Category: Big Thoughts
I sit down to write here, on the blog, and my mind goes round and round the purpose of this blog. I wonder why people are reading, perhaps, and why they may not be reading. I wonder why I am writing. Do I have something to say? Is my purpose to amuse, to inform, to muse, to form? Do I call out in hopes of a response? Am I launching quirky missives from an insular and isolated place? Am I writing as a writer, as a mother, as a seeker, as a knower? Am I writing to you? Or to me? Or to no one at all, to the ether?
I’ve come a long way on this path of being a writer. When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer like L.M. Montgomery or Lois Lenski. I wanted to be a writer like Emily of New Moon. I wanted create imaginary romantic worlds of adventure and mystery. As a teen, I was in love with language, and saw in it a violent risky potential. I wanted to write like Michael Ondaatje. I wanted to write barely coherent poetic scenes of romance and mystery and adventure. I didn’t care whether or not my stories or poems made sense, only that they burst with emotion and the fullness of self, perhaps. As an older teen and into my twenties, I wanted to write like Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. I wanted to craft brilliant sentences that both hid and displayed meaning, sentences that were as rich and big and complex as a whole story, characters whose motives were murky. I wanted to conjure worlds at a tilt from my own, veined and layered and dark.
And so I wrote and I read and I wrote and I read.
In some fundamental way, I refused to believe that I might not be a writer, someday. I willed myself to continue through years of small steps forward, and crushing rejections. I determined to improve. I determined to learn and to master the craft of storytelling. How to do this particular thing and do it well: how to tell a compelling story, not neglecting plot for style, not neglecting sentence structure for pace. I got better.
I got to where I am right now, here, sitting before this laptop, wondering, wondering. Do I still want to be a writer, so fiercely, so absolutely, so determinedly? Who do I wish to write like, now? Or, more importantly, perhaps, than I originally understood: what stories do I long to tell? And if I have no story that I long to tell, why craft the structure, why lovingly build the sentences? If the house is empty? (Is the house empty?)
Engagement is a key word of our era. That seems to me the purpose of social media. Anyone who wishes to earn attention, to market her work, must learn to engage with her audience, to maintain a call-and-response relationship, the bigger the better. It comes naturally to some, and less naturally to others. I put myself in the latter camp. Yet this blog is a form of engagement, whether or not I choose to see it that way. And when I recognize this and admit it, I become more and more uncomfortable as purveyor and publisher of posts. I cannot understand what I am doing, nor what my purpose may be. Is it, as originally intended when I started the blog in 2008, to narrate my every day life, to keep it in some form, and if so, for whom? For my children? For myself when I am older? Am I marketing my books? Practicing my craft? Indulging in cheap philosophy? Is this a publicly-kept journal?
Could I live without engagement? This specific form of engagement? (Silly question. Of course I could.)
Less, is the message that’s been coming my way. Not more, more, more, but less, less, less. For so long, I’ve fought to become more, to achieve more, to do more. I’ve worked toward big, specific goals and dreams. Now I’m confronted with this strange glimpse of myself, something I was afraid to see: I see that I will never write as wonderfully as I’d hoped to. I’m not possessed of a special gift. I’m a hard-working woman, that’s all, and I had a dream.
I’ve written that in the past tense without even noticing: and I had a dream. Strange. Isn’t it? Maybe the dream is shifting, deepening, altering course, becoming something else.
What now? What next?
Now: Life is strangely lovely at present. It is unexpectedly wonderful to hear less, less, less calling me. I feel myself relaxing into moments in a way that feels almost unfamiliar, unknown. I feel the pace changing. I feel myself at peace with what I have, right now.
Next? Being a writer isn’t something you quit. Writing is how I process the world around me; I’d be impaired without it. I continue to write, as always, but right now it’s a form of listening; without shape. I think my purpose is to listen, right now. I feel quiet. I feel a great deal of affection–of love–for those around me. The days are full, vivid, layered and veined and rich. I feel human. I feel flawed. I can’t think of anything I need or long for or crave, not even direction, right now. I feel present.
What I don’t feel is at an end with this blog. But I want to be honest about my ambivalence toward its purpose, and my use of it, at present. Thank you for listening.
PS Photos are from this past weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, taken after the sun went down, on the longest day of the year. Homework got burned, marshmallows got roasted and mushed between graham crackers, and the mosquitos almost won. Almost.
School project being completed at 10PM by kid after soccer practice: not exactly what I wanted to be assisting with, but nevertheless well worth my time. Why? Read on. (Yes, that is a pyramid made out of rice krispie squares.)
On Facebook last week, I posted a photo of my daughter at one of her track meets, and expressed my pride at being there to watch her race. Among the complimentary and sweet messages in response, an acquaintance posted this comment: Can you write a book or blog about how you manage your time?
It got me thinking: could this be a book that I could write? (Kevin says no; he thinks the subject would bore me silly.) (Note: “Could this be a book I could write?” is a surprisingly common question that I ask myself.) I do have a facility for squeezing a great deal into my day, including time for watching my kids do the wonderful and ordinary things that they do. And yet I often think my facility for organization has more to do with privilege than talent, because I don’t have to spend a great deal of time on tasks that may be essential or unavoidable to others, such as a long commute whether by car or public transit, or a full-time job performed primarily for money. Truth is, I resent and rage at any perceived waste of my time, such as waiting in long line-ups to sign official forms, or sitting in traffic on my way to an event I don’t want to attend. I’ve tried my best to work at being patient in these situations, and to learn patience and stillness from them, but I feel keenly any waste.
What’s being wasted? Time. Precious and diminishing with every breath.
Yet I’m quite willing to “waste” copious amounts of time doing things like this: meditating followed by journalling / blogging.
So it strikes me that a significant element to effective time management is defining what you consider wasteful, and rearranging your life to perform those tasks as infrequently as possible. Again, I recognize that it’s a privilege to be in position that would allow a drastic life change, like quitting a job, but most of us can probably find some small ways to change the lives we’re living if the lives we’re living cause us enough pain. How does change happen? In my own experience, it happens in a variety of ways, but most often it happens because I notice a point of discomfort, pain, unhappiness, and recognize that things I am doing (or not doing) are at least in part the cause of my unhappiness.
What comes next is that the routine has to change. The structure has to change. You can’t say “I’m going to make a change,” and not create the structure to support it. Small example: None of us are getting up at 5AM to run because we feel like it; it’s because we’ve decided it’s worth doing, and we’ve arranged our schedule, our habits, our routine to support our choice: we’ve checked the weather, we’ve laid out appropriate workout clothes, we’ve gone to bed a bit early, we haven’t had a drink, we’ve set our alarm, we’ve arranged to meet a friend or friends, and with the wheels in motion, we simply show up and do what we’d planned. But without the supporting structure to carry us through—to carry the idea through to action—we’d sleep in, telling ourselves, I’m too tired right now, I’ll just do it tomorrow, or I’ll run tonight instead, or … and the imagined moment never arrives.
It’s like painting lines for bike lanes sandwiched between live traffic and parked cars and then blaming cyclists and drivers for colliding. It would be more useful and more accurate to blame the structure instead, rather than putting the onus on human beings to make rational, correct, perfect choices at all times, in all situations, in all weathers. Human failure is inevitable. Therefore, change the structure, put the bicycles in a separated, unobstructed lane, and everyone will both feel and be safer.
Structure is what shapes our lives, far more than we accept or acknowledge, and this is true right down to whether or not we floss our teeth, or eat lots of veggies. That we are “creatures of habit” is a truism because it’s true. So scan your daily life for routines that aren’t serving what you value. Maybe there’s room for a change, here and there.
I realize it’s more philosophy than step-by-step advice, but here is my time management strategy in a nutshell.
1. Identify what matters to you.
2. Be curious, be open. Respond to pain or unhappiness (and to joy too!)—recognize it, don’t ignore it.
3. Figure out what changes are possible.
4. Don’t think about making a change, actually force change to happen by altering the routines and structures that govern your daily life.
One last piece of my time management strategy: celebrate every little thing worth celebrating. The sandwich that tastes good, the kid who is telling you a story, the green of the clover coming up in the back yard, being outside, a good nap, holding a 3-minute plank, chatting with other parents beside a soccer field on a particularly fine late-spring evening, driving with a child and having a side-by-side conversation. Don’t waste your own time by wishing you were somewhere else. Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, take it in. Tell yourself: This is not a waste. This is my life.
PS I feel like this post has a slightly preachy or evangelical tone. Please don’t think I think you should be getting up at 5AM to run; rather, I think you should be getting to do your own personal version of an early-morning run, that is, the thing that’s kind of hard but makes you feel alive.
From the Anglican Church archives, no date
I’m going to do something I don’t usually do and quote from a Globe and Mail editorial (yesterday’s): “Close your eyes and imagine you are at home with your two children, a boy aged six and a girl aged eight. There’s a knock at the door. It’s a moment you’ve dreaded for weeks. You answer it and there is a man from the government and an RCMP officer who order you to turn your children over to them immediately. The children are led away and placed in the back of a truck in which you see other children crying. The boy and girl are screaming that they don’t want to leave you but, the minute you show any resistance, the policeman steps in to enforce the law. You are compelled to give up your children, because the state has judged you to be unfit as a parent on account of your race. That night, you are alone with your spouse in an empty house, brokenhearted, powerless and without hope, everything that matters from you stolen by the state.”
It goes on to state these facts uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were stolen from their families and communities over the course of 100 years of Canadian history.” (I’ve since heard that residential schools existed in Canada for 140 years.)
I wasn’t taught this version of Canadian history in school. But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hopes to change this—the commission filed its report this week after six years of listening to and recording the stories of indigenous Canadians forced to attend government-mandated residential schools, or whose parents or grandparents were survivors of this system; yesterday the end of the commission was marked with a ceremony attended by the prime minister and other dignitaries, and followed by silence from the current government, which appears to believe it has now done enough. Education is an important part of reconciliation; may this part of Canada’s history be taught in all schools and not forgotten, or worse, deliberately silenced. But what else can we do, those of us whose families came to this country as immigrants, as settlers, without much thought for the people who were here before us; and who have benefitted enormously from the wealth of this land?
I’ve skipped over the part of the editorial that describes what happened to many of the children in the residential schools, not because it isn’t important, but because I found myself, as a parent, stopped dead at that opening paragraph asking me to imagine losing my children. I had to cover my eyes and weep. Because my gut response was, this would end me. I would end here.
Everything that matters to me lives here in my family. When I think about my response to watching AppleApple race earlier this week, and genuinely feeling that it was the MOST EXCITING MOMENT in my life, I realize that all of my MOST EXCITING MOMENTS of PRIDE and PURE JOY arise directly from witnessing my children accomplish what I couldn’t have imagined for them (and it goes beyond measurable accomplishments, and includes the surprise of witnessing moments of generosity, maturity, empathy, thoughtfulness). That’s it. Nothing compares. Certainly nothing I’ve accomplished compares, and I mean that sincerely and absolutely. In fact, I’m convinced that my greatest job right now is as witness to my children’s development. So to imagine them stolen from me, by people who couldn’t even address me in my own language, to imagine them being hurt and beaten or worse by these people, to imagine them returning home months or even years later, terribly altered by their experiences, our mother tongue forgotten or beaten out of them, and being unable through it all to offer them any protection: well, it is too painful to imagine. I imagine that I would run after that truck screaming and yelling, that I would walk hundreds of miles to look for them, that I would find the school that housed them and stand outside demanding to see them, that I would try to steal them back and bring them home; but this is fantasy because even if I could do that, would it matter? If I was wrong in the eye of the law? If the government judged me unfit? Because of my race? It would not matter. And so what would keep me going?
I do not know. My ability to imagine ends here.
And what to do now, knowing that so many families endured this tragedy in our country, and that the reverberations of this policy continue to be felt and lived, and that so much is still so very wrong with the way Canada engages with indigenous communities? I don’t know.
I came across this link on Twitter to a web site that proposes planting a “heart garden” to honour children who died in the residential school system; maybe something like this would be a small gesture our family could offer. Kevin and the kids who were in the kitchen yesterday when I was making supper were all receptive to the idea. We talked about what messages we might want to share, what plants we could plant.
But I also think about how arrogant it was/is of the Canadian powers-that-be to believe that indigenous people needed to learn the white ways—that this would improve their lives and well-being. What if we spin that around and decide that the powers-that-be need to learn the values and systems and beliefs of indigenous people? Is it too much to hope that we could become a real family, sharing the best of our knowledge, changing and compromising for each other? And maybe, just maybe, if I look into my own life more closely, I’ll recognize that it’s my values that need shaking up and changing. Maybe more, more, more at any cost isn’t the answer. I’m thinking of the Lax Kw’alaams band in northern B.C. who recently turned down a deal worth $1.5 billion, offered by a gas export company, because the land that would be spoiled by the project being built has no monetary price. To think of the land as something that can be bought and sold is to think in very temporary, solipsistic, morally questionable terms. This is just one example of an indigenous community leading the way, by looking at the land and at money through a different and maybe unfamiliar lens.
All for now. I welcome your thoughts on this subject.
It’s a PD day, which means the kids are home from school. This is a good test run for summer holidays, and reminds me that if I am to get any work done, I need a PLAN. People need to be put in charge of other people. Ground rules must be set on electronic use, and appropriate snacks, and lunchtime preparation, and clean-up. Ideas must be sketched out for healthy, fun, outdoor, active, creative activities. And all of this must be done in advance, before school lets out at the end of June. I’ve got about a month.
I’ll put it on a list somewhere. The kids are good. They’re older now. They play together. They know how to problem-solve. Some of them can cook. It’s going to be fine.
This has been a weird and wonderful week, and will culminate tomorrow with the launch party for The Candy Conspiracy. But first, our family is going to watch the Canadian women’s team play a friendly against England in the lead-up to the women’s World Cup: tonight! We’re all very excited. This is going to be the summer of family adventures, large and small, while the kids are at ages that make this both possible and fun, and this is our Kick-Off Event. We’ll also be travelling to Montreal to watch the Canadian women’s team play the Netherlands in a World Cup match, and in August we’re all flying out to Sechelt, B.C. where I’ll be reading at the Sunshine Coast’s Festival of the Written Arts. That’s a lot of travelling for our family, more than we’ve ever attempted. We’re home bodies. Plus, it’s really expensive to move six people around this vast country, not to mention feeding them and putting them up. I’m excited that we get to do it.
But that’s looking forward: planning. Planning occupies approximately 75% of my brain’s power. When I’m meditating, I frequently discover that my thoughts have drifted to planning mode. I push the reset button. Focus on the breath. And realize a few breaths later that I’m back to planning, list-making, calendar-imaging, email-composing. Ok, that’s okay, note it and move on. Breath. Breath. Breath.
I was writing about my weird and wonderful week, so let me circle back to a few examples. Example 1: I’ve done two kundalini yoga classes this week, and hope to continue through June. It answers a need. Kundalini yoga challenges me to think differently, to kick the darkness till the light bleeds in, to paraphrase a Bruce Cockburn song, as my teacher did in class yesterday. Example 2: On Wednesday morning, I did a radio interview after the kids were hustled out the door to school, and I got to request a song, so naturally, I went with Blondie’s The Tide Is High. Interview over, I turned on the radio and blasted the tune while dancing around the kitchen. Example 3: Yesterday evening, I put on orange tights, a nice dress, and earrings borrowed by Fooey, and with AppleApple along for the adventure, dipped my toe into partisan politics, by making a speech at an NDP rally. AppleApple, who is already an astutely politically engaged kid, was over the moon: Tom Mulcair shook my hand!, she kept saying, to anyone who would listen. (Fooey’s response: “Who?” Not everyone in this family reads the newspaper quite so avidly.) So, yeah. Amidst the usual busy routine, I’m opening different doors, and welcoming unexpected challenges.
My mom has a favourite phrase that I like: Who knows where this may lead?
Happy weekend, everyone.
It’s actually been a difficult week. I’m on the periphery of two difficult recent losses, women gone too young, both taken by cancer; and wondering how, trying, hoping to support those friends for whom the loss is much much closer, terribly personal. I’m trying not to be paralyzed by the idea that a small gesture is too small, or to fear doing or saying the wrong thing; but I also want to acknowledge that it can be hard to know what to do or say in situations that fall outside of our normal every day interactions. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I wonder how many of us are paralyzed by the fear that we might do or say the wrong thing? Maybe that’s because it is easy to do or say the wrong thing. I think about what mattered when Kevin’s dad died seven and a half years ago, and remember that the questions and interest of people too many steps removed from the situation seemed callow and offensive, even when well-meant and kindly spoken. But the cards and casseroles were wonderful, no matter who they came from, and the presence of friends at the funeral really did help. So from this, I would observe that presence and a simple offering is far and away more valuable than trying to say the right thing. I remember another friend telling me (from personal experience) that the worst thing to say to someone who is grieving is “you must be feeling …” or “you must be so …” Just say, I’m sorry for your loss, he told me. Consider how common the “You must be …” sentence construction is and how often it gets applied to situations out of the norm. I wonder why. No matter the intention, it comes off sounding like the speaker is trying to dictate the ground rules for emotion. Thinking about everything I’ve written here, I’m coming around to concluding that to do is far more valuable than to say, in difficult times. After all, isn’t that our impulse when faced with someone else’s grief or loss: to do something. It’s just that we don’t always know what to do, what’s appropriate, what’s needed, what would help rather than add to the burden.
Perhaps some of you might be willing to share in a comment what words or (more likely) deeds helped you through a difficult time. And thanks for listening.
PS A link to an article in Slate magazine about a woman who designs empathy cards with messages she would have liked to have received during her cancer treatment.
“There’s a big white flower behind one of the stumps, Mom, I’ll show you.”
Dream: I am at a long conference table set up in my mother-in-law’s back porch. Two women sit at the other end of the table, conducting an interview about art for live national radio, but I’m just here because it’s a convenient place to work. Earlier in the dream I spent way too much time anxiously trying to figure out why my children missed the school bus; the children are everywhere, all around the house, when I know they should be in school. So I’m sitting here, trying not to be too obvious or interrupt the interview, trying to work. I think that my work is writing, but when I look down, it turns out that my work is chopping potatoes. End of dream.
Things I’ve done since 5:30AM yesterday: ran with a friend, helped children practice violin and piano, made supper in the crockpot, washed three loads of laundry, meditated twice, blogged, edited an essay, answered emails, texted with friends and family, picked up and dropped off kids for piano lessons, worked on novel while sitting in car between pick-ups/drop-offs, visited with a friend while at piano lessons, attended a soccer coaching clinic, had tea with husband (talking soccer, hockey, and Fun Things We Want To Do), read books and newspaper, listened to radio (news and songs), slept, did strength exercises. Waited. Hurried. Tried not to fight with time.
I think of time in blocks and chunks and sections. I think of myself as travelling between these blocks and chunks and sections and trying to negotiate the transitions as smoothly as possible, trying to settle in wherever I’m at and not resist what’s happening. But sometimes it feels like what I’m resisting is time itself. These chunks of time, this careful measuring of hours and minutes, calculating these small openings and anticipating these sudden slammings-shut gives me a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency is very helpful when working to complete a big project. But to enjoy being alive, to relish it, savour it, swim with it, you need to be flexible, you need to let go of the sense of urgency in the moments when urgency would only serve to make you anxious or frustrated.
Because life is full of many many tasks and events and rituals that are long slow dreamy, unrelenting, without obvious beginnings or endings, mundane, repetitive, completely necessary, or completely unnecessary, often lovely — not projects. Not artifacts. Just unmarked rivering moments in the flow of time. If there’s a balance I seek, perhaps it’s between these two states of being: the urgent efficient ambitious project-driven state of creating something new; and the flow of life as it unwinds through its time, through its here and now, and being here, present and without the need to make anything of it.