’s letting go of the voice in your head that says, This is not important. It takes practice to learn how to reply to that voice: It doesn’t matter whether or not this is important, I’m doing it. What that voice in your head won’t tell you is that you actually can’t know while you’re making something what value it may have, what necessary step it represents in the piecing together of a larger puzzle, and where this is leading you.
Imagine this. You are crossing a creek in the middle of a thick fog come down to earth. It’s like saying of a stepping stone, the only one you can see right now before you: This is not an important stone. You wouldn’t, would you. You would in humility understand implicitly that you just don’t know. You just don’t know—and it doesn’t matter. To think that it matters is to completely miss the point of what lies before you. So you step on the stone, and you come to another, and you just don’t know. And that is how you find not only where you are, but where you’re going.
P.S. No new Writing Adventures scheduled yet. Please send me a message or comment below if you are interested in participating in future Adventures, and you will be the first to know. Also, I would love to hear, from those of you who participated in the sessions, whether there was anything you strongly liked or, perhaps even more importantly, disliked.
I think I was always a little bit afraid of David Bowie. I was afraid of his many guises, his shape-shifting abilities, his restlessness, the enormity, the almost-dangerous energy of his creative fervour. I’m a no-make-up low-key woman who has never quite understood the appeal of punk or glam-rock; I prefer my world stripped down to the bones, rather than glammed up. So, his work made me a little bit afraid, I think, even if I found much to admire in his seemingly infinite curiosity and innovation.
This video, Lazarus, was made while he was dying and aware that he was dying; it was made while he was continuing to be himself — a creative genius — and to inhabit himself fully, as he was, throwing himself openly in to the arms of creation. I look at him in this video and I am afraid, but I am meant to be afraid, I am unsettled, but I am meant to be unsettled, I am in grief, and I am meant to be in grief, I am moved, I am horrified, I am worried for him, I am filled with thanks and sorrow. He lets us see him weak and dying, blind and shackled by illness, he lets us see him afraid, working feverishly until the end, drugged, in the grip of the desire to make more and more and more, and he lets us see him dancing, briefly, and then he goes away and shuts the door. He has to let us see him at his worst, at his weakest, in order for us to know him, believe in him, trust him, come with him.
What is art?
I want to know, and I think about this constantly, and perhaps all the more right now as I invite others to come create with me. How tempting it is to define art by what pleases us, individually, personally; or even to define art by what we cannot do ourselves, but admire.
What is art?
It isn’t that art is anything, it’s that it can be anything. It involves the shaping of life and experience, of image, of idea, into something that speaks beyond itself. For example, walking to meet the kids after school is not art. But if I write a poem about walking to meet them, or a story, or I photograph the small details I’m seeing on that walk and create a collage or meditative post on the blog, or I stop to mark each corner by laying a painted stone, or the children and I create a dance to mark the walk and perform it as we’re walking home from school — this is art. We’ve altered and interpreted an experience. We’ve tried to express how it makes us feel; or we’ve asked someone to look differently at their own similar experience; or we’ve challenged or upset the experience in some way, we’ve caused a disruption, we’ve called for attention. We’ve broken the routine, deliberately.
What is art?
It is comfort. It is disruption. It is an answer, but more often it is a question. It is personal. It is political. When we create, when we make something, we make ourselves vulnerable, there is no denying that risk is involved. If you watch David Bowie’s last video, you see this truth laid bare, and you see how intrinsic vulnerability is to the process of creating art. It is a scary thing to do. Sometimes, it’s a scary thing to watch or witness, too.
I believe it takes practice and discipline to make art; that, too. And those who pursue their art at the highest level of focus and craftsmanship, like David Bowie did, will work enormously hard to learn their craft, hone their skills, test their vision, challenge themselves through professional collaboration, and practice, practice, practice. What is practice? It means to do, doesn’t it. It implies commitment, repetition, but it also means you just show up and do the thing you’re practicing. So, on a fundamental level, I think, what it takes to make art is a simple willingness to try, to experiment, to take what may be a single, tentative step in the dark, into the unknown.
So often, we stop ourselves by judging what we’re doing, and by comparing what we’re doing to what others are doing. Yes, comparison can be instructive; we all learn from those more skilled and knowledgeable. But I think the point of how David Bowie lived his life is that comparison is much more often pointless, and not only pointless, but destructive — creatively destructive. Comparison either diminishes or elevates what you’ve made; and in some strange way, has nothing to do with what you’ve made, why you’ve made it, where it comes from. What pours forth from you? What pours forth from you at this precise moment in time? Nobody but you can create what you can. To create is to embrace what you’ve got inside you, even while you let it out, let it go, let it take shape in the world.
Anyone can do this. In any variety of ways. What you make might not be polished, it might be very humble indeed, it might be raw, it might not make perfect sense, it might not match the vision in your head. But here it is, you’ve made it. You’ve arrived, you’ve departed.
“The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” -David Bowie
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