Category: Big Thoughts
This post is about two separate but related events in our family’s life. I’m going to tell them backward, out of order.
The second event that happened: We got a puppy. On Friday evening. This is Rose.
The first event that happened: We said goodbye to Suzi. Just a week ago, last Sunday, our family gathered to say a difficult goodbye to a dog we knew was sick and only getting sicker, but such a tenacious present soul. The house felt so empty when she was gone. We’d been wanting a puppy for a long time, but we knew that Suzi wouldn’t have been able to tolerate sharing our attention, and we didn’t want the end of her life to be plagued by anxiety, jealousy, stress.
Still, I think we all felt a little guilty about so quickly wanting to get a puppy. But here’s how I’m thinking about it: we aren’t replacing Suzi, we’re recognizing how much she (and her departed sister DJ) meant to us, and we’re filling the house with the presence of another little creature to hold, to love, to care for. Once you’ve become accustomed to sharing your space with a dog, your space without a dog feels empty (even with six people living in said space).
If I ever had to live alone, I would get a puppy. It seems like that would solve everything; or at least one very big thing — loneliness.
I would get a puppy, and I would zip it into my coat, like I did yesterday afternoon when Rose got shivery and cold on our outing. I would get a puppy, and I would watch it tumble over itself in the wet grass, picking up leaves, hopping like a bunny, sitting down suddenly and just as suddenly darting sideways. I would get a puppy, and I would hold it close and feel its body go calm and relaxed. Time would slow down.
Puppy time/baby time/small child time isn’t like adult time. I’ve been reflecting on the capacity for play that exists and expresses itself almost constantly in the newest arrivals on our planet. Puppies, babies, young children — their whole existence revolves around play. Play is how we learn, yes, and explore, and discover: it’s necessary for survival, no doubt. But play also contains a dimension of joy. (Is joy necessary for survival?) Joy is readily accessible to the pups of the world. Joy seems to emanate from existence itself.
I wonder at it.
Do we have to work for joy when we’re older? When experience has returned to us too many signs and signals of joylessness, grief, broken trust, the weight of responsibility? When we’ve become analytical, accustomed to living our lives from outside ourselves as well as inside ourselves?
Is joy even something you can work for? Or is its essence spontaneous, intuitive, magical?
My guess is that we can draw joy nearer, draw its possibility nearer, through conscious effort; but we can’t command it, no more than we can command grace, or trust, or love. To witness its vivid, effortless expression is such a gift.
I miss Suzi. I mourn that she was never able to relax fully, except when asleep, that although her trust in humans grew during the 6+ years she spent with us, her experiences before we knew her had done intractable damage. I’m glad to have a puppy upon whom only love will be poured; even while I mourn for all the Suzis of the world who have had their joy blotted and extinguished by cruelty and abuse. It was a hard task looking after two rescued dogs; I wasn’t up to the task again, so soon. So we start again with a puppy instead.
Give/receive. Maybe my spirit needs to receive joy, witness joy, in order to be able to give joy/give with joy.
Thanksgiving weekend in Canada.
I’m in the midst of a number of fraught and challenging decisions, with an ever-evolving to-do list related to teaching, career, writing life, family, responsibilities, volunteer work, and deadlines, and the phrase “there’s a lot on my mind” resonates strongly.
I seem to imagine, at some amorphous foggy point in the very near future — say, tomorrow — having the time and space to sit quietly and just think. To relax. To read for pleasure. And of course, to write in that exploratory, gathering, joyful fashion that is required of any early-stage major undertaking.
In my imagination, this foggy and amorphous future point, this tomorrow, is an actual space, a spacious space, wide open and clear, unclouded, with huge horizons and no clutter.
This is magical thinking, of course. As we all know, tomorrow never comes. That space does not exist, nor could it possibly, under the circumstances. This is of my own choosing. I wonder: have I filled my life with much too much on purpose, because I’m afraid of what an uncluttered life might feel like — would it feel empty, I wonder? Do I find meaning in the busyness? But what about clarity? Can there be clarity in a cluttered life? Because that’s really what I’m imagining, when I conjure this wide open space: it’s a place where all can be seen, clearly, where nothing is obscured or lost amidst the clutter.
The mind itself can see clearly. I could lift my eyes from the immediate needs that present themselves before me, and notice everything that surrounds me.
And be thankful.
I rode my bike to campus this morning with tears streaming down my cheeks. Tears of pain and rage. How can I explain? I was heading to a meeting with a colleague. We are working together on a project that will bring women whose identities have been fragmented by disruption, war, movement across borders, together in the same room to tell their stories. I see I’ve used the word together twice in that last sentence. I know it’s poor construction, but my subconscious knows what it’s talking about. As I biked in this state of flaming fury across the park, uncontrollable tears streaming down my face, what I wanted, what I felt would heal me or give me hope, would be to come together with other women and do something meaningful. When I arrived on campus and confessed my state of emotional disarray, my colleague told me that she believes what was staged in US Congress yesterday was deliberate and calculated — to cause pain. They put a woman’s history of pain on display so they could show us — this doesn’t matter, we have the power. We’re going to install this angry, self-pitying, credibly accused sexual assaulter to a position of almost unimaginable power over you and your bodies, and your stories do not matter.
I almost can’t type these words for the rage that is coursing through my body, causing my hands to shake.
Has any woman come to adulthood without having been, at some point (or many points!) in her life, treated as an object, a body, to be mocked or admired or possessed or controlled? Has any woman come to adulthood without having been patronized, sexualized, diminished, or ignored? Has any woman not struggled to find the perfect script, the words she must speak and the role she must inhabit if she is to be taken seriously, if her story is to be believed—only to realize that in fact, for her, there is no perfect script. No perfect script exists, just a series of scripts and roles designed to be turned against her.
What does this do to us, collectively?
It’s gaslighting at every turn. We want to say, but it’s better now—it’s better now! And isn’t it? Girls can be anything they want to be! Dads can look after their kids without receiving medals of honour for their efforts! Canada’s foreign minister is a formidable woman!
And yet. And yet. Is it better now? If a man credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults can be president? If all you need to get onto the Supreme Court is an in with the old-boys in Congress?
Who are we kidding?
I heard about a group of women who decided to go out into the streets of Washington DC yesterday and SCREAM. That’s about right, I thought.
I want to scream. I might even do it. But after that, it’s fuel. Fury as fuel. Whether it’s in small acts or large, I’m going to keep burning down the patriarchy, this rotten system that’s so insidious it makes us think that a man’s rage is “passionate” while a woman’s is “hysterical.” Let’s burn down colonialism while we’re at it, and white supremacy. And if these systems prove temporarily fire-proof, I’m not giving up. I’m going to take my tiny flame and light a bunch of candles and put them in all the windows of my house. I’m going to burn my energy to make space for all the stories that need to be told, that aren’t being told. I’m going to make space for creativity, because it will heal us like nothing else. To know that we are creative beings is healing in and of itself. To experience our generative selves is healing.
I’m going to model the shit out of what I want to see in the world. Can’t we be the change, be the change, be the change? Let’s do this! Let’s pour our energy and time into bringing people together to make something together. Together. Together. Doesn’t matter how small. The whole family sitting around the table for a meal counts. A soccer team of girls huddling to cheer each other on counts. Two colleagues meeting in an office to dream of using our talents to make something happen counts. It all counts. I know you know this too. Imagine what we are going to do; recognize what we’re already doing; remember what we’ve already done.
At least an hour ago, I sat down in my newly cleaned and organized office with the intention of writing a blog post. The post has been writing itself in my head for the past few days, while I vacuumed, organized, biked on errands, walked the dog — at any time when I had a few uninterrupted moments to myself. But when I sat down, at least an hour ago, instead of writing this post I answered emails, created a rough outline for the new course I’ll be teaching this winter (Creativity Unplugged), scrolled news headlines, and even watched a short video on “Coach Burnout.”
In other words, I’ve done everything except write the blog post I’d been meaning to write.
My new office is brilliantly organized (if I do say so myself). It feels peaceful. It’s amazing the difference this makes in my mind, opening space both literally and figuratively. A critical organizational piece is a filing unit discarded from one of my daughter’s rooms: in it, I’ve labelled a set of accessible folders to collect material that has been piling up, related to projects of immediate importance. Maybe a photo of this would be the easiest way to share the news I seem to be avoiding — it isn’t bad news, not at all, just a shift in my energies, and that feels … well, a recurring theme in my dreams is our house being torn apart, or moving into a new house, or not recognizing rooms that should be familiar.
Change. Risk. The potential for failure.
Change. Adventure. The potential for … success? That seems too limited in its definition, too vague. The potential for … hiking new trails, seeing the landscape from new perspectives, learning new things about myself, my limitations but also my gifts. They’re one and the same, in some fundamental way.
The labels read as follows (not weighted in any particular order): ENGL 332, The Shoe Project, Soccer Coaching, MA Theology, ENGL 335.
Let me break it down, by category.
ENGL 332 is the new course I’ve been contracted to teach this winter. It will be based on Lynda Barry’s workshops, and on her books What It Is and Syllabus. The exercises and projects will be a combination of text and drawings, largely hand-drawn, and the outline is taking shape in my mind (and on paper, as mentioned above) even now.
The Shoe Project is a *big* project I’ve been working on all summer, since reading an article about it in the Globe and Mail in June, and contacting The Shoe Project’s executive and artistic directors about starting a local version of the project here in KW. It’s a writing & performance workshop that connects local artists with women who are immigrants, to write, shape, and tell their stories. This project is currently being fuelled on energy, connection, and collaboration, and the next step is funding, which is a high bar indeed, but not, I believe, impossible.
Soccer coaching continues even as our season winds down. We played our last league game on Tuesday, but still have practices and a final tournament that will take us into September. Whether or not I coach again next season has yet to be determined, but remains a strong possibility.
MA Theology is the wild-card, about which I’ve offered no hints, in part because I applied only recently on something of a whim when a spot opened up, and in part because, well, I must be feeling some hesitance about it, some desire to explain why, even to myself. The full title of the program is MA (Theology): Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy. I *think* my interest was sparked last fall when a student discussed the idea of leading writing workshops in different settings and for different purposes — therapeutic purposes. But I think, too, that as I continue to coach and to teach, I’ve been craving more tools and knowledge with which to approach conflict, as well as a way to frame my beliefs around the value of creativity in nourishing and healing the spirit. I will be attending part-time. As my sister said, “Well, you know your limits!” to which I replied, “Or I know how to test my limits!!” “Haha yes, that’s more accurate.”
ENGL 335 is the final file, and that’s my usual creative writing course, which I continue to update and revamp in an attempt to simplify the marking scheme, and ease the workload, which I think has become too heavy and rigid over the years. I’ve been asked to teach this course in both the fall and winter terms, which means I’ll be teaching two courses this winter, plus going to school part-time. I’ll confess this thought woke me at 4AM two mornings ago. (Knowing my limits v testing my limits?)
My writing is not, you may observe, in those files. Instead, my current project, a collection of stories, is much closer, piled at my left elbow, very much a presence on my desk, and in my mind, and a very pleasurable presence indeed. It feels peaceful to work on these stories as they call out to me; I work on them with contentment and patience, not as if they are a crisis or emergency (which is how other writing work has felt, sometimes).
What I think is this: I’ve got too much energy to pour it all into my writing. Whenever I’ve tried to do so, tried to live the fantasy of “being a writer,” I’ve been mostly unhappy, plagued by self-doubt, banging my head against immovable plot points, overcome by inertia, thinking thinking thinking — and that’s no way to solve a problem or write a book or help the people around you. You need patience for all of these pursuits, patience and clarity, not anxiety. You need to clear your mind, and weirdly, my mind is clearer, my purpose stronger, my focus keener and energy smoother, when I’m occupied on a variety of fronts. I am a woman who requires a certain amount of extremity to thrive. The calm comes from being within the whirl; when all is calm and little is required of me, my mind becomes the whirl.
Did I already know this?
But it feels like a brand-new revelation: to stop fighting who I am, and get on with living the life that’s pulling on me.
I tried to write a post titled “Things that make me mad: an abbreviated list,” but the truth is that the things that make me mad also make me sad and frustrated and at-a-loss and despondent and infuriated and outraged and disgusted and sometimes, very occasionally, hopeless.
Also, the list is really really long. Mostly it relates to news stories, which I access via a variety of sources (CBC Radio; The Globe and Mail; The New York Times; The New Yorker; satirical news commentary on YouTube; Twitter; and all of the rabbit holes down which a person can disappear when visiting social media). I’m starting to wonder whether this constant source of outrage-fuel is useful; and if so, what’s it good for? I want to stay informed, but I also want to direct my outrage toward solutions, or at the very least prevent my outrage from spiralling into feelings of hopelessness and despair. How many more of my rants does Kevin need to hear on Space Force, Basic Income, Buck-A-Beer, climate change, and gun laws? Just to name a few subjects on which I have strong opinions.
What can a person do?
My solution, such as it is, is to throw myself into projects that connect me to other people. My solution is engagement on a manageable (read: small) scale. My engagement is not necessarily directly related to the rant-inducing daily stream of really-bad-decisions made by rich-white-men-who-seem-uniquely-unqualified-to-be-in-power. ARGH. The injustice makes my brain boil. Where was I?
Engagement. Small scale.
Ah. Here’s the problem: The news can be a distraction. Outrage is a form of emotion that, let’s confess, feels really good — it stokes righteous flaming emotion deep down in the primitive part of my brain. And that’s problematic. It distracts from real life, which is right here waiting for me, in my house, in my neighbourhood, in my community.
It helps to sit down and work on a story, for no other reason than the story wants to exist. It helps to spend my evenings outside on a soccer field coaching young teens in their development as a team and as individuals. It helps to make plans for my fall and winter courses, dreaming up ways to deliver concepts that will inspire and challenge. It helps to read fiction and poetry. It helps to meditate. It helps to ride my bike whenever and wherever possible. It helps to walk the dog, to eat supper with the kids, to clean the house, to visit far-flung family, to spend an afternoon at the beach. It helps to finish what I start.
Why? Because even small scale acts of kindness and connection and attention are effective ways to fight against that which outrages me — ways to put into action my beliefs.
It helps, too, to dream big, to make plans for future projects that are beyond the scope of my current experience, to make connections with other people who work in the arts, to apply for grants, send out stories, throw bottles into the sea. Make space for more opportunities to unfold. Here’s a fun thing to try: write a letter to yourself, addressing yourself like you would a dear friend. What advice would you give yourself? Can you name all the things about yourself that you like, that give you strength and courage? What questions would a good friend ask you? (I did this at the beginning of June, and reading over my “Dear Carrie” letter now, I recognize that it has helped shape my summer in positive ways.)
What helps you?
FIRE is my word of the year, and its many meanings are very present with me at present. On my run this morning, I thought about how a fire can be an emergency, how it can burn down a house, or raze a forest. Going through fire is a metaphor for suffering and surviving, for being tempered by a painful experience. But after a fire, the soil is enriched by ash and carbon, and new life begins to grow.
Like fire that is an emergency, loss changes the landscape. Losing Marg was like going through fire. Of course, it was also like many other things, too, because Marg was extremely generous in her dying, and did everything possible to show her love and care for us, despite how sick she was. She had clarity about what was happening, and her wisdom gave us clarity, too. The fire tempered her, and it tempered us, too.
After loss comes grief. Sometimes grief comes even before loss — as we see loss coming toward us on the horizon. Grief isn’t predictable. It doesn’t follow a set timeline. At different points this spring, I recognized that grief was my companion, and that it was helping me to set my course.
Immediately after Marg’s death, I felt like a sleepwalker, numb, too tired to think, but slowly and steadily I drifted toward a different phase of being in the world — of being in the world. I began to meditate outside in our back yard. I let myself rest. I let myself not do next to nothing; listen, pay attention, breathe. Instinctively, I gave myself space. And with space, with breath, with oxygen to feed it, my interior fire began to flicker to life again. It was in that burnt out quiet space, in the aftermath and ash, that new shoots of green began to grow. I thought about (think about) Marg all the time. She was and is present in my mind, in my decision-making. Her clarity guides me, and her willingness in life to step forward, to be responsible, to take charge and to lead.
Because fire has another meaning, too — fire as passion, as heat and light and desire. There are times when I live without noticing how I’m feeling, numbed by routine and responsibility and the relentless obligations of being a mother to four children, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer. These are times when I’m dull, ticking boxes, struggling to keep my weak flame lit. And then there are times when I’m on fire! I’m paying attention — my attentiveness becomes acute, and I can see clearly what matters and what doesn’t matter.
From a place of quiet attention, comes clarity.
I have been tempered by fire, and my sense of purpose is strengthened. This I know: to feed my spirit, to remain grounded and whole, I must live creatively. Living creatively means improvising, sometimes; it means pursuing work that may not have a financial value; it means making space for others to play too. Since Marg’s death, I’ve found myself making choices from a place that feels powerful and certain. I ask: what matters to me, and am I acting on what matters to me? Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at church because when I saw the call for volunteers, instead of questioning the impulse, wondering whether I had the authority to speak, or the time to prepare, or the courage to stand up, I just said yes: this matters to me, and I will do it.
Another example: This spring, as I heard about protests in Nicaragua, as the situation became ever more troubling and desperate, as protestors were being killed, I wondered: Why isn’t this news being covered in the Canadian media? What can our government do to help the situation? And then I asked: Is there anything I can do? Yes! I could use my resources, skills, and contacts to write an opinion piece appealing to the Canadian government and getting this news before the public, at least to a small degree — I pitched the idea to an editor at the Globe and Mail, and wrote the piece while sitting in a tent on a rainy afternoon last weekend. I consulted with Nicaraguan contacts to ensure my facts were accurate. I sought feedback. And the piece was published in today’s Opinion section of the Globe. It’s a small act, but it’s something.
I’ve discovered something powerful about acting on what matters to me: It gives me fuel for the fire, energy to do more.
There are so many small ways to be whole, to feel whole. I don’t seek a work-life balance, because my work and life are utterly intertwined. I’m not interested in the concept of balance. I’m interested in recognizing which fires need to be fed, and which should be smothered. That’s a different kind of balance. It means asking: what do I have control over and what do I need to let go of?
A fire can burn out of control. Some emergencies cannot be prevented or stopped, can only be endured, withstood, survived, contained. But there are many smaller fires: a candle, a campfire, the flame inside a wood stove. These fires draw us, warm us, soothe us, invite community. The constantly changing shape of the flame is meditative and centring. We gather with others around the light and heat.
I hope to have more news to share in the weeks to come. More irons in the fire. More heat, more light. Meanwhile, more summer.
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