Yesterday, I drove to Toronto for a reading, and stopped in for a jolly afternoon visit at my publisher’s new office. I was going to visit my sister too, and really make a day of it, but she was sick. (I should have brought her chicken soup, but my germophobe tendencies won out.)
I noticed that many of yesterday’s conversations revolved around the idea of space.
Space for the mind to think. Space to breathe. Space to relax. Time is a form of space, and when it’s packed, it can feel cramped and tight. But even time that is packed with events and duties can feel spacious, in certain moments. My goal is to make even a busy day feel spacious, by settling into the present event, and offering my full attention.
I don’t always manage it, it’s true. When I’m tired, when I’m anxious about what’s coming up next, when I’m pulled in different directions, when I’m longing to do something else instead … then there’s no space, no flow, limited attention. I can ruin my own fun in this way. I call it: pushing myself ahead. What I mean is, I’m pushing myself out of the moment I’m in by occupying the ones upcoming, rehearsing them in advance, usually with a worried or impatient furrow to the brow. There’s also the problem of pushing myself back, going over errors in the past. And what about pushing myself entirely out of the picture?
My meditation right now is focused on Generosity. (Fittingly, I use an app called Headspace.) “What would you like to give to yourself?” asked the friendly voice of Andy-the-meditation-guide this morning. What would I like to give myself? My mind went blank.
Finally, I thought, forgiveness … enjoyment …
Forgiveness? Well, I understand it. I’m feeling guilty for slipping out early after my readings these past two nights. Terribly guilty. Both evenings I had a long drive before me, and I was very tired. I’d given my best effort on stage. I wanted to go home and sleep. No matter the circumstances: slipping out early is antithetical to how I’ve disciplined myself to behave. So I’m crawling with discomfort at having prioritized rest over being gracious, polite, respectful of the readers yet to come and of my hosts. I don’t know what’s right. And clearly I don’t know how to forgive myself for this decision.
As for enjoyment … I had a fun day yesterday. Once it got rolling, I didn’t worry, I felt relaxed and content. My uncertainty came when it ended. I wasn’t sure when to end it, when to transition to the next part, the part where I drive home and go to bed. I didn’t know what was best for me; indeed, as I write this post I can hardly let myself pose the dilemma in those terms: what was best for me? Maybe I didn’t know what was best for me because I frequently fail to take that into account; I was genuinely stumped by Andy’s question, thrown back on my heels. When I do something for myself, I feel like I’m stealing it. I shouldn’t take this. It isn’t mine.
Of course we all do many things we don’t particularly want to, for reasons of necessity, and we can find ways to enjoy rather than endure many of these. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about those little things we do for ourselves. What are they? And do you give yourself permission to enjoy these little things, wholly, without guilt, without suspecting you’ll be penalized? Do you give yourself that kind of space? It’s occurred to me that I do this only rarely. And that if I were to give something to myself, that is what I would give: the ability to recognize what I want, and to enjoy it when it comes.
Sounds easy. Strange it should be so hard.
Yesterday, we gave the kids a snow day. This was not my idea, but Kevin was very keen on it, so I agreed somewhat begrudgingly as it meant sacrificing a quiet day at home in my office, alone. Quite a lot of snow had fallen overnight, but it was crisp, clear, and beautiful, as you can see from the photo above. In the morning, Kevin took the kids sledding; some safety boundaries were pushed to great hilarity, apparently (good thing I hadn’t gone along!). In the afternoon, AppleApple and I went cross-country skiing. We still had all of our regular after-school activities: piano lessons, soccer practice, and a soccer game. It was awfully late when we gathered together again for supper. The boys had been home alone, playing dominoes, waiting to eat until we’d all arrived. Well after 7PM, we sat down to a very popular meal of soft tacos. I could sense the difference the unofficial snow day had made for everyone. We were so relaxed, and especially kind to each other. We sat for ages after we’d finished eating, talking and laughing; everyone.
It’s a luxury to take a holiday in the middle of the week. Kevin and I are both very fortunate to have jobs that allow us this level of flexibility, and yesterday was a reminder to take advantage of that freedom from time to time.
Today, my office is quiet. The dogs are sprawled out napping near my feet. I’ve set the timer for fifteen minutes.
I have some news. I’m going to France in April. (!!!) I’ll be away nearly three weeks, attending events at an arts festival in Normandy, and promoting the publication of the French translation of Girl Runner (or, Invisible Sous la Lumiere, as it is being called). I’ve been commissioned to write a short piece as part of the arts festival, and will be given an artist’s residency at a museum for about ten days. I’ve been dreaming of a writing retreat for a long time … just never imagined it would happen in France!
One sad thing about the trip is that I’ll be missing the performance of AppleApple’s adaptation of Macbeth. Of course, in 18 days, I’ll be missing much more than that. I think I’m missing everyone and everything in advance right now. Premature homesickness. Adventures are so much harder to throw yourself into when you’re leaving behind children.
Two readings coming up this weekend. I’ll be in Hamilton on Sunday evening at an event called Lit Live, and in Toronto on Monday evening at the Rowers Reading series. Check my upcoming events page for more info.
Ding-ding-ding! That’s my time. Tomorrow I’ll try to remember to tell you about turmeric tea, the laundromat, and swimming.
Where I’m at, in fifteen minutes or less.
Office, desk, laptop. Dog sleeping pressed up against my right foot. Peppermint tea at my elbow instead of coffee; liking it better this week than last.
Went for a short run this morning. Enjoyed the lightening sky and the birds. Stretched on the front steps.
Kundalini yoga during meditation.
I keep setting timers to keep myself on track. A timer for the run, timer for the yoga, timer for this post.
Writing, writing, writing. That is almost all I’m doing with my days.
In Girl Runner news, tonight I’ll be in Brampton at the library, reading and speaking. Check my events page for more info.
In soccer news: Tomorrow evening, I’ll be at a four-hour coaching course, which ironically means that I have to miss coaching the U16 Boys in a playoff games. On the weekend, I’m spending Saturday and Sunday in Hamilton to complete another coaching course. Last night, I completed an online course, mandatory for coaching certification. So, yes, it’s quite a commitment, let’s be frank. Every time I start feeling weary, I think, I’m doing this for my kid. And that gets me back on track.
In other Girl Runner news, that’s the Italian cover!
Time’s up. Happy Monday!
I’m not going to write in detail about Canada’s federal election last night, other than to say that I heard the news about a new government being voted into office as I was driving home in stormy weather from Grimsby, Ontario, after reading to a packed house, along with Peter Kavanagh (author of The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times). (Side note: That the Grimsby reading series could pack the house on the same night of the Canadian federal election AND the Blue Jays’ first home game in their best of seven series is an enormous tribute to the organizers. For the occasion, I wore my lucky jeans and t-shirt, which I’ve been wearing for the last three Jays’ victories — and when I don’t wear them, they lose, which means I have to wear them again tonight, even though tonight I’ll be coaching my eldest’s soccer team for the first time and the jeans and t-shirt are decidedly un-coach-like garb! Superstitions are so inconvenient. And yet so alluring to a certain personality-type. Busted. That’s me, clad in the same jeans and t-shirt for days on end, thinking it will change the outcome of a baseball game. But they won last night! They won! So …)
This photo dates from last week when the Jays clinched their best-of-five series. It marked the second time I wore the lucky shirt/jeans combo. And look at how they won!
Where was I?
Here I am, on a dull fall day in October, relieved to know that a new government will be setting the tone in Ottawa, a new government will be speaking for Canadians on the world stage. To be perfectly candid, I burst into tears when I heard the news on the radio, driving along the wind-whipped Skyway, alone in my little car. I burst into tears because it felt like the end of an angry and fearful man’s government. It felt like Canadians were saying: enough with the fear and anger—we want to be united not divided. Politicians disappoint, and I’m not naive; there are disappointments to come with this new government. But I’m also not willing to be cynical about the difference tone can make, at the highest level of leadership: if you think Canada is not a racist or xenophobic country, check out some of the letters to the editor in the Globe and Mail over the past few weeks, opinions unleashed and legitimized by the fearful, angry campaign run by the guy who is now our former prime minister. I burst into tears because the guy who won last night said: A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.
Maple leaves collected by me and CJ on our walk home from school yesterday.
Now to see those words put into policy. Now to see the reversal of the damage done.
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
Here is a portion of a conversation I had with Kevin the evening after my reading at the Sunshine Coast Festival. Let me set the scene: we were sitting outside on a deck at a glass-topped table covered with the remnants of a delicious supper we’d prepared for our family, of grilled and shredded chicken, refried black beans, tortillas, and a salad made entirely from vegetables grown in the garden of the house where we were staying: zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes in a ranch dressing.
The kids had gone inside, probably to watch the Food Network. We don’t have TV at home, and while we were at the house on the Sunshine Coast the kids became entranced and mildly obsessed with shows they found on the Food Network, which was all they watched. Their interest extended beyond the television, and they played and continue to play (especially the younger two) games based around preparing imaginary and elaborate dishes that include bizarre ingredients, and judging their relative success and merit. Just this morning, for example, while I sipped coffee and read the newspaper, I was offered fish and shrimp covered in caramel (um … ok?), and beans and rice topped with peach salsa.
That was a long aside.
Back to the glass-topped table, outside on the deck, at the house overlooking the Georgia Strait where we stayed while on the Sunshine Coast. I’d held the stage for an hour that morning, reading from Girl Runner and talking about my research for the book, and I’ll admit that I was feeling pretty high. It’s rare, at a festival, that you’ll be asked to hold the stage for a full hour (most often, authors are paired with other authors and a moderator, a format that works well when the chemistry is good, but tends to elevate one or two voices above the rest, if the chemistry is even a bit off). In all honesty, I was pretty nervous going into that solo hour, even though I’d prepared obsessively and practiced my presentation in advance. It is an honour to be given an hour of anyone’s time, let alone an hour’s worth of warm and generous attention from a sizeable audience. Trust me, in a writer’s life, this cannot be taken for granted. It’s a gift.
And that is essentially what I said to Kevin, while we stared out at the ocean and marvelled at being here, even if just for a few days: “It feels really good to get to do what you feel you are meant to be doing — it feels so good. So useful. To think of all those people giving me an hour of their time and attention. It is such a gift. This is a most lucky life.”
I think my strongest longing, as a human being, is to be useful. It’s why I so enjoyed parenting small children, and why I wanted to be a midwife. But children grow, and I’m not on the midwife path; instead, here I am, forty years old and still writing. And it doesn’t always feel useful. It often feels frivolous, self-indulgent, narcissistic. I try to apply my skills in wider ways, and to other causes. But it always comes back to this: I love writing fiction. I’m good at organizing ideas into a coherent shape. Out of everything I can do, this is what I can do best.
So I sat at the glass-topped table with my husband, and I savoured the moment, my heart and mind filled with what felt like inexpressible thanks. And now I’m trying to express it, because that is what writers do.
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