Category: Big Thoughts
Here’s where the house was on Friday. If you’re thinking, that window looks too small, well, you’re right. On Monday, I took no pictures, though a lot of progres was made throughout the day, including board on the outside and drywall on the inside. The windows also went in, and the more I looked, the more I knew in my gut that the size was wrong, and that we had to figure out how to fix it. I was pretty upset.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. The builders did not hesitate even a moment. They worked all the next day to fix the problem. They were cheerful and positive and stayed until after dark, until the new new windows were in. I have nothing but good things to say about the way they solved the problem.
And just look at the results of their efforts. The board and batten is on. The windows let in lots of light. When I stood in the room, quietly, by myself, on Tuesday night, I felt at peace, calm, grateful. What I appreciated most was the builders’ professionalism. They transformed what seemed overwhelming (to me, in the moment), into something relatively minor and entirely fixable.
(It would have been major had we done nothing about it, of course; but that’s a good reminder: even problems that seem overwhelming can be faced head-on and tackled with goodwill and expertise. Yes. That’s me, adding a moral to the story. Can’t help myself, folks.)
There’s a post I wrote awhile ago, a year and a half ago, to be precise, to which I keep returning. (Read it yourself, here, if you’d like).
The question I was asking then (and which I continue to ask) boils down to what kind of life I’m seeking to live: is it a life with unexpected twists and turns and seemingly disconnected variety, or a life of intense and singular highly focussed work; or is there perhaps a third way, a way in between those two extremes?
A year and a half after articulating that question, I can’t say an answer has appeared. Has life, as it’s been lived since then, spoken? Not in any expected way. Not loudly. Not directly. But also, have I been listening to the universe in the same way? Expecting it to reply? I have not. And I’m not sure why.
Instead, I’ve been running.
Is that a metaphor? Have I been running away? Or toward? Or is running a question and answer contained in itself? This morning, I woke up a bit later than usual, but realized that without a run, my day would be consumed by negative energy, and that I needed to run as far and as fast as I could in the time available, in order to burn that energy off.
Where is this negative energy coming from? It manifests itself in a general grumpiness, irritability, sometimes in a muddled mind, or I get lost in thought. Not practical, useful thought, but distant drifting foggy thought in which I cannot find my way. There is something about running (or biking or swimming or any exercise that gets me working physically) that burns off the fog, that releases me, even if only briefly, into a happy state. Afterward, I feel productive. Alive. It’s like an energy exchange: bad for good.
What will you do with your life?
My youngest starts school in a year. A year, therefore, is my self-imposed deadline. Deadline for what? For direction. For the universe to point me wherever I’m meant to be going, or for me to point myself, to step off, to launch, to turn around, to choose. I type that as if it were absolute, as if I might choose the wrong path, as if there is a right path and a wrong path; and there’s not. I believe many paths could be right. Success (happiness? contentment?) is dependent on how I walk the one(s) I choose. Nevertheless. My youngest entering school carries the pressure of a deadline. I’m at an age when it feels like, to paraphrase a character in The Juliet Stories, I’m holding in my hands a diminishing collection of possibilities.
So. I have a year to figure this out. I don’t know about you, but a year doesn’t feel as long as it once did. Turn your head, laugh, and it’s vanished.
Wait. I have something to add to my previous post. Just went out for a (luxurious) late lunch with my husband, as our evenings have been consumed by soccer soccer soccer. Got a chance to bounce my guilt/greed/gratitude thoughts off of him, which is always helpful: processing out loud.
And I realized that I feel something very strongly: neither sport, nor art, is a luxury. Both are human necessities, and if not expressed in positive ways, will find other ways out. Sport is a way for human beings to live fully in their bodies, and to compete, without doing violence to one another. At its best, sport can be clean competition, without conflict; a pure expression of physical exertion and skill. Every human should have the opportunity to experience the joy of his or her body, and of physical expression.
Sport over war.
And art is so essential to human life. Without it, there is darkness and depression and silence and disconnection. How could we live in a world without creativity, without lasting expression, without some way to translate the pieces of human experience that would otherwise be beyond us? It is so essential that you might not even recognize it around you. Buildings, graffiti, a photograph album, a blog post, the design of a garden, the words of a song that get stuck in your head, dancing.
So maybe my gratitude should go like this: I am grateful that I get to participate in sports, and that I get to create and enjoy art. These are gifts that should be available to everyone on earth. How can I share the wealth?
I keep starting this post, then erasing the words and trying again. I’ve been wondering how best to express my feeling of gratitude for the support and luck that make possible the arc of my days.
I am grateful to be able to send my children to school and nursery school where they are nurtured by caring teachers. I am grateful that I have a babysitter who picks my youngest up from nursery school three days a week, walks patiently home with him, feeds him lunch, plays with him, and loves him, so that I can write (that she happens to be a qualified teacher in her country of origin, who speaks five languages, is our fortune, too, though I’m rooting for her to get her Canadian qualifications so many more children can benefit from her gifts).
I am grateful to have a grant, and an advance, that allows me to focus on my fiction writing (and pay for said nursery school and babysitting time). I am grateful my husband has a job that covers our household expenses, so that my grant/advance can go toward writing time.
I am grateful for my family’s willingness to make room for my crazy triathlon project, and the countless hours of training it’s required (hours from which they are excluded).
I am grateful to live in a country with universal health care.
I am grateful for clean water from our taps, for fresh ingredients from which to prepare healthy meals, for the shelter and space of our home and yard, for safe sidewalks, and a community-oriented neighbourhood.
I am grateful for all of these things, while knowing that my fortune is neither deserved nor earned, and that the individual pursuits of art and athleticism are gifts. They are not mine for the taking. They could not exist without the offerings of many others, and of even larger, structural offerings that are pure luck: where I was born and to whom. I wonder sometimes how the relative few of us can bear to live with such wealth, when so many live with less than a little. How can I?
What I’m saying is that my gratitude is mixed with guilt, and questioning. What luxury–to train my body to complete an arbitrary task that has nothing to do with real survival. What luxury–to sit and to think and to create in repose, without anxiety or fear or threat. Are my luxuries just for me? Is that how I’m using them, and if so, does that not express greed rather than gratitude?
I’ve noticed an uptick in visitors reading this blog, and it would be a pleasure to hear your voices (thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration: your post on engagement made me want to invite more engagement and conversation, here, too). So, what are your thoughts on being grateful/guilty? How do you take the luxury of your individual gifts and use them to satisfy something greater than your own comforts and desires?
In answer to Krista’s comment yesterday, asking why I’ve decided not to write about writing … well, I have at least one defensible reason, along with several indefensible ones; and fully expect none will matter anyway, and my vow will prove an entirely temporary whim, because writing about writing, for a writer, is kinda like enjoying several glasses of wine when you know you should stop at one. Sometimes, it’s just too damn pleasurable and you don’t care about the inevitable hangover.
Here is one good reason not to write about writing: It’s a procrastination technique. I fear becoming a writer who neglects her writing while writing about the process of writing. And the process is fascinating–for writers, if for no one else–and the corollary of this is becoming a reader who neglects fiction and poetry and memoir to read essays about writing.
But here is one not-quite-so-good reason not to write about writing: When you’ve put something down on the page (or into the ether that is the internetten), it stands as if it were truth. But I am the kind of writer more interested in experiment than truth; in flux, in a transitory moment. At the same time, I write with conviction. I am entirely committed to the transitory experiment I’m placing on the page; even while I’m aware, underneath, that this too shall pass. How does one express that duality to a reader without appearing insincere or downright fraudulent? I play with possibilities. I am hyper-aware that everything I write down here, every scene that I paint, is constructed and subjective, even when it points toward an essence that is true. It would be terribly annoying to remind a reader of this at all times; besides, I think we’re all aware on some level that this construction is going on, even here in Blogland (or perhaps especially here in Blogland) where we present ourselves and our families and our lives in a very particular way, through the lens of the blog, to the world at large.
It isn’t a perfectly accurate picture, in other words. It cannot be. It’s impossible to capture the mundanity. We are constantly making choices, conscious or un-, about what to keep and what to forget.
When I write about my writing, especially in the midst of a major project like the one I’m currently hurtling through, all I can see afterward are the flaws in my logic, the mistaken paths down which I enthusiastically trod blindly, and the many ways in which things did not turn out how I’d intended.
In writing about writing, in other words, I create a record of my own failures. It can be, frankly, a little disheartening. I need to believe absolutely in the thing that I am creating, or my courage would fail. If I were reminded, too bleakly, of how often a creative idea does not bloom to fruition, or grow as hoped, I might fear the work ahead. Except, even as I type this out, I think, TOTALLY NOT TRUE!
Because of course I’d do it anyway–I do indeed do it anyway–even knowing the inevitability of failure–failure to realize fully the original vision; rejection letters; a bad review; the variety of opinions and personal tastes and the impossibility of pleasing most; my own wish to be just that inch or two more accomplished at my craft. I am intimately acquainted with all of that knowledge. It does little to impede my attempts.
But, in truth, I’d rather no one else knew. That’s the indefensible reason.
Heavens. I’m in a confessional mood. I had a neighbour, an older woman, when she heard that I was a writer, tell me that it had once been her dream to be a writer, too, and that she had in fact written a book for children, sent it to one publisher, and received a letter of rejection. “So I knew I wasn’t a writer,” she said.
I’d say it’s quite the opposite. You know you’re a writer when you receive a letter of rejection, and with blissful or dogged or determined optimism, you send out your manuscript again. And again. And you rewrite it. And you edit it line by line. And you seek the opinions of others. And you throw it out. And you write another. And you send it out. And through it all, though you question and doubt and your energy dips from time to time, you are filled with purpose and hope.
But you’d rather no one else knew too much about the naysayers.
And that’s why I am not going to write about writing. So help me.
This is Kevin’s story, not mine. Yesterday evening, while I was out exercising (mental health), Kevin was home with several extraordinarily grumpy children. He set them up with a movie, went outside to water the plants, came back in and sat down with the newspaper thinking he’d grab a minute of calm for himself. He had just read the “thought of the day” in the Globe and Mail.
“There are moments when everything goes well; don’t be frightened, it won’t last.” – Jules Renard
As those words hit his eyeballs, he heard crying from the basement. The movie was over (though he hadn’t realized, it was a very very short movie). The older children were complaining vociferously. And CJ was covered from head to toe in permanent marker (his own doing). He was the one crying. Kevin said he just stood there in horror. Then he popped CJ directly into a bath and the permanent marker proved not so permanent after all. He introduced me to the subject by having me read the quote, then showing me the photo (above) and saying the words “permanent marker.” Needless to say, all my zen calm went out the window till I’d heard the end of the story.
Seriously. I was imagining that child striped with permanent marker ALL SUMMER LONG.
A couple more things, unrelated to permanence.
1. I’ve decided (for now) not to write more about writing. It’s too risky; I’m too superstitious. Everything that I write about writing has the potential to be a complete lie. In the moment, or immediately afterward, I might feel that something I’ve written is wonderful–or terrible–and time might prove it to be quite the opposite.
2. However, I will say that writing and yoga/exercise go together extremely well. I was in a muddle over a story that wasn’t working (there I go, writing about writing), and instead of giving into anxiety, I thought, hey, I’ll take this to yoga. For those of you sick of hearing me blither on about yoga, you can insert the word “meditation” instead. It’s where I go to find meditative space. I haven’t found a more effective method of removing the self from myself than through guided movement that is challenging to breath and body. So, I took the story to my meditative space. And then I didn’t think about it for the entire practice. And at the end, I had a calm reflective observation to take home again: the story wasn’t working because it was trying to do too much. And it was expressing something that I didn’t want expressed through my character. So I scrapped it, and started over completely afresh. It was a relief not to waste more time muddling.
3. Meditative calm: is it a selfish pursuit? Sometimes, when I leave behind a pile of frantic children and kind generous husband, the impulse to go off on my own feels hideously selfish. But here’s what yesterday’s practice brought to me, in calm reflection: self-knowledge is not the same as selfishness. If I did not take time to recognize my own motivations and know my own desires, my boundaries would be muddier, my actions murkier; I would risk carrying anger without knowing why, or bitterness, or fear. I would be more likely to blame my circumstances and my loved ones for anxieties of my own creation. There is no perfection. I might come to know things about myself that are uncomfortable and unflattering. It’s not a route to happiness or contentment, either. What it brings me is access to calm.
4. I’m still looking for ways to find calm within noisy moments. The other evening, this is what worked: I said, “I am not going to start shouting.” No one could hear me saying it, because in order to be heard over the cacophony, I would have had to start shouting. But when I start shouting, whether or not it is in anger, my body interprets it as distress. Even if I am shouting in a calm way, just to be heard, my body hears upset, and emotional escalation is inevitable. So. I just repeated over and over that I would not start shouting–as much to remind myself as to inform the kids. Eventually, I found a break in the sound, and was able to communicate: time to brush your teeth. The evening progressed with remarkable calm (Kevin was at soccer; those evenings on my own are evenings when I really do need to remind myself not to shout).
5. What I like most about meditation is something I resisted strongly at first. Stop telling yourself your stories, my favourite instructor told us. I was like–yah, right, that’s my job, that’s what I do. I’m not about to stop. Slowly, with practice, I got braver. I realized the stories weren’t so fragile that they would get lost; though in truth, they do change. I began to let go of the stories, the interior narration, during the practice. Madeline L’Engle, in one of my favourite books for teens, A Ring of Endless Light, wrote about letting go of “very me,” to make room for “very God.” In other words, make space for illumination. The mind is a miraculous place. Just because you’re not consciously thinking about a problem or a worry or a story doesn’t mean your mind isn’t sitting with it somewhere deep and low. When I practice emptying my mind, afterward amazing unexpected observations (I hesitate to say solutions) come flooding home. There is space where before there was not. And the space is compassionate and open and loving, so there’s room for ideas that I might not accept at other times. How often have I refused an idea out of fear or laziness?
For example, I wanted that story to work and kept muddling over it because it was a story already mostly written (an older story) and it seemed easier to work with something that already existed than to start from scratch. It was a barrier impossible to recognize without calm reflection.
6. I know yoga isn’t the only route to calm, though it happens to be mine, right now. Kevin says he finds that kind of quiet, deep, meditative thought while gardening. I wonder where you find yours?