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.
“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.
This post is illustrated exclusively by cellphone-created photographs. Bear with me.
I’m presenting as dazed and confused this morning. No special reason for it. Could be the season. So many plans to keep in my head. I should be making good use of the quiet house, which will transform into a temporarily endangered species, seen rarely to never, come Friday around 3:10PM. Instead, I’m enjoying it. I just had a nap by the fire with the dogs. This is like stepping into a confessional. Shhhh. It was so so lovely. Forgive me.
I dreamed that I’d accidentally downloaded a virus onto my computer that rendered it useless; it kept running a program that showed a creepy GPS map of where I was at all times, with dire messages directed at me. That was not so lovely. But it does point to a certain subconscious anxiety underlying the lovely nap time, which is that I have work to do!
Good work, work I’ve been enjoying, but work nevertheless.
This morning, I got up early and went for a walk with my Thursday running partner. Tuesday’s running partner did the same. I feel immensely lucky to have running partners willing to walk with me during injury. Do you know how hard it is to get up early and go for a walk? It’s about a billion times harder than getting up early to go for a run. No zap of endorphins to reward your efforts. Hats off to all early morning walkers.
Tis the season of the festive school concert, and that’s where Fooey and I were yesterday evening, at AppleApple’s. Here, Fooey is reading patiently before the concert begins; ie. that is not a scowl of irritation. The scowl of irritation arrived when the concert was over and we had to wait around in the crowded gymnasium for AppleApple to come and find us (she thought we’d come and find her in the band room, until she realized we didn’t know where the band room was…). Anyway. Concert. Strangely glorious, I must say, and I don’t mean the parts involving my daughter specifically, I mean the whole thing. I should not be allowed out without a package of tissues. Because in the moment, there seemed nothing more moving than these groups of 12 & 13 year kids singing, dancing, and playing instruments together. (Maybe I’m going through something hormonal?) The squeaking of reeded instruments, the tuning (lack thereof), the confidence, self-consciousness, talent, and bravery–the participation. I would do all it over again.
Wait, I’m going to. Albus’s festive school concert is on tonight. Wish me luck, though. The turning. The tuning.
Have I shown you this picture yet? It’s a scene from My Perfect Family, you know, the family that is mostly fantasy, but occasionally surfaces into reality, in one’s living-room–the family you dreamed of creating back when you thought you were in control of such things.
Children reading by the fire. Perfect Children reading Christmas books lovingly collected over many years and brought out every December by The Perfect Mom. I have photographic proof that this actually happened. Once. Last week. For a few minutes.
Okay, thanks for walking along with me this morning. The confusion and daze is lifting, I think. Time for work.
PS I won a prize! This blog was judged First in the category of Writing & Literature and Third in the category of Life at the 2014 Canadian Weblog Awards. I get this button. I’m not sure what to do with it, so I’m pinning it here.
The worst has happened—in terms of your literary life in Canada, that is, which are terms admittedly insular, and insignificant, perhaps, to all but those who’ve published a book of literary fiction in this calendar year. But there it is. Within this specific framework, at this specific moment in your publishing life, the worst has happened. You’re not on the long-list of the premier Canadian fiction prize.
This has just happened.
You’re surprised (and relieved) not to feel envy for those upon whom the light is shining. But you don’t. They need the light too. You don’t begrudge them a single spark.
What you feel, immediately, perhaps inexplicably, is shame and very little else. You feel like vanishing. You feel as raw as if you’d been sliced open, as vulnerable as a scurrying animal exposed in an alien environment. Shame is the most powerful emotion right now. You can’t imagine going outside of your house ever again.
So what are you going to do?
So you sit here writing. You sit and write because what else could you possibly do, especially if you can’t go outside ever again, even though it is a beautiful sunny day? You sit here writing, laughing at yourself, saying, you’re right here, breathing and alive, and you aren’t going to die from this. Your family is beautiful and funny and active, and they love you no less for this. You haven’t done anything wrong or evil. You haven’t hurt anybody. You haven’t actually failed, because there was nothing you could have done differently to pass. You are the same woman you were this morning, and you will be the same woman tomorrow. You will find your footing.
You are not made for the sprint distance, but for the long hard lonely run.
It isn’t meant to be easy, because if it were, it would count for nothing in your mind.
It’s meant to be hard. You learn most when it’s hard. You learn how to access reserves of strength and humour you did not know you had. You learn how to feel things deeply. You learn compassion for the deep, painful feelings of others. You learn repair. You learn self-governance and self-control. You learn discipline. Maybe, after you’re through writing this post, you’ll learn perspective, too, letting go, you’ll go eat some lunch. So, this is the worst that could happen? So, your reward is not going to be a bright prize and audience applause? You don’t know what your reward is going to be. It doesn’t matter. You aren’t doing this for the reward, you never were, and you never will. You’re doing this for life. You’re doing this to pattern words into story, to carry a reader into another world, to share your ideas in ways that can be taken in deeply and felt.
You want readers to find your book, so this is a disappointment. You know disappointment. It’s a totally non-lethal side effect, a condition of being who you are, someone with high hopes, dreamy and possibly delusional optimism, joyful dogged effort. And joyful dogged effort can’t be stopped by disappointment, only paused briefly, stalled briefly, here in this little rut of a moment that must be walked through to be gotten through.
It’s going to hurt, yes. It hurts, yes. This too is life. This too shall pass. Already it occurs to you that you may, in fact, be able to leave your house and go outside again. Perhaps even later this afternoon. It’s going to be okay.
And tomorrow you’ll write something else because tomorrow this will look different to you again. This is of the moment. This a record of what is happening now.
It’s the day before my birthday. I get all contemplative at this time of year, and on this date, specifically. I’ve got journal entries from Dec. 28th (hand-written) going back a decade or more, reflecting on the year past and hopes for the future. Something about reading over these entries fills me with melancholy, though I can’t quantify why, exactly. It’s not because I wish things had gone differently. Maybe it’s the passage of time, generally. Maybe I recognize that I wasn’t always so confident or certain. That shouldn’t make me sad, though. I had to be who I was to become who I am. Today I read the entry from 2005. So much of what I’ve accomplished since then seems improbable. So much could not have been predicted. I had no inkling that I would devote a year to triathlon and marathon training, nor could I have imagined the confidence and determination gained by training and racing. My parents were still together at that point. My father-in-law was still alive, as were both of my mother’s parents. I suspect those losses, yet to come, shaped me, too, and that grief and struggle made me into someone slightly different, someone more open to challenge and conflict and error.
The truth about becoming a better writer is that it’s a long-term process. You start with a flair for language, a love of story and words, as a young writer; you may have a gift for innovation or for structural sense, enormously important building blocks to work with. But it’s patience, only, that will make you a better writer, as you practice the craft faithfully and with hope, while you wait for life to tell you what matters to you, and what it is you want to say, what you want to put into the world. I think about that now. I didn’t used to, so much.
I’m okay with getting older. I’m so much more at ease being me, living in this body, aware of my own limitations and flaws, and comfortable pushing against them, when I feel inspired, or settling right into them, when I’m just plain tired of trying to be better. Sometimes good enough is plenty.
I’ve embraced my own high expectations. I haven’t been crushed by them.
This past year has been an odd one. This is the year that gave me Girl Runner. Wow. This was also the year of employment uncertainty and the stress of financial strain, of unexpected expenses and hits. This was the year I got turned down for virtually every grant and job I applied for. Yet somehow this was also the year of out-of-the-blue serendipity: job offers and book deals. This was the year my writing earned me a good living. Wow, again. This was the year I did not get a hair cut. Yikes! This was the year I applied for midwifery school, got in, and decided not to pursue that career route. This was the year of the concussion. This was the year I taught my first course. This was the year I didn’t can anything. The year we got a dishwasher. The year I drove more kilometres in support of my kids’ activities than I’d ever dreamed possible. The year my green dreams faded to a paler shade.
Here’s what I wrote in 2005 about parenting, and it rings so very true all these years later: “Basically what I want for my kids is the world to be open for them, and them to feel comfortable within it, never excluded or discouraged.”
Maybe I wanted that for myself, too. Maybe that’s exactly what I’ve found and what I continue to try to nurture, for all of us: to be participants in the world around us.
We do a lot of asking for things, searching and applying and imagining ourselves elsewhere, making our requests. It’s part of participating in the world. Maybe getting turned down and turned away is part of participating too. So often what comes to us, when we’re open, is not what we’d asked for or anticipated. We just can’t know. Maybe that’s what makes me sad, on this day of looking back and looking ahead: I really can’t know. There is no way to prepare for what’s ahead. How to let go? How to be open to what the world has to offer, to be determined and ambitious and demanding of ourselves, and also at peace with what we’re given?
I’m a little bit terrified of looking ahead at the year to come. If all goes well, here is what will happen. I will finish Girl Runner and see it published here in Canada. I will get a good head shot (and that long-neglected hair cut). I will research toward a new book, and start writing it. I will consider teaching again. I will play soccer again, come spring. I will return to running longer distances. I will practice yoga blissfully in my peaceful office. I will get a standing desk or even a treadmill desk. I will see my children do wonderful things: play soccer, swim, play piano, do gymnastics, play with friends. I will enjoy their company. I will continue to be blessed in my marriage.
If I write it all down, I fear it won’t come true. I want to knock on wood. Conversely, I want to write it all down and not fear at all what may come, because it’s only by hoping and dreaming for the best that the best can come to pass. That’s what I’ve learned. Forget superstition. The fear of dreaming and possibility is really the fear of disappointment. And tough though it is to accept, disappointment can be overcome. Much more difficult to overcome is the refusal to imagine, period.
So, here I am. December 28th, 2013. Dreaming big, as always.
We had to bake Christmas cookies. So said this lass, and she would do the mixing and measuring herself to make it happen. So while I whipped the butter and sugar, she sifted the dry ingredients. When it came time to combine the two, there seemed not nearly enough dry to sufficiently turn the wet into cookie dough.
“It looked like too much flour,” Fooey explained.
And then I explained that baking is like a chemistry experiment, and doesn’t respond well to measurement by whim. So we re-measured the dry, added it in, then added even more, and voila, cookies. We ate them plain as we didn’t have time to frost them, but it was a double batch, so we’ve got three trays’ worth of dough waiting in the fridge, wrapped in wax paper, ready to be rolled out and baked as an after-school snack. So far, we haven’t quite managed to follow through on that plan.
Today we’re getting the water softener replaced. We figured out something was wrong when we turned on the tap the other morning and nothing came out. Kevin was able to bypass the softener, so we do have water. Really, it could have been worse. But then the stove’s front panel stopped working. So it’s been that kind of a week.
Yesterday evening, while I was out at a soccer practice, Kevin received delivery of my manuscript, marked up with comments. I resisted the urge to read through it for about, oh, thirty seconds, and then gave in, and skimmed and scanned over a bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup. A short while later, I opened a message about the possibility of teaching again. At which point, I slid these two separate Big Things to the back of my mind and ordered them to stop yammering at me. And then I sliced up apples and pears for snack and wrangled the little kids into bed, read them the death scene from The Lion, The Witch, and Wardrobe, which required reading them the resurrection scene, too, which meant the lights went out later than planned. By then, Kevin and Albus were home from their soccer practice, and AppleApple was delivering a school presentation to the dogs (for want of a better audience), and we made tea and hot chocolate, and Albus and I texted while standing side by side in the kitchen, cracking each other up. (Butt jokes never really go out of style, I find.) And then Kevin went to hockey. The laundry never got folded. I set my alarm for an early morning boot camp. I climbed into bed.
Guess what was waiting for me — yup. My thoughts. All night, a mash-up of Girl Runner and teaching anxiety dreams played in my head. I spent an hour, around 3AM, wide awake, thinking thinking thinking. Begging my thoughts to turn off, please. Knowing everything would be clearer come morning. (Or at least less dire; I find middle-of-the-night rumination very unhelpful in this regard.)
Early this morning, I dragged myself out to boot camp. The theme appeared to be: train like a volleyball player! I have never done so many jumps — onto platforms and balls and just generally into the air, arms up — in my life. Now I’m at my desk with a where-do-I begin sensation. So I begin with the blog, naturally.
little Albus, kindergarten era, pre-texting
And I’ll end the blog by circling back to Christmas, the preparations for which seem especially scattered and ill-thought-out this year. Children do not have gifts. We will be scrambling at the last-minute, I fear. I seem to be waiting for someone else to take the initiative, to organize the outing to the toy shop, or the baking of the cookies (thanks, Fooey!), while I sit at my desk and wander through my imaginary world, trying to fit all the pieces together that still need fitting. Trying to make it all work.
I heard myself say to myself, around 3AM this morning, “Carrie, you can’t do everything.” Don’t tell me that! I told myself. Truth is, I long for multiple lives, for the ability to step from one identity to another, from one kind of work to another, with singular devotion to each. I would be so many things, if only there were little rooms in life that one could exist in simultaneously. Here’s my wish list of multiple lives: writer, devoted mother, teacher, long-distance runner, midwife, singer-songwriter, stage actress. Oh, and I’d have horses, too.
Anyone else have the multiple lives fantasy?