Friday, noon. I sit in perfection on the deck of a cottage overlooking a calm lake, pines and birch and cedar moving in a light breeze, the sound of children playing on the rocks below, wading in the shallows. An iridescent dragonfly flutters up and away. The sun is hot. I am wearing a swim suit underneath a brown faded sundress, and a half-drunk cup of coffee is at my elbow.
It feels like this could last forever.
Of course, it can’t and won’t. But there are times when a moment gives the illusion of settling and holding and the mind and body relax so completely that there is no thinking about later, tomorrow, work, duty, responsibility. Ambition vanishes too.
Because what am I part of if not something much greater than my mere human ambition can imagine?
I want for all the gift of rest, respite, dignity, play. At a moment like this, I can imagine no greater gift than somehow creating space for rest and respite, for all who live on this earth. Yet instead we seem most adept at inventing barriers, walls, borders, crises, battles, weapons, dogma that excludes, ideologies of fear and control. There is too much to grieve. I become overwhelmed. I grow weary and distracted. I can’t think clearly.
I sit and watch the lake water move in patterns of eternal symmetry.
Perhaps, I think, my mind is being cleared. Perhaps I will return home less weary, more aware of what matters to me, which patterns I wish to nurture, and which I wish to discard, in order to be a participant in a world where all of these gifts may be shared.
Relief. Simple pleasure. Ease. Rest. Hope.
PS I reviewed Lawrence Hill’s new novel, The Illegal, for The Globe and Mail, and it’s online now, and will appear in tomorrow’s paper. The book is a fast-paced, prescient read on a subject that could not be more timely — the movement of people across borders.
My meditation guide invites me to enjoy sitting in silence for twenty minutes, taking these quiet moments for myself, to which I must reply: GAH! Yesterday, I meditated on the train home from a day-trip to Toronto, while just behind me a woman agreed compulsively with everything her friend said, even while her friend was in the midst of saying it: “yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes!” Today, I meditated in my office with the constant beep-beep and deep motorized rumble of trucks as Hydro employees work on the wires in front of our house, which has been a constant for at least a week. The dogs chimed in during the last five minutes of the meditation to howl at … well, whatever dogs howl at, and I think ours are particularly thick in their choices. Are you making good choices, dogs? Are you?
Am I making good choices?
Well, I keep meditating, despite the lack of silence, inner or outer. I think that’s a good choice. I’ve returned to a regular running schedule, despite some twinges in the hamstring. I think that could prove not to be a good choice, but I feel better about running than not running, and I’m making some gains in endurance and cardio again, so, hey, there’s probably a fifty-fifty chance that it’s not a bad choice.
Kevin chose to invest in some new soccer nets for our backyard. Really good choice. Fabulous choice! The kids have been outside non-stop, either on the trampoline or playing soccer in this happy spring weather we’ve been having. We may never be able to grow grass in that strip between nets, but I’m still thinking it’s a good choice.
I was also thinking, while looking out the train window yesterday, and watching the just-rained-upon farmland zoom past, that here in Canada we have such a low threshold for excitement about what constitutes spring. A bit of sun, a touch of warmth beneath a brisk breeze, and we’re all outside grinning and hi-fiving each other. Sure, the grass is brown, the ground is wet, the flowers have scarcely peeked through the mud, and all the trash left behind by melting snow banks is suddenly visible. Sure, it’s windy and rainy and when the sun goes behind a cloud it’s kind of chilly, in fact—but there’s light after supper, and the birds are noisy, and the kids are outside being noisy too, and we’re leaping and kicking our heels together for spring, spring, spring.
PS I successfully checked off from my list all of the work-related responsibilities for the past eight days. Book club; followed by ceremony for the winners of the KPL contest; followed by a reading in Ridgeway, Ontario (where the organizer, who also owns a lovely bookshop in Ridgeway, near Niagara Falls, let me come to her store after the reading to pick out books for each of my kids! isn’t that generous!?); followed by a meeting in Toronto yesterday; followed by an interview today. And now I’ve completed the public work for a little while and can dig back into the private, quiet, sitting-and-writing-all-day work. Oh, and the laundry. Light lifting. That’s the phrase that comes to mind. I don’t know why, but I’m glad. Maybe because it’s spring? All of this, despite the busyness and the effort, and the noise, has felt like light lifting. On we go.
Breath; body; song.
What are the first three things that pop into your head, in answer to the question: what are you grateful for right now? These were mine, this morning. Oddly, each feels imperfect right now, reminders of frailty rather than strength. My breath is still raspy from the remnants of the flu. My body continues to be tired. Physically, I can’t do everything that I want to do, right now; or, more precisely, not at the level of my expectations.
Expectations. Can I let them go? On every front, in every way, in order to appreciate more deeply the experiences that open to me?
Lastly, song. Why song, I wonder? This morning’s violin practice was fraught with frustration, the child ignoring rhythm, playing quarter notes as eighth notes, and I shouldn’t mind so much, but as I strummed along on my ukulele feeling like an eccentric background musician, it was driving me around the bend. No patience. We never found our rhythm. (Side note: the ukulele accompaniment is her idea; mostly we like this practice time together.) So, song? I’m trying to write a character who is a singer, and I’m struggling just now. But then I turn on the radio and hear a song like this, and I’m stopping in a parking lot and pulling out my little notebook and writing down the lyrics: “When I grow up I want to be a picture of my mother holding on to me.” (Jenn Grant, from the 2014 album Compostela, track is called “Bring Me a Rose,” and you can listen on CBC’s music site, here.)
Imperfect as breath, imperfect as body; evidence of promise, hope, connection, life.
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.
This morning I woke at 5:54AM, realized my alarm hadn’t gone off, leapt out of bed, and somehow got into running gear with shoes on and teeth brushed before my running friend arrived at the door at 6AM. Good grief! It’s been that kind of week, with little margin for error in the schedule. But I suppose it’s also been that kind of week, with things turning out just fine even if the wheels aren’t turning completely smoothly. (And how about that–I need a mere 6 minutes to prep in the morning? I could be sleeping in!)
I’ve been working on my manners while driving. Driving = swearing, in my world. There’s something about being stuck in a vehicle, possibly but not necessarily late, behind other vehicles that are behaving in erratic nonsensical fashion that brings out a rage I rarely experience otherwise. My kids are very helpful, calling out my muttered curses. “Mom, you said the “H” word,” CJ told me yesterday as we sat at a green light behind a car whose driver did not seem to understand the meaning of green lights. Everyone was too politely Canadian to honk, of course. “I’m sorry,” I apologized to CJ. “I’m really trying to work on not saying bad words while driving.”
“I know what you should do,” he piped up, while munching a cookie. “You should meditate in the car.” This cracked everyone up when I reported it later on, no doubt everyone imagining Carrie sitting with eyes closed ignoring the traffic and breathing deeply; but actually, I did take a few deep breaths–eyes open–and it helped. It’s all about weighing what matters, and whether you really want to work yourself into a snit over [fill in the blank]. Usually, the answer is, big picture, I’d rather have a chat with my cookie-eating kid than be gripping the wheel, shoulders tensed, cursing the eccentricities of those who share the road. If only I could recognize that before I start swearing, not during. Connecting the dots between meditation and real life is the real challenge.
Speaking of challenges, yesterday definitely qualifies. Piano lessons, picking up kids from different schools at different times, writing on laptop in car between pickups. Home to eat take-out pizza fetched by Kevin, then up to the little kids’ school for their arts night, visiting with friends and neighbours, ducking out early, dropping little kids at home in care of their older sister who was distracted by her imminently due science fair project (the dining-room table covered in chopsticks, copper wire, batteries, and bouncy balls), and at last, getting changed and zipping over to Conrad Grebel College to read as the final guest in their Mennonite Writers Series. After all that running, what a surprising pleasure it was to come to a stop in the Grebel Chapel. I could not have felt more welcomed. The evening was a total pleasure, and something about the format felt as natural as if I were reading to my kids at bedtime (dressed in nicer clothes, wearing makeup, with a microphone pinned to my shirt). As I sat there at the end of the presentation looking out at this warm and generous audience, I thought, wow, this is a damn lucky life. Embrace it, receive it, savour it.
And then go home to tea and bed in such a happy state of mind that you forget to set the alarm, apparently.
Anyway … I’m reading again tonight at WLU, at Lucinda House, 6:30PM. Then I’ve got a little break in the readings, with more to come in April. I will keep you posted. And I’ll let you know how the car meditation is going …
Yesterday, my youngest stayed home from school. I didn’t want to alter my routine too drastically and he is old enough now to be accommodating and to entertain himself quite easily. I said I was going to meditate for twenty minutes, and he was okay with it, especially when I told him to bring his little mini-super-hero figures into my office so he could play while I meditated. I told him he could make noise, but please not to ask me for anything for those twenty minutes (genuine emergencies excepted; but the beauty of having an office is that the kids already know that rule about interrupting me).
He played for the first ten minutes or so. Then I heard him leave. I heard him come back. And it got very quiet. I knew he was in the room with me, but I didn’t know what he was doing.
When I opened my eyes at the end of the exercise, that’s what I saw: see photo above. He was meditating. He had chosen to sit cross-legged with his hands in a prayer position. This is not how I sit when I meditate. He wasn’t copying me; it was the position he chose on his own. When I asked him about why he’d chosen to sit that way, he couldn’t explain it. He had a few questions about the voice in the computer (I use a guided meditation app). Who was that man, and is he real, and can other people hear him too?
I have a couple of observations about meditating. I love it. Or maybe I only have one observation. That’s it. Clearly this is something my mind takes to; reminds me of running, a bit, how when I found the running, it seemed to answer some question in me that I hadn’t known was there, silently being asked.
I love following the tracks of my thoughts into a corner of the mind where I am suddenly falling backward into deep snow and staring at an enormous open sky, in awe.
Even today, meditating alone (with dog snoring at my feet), with my mind in a state of apparent dissatisfaction–even today, I loved the exercise. Why?
My mind flitted today, ran everywhere, often to places I did not want to be.
I kept returning to breath and that helped, but didn’t cure what ailed my mind, its anxiety that I was doing everything wrong.
But you know what? Even while I worried, I knew on a deeper level: This is not an exercise interested in right or wrong. Do it, and it counts. You will learn something, every time. Not necessarily something big and astonishing. But something interesting–it’s waiting to be found, every single time. Today’s exercise was a good reminder to the frustrated, dissatisfied self: you won’t always think you’re doing a good job at the tasks you’re doing; maybe you’re even right about that. But the real work isn’t confined to a single instance, it’s in the accumulation of many instances. It’s in repetition of effort, and returning again and again to the discipline you’ve chosen to get to know more deeply. You can’t know in advance where it’s taking you. You don’t know exactly what you’re making. But that’s the beauty and the mystery.