There are a few items on my must-do list every day.
Make my bed. Get dressed.
Eat a good breakfast.
There are items that are on my almost-always-do list, like exercise, stretch, and eat supper together as a family (much easier to accomplish right now, that’s for sure).
But go outside. That’s a must-do. It’s on the list even though some days I have to remind myself to do it. Most of my tasks, at present, revolve around the kitchen and my office, with stops at the dining-room table and various locations around the house to pick up laundry. Go outside! I remind myself.
Or the day will not be complete.
Yesterday, I went outside and sat on the back steps. Are there more birds this spring? Or do we just notice them more?
While sitting, quietly, and doing exactly nothing else, I noticed a chipmunk darting around the patio. Soon, I realized it had a hideaway in a tree stump nearby. And then I discovered it had a friend, perhaps a baby chipmunk. I decided this was the mother chipmunk, as I watched her interact with the baby, who kept poking its head out of the hole in the stump, only to be pushed back inside by mama chipmunk.
I don’t actually know anything about chipmunks. So I could be interpreting this all wrong. But watching their interactions was delightful. And everyone enjoyed my report on my chipmunk friend at the supper table (more interesting than a report on the laundry or the sourdough, that’s for sure!).
So this morning, I went back outside and sat on the steps, in hopes of seeing my chipmunk friend again. There she was! This time, she stayed partially hidden, camouflaged by the myrtle that grows around the stump. I could see her eye and snout as she sniffed the world. Delightful!
This afternoon, my youngest joined me on the back steps. He wanted to meet my chipmunk friend. At first, it seemed she would not appear, but suddenly, there she was, darting around the patio. She froze, seeing us, and did not move a muscle. “Pretend you’re not looking,” my son said. We averted our eyes, and sure enough, freed from our attention, she darted into her hole.
We didn’t see her again. Instead, we watched the birds: two robins hopping around the yard, a cardinal dropping by, a sparrow. And other birds we could hear, but not see. After awhile, we decided to tour the yard to see all the flowers. Delightful!
If you say to the world, Please fill me with delight!
The world will reply, Go outside!
Don’t do anything, just sit there.
We all need things to look forward to. Things to plan for. Events that lift us out of our ordinary lives and routines.
Our house, on Friday evening, was transformed into an event venue for our family’s Fake Prom 2020: Starry Night.
The party was magnificently planned by our younger daughter, who is a natural boss, with an eye for detail. Everyone was given a job. I was the DJ, Kevin was the bartender, our eldest did the menu planning and food prep, and the other two assisted with cleaning and decorating.
We were to appear at the venue, at 7PM, dressed to the nines. Furniture had been moved. Photos were taken.
Eating, drinking, dancing and lounging followed, supplemented by several rounds of back yard volleyball. The first round, I wore my jean jacket due to pure vanity (45-year-olds can still be vain), but for the second midnight round, I was in my actual winter coat! Kevin burned some stuff in our old fire pit. We attempted to see where the ball was going. Hilarity ensued.
DJ Carrots and Beats had everyone jumping with some dance classics, and relaxing at the after-party with a more mellow vibe. Canadian Trivia was featured at the after-party. I tossed in a late-night load of laundry. Ate a big bowl of late-night pasta salad.
The only melancholy note was the recognition that this would have been a really kick-ass party to host for friends. We miss you friends!
The next day, we all slept in and lazed around. There were snow squalls, so it was kind of the perfect day for that. (Side note: Are we in Narnia? Is it still March?)
Tell me, friends, what are you planning and looking forward to right now? Ideas to share?
There are things that can’t be seen, but can be smelled. There are things that can’t be seen, but can be heard. There are things that can’t be seen, but can be felt.
Of things that can’t be seen, but can be smelled, I give you this: the place beside the porch where, last night, when cornered and harassed by our clearly not-that-bright dog, a skunk sprayed said dog and surrounding area. I don’t blame the skunk. In a way, I don’t blame the dog either. There’s no one and nothing to blame. It’s just that this is not the text a person wants to receive from her son, while driving back-country roads at around 11:30PM, returning home from a late out-of-town soccer game which one has spent standing, soaked to the skin, in intermittent pelting rain, beside a soccer field: I think Rose got skunked.
Yes, the evidence would have it. (Luckily for you, dear reader, this is not a scratch-and-sniff post.)
Of things that can’t be seen, but can be heard, I give you this: our refrigerator, roaring like a jet engine, despite having been “repaired” yesterday morning. We await the return of the repairman, who tightened the compressor and gave us a 90-day guarantee. I’m wearing ear plugs. They’re not working. The jet engine that now resides inside our refrigerator persists. (Click on photo below to play video of fridge-as-jet-engine.)
Of things that can’t be seen, only felt, I give you this (not pictured, naturally): the inside of my brain and body, exhausted from lack of sleep. It’s been hot, and I love love love the heat, but our house hasn’t been cooling down at night, and our sleep, even before the skunk and the fridge, has been restless. And so, I give you my stuporous mind. I give you my determined aching limbs, which rise every morning and run through the park, because they are certain, as am I, that the day will be better having done so, and worse having not done so.
I give you this: it’s smelly, noisy, sticky, messy in here; house and mind.
But this too, I give to you, and it’s no small thing, this thing that can’t be seen, only known: twenty years ago today, I got married, and twenty years later, we’re still married. There’s no way to see exactly what that means, but it’s plenty to live off of. It’s carried us through all the things. It’s carrying us even now.
This is an ideal day, wide open, warm. I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sandals. I’ve gone for a run in the park, walked the dog, hung the laundry, and meditated in the back yard listening to the birds and the traffic.
It is possible to be quiet and still.
And yet, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. Feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, grief, panic. When you strip away the layers of busyness, you have to look at yourself, pay attention, listen. Maybe you were busy for a reason. Maybe you didn’t want to scrutinize the uncomfortable emotions and their uncomfortable causes.
What a question. Oh boy. Rejection hurts. Not meeting my own expectations and hopes hurts. Feeling purposeless in my vocation hurts.
Is this true? Do you feel purposeless, directionless, or is your purpose and direction so attached to outcome that you’re standing in the way of recognizing what is before you? The here and now. Not what came before or what may come, but what is here before you in this very hour.
I come inside and draw a picture. I write this meditation.
I ask: Is my vocation, my purpose more closely related to being a writer, or to leading a life of contemplation? What connects these two points on the map inside my mind? What separates them?
A writer writes, of course, but more importantly, she publishes. Produces. Makes her ideas manifest on the page. Her work can be seen, recognized, appreciated.
What do you even call a person who leads a life of contemplation? How quiet and interior is a life of contemplation? How is such a life made manifest? Is it a life in which its purpose is entirely untethered from production, from recognition, from approval? Is it a life without notice? What would that mean?
I’ve entered a new phase in my life. It should have a name, but it’s a little too nascent to be properly defined, as yet. In this phase, I’m not teaching and The X Page Workshop has wrapped up, and collectively the team has yet to decide what comes next. My focus, therefore, turns not outward, but inward.
All this year, I’ve been seeking space. Last fall, when I was drowning in responsibilities, the word SPACE became my mantra, and my goal. I worked so hard to give myself this gift. It’s here now. And I’ve recognized that my new goal is to allow the space I’ve elbowed open to remain spacious, not to clutter it with new pursuits. What if I give my writing the attention I’ve given everything else? That is the question before me. It’s an experiment. I wonder: will the writing life, its necessary solitude, its self-generated energy, continue to call so loudly now that I can turn toward it?
Here is the gift of time, to explore.
Here is where I inevitably get caught up in looping guilty thoughts, ranging from, can we afford this?, to if we can afford this what have I done to deserve this?
There lives inside me a desire, an impulse, to give rather than to receive. The discomfort I feel when receiving — praise, thanks, gifts, anything good — is profound; it makes me almost ungracious. I’ve been trying to learn how to say thank you for years. To say it and to absorb it and to accept it. I don’t want to hoard my riches. But I don’t want to squander them either. If I am to accept this gift of time, I have to accept it despite not knowing whether anything good or useful will come of it. That’s hard. I know that if I put my time into teaching, into running workshops, good and useful things will come of it. So it’s hard to step away from purposeful actions toward an activity that seems indulgent, self-indulgent, even, and not obviously of use to anyone else.
You see, in this new phase, I am a writer.
I mean, I am writer whose focus is on writing. Stories, a new novel, cartoons. I’m not, in this phase, a writer whose focus is on sharing her skills with others. I’m a writer who is practicing her skills. I need the practice. The practice calls me.
I am setting new routines, in order not to squander my riches: these gifts of time and space. Exercise early. Meditate when the house has emptied out. Follow the rituals that ease me across the border into a creative state: open my notebook, listen to a song while drawing a self-portrait, write for three minutes (or more) answering the question: What’s on your mind? And then writing, or editing, or cartooning. Also, and as important, reading. Books, fiction. On Monday, I read an entire novel (Normal People, by Sally Rooney.) Today, what’s on your mind? turned into a meditation on love, a spoken-word poem, inflected by the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack I’d been listening to. I hung up a load of laundry in the sudden sunshine. I meditated while standing in the grass in the back yard. I decided to write this post before setting up at the dining-room table to work on cartoons.
It feels easy.
It feels pleasurable.
It feels good.
I’m not a hedonist by nature. I’m ashamed, maybe, to enjoy feeling good. To enjoy ease. Something whispers that I’m not deserving. What a strange barrier to fulfillment. Truth be told, I’m drained and exhausted, teetering on the edge of burn-out. I know in my bones that this phase is as necessary as the other phase. The inward feeds the body and the spirit to prepare it for the outward. It’s good to feel good. To swim with the current. To sit quietly and breathe deeply. The scent of flowering trees is especially intoxicating just now. Am I ascending or descending? It’s too early in this phase to know. Either way, it feels good.
FIRE is my word of the year, and its many meanings are very present with me at present. On my run this morning, I thought about how a fire can be an emergency, how it can burn down a house, or raze a forest. Going through fire is a metaphor for suffering and surviving, for being tempered by a painful experience. But after a fire, the soil is enriched by ash and carbon, and new life begins to grow.
Like fire that is an emergency, loss changes the landscape. Losing Marg was like going through fire. Of course, it was also like many other things, too, because Marg was extremely generous in her dying, and did everything possible to show her love and care for us, despite how sick she was. She had clarity about what was happening, and her wisdom gave us clarity, too. The fire tempered her, and it tempered us, too.
After loss comes grief. Sometimes grief comes even before loss — as we see loss coming toward us on the horizon. Grief isn’t predictable. It doesn’t follow a set timeline. At different points this spring, I recognized that grief was my companion, and that it was helping me to set my course.
Immediately after Marg’s death, I felt like a sleepwalker, numb, too tired to think, but slowly and steadily I drifted toward a different phase of being in the world — of being in the world. I began to meditate outside in our back yard. I let myself rest. I let myself not do next to nothing; listen, pay attention, breathe. Instinctively, I gave myself space. And with space, with breath, with oxygen to feed it, my interior fire began to flicker to life again. It was in that burnt out quiet space, in the aftermath and ash, that new shoots of green began to grow. I thought about (think about) Marg all the time. She was and is present in my mind, in my decision-making. Her clarity guides me, and her willingness in life to step forward, to be responsible, to take charge and to lead.
Because fire has another meaning, too — fire as passion, as heat and light and desire. There are times when I live without noticing how I’m feeling, numbed by routine and responsibility and the relentless obligations of being a mother to four children, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer. These are times when I’m dull, ticking boxes, struggling to keep my weak flame lit. And then there are times when I’m on fire! I’m paying attention — my attentiveness becomes acute, and I can see clearly what matters and what doesn’t matter.
From a place of quiet attention, comes clarity.
I have been tempered by fire, and my sense of purpose is strengthened. This I know: to feed my spirit, to remain grounded and whole, I must live creatively. Living creatively means improvising, sometimes; it means pursuing work that may not have a financial value; it means making space for others to play too. Since Marg’s death, I’ve found myself making choices from a place that feels powerful and certain. I ask: what matters to me, and am I acting on what matters to me? Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at church because when I saw the call for volunteers, instead of questioning the impulse, wondering whether I had the authority to speak, or the time to prepare, or the courage to stand up, I just said yes: this matters to me, and I will do it.
Another example: This spring, as I heard about protests in Nicaragua, as the situation became ever more troubling and desperate, as protestors were being killed, I wondered: Why isn’t this news being covered in the Canadian media? What can our government do to help the situation? And then I asked: Is there anything I can do? Yes! I could use my resources, skills, and contacts to write an opinion piece appealing to the Canadian government and getting this news before the public, at least to a small degree — I pitched the idea to an editor at the Globe and Mail, and wrote the piece while sitting in a tent on a rainy afternoon last weekend. I consulted with Nicaraguan contacts to ensure my facts were accurate. I sought feedback. And the piece was published in today’s Opinion section of the Globe. It’s a small act, but it’s something.
I’ve discovered something powerful about acting on what matters to me: It gives me fuel for the fire, energy to do more.
There are so many small ways to be whole, to feel whole. I don’t seek a work-life balance, because my work and life are utterly intertwined. I’m not interested in the concept of balance. I’m interested in recognizing which fires need to be fed, and which should be smothered. That’s a different kind of balance. It means asking: what do I have control over and what do I need to let go of?
A fire can burn out of control. Some emergencies cannot be prevented or stopped, can only be endured, withstood, survived, contained. But there are many smaller fires: a candle, a campfire, the flame inside a wood stove. These fires draw us, warm us, soothe us, invite community. The constantly changing shape of the flame is meditative and centring. We gather with others around the light and heat.
I hope to have more news to share in the weeks to come. More irons in the fire. More heat, more light. Meanwhile, more summer.
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