Our morning routine is sturdy and pleasant. Exercise, shower, breakfast. We’ve worked out a shower schedule, since there are six of us vying for a spot. I’ve been eating chia seeds and oats soaked in yogurt, or scrambled eggs on homemade bread for breakfast. Everyone is at their desk (or couch, or bed) by 9AM. Peaceful. And motivating, too. I’m wasting less time in the mornings getting to my own work.
Today, I wrote for so long that two of my pens ran out of ink! Something that brings me pleasure each day is to check in on my plants. I’ve got two new ones that I repotted from cuttings, and it gives me such a kick to see the progress their little shoots are making, day by day, slowly, slowly, rising and unfurling into shiny new leaves.
If I’m getting “better” at drawing, as a few people have commented recently, does it change my approach to this project? I’d like to keep this fun, unselfconscious, an adventure into the unknown, into the hidden parts of myself that only my hand and pen can discover; like what’s shown today, above, in my awkward hesitant shape, revealing the vulnerability I felt (but didn’t want to admit) during this conversation with a friend.
Many lovely grace notes on this quiet Sunday—baking bread, playing hymns and singing harmony with Annabella, church on YouTube and Zoom followed by watching the Liverpool game while everyone sat around in the living-room—but it all revolved around breath. Controlled. In, out, long, smooth.
Talked to my Grandma this afternoon, asking questions about specific times and experiences in her life. We will keep talking. I want to ask her about big things, like, how do you feel about death? How did you survive the upsets and shocks in your life? (Talk about self-conscious: I do not like the drawing of myself in the corner of the Zoom screen, and nearly scribbled over it before posting here; but decided to let it stand.)
Sometimes I can’t keep my eyes open and I unroll my yoga mat and lie down in a very particularly way on my studio floor (which is heated), and I nap—for no more than 24 minutes. More stories via Zoom from my Grandma this morning. I’m listening. I have time to listen.
I paused my day to watch Kamala Harris take her oath of office, and was later transfixed by Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb.” We aren’t broken, we are unfinished, she proclaimed. I write these words on my heart. (I’ll admit, I held my breath till Joe Biden was sworn in, and then—relief.)
It can get very busy in the kitchen at breakfast time: for accuracy, this drawing should have at least two more people squeezed into it. I spent the morning talking to Grandma again, and she told me about celebrating the inauguration last night, even watching the entire TV special, sitting through all the musical acts, even when she didn’t love the songs. Someone chose them for a reason, she told me. We talked about change today, and next time we are going to talk about death.
I’ve scarcely left my desk all day; but after supper last night, our whole family walked uptown. It was the first time we’d all been out together since lockdown. I get very panicked and queasy seeing new businesses opening now, and trying to survive. Like, the worst feeling! I wonder why?
I should have taken photos of my drawings in full natural daylight, but I forgot till it was too late (too late being just after 5PM). I notice a lingering and annoying dissatisfaction with the imperfection caused by the poor lighting. The colours are faded and distorted, for one thing! But I’m too tired and it’s too much end-of-the-week to start all over again (plus, I’d have to wait till tomorrow to re-take all the photos!). Hey, it’s Friday evening, and we’ve got take-out on the table, from Sari-Sari Filipino Cuisine. Look them up, if you live in Kitchener. They post their menus daily on Facebook, and the food is delicious and inexpensive, and served in the most generous portions.
Happy weekend, everyone.
Everyone looked after me all day. My favourite part was going around the table and hearing what everyone considered to be the thing they were most proud of in 2020. (Mine was painting my door yellow, and transforming my office into my studio.)
I’m glued to Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian show on Netflix that thankfully has about a thousand episodes (give or take). When I learned there were many seasons yet to watch, I ran out of my studio hollering: “Winter is saved!”
Kevin’s new year’s eve bonfire kept burning out last night. “I smell like smoke,” I told Heather on our starting-the-new-year-off-right walk. We came upon a statue that was like a horror movie, a man’s face replaced with an owl and maybe a possum (?); squirrel and duck for hands. We laughed so much.
We drove to Claire’s farm to pick up eggs and meat, and Claire showed us the pigs in the barn. Back home, we started a new 30-day yoga cycle with Adriene, called “Breath.”
Strange what my pen and hand tell me—not always what I want to hear. Mostly, I walked with my family this morning, on a spontaneous walk through fresh snow. But this was how I felt, trying to reach across the barriers of self/other.
Welcome to my studio. I enter this small warm room, close the yellow door, and feel—welcomed in. Happy to be here, at this desk, to look out these windows, to feel excited, wondering what I’ll find today?
I’m trying to read a book before falling asleep, rather than scrolling the news on my phone. My theory is that my dreams will be better, more interesting. But last night, the children in this book found a dead dog and my sleep was restless; tired today. (Soundtrack on repeat: “Exile” T. Swift and B. Iver)
It’s a lot to ask, that stories drop into my hands from their perfect mutability in my mind. I ask for grace and energy, I ask for a stronger work ethic, I ask for magic; but it’s desire I need, to answer longing with scratches on the page.
Yesterday, as Trump’s followers over-ran Congress, I was doing that terrible thing where I was watching a livestream on my laptop, scrolling my phone, and texting people, as if by consuming too much information, I’d find an answer to the question—what is going to happen?
I promised myself I’d sit down and draw even if I felt completely empty. That would capture the day too—an empty page, some pen scratches and scribbles.
My drawings this week all kind of look the same, I told Kevin on our after-dinner walk with Rose. Not much is changing. We are in liminal space—waiting. Not transition, but waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Today I made a list of things I want to do every day: go for a walk, the longer the better; burn and create energy with intense cardio; yoga; cartoon; play piano; afternoon tea break. I’d also like to meditate and read; and of course write. And cook. (But not clean.)
Good news: started my day in my studio and wrote part of a story almost immediately! Not-bad news: I can’t draw cars. This one looks like a bus, sort of. Above: me and Nina going for a walk, early Monday morning tradition.
Panic attack reading news of a stay-at-home order starting Thursday in Ontario. Felt like I was drowning. But what changes, I asked? Put on headphones and draw—follow pen into memory, shape, imagination. You’ve got resources. Sources.
Sidewalks slick with ice, we walked, skated, slipped, slid on a short dog walk after supper. Waiting for us to pass was a fox in the little park across the street. It sat perfectly still, alert, focused on our presence, till we were gone.
And now we’re all caught up. What do you think of my new journaling method? I’m on month two, and I’ve noticed a growing interest in attempting to draw background and setting, as well as figures. I’ve noticed, too, that this exercise slows me down and changes the flow of my attention, no matter what I’m feeling.
It’s a new year, and here we are. Oddly, I’ve chosen to anchor this post with a photo taken on a drive to the country, though I’m so rarely inside a car these days that it’s hardly representative. Mostly, I’m inside my studio, inside my house, looking out my window.
Today is sunny. I should really go outside for a walk, though the blue shadows are already long, even at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We live in a northern country. The seasons tell us what to wear, how to be. January has often been a month of contemplative reflection for me. But I’m not sure I can take more contemplative reflection than I’ve already got on the go. I live too much inside my head already. Inside this house. Inside these studio walls.
Go outside, Carrie! Soak up some sunshine!
Do not go back to sleep
You must ask for what you really want
Do not go back to sleep
How can I ask for what I want when I don’t know what that is?
Have you ever asked yourself what you really want? I find it is an impossible question to answer. I’ve sat here looking out the window at cars and people and dogs passing by, and I just can’t think what it is that I really want. The answer could be so very small, or so very big. I might want a cup of tea, for example; or I might want moral authority. (Is that even something a person can want or aspire to?)
Or maybe I want something that I don’t even know that I want. Maybe I want to be surprised. The thought of being surprised brings forth significant anxiety, I realize, typing those words; and yet, I think I do in some way want to be surprised—preferably happily surprised. It seems to be an element lacking in this current arrangement of life under lockdown. As a creature of habit, I’m mostly quite content following my daily routines, which are healthy and nourishing, and yet, and yet—
I want a little more energy and determination. I want to laugh with a friend.
I want to go outside and partake of this brisk, bracing season.
PS There’s more to that poem, in the translation that’s on my bookshelf:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
Two years ago, I was preparing to teach the graphic-art-based creativity course at St. Jerome’s, which was really a class about developing an artistic practice, setting goals, and staying open to how a project may change and grow as it unfurls. There’s discipline, the verb, and discipline, the noun, and together they sustain an artistic practice. The hope is that the practice will hold and develop over a lifetime, unique and personal: a pathway into the flow, a mindset, a series of ever-renewing explorations that feed on curiosity and feed curiosity.
If all things flow, I can never step into the same river twice; yet I yearn to find ways to fix experience as it flies. That’s the paradox of being alive, existing inside these breathing time-stuck human bodies: how to occupy the liminal space between immersion and interpretation, how to dance between these ways of being in the world; liminality is what art emerges from, the desire for engagement mixed with the need for something more than preservation — for response, for improvisation, for metaphor, image, song. My practice(s) is a way to step into the river, and also a means of capturing what’s here to be found.
I started a new notebook this morning. To mark the first page of each new notebook, I trace my hand and write my birth date and today’s date, a ritual I learned in a Lynda Barry workshop. As I traced my hand this morning, using a brush rather than a pen, I thought: I love the artistic practices I’ve created. They are cobbled together from different times, teachers, discoveries, experiments, using different mediums, tools and technologies; and they do change as I change and adapt, but they are unique to me and durable.
I love writing by hand, even though I don’t always use it as a method of writing new material. There are easier ways to write, but some stories and reflections call out to be discovered by hand.
I love the playfulness of crayons, which I’m using in my current daily drawing project, begun on December 1st as a month-long trial, and which I’m considering continuing into January, maybe beyond. (I’m also considering scanning these cartoons + captions and posting them weekly on the blog; this will only work if it’s easy. That’s one of the principles of my personal practices, the ones that have stuck: they’re easy to maintain, the materials are easy to acquire, the technology is easy to access.)
I love my studio, this lively yet meditative space that I use daily, which is a retreat, a place I look forward to being in, comforting, cozy, tidy, organized, small, contained yet spacious (the high ceiling, the white walls).
There isn’t much movement out there. We are locked down again in Ontario. There isn’t much movement anywhere, on any front, not in my own personal or professional life. But in this studio space, on the pages of these notebooks, there is movement. There is a river ever-flowing, into which I can step, and be transported.
And that is a gift.
My project ideas for 2020 have changed quite a bit; some came to fruition, others vanished almost as quickly as I’d conceived them. Now, I’m planning my projects for 2021, and looking forward to sketching out new ideas and goals on a fresh index card, and glueing 2020’s into this latest notebook. How will 2021’s projects grow, change, develop? Only time will tell. But they’ll exist, in nascent form, in ripening and in bloom, inside these notebooks, in crayon drawings, in pen, in Scrivener and Word files, and here, online. Sharing what I’m making is an important facet of my practice, too; thank you for being out there.
If you’ve got a moment, drop me a line or leave a comment and tell me about your artistic practices, what you’re doing right now to step into the river, both to enter the flow and to fix experience as it flies.
Listening to Joni Mitchell’s River.
I listen to this song even when it’s not the Christmas season. They’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Oh, Joni. I recently read a profile about her early songwriting in the New York Times and then drifted over to read another piece in The New Yorker from 2012 by Zadie Smith about becoming a Joni convert. I’d already read the Zadie Smith essay, maybe when it was originally published, but I read it again. The internet will give you so many windows and doors to open, chasing ideas that you might tell yourself are inspirational or aspirational, when really, you just want to be as original and seemingly free as Joni Mitchell. But it’s okay just being you. Isn’t it?
I’ve started a new project that I’m planning to do every day in December, and possibly beyond. It’s a way of crossing the threshold from the every day into the imagination, a daily portrait and caption, created in about 20 minutes or so, while listening to music. I draw a portrait on an index card in pen, then colour it with crayons (an important part of the playful process!), then write a few lines about whatever’s on my mind, giving myself no more than 3 minutes for the text so I don’t start sweating over it. Like this:
Here are a few other good things and random thoughts, on this Friday afternoon when I’ve run out of steam and am about to turn to fun videos on youtube while doing my stretching routine on the office floor, which isn’t a half-bad way to spend half an hour, truth be told — maybe I’ll count that as one of the random good things going on right now. I’m also attempting to do sets of 10 burpees whenever I think of it throughout the day. While waiting for lunch to heat in the microwave, for example. Before bed. The goal is to raise my heart rate in spurts throughout the day, maybe to compensate for not running right now (though I do ride the spin bike pretty frequently). Whatever. It lifts my spirits every time. I finish my burpee set and throw my hands in the air in victory! Yes! (I should draw that.)
Other daily goals: Go outside! Every day.
And: Flip my current pattern of writing in a frantic panic late in the afternoon, and write in the mornings instead (answer email only after I’m all written-out). The daily portrait and caption kickstarts this goal, and so far it’s worked wonders. Start with something fun and easy, something I look forward to doing, and suddenly I’m pitched into writing new material without even thinking twice.
Also: Work harder. (Weird, I originally wrote “Word harder.” That works too.) Work/word harder is my main life goal. But I mean that only insofar as I mean work harder to dig in, commit, finish projects, even if I don’t know what will happen to them. Hard things are hard. Curiosity is my fuel. Patience is a gift but also can be a weakness if it turns into numb acceptance. Grit is necessary. Add it to your breakfast. Relish and savour what you’re doing because you never know what you’re making. Or what will stick, what will matter, what others will appreciate.
For example: A student sent me a message this week, writing: “I also wanted to tell you that as a graduate, I still appreciate your class. I’ve read books a little differently since, with more compassion, and more interest in the beauty of the work.” How could I guess that a student would come away from a writing class with a new lens on reading? What a gift. I love thinking about the accident of connections, about the things we keep that perhaps someone else has given us, but they don’t know.
Okay, one more goal: Reach out with appreciation for the gifts received from others. I might also add, if there’s a teacher who’s helped you in some way, let her know. Especially now. Any teacher who can engage her students through the screen or the mask is working at a level of commitment and energy and preparation that is almost impossible to understate.
In conclusion, as this seems to be a post that has brought up boundless wells of inner gratitude, I’m grateful for a friend’s idea to create our own collectively brainstormed advent calendar of family activities. As a family of six, each of us contributed four ideas which were randomly sprinkled into the calendar’s pockets. Day 1: decorate Christmas cookies (made by F); Day 2: breakfast for dinner (waffles, made by me); Day 3: ice cream delivery to grandparents; Day 4: games night. (Days 1 and 2 shifted the responsibility to the baker and the cook, and both of us were slightly crusty about this; as a result, we’ve also created a bunch of back-up activities to be accessed should one idea not work out on a particular day).
I’m grateful for a little surprise to look forward to every day of advent.
And I’m grateful to you, my friends who read this blog. It gives me a little boost knowing you’re out there. Connections. They’re harder to come by right now, and I cherish them all the more for that.
Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life. That is the title of a book of essays by Yiyun Li, a Chinese-American writer whose stories I’ve admired for years, and I bought this book without knowing much about it, other than the title made me want to know more. (She says it’s taken from an entry in one of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. “I cried when I read the line,” Li writes. “What a long way it is from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance…”)
This turned out to be a book about many things, most significantly about reading other books, and about surviving, continuing to be alive on this earth. The book is written as if to a friend, but in the end, it seems the friend is Yiyun Li herself, trying to write to herself, as she figures out how to stay alive in the years following a long descent into severe depression and hospitalization and release. It was actually exactly what I needed and wanted to read, though I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen it, had I known what I was choosing; a book sometimes chooses us rather than the other way around. I’ve read it slowly, over this fall, marking pages with insights for keeping, and that is what this post will be about: insights from this book, to keep and to wonder about. Li writes in English, a language she learned as an adult, which she calls her private language. She originally studied to be a scientist (immunologist), and in fact came to the United States to further her studies. When she decided to quit science to become a writer, a friend’s husband asked: “Why do you want to make your life difficult?”
I’ve had a thought that I would like to write a story on the theme of each of these quotes; or at least a scene. Each one brings into my mind a picture or feeling, or both, and makes me yearn to respond, through fiction. Why do you want to make your life difficult? The question could be asked in so many contexts and would always create an interesting and troubling problem, without an obvious solution. The seed of a story, I think.
“I have had a troublesome relationship with time. The past I cannot trust because it could be tainted by my memory. The future is hypothetical and should be treated with caution. The present—what is the present but a constant test: in this muddled in-between one struggles to understand what about oneself has to be changed, what accepted, what preserved.”
Yiyun Li thinks about time a lot, and truth be told, I was drawn to this thought because the character in the muddled in-between looks like a version of me, maybe now, maybe from the distant past.
“What I admire and respect in a dreamer: her confidence in her capacities, her insusceptibility to the frivolous, and her faith that the good and the real shall triumph and last. There is nothing selfish, dazzling, or preposterous about dreamers; in everyday life they blend in rather than stand out …
A real dreamer has a mutual trust with time.
Apart from feeling unqualified to be called a dreamer, I may also be worrying about being mistaken for one of those who call themselves dreamers but are merely ambitious. One meets them often in life, their ambitions smaller than dreams, more commonplace, in need of broadcasting and dependent on recognition from this particular time. If they cause pain to others, they have no trouble writing off those damages as the cost of their dreams. Timeliness may be one thing that separates ambitions from real dreams.”
Again, Yiyun Li’s reflection on time, here, made me stop and wonder: am I a dreamer? Or merely ambitious? Or maybe I have the potential to be both, and have been, and will be. What’s my relationship to time? Do I trust it, or fear it will betray me? This scene would have two characters, or multiple characters, perhaps entirely unaware of their own relationship to time; but the reader knows.
“The train, for reasons unknown to us, always stops between a past and a future, both making this now look as though it is nowhere. But it is this nowhereness that one has to make use of. … One has made it this far; perhaps this enough of a reason to journey on.”
Is this a sincere conclusion? Or is the writer writing to convince herself? I love the image of the stopped train; but I don’t want to think of time that way. I don’t want to think of being suspended between destinations. That makes the destinations too central, when it’s where we’ve stopped that I want to land, and be. Of course, the character might get off the train, here, in the middle of nowhere. Or they might find another way to shake themselves awake.
“Perhaps my deficiency as a scientist, a lack of ultimate purpose, is why I love writing. Precision gives me more pleasure than the end result.”
Ah, I thought, as I read this. Me too. (Though I’m not a scientist; but I do love order, precision, walking around a scene and picking up every little item in the room, acknowledging every flickering interior thought, every facial expression, collecting and organizing them into some kind of coherence, accessible for someone else to walk around and observe, too, and draw their own conclusions.)
“For as long as I can remember, my mother has spoken of me as a selfish person. If I were religious, I would kneel nightly for salvation from this sin. There is no measure to quantify selfishness: how much of oneself is devoted to others, or even which part of life is to be lived and which part given up. All my life I have failed to prove myself unselfish.”
A question from my own life, haunting, ever-present; this is so often a mother’s story, isn’t it? How to quantify selfishness? How to know how much is too much to take, or to give; or to want?
“A young person, beginning to read seriously, tends to live—infatuated, even—with one book at a time. The world offered by the book is large enough to contain all other worlds, or exclusive enough to make all other worlds retreat.”
This is how I read, even now, and it can feel overwhelming, almost unsettling, to be so far from home, so far from those who may need me to be present. Yiyun Li calls this “enchantment—or entrapment.” Yes. Both. The vanishing that is uncomfortable to the adult is utterly wonderful to the child; this story may wonder: what’s the difference between those minds and experiences?
“Solitude is noble, but fatal to an artist who has not the strength to break out of it. An artist must live the life of his own time, even if it be clamorous and impure: he must be forever giving and receiving, and giving and giving, and again receiving.” — Romain Rolland, Jean-Christophe
Here, Li pulls a quote from a favourite book, which she read over and over as a teenager (I’d never heard of it). I feel what is being said here most keenly: that we are embedded in our times, of our times, and it’s necessary to bob in their waters; ours are not clamorous right now, so much as masked, awkward with imposed estrangement, lassitude mixed with anxiety. I confess: the pandemic story is a challenge to write; what’s it mean to write about the times we’re in while we’re knee-deep in them? Is it foolish, too close to attempted journalism; maybe fiction comes from the compost, years later. Maybe we’re just gathering now.
“To write is to find a new way to see the world … The truth is, I did not know what I was supposed to see.”
What is my style, my reason for writing, what is it I’ve wanted and want to accomplish? At times, I’ve believed writers (including myself here) are dangerous, untrustworthy beings, both powerful and weak, impotent, seeking reaction, or to provoke; they don’t do much themselves. Ornamental. Admired, but kind of useless; frivolous, but essential, or else how would we remember who we were? And who we wanted to be?
“What does not make sense is what matters.”
This is most often what I write about, I suppose; maybe in hopes of making peace with it, or grasping some insight, or putting together part of the puzzle. Seeing a pattern in random shifting bits of light and shadow.
A friend (the writer William Trevor) writes to Yiyun Li: “You may be less confused than you imagined. Stories are a hope, and often they obligingly answer questions.”
She replies to her friend, but only in her imagination, much later: “We are solitary travellers, having crossed paths in the land of stories.”
“One cannot be an adept writer of one’s life; nor can one be a discerning reader of that tale. Not equipped with a novelist’s tools to create plots and maneuver pacing, to speak omnisciently or abandon an inconvenient point of view, to adjust time’s linearity and splice the less connected moments, the most interesting people among us, I often suspect, are flatter than the flattest character in a novel.”
Parse that out (“a novelist’s tools”), and you’ve got the structural ingredients for writing a good story (and she’s right, even the most interesting life, lived at life’s pace, wouldn’t make for a good story; it needs a fictional treatment. And this treatment can be a kindness, or it can be a cruelty; or maybe it is both; but I don’t know any other way in to the questions that come calling; these questions aren’t even asked in language, at least not in my mind, but in imagery, in emotion.)
Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life. Thank you for reading.
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