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.
There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged.
What I’ve enjoyed about this experience in France is being given something to do, an assignment, a commission. It gives me purpose and direction. In my usual writing life, I am the sole source of my purpose and direction. I have to propel myself toward something no one else can see and when the work is done I have to convince people to care. It takes a lot energy. The pleasure of this commission is that I’ve been asked to do something, and I’m doing it, to the best of my abilities. It’s up to the Festival to convince people to care about what I’m making, just as they invented the goal. It takes so much weight off.
My sense, as I’ve worked, is of being at play, in a playful and free state of mind, digging in, like a child with a wad of modelling clay having just been told: go ahead and get messy!
When I am busy and rushing around, I imagine that what I want is to be still, to do nothing. But here I am, today, with nothing pressing to do, well-rested, in a state of quiet and relaxation, and it is almost as if I’ve come to a stop and can’t begin again. The idea that we will get to do whatever we want in our state of needing-to-do-nothing ignores that it is a state that requires some force to exit. I think I sense this in my every day life, that it is easier to keep going than to stop and recalibrate. Now is my chance to recalibrate, now that I am at a stop, and it’s up to me to decide what that means.
Today, I went for a run on the trail by the river where I’ve been walking almost every day. What a good choice it was to run, as I knew it would be. The air was sweet, the wind was cool, it was sunny, I got a good sweat going, I made myself work on some stretches and let myself go easier on others. I heard songbirds, and saw the green popping out faintly on the trees, and my thoughts came calmly and clearly.
I thought about doing rather than thinking. How important it is to do. To do is to be. I’m proudest of myself and most satisfied with my life when I am active, involved, taking risks, in the public space, using my body, along with my mind. My idlest and least productive times have been when I’ve had “all the time in the world,” or “nothing but time.” During those seasons (winter, age 19; fall, age 23), I tried to write and produced nothing; more nothing than at any other time in my life. For example, as soon as I got a job, age 24, I started to write again. Another example: I started to write Hair Hat as soon as I’d given birth to my eldest, but not during the months of relative idleness before. That says to me something quite profound: that my being a writer is not dependent on having grand expanses of free time. It may even be dependent on the opposite, on being squeezed for time because life is so interesting and full, and I’m doing so much, and then in reverence and thanks can I come to a quiet space and write, in a way that feels crucial, important, necessary. If I could go around the planet working on commissions like this, I would; but this is unique, this is grace.
Something came to me while I was running — running past a ramshackle farmhouse with a red attic door and orange brick outbuildings, running past a field of bright yellow blooms, running under a row of fat-trunked trees with bird-shit splattered on the pavement below them — I thought, in order to write I must have something to say, and I’ll only have something to say if I have something to do.
I need to do.
If I want to be the writer that I want to be, I need to do more … but what? … than write.
Last night, at Fooey’s dance class I read an article in The Atlantic about the benefits of changing careers in mid-life, or, more accurately, the health benefits of doing something new and difficult and challenging, forcing the brain to learn new skills and patterns. Coincidentally, yesterday I also spent over an hour filling out a career-profile questionnaire at the University of Waterloo’s career site, which asked me to reflect on six “pride” moments in my life, and what skills I’d needed to achieve those; I filled it out thinking I would make an appointment with a career counsellor and get some professional advice on the subject, but the results were so baffling that it stopped me right there. The quiz claimed I was investigative and would be suited to careers like doctor, dentist, accountant, actuary, and a bunch of other jobs that didn’t sound like me at all. I was also entrepreneurial, and careers in that area include sales and marketing, publicity, human resources, which, let’s be honest here, are definitely not me. I scored extremely low in the areas that include work I’ve actually pursued: writer, artist, teacher, and coach.
I had to laugh. The quiz seemed so pointless. The results indecipherable, meaningless. Yes, I’m curious and organized, I’m a risk-taker and I’m logical, I’m assertive and introverted, I’m intuitive and practical, I like helping people and being independent.
(At this point, you may be wondering: why, Carrie? Why are you taking quizzes on mid-life career changes? And for that, I have no answer.)
Upon reflection, the quiz’s results were rudimentary, but the process itself was useful and perhaps revealing. In analyzing it myself (and I do like analysis), here’s what I observe: my “pride” experiences revolve around learning new things. Learning how to swim: I rated learning to swim at age 35 as my highest pride story. Learning how to coach. Learning how to teach. My other pride moments were watching and helping my children learn new things, gathering a group of friends to write together, and when The Juliet Stories was named a finalist for the GG’s, which was a moment that I felt (and feel) I could claim no credit for, yet was nevertheless a moment of enormous pride.
Another theme that I noticed: I love doing physical tasks. I love using my body. I love playing and coaching soccer. I love boot camp. I love walking and running. I love yoga. I loved cycling. I love doing these things alone and with others. Even when I’m injured, I’m physically confident and strong. It brings me great pleasure to move.
I also like helping people, and I like connecting people. I like working with kids. I like being playful. I like shared experiences, such as singing, game-playing, puzzle-making, eating together, gatherings.
In a similar vein, I cherish coming through something meaningful with someone else. It’s what I loved about being a doula. I was able to walk through an intense emotional and physical experience with someone else in a way that was respectful, caring, and supportive.
I don’t know what career these skills and interests are suited to, but I’m quite sure it isn’t an accountant.
My question is: is it a writer?
The Atlantic article suggested that the career change need not be drastic, it may be a matter of adapting one’s career in some way; learning something new but in the same field. The woman writing the article had been a broadcaster, and became a writer: in both, she was telling stories, but in different mediums.
The open doors before me are ones I’ve walked through before, in one guise or another: I’m going to France next week and I will write while I’m there, I will see my work presented, I will do some publicity for the French translation of Girl Runner; when I get home, I’m leading a full day of workshops at an elementary school; and in May, a writing workshop in the woods (click the link and scroll down to find info on “Words in the Woods”). The most unusual door I’ve walked through recently involves coaching soccer.
What I learned when teaching is that I’m a dreadful lecturer, but I’m good at devising hands-on tasks to illuminate ideas or concepts. I like workshops. In a sense, that’s what a coach does: devise practices around themes that get players physically involved in tasks they need to learn and master. I love the challenge of it. I even love the risk of it—that my plan may need to be adapted. That it’s an experiment. That the outcome isn’t known or guaranteed. I feel nervous before practices and workshops, but often elated and consumed while inside of them. And afterward I can reflect on what did or didn’t work; I enjoy the critical analysis.
When I think about doing this kind of work, it excites me.
So here’s my analysis of results.* I want a career in which I get to learn new things, be physically active, help others, experience intense emotions, be creative, and teach through practical and applied means. Writing may or may not be a part of it, from what I’m exploring, although right now, writing is what I know best; I can claim to be an expert because others have recognized my expertise. That said, with enough study and practice, I’m perfectly willing to believe that I could become an expert in another area.
*I have no job matches associated with these observations.
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 for last year was WRITE.
I wrote a lot. I’m not sure any of it will be published, although it does seem to have informed the project I’m working on now—its value is incalculable, in other words, and I think maybe that became the point for me as the year progressed. I wrote to understand why I write, and to be disciplined, and the more I wrote the more I understood that I love writing, and that I don’t need to remind myself to write because it is intrinsic to my being, it is how I create, most naturally, it is my chosen discipline. Maybe within this, by following and exploring this word, I allowed myself to write that which I didn’t consider to be publishable; I allowed myself to explore, to roam, to wander, to try, to experiment, to follow where led rather than pushing.
I did some pushing in the first half of the year; and the second half of the year, I’m seeing now, was quite different—I wrote a new novel manuscript in the first half of the year because I felt that I needed to; and when it was done, I saw that it wasn’t ready and I’ve yet to sort out whether I can ever make it ready, and so, for now, I’ve let it go. I let it go, and for the second half of the year I let myself write other things instead, things I suspected a publisher wouldn’t be interested in; I decided that my own calculations and guesses about a publisher’s interest didn’t matter, couldn’t matter, and that I needed to write what was welling up inside of me. And that’s been really wonderful.
Writing is my livelihood. But when I focus on its potential to earn me a living, it dies, somehow. I think that’s what I learned this year.
I allowed myself to be reacquainted, really fundamentally, with the idea that a writer is someone who, when faced with a blank page, does not know anything. (To paraphrase Donald Barthelme.) It’s terrifying; it’s thrilling. It means I don’t know what I’ll find, and it means I’ll definitely find a lot of things I’m not looking for, the value of which may not be explicit or recognizable. As hard as it is, I have to write even knowing that I may never write anything publishable, anything that earns money ever again. I don’t see that as a sad thing. It’s made me assess what I value, and how I assign value to the things that I do—how I spend my time.
Unexpectedly, I feel far more confident as a writer than I ever have before. Maybe because I’ve recognized that writing & invention through writing is intrinsic to my being. I’m less afraid of the scarce resources in the publishing industry. It doesn’t scare me to consider the possibility that I may never publish again, that there are no guarantees of success. I know and believe that what I’m doing has value—I value it. And I want to celebrate the wonderful words and stories of others. The success of other writers doesn’t feel like a threat to my own existence as a writer (we don’t talk about it much in this industry, but the professional jealousy that can arise from scrambling to secure scarce resources has corrosive potential on a personal level.)
I can’t explain this sense of calm and purpose. Will it stay with me? It may not, it’s true. I accept that change is eternal. But it feels like there’s been a shift over this past year in how I approach my writing, and the shift feels fundamental.
Next up: Word of the Year 2016. Stay tuned.