Soon, I will teach my last class for another term. Because I am a sessional lecturer, there is no guarantee I will teach again. But I would like to; I would like, in addition to the introductory creative writing course I’m teaching now, to teach an advanced course that combines writing and drawing and collaboration, and demands serious commitment, a heavy workload; at the end of the course, everyone would have made a book (illustrated, but for adults).
Here are the questions this course would address, and engage with:
“What is creativity and where can I find it?”
“How can I get into the creative flow?”
“How can I stop procrastinating and do what I want?”
“Is creativity something I can practice? Can anyone?”
(In the above exercise, captions are paired with random illustrations; this is an example of an exercise one might do in my imaginary course.)
Last month, I spoke to a writer’s group about time management, and the question that arose most urgently was: How do I stop procrastinating? How do I get started? Which led into an even more complicated question: How do I get into the creative flow? Is this something you can learn and practice?
Yes, I said. You can practice getting into the creative flow. You can learn.
I believe this to be true. But in answering the question, last month, I got stuck on the how. And so I’ve been thinking about it, or my unconscious mind has been thinking about it, ever since. It isn’t just about discipline. (It is somewhat about discipline.) It’s about trusting that you can access something, fall into something, step into something that is unseen and unknown, without knowing or seeing it in advance. Can this be taught? I would like to try.
P.S. The course would be based around Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. It would be an unabashedly Lynda-Barry-styled course, even though I am a low-key Canadian who possesses not even a tenth of Lynda Barry’s charisma, and even though I am a writer not an artist; I believe the material would rise above my personal limitations.
This morning, I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms lifted over my head, lowering and raising and lowering, and aching and burning, and I began thinking about something else entirely. I remembered baking bread on Sunday afternoon, while listening to the Sunday Edition on podcast, an hour on Man’s Search for Meaning, a book written by Victor Frankl in 1946, shortly after he was released from a German concentration camp; his parents, brother and pregnant wife all died in concentration camps, a suffering I cannot fathom. And yet, Frankl wrote a book that is still in print, its words still luminous with love. On the program, his biographer discussed the fundamental flaw in the pursuit of happiness—the pursuit itself, the pursuit of a goal that cannot be forced into being, if happiness is even a reasonable or desirable pursuit at all. The more you chase it, the further from you it speeds. And, said the man, the relentless focus on the self, on creating happiness for oneself, dooms the enterprise. It’s only when we turn away from ourselves and focus on others that we become—not happy, but whole. We find meaning in our life because we’ve reached beyond ourselves.
Love is meaning. The only way to fully inhabit the self is to look, listen, love beyond the self.
I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms aching, and remembered, and remembered more: yesterday afternoon, chopping mounds of onions and sweet potatoes for our Thanksgiving dinner, listening to another podcast: Tapestry, with Mary Hines, an interview with a woman who had corresponded with Omar Khadr when he was a prisoner at Guantanomo Bay; the woman had become his teacher, and she testified on his behalf at a trial. She talked about the fear of God in a way that made this fear make sense: not cowering under fear of punishment by an angry god, but fear of refusing God’s invitation to action. Fear of making a choice based on the shallow terms on which we so often base our choices: fear of being judged by others, fear of looking foolish, fear of being singled out, fear of taking a stand and having to suffer the consequences. When none of these worldly or earthly pressures could shake the more profound fear of not doing justice, of not doing right—this, she said, was the fear of God. I look in awe at those with courage to stand firm in their convictions; does this strength come from a bigger place and purpose?
Do we know what is right? Do we know what is just?
The woman on Tapestry spoke about being pulled in an unexpected direction, a direction not of her own choosing. An invitation, an opening, a tidal pull, a crack where the light gets in.
As I sat in kundalini, I asked myself, as my arms spun circles and ached terribly, where am I pulled, who are the others upon whom I turn my gaze?
Stories, I heard.
You have stories, you already have stories, and stories pull you always out of yourself. Yet you resist their pull, you resist even the idea that you might be good at something, that you’ve written stories that are like gifts, in a way, that mean something larger than yourself—that don’t belong to you.
Who are you to say you should change course and seek a new outlet for your desire to be of use in this world? That’s not pull, that’s push, that’s pursuit.
I am so tired.
I stayed up to watch the Blue Jays game on Sunday night; the Blue Jays game and the presidential debate. After the debate, the Blue Jays won, which was fun. But I found myself unable to shake the image from earlier, of a composed, self-contained woman being stalked around the stage by a much-larger, hostile man, his eyelids narrowed, his rage and disgust scarcely contained.
It disturbed me.
Today, when I walked to yoga class, I had to pass by a number of men who were working on the hydro lines outside my house. I was one woman, they were many men. I did not fear them. But somewhere in the back of my brain, I wondered whether these men might speak of women the way that Trump was heard speaking of women, I wondered whether Trump is telling the truth and most men (or even some men, or even a few, which is more than enough) view women as sexual objects, to be desired or loathed, end of story; or are we to be “championed and revered,” as another Republican (Paul Ryan, to be precise) said when rebutting Trump, which sounded almost as terrible, in a weird way, as if I, as a woman, could not operate on my own steam, as if I, as a woman, were a figure of worship, mythical, not quite real. And then I shook my head and thought of all the open-hearted men in my life. And I kept on walking.
I’ve always chosen to believe that I can be myself, as a woman—small in stature, ordinary, complicated, messy, curious—and be accepted as an equal in any situation, and much of my experience confirms this; but when confronted with the evidence shown in that debate on Sunday night, my spirit shrank, a bit.
I wonder whether other women feel the same.
I didn’t do much more than hang out with these folks this summer. Now it is September 7th, and these folks are all in school, on their second day, which is much less exciting than a first day, for reasons we all understand. Never before have I felt so lonely in the house at this time of year. Maybe it’s because I was able to work effectively this summer even while the kids were home, so I don’t feel the same need to protect to my own space and quiet. Or maybe it’s because I need to develop some other social outlets. Our family was a remarkably self-sufficient unit this summer. It’s hard to get lonely or bored when potential companions and playmates can be found in the room next door.
I write the best blog posts while I’m hanging out laundry. They’ve vanished by the time I sit down here.
During our time at the cottage (five days of bliss), we brought little food, as we had been instructed to eat down the cupboards and freezer; we were the final guests this summer. This made meal planning a peculiarly satisfying challenge. The kids wanted to do the same thing here at home, so on Monday I did an inventory of our cupboards, freezers, pantry, and fridge that was astonishing and enlightening, and a little bit shaming. We are storing a lot of food that we’ve essentially forgotten exists. Yesterday, I took on the challenge and made a taboulleh salad out of quinoa, farro, kamut, all found, uncooked, in our fridge or freezer, chickpeas from the cupboard, a lemon and a half from the fridge, and olive oil. (I also bought parsley, cilantro, red onion, tomatoes and feta, so it wasn’t all from our supplies.) Two of four children were unhappy with the salad, but one of those two ate it anyway. “Does anyone actually like this?” said dissenting child # 1, and when everyone else said yes they did actually, dissenting child # 2 stayed silent and spooned the offending grains into his mouth while managing to look both angelic and patiently tormented.
I like the idea of the cupboard challenge, but in practice it requires someone (i.e. me) to do a lot of planning and cooking from scratch. It is a challenge that will be challenged by our fall schedule. And by any non-domestic ambitions I may hold.
What are my non-domestic ambitions? I feel strangely removed from whatever it was I intended to do with my life. When a friend asked, on our morning run together, What are you looking forward to now? I had no reply.
I have no reply. I’m just doing what’s before me (teaching, ferrying children, cooking challenges, possibly more soccer coaching, writing in some form or another), and I’ll do it to the best of my abilities. The good news is that I’m not not looking forward to anything either.
I’d forgotten how relaxed my mind had been all summer. It had so little extra to think about, to hold, to plan for, to juggle, to congregate onto a calendar. I mean, I appreciated that summer was wonderful and that my mind was relaxed. What I’d forgotten was how steep the decline in relaxation, in spaciousness, at this time of year. How does a person ever get anything done in this state? I seem dimly to recall the ability to parcel up time like the squares on a quilt, to do this and not that, or to do this while doing that. I dimly recall it, but I’m not looking forward to doing it; I guess that’s where I’m at on this the second day of the new school year.
I miss you, blog. I do. But I’m pouring all of my writing time—and there is never quite enough—into writing of another sort, just now, so I have little left for you. I have the feeling you are durable enough to manage any absence. I also have the feeling that you are a metaphor for how to manage a packed life: in order to do what you must do, in addition to what you want to do, you have to choose what not to do, too. You have to prioritize.
Magical thinking is not so magical, as it turns out. It doesn’t work, for one thing. And for another, it tricks the mind into believing that the perfect circumstances may arise, just around the corner, perhaps tomorrow, when you will accomplish that thing (whatever it may be) that you’ve been meaning to do, intending to do, nay, longing to do. Magical thinking can magically think you right out of ever doing that thing.
Time can be expansive, it can open up most generously and patiently; but not always, not infinitely, not forever. Our time here is brief and it is precious.
I’m choosing less blogging. More writing. I’m choosing less email. More writing. I’m choosing more running. Less beer. I’m choosing more playing. Less cooking. I’m choosing more love. Less worrying. I’m choosing today. Not tomorrow.
Here’s how to do AppleApple’s mindfulness meditation: an example taken from a moment last week, when I was at her soccer practice, sitting inside the car, and it was pouring rain. It was my “easy” day of the week. I’d eaten supper in less than 10 minutes between piano lessons and leaving for practice (and picking up Fooey at a friend’s house). The idea is that you ground yourself in the moment by going through a gradually diminishing list of what you see, hear, and feel. Feel refers to physical sensations, rather than emotions. It’s incredibly simple and can be done anywhere. You are also supposed to breathe deeply while making these lists to yourself.
I see … rain drops; lines on the car windshield; a red blinking light that makes no sense; the word Ford; the steering wheel
I see … my blue water bottle, the mcdonald’s sign, the grey cloud cover, trees
I see … my computer, my hands, my ring
I see … both legs in black pants, these words
I see … the blue background of my computer screen
I hear … rain drops on the windshield, the bumping noise when this laptop hits the steering wheel as I type, the sound of the keys being hit, rain drops slowing, raindrops pattering
I hear … the typing, my breathing, the sound of a car engine, raindrops
I hear … a car passing behind me, rain, my mouth chewing gum
I hear … rain, cars
I hear … rain on roof
I feel … an ache in my right upper leg, dry lips, the need to swallow, an itch on my foot, my back curved uncomfortably against the car seat
I feel … my right leg against plastic, my left leg against the door, my back pressing the seat, an ache in my right shoulder blade
I feel … warm, my mouth wants to move, the itch on my foot has not gone away
I feel … the laptop pressing my legs, my nails and finger pads hitting the keys
I feel … an itch in my left armpit
Often when I do this exercise, I only get to the first seeing ones. Often, that’s enough to ground me in the moment. I admit there are moments in which a person does not want to be grounded but would prefer an escape. As someone with a lively imagination, I often prefer escape. That said, escape isn’t always possible or even preferable and this exercise helps me deal with the reality I’m actually in.
I have used this mindfulness meditation in the past week on a variety of occasions: while driving to a soccer game in the middle of nowhere, feeling lost and late due to having to take a major detour around construction; after a run in the heat when I was feeling light-headed; in boot camp while lifting weights; by the water at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto before my panel on Friday.
I plan to write more about the panel later this week.
PS The above photo is from a different soccer event from either mentioned in this post. But it will have to do for illustrative purposes.
I had a small panic attack on Sunday evening, while doing the chalkboard schedule, which details the next three weeks of our lives. It takes us to the end of school, summer holidays, Canada Day weekend, and there is SO MUCH HAPPENING between now and then. AppleApple led me through the mindfulness meditation she does before bed, and that was quite helpful, actually. Except I need to keep doing it every time I look at the calendar.
We’re into the month of lasts and celebrations. Last violin lesson, last piano lessons. Track meets and field trips. Graduations and exams. Parties, too. To complicate this particular week, I’m also driving to Toronto on Friday to speak on a panel at the Canadian Writers’ Summit on “the shadow side of success.”
I’m not complaining about the content of June; just the pace.
I’ve been walking the dogs most mornings. I take them on a fairly long, leisurely route, even if I might have other things that need doing. We pass by many beautiful gardens. I stop and smell the peonies. I really do. I was inspired by something I saw a few weeks ago, on one of my short but very happy early morning solo runs through the park. I saw a young woman, also out for a run, who had stopped by the creek and was simply standing, watching the water. She was in the moment.
And now she’s planted in my mind, where I see her standing and quietly watching the water. The moments are here, they are everywhere.
My moments so far today include biking through the park to the track with Kevin to watch our younger “girl runner” run in several races. Yesterday, I loved watching the same girl play at her first violin recital, still wearing soccer pants, after we’d raced from the field to the music studio. Every day I get to do so many things that I love doing, with people I love, admire, and enjoy.
This is it! This is life! There is too much hatred, too much grief, too much fear, too much to grieve and mourn and rage against in this world. The least and the most I can do is one and same: be open to what surrounds me, and know that this is enough.