My general rule for writing posts here is to do it for fun, or when the spirit moves me, to paraphrase something my mother said a lot when I was a kid. Today I’m breaking that rule a bit. Nothing seems to be particularly fun just now, and the spirit is moving me only insofar as it’s saying, give it a shot, Carrie. Try to write something and see what comes up.
There are many things I don’t want to write about. I don’t want to write about war, or political instability, or pain or suffering or fear or anxiety. This isn’t a politically minded blog and I’m no expert, nor pundit, nor do I aspire to be.
I was thinking that it would be funny to write a post called “Five Bad Things Right Now”; but then I decided that might not be that funny. But I don’t have “Five Good Things” to report on, particularly; or maybe those things feel a bit superficial or artificial under the circumstances. How about “Five Things Right Now” and no judgment as to their quality or worth? Here goes.
Page proofs for Francie
My editor sent me a hard copy of typeset page proofs for review. I opened the package three days ago. This should be a most wonderful thing, but I’ll confess that I’ve yet to work up the courage to begin to read through. It’s a last pass. Last chance to catch typos. What comes next? I don’t know, exactly, which is why, I think, it will take courage to put this stage to bed. Next means new projects, publicity work, and whatever that requires of me (different skills from reading proofs, that’s all I know for sure).
Reading a library copy of Moonglow, by Michael Chabon
This was super-pleasurable, a big sprawling novel loosely based on the life of the author’s grandfather (which is why I wanted to read it, to get clues about how such a project might unfold). In the end, I was convinced this was more novel than biography, and I admired the apparent ease and ruthlessness with which the author muddied the waters; but part of me resented it too. I spent most of the book trusting in the author’s voice, and felt a bit cheated at the end. I wonder what this impulse is to believe that something is true, or to want to believe it, even when the writer is reminding me over and over that he’s a novelist, for heaven’s sake. He makes shit up for a living! (Isn’t that what I do too?) Anyway … an excellent read, highly recommended.
Drawing a cartoon
I stopped doing my daily cartoon late last month. I was following the same basic principle as I do for this blog: do it as long as it’s fun, and the spirit moves you. It was feeling less fun, more of a chore. But I picked up the habit again this week because I needed a different way to express my emotions, and drawing to music, colouring with crayons, is legit a fun way to journal, to record a tiny reminder of hey, here’s what happened today. A cartoon makes all the emotions more bearable. Drawing has lightened my load this week. (not pictured because I don’t have a photo on hand, and I love this one, above, taken around sunrise on an excruciatingly cold morning, recently)
Making pancakes for dinner
I don’t even like pancakes. But my kids do! Yesterday, that’s all I wanted: to give someone else something to enjoy. The gesture didn’t need to be grand, the recipients didn’t even need to know my intentions. Recipe here; I quadrupled it. (also not pictured; above is from a less-lauded meal involving squash, beets, turnips and sweet potatoes)
I might go so far as to say, admittedly hyperbolically, that my friend Kasia’s kundalini yoga classes have been saving me this week. They’ve definitely been lighting a fire, and making me feel alive and whole and present in my body in a positive way. Music, movement, breath work: breaks me open, sparks creativity, and openness, and belief that there are wonderful things in this world. And I need that reminder, especially right now. (photo above represents the feeling rather than the activity itself)
I’ve been running. The running is an on-again, off-again pursuit, a reflection, mainly, of the state of my aging, injury-prone body; but as the weather begins to turn and November looms, the challenge to continue running may come, too, from a waning willingness to lace up and head out in the cold, windy darkness.
Part of me loves the darkness (see above, photo taken around 7AM!). I run on trails that are reasonably well-populated and reasonably well-lit, but the early morning, right now, could be the middle of the night. I’m comforted by the darkness — part of me is comforted, that is. The other part is alert to danger, alert to any anomalies in my surroundings, any hints that something is off, alert in the way that women have been trained to be alert to danger our entire conscious lives. I run in a bright jacket. Sometimes I run with a friend or one of my kids. I run with no headphones, so as to have no distractions from my environment. And the darkness that could be the middle of the night folds over me, protective, expansive, infinite, closed, lovely.
The reason I can run is thanks to a rather effortful ongoing regime of stretching and strengthening. My goal is to run without pain. For now, I’m achieving that goal. I recognize it’s tenuous and not entirely under my control. So I’m thankful for each step that I take, pain-free.
At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the regimen that supports my running (no doubt, of limited interest to many readers, but something I wanted to record, in case I forget what it takes).
The X Page Writing Club met last week, and the personal memory that surfaced from our prompt “leaf or leaves” was about running. In fact, it seems to be a meditation about everything running represents for me, and why I keep doing it, even though it requires so much effort.
I am out in the country, on long empty hilly roads, mostly paved, running further than I ever have before. I’m training for a marathon. I’ve marked out a course that is about 38 to 40 kilometres, and my husband is with me, on a bicycle he found in his parents’ garage, which, it turns out, doesn’t work very well. It has no seat, so he has to ride it standing up, but the pace is slow — my running pace. His mother is looking after our kids, who are quite young, at the farmhouse where she lives alone, now. We’ve come for Thanksgiving — but I had to do this run. I had to figure it out, plan it out, make it happen. I am driven, focused, determined to train to my limits in preparation for the race, in a few weeks’ time. The landscape is beautiful and stark, the leaves changing on the trees, rocks cutting through the surface of the earth, a long winding river that we cross, on a long, newly built bridge. Going up. Up, up, up. My steps are measured, calm. I can do this. I’m wearing my ball cap, black clothing, it is a warmish fall day, and I am in my body like a plant is solid — no, like a bird is free, like the leaves are rustling. I am in my body like I will never leave it, like I am blood and heart and muscles and guts. I am in my body and I have a long way yet to run, but I feel certain that I will get there.
Carrie’s 2021 running routine
Wake up, drink two glasses of water, brush teeth, put on weather-appropriate gear, and do a vigorous dynamic warm-up in the living-room (5 minutes or more) that includes side-to-side movement, squats, lunges, and the dreaded burpee; I do 10, they almost kill me every time.
Then I run. I’m working on extending my distance, while being cautious about pushing it, because as my core muscles tire, my stride and posture are affected, and I’m more likely to injure myself. I’ve nearly worked back up to 10km, but most of my runs are in the 7km range. I’ve focused on keeping a steady pace over speed. I aim for three runs a week, four on a good week. I mostly take the weekends off, and go for walks instead.
After my run, I stretch immediately, in front of my house. This is a bit embarrassing and public, but I find that if I go inside, I get distracted and forget. Hi neighbours! These are more static and include an abductor stretch, standing pigeon, and side body, quad, psoas, and hamstring stretches.
I finish off this morning routine with yoga. Yoga with Adriene is my go-to. My favourite post-run Adriene video is called Yoga for Equestrians, because the stretches and core-work are perfect for runners, but it’s a bit long at 33 minutes; usually I choose something around 20 minutes.
And that sums up my morning run regimen … but there’s more! I also try to stretch in the evening after a run, doing a series of pelvic floor exercises, core-strength-work, and (the best part) positions that promote muscle relaxation, especially in the hips and hamstrings. Ahh … this takes 15 minutes, but can last longer, especially if I’m super-tired and doze off during the relaxation part …
When I first started running seriously, more than a decade ago, I didn’t do any of this. I just laced up my shoes and ran; there wasn’t time for anything extra. But the kids are older now and my schedule is less tied to theirs. Good timing, as my body has become less accommodating; if I want to run, I have to support my running with all this extra stuff. It may not be practical under many circumstances, but right now it’s how I enjoy spending my free time.
On Monday, I’ll start another “writing sabbatical” spell, two weeks devoted to further revision (and maybe to writing another grant application, if there’s time). Meanwhile, I’m tidying up my interior life, sweeping cobwebs, sorting and organizing, ticking boxes on a to-do list. Seeking courage! There’s been some volunteer work, appointments, I voted early, and morning exercise continues, including several runs with my university kids, who live near enough that our running routes can overlap.
Today, I’ve devoted my hours of quiet to stepping toward that liminal space that is revision, stepping toward the unknown. In preparation, I’ve been reading a print-out of the most recent version of the manuscript, which includes my editor’s notes. I’m marking up the pages with a black pen, responding to her questions and comments. My intention is to finish this preliminary work before Monday. Here’s hoping I can read my scrawl when I head back to working on-screen next week…
Also in preparation, I’ve been doing some free writing, at the suggestion of a therapist.
And yesterday evening, I led a Lynda Barry “X Page” exercise at the inaugural meeting of a writing club we’ve begun at the X Page, with the intention of creating continuing connection and community for those (participants and team members alike) who seek it. Anyone involved in any of our past three seasons is welcome to join. The idea is simple: an hour-long meeting, monthly, to write a story together and then read to each other. Overcoming the limitations of Zoom, that’s exactly what we did yesterday evening, and it was … incredibly moving. Those who shared their brand-new precious stories gifted us with images that were by turns tender, vulnerable, personal, unique, relatable. I remember: two hands almost touching; arms flung out wide to feel the ocean breeze; being knocked down by a wave, fully-clothed; paddling toward sunset; skin burning under a hot sun; the beauty of a remembered city; sand, wind, sun.
The prompt was “ocean” or “lake.” We wrote for 8 minutes. No editing afterward, and no critique from the listeners; a brand-new story is truly a gift, it’s come from somewhere mysterious, and if we’re lucky enough to witness its beginning, all we need to express is thanks.
I often find the X Page exercise to be revealing of one’s state of mind (I’ve observed this in my own writing, in any case). When I analyze the story that popped up for me, what I notice is my desire to be in two places at once, and a resentment that I cannot be. I notice, too, that I’m upset to have missed an opportunity to soak in a unique sensory experience, I long to have that experience in my physical vocabulary (even now, oddly enough, I feel the pull of missing out).
If you’re interested in writing your own X Page, here’s Lynda Barry, in fabulous mirrored sunglasses, leading the exercise herself.
My ocean story, below.
I am in Grandma’s sedan, we are driving from her house in a tidy town in New Jersey to the Jersey shore — the ocean. I have just gotten to spend the night at Grandma’s, which is very special, just me! My younger brothers (I have three, and one is a new baby) were not invited. Grandma made my favourite food (mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy and peas) and she took me to see the movie “Annie” with my cousin, and she bought us candy. Now Grandma is driving me back to the tiny cottage on the Jersey shore where my family is staying — Mom, Dad, brothers. The cottage belongs to Grandma and her husband, and they let us stay there every summer. I sleep in the attic with my brothers, sometimes my cousins too, crowded together. There is an outdoor shower with the floor covered in sand. To walk to the beach you pass big houses with smooth white stones or shells in their front yards.
Grandma is talking. She is telling me about a sandstorm that blew in to the beach yesterday, while I was in town with her. I am feeling a bit upset, though I don’t want her to know. I missed the sandstorm! My brothers have had an adventure that I can’t quite imagine. “Oh, you don’t want sand in your eyes,” says Grandma; but I do. I want sand in my eyes, wind whipping, the ocean wild and exciting.
Summer holiday was sweet. I spent more than two weeks at a boat-access-only cottage, where I saw only a few (very dear) people, slept soundly, did yoga twice a day, swam, kayaked, cooked meals, read, napped, showered outside, tried to watch every sunset.
Fear and anxiety also visited. There was so much space to notice. I noticed what a variety of fears my mind entertains, how many worst-case scenarios play out in vivid detail, flashing through my brain, even as I seek to soothe myself, or try to control outcomes. This is going on a list to discuss with my therapist.
My fears did not stop me from driving the boat, kayaking in rough waters, swimming in the lake, or staying as the lone adult at the cottage. My fears did not stop me. But I wonder: could I change the habits and patterns of my brain? Could the fears diminish in intensity? I don’t want to transfer my fears to my children (another fear!); parenting is an ongoing practice of attempts, improvisations, chance encounters with sorrow and appreciation, raw emotion, apologies for what could have been, letting go, embracing.
Today, I am alone in the house for the first time in a very long time. I can’t seem to settle. The house feels too big for the people who remain here (two children have moved out, graduating to university studies, one living in residence, one living in an apartment with a partner). Less laundry, yes, less grocery shopping, less chaos; less.
Who am I in the quiet? What’s my purpose, again? (Another item on the to-be-discussed-with-therapist list.)
I am not restless, exactly. But I seem always to be seeking, seeking. Expecting more of myself: to be kinder, better, more generous, softer, funnier, sharper, more confident, humbler, less demanding, firmer, more grounded, freer. Do you sense the contradictions? Do you feel the same desire to live amply, comfortably amidst contradiction?
Week three of intensive revisions. It will take as long as it takes; but also, the work somehow needs to fit itself into the deadline. When I last revised this novel, it was pre-pandemic, and I had a ten-day window to overhaul the whole thing, and somehow I shifted into what in retrospect seems an improbable state of mind, in which I worked twelve hours a day or more, writing brand-new material, sometimes as much as 10,000 to 15,000 words a day. By the end of the process, I was pretty sure I was in an altered state, that I’d driven myself to the brink of madness, and that what I’d accomplished had been a feat of stamina and focus that seemed impossible (and unwise) ever to put myself through again.
So this round, I have more time, and I’m taking it.
I find that I can write for about 6 hours maximum, before my focus begins to wane, or my mind just shuts down, weary, out of gas, the errors and typos beginning to multiply. So I figure it’s best to stay within these limitations (which feel physical as much as mental). I’m trying to stay patient, I’ve got a solid road map to follow, and I keep assuring myself that the work will get done, it will get done. I just have to give myself space to rest, when I hit a tough spot, and time to relax in the off hours: I have to go for walks, runs, see friends. And I must use the golden hours of maximum attention for nothing but this work.
To this end, I’ve set up a vacation message on my email account, naming what I’m doing as a writing sabbatical. I’m at my desk, the message says, but I’m not available. The power of creating this message can not be understated. Why? Because it names what I’m doing as important, it outlines in simple terms my priorities. I think it’s a message to myself as much as to anyone who might be reaching out via email. The message says (to me): It is my responsibility to protect what matters. No one else will do it for me.
These photos are from this past weekend, when my daughter and I visited a friend’s new farm. It was a holiday, but I also took my laptop and worked in various locations, mostly in the car, while chauffeuring my daughter and her friends around.
When I got home yesterday evening, I finally turned down a volunteer opportunity that I’d been weighing, and really wanting to say yes to. But I realized that to say yes to this would be to squeeze my writer self. And she can only be squeezed so much before she begins to fade, to waver in her belief in herself, but also in her basic ability to get her work done. I am trying to take the lessons I’ve learned during the pandemic, which has been the most productive writing time of my entire life, and continue to apply them as the world opens: lessons about the cost of accepting (even seeking!) responsibilities atop responsibilities, commitments atop commitments. Lessons about the cost of squeezing out my writing self. Which is, at core, my fundamental self: the self I am that is not attached to anyone or anything else.
The pandemic freed me, quite a lot; it forced a change in long-held patterns. It jolted parts of me to life again. It reorganized my priorities.
I’ve seen this happen for many others, too, including my friend at the farm who until very recently was my neighbour; the leap she’s made is bigger and more challenging than the leap I need to make, to protect my space and time for writing. I watch her meet this amazingly brave and heart-led challenge and think: I BELIEVE.
“Little Things” with full cast; illustrations by Tarunima Mittal
Well, in truth I can hardly remember what happened yesterday, let alone these past few months, but apparently, during the blur of lockdown and walks around the block and waiting, a few remarkable things have happened, of which I’ve been a part.
The X Page Workshop is completing its season three run TONIGHT (July 7th, 2021) with a live performance on Zoom! Tickets are free and you can register to attend right up till it starts at 7PM. I am truly in awe of what’s been accomplished by this group in 12 short weeks … on a compressed schedule … in a virtual space … Live online means accepting that some unknowns are out of our control (like, should I start worrying about a massive thunderstorm that shuts off the power? Okay, just checked the Weather Network and it’s calling for light rain over that time); but we’ve done everything we can to prepare those elements over which we do have some agency. And I think that’s the key to life, isn’t it? Prepare, and also let go. Let it be what it will be.
And here’s what it already is:
Sixteen women from the community, writing, editing, and polishing their own original, personal story.
Rehearsing it, vocal coaching, staging it, practicing it in small groups and at home.
Learning framing, lighting, how to angle the camera, troubleshooting tech issues.
Negotiating with children and pets and housemates to create a stage on which to present.
Choosing photos, props, outfits, hairstyles.
Supporting everyone else on the team and in the cast with collaboration, creative ideas, presence, encouragement, cheers. Such generosity!
Not to mention all the behind-the-scenes work to create a slideshow, program, original artwork, cohesive script, extra rehearsal time, tech support, and clear communication to keep everyone rowing in synch.
And on a personal note, there’s more work in the works, for which I am over-flowing with gratitude. As soon as this project ends, I’ll be diving into revisions for my new novel, with a planned pub date of next summer. It’s called Francie’s Got A Gun, and I’m starting to believe it will be a real thing … but you can ask me again in a month or so, when the first round of revisions are due. I plan to dive deep and stay deep till that work is complete.
I’ve also received a second grant toward the project I’m working on with my grandma. Much of the research is complete, and writing has begun; but I will be setting it aside temporarily to finish Francie. One thing at a time. One big project at a time, anyway. (I think I can keep cooking dinner and fetching veggies and doing yoga and other good summer things.) At times, it feels like I’m half-asleep, working in slow-motion, digging my way through deep tunnels, burrowing into what seem like dead ends, and then I surface and wake in wonder at all that is being accomplished, even if the pace seems whimsical, even if I lose some of the good stuff underground. I don’t know how much time I’ll get in this life, but I hope to use it all up, and make (and discover) some beautiful things along the way — ephemeral as a performance, strong as a connection, life-giving as a community, sustaining as a story, well-told.
Hope to see you tonight. And if not there, then somewhere, sometime, virtually or in real life, soon.