I’m attempting to post here about once a week; but that is not always possible. There are weeks when I prioritize writing in my notebook over writing publicly if I have some moments to spare; or lying on the couch and reading a book. Setting priorities is becoming a habit, of necessity. Am I filling my cup, so that I can serve the needs of others? For example, I’ve figured out that it takes me at least 2 hours to get up and out the door in the morning — one hour minimum to do my wake-up and exercise routine (including yoga and meditation), and one hour precisely to shower, dress, make and eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and screech out the door clutching a travel mug of coffee, the correct set of keys for the job of the day in my pocket, and a backpack over my shoulders loaded with whatever items I’ve determined will serve in the hours ahead (this may include but is not limited to licorice, Birkenstocks, head-phones, notebook and pen, and folder with instructions on various systems and processes).
Point being, setting priorities requires first knowing what these priorities are — not ignoring what makes me a happier healthier person. It helps to identify why I’m choosing to do certain things instead of other things. What I’ve discovered is that the why is usually about pleasure, ease, fun, enjoyment, fulfillment, connection, and purpose. The good things in life. My exercise routine makes me happy, energized, calmer, in tune with my body and mind, which sets the whole day on course, so I choose it over sleeping in — and I get to bed earlier in the evening in order to make this habit sustainable. I love savouring my cup of coffee, which makes it perfect to enjoy while sitting at a desk somewhere. But breakfast is a sit-down affair with the newspaper and two poached eggs on toast, so I make time for that (even if it’s just 12 minutes — I’ll literally calculate how much time I have to relax and enjoy this ritual, setting a timer on my phone to cue me when it’s time to switch gears).
This morning during quiet meditation, a complex and wild and wonderful thought came upon me. Here it is: everything I’m doing to serve and understand my own needs reverberates outward, so that I am able to better serve and understand the needs of those around me. When I teach creative writing, what I’m actually offering are methods and practices for how pay attention to the world, how to observe others with curiosity and openness, and how to respond (through writing) without judgement. This is a deep mindset shift, I think. Attention without judgement, without the desire to manipulate or change or profit from, is love. If you pay attention to the world, you will love it more than you realized was possible. This love will break you down and build you up. And you will want to serve others because you can see them more clearly. The skills I’ve honed and continue to hone as a writer might make me a better writer; but I’m coming to believe that’s a side product of the real gift of these skills — of creativity itself. At the core of my being, I don’t want to be a better writer in order to publish books that become bestsellers and earn me fame and fortune. I want to practice writing and creativity because I believe these deeply intuitive and generative acts will help me become a more observant, open-minded, human being while I’m here on planet earth.
I teach creative writing. And I’ve struggled with this, because I don’t believe it can really be taught effectively. I can’t download my knowledge of how to write creatively into the minds of students in a rational, lecture-based, logistical way. All I can do is open opportunities for students to interact with their own minds and experiences creatively — and with each other. Creativity isn’t a state of being that can be monetized or harnessed for profit. If you get into it, if you allow yourself to follow the energy and be led by whatever magic and mystery and grace is pulling you, money, power, and profit will feel so insignificant that you won’t be able to make sense of them. They don’t make sense, in the vast universe of creative action and practice.
Here is what I know: To create is also to destroy. It is to witness the breaking down of what appears substantial, and to witness and partake in a generative improbable renewal. The impossible presents itself. What you discover in this state can’t be explained adequately through words, so words climb into images and images emerge and show themselves to be transferable between human beings, and expression of deep emotion and experience is possible. It is possible.
So. I teach creative writing, but what I really hope to do is to plant seeds. I know that my job in the schools (not teaching creative writing) is an outward expression my own potential beginning to root and grow. By becoming more grounded and secure (paradoxically, through becoming more vulnerable and soft), I can serve others with less fear, judgement, and hunger for external reward. Every day I’m in a school, I have the opportunity to practice paying attention. I love this practice. I get to do it over and over again. I ask, how can I help you? I listen to what the other person is saying. If possible, I look them in the eye. If appropriate, I ask how they are doing. I listen to what they tell me, and I repeat back to them what I’ve understood them to say, because I want to be sure it’s clear to me. If possible, I try to solve their problem, or brainstorm a solution they can try (it’s usually a small problem that has a simple solution).
That’s it. That’s the practice. Greet, listen, repeat, ask questions, acknowledge, try to understand, solve or resolve.
Greet, listen, acknowledge.
Over and over again, throughout the day. I know these interactions have the power to change me. They have the power to change my approach to creativity and writing too. It’s an integrated and interactive and generative cycle, the relationship with self, other, and creative spirit.
What are you practicing these days? Where are your practices, habits, and routines leading you?
My Dad has been wondering how okay I am, exactly — too okay to update my blog?
Maybe that’s part of it? My okay-ness has been very of the moment. I haven’t had a lot of time for reflection. It’s been a whirlwind, a cornucopia of experiences, new experiences, and a lot of joy in finding myself amidst people again, especially children and young people. My tasks are manageable, but they are constant. I never get done, and I make mistakes sometimes too, when the pace gets too extreme, and it would be impossible not to err in some way. It is the most amazing practice, to have to admit to mistakes made, and be kind to yourself. It helps when others understand and are kind in turn.
I’ve also been having to say no. To be clear and definite in my decision-making. Again, not always a personal strength, but the practice of it — necessitated by the work I’m doing on a variety of fronts, and by my own limited capacity to respond — is a practice of trust and kindness, too. Trust my instincts to be kind and to know what will serve my needs. Trust the universe. Trust that I can’t know what I’m making it while I’m making it. That’s Lynda Barry, and it feels powerfully applicable to life itself, not just the creative process or writing a novel. How can I possibly fathom what I’m making of my life, while I’m living it? What a comical task to set for oneself.
Follow the energy.
Where is the energy? Where am I being pulled?
When I do [fill in the blank] do I feel energized, or drained? Is there ease or is it burdensome? Could I feel energized by [fill in the blank] if I changed something that was within my power to change? Or am I dragging a dead thing behind me because it’s too painful or uncomfortable or embarrassing to admit that the thing in which I’ve become so invested is lifeless?
I’m writing this on a Thursday evening, after supper. In a few moments, I’ll fly out the door to a yoga class, which I splurge on once a week because it is blissful and peaceful and calming and brings me deep restoration and ease. Rest and restoration. Ease. Energy. Noticing. All of these states are within me, if I allow them to be. The difficult thoughts, the reactionary thoughts, these come too, because they always come to the human mind. It isn’t about avoiding difficult things, this state of being I’m allowing my life to unfold within.
Kevin and I have been doing yoga and meditation in the morning before we start our day, and at night, before bed. We’ve been doing this every day for months now, and it’s teaching me ease of mind. As I become witness to the human flaws (in myself), instead of being ashamed, I am strangely delighted. See — you are human, and you are also kind. Where will this lead? I spent three days this past weekend on a writing retreat with two friends, and it was blissful. I can write in a state of kindness. I can write without anxiety. I can write, differently, but because, as I always have, I love to do it. The process delights and amazes me.
Where is the energy?
I ask, and the story answers, and pulls me onward, continually toward its centre.
It’s okay to be okay.
Is it vulnerable to confess that I am happy, content, that I feel cherished and full of gratitude? It feels that way sometimes. Or it feels like I’m tempting fate. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone or it will get taken away. I wonder why. I wonder why there is pressure to confess only the misery and pain and missteps, as a signal of vulnerability and openness and being human, rather than the joy? But both are true of being human: we know joy and contentment too. I wonder why I would ever feel guilty for or superstitious about being content? Yet, it’s there. Like I’m bragging, maybe? Like I’m setting up a comparison that might make someone else feel less than? Like I deserve to be taken down a notch.
Be that as it may, I want to spread the word that it’s okay to be okay. It’s okay to be okay with all the feelings. It’s okay to ask for what you want. It’s okay to declare that you need a personal time-out to cool down. It’s okay to look around and say, hey, this is pretty sweet.
This morning, I created a word-storm. I invite you to do the same. The prompt is: WORDS THAT FEED ME.
Useful, worthwhile, care, purpose, value, meaningful, attention, calm, observant, responsive, kind, fun, joyful, clear, open, wonder, curious, grace, gratitude, improvisation, generosity, spirit, longing, prayer, adventure, trust, serve.
To each of these words, an image or images attach.
USEFUL: I’ve struggled with this word, yet it comes to mind first. It’s connected to WORTHWHILE, VALUE, SERVE. My Mennonite words. Is spending a year drawing cartoons useful? Well, who is to say it’s not? I’m beginning to learn with my whole body that useful is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe I drew cartoons for a year in order to become the person that I am right now: someone who values PLAY and creativity in others, and knows how to make space for it. It’s okay to be okay — I don’t need to apologize or explain to anyone why something is or has been useful to me. TRUST.
CARE: I love this word. I have a friend who always calls me “Care Bear.” It was my childhood nickname too, bestowed on me by my brother, who is the king of nickname-bestowing (it’s a gift!). CARE is connected to MEANINGFUL, ATTENTION, WONDER, CURIOUS, GENEROSITY, SPIRIT. I’m learning that it’s okay to be okay with caring deeply; but I’m also learning how to set boundaries, so my care doesn’t swamp me, or burn me out. CARE can be expressed in so many ways. I don’t want my care to burden the people about whom I care. That’s where boundaries come in: knowing what’s mine to offer, and what’s mine to leave be.
PURPOSE: Here’s where PURPOSE comes into it. I am beginning to accept that my PURPOSE is most mysterious. It’s not for me to decide or drive toward or push into. What I’m making isn’t CLEAR while I’m making it. This is true of any writing project — I know this is my very bones — but it’s also true of the project of being alive, being human. You don’t know what you’re making while making it. When I’m writing, I lean into the mystery, I let myself be led, I follow what makes me WONDER, what makes me CURIOUS. I chase the energy that’s playing with me. What I’m making is not static, and it doesn’t require me to bring it to life: it’s animating me in return, or animating my imagination. Why not apply this sensation of ADVENTURE, of exploration, of following where you’re being led to real life too? When something brings me energy and delight, when I revel in what I’m doing, then I know: this is my PURPOSE.
It’s funny how we tell ourselves that we need to know our PURPOSE in advance — to set goals, and be useful, and climb the mountain, and use our gifts to the fullest. When no — we need to be comfortable not knowing. As in writing, we don’t get to decide the outcome. Leave that to someone else. Or leave it alone altogether and don’t give it another thought.
GRATITUDE: This is the this. But I don’t want to force it. I can’t really force it. To be in a GENEROUS mindset is to know GRATITUDE. Then it’s impossible not to give thanks for the GRACE that speaks in many voices. I do think this can be a practice, though. I notice myself saying thank you more and more frequently, in funny ways, too. Thank you, plant, for not dying even though I’ve forgotten to water you! Thank you, weary body, for getting me through this day. Thank you, brain, for keeping me safe in busy traffic. Thank you, heart, for beating all these beats. You know? And then this thankfulness spills everywhere, over everything and everyone.
KIND: Hey. It’s also okay to not be okay. That’s the kindest thing you can say to yourself, and to those around you. Let yourself RESPOND to the situation that’s unfolding, and you will be KIND.
FUN: For me it’s so much fun to be CURIOUS, to WONDER, to IMPROVISE, to PLAY, to RESPOND. Your FUN recipe will be totally different from mine. It’s WORTHWHILE experimenting with your own ingredients. You’ll know it when you feel it. It feels easy, light, delightful. You will laugh at yourself a lot. You will be patient and relaxed and gentle. You will be JOYFUL. Those around you may sense your joy and feel freed to respond in kind. It’s possible.
It’s okay to be okay.
You bring light. Say it to yourself. How does it feel?
The words came into my mind during a recent morning meditation and lit me up from the inside out.
My word of the year is not LIGHT, though I considered it. It is not EASE or FREE, though it could be. My word for 2023 is NEED. Beneath the word is another word that’s been guiding me, too: ONE. Too many words? But really, just one. Just one word to respond to any given moment. Just one goal. Just one purpose. What do you need? What does this situation call for? What need is not being met that may be preventing you from being wholly yourself in the world? And as important! What needs are you meeting wonderfully well right now?
I am also playing with the concept of the “joy snack,” which can be savoured in little bites throughout the day. Listen to a podcast on the subject (from the Washington Post). Your “joy snacks” are your own, they’re personal, and they’re small, and they just need to be noticed in order to exist. They’re probably already happening, whether you know it or not. For me, I have a “joy snack” every morning when I do a silly aerobic warm-up in the kitchen, usually in my pjs, after brushing my teeth and before doing anything else. It takes between 2-4 minutes and never fails to give a sweet little boost to my mood.
I’ve been thinking about what matters — to me. Not to anyone else, not to an imaginary host of external projections. But to me. The core, the centre, the oneness of myself. This could be misused, to be sure, or misconstrued as selfish, but could it really be selfish to care about how you feel, inside your own body, inside your own mind? What matters? I’m the one living inside this body. My time is finite here on earth, inside this experience of being me, in the world. So it’s worth checking in: What do I care about? Do I really know? Am I living in my body, in this world, in ways that make me feel good, whole, content?
What activities and actions and experiences and routines help me feel good, whole, content? What leaves me feeling empty, anxious, drained? As I explore what I FEEL (last year’s word), I gain clues to what I NEED.
I’m learning so much at my new job in schools (and in parallel, by teaching creative writing again, too).
I NEED to feel purposeful. I NEED to be with people. I NEED to understand my role. I NEED clear boundaries around my responsibilities (either clearly set out for me in a given context, or clearly set out and articulated by myself, which is much much harder to do). I NEED recognition for work done. I NEED dignity in my work. I NEED to live in alignment with my values. I NEED laughter, playfulness, connection.
It’s funny, but as I experiment with this new job, which takes me into different environments, often several different work cultures in any given week, I’m learning like a sea sponge. And I’m positively alight with discovery. I might be doing a task like putting labels on student records, and I’ll feel a giddy leap of joy — this is so satisfying, I’ll laugh to myself! Who was telling me all along that I needed to do something big or visible or large-scale to feel purposeful? It must have been me. And it was making me so unhappy, believing this about myself, because I couldn’t ever reach my own ridiculously outsized expectations for what I was supposed to be achieving. How amazing to discover that I feel purposeful doing small repetitive tasks that take focus and patience, and that almost no one will notice, except that important information will be available in an organized fashion when they come looking for it later. And that matters to me!
Same with recognition — the scale is unimportant. How did I not know this about myself? Recognition that satisfies my need is wholly about connection. When a connection is been made, between me and someone else, my heart soars with joy. When I sense that trust has been established, even very tentative or brief, I feel recognized. I hope the other person does too. Trust is mutual. So is recognition.
And I’m revelling in this discovery (re-discovery?) that I love being with people. I spend the day responding to other people’s requests, needs, and directions, and leave bursting with energy. I am not drained by this work. Quite the opposite. How is this possible? I’d assumed I was an introvert, but it turns out the thing that’s been draining me, in a lot of my other work, isn’t people, it’s having a role that isn’t clearly defined, or that requires of me responsibility without power, or just a ton of decision-making while having to invent and reinvent my boundaries. When I know what’s required of me, I am relaxed and at ease, no matter how chaotic the situation, no matter the complexity of the needs being presented. It’s the not-knowing what my role is — what the limits of my role are — that’s exhausting.
Can I apply what I’m learning to other parts of my life?
It remains to be seen. But I’m excited to keep learning and exploring, and enjoying.
And labelling files, alphabetizing books, and filling in where called and needed.
Do you enjoy doing reflective exercises at this time of year? If so, here’s a short one to commemorate the year that was, as you step into the year that is becoming. (I made friends do this last night — actually a longer version; our new year’s eve gathering was LIT!).
Think about the last year (2022), and then write down whatever pops immediately to your mind in response to each question. One line or two at most. When you’re done, draw a self-portrait with someone you love, if you want to make this extra.
- Something you’re proud of
- Something at which you crashed and burned
- Something happy
- Something sad
- Something very big
- Something very small
- Something funny or silly
- Something that surprised you
That’s it. Should take about 5 minutes max. I’ll post my somethings later. Please feel free to post anything that comes to mind in the comments below, should you feel so inspired.
PS Happy New Year!
My goodness. What a year, what a season.
Boundaries are love!! a friend texts me.
Another friend helps me dig into my worry that writing has served as a form of therapy, lo these many years, and with medication now lowering my anxiety to levels previously never experienced, I wonder, will writing still come to me, will I still feel the urge if it’s not an obsessive impulse?
I am collecting the wisdom of the sisterhood. I made my birthday (December 29th) into an opportunity to connect and confer and laugh and reunite and relax with friends and family, near and far. In fact, the whole of this holiday season has been about this: connection, and ease. Sleep when tired. Rest when the stomach flu takes you down. Let someone else (Kevin! Angus!) cook the big turkey dinner. Bake in concert with kids and kids’ friends. Knead sticky bun dough for a good half hour while listening to a meditation. Walk through the snow storm. Snuggle the dog. Savour the warmth. Sing carols and hymns for hours. Be clear of mind. Drink in the kindness of others. Pour out what you can. Invite. Delight. Say yes, and thank you, and welcome, and thank you, and eat till you’re filled to the brim.
I’ve often been more reflective on birthdays past. This birthday, I chose to socialize all day long.
Can a woman contented with her life still be a writer? I woke up this morning and thought: I wouldn’t trade this contentment, this inner peace and delight that flickers with promise and hope, in order to write another book. But why am I building a case for either / or? Surely there are other paths in. I could argue as effectively that I’ve written books in order to be published, as some kind of proof of belonging, or proof of a longed-for identity (though that’s not how belonging works, nor grounding in identity; another hard-won revelation this year).
I’ll be teaching creative writing again this winter, and I’m interested in exploring what writing feels like now, again, anew; what feeds the urge to create; what sates it; what can I learn with / from my students?
If I’m not writing to ease my anxiety … if I’m not writing in order to be published … what sparks the desire to write a-whole-nother-book? It’s gruelling work that doesn’t quite make sense, as those close to me have observed — the effort I put into draft after draft can’t be paid off in the resulting novel. Effort and result are disconnected; even, I’d argue, unrelated. I’ve experienced book-writing as a painful process, I guess I’m confessing. It hasn’t made logical sense, not from a financial perspective, nor from an artistic perspective either, really; which is why I’m curious to know: will I still be able to make a beautiful book, with alive characters, built on an elaborate structure I see in my head, if I’m not obsessed, or in pain, or seeking to soothe deep anxiety? I’m hopeful. I am.
And I’m willing to shed all ambition to be a person with delight in her voice, and love in her throat, and patience in her bones.
What a wild experiment this living is.
What a lucky woman I am, to get to live in concert on this planet with so many wise, kind, generous spirits and friends. What a wonderful year this has been of feeling intensely (gratitude, shame, pride, uncertainty, clarity, anger, delight and so much more) and of paying attention to what the feelings are telling me; of making mistakes and being forgiven; and of seeing Francie in the world. The feeling I’m feeling right this very second is GRATITUDE! I’m thankful for a new job that brings me satisfaction and delight (as a temporary secretary / library clerk in the public schools); and for everyone who loves me as I am, a mess of flaws and inadequacies and intentions and goofiness. I carry you somewhere inside me, everyone who’s walked even a step with me on this path. Thank you for letting me give, when and what I could, and thank you for the gifts you offered me, whether I deserved them or not. I am a grateful, humbled recipient.
Please forgive me the times I let you down, or was too inward-looking to notice what you needed; or stuck in my own head, or protecting my pride. (I’ll forgive myself too; I’ll try.)
Boundaries are love!! Do I know what this means? I’m learning / unlearning, but I get it muddled often enough to cause pain.
Well. I’m human. Let’s all be human together. We’re so interesting and strange and difficult and curious. But we’re not disappointing! Not really, not truly, with a shift of perspective.
Wishing you time for reflection and / or fun as you look toward a whole new year.