Category: Spirit

Unwinding

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I went away for the weekend.

I needed to be unwound. That’s what it felt like: a slow and steady unwinding of the tightly knotted self. It was almost like I’d forgotten how to have fun. How to partake of fun. How to be fun.

Responsibility requires armour, maybe.

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I skiied on this frozen lake. I hadn’t been on cross country skiis since childhood, but it felt like I could have gone forever. It’s much easier to glide across the snow than to slog through the snow in running shoes. Winter’s long long iteration spoke so differently when I was gliding like a hot knife through butter into the wind. Isn’t this a blast, it said.

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Our oven has been fixed, have I mentioned this?

AppleApple baked an apple-cranberry crisp to christen it. The crisp took all evening to prepare, and we devoured the entire pan in fifteen minutes flat. Fooey made brownies a few days later. I’ve used it to bake potatoes, but that’s all so far. I’ve got to get some veggies roasting while winter’s still on.

Oh, yeah, winter’s still on. I checked the 7-day weather forecast, and it’s going to be cold, cold, and also, cold.

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I’ve come home thinking: I’ve got some work to do. I don’t mean the laundry or the scheduling or even writing. I mean something different. Maybe I don’t even mean work. I mean: I’d like to figure out how to unwind myself. How to be unwound. How to break down my fears.

I don’t like to think of myself as fearful, but it’s there, so why hide it or hide from it? I’m not afraid of external challenges; I accept many things I cannot change. What I fear is closer to the bone: it is the bone, and the guts, the heart, the spirit. I fear the limits of my mind and imagination, and the limits of a body that ages and changes. And I’m afraid of my fears, closing me off from laughter and lightness of heart.

But I’m not afraid to call them out. And I’m not afraid to chase the light — or maybe it’s enough simply to turn toward it. Throw open the windows and doors. Bask. It might be cold, cold, cold, but the days are getting longer, the sunlight is growing stronger.

AppleApple is obsessed with names. Yesterday, while we were sitting around the supper table, she looked up all of our names in one of her (many) baby name dictionaries: according to this one, Carrie derives from Caroline, which means small and strong. I like that very much.

Alight

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A habit I’m reinstating: yoga, once a week. I went to a free class on my birthday, and renewed my commitment to practice more regularly, and not just in my office (although that counts too, and is valuable). I like being pushed, in a class setting, to hold poses longer than comfortable. I like the community feeling, too. And I’ve become excellent at savasana. I’m serious! When I started practicing yoga, four years ago, I hated lying in the final pose, and had to force myself to be still and stay in the room. I was absolutely itching to get up and get going — after all, the hard work was done; what was the point of lying around?

Now I open my eyes and think, Uh-oh, there are only two people left in here, and the next class is waiting to get in. And while I haven’t been asleep in savasana, I have been away. It’s that away-ness, that emptying out, that I’m committing to again this year. I remind myself, again, that I can’t grab for things; that isn’t how it works. The things that are truly worthwhile arrive, alight like the gifts they are. The moments we live for. I’m not saying sit back and relax while the universe takes care of everything. I’m saying, prepare yourself always for these moments of grace, and recognize them when they come. That’s all. Choose work you love, if you can, so that the process always seems to be renewing and refreshing itself, so you’ll always have more to learn, so you’ll stay curious and engaged.

After yesterday’s class, I found myself reflecting on the word “discernment.” (Fellow Mennonites are likely to be familiar with this word.) It’s a word I’ve long disliked. At worst, I suspect it of being code for “refusal to decide” or “failure to take a stand” or “terminal wishy-washyness” or “paralysis of purpose.” (Can you tell I would flunk at committee meetings?) I’m not against reflection or debate or consideration. But at a certain point — and who’s to say when this is? — the discernment must end and the decision-making begin.

Or maybe that’s my problem with discernment. Maybe I don’t like for discernment to be artificially separated out from action. Maybe the way I figure things out is to do, to try, to practice, to hash it out along the way, to stuff my foot in my mouth from time to time and learn the hard way. Maybe I believe less in coming around to clarity, than in going on gut and whim and instinct. I really don’t know. Too many questions, too much guilt, too much worry about being politically correct or causing offence, and I grind to a halt, afraid to do or try or say anything. But the opposite of discernment is Rob Ford: shameless empty entitled belligerent self-pitying posturing. There’s got to be a middle ground. There’s got to be a way to be in this world that is considerate and out-spoken, compassionate and practical, whole and vulnerable, open and strong, clear and welcoming, thoughtful and active.

There’s got to be.

That’s my savasana reflection, from January 9th, 2014. Perhaps this will be the first in a small, ongoing series.

For a limited time only

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It’s only Tuesday, right? I’m apprehensive about my responsibilities this week. The layers of planning material in my head keep shifting, and I’m terrified of what might be falling to the bottom. It’s dark down there. Things might biodegrade without me even noticing.

I fall asleep to syllabus material, and wake considering supper plans versus ingredients on hand. A small but persistent section of my brain is wholly devoted to identifying time slots in which I can fit in a run. I’m visiting a book club this week, there are teacher interviews to arrange for each child, and I’m in charge of facilitating a panel discussion at the Wild Writers Festival on Saturday, at which I’d like very much to appear a) prepared, b) composed, and c) sane. (If I could actually be all of these things, that would be even better.) The clock is ticking on resolving a gymnastics decision, swim girl has a big meet in Brantford all weekend, and we need to plan a birthday party for next weekend. What else? Oh, the asthma puffer ran out this morning. Our tub tap is leaking rather frantically. Our stove needs repair.

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I wrote a piece for Open Book Ontario, which they’ve posted today. I’ll admit it reads rather manically. It’s on my writing habits, and the peacefulness of my office. This office is my calm centre. I’ve started doing yoga in here some mornings, with kundalini music playing, and it’s pure bliss.

Much of my happiness comes from motion. I see my eight-year-old spin on a bar, hold herself upside-down, toes pointed, strong and glowing. I see the game unfolding on the field, the risks being taken. I see my eldest and me racing up and down grocery aisles late at night, revelling in the hunt for bargains, laughing at our impulses and follies: for me, corn flakes; for him, anything new and available for a limited time only, such as the soda that purports to taste like chocolate.

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But I’m tired. I’m tired, and I know, too, that much of my happiness comes from points of connection, from stillness within the motion. Holding CJ’s hand on the walk home from the school bus. Washing his hair in the pool showers. Conversations as we drive somewhere together, me and a kid, or two, or three. I’m always looking for what I can share with each child, and that keeps changing. I remember when I gave the kids a bath every night before bed, and they remember how I pretended to be a giant making kid soup. Now we’re splintered and running, and I’m looking for those moments to stretch out my hand and grab on to theirs, figuratively if not literally, as we whirl in our separate circles.

The days look impossible if I try to hold them all at once.

So maybe, really, I shouldn’t try. I won’t try. If there’s any secret to this time, it’s that. Do what you’re doing, be where you are. Make your lists, prepare, yes, but know what you’re waiting for, and recognize it when it arrives, no matter how small it seems. It’s none of it small. You know what I mean.

This morning I tried

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Hey, our green living-room is on the CBC’s book site today. It accompanies an interview I did with them on blogging — on being a blogger as well as a fiction writer.

This morning, I walked again. But I’m restless nevertheless, so it occurred to me to try something different. What I’m missing about running is not just the physical release, but also that sense of taking part in a moving meditation.

But in challenge is opportunity!

Yesterday afternoon, I had time to listen to the radio and bake bread, and I tuned in to Tapestry on CBC Radio One, where I can always find peace on a Sunday afternoon. The subject was “crazy busy,” as in, “Hi, how are you?” “Oh, I’m crazy busy!” More to the point, the subject was finding stillness in a culture that has latched onto the concept of being so busy we just can’t slow down.

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Now, I like busy. I’ve even been told that I scare people a little bit with my busyness. But I also like still. Or say that I do. I say that I like stillness, but perhaps in truth I privilege busyness over quietude. I sit in stillness at my writing desk, but my mind is whirring with energy and imagination. I find stillness of mind when I run, but it’s curious, isn’t it, that I need to be in motion to fall into such calm. So here’s a radical challenge for me: how to be still, while being still?

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Meditation, of course.

If you listen to the Tapestry program (if you’re not too crazy busy, they’ve got podcasts of past shows), you’ll hear that it ends with a discussion on meditation. The man being interviewed suggests starting by repeating a mantra, word or phrase, preferably in a language not your own: he gave “maran atha” as an example, which is from the Aramaic, and means “Come, O Lord.”

This morning, I tried meditating. I set a timer for twenty minutes. The dogs were very interested as I sat on the floor, knees crossed, eyes closed, within licking range (not helpful, dogs!). I thought the words maran atha over and over, and it kind of reminded me of “marathon,” which seemed just about right on a number of levels. I ended up meditating for half an hour, and what worked best was to say the words in combination with this four-cornered breathing pattern I remembered learning in yoga a few years ago. It probably has a name.

Breathe in for a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Breathe out for a count of four. Hold for a count of four.

I found it easiest to breathe in, hardest to breathe out. I like metaphors, so I decided this means I’m in a place where I’m more prepared to take it all in, rather than pour it all out. It was really really really lovely and when I opened my eyes I felt like I’d been quiet for awhile and gone somewhere, quietly. I’m thinking of setting my alarm early so I can take time to start my day like this. Even if I’m not rising early to run — to meditate in motion — I can keep to a routine of rising early and entering the day with a practice.

Where mom-at-home meets working-mom, part two

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Hi there. For some reason this old blog post, titled “Where mom-at-home meets working-mom” has gotten a ton of hits this week, so I went back to re-read it, and found myself entirely drawn in to the conversation (if you go to read it, too, definitely read through the comments).

It was originally written in October, 2011: nearly two years ago.

I was asking myself some tough questions.

**When I unpeel myself from them [my kids], who am I? **Who am I outside this home? And the question I’m most scared of, the one I really want to ask: **How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at-home?

It’s funny how these questions have answered themselves. The good fortune of having The Juliet Stories recognized danced me outside of the house, and unpeeled me from them. And it turns out that the answer to those questions is: I’m pretty much exactly the same person, except in nicer clothes (maybe: ask my stylish daughter).

What about this question: How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at home?

Now there’s a tougher one. Clearly, my career has developed in the past two years. I have publishing contracts for two new books, essays in three upcoming anthologies, and a new teaching job. I field regular invitations to do readings and host literary events. That said, it’s not a career that involves full-time hours and the corresponding full-time pay. It’s a pretty insecure career, built around a constant flow of push and energy that must be generated by me alone. Funny, kind of sounds like parenting. Turns out that my working self is not all that removed from my mom-at-home self. Both roles have developed and changed, but it’s not like one cancels out the other. Maybe my original question framed it wrong: it’s not either/or. How could it be?

What’s gotten cancelled out is other things I didn’t expect. I miss my playgroup, meeting up with other women once a week — the regular, routine warmth and connection that I have yet to replace. I rarely bake anymore, and haven’t canned a thing this summer; probably won’t. I don’t have the energy, even if I had the time. We now have a dishwasher and I drive much more than I’d like to, ferrying older children to extra-curriculars. I’m alone a lot, which I relish and appreciate (it is essential to my work), even while missing contact that can’t be replaced by social media. Oddly, the thing I thought I’d miss — full-on time with my children — I don’t, because, as it turns out, we still share a ton of activities, scheduled and unscheduled. You never stop being a parent, no matter what else you might be doing.

But here’s a confession: this past winter, I tried to find a traditional job. You know, a job-job. This is an insurance town, so most of the openings were inside insurance companies. We were going through a tough financial spell, and my writing career had never seemed more risky and indulgent. I sent out a dozen resumes. I received one reply. ONE. It was a no-thank-you, but I was grateful even for that. The worst thing about the experience was discovering that I wasn’t even qualified for jobs I didn’t want, let alone jobs I did. Thankfully, we got through the very bad month and the slightly-less-bad next month, and our fortunes steadily improved again. But the fear lingers: that if my family were to need me to find a job-job, to keep us afloat, I would be useless as tits on a bull, as my mother-in-law would say.

It’s been a decade since the famous (infamous?) “Opt-out revolution” article was published, interviewing women who’d given up promising careers to become stay-at-home moms. I’m not sure I gave up a promising career when I became a stay-at-home mom at the age of 26, but I had recently been promoted, and the opportunity to advance and develop within my chosen field of media / publishing / editing / journalism was there. I can’t remember whether I related to the women in the original article, but I remember thinking it was annoying, setting up this dichotomy between women, making it so either/or. Aren’t we all in this together, I thought?

I also thought, secretly, quietly, that there would be time for everything, and I didn’t appreciate being told that one choice might disadvantage me in another area of my life.

Recently, a follow-up article was published on those same “opt-out” women interviewed a decade ago: what had happened to them? (“The opt-out generation wants back in.”) Well, the economy had happened to them (all were American). Most had gone back to work, whether they wanted to or not; most had found it difficult to re-start their careers, and many had taken jobs that were below where they had been or could have been. Those whose marriages had ended were particularly disadvantaged and struggling. Few, however, expressed regret about their original choice. One woman struck me particularly — she had been in a traditional media job (like me), and found it virtually impossible to find work in a much-changed industry. The article ends with her landing an exciting job, after searching for several years, but at much less pay than she would have earned a decade before, only to have the project shut down six weeks later, and everyone let go. She was back to square one.

Let me tell you, I sure related to that article with a pang of recognition. Yet, I can’t feel regret, either. Because there are other interesting questions posed in my post, two years ago, questions that seem at least as significant, and more mysterious. I can’t answer them, especially the last one, but that’s why they’re so fascinating.

**Where am I heading, at my breakneck pace? **What am I failing to stop for? **What if I can’t squeeze every fascinating everything in? **What matters? **Will I always be so impatient? So goal-oriented? **Can I be both ambitious and content, or do those two states of mind cancel each other out? 

Because it isn’t all about money, is it? If I look directly into my fear, and stare over the precipice of what would happen to my family were we thrown into financial crisis, and it were suddenly up to me alone to support us, I see many possibilities beyond disaster. I see family and friends. I see lifestyle changes and probably a lot of creative improvisation. I see a web of connections. We’re not without resources — I’m not without resources. That’s what I see, two years on, despite my recent experience of hunting for jobs I didn’t want and for which I was not qualified.

Because, I see, too, that I am already qualified for other jobs — ones I do want. This work might not offer the same security and stability, but maybe that just keeps me a step closer to reality. Stability is an illusion anyway, as we all secretly know.

It’s a gift to be doing what I love. I love being a mother. I love writing. I love thinking things through. My hope for myself, now and future, is that every time I doubt or question, I return to this: gratitude.

Sent and spent

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I sent this pair off to buy something for lunch, for the second time this week. They went to Vincenzo’s and got sushi and soda pop. CJ ate a blue frosted cupcake before they were even home. “We tried the free samples!” (On Monday, I let them go to the grocery store to get something for lunch and they returned with: Corn Pops, Cap’n Crunch, mini chocolate chip cookies, and three cheese buns. I think I see improvement?)

Fooey is doing tennis camp this week, which is why she’s not been involved. (Side note: she’s been working on filling in a journal all about herself, and had this to say on the page with prompts about her parents. “The one thing I hope I never inherit from my mom is the way she … HAS NO STYLE.” And: “The one thing I hope I never inherit from my dad is the way he … HAS NO HAIR.” My attempts to defend myself were met with scorn. Well, justified perhaps, because that kid has style.)

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It feels like a day for black and white.

Here is my desk, right now. On the left, see the syllabus I’m working on. In the middle, my BlackBerry, which flashes whenever I get a message (very distracting, but I must like being distracted; text me, please!). On the right, this week’s calendar full of to-do lists and daily events not to be forgotten. And on the computer screen, a message to my editor with the revised version of Girl Runner attached. Yup! She’s gone off. I’ve sent her on her way.

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Kevin, who has been my first reader for as long as I’ve had a writing career, stayed up past midnight reading the new draft, and told me this morning that he couldn’t put it down. He offers the following blurbs: “I felt like I was running in Aggie’s shoes over a 100-year race.” And “The book had the perfect combination of pace and depth, just like the 800 metres.” And: “Normally I can read only a few pages at a time. I read half the book in one sitting.” As he’s obliged only to say good things, for the sake of our marriage, you might think this input is highly suspect, but I’m going with it. It’s been a summer of intense and sometimes crazy-making labour, and I can’t do more without a serious break from the material. And my editor is pleased to have it back on her desk again.

And now I give myself the respite of a week or so, before the madness of the fall schedule begins, to be quiet, peaceful, breathing, playing, and not working. Tall order.

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One last thing. My next post is going to be about everything I’m excited for this fall. It really and truly is. Because there is so much coming in and now that I’ve sent the manuscript I can breathe and sit back and look at it all. And rest my head. And say thank you.

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