Here we are, day one of a new year. I’ve walked the dogs through gently falling snow flakes. The children slept till 10AM. We have this one last day of our unusually relaxing holiday to do as we please, each of us, before the new year’s schedule clocks in tomorrow morning.
Of course I am thinking about what I’d like to do this year, in addition to what I’m already doing; what would I like to try, what experiment shall I undertake, what challenge, what adventure, what’s calling? And I have a small idea, a possibility I’ve been mulling for awhile that seemed affirmed yesterday by the conflating coincidences of driving across town on an unexpected errand while listening to an interview on the radio with Elizabeth Gilbert, who was talking about the creative impulse. The creative impulse is not benign, she said (and I paraphrase). If it isn’t put to use, if it isn’t acknowledged and fed, if it isn’t set free, it will find its own damaging purpose.
I began thinking about rage, just under the surface.
I was driving along a street I don’t very often take anymore, and it triggered a memory: that I’d stopped for gas, at a gas station that no longer exists, in fact, with two toddlers strapped into car seats in the back of our old red truck. I was enormously pregnant with my third child, and it was hot, a summer’s day, and we’d just gotten a load of groceries. I filled up the truck with gas, and as I was walking around the hood of the truck to climb back in to the driver’s seat, a man approached me. He looked, if not homeless, then close to homeless, and with a rough voice he asked if he could bum a cigarette.
My response shocked even me.
Rage. It was rage that poured out, with no warning, no pre-emptive interlude. “Do I look like I would have a cigarette?” I snapped at him, almost shaking with my fury, indicating my pregnant belly.
“No,” he replied sheepishly.
I got into the truck and slammed the driver’s side door, vibrating with rage.
I didn’t know what had come over me. I didn’t know why I was so very angry. I couldn’t think of a good reason to be feeling what I was feeling in that moment.
But now, I think maybe I understand. Like raging people all over this earth, my wider, deeper emotions were not accessible to me at that time in my life. I was repressing a great deal: disappointment about my career, the sense of boredom and aimlessness as I struggled to be a stay-at-home mom, exhaustion from the drudgery of the day-to-day. There were many things I was not telling myself, or allowing myself to feel, because I couldn’t have borne it. So when tapped or triggered, there was only one emotion on offer: rage. Rage is a defensive emotion. It lashes out so as to prevent us from feeling anything else.
I’ll never know exactly why the man’s question set me off, but I think I was afraid of him, and did not want him near me. I felt vulnerable. I also felt morally righteous. Whatever it was, I was feeling something for which rage was a cover. I was ambushed by my own inexplicable fury.
I think unless we allow ourselves to experience a full range of emotions, including those emotions that indict us for our own failings — jealousy, envy, disappointment, humiliation, fear, uncertainty, grief — we will be at the mercy of that one emotion that is always on tap, always available, a defence against what the world may think of us, and what we may think of ourselves deep inside. Rage rage against the dying of the light. Yes. But rage rage against the accusations that we know to be true, and the terror of being fragile, and the admission of loneliness and failure, and the misery of not knowing everything best.
Rage rage against being human and fallible.
Rage rage against culpability.
Rage rage against knowing thyself, because to know thyself truly is to know some awfully dark truths, is to acknowledge enormous imperfections, and ugly vanities, and moral failings.
Yet I maintain that it is better to know thyself than to remain lodged in clotted rage, railing against the world, and spewing harm and hurt. The hurt your rage will cause to your own self is far greater than any hurt you could bring upon yourself by knowing yourself truly. It is only when we see ourselves as vulnerable and weak and wrong (rather than wronged) that we can see others with compassion, and love too.
And the rage will diminish.
It really will. It will not shock you with its sudden emergence, or hurt those you love most dearly. You will feel its potential, yes, but you will know what it means, and hear what it’s saying: you will feel behind the rage to the emotion that rage is trying to protect you from feeling, and you will be able to name it, and to access it, and to experience it. It is only through experiencing the deeper emotion that you can understand yourself, and get through that emotion.
I am alert now to my own rage. I know it’s trying to tell me something more profound. Why am I so angry? Is this moment deserving of my anger? So rarely it is. Almost never, in truth. And pouring out my rage, pouring it onto to someone else, is unacceptable, always. I believe that. So if it happens, when it happens, I try to name that too. To apologize immediately. Never to let myself off the hook. To reflect. There is always more work to do. Because it is easy to mistake rage for purpose, for fuel. At least it’s better to feel something than nothing, maybe? But the opposite of rage is not emptiness, it’s not nothing, it’s not depression, it’s not powerlessness, it’s not silence. The opposite of rage is connection.
Here is my idea. This coming year, I would like to host writing adventures in my home. It will be an experiment, I confess. The point will be to use the physical act of writing — writing by hand onto the page — to bring us into a meditative state of focus, in which we can access memories, draw them forth. We’ll leap from the intensive imaginative images we’re experiencing in our minds into the adventure of fiction. The exercises will be guided, the space will be safe, and none of us will be able to guess in advance where we might travel to on any given evening. Being or becoming a writer is not the point. The process is the point. Play is the point. Adventure is the point. Discovering and mapping our own inner imaginative space is the point. Anyone can participate. Everyone has a creative impulse. This is just one of a myriad of ways to express it, but it’s the method I can offer, if you’re looking for an opening, if you’re looking for a way in. Or out. Or deep down.
Please send me a message if you’re interested and I’ll keep you in the loop as the idea becomes a plan.
Happy New Year!
PS The title of this post is the first line of a poem by Rumi called “The diver’s clothes lying empty.” Look it up if you don’t already know it. Read it out loud. It will tell you everything I’ve written here, and much more.
I love that my birthday falls so close to the end of the year; it’s the perfect time for reflection. Last night I wrote by hand in my journal, as I’ve done for many years now, on the night before my birthday. This is just one of a few simple rituals that make each birthday feel special, squeezed as it is between Christmas and New Year’s. For example, this morning started with a hot yoga class; something I’ve been doing on my birthday since 2009, when I first tried out a hot yoga class. That first yoga class was a treat and an adventure, to try something new, and to steal time for myself. I couldn’t have guessed how it would change me. I was hooked — not necessarily hooked on hot yoga, although that has served me well over the years, but hooked on moving my body, becoming present in my body through physical challenge. I’m now entering my seventh years of serious and regular physical practice: running, walking the dogs, cycling, spin class, weight training, boot camp, kundalini yoga, hot yoga, swimming, soccer, dancing, cross-country skiing.
In 2011, I focused on competition and races.
In 2012, I first learned how to work through injury.
Also in 2012, I joined a women’s soccer team and became a teammate. I hadn’t participated in team sports since I’d last played soccer at age 11. I had a fun season that summer, but we moved to the country and I didn’t play soccer again. Later, I would have said definitively that team sports was not for me; was it trauma and shame from having been, often, picked last in gym class, a lingering sense of not belonging, not knowing how to belong? We moved often when I was a child. I was often the new kid and new kids who are shy are picked last in gym class. But that wasn’t my interpretation at the time; instead, I thought I was bad at team sports. If you’d known me as a teen, you would never have thought, oh yes, Carrie will make a good coach someday. Belonging to a team as an adult changed me, and it has changed my outlook on team sports. Seeing my kids belong to teams, even during times when they’ve struggled, has given me insight into the potential of being part of something bigger than oneself.
Also, it’s just plain fun. Have I mentioned that part?
Today, I turn 41 years old. This is middle age, if you’re honest about average human lifespans. Today, I don’t mind being older. I’m grateful for a body that is able to move and stretch and participate. I do not take it for granted. Much brings me joy in this rich and textured time of life. Connection to my children. Soaking up time together as a family. The adventure of writing. Opportunities to be a mentor, to teach, to coach. Sharing and receiving the ongoing story of our daily lives with friends, with siblings. Getting to hug my mom, and my dad and stepmother. Reading wonderful books. I’m humbled by the luxuries of my life. If there’s one thing I want for the year ahead it is to seek out, look for, and recognize opportunities to serve, to offer what’s mine to give, and also to share. To share a sense of adventure. To have fun. To play. May none of us ever be too old for that.
Tonight is my last creative writing class of the term. Because I’m a sessional lecturer, with a contract that expires at the end of each term, there’s no guarantee of teaching a next class. And so there’s no way around this: I’m feeling blue.
When I started teaching three years ago, I didn’t expect I would come to love it. But I have. I will miss working with students when this term ends. I will miss the interaction, the opportunities to relate, to respond, to collaborate, to light a spark, or even just to be present in someone else’s life in a different way than I can be when I’m here in my home office, slumped over the keyboard. (Posture, Carrie, posture!) I will miss what I learn from my students, too. Once upon a time, I would have said that writing fiction is all I know how to do, but I don’t think that’s true, actually. I’m proud of the work I’ve done in my fiction-writing career, but when I send a book out into the world, there it goes, no longer mine. I can’t change what I’ve made. It’s gone from me, and exists at a remove from the present tense. Teaching is almost the opposite experience: it’s about sharing ideas with others in a present, real, interactive, reactive, responsive, empathetic way. I love my quiet space here at home; but I also love being with people, people who are learning skills and becoming themselves, and developing rich inner lives, confidence, a voice. It’s been a privilege to be a teacher. I hope the opportunity comes around again.
A blog reader recently asked me: who or what is your centre?
I would like to consider this thoughtful stranger’s question. Who or what is my centre? Who or what is all of this energy emanating from? Who or what are my guiding principles and goals? Perhaps I’m being too scattershot in my approach at present. Perhaps I need some kind of guiding light, guiding mission statement, coherent ideology. I’ve been less and less willing to put these musings out into the universe, to publish them on the blog; but in silence there is no possibility for connection. I thought of this as I ran with the dogs this morning; it was still dark. We were running down a big hill, and I thought, I fear saying too much, but by saying nothing, I offer nothing. What are photographs, what are blog posts, what are stories if not an attempt to preserve the present moment? But is it preservation I’m after? No, more accurately, it’s being a witness. It’s trying to put into order what I’m seeing. And I’m compelled to share what I see. I want to apologize for my urge to share. But there it is. I’ll admit it motivates me. Is this the what at my centre?
Who or what is my centre? I think of the divine, a connection that unites every living thing, and perhaps every thing that ever lived or will lived. I think of powers beyond my understanding. I think of grace. And spirit.
And I think of presence.
I am motivated by the desire to be present, wholly present, no matter what I am doing.
I am motivated by the idea that play is holy, sacred, a space of safety and learning, a space where imagination and improvisation are celebrated, and all are urged to play along, no matter the skill level. Cooperation amidst competition. Play as learning. Learning as play.
Writing is play: that’s what I hope my students know, too.
I don’t want to be so serious that I lose the lightness of being alive.
I’m using this graphic without permission, because I don’t know exactly where it came from — a friend posted it on FB, and the link took me a website called Mind/Shift, but I didn’t see the graphic there. It looks like it’s by an artist named Sylvia Duckworth — thank you, Sylvia, for drawing me.
This is me.
At times, I’ve done a good job of conforming and I think I can work with others, but basically, this is me. (I’m wondering whether my siblings might all agree that this is them, too. And even a couple of my kids. And my husband. Anyone else feel like you’re looking at a self-portrait?)
I’m in the midst of a decision, and it feels like many of these parts of my personality are demanding airtime: hate the rules, dream big, make lots of mistakes, work independently, risk taker, think with my heart. Instinctively, I understand that to achieve anything, I must fail. It’s the only way to learn. I just don’t think of it as failing, I think of it as problem-solving, circling around an issue, coming at it from a variety of angles, experimenting, playing, rejecting what doesn’t work, trying again, ever-hopeful, dreaming big. But here’s what’s worrying me: if I want to succeed, I’m afraid that I have to look successful — already successful, already complete, already the man with the plan. (And yes, I know I’m a woman; do women find it harder to present like a man with a plan? Here’s an interesting article on the stress women undergo when trying to step into positions of leadership.) I’m afraid that I have to present like I know what I’m doing. Expertise inspires confidence, yes? And I do know what I’m doing, but I also don’t know what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t be interested in doing more of it if I thought I knew everything already — I’m interested because I don’t know, and because I want to learn (yes, as the graphic points out, I’m also easily bored). Because while I intend to get really good at a bunch of things, I never want to feel like I’m done learning.
(Counter-intuitive idea: maybe that’s part of mastering a subject — when you know enough to know you’ll never be done learning. To quote Donald Barthelme: “It is appropriate to say that the writer is someone who, confronted with a blank page, does not know anything.”)
On Saturday, at Waterloo’s Wild Writers Festival, I put a roomful of generously attentive people through a writing boot camp: an hour of intensive labouring and pouring out over the empty page, following guided prompts dreamed up by my imagination. I was amazed, as I always am, at what was waiting to be discovered in the unknown, such fascinating stories leaping onto the page; and I hope the experience for most participants was the same. A sense of excitement, adventure, of who knows what is coming next? I wonder, however, whether the workshop would be as welcoming if you weren’t a creative person — or, more accurately, if you didn’t see yourself as a creative person? Here’s an interesting stat from an article I read on Mind/Shift (titled “Can any school foster pure creativity?”): 95% of second-graders self-identify as creative; but only 5% of high school seniors believe they are creative. I recognize that the writing workshop I devised on Saturday might be a really difficult undertaking if you didn’t identify as creative; but what latent creativity is hiding inside even those who no longer believe they are creative? What if virtually all of us are hard-wired to be creative, at least to some degree? What is the purpose of creativity? Could it be essential to human survival?
Play, beautiful beings. Play on.
Discernment is something Mennonites are expert at; in fact, Mennonites are so good at discernment that it sometimes seems it’s code for clearly we don’t all agree so let’s keep discerning in perpetuity so as to never make a decision. Given that this is my cultural background, perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy process so much. But I do also like to come around to decisions now and again. That said, discernment is rather brilliant, in my opinion. What it does is allow a decision to unfold slowly, with voice given to many different opinions and angles; it’s a process of listening as much as speaking.
This post is a continuation of my thoughts from yesterday’s confession: that I don’t like being the speaker at the front of the room.
I’ve been trying to discern why.
It isn’t that I don’t like being in a leadership position. In fact, I enjoy taking the lead, to which my younger siblings could attest. But there are different styles and types of leadership, and the leadership I prefer to practice is the kind that asks questions, that operates in relationship, that collaborates with, that is creative and responsive and in the moment. I want to ask questions. I want to hear stories, I want to hear and try to understand other perspectives. I want to see my small ideas opening up small ideas in someone else, and I want to be opened up too; I want to learn too.
It’s the reason I like reading and writing short stories, the kind that end in a questioning, open way that unfolds into the reader and the reader’s experience, rather than telling the reader what the answer is. Resonance. That’s what I’m looking for, in everything I do.
Yesterday evening, off I went with my eldest son to coach his soccer team. I was as tired as I’d been all day. There wasn’t time to eat supper. But when we got onto the field, the hour flew by, my exhaustion vanished. I love coaching soccer. I don’t love it because I’m an expert. I’m not. I love it because it’s a creative undertaking, and because I find myself, in this role, engaged with the kids on the team: trying to figure out what will motivate them as individuals, assessing their levels of interest and skill, and asking them to push themselves in small ways—for each player this will be different. I also love it because it’s fun. We’re meeting up so they can play a game.
I think we all need to play. We should all be doing something every day that feels playful, just for fun, something that lifts us out of the ordinary. Something we don’t have to do for any reason other than it makes us happy.
When teaching is going well, it’s for the same reasons. It’s because we’re engaged in a creative enterprise together. Writing and revision should feel playful. I know this won’t always be the case, and writing is work, no doubt about it, but for me—and what I want to share—is that writing, especially fiction, is play. You get to live inside your imagination like you haven’t had permission to do since you were a child. You get to explore whatever interests you. You get to ask questions and wonder and roam freely around your own mind, making it all up, drawing from the back of your mind “perishable moments you hadn’t even noticed that you noticed.” To paraphrase Lynda Barry.
And that’s about where I’ve gotten in my process of discernment. Expect me to release a mission statement in the next decade or so.
P.S. Read this, from the New Yorker (wish I had a subscription!): an inspiring and moving essay by George Saunders about his own creative writing teachers. (Side note: how the heck did Tobias Wolff have time to help parent three children, work full-time leading graduate classes in creative writing, thoroughly read every submission to the program, and write and publish his own books?)
P.S. 2 Here’s how I started this morning. I slept in until 6:45. Then I listened to this song and did kundalini exercises for about half an hour, while the older kids started their day too, but before the younger two got up. It was a good start and I feel much more rested. First discernment decision: I’m limiting my 5AM exercise to no more than three times per week; I’m open to dropping to even less if I’m still really tired. I will reassess in six weeks.
Confession: I do not enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to myself talk.
I do, however, enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to others talk about a subject I’ve opened up for them: this is the method I’ve been using in my class, asking the students to break into smaller groups and discuss a subject, then return to the larger group to share their thoughts, and I love how ideas begin to flow, to cross-pollinate, to deepen, and I am simply a facilitator, responding to the discussion, but not imposing my will upon it. I am not there to be the expert. I am not an expert. This is not to downplay my experiences, simply to state the facts: I have no advanced degrees, no areas of speciality. I am a human being, alive to the world around me, I am a parent, attuned to my children’s needs as best I can be, I am a reader who loves language and the structuring of ideas in many forms, and I am a writer who will never be convinced that accomplishment matters—my own accomplishment, that is. What is accomplishment? It sounds so final. I am interested in process.
I am always willing to examine a problem from a different angle. I am willing to change my mind, based on new evidence, or a new argument.
I want to play and be playful, no matter how old I get.
And so my goals are changing before my eyes. They are changing as the year progresses, this year in which my focus has been WRITE. When I woke up this morning, early and exhausted, I thought that this past year has not been about WRITING at all, but about the after-effects of having written. I wrote, I published, and I am living the part that comes next. And I do not love it. I do not even seem to like it, most of the time. Even while I pour myself into it, even while I work to make the most of what has been offered to me, I only find myself growing wearier and wearier, drained, exhausted, perhaps even depressed. Lost. Uncertain. Bereft of a clear goal to call me onward; a steady dull and dulling march that I continue because I don’t know how to stop.
Here I am.
What comes next? How do I access my passion once again? How do I reset my routines, alter them, even minutely, to feed the life I want to have? If I can’t name that life, can’t see it, how can I make changes to my routines in order to step toward it?
Here is where my imagination stalls out. What do I want?
I want to write challenging stories: stories that challenge me, conceptually, that push me in a new direction.
I want …
Do I want to train for a race? Do I want to teach more classes? Do I want to change careers? Do I want to study yoga or meditation more deeply? Do I want to spend more time with children? Do I want to coach more soccer? Do I want to go on a writing retreat? Do I want more quiet writing days or weeks? Do I want to host more friends for dinner? Do I want to sponsor and host a refugee family? Do I want to make more music?
Oh, what small voice is calling me?
Why can’t I hear you, small voice?
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