Way back when, before I had kids, before I was married, when I was kind of a kid myself, I started a tradition of staying up on “birthday eve” till midnight, writing in my journal, reflecting on the year that had been and the one to come. It’s fitting for the season. I like that my birthday lands on the cusp of things, in liminal time, in between.
Yesterday, I spent some time reflecting on perennial fears and worries, and trying to corral them into sense. This is what it looked like (a mess!):
Mostly, I was worrying about money. It’s my go-to worry. First in line. A stand-in for all the other worries. It’s like a short-form for will we be okay? But a more practical question is: Are we okay right now? Am I okay, right now? Because no amount of money (or stuff!) will guarantee future okay-ness. So this was where I needed to start, with this messy colour-map; and then reflection led elsewhere.
I noticed how significant people were on my messy map.
I wrote: The people around you seem to appreciate what you’re able to give. And they tolerate your whims.
Images and scenes bubbled up: I remembered driving three girls around the Bruce Peninsula, listening to music, playing cards together till late. I remembered biking with Calvin to swim lessons and sitting on a picnic blanket outside the pool with my laptop, during my intensive writing time. I remembering hosting friends at the cottage; picking late-season tomatoes from my brother and sister-in-law’s garden during a writing retreat with friends; taking my mom to the doctor; reading letters to my Grandma in Indiana; a funny night spent in a roadside motel with my daughters, laughing and hardly sleeping a wink. Big emotions. I remembered some hard conversations, some tears.
I wrote: And these were really good and memorable things to do. Maybe they were even wonderful.
Of this year to come, I think: Who the heck knows? That’s a gift of living in pandemic times, for those of us who’d imagined we had more control over things — we get to see and feel and know how precarious our plans were all along. I’ve been lucky. I’ve gotten to hunker down with those I love most. We’ve adapted. We’ve had spells of respite and sweetness when gathering is safer, and we’re freer to meet and mingle; those times will come again. This Christmas, we ate scalloped potatoes and ham sandwiches off paper plates in the snow around a fire. It’s easier under these circumstances to know what matters most. We know it because we miss it; we know it because when we get it again, we hold it close.
I wrote: You have enough to do if you just do it. You don’t need to look for new and shiny opportunities. You really just need to focus on deepening your connections to (and faith in) what you’ve already got.
You have a small gift you’ve been fortunate enough to develop — you can write books. So go on and keep doing that and enjoy everything else that surrounds you — your precious friendships; your sibs and their families; your Mom; your Dad; your children and their friends; your life partner and his family; your neighbourhood; your peers, your teachers; your dog; the women who farm your food; your body; your paths; your writing group and your word of the year group; your church; your studio; your work — your work, for heaven’s sake, just do it and do your best and accept what lands and what doesn’t.
That’s my birthday pep talk.
One final thought: I’ve discovered (re-discovered?) how joyful and fun it is to do things for people who aren’t expecting anything at all — to surprise others (friends, family, acquaintances, strangers) with small gifts or offerings or even just a kind gesture, some tiny act of attention and caring that says: I see you. I’m glad we’re on the planet together at the same time. It’s okay. The truth is, thinking about someone else and how I might lighten a moment in their day gives me more than I can possibly offer. It’s a direct line to hope.
What felt good this month? This has been a strange-feeling month. I’ve been writing a lot, living in other times and places, and inside other bodies. And honestly, that’s what feels good: writing. It’s my safety net, my therapy, the thing that I do when I’m feeling low (or high! or in-between!), the work that brings me courage and hope. Taking this question in a different direction, it also felt really good when both of my parents got their first dose of vaccine. The relief was overwhelming.
What did you struggle with? I struggled with confidence in my leadership abilities. But I struggled on through that struggle and kept doing the work I’ve signed up for: and tonight is the Open House for The X Page workshop! We’ll be meeting and greeting the women who’ve applied to join this season, and while I’m feeling a bit nervous and hoping it all goes smoothly (online tech adds an extra layer of eep!!), we’re well-prepared, and excited, and ready to roll. On a different subject, I’m also struggling with increased anxiety over the current pandemic situation… it feels like we / our province might fumble the ball in the end zone.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I’m okay; same response as last month. I’ve been doing a shit-ton of meditation (I like Tara Brach), kundalini yoga, hatha yoga, trying to attune my awareness to my emotions, in order to take a breath before responding. Is it working? Actually, there have been stressful situations in the past month when I was able to be kinder and more understanding to myself, when debriefing afterward. The instinct for kindness arrives much sooner than it once did.
How did you take care of yourself? See above. Meditation, yoga, writing. But I could be making more of an effort to go for walks with friends. I could be making more of an effort, period. My self-care waxes and wanes. Seems to be on a bit of a wane, as I take my temperature today. Maybe it’s the sweatpants: comfort and self-care, or sloth and utterly giving up? Hard to tell the difference, some days.
What would you most like to remember? My baby turned 13 a few days ago. I would like to remember that. Not sure what exactly I’ll remember about it, but it felt momentous, like we’d officially graduated to a new plane of parenthood. We have the diploma. You know when your kids are babies and everyone is always telling you: it goes so fast! And you’re like, okay, but I’ve changed ten diapers today and my hands are chapped and cracked and I haven’t slept more than three hours at a stretch for several years — could it go a little faster, maybe? Well, it does, and then it’s over. And the truth is that now I harbour the exact same urge to run around warning everyone with babies: It goes so fast! Enjoy this time! You’ll miss it!
What do you need to let go of? Outcomes. Process is so much more valuable than outcomes. Or maybe it’s that most of the things I value are unquantifiable: connection, moments of peace, learning something new, gaining a new perspective, experiencing generosity, awe, appreciation. And while I love creating the structure necessary to achieve a project, it’s all the little bits of living that happen within that structure that matter most. The work happens on the ground: grassroots work, civic engagement, trying to live the change you want to see in the world. I love putting my beliefs into motion, into action; but peace comes from understanding that it’s the work that counts, not some perfect outcome. When I know that, in my bones, there’s energy to continue: renewable energy! It’s not on my shoulders to fix the world or save anybody (that’s where boundaries come in); but it’s in me to participate, listen, engage, and let my heart lead.
Everyone looked after me all day. My favourite part was going around the table and hearing what everyone considered to be the thing they were most proud of in 2020. (Mine was painting my door yellow, and transforming my office into my studio.)
I’m glued to Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian show on Netflix that thankfully has about a thousand episodes (give or take). When I learned there were many seasons yet to watch, I ran out of my studio hollering: “Winter is saved!”
Kevin’s new year’s eve bonfire kept burning out last night. “I smell like smoke,” I told Heather on our starting-the-new-year-off-right walk. We came upon a statue that was like a horror movie, a man’s face replaced with an owl and maybe a possum (?); squirrel and duck for hands. We laughed so much.
We drove to Claire’s farm to pick up eggs and meat, and Claire showed us the pigs in the barn. Back home, we started a new 30-day yoga cycle with Adriene, called “Breath.”
Strange what my pen and hand tell me—not always what I want to hear. Mostly, I walked with my family this morning, on a spontaneous walk through fresh snow. But this was how I felt, trying to reach across the barriers of self/other.
Welcome to my studio. I enter this small warm room, close the yellow door, and feel—welcomed in. Happy to be here, at this desk, to look out these windows, to feel excited, wondering what I’ll find today?
I’m trying to read a book before falling asleep, rather than scrolling the news on my phone. My theory is that my dreams will be better, more interesting. But last night, the children in this book found a dead dog and my sleep was restless; tired today. (Soundtrack on repeat: “Exile” T. Swift and B. Iver)
It’s a lot to ask, that stories drop into my hands from their perfect mutability in my mind. I ask for grace and energy, I ask for a stronger work ethic, I ask for magic; but it’s desire I need, to answer longing with scratches on the page.
Yesterday, as Trump’s followers over-ran Congress, I was doing that terrible thing where I was watching a livestream on my laptop, scrolling my phone, and texting people, as if by consuming too much information, I’d find an answer to the question—what is going to happen?
I promised myself I’d sit down and draw even if I felt completely empty. That would capture the day too—an empty page, some pen scratches and scribbles.
My drawings this week all kind of look the same, I told Kevin on our after-dinner walk with Rose. Not much is changing. We are in liminal space—waiting. Not transition, but waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Today I made a list of things I want to do every day: go for a walk, the longer the better; burn and create energy with intense cardio; yoga; cartoon; play piano; afternoon tea break. I’d also like to meditate and read; and of course write. And cook. (But not clean.)
Good news: started my day in my studio and wrote part of a story almost immediately! Not-bad news: I can’t draw cars. This one looks like a bus, sort of. Above: me and Nina going for a walk, early Monday morning tradition.
Panic attack reading news of a stay-at-home order starting Thursday in Ontario. Felt like I was drowning. But what changes, I asked? Put on headphones and draw—follow pen into memory, shape, imagination. You’ve got resources. Sources.
Sidewalks slick with ice, we walked, skated, slipped, slid on a short dog walk after supper. Waiting for us to pass was a fox in the little park across the street. It sat perfectly still, alert, focused on our presence, till we were gone.
And now we’re all caught up. What do you think of my new journaling method? I’m on month two, and I’ve noticed a growing interest in attempting to draw background and setting, as well as figures. I’ve noticed, too, that this exercise slows me down and changes the flow of my attention, no matter what I’m feeling.
Wow. I tuned in to an amazing event at the Wild Writer’s Literary Festival yesterday evening. Managed to squeeze it in between the whole family getting their flu shots at a drive-through clinic (amazingly well-run, and gives me hope for the future of public health care in Canada) and birthday cake and gifts for this newly minted adult, pictured above with her sister’s homemade carrot cake. The aforementioned amazing literary event was a panel on the short story, with Souvankham Thammavongsa, Jack Wang, and Vinh Nyugen. Souvankham just won the Giller Prize with her collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife, and Jack Wang is the author of a recently published collection that I want to read too, We Two Alone, and Vinh Nyugen is a professor of English who happens to be teaching a short story class to my son, who in his first term of Arts at the University of Waterloo. And How to Pronounce Knife is on the syllabus; my son is now on his second read, and says he has to write his assignment before I can get a chance to read it myself.
But last night, I got a taste of both writer’s styles, and, oh, it was wonderful. Both writers read from each other’s stories, and that flipped the usual way things are done, and made it somehow so much better. It was a treat for the writers, too, to hear their words read with such affection by someone else. I love the short story as a form. And it was so interesting to hear their approaches to writing short stories. Jack Wang said he tries to see how much he can stuff into the short story and still make it work; and Souvankham Thammavongsa talked about making what we take for granted into something strange; and also about how she wants her endings to devastate the reader.
I loved that. I’ve never wanted to admit that as a goal, but damn if it isn’t true. To write toward a feeling rather than an idea seemed to be something both writers agreed on.
And there was more. I think you can access the interview on the Wild Writers website till the end of the November. And you should, if, like me, you’re craving deep intricate exploration of the ways in which stories work, or can work, or might work, and how they get made. Or even if you just want your brain pushed open a bit. I don’t make my stories in quite the same way, but that’s what made their conversation so interesting — maybe I could try different ways of entering into a story, maybe I could try shoving more in, why not? What would happen? I’ll be thinking for a long time about Souvankham’s Point A, Point B, and Point C (the last one being the point that the writer knows about that doesn’t get into the story at all, but exists outside of it, calling to the reader from out past its boundaries).
I also spent some time scrutinizing the backgrounds of the rooms in which each writer was speaking, because I’ve got a few events online to attend myself, and I want to know … things I really don’t know. Like, which wall in my house would make the best background, and do I need extra lighting, and should I wear makeup, and if I’m going to half-dress-up (top half only, of course) what colours work best on-screen, and will my knock-off bluetooth ear buds conk out midway through and what then?
Clearly, these are things that must be figured out by doing, and there are a lot of people learning how to do these things well, from whom I’m sure I can learn lots.
Meanwhile, this is the set-up I’m going to try out, mainly because it’s closest to the router. But the bookshelves make a good background, I think. Please wish me luck as I dip my toe into this new online literary existence this evening, in the brief role of “Introducer” for a conversation between Lamees Al Ethari and Antonio Michael Downing (also at the Wild Writers Literary Festival); and tomorrow morning, as I read my picture book Jammie Day to a friend’s online kindergarten class!
PS For those of you who read these posts as a newsletter received via email, the timing on the aforementioned events will be off by a day. This post was written on Thursday afternoon but due to automation beyond my control (or expertise, more accurately!), it will be sent on Friday. And I can report, updating this post on Friday morning, that both events were more interactive, more natural-feeling, and most importantly more fun than I’d dared to hope they could be. It felt like I could be myself. At the Wild Writers event, the conversation was thought-provoking, personal, and got my brain pinging with ideas. And after the Jammie Day reading and Q&A, all the kindergarteners stood up to show me their pyjamas, and then turned on their microphones to send me a chorus of goodbyes and thank-yous. It was wonderful.
(Yes, I put on a bit of make-up; yes, I borrowed a ring light from my husband, who does online presentations all the time; and I’m pretty sure no one saw my bright-patterned leggings, or noticed that I was sitting cross-legged on a yoga block on the floor!)
Unrelated photo from Halloween that makes me laugh.
As a corollary to yesterday’s post, I realize that I’m also on the verge of laughter at all times. Tears and laughter. Maybe they come from a similar place. My emotions are closer to the surface, more accessible, freely available. It’s the way I’m living right now: on the verge of laughter or tears, or sometimes both.
Yesterday evening, for example, I laughed to till I cried watching this video (from 2016):
Who knew the morning hosts at CBC Calgary were so funny? Are they serving up comedy gold on the regular?
And this morning, folding laundry, I laughed till I cried at the first couple of stories on Colbert’s Meanwhile segment:
I do have the sense of humour of a preadolescent boy, so be warned. If there’s tripping and falling involved, I’m all in. Farting gets me too, every time. I make no claims of sophistication.
This morning, a layer of snow covers the ground, brightening up the grey sky and bare November trees. We are celebrating a birth-day (18!).
A request. If something is making you laugh (or cry) today, please share.
PS This post has been updated with links to the referenced videos, in case the embedded videos themselves aren’t visible.
Today is my birthday. It’s family tradition that we get to do what we like on our birthdays (within reason). Among my wishes was that I wanted to go to church: my dad’s band was playing at the service. I love the band’s mellow folksy sound — Dad plays the piano, and there’s a banjo, guitar, fiddle, and voices in harmony. The whole family came along, which was also my wish.
It was the last service of the year, and instead of listening to a sermon, the congregation was asked to reflect silently on two questions: what experiences in your life this past year have been life-giving; what experiences in your life this past year have been life-draining? I found myself turning away in my mind from labelling any experience as negative, or draining. Why? Because there is a part of me that remains forever hopeful, optimistic that any conflict or trial could be transformed by attention and care, or could be transformative in ways that can’t be guessed in the painful, hard moment of its happening.
But in truth, some experiences are draining. And I do try to pay attention to those, too.
Life-giving experiences this year: as I let my mind wander through memory, I saw images of connection. Sitting at the end of the dining-room table, poring over the novel I’m working on, feeling like an antennae connected to the universe, pinging with focus and energy. Eyes closed, doing yoga, sitting cross-legged on soft sheepskin surrounded by music. In my body, running in the early dark morning. With my family, around the table. With my soccer team, outdoors on summer evenings. With my writing group sitting at the table. With my word-of-the-year group. Listening to stories being shaped and coming alive. We are all raw material, and yet we are also all capable of transforming into exactly what others need, at any moment in time.
Life-draining experiences: I did not dwell on these heavily. But I acknowledge these were also a part of my year. I would call them: broken connections. Relationships in flux or turmoil. The distractions of the constant stream of information and news, the scroll of social media, disconnecting me from my body and mind, and from those who are present with me. Times when I lacked focus. Days when I was unable to write for lack of focus, or care. Frazzled energy. Fears too dark to name. Times when I felt overwhelming anxiety, paralysis, over everything I can’t control (which is, let’s be honest, most everything).
Connection / broken connections.
To be grounded is to be rooted, is to feel oneself sturdy, energy flowing directly to and from an idea, a cause, a project, a desire. To be grounded is to feel connected to place, connected to self, to body, to spirit, to feel whole. It may not be possible to feel this way always. But even to feel like this sometimes is wonderful. It’s good to remember that it’s possible to feel this way, at times and on days and in hours when I don’t.
Connection / broken connections.
There will always be broken connections. Broken connections remind us that we are needed, that our creativity is needed, that our love is needed, our attention is needed, that our hope is needed, crucial, essential. We can’t fix a lot of things that are broken. That’s a hard human truth to learn. Maybe we aren’t meant to do that, we humans — go around fixing things all the time. This isn’t to discount the importance of policy-making in shaping our lives; what I’m talking about seems more personal. What I’m talking about is loving awareness. Maybe loving awareness is about acknowledging hurt, pain, brokenness, and making connections despite our fears, despite the risks. Maybe it’s letting go of the expectation that we can fix anything at all, and just listening, trying to hear and feel underneath to what this broken connection is telling us. (Put down your phone? Go for a walk? Write in your journal? Sit with yourself? Hold someone’s hand? Ask someone to hold your hand?)
Letting go of the idea that you can control what happens doesn’t mean you give up hope.
Hope is not the same as expectation. Hope seems much richer, much deeper, much more flexible and open to the air. Emily Dickinson says it much better than I can.
Wherever you've come from, wherever you're going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause. Thank you for stopping by. Your comments are welcome.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a fiction writer, reader, editor, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, forever curious. I believe words are powerful, storytelling is healing, and art is for everyone.