Where am I? Where do I place myself? How much say do I have in where I’m placed?
In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn titled “Longing for Light,” that has the line: “Make us your bread, broken for others, shared until all our fed.” It feels like a very Mennonite sentiment. It rings true, it compels me: this desire to use one’s energy and work for a purpose that helps others, or serves others. But, I wonder, do I need to be broken to be of service? If I’m broken like bread, turned to crumbs, what then?
It’s an old puzzle, I think, trying to figure out how to give without depletion. I’d hoped and believed that I had the tools and skills necessary to make the job in the office sustainable. But I did not. This has left me feeling like a failure. What I’ve failed to do is to work within my means, at a job that I truly loved doing; instead, I kept burning all available fuel, day after day, till it was becoming harder to be kind, especially to myself.
I’m in a school library now, as of this week. It’s quieter, but students will come and fill it with noise. It’s a different job, easier. It’s only day two, but I’m not a zombie when I walk out of the building. “I didn’t rescue anyone today!” I texted to Kevin after work on Monday. His reply: “Just yourself.”
What will I do with more energy, again? Do I have the self-control not to get myself into trouble, the patience not to sign myself up for other jobs and volunteer positions till I’ve got no space to think again? I’ve missed having the bandwidth to write. I’ve missed writing. My thoughts are clearer on the page. Contradictory impulses: I don’t want this spare energy to go to waste; I don’t want to be used up till I’m nothing but crumbs.
I want to do no harm. I want to serve others. I want to live with ease. I want to share joy.
What I learned in the office job is how to ask questions. Ask and ask till I could be sure I understood what the other person wanted or needed. What is being asked of me? It isn’t always so clear. I learned that I’m steady in a crisis—focused, calm, decisive, very present. I’m a good listener, when very present. I would like to combine these skills with training that would place me in a job or occupation that calls on them, regularly, while giving me some power to solve or resolve the problems being presented.
It’s quite possible that no job or occupation has the power to solve or resolve problems—or not to satisfaction, not the problems that are unfixable. But I’d like to try. Not to demand perfect or ideas solutions, but to move in practical ways toward wholeness, support, improved states of mind, healthier relationships.
Where will I place myself?
So much depends upon that. I feel it very strongly. Where I place myself—where I’m placed, physically, in the world—changes the possibilities that open (or close).
As a writer, it has seemed there are fewer opportunities to be placed, to find a place, especially in the company of others. My kids are growing up, and out of the house. I need to be placed with people, with strangers, with colleagues, with a crowd, children or teens or adults, young and older and old, or a mixture; friction, conflict, noise, laughter, issues raised, questions, needs to be met, time to be managed, hands held, stories heard.
My job-job has given me that—a place. Many places, in fact. Many different people to interact with. I’m currently placing myself part-time in a school library. That leaves space to be placed somewhere else, too, or to work/train toward a different kind of placement. I would like to explore working in a context that involves conflict—defusing it, specifically, and helping those caught up in conflict to move toward resolution.
Longing for light. Longing to be light—lighter in spirit, light-hearted, light on the path.
I’m sitting at my desk listening to the voices of my sons behind me, as they play a game together—spontaneously, after supper. It is a Saturday night in mid-October, and I am sick (literally, not figuratively) with something most likely picked up in the germ-swirl that is an elementary school’s main office.
In my dream last night, I was laughing/lamenting that my talent is for making these rectangular objects filled with words, but another part of me said, no, your talent is for taking real life and converting it into something tangible that others can understand and feel too—an image. In the dream, I could see that it wasn’t the book-shaped piles of words that were important, but the images themselves, the core pieces of representation that shine on in the imagination, that last or spark or make meaning inside the consciousness—who knows why?
Images that I’m carrying right now—too many to count, stuck to me like burrs, alive and imagined, some from my own experience, some utterly invented.
Have you watched Reservation Dogs? It’s in its final season (of three), and I can’t bear to think of it coming to an end. Each episode is a jewel. I end each one weeping (but it’s oh so full of laughter too). An image I’m carrying comes from season two, when an elder, a grandmother, is dying in her home, and the house fills up with relatives and neighbours, food, stories, silence, words. Nothing is rushed, and there is time to let this singular passage unfold.
Another image I’m carrying is happening in a room I’ve never seen, where a person very dear to me is lying in a bed with the lights turned down, beside a beeping bright hallway, dozing on and on, sick and frail and afraid. She is not alone, but she feels alone. I can’t reach her, I am not able to reach her right now. There’s more that I could see, or imagine, but for now, I hover merely in the conjured room. It’s where I am, it’s where things are. Liminal space.
Unfinished stories. Fragments. Is that what images are?
To write a whole book—it’s within my capacity, I can do it, I have done it, and almost to my own satisfaction. But it does cost me—it costs me living in the real world, living my whole life. My whole life is too full right now—full of experiences I’m living through and in and among, experiences that may never be translated into words placed inside a rectangular object, to try to keep. I want to keep the things I love. (Wasn’t that my calling—to fight to observe and preserve the things I’ve loved and love?) But not everything can be kept, or contained, or held. Not even the most precious, the most wondered-at and cherished. (It has to be changed to be kept, in any case. It has to be turned into something else—an image, alive but only in the mind.)
And most things are carried away, let go. Here and felt, but not kept. Ephemeral.
I’m about to start week four of my new job. It’s intense and lively and challenging for brain and body and spirit — and I love that. It is also consuming of energy and focus. And it’s what I wanted and needed, I feel that deeply. I thrive on friction and have sought it out in various ways, from kundalini yoga classes to filling my house with four children to taking on volunteer roles that threw me into situations with high learning curves and the reward of appreciation and adventure (think — soccer coaching, or co-founding and running the storytelling workshop).
Now I’ve found myself a job where I get paid to enter into a swirl of friction: activity, human interaction, conflict and attempts at resolution. Everything I’ve learned in my life leading up to this moment feeds my ability to thrive and respond with integrity and kindness (while setting firm boundaries) in a constantly changing, constantly interrupted environment of constant problem-solving. But it’s early days! I recognize that such jobs can also, over time, create calluses for protection and self-preservation, which outwardly can look like cynicism, burnout, detachment, depression.
So I’m testing out ways to build in channels for release, for rest, to make space for ongoing enjoyment.
NEED is my word of the year. Attuning to my needs has been such a helpful guide! What do I need to set myself up for success? Each one of us will need something a bit different — or a lot different. I’m relishing the opportunity to test out my needs and my ability to meet those needs, with the focus of the job as an anchoring point.
I need: healthy food and hydration; cardio; yoga and meditation; time with Kevin; balanced connection with my kids (meeting them where they’re at); the give and take of strong friendships; sleep and rest; friction and challenge; to learn new things; creative outlets; appreciation for my work; compensation for my work; a sense of adventure and discovery; to feel purposeful and useful; joy and humour; spiritual connection.
My new job meets the following needs (just by showing up, these needs are met! Amazing!): friction and challenge; to learn new things; appreciation for my work; compensation for my work; a sense of adventure and discovery; to feel purposeful and useful; joy and humour. I sense that friendships may develop through this job as well.
So what’s left out? What needs are not being met at my job and can I find ways to meet these needs in other ways?
Well, I’ve been biking to work — there’s cardio, and I’m planning to get up extra-early to fit in a 30-min run a few times a week on days when I don’t feel like biking. Packing myself good lunches and keeping a water bottle at my desk; plus cooking as therapy when I get home for work — there’s healthy food and hydration. Kevin and I do yoga and meditation together almost every day, first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, and we walk the dog most evenings — there’s time with Kevin, and yoga and meditation, and spiritual connection (at least to some degree). I reach out to friends by text (it’s a great way to stay in touch, especially from afar, and with kids too), and arrange times to meet in person, like a Friday after-work drink, or an early morning walk. Our family eats most suppers together (those living at home, that is). So a lot of the bases are being covered.
Rest and sleep — working on it! I’m aiming to leave most weekends and evenings relatively open and free. This means cutting back on almost all volunteer work. Cutting out activities that drain my energy, or that I simply don’t have time to complete.
I’m missing creative outlets.
I have two writing weekends at the farm planned for this fall — so that’s something. But what about daily creative connection? Connection to my writing self? What’s happening in that part of my self? I haven’t felt the urge to write, to start something new, or even to finish the novel project that’s underway. I’ve got a completed manuscript waiting for an editor to read it and reject or accept; touching that part of my life hurts, sometimes. Or I anticipate that it will be painful. Too hard. Unnecessary pain.
But writing and drawing bring me joy — I know that!
So I’m going to test out writing/drawing for 15 mins during my lunch break (first I have to take a lunch break, but this will be motivation!). Rest and restoration — much-needed to avoid burn-out. I’d like to make myself a list of 20 or so prompts that I can cycle through, for days when I’m not feeling inspired to get started (which is most days, these days!).
I’ll post some prompts here too (next time). Maybe you have a favourite prompt you return to? Let me know, please.
Lyrics in my head right now: “Life is a balance, you lose your grip, you can slip into an abyss…” J. Cole, “False Prophets”
I’ve started my new job. It is in fact a different position than I’d anticipated holding; but a (nearly) full-time secretary position opened up at one of my favourite schools, and I applied, got an interview, and was hired in a matter of days. Like, just last week. So this is all very fresh and I’m knee deep in learning approximately a thousand new systems and codes and protocols, all while helping to get the school ready for teachers and students to return next week. Today, in the supply room, I purged a multi-coloured mash of plasticine that was full of toothpicks, for example.
My job has nothing to do with my career as a writer, in that it’s not a spin-off that builds on any specific skills or connections that come from being a writer (like my teaching did, and my work with the storytelling project, or even as a school librarian would); this is a different path, different trajectory. There’s very little overlap in tasks and duties. It’s freeing.
Back in June, I set a few goals that pointed toward a changing horizon. Softer, maybe, and calmer and gentler and as beautiful as the view across the lake from the sunset deck at my stepsisters’ cottage. The sky at sunset is always different but familiar, different but known, different if you take time to sit and savour it each evening. Otherwise, you might believe you’d see the same sunset and sky over and over again, and you might be bored by what you think of as repetition. But it’s not repetition, it’s texture and nuance and depth. It’s a groove, not a rut, as my friend Lisa says.
I’m coming to know (not just believe, but know) that enjoyment is in the moment, in living in each moment, your senses absorbing the beauty, resting in the moment, marinating in the feelings. Going with the flow. Getting into it. Like revelling in the colours and patterns and shifting light and sounds all around you, when you’re out for a walk around the block, or floating in a cold lake, or riding a bike.
Here’s what I wrote in my notebook, dated June 10:
If I want new goals, what might they be??
- To bike to work — to find a job that allows me to bike
- Permanent hours in a school I want to be in
- Regular massages
- Visits to the farm (writing retreats)
- Eating good food
- Travel experiences with friends and family
I am still in awe that I can bike to work now! The route is almost entirely on paths and separated bike lanes. I’m there in under 20 minutes. Pure bliss. And permanent hours—yes. At a school I know and care about, with people I know and care about—yes!
The massages are yet to be regular, but will be made possible by benefits.
Every item on this list is within reach, it’s within the realm of possibility (whether occasionally like travel or everyday like yoga and good food). Every item was chosen because it brings me pleasure. And I can do the things that make these goals possible. I’m just now noticing that on this list, success is measured differently (differently than I often measure it, anyway). I wonder whether I could set goals for my writing that are closer to these goals, above, more in line with a changing horizon. I need to sleep on it, let these experiences settle into my bones, know them inside out.
Yesterday, whilst braving the mall in search of nice jeans for work (you have to try on jeans, you cannot order them online), I stopped by the Indigo bookstore and signed new paperback copies of Francie’s Got a Gun. And then this morning, I biked down to the CBC-KW studio for a live interview on our local morning radio show. It was fun; in fact, both experiences felt easier and lighter than promotional work has in the past.
Biking home, I was bursting with gratitude. Gratitude to all my wise counsellors, therapists (official and otherwise) and friends. Gratitude to an ongoing meditation and movement practice that reminds me to breathe and be inside my body. I would not wish to suggest that I am content with my life all of the time. But I am ever more at peace with what I can and cannot give and receive from being a writer. Let my writing be ever more integrated into the fullness of the ordinary; integrated, not elevated. Integrated and enjoyed and appreciated.
Getting to be alive, to breathe and move and help and hug and hold and care and learn and grow and fall and be held—what I hope for is the chance to say THANK YOU for all of this through writing; but there are other ways to say thank you, too, which I’m getting to know and appreciate all the more, through every day ordinary experiences. “Ordinary Wonder Tales,” as per the title of my friend Emily Urquhart’s wonder-filled book of folklore mingled with memoir.
My sense of purpose and gratitude is activated through my job-job, and elsewhere in other points of connection, the little confluences and bumps and unexpected interactions that come along the way, especially as I’ve been willing to be in the world. Listening. Asking questions. Acts of service and kindness. Kindness to myself radiating outward. Paying attention. Solving small problems. Lowering the bar. Prayer. “Joy snacks.” Presence.
I know caring isn’t super-cool. But when have I ever been cool?? (If you want to feel very old and very not-cool, go to the mall, go into a store selling jeans, and try on a bunch while asking for sizing advice from a genuinely kind young man who is approximately the age of your own children, and you will actively achieve humility.) In any case … the truth is that I really do care about the people I’m with and the energy I exude.
And I’m thankful, heart-deep, for the wonders of getting to be alive in this broken, challenged, grieving, complicated and beautiful world. I’m in awe of what we get to do here on planet earth, in the little scrap of time we’re given. It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it?