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.
I’m late to the self-help genre, but something told me to pick up Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly when I was in a bookstore last weekend, and I’ve been amusing/annoying my family with my enthusiastic monologues on shame, vulnerability, and especially the word ENOUGH. One of the issues I have with self-help books in general is the difficulty of putting into practice or embedding into the mind the great ideas that you read or discover.
A key word that I think I can remember. I am enough. But also, I’ve had enough. It’s the latter I wrestle with most: the concept of setting boundaries, of not numbing the mind and emotions with busyness, but instead recognizing when something is not working and therefore making a change—not to change one’s own habits in order to take on more and accommodate more, merely to cope, but to change the boundaries, to change what one will accept, and state it clearly. How powerful!
I am enough. I’ve had enough. (How to feel enough?)
“If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough, that we’re enough.” – Brene Brown
I am grateful for all of the soccer, sun, friendly faces and family time of which I partook this past weekend. And I am grateful for choosing to relax and read a book yesterday evening instead of vacuuming, once we got home again.
I just woke out of a stuporous nap. Not the best state in which to blog, but I’ve been wanting to blog all week and haven’t had time. So why not now, on this sweltering Friday afternoon in May, with the sounds of construction heavy all around the house, and nothing particular calling me.
Tuesday evening found me driving to Guelph to coach a soccer game, minus the daughter who is on the team; she had a dance class, the last one before the dress rehearsal, so she couldn’t miss it; Grandma drove her there, as Kevin was coaching both boys, back-to-back. It was a beautiful evening for a soccer game, warm and bright. I was proud of our team. I drove home listening to pop music, wishing Fooey had been with me. There’s a new song on the radio with the lyrics, “I’ve got guns in my head / Spirits in my head.” I heard it twice that evening, both directions. I really liked it. It took me back to Nicaragua, for some reason — childhood Nicaragua. In cleats and soccer shorts, I stopped for groceries. The cashier called me “Miss,” rather than “Ma’am.” It was night-time, completely dark, when I staggered through the door carrying all the basics that had been missing from our fridge and cupboards.
On Wednesday, I set my alarm and woke up early to walk the dogs, because Kevin had an early appointment, but it turned out he had time to come for the dog walk too. It was a beautiful morning. We walked around our neighbourhood together, admiring the gardens. We each took one dog. Mine pooped twice, so he won.
You are doing your best. That seems to be the only message that I’m currently capable of sending to myself.
At Tuesday’s soccer game, one of the players came up to me at halftime, quite keyed up. She’d played a couple of excellent shifts back to back, I thought, but she said, “I have to do better! I can play better than that!” Quite surprised, I replied, “I thought you played great! You were even in a new position for that last shift, and you looked really strong out there.” “No,” she said firmly, resolutely, “I can play better.” “Alright,” I said, “I believe you.” And wouldn’t you know, she went out and played even better in the second half to the game.
And I wonder: what was this child modelling to me? She wasn’t down on herself. She was determined, full of belief in what she had to offer.
Am I telling myself the opposite when I say: You are doing your best? Is this the best I can do? Is this the positive message that I mean it to be when my best is often so exhausted, so depleted, so flat and dull? Maybe I should be saying, Hey, coach, I can do better! I know it!
What would better look like? I’m pouring myself in, I’m pouring myself out. Some situations are pure triage. Sometimes I’m stealing an hour in a parked car beside a soccer field, escaping through imagination and words. Always, I’m sinking in to wherever I’m at, even if that means drifting into a stuporous nap in the middle of a hot day.
A single day can hold so much; a single hour; even a moment; here and gone.
Yesterday, she won the 1500 metres at the county meet with a gutsy long sprint to the finish.
Yesterday, the nice woman at the pharmacy seemed truly happy to do her makeup and hair on my behalf. This is not my wheelhouse.
Yesterday, she was ready for dress rehearsal. Whose child is this?
Yesterday, I managed a pain-free 10km early morning run, spent most of the day at a track meet cheering on my girl runner, dashed home in time to pick up the dancer from school early in order to get her hair and makeup done at the drugstore uptown, texted a supper idea to Kevin (hot dogs; not exactly brilliant, but it was something), picked up the kid who had scootered from school to a friend’s house, drove the runner to a babysitting gig, ate a veggie dog, changed into soccer gear, drove the dancer to her dress rehearsal, found another kind mother to look after her there, and headed to the soccer field for practice (once again, minus the child who is on this team).
It was another beautiful evening to be outside. Here I was, on a grassy field under a blue sky, directing drills, shouting encouragement, answering questions and listening to observations, playing. I thought about nothing else. The girls were having fun. I was having fun! This is what I mean about the hours of each day and how much they can hold: how I am submerged, yes, but I am not drowning. What would it mean to be better? Maybe it would mean only to pause to say thanks, to say yes to more early morning dog walks, to be witness to, to sing along to a new song on the radio even when the windows are down, to hold neither too tightly nor let go too easily. To continue to do my best.
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.
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.