“Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – an empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.” — Mary Oliver, Our World
Category: Big Thoughts
I wasn’t going to blog this morning, because I didn’t want to disappear into internet-land, where time melts away. But I wanted to share a morning thought, a fireside thought, so I’ve set my timer for 15 minutes, and here goes.
I spend a lot of time taking care of myself.
I didn’t always.
I spend a lot of time taking care of myself and my family seems to have benefitted, too.
Mothering doesn’t mean never doing anything for yourself. Okay, this is easier to state and to claim once your babies are weaned, potty-trained, sleeping through the night, and going to school full-time. Much much much easier. And maybe that period of mothering did mean never doing anything exclusively for myself, and maybe I didn’t feel like a martyr because I found the involvement in my babies’ lives so satisfying.
But now–now. Now, I wake up early to exercise. I don’t have to. No one’s making me. But it makes my whole day better. So I do it.
I do it even though the only way I can manage it is if I nap to compensate for lost sleep. So I do. I prioritize napping. Today I napped a little longer because last night I was at a book club in a restaurant, speaking and reading, and that took more energy than my usual evenings demand. And I wanted to get up early and meet my friend and go for a walk this morning. So I did.
I walked, I did physio exercises by the fire, I napped extra long. Tonight, I’ll be at the same book club, only with different ticket-holders. (4 minutes left on timer! Agh! The pressure!)
This morning, I also helped with violin and piano practice and getting kids off to school. I was pleasant and calm, without having to remind myself to be pleasant and calm — I was pleasant and calm because the walk was good, talking with a friend was good, the feedback from the book club was good, and even though I was extra-tired, I knew I could nap extra-long.
Does my life seem ideally rather than realistically organized? Maybe so. I’m extremely fortunate not to be working outside my home during school hours. And that I get to take my laptop to gymnastics and soccer and work at odd hours. And that I get to write for a living. I don’t know whether I deserve any of this (probably not), but I know that it’s taken deliberate work to arrange my days and hours, given life’s many variables, in a way that allows me to take care of myself. I’ve thrown out a lot of bad habits along the way.
And I’ve (noooo! 15 minutes gone by. Setting timer for another 7…)
What was I going to say?
Take care of yourself, people, that’s what I was going to say. Recognize what feeds you, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel cared for and loved, what challenges you to be your better self. Recognize it. And do it. I know this isn’t realistic advice for everyone. I know not everyone has support or financial resources or time. Maybe you’re in a whirl of despair or depression. This will sound naive and blinkered, this advice. Or maybe you’ve already figured all of this out!
What’s your recipe for self-care? What are the things you do that make your day better?
Here’s my recipe, right now, January 2015: wake up early, exercise, naps, friends, being with the kids, music while driving, Friends episodes while doing boring physio exercises, books, writing, and the phrase “I accept”
PS Timer totally went while I was typing that last sentence …
One poem, good morning. I start with my hands on the keyboard. But nothing comes. Because I am not a poet?
This morning my alarm sounded early, but I woke just before and lay in the dark waiting for it, anticipating. Floss and brush. Dress. And before that, upon rising, drink two glasses of cool water.
Nina meets me outside. We drive down the street, a bit of a chat, a bit of a change of routine as the front door is iced shut at the yoga studio, so we walk around the ugly squat building through the snow and enter at the back, boots off. We say “bye” at the door to the classroom and enter and are alone, not side by side. Waiting in warmth for class to start.
The instructor says the words moving meditation, and I hold them, calmly certain that this is what I am doing. She welcomes the new year, invites us to consider what we want to open ourselves to, and also what we want to leave behind. My mind shouts: nothing! in reply, and mentally I see my storerooms and spare rooms and shelves and cupboards overflowing, as if I’ve just embraced the hoarding lifestyle, a hoarder of words and actions and routine and time itself.
And then I know, almost at once, that it is okay, that much will be let go. I ask myself to try letting go of the word Success, as the new year opens itself up. But I’m afraid to. There are aspects to success that I admire too much. I’m superstitious. Am I turning my back on luck and fortune if I let go of the word Success? Is that what letting go means? Or is letting go different, somehow, does it mean letting go of the burden of that word?
Success is not the same as confidence. It is not the same as faith. It is not the same as grace. It is not the same as the deep calm hum of life.
It is not the same as song. My birthday party was about singing and music and collaboration. Our new year’s party was about singing and music and game-playing and connecting in different ways, sitting on the floor, squeezed around the table, a bit messy, unadorned, fun.
Sacred. That word came onto the radio while I was driving home from physio. Physio came after yoga, shower in between, waiting in a long line for young women to finish their radiant luxurious showers. “You were fast,” said the woman in line behind me, who was still waiting when I exited the shower. “I am fast,” I said stupidly, having not spoken all this time; but at home I am not fast and I thought self-righteous thoughts while towelling off and dressing, thoughts about choosing the right place to indulge in radiant luxurious showering.
And then needling at physio, muscles popping and grabbing and twitching. She said: I’m causing a small trauma to the muscle, which causes blood to flow there, and healing. There is an analogy in this, I thought, as I lay on my stomach under heating pads and tried not to let the tickle in my throat turn into a full-fledged coughing fit, the conversations winding around me from the beds adjacent; I hear and don’t hear, I listen and don’t listen, I rest and don’t rest. Think of trauma as a means to heal. Think that without trauma the healing would be slower or incomplete, might never happen, that it is trauma that incites the rapid-response, the shock that draws attention and alters everything. That is what I hope for, in my muscles: relief, but also healing. But I don’t want trauma in my life; none of us do; there must be an easier way to let go.
Sacred, sacred. On the radio, on the drive home, slow in snow and behind a city bus. The man on the radio says the choices you make with your body are private and they are sacred, how you feel when you are doing things with someone else, how someone else makes you feel when they are doing things with you, that is your sacred space and only you know what you want or need. The subject is parenting, and teaching your children and teens about sexual abuse, misogyny, gendered culture, and practical and philosophical responses to those things, to situations they may encounter; 78% of parents never talk to their children about abuse in sexual relationships.
Have I? Must I? Age appropriately, of course.
I pull into the driveway and make a mental note, I bend before the washing machine sorting a dark load, I measure lentils into a pot, I cook poached eggs for breakfast, I skim the opening pages of the newspaper, I set the timer and rest for 20 minutes by the fire with the dogs, and I make a mental note, a mental note, to invite my two eldest to a conversation about abuse in (sexual) relationships. Which they will hate and resist and roll their eyes, groaning, oh mom, we already know this stuff what’s wrong with you. I mentally note that I will start by saying: this is pre-emptive, and this is not what I anticipate for you in your current or future relationships, but here is the way the world can operate, and here is how you can respond. If you see injustice or cruelty or harm, step in—the example given on the radio was of Katherine Switzer running the Boston Marathon before women were allowed to, and the male organizer of the race trying to tackle her to remove her from the course, and Katherine’s football-playing boyfriend stepping between them, protecting her, running with her.
I would say to my children: make that be you, whether you’re male or female. Take responsibility. Care for someone in pain or who is being harmed or hurt or threatened, do not exploit anyone or use anyone.
Last night sitting at soccer, watching Angus play his heart out. Pride in my heart, therefore. I realized that I speak ill of children sometimes, in sports contexts. I judge some of the players harshly, I judge their efforts and skills, measure, compare. I am not talking about my own children, but other people’s children, and that is mean, it is meanness, it is shameful, it is wrong. I want to stop, now, immediately. I took out a pen and wrote this pledge into the tiny notebook I keep in my purse: stop now, this stops now.
There in the notebook, I discovered writing I’d forgotten about, characters I’d been thinking about earlier this fall, times and places I’d wanted to visit fictionally, forgotten words. So. Keep writing, at all times. I sit here at the keyboard, on this good morning, and a poem now exists—yes, it is impoverished and ill-fitting and ugly in shape—but it is where before there was nothing.
Standing in the yoga parking lot, kicking snow off of “Aganetha’s” underside, I realized that all the work that I do is work that I want to do, that I enjoy doing, that I relish doing, that feels relevant and useful and that feeds me while I do it. What do I want to let go of this year? Meanness, ingratitude, unkindness, exclusion.
“They say it is better to light a candle than to curse the dark.” —Quotation I read on the wall in the back entrance of the yoga studio this morning, while putting on my big black boots (which Fooey wore yesterday to help Kevin put out the garbage—she said they felt so warm and soft; and they fit her; she is 9 years old). Yes, it is better to light a candle. Always a light a candle. But, I asked, too, reading the colourful flowing words on the wall, is it sometimes important to curse the dark? To call it out for what it is, rather than pretend it’s not there? It depends, I think, on whether the dark is changeable, or the dark is elemental. Some dark is necessary. There will be night. There will be winter. To curse what is natural and seasonal and implacable is to waste one’s energy. But some dark is caused by human evil, such as the darkness of measuring a child’s effort for no reason other than unchallenged, blind competitive instinct. I don’t say curse the dark, but call it out and name it for what it is. And then light that candle and light another and another, and don’t be afraid to keep lighting candles even if they sputter or get blown out.
I’ve been thinking about how much control we have over what we’re called to do. First of all, you have believe that a person can be “called” to do anything to bother reading on; if you skip this post I won’t be offended. I come from a Mennonite background where this language is commonplace and understood, and in fact, I do believe it, at least in a general way. I believe that we can be called to serve a larger purpose, and I don’t necessarily mean a religious purpose; I mean broader purposes of justice and care. But I also believe in self-determination, in launching yourself in the direction you want to go, in imagining where you want to be in order to get there. I don’t like the thought of sitting around vaguely waiting for Life to tell me what to do: take responsibility, make things happen, work hard! is my philosophy.
In this way, I’ve meandered along, believing that being “called” is not incompatible with my philosophy: figure out your calling and launch yourself toward it. I suppose I would say that I was called to write, and I suppose I would say that even now.
But what if being called also means stepping into the mysterious unknown, opening doors whose existence you couldn’t have anticipated, discovering yourself off-path, doing something you wouldn’t have thought you were prepared for?
What if what you’re called to do is not what you are launching yourself toward? What then?
I’m not wondering about this because there’s some big, exciting non-literary opportunity tucked up my sleeve. No, not at all. I’m wondering because of this blog, actually. I never anticipated the blog becoming anything at all, or being read by anyone other than friends and family. How could a whim become an institution? I wonder: what if I’m remembered, as a writer, more for my blog than for my literary fiction? Would that bother me? And if it would bother me, why? Do I value one kind of writing over another?
I think of blogging as brief, quick, and in some ways superficial bursts of regular writing, but if I consider the cumulative weight of these years of posts, perhaps this is a larger project than I’m willing to admit, a long-unfolding narrative venture, a different version of storytelling. But it will never be a book. It will never be compressed, distilled. It isn’t meant for that.
Do I get to choose what kind of writer I’ll be?
Do I get to choose what kind of person I’ll be?
I’ve been wondering, too, as I think about teaching. Teaching is hard for me. I doubt myself. I doubt the worth and value of what I can offer to the students. I doubt, too, that anyone can teach anyone else how to be a writer. But the strange thing is that all of my doubt doesn’t seem to matter. All term, I came to class hoping to create a respectful and maybe even reverent space where our minds would be free to focus and write, and every week, we wrote. (I wrote, too). I think it worked. I decided that my job wasn’t to teach anyone else how to be a writer, my job was to make it possible to write. To tune out distraction, to turn off cellphones and computers, to tunnel into our minds, to focus as deeply as was possible in a concrete-walled box of a windowless classroom.
What I’m saying is that I never felt called to be a teacher. But I think, maybe, it’s called me. Like blogging called.
What I’m saying, too, is that I’ve been mistaken, I think. I’ve assumed that a calling should be big, exciting, life-changing, world-changing. But no. A calling can be private, small, unseen by almost all. It doesn’t matter what I’m remembered for: more to the point, I don’t get to choose. I don’t know what matters, honestly. But I think it might not be what I imagined in advance would matter.
PS We did our second Christmas Cookie Sunday (aka #CCS) this past weekend, but the cookies were not successful-enough to photograph or post the recipe. This happens. We’ll try again next week.
It’s been a week of busyness with little opportunity for reflection. It’s been an up and down week, emotionally, and it’s just struck me that I’m finishing my November, as I often do, in a bit of funk. Is it the shortened days, the vanishing light, the overhanging clouds, the chilly winds, the general gloom of a world stripped bare and not yet blanketed in bright snow? Probably, yes.
But it’s also an existential Novemberness that alights every year. A wondering what it is I’ve accomplished this year, and what’s left to complete, as if I am a list of tasks done or undone. And maybe I am? But maybe, maybe I’m not, in truth.
As Kevin tells me, Life is not going to give you First Prize. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’ve written a good book. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good parent. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good person.
I’ve fallen to pieces on a few occasions this past week. I’ve been filled with unaccountable shame. This is not the face or person I present to the world, but my kids have to stumble over it. They’ve seen me crying and have found ways to comfort me, with compassion and rationality; and I worry that I’m harming them by not being as solid as rock, as rooted as an oak tree, as strong as diamonds.
I suspect that this feeling of vulnerability and exposure is cumulative. It’s been a fall of presenting my book in public to audiences interested and sometimes not so much; that’s the reality and necessity of publishing books. One must promote one’s work. One must speak on behalf of the work in hopes that the work gets found and adopted and championed by others. I have many many wonderful memories from events this fall, and in truth, very few that are even mildly distressing. So I suspect this feeling of vulnerability and exposure has little to do with the quality and worthiness of the events themselves, but rather with a sustained public stance that has been more difficult for me to participate in than I’ve allowed myself to recognize.
After all, I enjoy reading from my work. I enjoy meeting other writers, and readers. I enjoy sharing my thoughts, and appreciate immensely being invited to participate. These are enormous blessings. I am enormously grateful.
But the shadow side is that I don’t think the human character is designed to absorb even the modest amount of attention that’s come to me this fall. I don’t think we’re particularly good at it. It doesn’t tend to make us into better people. It tends to make us think we’re something special. And even while we’re thinking that, we know we’re not special at all, and the disconnect and disharmony of having to sustain and project the confidence of having something worth saying, while fearing one doesn’t, creates a cognitive dissonance.
I’ve felt kind of hollow this last little while. Hollow, and, in truth, lonely. Removed from myself.
Restoring an interior balance and sense of location and groundedness seems the answer. Advent starts tomorrow, a season of waiting, and I like that metaphor. I don’t mind waiting. I’ll never arrive, not really, because I’ll never cease changing. I want to inhabit deliberate patience. I want to discipline my mind away from its taste for quick hits of attention, and return it to the slow and steady onward pace of life in its daily ritual and routine, a life of small adventures, private successes, and strength through connection.
How I fit in the public work that is necessary to my job — and important (teaching is important, for example!) — is a question I’m not entirely able to answer at the moment, but I think it relates directly to maintaining disciplined habits and routines. Maybe too — this has just come to me, just now — it relates to forgiveness. Maybe it is mainly in my own mind that I’m falling short. Maybe, secretly, I really do believe in a First Prize for anything and everything, and as long as I cling to my imaginary scale of external validation, I’ll exist in a kind of permanent November of the spirit. And I would rather not.
I want to write about a subject of some difficulty to process and confess.
I’ve been thinking about how I ascribe value to the things that I do. If something is hard, I assign it greater value. If something comes easy, I assign it less. Therefore, when a task or job or skill comes naturally for me, I tend to shrug off its worth. Oh, that was easy, that was nothing.
I respond to success by accepting or seeking out tasks of greater difficulty. I readily take on challenges. I choose to do the things that will be hard precisely because they will be hard. I take on this work in order to improve underused or underdeveloped skills, and to force myself out of my comfort zone. I choose it on the premise that it’s healthy for the ego and the soul to attempt and practice activities, tasks, or jobs that expose inner flaws, that force one to confront fears, that are therefore in many ways gut-wrenchingly difficult. Any accomplishment that comes out of such a frightening and challenging place is, frankly, astonishing and wonderful.
But I’m beginning to question the wisdom, at this time in my life, of this approach.
I’m beginning to wonder whether by tackling tasks of great challenge and difficulty, tasks that do not necessarily align with my natural talents, I’m unconsciously selling myself short. Rather than resting and calling myself to go more deeply into that which comes (superficially) easily, am I displaying a kind of boredom and restlessness, a mind that demands constant stimulation, even in negative form?
I seem to be good at writing fiction. Storytelling comes easy to me, more easy than anything else I’ve ever tried, always has, as far back as I can remember. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s what I need to focus on, strictly, as a life-long cause, as a hard-earned practice.
Just because something comes easy doesn’t mean it’s not hard, that’s what I’m beginning to perceive, to glimpse, ever so dimly. In fact, it may be the more difficult path because it comes easy, because I fail to value it, because ease can lead to boredom, because by delving deeper into a natural-born talent I risk discovering my limits. And that’s bloody terrifying, way scarier than failing at something I already know I’m not particularly good at.
It seems that the challenge that’s before us is not always the most obvious.