“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.
Twenty minutes can feel like no time at all, when I’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole of the internet, reading truly fascinating but perhaps not necessarily useful stories on … well, see, there’s the problem. I must have read at least five truly fascinating but not necessarily useful stories in the past twenty-four hours, following links from Twitter and Facebook—to genuine news stories or long-form articles, not top-ten lists—but I can’t recall the contents of a single one. Poof. The minutes vanish.
But twenty minutes can feel like a very long time when I’m sitting in silence listening to the sound of my thoughts skittering, seemingly randomly. Oh, there’s my mind trying to make a plan for later on today, and a list of things I can’t forget to remember to do. There’s my mind slipping sideways into what seems to be a dream. Bring it back, follow the breath. Breathe, breathe, meditate. Oh, there’s my mind dashing off to wonder how much longer. And under it all, there’s my body, trying to hold fast, remain still and calm but strong. What this exercise seems to be, at its core, is a daily weather report: here’s what you’re feeling today. Here’s how your body and mind is coping with challenge. Bring an umbrella.
Today’s weather report of my body and mind: very tired, wandering, a bit directionless, with a chilly breeze of underlying anxiety about upcoming events.
I’ve been struggling to write, here. Not elsewhere, but specifically here, in Blogland. I was at a book club on Monday evening, a friendly thoughtful group, and they asked interesting questions, including one I found difficult to answer: How do you manage the attention? My gut instinct? To reply: uh, what attention? The truth is that I’ve been managing attention by pretending there’s a solid wall between my public life and my private life, and that the two don’t intersect. It’s a mental trick I sustain when blogging, too. I pretend no one’s reading. It’s like I’m writing this in a special private journal that oddly ends every time with me pushing “Publish.” It’s a trick that doesn’t work terribly well, I’m beginning to understand, not just in Blogland where readers respond to posts (which I love), but also in the real world. (I can hear you thinking: you’re just grasping this now?). For example, on Monday afternoon, my 9-year-old had a new friend over, and when the dad came to pick her up, and I was making small-talk in the front hall, he said, “I saw you in the newspaper.” Private Carrie fought with Public Carrie, confused. He’d seen me in the newspaper? Had I been charged with some crime? Oh, right, I’m a writer. I actually had to say it out loud, as if explaining it to myself, “Oh, yes, I’m a writer.” “I know,” he said. Oh, right.
So the separation is illusory at best, and delusional at worst.
Further, the whole pretence breaks down completely when I admit, both to myself and to you and to the lovely women at Monday night’s book club and likely to that dad in the front hall, that I want people to read what I’m writing. Of course I do! The sustainability of a writer’s career depends on readers. If I were operating a retail business, it would be counterproductive, not to mention just plain ridiculous, to open a shop only to pretend the shop doesn’t exist. A customer walks in. Carrie pretends she’s in her living-room, in yoga pants, looking after sick kid. Customer is confused, feels like an intruder, apologizes for wishing to purchase something from shop Carrie continues to pretend does not exist. (Why doesn’t anyone come to my shop, Carrie wonders? Maybe I’m not very good at making _____. Maybe I should quit trying and become a midwife.)
In other words, ambivalence isn’t actually ambivalent. It’s pretty damning. Like my dad would say, shit or get off the pot. (I really like that saying, actually; I use it a lot, when giving myself advice.)
But here’s the thing. What I’m selling in my shop is not me—it’s my writing. And that does feel genuinely separate. I’m in my living-room, in my yoga pants, with my sick kid, holding out a book. Holding out a blog post. This is the thing, I’m trying to say, Forget about me. So it’s confusing. I write in hopes that people will read what I write, not to attract attention to myself. I read Nick Hornby and Bill Bryson and Miriam Toews and Ruth Ozeki and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Kim Thuy because I really like their writing. I wouldn’t need to know anything about them to like their writing. I may feel I know them, because they are all somewhat autobiographical writers, but knowing them is not my motivation for reading their work: I read because I love what they do with story, with language, with structure and form, and because I’m moved and entertained by their writing.
I guess my overarching question is: Is seeking attention critical to finding readers? Is it a job requirement? What if I focus instead on being the best writer I can possibly be and stop sweating everything else? What if I simply support a project at every stage of development, including talking about it after it’s been published–and let go my attachment to the attention, personally. Then the transition between public and private might be much less jarring, much less important.
During today’s meditation, I had a sudden vision of seeking balance between interior and exterior. Between maintaining a quiet private interior focus, which is what I need in order to write, and an accepting reflective public exterior focus, which is what I need in order to be in the world as a writer. How can I be as authentic and free in my public life as I am in my private life? I breathe in, and I breathe out. Breath itself is a balance between interior and exterior.
So, how do I manage the attention? Maybe I’ll figure it out someday, twenty minutes at a time.
PS I’ll be at the Kitchener Public Library this evening, presenting the prose awards for the Dorothy Shoemaker prize, which I adjudicated this year. And I’ll be in Fort Erie on Friday evening as part of the Ridgeway Reads reading series.
[This is what I wrote in my “meditation journal” on Monday, March 16, which in Canada was the first official day of March break, when the kids get a week off school.]
photos in this post by AppleApple
It is the first official day of March break. The kids are doing an admirable job of entertaining themselves so far. AppleApple and I picked up dog poo in the backyard, two enormous bags’ worth. I know. Why even mention it? But it was my first act as my energy returned. The sun was shining, so that was nice. The melting poo was not nice, but the yard is a lot safer to walk in now.
My dad and stepmom are planning to take the kids on a maple syrup outing this afternoon. I’m trying to decide if I’m well enough to go along. I was hoping to do one fun activity each day of March break. I will put fun into air quotes. One “fun” activity each day!
Such as, movie at the Princess. Niko Niko’s for supper. The library. Yes, I include the library on my list of “fun” outings. Because I am nothing if not a “fun” Mom. Also because we have overdue books to return. Also because I love going to the library, although March break is not really all about me, is it.
“There were two little animals with horns on their heads, Mom!” CJ, age six, reporting
I should be doing work.
But I hardly slept last night, due to congestion in head and almost constant cough. I had to sleep half-sitting up. My throat was enormously sore when I woke at 1AM, though it seemed raw from the coughing, which was a different style of sore from the original soreness. Also, fever has gone. Energy is returning. So, good things are happening. For a few minutes this morning, I let myself lie flat in the bed, hoping I could rest better that way, but was soon sitting up with ears splitting. It felt like someone was pouring water into all of the cavities in my head, using a little spouted watering can to be sure to reach every crevice—which is probably a reasonable metaphor for what’s actually happening inside my head right now. The pressure is uncomfortable. The leaking from my nostrils is pathetic. My eyes stream. I cough.
I blow my nose.
I bore even myself.
Something is troubling me. I’m worried because I’m reading almost exclusively non-fiction right now. Why? Why read what I can’t write? Why do I want to express myself through fiction, and why is that what I’m better at?
I finished reading What I Think About When I Think About Running, and it’s so freaking simple that I wonder why the heck I couldn’t write a book like that? I liked it, very much, but I couldn’t understand why it had caught on.
There were two ideas in the book that I wanted to remember. I can’t remember either of them now.
Let me think.
“Aw, sweet brother picture!” “Actually, CJ was walking really slow, so Albus was pushing him along.” “Ah….”
The kids have been sitting around the table playing cards, but just now Fooey stormed off. She didn’t like that Albus was helping CJ to organize his cards. “You’re all a bunch of cheaters!” she yelled, and stomped upstairs. I tried to say soothing things from my position on the couch, but I have very little voice left. I was roundly ignored.
Now, from the upstairs come the persistent sounds of the Harry Potter theme song being played on the recorder.
The other three continue playing the card game.
I continue to type, with dog resting on my legs like she thinks I am a pillow.
The kids let drop on Saturday that Dad (i.e. Kevin) had been telling stories about “sick Carrie” while at my Dad’s for a pancake lunch, which I did not attend, in my contagious state. The kids were laughing about how I had given Kevin various instructions, in the middle of the night, for Important Signs that I Would Need To Go To the Hospital. “If I’m unconscious, don’t minimize it,” I told him. “If I can’t breathe, take me to the hospital. If I start to hallucinate, you have to promise to take me to the hospital.”
Apparently this was the cause of pleasant hilarity amongst Kevin and my wider family. I felt unreasonably hurt. Even though it was all true.
The kids have now all stopped playing cards and are being bored and annoyed around each other. CJ and Albus are still wearing pyjamas. CJ cries that he doesn’t want to change out of his pyjamas. I croak that he can wear his pyjamas to the sugar shack.
Now brothers are pushing each other while sort of playing with a soccer ball. I realize I have no voice available for effectively stopping children from harming one another, nor rallying them out the door.
I text Kevin.
Kevin texts back that he has found problem in most recent software changes, and needs to resolve them before coming home.
Okay, better take care of that.
Don’t worry, I’ll be here, ineffectually supervising children.
Dad calls to say he’ll be here at 2:30 to pick up kids. AppleApple talks because I no longer have working vocal cords. I want to call them vocal chords. But that’s not right, is it?
CJ gets dressed. Others do not. CJ relays Mom’s message to others to get dressed. Sound of doors slamming.
CJ comes down stairs. “Give me some ideas of what to do!”
“Read me a story,” I say.
He goes to get a story in French to read to me. Very cheerful.
I look up weather on Weather Network. It is 8 degrees, feels like 6. “That’s not cold!” says CJ.
“It’s not that warm either.” Thinking bush, thinking no sun, thinking I’m not sure how long this outing will be.
But I am not going. I can’t even talk. I used to lose my voice frequently when the kids were little. I wouldn’t even be particularly sick, but suddenly the voice would go, and be gone for several days. Very inconvenient. I was thinking in the night (night-time thinking = totally rational thinking, right?) that I get sick more often than other people I know. I wouldn’t be able to work a traditional job with an immune system like this. I have now been sick for seven straight days. I am in no state today to go into an office setting, or, say, do home visits with babies, or be a doula, or spend clinical hours with pregnant women. I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t teach yoga either, or even creative writing. I couldn’t conduct an interview. I couldn’t be on stage. Am I lacking in fortitude? How do other people do it? Or do they go to work sniffling and hacking and voiceless?
I even got my flu shot!
And yet I got the flu!
Kids are gone, all was oddly peaceful in the hour or so before they left, and now house is quiet, and they are going to see sugar shack, and I am free to cough rawly and blow my nose and leak mucus everywhere charmingly. Whatever am I going to do with this peace and quiet?
I know. I’ll look up the Kardashians. I’ve heard of them. But I have no idea who they are.
Well, that was one of the worst mistakes ever. I just didn’t know who they were. Now I do. And I wish I didn’t know so much.
First of all, I have to tell you that I’m still sick! (This is because, when I’m sick, I have to tell everyone! It’s a sickness in and of itself.) Here’s where I’m hanging out (see photo above): on the couch by the fire, with crocheted blanket, tea, lozenges, laptop, book, cellphone, and dogs. The dogs look like they’re in heaven. That’s nice, dogs. Happy snoring to you. I, however, am remembering how grumpy being sick makes me. Which is very. I also tend to take a melodramatic outlook, announcing at intervals how awful I feel, how lazy I feel, how pitiful I feel, and generally presenting as a less-than-lovely human specimen. My family puts up with it rather kindly, I must say, even if their reaction is to basically ignore my general pitifulness. Or gently mock me for it. Thanks, family. I mean that sincerely.
So I finally finished reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, which is a book about scientific discoveries (and the scientists who laboured, sometimes futilely, to discover verifiable facts about our planet, our environment, the origins of life on Earth, the chemical makeup of the universe, etc.). Excellent book, easy to read, lots of great stories, plus I felt like I was getting reacquainted with the teenaged self who really wanted to study biology and chemistry in university, if only those subjects could have been coordinated with an arts degree. (I couldn’t figure out how to do it.)
I’ve been using the word “anyway” a lot these past few days, as a handy segue. I think it indicates how little energy I have to spare. My throat is so sore, people!
Bill Bryson’s book ends with a devastatingly sad chapter, titled “Goodbye,” detailing the efficiently destructive ruin that homo sapiens have inflicted on other species who come into contact with us. We seem to be unique in our ruthlessness, and pointless destruction. When we show up, species vanish. So much of what makes us different from all of the other species of life on Earth — our consciousness that allows us to plan and remember and create communities and construct stories and share information and move easily across vast distances — is also what makes us a force deadlier than any other species that has ever existed. It’s like we were made to destroy. Looking at humans from this perspective is deeply sad. To counter my sadness, I think of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities, on the the front page of Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, saying, “We are in a world that is rather terrifying. People close ranks and hide behind their factions. There is great insecurity. … [And yet] it is possible for humans to live together as long as you let down the walls that separate you.”
Yes. I’m part of this species, of course. We all are. We’ve got this little window of time here on Earth to share with those around us. How to be more open, more vulnerable? How to do no harm?
I’m putting this couch-time time to good use! Reading a lot. Resting. Meditating (although this morning’s session turned into napping — dreaming). Writing a bit too. It’s not like I can’t do my job while lying on this couch. Well, this part of my job. This other part of my job, I can’t do while lying on the couch. See below.
terrible photo taken from current position on couch, using cellphone, which explains terribleness
This is just the first basket of two — clean laundry! — that look like this. I carried this one up to the dining-room table this morning in hopes that a) I would feel inspired to fold it and/or b) kids would arrive home from school and feel inspired to fold it. LOL. No, seriously. Do you think I can guilt them into folding it? It’s probably my parental duty to try. I realize that if I were a better parent, my children would already be trained to fold laundry themselves. Somehow, this hasn’t been the kind of parent I’ve turned out to be. Okay. I’m okay with it, actually. I can’t seem to fight against the tide of what matters to me, and what doesn’t.
Weekend! March break! Wishing all of you, all of us, everyone: Health!
PS After posting, I lay down and listened to a program that ran on Ideas this past fall, called “How To Do Ordinary Things.” You can hear Jean Vanier and others who work/live in L’Arche communities talk about freedom from fear, and being vulnerable not just in body (which I’m aware of right now), but also in relationships. Here’s a quote I wrote down while listening:
“Who will love me in my brokenness? …
To love someone is not to do things for people but to reveal to people who they are.” — Jean Vanier.
I call this one “Clean Laundry in Basket on Dining-Room Table”
I got my teeth cleaned this morning. You might not categorize this experience under Traumatic, but then, you might not have receding gums and exposed nerves. I almost panicked when I saw it wasn’t the usual hygienist who has been kindly, gently trying to clean my teeth without causing me pain these past number of years. And by almost panicked, I mean actually panicked. I think my fingernails left marks in the arms of the chair. I had to keep reminding myself to relax my tongue (who knew a tongue could be so tense?). And to breathe. Remember to breathe, I told myself repeatedly. I would have confessed any number of things in order to make it stop. But I had nothing to confess that would have interested the new hygienist, who turned out to be kind and gentle and sympathetic too. I did consider begging her to stop early — like, how clean do these teeth really need to be? — but tried to stay focused on the big picture: that I was actually in that chair voluntarily, paying her for her services, because I would like to keep these teeth for as long as possible.
Anyway, I’m writing this post, so I clearly survived to tell the tale.
That’s all I’ve got today. Not a single deep thought appears to have surfaced post-dentist.
PS No cavities! So there’s that.
PS # 2 That illustration above is just a little something I need to get done this evening. Along with walking two chatty little boys home from school, violin lessons, picking up local food order from Bailey’s, making supper, and going to the 13-year-old’s final indoor soccer game of his house league season.
When I’m meditating, which I’ve only just started doing regularly, for ten minutes a day, I tell myself: This is all you need to do right now. You don’t need to do anything else.
It is such a relief to the mind to have that bit of rest — focused rest, not sleep — when the mind is aware and present and yet not obliged to do anything but sit and observe.
I name what I’m feeling: worry, usually, or the desire to make a list and get organized, to remember all of the things that need doing. I name it and I say, you don’t need to do this right now.
It is such relief.
I really don’t know what life is about, honestly. I don’t know if there are big gestures that a person should be aiming themselves toward, in life. When I’m sitting still inside my mind, I think, no, life is not about big gestures. It is not about effort. It is about ease. It is about stillness. It is about being witness to.
But how, I think, could I accomplish anything without effort? I am such a believer in hard work. Yet I know, too, that much of what I’ve accomplished seems to come instead from grace. It isn’t that hard work hasn’t gotten me somewhere — hard work and discipline perhaps creating the necessary space for grace. But then I think, well, no, grace isn’t dependent on work or effort. We can all of us be graced by grace, that is the nature of grace. And then I wonder whether those who stand and wait, without an apparent plan, without the desire to change or be changed, aren’t actually on to something more profound than I am, with my striving and reaching and stretching.
Another question: What is this compulsion to share what I see and experience?
Could I not go there, to a place of stillness and grace, and return quietly? Apparently, this blog post would suggest that no, I cannot. But I’m thinking about it. Rather hard thinking, in truth.
All of the following probably fits into the category of wanting to change or be changed, but I don’t know how to address what I’m feeling in different terms: I would like to learn how to put aside the striving and access the ease of presence. I would like to learn how to clear more space for my mind to be still and focused. I would like to learn how to love the world more, to name what I see without judgement.
Happy snow day.
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