Category: Big Thoughts
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?
Why have I not felt like blogging, this past week? I’ve had a moment, here or there, that could have been turned into time to blog. But I chose not to.
1. My head is full. Too full. Which makes it hard to zero in on a subject. I’ll be honest with you. My head is full of Life, good and bad, dark and light, hope and despair, grief and excitement. Sometimes I just want to sit and let myself feel what I’m feeling, quietly. Without trying to put it into words.
2. This hasn’t been conscious, but I’m finding some balance in my days and hours. In a sense, I’m making compartments for different tasks, different identities. This morning is quiet and interior: I am writing. The house is empty. My mind homes in on this other world I’m making. There’s some of the source of excitement: making something, gathering up the disparate pieces and sensing that it’s coming together, even if it’s not quite there yet. (I abandoned the memoir awhile ago–did I ever write about that? I am working on the story collection, the Juliet stories.)
After school, I’ll enter into the noisy chaotic compartment of motherhood. I’m trying harder to check email less frequently, sit down with a kid in my lap more frequently; that also means not squeezing in a blog post while a child stands at my knee and screams for attention.
Whatever it is, it seems to be working. The full-on mothering days feel sweeter because I have these other days and opportunities to express other parts of myself. I am luxuriating in the freedom I have within every day. I just have to accept its seasoning and flavour. Say, freedom to go out for lunch with a friend. Freedom to bake sweet treats for/with my kids. Freedom to walk rather than drive. Freedom to volunteer at the school fun fair.
It is amazing to discover that commitment to an activity offers up space for real relaxation and enjoyment.
Example … I volunteered at the school fun fair. Yes, I left clothes hanging on the line and it poured rain and I couldn’t run home to rescue them; guess what–they stayed on the line overnight and dried the next day, having enjoyed a lovely soft water rinse. Yes, I had to bring along all four kids; guess what–they had a blast helping out. Yes, Kevin was stuck in Toronto; guess what–AppleApple missed her soccer practice and the world did not end; plus, everybody rose to the occasion, and the big kids were able to do activities with the little kids. Yes, I applied fake tattoos for several hours; guess what–it was a blast chatting with the kids who streamed through, and their parents. I didn’t waste a minute worrying that the evening wasn’t going precisely as planned, or that we were staying longer than anticipated, or that the kids were going to be grumpy the next day.
I am a naturally impatient person, and I’m just beginning to grasp that conceptualizing any time as a waste is itself the biggest waste of all. I don’t have a lot of spare time, so it can be easy to resent time spent doing something that isn’t my first or second or even third choice; I am finding myself more relaxed about that. Inside every moment is a potential discovery.
What comes at me so strongly this week, as I sit inside quiet and some sadness, is that this is my life. I am alive. I am breathing, in and out, and I am living this present moment whether or not it is the moment I want to be living. Can I embrace each moment? Probably not. But the more moments I embrace–chosen and otherwise, going according to plan or going hay-wire–the more moments will embrace me.
You know it when you find it. You likely won’t recognize it till afterward. But you’ll know–an hour, an afternoon, longer, those moments when you are out of time and inside the experience, just being within it. Often, you have a sense of not wanting this–whatever this is–to pass. Or even no sense at all of time passing. You blink, and hours are gone. You wonder where you’ve been. You’ve been inhabiting yourself, that’s all. For me, these moments seem to come more easily when connected to something physical, walking, running, kneading, drinking, laughing, sometimes with company, sometimes alone.
Guess I was ready to blog …
This is what happens when I get up early and exercise. I didn’t even set my internal alarm this morning, it just decided to go off.
Thoughts come to me while I’m hanging laundry. Do yours strike during particular activities?
On an evening out with friends, recently, we came around to talking about chores (we’re all moms or moms-to-be), and one friend mentioned that she genuinely enjoys hanging laundry on the clothesline–she didn’t mean that she finds it a chore she can tolerate, or doesn’t mind doing, but that she genuinely takes pleasure from it. She described hanging the napkins together so they flapped in the wind like a prayer flag. And those of us who regularly hang laundry realized we often do something similar: making patterns, following interior rules about what goes where; in essence, creating something that pleases us aesthetically. Do you have rituals you follow, or patterns you make; or does another chore bring you a similar kind of aesthetic pleasure? I think it points toward the artistic impulse.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a particular philosophical dilemma, which is related both to parenting styles and parenthood generally: I think all parents are occupied, whether consciously or otherwise, with finding a balance between individual pursuits and collective responsibility. (This is a societal question, too, and where you land on the scale is probably indicative of your political beliefs).
This balance comes into play in virtually everything I do. Do I push my son to practice piano, or do I hope he will come to develop his own talents? Probably a bit of both, right?
Maybe I need to explain this idea in more concrete terms. I’m thinking about how families work. How very much I would like my children to walk to school together, and to take responsibility not only for themselves, but for each other. However, my eldest wants to walk with his friends: they have made a thoughtful plan for meeting and walking together. I am proud of his initiative, and glad that he has strong connections with friends. But I want him to be a helpful big brother, and I’d planned to have the three kids walk to school together next year. What’s the balance? This one is easy, because we’ve already worked it out. Albus will walk with friends. We have other options for getting his two sisters to school. In this case, we went with the individual, because it did not harm the collective.
I don’t think the balance between individual and collective is ever perfected. It’s an ongoing challenge. For example, I’ve also been thinking a great deal about how spiritual and artistic practice requires uninterrupted time. There’s no short-cut for this. In order to go deep, you need to enter into yourself while letting yourself go. This isn’t necessarily selfish, but it might appear to be, and certainly can feel selfish, when one is a mother (or father) to small children. Children are notoriously good at pulling you out of wherever you’ve gone–if they need you. And mine seem to need me a lot.
But there’s another issue: If I’ve arranged childcare and freed up time to work, what guilt I feel if the work that ends up getting done is invisible, even to me. If it makes next to nothing. If I sit and stare out the window. Writing a story sometimes appears to be a quick process, but I believe there is a great deal of invisible unknown work going on beneath the surface that makes the story possible.
One final thought from my laundry-hanging philosophy session. Practice, and consistently doing something, makes that thing easy to do, so that that what appeared impossible or even merely inconvenient proves otherwise. I am thinking of the snack-making. Nothing in the cupboards to pull out, so I whip together cheese and apple slices and raisins, in individual containers, and the kids love it. Nothing in the cupboards, so I pull out the popcorn popper and everyone watches the process, and devours the results.
Yes, it takes more time and effort, but not that much more. The difference is actually inside my own head. Does it feel difficult and hard, or possible and simple?
(I did not get up early most of this week, and I missed it a great deal. So, this morning, I did again, and went to yoga, and appreciated both the effort and the ease).
I have so many things on my mind, and intentions to blog about each, but with little time to spare, today I just want to write about that–about time. I’m heading somewhere in my thinking. It’s taking time to unfold. I love the evolution of our family’s life, and how slowly but surely we’ve moved toward living differently, toward eating differently, thinking differently, opening our minds to possibilities. I love how our house itself has evolved over these years, accommodating the changes–more children, children growing, more space for food storage, more garden beds, more elaborate elements to the play structure. I love imagining what new changes will come.
Time itself is on my mind. The time that I have, and what I choose to do with it. It comes to me that the gift I have right now is time, and time is precious, it’s all we’ve got. It is a gift not to need to work to earn money (and it may not always be so). My time is spent doing things that I value regardless of what external rewards they bring. I don’t even mind doing the dishes, when I think of it as a small but important chore in the midst of this larger picture of family that I’m part of. The multiple tasks that make up my every day express so many things, but mostly they are an expression of commitment. This is what I’m doing right now.
I’d edging us toward many small changes: cloth wipes, bicycling, finding alternatives to packaged snacks (ideas, anyone???), and continuing to commit to choices we’ve already made.
I’m making different use of my time, too, and am amazed that it is possible to fit new things in: for example, getting up early several days a week to exercise. Who knew? Learning to play guitar while putting the kids to bed. Who knew?