Ever get the feeling that too much is on your mind, so instead of trying to say it all, you say nothing instead? Yeah. That’s where I’m at. That’s where I’ve been at for a few weeks now. I’ve also been reasonably busy, trying to seize all the moments in all the days that have come calling. It was sunny and warm for a full five days, so I was outside as much as possible with friends and family. Then one of my kids had a migraine for three days last week. I haven’t been able to run, as the nagging pain has returned, so I’ve been experimenting with other forms of self-soothing. Early morning dog walk: unsuccessful, did not provide enough endorphins, although the dog was thrilled with all the new scents to sniff. Riding the spin bike: much more successful, with the added bonus of delightfully cheesy Canadian entertainment. (While spinning, I watch Murdoch Mysteries, and I’ve been told that I talk out loud to the characters, muttering things like “Don’t go in there, George! You’re going to regret it!” or “It’s the brother. It has to be the brother!”)
Up till last Friday, I was working full-tilt on novel revisions, and now need to pause and consult with my editor to make sure we’re on the same page. It’s been fun, and a relief, and an escape, immersing myself in an imaginary world, where imaginary characters make imaginary choices and try to figure out how to mend themselves, or inflict mending on others.
My corkboard is mostly empty, but for a number of physio exercises — I’ve drawn a series of reminders for myself on index cards, including instructions for stretching exercises that are meant to get a person up from her desk at least once an hour. (It has yet to happen, but a person can hope to change her ways!) The other items on the corkboard are a watercolour of two people in a tree, inspiration for my novel; a drawing of hands that look to be in prayer, to remind myself that my work requires patience and grace, and also as a reminder of the novel’s theme of spiritual searching; and some sketches that show the steps for making a labyrinth, though it looks more like I’ve drawn a strange, childlike version of the brain. Not on the corkboard, but critical to the revision process, is a sketched-out structure for the novel, done in a kind of personal visual code that I find very satisfying and comforting to look at.
Tomorrow, my oldest daughter turns 18. I’ve ordered donuts for pick-up. I’m planning to bike to pick them up, no matter how cold. Also this week, I’m introducing a conversation at the Wild Writers Festival on Thursday, 7-9PM, between two wonderful writer, Lamees Al Ethari and Antonio Michael Downing: here’s the registration information. And on Friday morning, I’m going to read my picture book Jammie Day to a friend’s kindergarten classroom. These last two events, needless to say, are happening online. One of my goals for this pandemic time is to become more tech-savvy; or at least, less-tech-anxious.
I’m grateful for plans. No matter how small. Like those donuts.
Almost every day, I lie on my office floor. Sometimes I take a nap. It’s a glorious floor for napping. More often, I do those physio exercises 0n the corkboard. I meditate, or listen to a podcast. Almost every day, my eyes fill with tears. It seems like a way to live now, on the verge of tears, but also attempting to strengthen and bolster oneself, to practice breathing, to pay attention to the pain, not to ignore it. Not to be overwhelmed by it.
Till next time—
Drawing a flower with CJ.
- What felt good this month? At the beginning of the month, it felt wonderful to be on holiday (we spent two weeks away at an isolated cottage). As always, I hoped to bring that holiday-feeling home; but inevitably it has slipped. I can’t drink a caesar while cooking supper every day! It isn’t even possible to keep up the habit of twice-daily yoga. But it is possible to get up early every week day morning for a walk or run, followed by yoga. It’s also been blissful to take charge of my studio space, to clean and organize and purge and paint, and to set new goals. And we have kept the holiday-feeling going in small ways: Kevin bought a fake fire pit (propane-powered) and we’ve been sitting outside some nights, watching the flames, listening to tunes.
- What did you struggle with? After rejigging my studio, I panicked—as if I didn’t deserve the space, full of fear and doubt about my work and worth as a writer. But then I journaled, meditated, and went for a dog walk with Kevin, and I came out the other side. It helped to reframe my work through the window of books. Books are my life’s work. If I feel unmoored, I can ground myself by reading, writing, or connecting with others who read and write. I am so thankful for this blog as a place to come to, to share ideas, and experiment, too. I am so thankful for each one of you who reads. Thank you.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Unexpectedly calm. When my mind spirals away, caught in fear or doubt or shame, I notice, and find a safe branch on which to land. I breathe. I think: Is this true? What’s really happening right now? Are you okay? Is there anything you need to do? I’ve noticed, too, that projects are so very satisfying to work on and complete: my mind is soothed, no matter the task. Cleaning out the bathroom cupboards. Cooking a meal from scratch. Painting a door. Writing a grant application. Revising a story to send to my writing group. In this way, small accomplishments accrue, and the days flow peacefully, but don’t feel dull. And in the evenings, I reward myself with some stretching, watching a show, reading, eating popcorn, letting my mind and body relax. (Note: this is so much easier to achieve now that I’m not coaching! I do not take my easy evenings for granted!)
- How did you take care of yourself? All of the above. Plus, remembering to reach out to friends. Working on my posture, and core strength. Sticking with established healthy routines. Putting away the pairs of jeans that don’t fit anymore. Thanking my body for carrying me through this life. I ask a lot of my body! I am in total awe that my chronic running injury has healed through physio, and that I’m able to run fast again, without pain, at least for now. Every morning run through the park is a full-body expression of thanks.
- What would you most like to remember? It’s okay if I don’t remember very much from this time. Sometimes the best days aren’t super memorable—I don’t remember much when inside the flow, but if I’m fortunate, from the flow will emerge some work of substance, or a strengthened relationship, or deepening insight and capacity for approaching conflict, suffering and pain. I will remember where I was when Ruth Bader Ginsberg died; and my own sadness and immediate despair. But I’ll remember just as much that her passing sparked a renewed connection with one of my beloved American cousins. I’ll remember, too, what she worked toward: equality for all, a far-seeing, long road of commitment that developed from her own experiences, that was encouraged to develop through the support of her husband and family, and that extended till her death. Like John Lewis, she is a true role model of character and vision, beyond the self.
- What do you need to let go of? I deactivated my Twitter account a week ago, after watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix. I also turned off most of the app notifications on my phone. It’s been good, and I hope it lasts. What I’ve noticed: I’m freed to work with more focus throughout the day. But I’m also not filling my mind with fury and outrage, the primary emotions sparked by “doom-scrolling.” True, there’s less to distract me from my own restlessness and boredom, but here’s the strangest part: I’ve felt less restless, less bored, since signing off. There are more productive and meaningful ways to connect with others in this world. I commit to choosing those instead.
I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
Welcome to my studio.
The Sunflowers, by Mary Oliver
Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young —
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds —
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.
Say you were invited to hold a sunflower, and examine it, while reading and thinking about these words in Mary Oliver’s poem. Say you were invited to respond by asking questions of the sunflower, or listening to the sunflower ask you questions. What would come into your mind, and onto the page? On Friday evening, outside around a fire pit, my friend Jen led a small group of us in this meditation. It was already, newly dark, and we used cellphones to illuminate the page and look at our sunflowers. which another friend had cut down and brought from her yard. Several of us found bees nestled into the flowers.
This is what I wrote.
“… the long work / of turning their lives / into a celebration / is not easy. / Come //”
Some solutions seem so simple
I will paint my office door the bright yellow
of this sunflower’s petals
I will spend the whole day reading a book
I will stretch and breathe
But when restlessness turns inside me
what should I do then, Sunflower, tell me?
When I am afraid
that my service is too meagre
and I can’t think what to do to be a
better person — what should I do, Sunflower?
The restlessness, the sense of longing
of energy unused or squandered
The list of all the harms I’ve caused
shuffling round and round inside me —
Tell me, what should I do
to fix these feelings, Sunflower?
It is true I hear you humming
Too tall, cut down, a living
bee nested in your blossom that has not
bloomed, tucked beneath the brighter face of you
You are humming not an answer
but a blessing with a sting:
Get on with living
You are not between two points
like a traveller on a train stalled between
destinations, you are in the only place
in which you are as you are — alive
and very you
Do you remember when you saw a whole
field of us, sunflowers, calling you
and you drove on, you said, It’s not
my field, I would be a trespasser?
You were right enough
But we’ve found you anyway, again
as you are. Come
Tomorrow, I would like to write a post about the new colour of my office door, and the books I’ve been reading, and the ways I’m seeking to connect, and to learn and listen, and find antidotes to fear and despair, but for today, I invite you to find your own sunflower and ask it some questions. Whimsical, fanciful? Yup. Uncomfortable, weird? Maybe. Silly, frivolous? Try it and see for yourself.
Meditation, using a circle. What’s inside, what’s outside. Where am I?
I stand inside a circle made of pieces of cloth, knotted together. A wide circle. Five knots. I step to the knot that seems to be at the “top” and wait. Hands at sides. Feet planted. Close my eyes.
Ah. I see a big decision before me. A change that means letting go of responsibilities, letting go of relationships. Letting go. I’m invaded by hard emotions, painful; I don’t resist feeling these things. Sadness, vulnerability, loss of power and influence. I name some unflattering parts of myself, humble human motivations: How I want to be liked, admired, respected! Feel this. Emotions flood me, wash through. Easier to bear, when felt.
Isn’t that a strange truth?
I step clockwise. Knot two. My hands cupped at my heart. I’m laughing. I see conflict between loved ones, I’m at the edge of the argument, it’s not my argument, I want to fix it, but it’s not fixable, not by me; if at all. Is conflict only ever a bad thing? Or am I being asked to love the conflict, too, to let the people I love be who they are, even if it means conflict.
Next knot, third stop. I crouch low to examine a little gathering of stones in the shape of a smaller circle, outside of mine. I see someone I want to help and support. Our languages of love are different. To show her love, I need to speak her language; and not impose on her my own. Isn’t that the truth?
Fourth knot, and I stand and find my hands at my heart again, cupped, and I think — my writing! — and as soon as I’ve thought it, my hands fling themselves away from my body and throw the writing out of the circle. Oh no! But it’s mine! I’m wracked with fear and regret, even horror. I try to pretend it didn’t happen, I try pulling my hands back in, but I can’t undo what’s been done. And then I laugh. Of course, that is its purpose — my writing! stories, books, even this post — to be sparked into being, then released, sent away. The thoughtless motion of my hands — cupped close, then opened out, then close again — is the whole process. Make, finish making. Hold, let go.
Fifth stop, last knot. Eyes open, standing, calm, wondering. Sky is a marvellous clear colour, nearing night. I see: Dead tree, bare branches, oh, and the sharp profile of a funny, fat, little bird perched at the very top, as if waiting to be seen. It does not fly away. I watch for a long time. The bird is the world, I think. There it is, outside my circle. How I love the world, need it, need to bring it into my circle, invite the images to flow through me, through mind and body, and back out again.
(With thanks to my friend Jen for leading us through this meditation.)
This blog is like a corkboard on which to post thoughts, observations, whatever is front-of-mind right now. It acts as a public journal, an I WAS HERE scrawl on the wall. Trouble is, recently, whenever I sit down to post something, it’s not clear to me what’s front-of-mind. Mind is a-jumble. Influences are disparate and scrolling, images aflame, voices shouting, protests, outrage. What calls my attention is both very personal and tiny (my morning routine, for example) and overwhelmingly political and heavy (can’t even begin to list it parenthetically).
This morning I read an article by Lori Fox in The Globe and Mail that pretty much sums up what I’ve been ranting to Kevin about for these past many months. Please read what she’s written and know that I’m nodding along. At one point in the article, she writes about her own “small, selfish” dream. It’s a lovely dream. To paraphrase: Work that is useful and that she loves doing. Enough, and the time to enjoy it. A life with dignity and love.
It’s small enough, isn’t it, that everyone should dare to dream such a dream? Everyone should have the means of achieving it? It doesn’t sound selfish to me.
Originally, when I sat down to write this post it was about my own lovely week, which I spent reading stories, editing stories, and talking about stories. But when I wrote about how lovely it was, and how purposeful and peaceful I felt doing this work (tiny, personal), I also found myself tracking into the weeds of dismay and guilt, confusion and fury (overwhelming, political) as I reflected on how it was privilege that allowed me to do this work.
Earlier in the week, I watched this interview with Kurt Anderson on PBS (my favourite American news source), and it stirred in me emotions that I’ve been unable to unstir. Essentially, he argues that 1976 was the most equitable year on record (in America), and due to a wealth-driven philosophy that focuses on profit to the exclusion of all other concerns, we now find ourselves living in an economy that offers that “small, selfish” dream to fewer and fewer people. I realize that I live in Canada, not the US, but we’re not immune to troubling inequity. When I eat a peach, I can’t help but think of the hand that picked it, and wonder where that person is from, how much they’re being paid, and where they’re sleeping. Essential work is being done by people who are treated as less-than. And the system makes us complicit, even as we’re stuck in it.
How many people do you know whose work is precarious, cobbled-together gig by gig, without benefits or retirement packages? Look around, and you’ll see that defines a lot of us, even those who seem to be doing okay. How many jobs that were once secure and well-paid are now being done by people who work on contract or freelance? Remember when earning a PhD meant tenure-track job-security? I remember when writers were paid a dollar/word for book reviews published in the newspaper. You can argue that sectors that are struggling are sectors that are becoming obsolete in today’s economy; but that’s not necessarily true. Is education obsolete? Are the arts obsolete? What about news? Long-term care? Sectors struggle for many reasons, but what I see is that a profit-only model doesn’t work for the people who actually do the labour. Because in the profit-only model, labour is a cost. You squeeze the costs down, you make more profit. Ultimately, that means you’re squeezing people — you’re paying people less and less to do more and more. And the people are us.
I can observe all of this, and be outraged, but it tends to lead me toward paralysis. What’s the fix, what’s the cure?
Yesterday, I sat outside and read Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout, which I noticed, upon finishing, is labelled “A Novel.” I think that’s an American thing? The book is actually a collection of linked short stories, my favourite form, although I know linked short stories don’t sell well, so maybe “A Novel” is a marketing thing. In any case, the book doesn’t need to be anything other than what it is: stories about characters (often Olive, but sometimes not) navigating their broken paths and trying to figure out how to talk to each other and protect themselves across divides of class, race, culture, age, abuse, pain, illness, secrecy, experience, self-doubt. It’s brilliant, and I wept often, throughout.
Upon finishing, I thought: I just want to sit and read stories all day long. And then I’ll take a break and write stories for others to read. And then I’ll meet with people who love reading and writing and we’ll talk about it, and I’ll edit my stories and theirs. When I do this work I’m not always right, but I know what I’m doing and why.
Is this a roadmap for a career???? God, let it be so. At the very least, it’s a roadmap for making sense of life. For helping me see and understand and know what matters. And it ain’t profit, my friends (but you already know that!). We all know it, gut-deep: profit isn’t profitable when it costs us our communities, our health, our dignity.
Here’s my own small, selfish dream: I want to read, write, edit, discuss; work that has it uses, its purpose. And I want others to be able to do this work too, as they’re called to it.
Truth: A lot of my work is done on a voluntary basis (it’s my speciality!). But here’s the thing: volunteer work is not necessarily noble. People volunteer because they can afford to. I’m worried that my willingness and ability to work for little to no recompense is part of the problem. Consider the arts sector, where many initiatives survive because of people like me: Doesn’t this very structure — reliance on voluntary labour — create barriers toward participation for everyone who can’t afford to work for free?
But what’s the alternative in a sector that’s not profit-driven and never will be, that survives on grants, fundraising … and underpaid / unpaid labour?
It’s a dilemma that’s been troubling me. A lot.
And I’ve come around to a solution, of sorts: Universal Basic Income. It’s not perfect, but it seems like the viable place to start. A baseline of security, so everyone can afford their own tiny, personal dream: Enough and time to enjoy it. Dignity and love. Work that is useful and that you love doing.
(See what I mean? This post is WAY TOO MUCH, but it’s where my head is at, right now.)
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