Twenty minutes can feel like no time at all, when I’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole of the internet, reading truly fascinating but perhaps not necessarily useful stories on … well, see, there’s the problem. I must have read at least five truly fascinating but not necessarily useful stories in the past twenty-four hours, following links from Twitter and Facebook—to genuine news stories or long-form articles, not top-ten lists—but I can’t recall the contents of a single one. Poof. The minutes vanish.
But twenty minutes can feel like a very long time when I’m sitting in silence listening to the sound of my thoughts skittering, seemingly randomly. Oh, there’s my mind trying to make a plan for later on today, and a list of things I can’t forget to remember to do. There’s my mind slipping sideways into what seems to be a dream. Bring it back, follow the breath. Breathe, breathe, meditate. Oh, there’s my mind dashing off to wonder how much longer. And under it all, there’s my body, trying to hold fast, remain still and calm but strong. What this exercise seems to be, at its core, is a daily weather report: here’s what you’re feeling today. Here’s how your body and mind is coping with challenge. Bring an umbrella.
Today’s weather report of my body and mind: very tired, wandering, a bit directionless, with a chilly breeze of underlying anxiety about upcoming events.
I’ve been struggling to write, here. Not elsewhere, but specifically here, in Blogland. I was at a book club on Monday evening, a friendly thoughtful group, and they asked interesting questions, including one I found difficult to answer: How do you manage the attention? My gut instinct? To reply: uh, what attention? The truth is that I’ve been managing attention by pretending there’s a solid wall between my public life and my private life, and that the two don’t intersect. It’s a mental trick I sustain when blogging, too. I pretend no one’s reading. It’s like I’m writing this in a special private journal that oddly ends every time with me pushing “Publish.” It’s a trick that doesn’t work terribly well, I’m beginning to understand, not just in Blogland where readers respond to posts (which I love), but also in the real world. (I can hear you thinking: you’re just grasping this now?). For example, on Monday afternoon, my 9-year-old had a new friend over, and when the dad came to pick her up, and I was making small-talk in the front hall, he said, “I saw you in the newspaper.” Private Carrie fought with Public Carrie, confused. He’d seen me in the newspaper? Had I been charged with some crime? Oh, right, I’m a writer. I actually had to say it out loud, as if explaining it to myself, “Oh, yes, I’m a writer.” “I know,” he said. Oh, right.
So the separation is illusory at best, and delusional at worst.
Further, the whole pretence breaks down completely when I admit, both to myself and to you and to the lovely women at Monday night’s book club and likely to that dad in the front hall, that I want people to read what I’m writing. Of course I do! The sustainability of a writer’s career depends on readers. If I were operating a retail business, it would be counterproductive, not to mention just plain ridiculous, to open a shop only to pretend the shop doesn’t exist. A customer walks in. Carrie pretends she’s in her living-room, in yoga pants, looking after sick kid. Customer is confused, feels like an intruder, apologizes for wishing to purchase something from shop Carrie continues to pretend does not exist. (Why doesn’t anyone come to my shop, Carrie wonders? Maybe I’m not very good at making _____. Maybe I should quit trying and become a midwife.)
In other words, ambivalence isn’t actually ambivalent. It’s pretty damning. Like my dad would say, shit or get off the pot. (I really like that saying, actually; I use it a lot, when giving myself advice.)
But here’s the thing. What I’m selling in my shop is not me—it’s my writing. And that does feel genuinely separate. I’m in my living-room, in my yoga pants, with my sick kid, holding out a book. Holding out a blog post. This is the thing, I’m trying to say, Forget about me. So it’s confusing. I write in hopes that people will read what I write, not to attract attention to myself. I read Nick Hornby and Bill Bryson and Miriam Toews and Ruth Ozeki and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Kim Thuy because I really like their writing. I wouldn’t need to know anything about them to like their writing. I may feel I know them, because they are all somewhat autobiographical writers, but knowing them is not my motivation for reading their work: I read because I love what they do with story, with language, with structure and form, and because I’m moved and entertained by their writing.
I guess my overarching question is: Is seeking attention critical to finding readers? Is it a job requirement? What if I focus instead on being the best writer I can possibly be and stop sweating everything else? What if I simply support a project at every stage of development, including talking about it after it’s been published–and let go my attachment to the attention, personally. Then the transition between public and private might be much less jarring, much less important.
During today’s meditation, I had a sudden vision of seeking balance between interior and exterior. Between maintaining a quiet private interior focus, which is what I need in order to write, and an accepting reflective public exterior focus, which is what I need in order to be in the world as a writer. How can I be as authentic and free in my public life as I am in my private life? I breathe in, and I breathe out. Breath itself is a balance between interior and exterior.
So, how do I manage the attention? Maybe I’ll figure it out someday, twenty minutes at a time.
PS I’ll be at the Kitchener Public Library this evening, presenting the prose awards for the Dorothy Shoemaker prize, which I adjudicated this year. And I’ll be in Fort Erie on Friday evening as part of the Ridgeway Reads reading series.
Well, this wasn’t what I meant to do this morning, while suffering from a sudden and nasty cold, and lying around the house in yoga pants feeling pitiful. But hey, in my pitiful yoga-panted state, I clicked myself over to Facebook to do one tiny thing — instantly forgetting what that was; still can’t remember! — and saw that a friend had posted the link to Part 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Saga,” which would perhaps be better titled “Travels Through America,” freshly published in the New York Times magazine (I read Part 1 two weeks ago).
Here are two passages that jumped out at me, fitting, as they do, into my land and stories theory about power, conflict, and human connection.
“If there is something to be gained, if it is gainable, no power on earth can restrain the forces that seek to gain it. To leave a profit or a territory or any kind of resource, even a scientific discovery, unexploited is deeply alien to human nature. …
Not only is it alien to human nature to leave a profit unexploited, but discovering, inventing or knowing something without passing that knowledge on is alien to us, too.”
– Karl Ove Knausgaard
Read both parts of “My Saga,” if you like Knausgaard’s work. If you don’t, well, don’t bother; Knausgaard is Knausgaard. Either way, you might be forgiven for reading “My Saga” as close to self-satirizing. I found it at times hilarious, occasionally grotesque, Knausgaard willing to set himself up as a curiosity, as the inscrutable Other passing through an awfully familiar (to me) landscape, which he can’t or won’t even attempt to understand. Except he makes some interesting philosophical and cultural observations, and is himself a fascinating study in contradictions, having constructed his persona on the unlikely combination of personal reticence and abject confession.
Yes, I’m a fan.
I happened to be at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival last fall at the same time as Knausgaard, and he was one of the first people I saw when I arrived at the hotel where all of the visiting writers stay. We stood side by side at the front desk, he with one of his daughters, me with my tiny carry-on bag behind me like a favourite pet, on the very day that a lone gunman attacked Parliament Hill. I didn’t say a word to him. He seemed like a private person who wanted to go on a touristy excursion with his daughter, not someone who wished to acknowledge that the person standing next to him at the front desk of a hotel might have read his own hyper-detailed account of his life (I’d recently read the first and second books in My Struggle). Strange, wouldn’t it be? Or am I doing something similar here — on a much, much smaller scale — writing about my life and offering it up to anyone who happens along, yet also certain that I’m essentially a private person, deserving of privacy.
Anyway. I didn’t disturb him. Later, we took an elevator together. In silence.
I’m convinced “My Saga” is a classic piece of travel writing, even if it doesn’t tell a great deal about the land being travelled through; really, it’s about the human condition. How we’re shaped by where we’re born, and by what were willing to do, but also by what we can’t see or recognize, even within ourselves. Maybe most especially there. Writing is an effort to translate emotion and sensation and experience into shared language. This happens, when it happens best, not by explaining what we want to say, but by inhabiting it. So, in writing, a seeker may have more meaning to offer than a finder. A seeker, who doesn’t know what she’s looking at, exactly, might reveal more than she who is quite certain of what she’s found.
Here are links to Part One and Part Two of Knausgaard’s “My Saga.”
Back to my cold-fighting garlic-ginger tea.
Whenever I float the idea of not blogging anymore (and it’s an idea that keeps bubbling up, with somewhat alarming frequency, actually), I know exactly what I would miss most: connections. A friend texted after my last post to say it had reminded her of a cartoon she’s kept for years: a woman stands alone, thinking, “I wonder if I would be happier if I put as much effort into accepting myself as I do into changing myself.”
That got me thinking.
What if I were to focus on accepting myself? What would that look like?
It would mean I wouldn’t shame myself for wanting to share my thoughts out loud. I would stop calling it a compulsion (a pretty judgemental word).
It would mean I might see my writing in simpler terms. I would accept what I’m able to create and do.
It would mean, maybe, too, that I wouldn’t be so frustrated during these rough patches (like right now) when I’m squeezed for writing time and my days are spent looking after sick kids, out of routine; because these days are gifts too, and my work is not only to write write write, but to live live live. To be alive is to be with others, to be interrupted, to fail, to be frustrated, emotional, achy, tired, weak, and surrounded by the fruits of your labours, which sometimes feel really heavy. If I accept myself, I accept that my days are broken. I accept that I have limits and limitations. I accept, too, that I’m on a path of my own choosing and virtually everything I do is in service to something or someone I care deeply about–how fortunate is that!
I have a question for myself: if I focus on accepting myself, would I discover that I am an ambitious woman, or a woman who is content with muddling along? Can I be both?
When I’m meditating, which I’ve only just started doing regularly, for ten minutes a day, I tell myself: This is all you need to do right now. You don’t need to do anything else.
It is such a relief to the mind to have that bit of rest — focused rest, not sleep — when the mind is aware and present and yet not obliged to do anything but sit and observe.
I name what I’m feeling: worry, usually, or the desire to make a list and get organized, to remember all of the things that need doing. I name it and I say, you don’t need to do this right now.
It is such relief.
I really don’t know what life is about, honestly. I don’t know if there are big gestures that a person should be aiming themselves toward, in life. When I’m sitting still inside my mind, I think, no, life is not about big gestures. It is not about effort. It is about ease. It is about stillness. It is about being witness to.
But how, I think, could I accomplish anything without effort? I am such a believer in hard work. Yet I know, too, that much of what I’ve accomplished seems to come instead from grace. It isn’t that hard work hasn’t gotten me somewhere — hard work and discipline perhaps creating the necessary space for grace. But then I think, well, no, grace isn’t dependent on work or effort. We can all of us be graced by grace, that is the nature of grace. And then I wonder whether those who stand and wait, without an apparent plan, without the desire to change or be changed, aren’t actually on to something more profound than I am, with my striving and reaching and stretching.
Another question: What is this compulsion to share what I see and experience?
Could I not go there, to a place of stillness and grace, and return quietly? Apparently, this blog post would suggest that no, I cannot. But I’m thinking about it. Rather hard thinking, in truth.
All of the following probably fits into the category of wanting to change or be changed, but I don’t know how to address what I’m feeling in different terms: I would like to learn how to put aside the striving and access the ease of presence. I would like to learn how to clear more space for my mind to be still and focused. I would like to learn how to love the world more, to name what I see without judgement.
Happy snow day.
Sorry about yesterday’s long, rambling, complicated, sort-of-poem post. Note to self: don’t mistake a stream of consciousness “poem” for a blog post. I was trying to be efficient, kill two birds with one stone. I’ve got this project underway to write a poem a day, but you can see from yesterday’s example what these poems look like — journal entries, perhaps, or meditations, completely unedited and unmodified. Poured out, you might say. Which is swell for a private project, but less awesome for a public forum such as this.
Today I’m going to be efficient by telling you far less. Not sure I’ll have time to write the poem, but if I do, I won’t inflict it on you. In truth, a poem a day is aspirational at best.
I’ve got big aspirations. I love this time of year. I love the snow, the cold, the bright days. I love my new-year appetite and enthusiasm for big aspirations.
I love napping on the couch with the dogs.
The nap is my sweet reward for another aspiration: exercise five mornings a week. Early mornings. Five in a row. Not sure yet if I can hack it, but I’m going to try. Monday: spin/weights with group of friends. Tuesday: run/walk/yoga with long-time exercise friend. Wednesday: swim with daughter (!!). Thursday: run/walk with newer fast exercise friend. Friday: spin/boot camp with a couple of friends.
I’ve made it through Wednesday, peeps. (Why am I calling you peeps? Sleep deprivation, perhaps?) Swimming with my former swim-girl was pretty much bliss this morning. We swam for an hour. We shared a lane. She did her thing, I did mine. And Kevin made us a big pan of scrambled eggs when we got home.
Kids are practicing instruments. Meals are being made. Physio exercises in the living-room! Soccer skills in the basement! Reading in front of the fire!
And I’m being efficient because I’ve got writing to do. If you don’t hear from me as often here, assume the best: I’m writing something else! (And it’s probably not a poem…)
PS Physio exercises and laundry folding have been elevated to new heights by a) a subscription to Netflix, and therefore b) ten seasons of Friends available to watch on-demand. It’s the small pleasures, it really is.
The girl who runs: here is the cover for the Spanish version of Girl Runner.
I am not the girl who runs, at present. I am the girl who spends an hour a day exercising the finer muscles of her core while listening to blissful yoga chants. Just add blissful yoga chants and suddenly it’s an hour of calm. Picture the fireplace going, the pocket doors closed to keep out the dogs, a meditative atmosphere. I can’t complain. (I am also a bit old to be referring to myself as a girl.)
This was a good weekend.
I went to two parties in one day, which upped my average for parties attended this year by about 150%. I danced in high heels (my physiotherapist might not have recommended this, but I seem unscathed by the experience). I played and sang Christmas carols. I slept in on Sunday morning. (Thank you, dear pancake-making husband.)
Yesterday, we failed to bake Christmas cookies, discovering ourselves out of butter rather late in the day. So much for keeping to a promised schedule. This is why I do not, as a general rule, make such schedules in Blogland. Too many schedules to follow out here on the other side of the screen.
I just submitted final grades for my course, so barring any glitches, I’m done for the year. Onto the next project, next deadline. Phone off, pot of tea, beans simmering on the stove for supper, laundry spinning, house blessedly quiet but for the dogs.
The timer I put on this blog post is about to go. I’ve been putting timers on many activities lately. It’s a really efficient way to get work done, and not get caught up in the time-destroying web that is email & social media. (No offence, email & social media; I like you quite a lot, but you have the ability to crush my focus into a zillion broken shards with just a few simple clicks on a few important and educational and — my personal catnip — inspiring links.)
There goes the timer. Exiting Blogland.
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