It was the moment when I was on my hands and knees trying to vacuum up every last tiny fragment of broken glass off the kitchen tiles—a science experiment gone awry at 9:38PM—and I was still dressed in my coaching gear after our exciting exhibition game, and I could hear the younger kids upstairs calling for me to come kiss them goodnight, and I saw Carrie-in-France like a ghost haunting the scene, like an ephemeral substance dissolving before me in a puff of breath. I could not be here and be Carrie-in-France. What did it mean, to be Carrie-in-France? It meant being so unencumbered by responsibility that my mind could empty out and be still and I could think clearly, think with a relaxation and peacefulness that allowed for fantastically ambitious plots and schemes and plans. Not just to dream of them but to see how they might be realized.
And here, with the tiny sparkles of broken glass everywhere, glass covered in corn syrup, which was drawing an army of ants—ants! we have ants!!—it was all I could do to keep my shit together, if you know what I mean. I was congratulating myself on only yelling the tiniest bit, on staying relatively calm, and not freaking out completely, on merely with a sense of exhaustion and inevitability getting to the task of making our kitchen floor safe for bare feet while the boy doing the science experiment stood by sheepishly, another glass jar in his hands.
Here is also what I thought: it’s okay. It’s okay because I brought back those ideas from France. I carried them home (and not in glass jars) and I’m working on them now. But when those ideas shrivel up, when their energy dissipates, I need to remember to head out again on a retreat, I need to remember that it’s not a waste of time, it’s a necessity, it’s the path to clarity. I can’t replicate what happened in France here at home. Here at home fills me with a different kind of energy, a different kind of drive—the chaos, the whirling schedule, the stolen moments of peace and stillness (like right now); I don’t begrudge here at home.
I just need the other too. Now I know.
If I were to write a blog post today, I would reflect on the past five days of utter solitude, days during which I rarely spoke out loud; there were several days when I spoke to no one in English. I read, I noodled, I listened to podcasts and surfed the news, emailed Kevin, ate pretty good food, kept to a reasonably regular routine, wrote and edited the museum piece, and went for several runs and many more walks.
I was not bored.
I was not even particularly lonely, except for the morning when I woke up with a raging bladder infection. Good thing I carry antibiotics with me in case of such an occurrence. Yes, that morning I was lonely and in pain and felt far from home and prone to worst-case-scenario thinking, but even that morning, I understood that I was self-sufficient and knowledgeable enough to cope with the unexpected crisis.
During these five days of solitude, I haven’t been lonely, I haven’t been bored, and I haven’t been restless either, not restless of mind or body. The body has taken care of itself. I’ve gone for long walks, and finally on Sunday felt a twinge of anxiety that whispered — you need to sweat! So I went for a run, and ran and ran and ran on the beautiful trail, discovering only afterward that I’d gone nearly 9 km, the longest and least painful run in many many months. Today, I ran again, pushing even further as I could feel my body beginning to trust that it would be okay: nearly 11 km. How joyous it is to run without pain; I’ve been injured for so long that I’d forgotten the joy of pushing against the ordinary discomforts and limitations of a body being asked to run — breath, heart, muscles, endurance. Running with a chronic injury you feel all these limitations, but you feel also a terrible dread that springs from pain from a different source, pain that whispers, Are you doing yourself damage?
For the month of March, my theme was health. This month, it would seem natural to name my theme: travel. But strangely, I think instead it’s: paying attention. The theme has arisen because I am travelling, and also because I am alone. What I’ve been paying attention to are my own interests, whims, rhythms, appetites, and desires. How often in a person’s daily life does an opportunity like this present itself? I’ve fantasized over the years about going on writing retreats in the middle of nowhere, and someone told me about a retreat where you do yoga and ride horses (not at the same time) that sounded fabulous, and a couple of years ago my mom did a silent retreat that intrigued me. But the risks seemed too great (the risk of it being a waste troubled me), especially given the heavy load of responsibility I’d be leaving on Kevin’s shoulders while away. So I never pursued these ideas.
I didn’t pursue this trip, either. It just landed in my lap, and because it was work-related, I said yes.
I thought I was saying yes, in part, to a writing retreat. I was excited to see what I would make with all this free time. (And I’ve made something interesting and specific related to the Museum’s exhibit, but it belongs here, and will stay here.) Why am I not writing my new novel? I thought, as the week went on. I tried, but the words felt dead. Yet the words, here, in my daily meditations and on my blog, these words felt alive. They interested me. And so I’ve been writing after all, just not the material I’d pencilled into the schedule.
Something else happened as the week went on. I stopped panicking about what I was not doing. I stopped worrying about what I should be doing. I started paying attention to what I wanted to do.
I wanted to read. So I’ve been reading: a David Sedaris essay collection (which has a story set in Normandy, as it happens); Ali Smith’s brilliant novel How to be both that somehow merges the world of a 15th century painter with a British teenager from the now, and weirdly also happens to be a book about sitting and looking at paintings, which I did not know when I chose it for this trip; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, on black bodies in Amercian history and the present, which challenged me, moved me to tears, and has inspired me to think differently about Dreamers and Dreams (and he’s going to be in Rouen THIS SATURDAY at the same bookstore where I had an event on Thursday, and I must figure out how to go, because, honestly, how is that even possible?); and now I’m trucking through Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I wanted to write. So I’ve been writing. Mostly things like this. Scraps. Ephemera.
I wanted to rest. So I’ve been resting.
Most of all, it seems, I’ve been resting my mind.
It’s taken exactly 13 days of rest to recognize that I may already be writing what I’m supposed to be writing. I am writing what has come to me, which is all we can ever do, when we’re trying to make something out of what we love and believe.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ve been anxiously searching for purpose down dead ends, without seeing what is open before me. Wide open, like that field at the end of our street when I was a child in Managua, with its dusty path and matted grass and garbage and crumbling concrete walls — the place my mind travelled to when I wrote the phrase: open before me.
I will probably never be content, exactly, with what I’ve made. But maybe, just maybe, I can be content with what I’m doing.
P.S. Just thought of my word of the year: PEACE. Yes.
At the beginning of this year, I had the idea of choosing a theme for each month, something I would particularly focus on, no matter what else was happening.
January’s theme was daily meditation and writing.
February’s theme is writing, travel and rest. I did no writing while travelling. None. Instead of writing, I rested—it was mental rest as much as physical rest. The time spent driving proved unexpectedly peaceful, as if my mind had been craving space. How often do I let myself stare out the window, how often do I let my mind wander? There are moments, certainly, throughout the day, but these are of necessity brief, fleeting.
Spacious wandering. Staring out the window. Can I do this more often? Can I give myself permission?
I was ready to write again when we got home!
I was also ready for a few changes. In keeping with February’s theme of rest, I am trying to get more sleep. This means going to bed earlier. I managed to be in the bed with the lights out before 10PM all week, and it made the early morning exercise so much easier, and more sensible.
I’m also five days into a two-week experiment with giving up caffeine (especially coffee). I’d been drinking a lot of coffee, and in truth, it seemed to feed my nervous energy and anxiety. Peppermint tea is an okay replacement; I can’t complain (can I complain?). My insides feel steadier. Rest.
As in January, I continue to meditate. This week I’ve been combining meditation with movement because it keeps me awake. It also gives me a chance to practice some kundalini yoga at home.
I haven’t chosen a theme for March, yet.
Other themes I’m interested in exploring in the months ahead include: reading (imagine sitting and reading for a whole month!), research, music (songwriting/recording), photography, yoga and meditation, swimming, writing fiction by hand. What would be on your list?
This morning I hosted the final session in my inaugural, experimental series of Writing Adventures. The feedback I received circled around the theme of welcome, I think. Participants thanked me for giving them space and and a place to write, as well as guidance throughout; the space felt safe; there was something spiritual or peaceful about the exercise, or about the environment that was created in the room. Several participants told me that the writing had been therapeutic. Some found it challenging or hard, while others expressed that they’d had a lot of fun.
Ultimately, the sessions confirmed for me that this is not a writing exercise, although it uses writing as its medium. It’s an exercise about making or creating, about shaping experience, about exploring the unknown. It’s about being led to a place we never meant to go, to find something we didn’t know we were looking for. It’s an exercise that can bring a sense of peace or resolution to a problem that your mind may be working on, quietly, behind the scenes—I frequently uncover an emotional theme, something I haven’t otherwise been able to acknowledge or recognize. That is why the same “map” or “guide” can be followed again and again on these adventures and never become repetitive; there is always another story waiting to be found. We live within ever-shifting emotional states that affect how we interact in ways both profound and mundane.
Finally, I observed again that there is no perfect time to sit down and write. Forget about finding the perfect time, writers of the world! There will always be external blocks rearing up—I’m too tired, my to-do list is too long, I should be spending this time with X, it’s been a long day, I can’t squeeze it in, I just don’t feel like I can go there, not right now, maybe tomorrow, I’m too distracted, I can’t sit still. All legitimate barriers. But these barriers dissolve as soon as I sit before the page and open myself to what’s waiting to be found. Maybe those moments when we are least inclined to force ourselves to attend are the moments when we most would benefit from stopping and listening to the quiet (or clamouring!) voice within.
I arranged the first Adventure as a three-session series because it’s an exercise that becomes easier to do with practice: you figure out what risks you can take, what rules you need to break (interior self-binding rules, mainly), and how to let go and follow where you’re led. It’s the letting go that’s the hardest. It’s letting go of the voice in your head that says, This is not important. It takes practice to learn how to reply to that voice: It doesn’t matter whether or not this is important, I’m doing it. What that voice in your head won’t tell you is that you actually can’t know while you’re making something what value it may have, what necessary step it represents in the piecing together of a larger puzzle, and where this is leading you.
Imagine this. You are crossing a creek in the middle of a thick fog come down to earth. It’s like saying of a stepping stone, the only one you can see right now before you: This is not an important stone. You wouldn’t, would you. You would in humility understand implicitly that you just don’t know. You just don’t know—and it doesn’t matter. To think that it matters is to completely miss the point of what lies before you. So you step on the stone, and you come to another, and you just don’t know. And that is how you find not only where you are, but where you’re going.
P.S. No new Writing Adventures scheduled yet. Please send me a message or comment below if you are interested in participating in future Adventures, and you will be the first to know. Also, I would love to hear, from those of you who participated in the sessions, whether there was anything you strongly liked or, perhaps even more importantly, disliked.
My word of this year is PEACE.
Usually I test out a few words and make an impulsive final choice right before meeting with my WOTY friends. This year, peace was the first word I tried and it felt immediately right. Maybe it’s the way it makes me feel the instant I say or think it. Just to repeat the word peace makes my breathing a little deeper and steadier, seems to calm or comfort me.
The word peace seems connected to the state of being I described in my previous post, on my changing relationship to writing. I don’t want to suggest that I’m no longer anxious about what I’m writing, that I’m not scared sometimes when I write, that I don’t worry about what I’m making. I’m saying that I can feel those emotions and still sense beneath them a sturdiness of purpose and identity that feels solid or rooted, or whole. Maybe, I think, confidence and purpose pours forth from a place of peace.
I am also drawn to the word because pacifism is an important part of my faith tradition. What does pacifism mean, as a lived principle? I want to study how to make peace a part of my life and being. I want to reflect on the concept of peace—is it merely the absence of negatives, of conflict or war? Or is it, rather, the presence of something powerful, even in situations of conflict or distress? Yes, I think so. Peace exists underneath. It can be the source of something, or it can be a state of being. In my meditation right now, I’m exploring the difference between a state of mind that is created by positive thinking, such as “You can do this!”, and a state of mind that is not dependent on exterior forces or encouraging self-talk. It can’t be forgotten or mislaid. It’s just there. It’s like water flowing underground, or like a river that is always flowing. Peace like a river.
What I hope not to explore this year is passivity—an offshoot of the word peace. My intention is not to ignore or avoid conflict. I want to figure out how to address and acknowledge conflict, how to engage with different opinions and ideas, how to disagree without feeling threatened. How to let others be. How often do I choose not to speak my mind, or not to step up and engage, because I’m uncomfortable acknowledging that to do so would be to admit disagreement? It isn’t that conflict doesn’t exist, it’s only that I’m pretending it doesn’t exist. That is not, ultimately, a peaceful stance. It is a passive stance.
Here’s what I believe: Problems can’t be solved or resolved without some conflict, some clashing between different points of view, some emotional discomfort; it often feels easier to walk away, to ignore the problem or complain about it behind the scenes, without confrontation; and sometimes walking away is a measured decision, if we’re not prepared or strong enough for confrontation, or if the problem isn’t worth the risk of disruption to an important relationship. But if change is wanted, change is needed, change is longed for, it’s worth asking: How does change come about? What’s my part? All change is disruptive. It causes discomfort. This year, I challenge myself to engage, to disagree, to disappoint, to carry uncomfortable emotions, to take responsibility for my beliefs, and to express them from a place of peace.
Peace is a kind word. It’s a caring word. I think it’s a word that will take me outside of my own head and desires, and connect me to others.
This year, I’m going to rely on the strength of this word. It’s shaping up to be a year of travel, of new responsibilities and ventures, and of trying to keep my shit together while the whirl of our family’s activities and personalities, mixed with my own ambitions and desires, spins and dances and pulls me in many different directions.
Peace. Peace. Peace.