Joy snacks and shame sandwiches
How do you feel about critique? Is it useful to you, at least some of the time, or do you find it painful, even unsettling? (That should be the other way round — unsettling, even painful.) Yes! And that’s the kind of critique I give myself regularly, and which I’m reasonably comfortable receiving — critique on language, syntax, effectiveness of words packed together to create a particular kind of experience and meaning.
I wonder if it’s a confidence factor. Maybe? I’m comfortable with my own facility with language, I know what I like, what effect I’m aiming for, and I’m willing to try and try and try again to test out possibilities. I’m familiar with my limitations and I like what I can do with words. There’s an intrinsic pleasure to playing with language, and critique is necessary — if it’s provided in a spirit of kindness, of support, of interest, of acceptance. What matters to me may not be what matters to someone else, when it comes to writing. I admire so many different genres and styles, voices and techniques. Critique works when we’re playing together, when we like and admire each other’s unique gifts, when there is an equal exchange of energies. (A phrase I only recently learned, and which seems to speak to a core need within me.)
I just opened and read the student evaluations from the course I taught this winter. I’ve been putting it off. This is critique that I believe is necessary and important and valuable. So I read it. And now I feel like I’ve eaten a shame sandwich. The silly thing is that the bulk of the comments and assessments (all anonymous) were extremely positive. Of course not everyone clicked with what I was offering — that’s understandable, reasonable. Not everything is for everyone. There were some suggestions for improvements, almost all of which I do not disagree with. But here’s the thing: I feel like a total failure. That’s my gut response. The shame sandwich bloats me with self-pity and fear. Why would I ever dream of teaching again? Cut and run, pull the parachute, jump ship — that’s my gut instinct.
I don’t always know what will send me spiralling.
I have not found a way to solve this particular problem. Is it a character flaw, a bug in the system, the way that I’m wired? I’ve tried therapy, I’ve tried journalling. I put myself out in public again and again, and almost ask for it — for critique. And then I don’t know what to do when it arrives.
Even good news.
Even compliments, I reject, I wobble on the inside. This can’t be right, I think.
But here’s something curious and unexpected: I’ve found a job that I can do without eating a shame sandwich every day that I do it. At this job, I feel competent, capable. I like myself when I do this job. I’m busy and useful, and sometimes even a little bit bored, but I feel surprisingly joyful.
Do you need joy in your work? I do. Nibbling on a joy snack is way more nourishing than eating a shame sandwich. Every day that I do this job, I experience joy. I’m not sure what that means, I’ll be honest. This wasn’t a job that I set out to do, ever. I never once dreamed of or even considered doing this job, till I started doing it, and every day I am glad that I gave myself permission to try something so different from what I’d expected to do, unhitched from ambition, out of the spotlight, the kind of job that should pay better, but because it’s caring work, it isn’t honoured or rewarded in that way. Reminds me of coaching soccer or looking after small children. And I just love doing it.
I love being the calm grounded centre in a storm of activity. I love being surrounded by noise and bustle and in the midst of all this tending to a stream of needs. I do this work and I never ever eat a shame sandwich while doing it because I know deep down that I’ve done my best, and I forgive myself instinctively for lapses or forgetting or dropping a ball somewhere. I love doing work for which there is no way — exactly — to prepare, you just need to dive in. I don’t have to be an expert. (I don’t want to be an expert, and have never ever felt like one, which may factor into why those critiques of my teaching strike home; why would I dare to teach if I’m not an expert? Shame sandwich, here I come.)
At this job-job, this work I’ve been doing since November, critique is almost an irrelevant term. Talking things through, debriefing, considering alternative routes or responses, sharing tips and resources — that’s useful, and it doesn’t feel like critique because it comes from a place of support and mutuality. I’ve never had a job like this before; I’ve mostly worked solo, self-employed or contract by contract. I hadn’t appreciated before now how much harder it is to work like that — alone. Working solo, any support system has been of my own devising; debriefing is scattered and requires explaining the situation to others who weren’t directly involved; there’s less direction, less of a sense of belonging. You know? If you work solo, contract to contract, self-employed, I’m guessing you know.
Okay, my blog platform is kind of dying here, on my dying ancient laptop, so I’m going to sign off without a proper ending. Just know that joy snacks are out there. And you might just find joy in something you’ve never considered trying before.
Sitting with it
I come here to write.
This past weekend, I spent three days at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, working on finishing the draft of a novel. There, I could write. It was bliss, absorbing; my thinking mind untroubled as I stepped into creative flow.
But here on the screen, this blog page, I’m coming up blank. I keep coming here, and coming up blank. It’s why you haven’t heard from me in a while. Maybe it’s the forum, the public nature of this forum? That used to not stop me or cause me pause; but lately, it does. I do not want to do harm to others, or to myself. Writing can be a dangerous craft.
My imagination was my protector when I was a child. It’s a strange thing to consider, but I’m beginning to wonder: maybe I spun that talent for fixing my wounds into a career. Oh it was powerful, oh it gave me powerful healing.
But maybe I’ve changed, maybe my needs have changed, my hopes, my values, my goals. I find myself content to work a mostly invisible job, with practical tasks that I essentially have the capacity to solve. I love that! It’s revelatory to arrive home feeling happy, to feel my hours have been purposeful, I’ve been able to make the day easier or more pleasant for those I’ve served.
Still, I wrote into and out of my imagination this weekend, and I’m glad for that too. That time was a gift.
What comes next? I’m sitting with it.
Roots, old and new
On April 1st, I started a 30-day journaling project (inspired by Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals). What I’ve noticed so far is that prompts really help. On days when I try to jot down random thoughts, not much comes squeezing out. I’m preoccupied by surface tasks and must-dos, and a feeling of emptiness prevails. This is a most unpleasant feeling. So, today I said to myself, what advice would you give your students, if they were feeling stuck? You’d say, Stop trying to “journal” and do a daily diary (a la Lynda Barry), or an X Page prompt (ditto). Get out of your own head. Come alive by entering the world.
Other prompts have worked well too. My word-of-the-year group is spending April responding to each other’s words (we were each assigned someone else’s word to reflect on). My assignment was to reflect on the word ROOT. One of the associations that jumped out was “long-standing friendship.” A long-standing friendship, like a long-standing tree, has deep roots, has weathered many storms, and has had good fortune.
Reflecting on this imagery, related to ROOTS, and separate from the word-of-the year assignment, I landed on a journaling prompt: What roots in your own life are long-standing? And also, what roots are tender and new? It’s spring, after all! People are planting seedlings, tiny buds are opening. Feel free to use this prompt if it sparks something in you, too.
Words unfurling across a page, a screen, scrawled in the margins and end pages, marking time, holding ambition, bright with rage, lyrical, lyrical, lyrical
Born family, brothers and sister, all of us rooted in time, in blood and DNA
Music, song, rhythm, pulse
My feet walking, running, my body in motion, powerful, strong
Friendships that hold, light in the window, light at the door, and bread, and wine, and laughter and forgive me
Performance, putting on a show
Reading, imagination’s flow
The trees themselves, and water, mud, grass under bare feet
A big appetite, hoarding, cheapness, knowing best
A quietness amidst chaotic flow
The impulse to make places home
Loneliness, fear of not belonging
Thrift against decadence, earnestness
Wanting to make people laugh, to entertain, to put at ease, and yet aloof, sharp edges
Horses, dogs, children
Memory, curiosity, mystery, questions without answers
Tender new roots
Medication to lift the load
Healing estrangements, more trust, talking about tough stuff, tender stuff too
Kids moving home and away, vegetarian meals
Big job interview, looking for work that satisfies my need to earn a living and to feel/be purposeful
Transitioning X Page workshop to a sustainable long-term project
Parenting teenagers and young adults
Spending time with little kids again, delighting in their presence
Getting reacquainted with teaching
Practicing social skills and conflict resolution
Expanding my skill set, seeing my skills as having other applications, exploring outlets for my desire to connect, create, be fruitful, self-sufficient, purposeful, to serve
Doing “the work” to counter harmful patterns and habits
Yoga and meditation—soaking it up!
Body awareness, body love, healing
Caring for elders, patience, tenderness, listening to the wisdom of elders
Honouring needs, resting, relaxing, spontaneity
The pancake in question
Need to pack up for class and head to campus, but also wanted to write about … well … a list of things too long for one post, so to boil it down, I’ve landed on an image that’s making me grin.
Saturday morning, woke to a smell of someone cooking something in the kitchen. Went downstairs in my pjs and found three teenage boys, none belonging to me, making pancakes by committee, no lights on but the stove’s fan was going. An avid discussion was underway on when exactly to flip, were there enough bubbles, and was this first pancake cooked all the way through, turning to me to ask, what did I think? The pancake in question was definitely not cooked all the way through.
My son, their host, they told me, was still asleep. We laughed about that.
They didn’t need my help or advice, I could see, so I assured them that the pancake that wasn’t quite done wouldn’t kill anyone if eaten with maple syrup, and I continued on to the living room to do some yoga.
This image might represent the peak of my parenting joy, the pinnacle of any parenting success I dare claim. My children’s friends feel at home in our house! The pandemic temporarily robbed us of this rare and fleeting delight. My youngest is about to turn 15. I know this too shall pass, but I won’t grieve it while it’s happening, I’ll just make a note of its existence — here, and in my mind’s eye.
There are moments when one’s actual happening life feels fully integrated and aligned with one’s intentions and beliefs. This was that. (And other moments this past week, too, but this is the easiest to write about in a compressed snippet of time.)
What you see when you look out the window
On the soundtrack, right now: Everything is Everything by Lauryn Hill.
I’ve spent March break catching up on course-related work and preparing for a couple of presentations next week. I also worked on my taxes. But you know, the pace has been forgiving. I’ve cooked some excellent meals, walked as much as possible, rested more. I even got a haircut.
Next week, Thursday, March 23, 4PM, I’ll be giving a public lecture at Western University in London (Ontario). If you’re interested in attending, it will also be live streamed; register here. The remarks I’ve prepared feel like the culmination of all my years of experiencing life as a writer — aspiring writer, struggling writer, published writer, uncertain writer, obscure writer, hopeful writer, thankful writer. This is an opportunity to express my deep appreciation and love for the act of writing itself, which is magical, healing, and so very alive.
But I’m currently distracted by the young people passing on my sidewalk whooping and shouting and wearing tiny green hats. St Patrick’s day is here, blowing through our city despite the rain and melting shit-speckled piles of snow. Everything is everything. It really and truly is.
And after winter must come spring.