- What felt good this month? Being outside! The weather has been splendid (I live for the heat), and our back yard is inviting, lush, pretty, full of birds and wild critters (including skunks, but that discovery goes into a different category). I’ve been running regularly, never more than 5km, always early in the morning through the park. This past week, CJ and I have been on almost-daily bike adventures, on paths and trails and quiet streets throughout the city (and I’m so glad he’s still happy to go on adventures with me!). Annie and I do yoga outside every morning, and it’s bliss to lie back and look at the sky. Our family has been using the gazebo area to entertain friends, socially distanced, of course; meeting face-to-face is so much sweeter than Zoom, though I’ll continue to appreciate Zoom for making it possible to see each other when it isn’t otherwise feasible. We’ve been camping, we’ve lounged at the beach. Bottom line: I’m drinking up this season, positively gorging on it, while it lasts.
- What did you struggle with? Resigning from coaching soccer. It was a painful decision. But I wasn’t comfortable returning to the field this summer, and I had to make the call one way or the other. I’m a big believer in finishing what you start, and in not bailing on commitments even when it gets hard; but ultimately it didn’t feel like I was being asked to do what I’d signed up for. In truth, my decision came from deep in my guts, and when a decision rises from there, it’s important to listen. So I said goodbye to the players; with gratitude for other coaches willing to step in. For someone who has difficulty saying “No,” this has been a valuable process to work through. My mental health seems more stable this month, too, and I wonder whether the looming return-to-play was weighing more heavily on my mind than I was willing to acknowledge at the time.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? More chilled-out. I’ve been reading lots of books, and napping on the couch. Less Twitter too! Haven’t written much new material in the past two weeks … but it hasn’t felt imperative. What feels imperative is feeding my mind with new ideas, hanging out with my kids, seeing friends, sticking to an early morning exercise routine. To everything there is a season. I’m submitting to the flow.
- How did you take care of yourself? This month, I continued to tend to my physical and mental health. I’ve been countering negative thoughts with journaling. I try to notice when I’m being unkind to myself, and to assess whether it’s accurate or based on an irrational or subconscious pattern of thought. I’m doing tons of stretching and strengthening (physio homework). Texting/talking with friends is also good self-care, I realize. I’ve been telling my body how much I appreciate it. I’ve been trying to apply the idea of acceptance as a form of love to myself, as well as to my loved ones. Don’t we all just want to be loved and appreciated for who we are, flaws and all? Becoming takes a lifetime. We’re all going it at our own pace, so let’s walk there together, in kindness and generosity.
- What would you most like to remember? Standing in the driveway, listening to my mom tell stories about her past. Biking behind CJ as he learns to lead the way. Laughing around the campfire. Wind blowing through open car windows. The comet shining like a flashlight in the night sky. The sound of many many birds. Being in motion, going somewhere, even if just around the block. The sky.
- What do you need to let go of? Anxiety, especially about everything that’s out of my control. Maggie Nelson writes about “prophylactic anxiety” in her book The Argonauts (her marvellous, genre-defying, mind-stretching book). In fact, I’m noticing that it’s her own mother who cannot escape from this need to anticipate and rehearse for the very worst, at all times. Maggie Nelson quotes Freud’s definition of anxiety: “Anxiety describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one.” My kids have been helping me notice the many ways in which I apply prophylactic anxiety, which I’ve preferred to call “vigilance,” to a multiplicity of situations in our shared lives. But you know—one cannot be ever-vigilant, ever-watchful. I cannot be. It’s a poor state in which to live one’s life. There’s no fun in it; dire warnings aren’t fun to broadcast or receive, and all but the most crucial are probably counter-productive. Is it the responsibility of a mother to prevent disaster? I feel quite certain that this has been the standard you-are-a-mother-and-this-is-your-job messaging. But maybe, just maybe, it’s not.
A marvellous way to escape from the stasis and repetition of the everyday is by reading books. I’ve been reading more books these days than I have for a very long time, reading not merely for professional purposes, but as a fan.
And I just want to say: Read, friends, read!
Read a book! You won’t regret it! Sink in, let your brain get accustomed to taking the long, slow, scenic route instead of scrolling yourself down an endless wall of text. This might sound like self-serving advice, but really, I feel born-again.
Read a book!
It’s an immersion in a way that other forms of “entertainment” and learning are not, because it also involves engagement, as your mind works to build worlds and make connections. There are ideas and images forming inside your brain—new to you, exciting, challenging, alarming, frustrating, fresh and unknown—as you follow the line of words across the page. These brand-new images are transferred into the landscape of experiences, memories, and images that already belong to you. Connections between these worlds pop and crackle and spark something that has the potential to feel revelatory and transformative (at best), or at least interesting, different from your usual point of view.
Inside your mind, as you read a book, you’re actively creating something that is both collaborative and personal. You’re reading something written in a different time that is speaking to where you are right now (or attempting to). I think this is why it can feel like you know an author really well—because you’ve actually made something together when you read their book, even when you’re collaborating across cultures, languages, places, and times.
This past weekend, in related news, we camped at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, and went to the beach. And we read books. I even stayed up late one night to finish a conventional but highly entertaining murder mystery, borrowed from my brother (Ann Cleeves, The Long Call). I’d finished the book I’d brought camping (Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day), a book with which I had an ongoing argument, as it featured wealthy white British characters, several of whom were artists; at times, I strongly disliked everything about the book, but then bits seemed to capture something important about creating art, especially as a woman, and how valuable it is to have a champion, especially a patron with money and influence, but also how dangerous. In the end, it was the engagement with ideas, the argument with the book itself, that kept me transported and hooked.
Books transport me in so many different ways. Reading Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You brought me into characters who broke my heart, and with whom I craved even more time, and afterward I wanted to talk about these people like they were real; reading Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was both accusation and encouragement to reflect on my own transactional relationships, even while it pulled me along with a propulsive plot; reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed stirred up a mixture of emotions, including the desire to protect this seemingly vulnerable writer from her own blind spots, and respect for occasions of raw insight.
I’ve just started Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and already I feel like the top of my head has been lifted to make room for more seeing, more questions, more ways to jab at and unpeel my identity, my ways and means of performing myself.
Writing is not a glamorous job. Progress is made at a glacial pace, if what you’re doing can be even be seen as progress; it might be more rightly called meandering, looping, wondering, wandering. You can’t see what you’re making. You can’t know how it will be received, if it ever gets loose, let alone completed. You don’t know what arguments a stranger might have with what you’ve conjured on the page.
It often doesn’t feel like important or valuable work; certainly it doesn’t feel very useful a lot of the time. But when I read books, I know exactly why I write, and why I’ve chosen this wondering, wandering path. When I read, I feel belonging and expansion, both, at once. When I write, I feel like a giddy participant in a long, ongoing conversation about being alive, being a part of it all, in my own time and place and body, right now.
Right now, Canadian publishing is suffering. (Read this, if you want to know more about the nitty-gritty business of the industry.) But listen up, friends! If you’re lucky, you still have an independent bookstore operating despite the pandemic, and they’re the ones (according to the cited article) who have the potential to keep this fragile/tough cultural industry alive. All the books mentioned above (and many more!) were purchased at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo. Order online, pick up in the alley behind the store; or they deliver locally. Do a bit of searching. Find what’s available near you. There are many independent options other than Amazon, and these options are run by people who love books, too. They love reading. They believe in the collaboration between words on the page and individual minds. They want to challenge your horizons, send you on adventures, keep you up late at night. Amazon’s algorithm just wants to sell you more of the same.
Those are my thoughts for today. More ideas, coming soon.
- What felt good this month? Honestly, it’s been a challenging month, with a lot of push-pull emotions. But this question is reminding me of all that’s been good, too. It felt good to re-enter the world, occasionally. I sourced several comfortable masks to carry in my purse. Started physio, the result of which is that I’ve been able to go for some early morning runs (personal moments of bliss; I hi-fived a tree branch this morning!). On Tuesday afternoons, I’ve been biking to pick up Fertile Farm’s CSA offerings, just like I did in the before-times. (We’re getting two different CSA boxes this summer, Tuesdays and Saturdays, so our Monday supper challenge is to finish all the greens in the house before their impending replenishment!) Strawberries and asparagus are in season: eating lots. My peonies bloomed, and I cut some of the blossoms and dried them, hoping their scent will last. We celebrated Father’s Day with homemade carrot cake, shared with my dad in the back yard. The back yard, by the way, is AMAZING. I’ve been joining Annabella for double yoga sessions on Saturday mornings. Hanging laundry on the line. I met with my girls’ soccer team on Zoom and we started a fitness challenge (which explains why I’m suffering through burpees every morning). The kids finished school, and yesterday morning, Calvin and I kicked off his summer holidays by drawing and writing together in our journals, like we’ve done in summer’s past, which is very good indeed. And, last but not least, Kevin’s been concocting fancy weekend drinks with herbs from his garden.
- What did you struggle with? My emotions. I’ve felt restless, sometimes bored, distracted by anxieties. Mental fatigue. Making case-by-case decisions about our family’s activities as invitations to socialize begin again: what’s low-risk, what’s doable, what are the compromises or modifications that make normalcy possible? I almost had a panic attack on a walk with a friend last week, when we ventured to a park that felt too crowded with unmasked strangers. I suspect my absorption of US news is affecting my perceptions of safety here in Southern Ontario, where the numbers of new infections are relatively low. Also recognizing that the sameness of my days is causing a crash in creativity. As the months grind onward, I crave variety, challenge, adventure, new sights and sounds. There’s not much growth in the comfort zone.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? More restless, less focused, but also more optimistic about our collective ability to adapt to post-pandemic life. Work-wise, I finished writing a complete first draft of the 16th century novel. It requires major revision, perhaps even rethinking, so I’ve set it aside to steep for awhile. In its absence, I haven’t landed solidly on a writing project as absorbing. However, I do have big news: this month I signed a contract with a major Canadian publishing house to publish my next novel (tentatively titled Francie’s Got a Gun; not set in the 16th century). It’s been a long time coming, and I’m slipping the news in here rather quietly; look for a more formal announcement once the manuscript is finalized (due date for revisions: January 31, 2021). Maybe by the time the book comes out (2022), we’ll be free to throw a big old-fashioned launch party, which is really the reason I wanted to publish a new book and I’m not even making that up. God, I love a good launch party. I’m going to spend the next 2 years planning it. All of that said, and as this rambling paragraph attests, I’m casting around right now looking for something to occupy my energies, as I wait for notes from my new editor, dip into other writing projects, and hang out with my children.
- How did you take care of yourself? This month, I looked after my physical health. I went to physio on the advice of my chiro. I did a tea cleanse for the first two weeks of June. Also: almost-daily cardio, dry brushing, stretching, yoga, reading for pleasure, weekly sibs check-ins, salads, homemade yogurt, journaling, evening walks with Kevin and Rose, planning some fun events for our summer holidays, meeting friends outdoors and for walks.
- What would you most like to remember? What it feels like to walk uptown again, after several months’ absence: how strange the air feels, how empty the streets, how heightened my awareness of surroundings. Eating ice cream with a friend on one of my first outings post-lockdown. How my brain has struggled to feel safe doing activities that were once so ordinary they required no thought. Also: Black Lives Matter, and the hope for change.
- What do you need to let go of? I need to let go of my desire to control, which is a desire to protect and a compulsion to try to prevent bad things from happening. I’ve noticed particularly in interactions with my children that I’m always on patrol, attempting to prevent disaster, messes, missteps, no matter how insignificant (“don’t leave that jar of pickles on the edge of the counter”; “did you put on sunscreen?”; be careful, watch out, don’t forget, did you remember to, have you thought about …). My watchfulness is not helping anyone. My hyper-vigilance renders me needlessly anxious, and also feeling pointlessly guilty and responsible for anything bad that happens that I haven’t prevented; but it’s also harming my kids, who deserve my trust, and who can really only learn from experience. Painful as that is to recognize. I’d like to stop putting up caution signs and issuing warnings, and just … let go … let go … and I mean this on all fronts, in both my professional and my personal life, I want to walk a path that honours and accepts all I can’t know, all I do not control. God, it’s hard. But stuck together in close quarters, lo these many months, I’ve seen the harm of it more clearly, and I’ll keep trying to open my hands, unclench my jaw, and let go.
I wasn’t in a good cartooning mood yesterday. But I wanted to capture this quotation from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton, which I was reading. So I sat down and wrote it out, arranging the words on the page as if they were a poem. I started by writing the words in non-photo blue pencil, and inked them in afterward. I was quite sleep-deprived, and realized only later, when reading over my efforts, how many “typos” I’d made. So it wasn’t a good cartooning day. To cartoon, you need patience, focus, concentration. In keeping with my word of the year, I’m trying to pay attention to what manifests, in order to understand what’s underneath. In all honesty, I might not have noticed I was lacking those traits yesterday if I hadn’t tried to cartoon.
In conclusion, I need more sleep. I have been trying to get 7 hours of sleep each night, consistently; trying and failing, I must add. I’m addicted to early morning exercise. It’s my bliss. And that means getting to bed earlier. Which means turning off my phone earlier, and climbing into bed with a book. Like the one in which I found the words I felt compelled to record, above. But I confess it’s a hard habit to change — to read a book instead of scrolling though social media feeds. The latter offers the illusion of connection, and sometimes, in the case of Twitter, a steady stream of outrage that temporarily livens my brain; but also drains me of real purpose, or the desire to act in real, tangible ways.
When I read, especially fiction, I transcend the body I’m in and become familiar with other bodies, other realities, through immersive sensory perceptions. I see through other eyes. And in this exchange, I often feel seen, or feel able to see myself more clearly. That is how I felt reading the passage above: It says what I cannot.
Reading it, I wanted to write out the words so I could keep them in tangible form. The words called out from me a response. Which led me here. Which is, where, exactly? Sitting at my desk on a dull Saturday afternoon, the first day of February, my fingers smelling of peeled garlic, not vacuuming or cleaning the bathrooms, composing a small gathering of thoughts for release, winging out into the ether.
One final thought: I write fiction to know how others are, in large part because “I realize I don’t know how others are.” But one of the oddest things I’ve discovered while writing a collection of autobiographical stories, is that I also don’t know how I am. Fiction is a necessary construction, and sometimes it becomes a mirror. A fictional character, like Lucy Barton, can say what we cannot because as a projection of her author’s imagination she is elaborately protected from the particular dangers of human pain, and this makes her free, as a character, to reveal what our human minds protect us from most vigilantly — her ambiguities, confusion, contradictions, the places where she gets stuck, the ways in which she hurts others, her lies and her truths. We see her, and we see ourselves more clearly for a moment, too.
There are times, unexpected —
I’ve read some excellent books these past few months, all by women, mainly fiction. Most recently, I finished THREE WOMEN, by Lisa Taddeo, creative-non-fiction, and the kind of book a person wants to discuss afterward with someone else. In the absence of a book club, I bring my thoughts to you. (This is how compelling the book is: I was reading on the couch last weekend, sharing a blanket with my eldest daughter, when she suddenly said, “Wow that book must be good, Mom. You haven’t fallen asleep!”)
(Possibly related note: the book has a lot of graphic descriptions of sex. But in my interpretation, as you’ll see below, the sex stands in for desire more generally.)
THREE WOMEN is a book about women’s desire as examined through the lens of sexual desire(s) that our culture would call taboo. One woman defines herself as a submissive and has sex with other men and women while her husband watches or participates. One woman, in an almost-sexless marriage, has an affair with a former boyfriend after connecting on FB. One woman, as a high school student, was pursued by and sexually involved with a teacher, and when charges are pressed years later, the teacher is absolved and she is destroyed.
But she had already been destroyed. (This is not a spoiler; the book’s propulsive nature relies on exploration of character rather than plot.)
The most interesting section, for me, comes in the epilogue, when the author unpacks, most explicitly, the subject she’s been examining, and reveals that this particular desire she’s been exploring throughout is an exemplar for anything a woman wants—desire, generally.
Her mother, dying, has something she agrees to reveal to her daughter. Something she wants to tell her.
Are you ready? She asked me.
Yes, I said. I got close to her face. I touched her cheek. It was still warm and I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered.
Everyone, she said wearily, as though I had already missed the point. She added, Other women, mostly.
I thought it was the other way around, I said. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
That’s wrong. They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.
But who? I asked again. And what do you mean? You sound crazy.
Later, the author writes: “… we cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy.”
Finally: “There was a beauty in how little my mother wanted. There’s nothing safer than wanting nothing. But being safe in that way, I’ve come to know, does not inure you to illness, pain, and death. Sometimes the only thing it saves is face.”
So let’s talk about desire. Not sexual desire. Desire. Naming our hopes, our aspirations out loud.
Personally, I have trained myself to expect less, and perhaps also to want less, to make do with less, to make less a wonderful shelter, in a way, a goodness and righteousness, a way of life. I do believe, morally, in the ethic of more with less. But I also can see how lowering my expectations, and being afraid to name what I want (out loud or even quietly to myself) could make my whole life so much smaller. But if I name what I want, am I not guaranteeing I’ll never receive it? Jinx! Touch wood. I do this, when I accidentally state out loud something hoped-for.
In truth, I’m morally opposed to the idea of bottomless aspirational desire, of eternally needing and wanting more, which always seems to come at the expense of others. I disagree with inflicting harm on other people to favour one’s own pleasure. That is why the stories of two of the women in this book were more difficult for me to understand—acts of self-pleasure are rarely victimless. Can desire be healthy if acting upon it will damage those to whom we owe our loyalties and responsibilities?
I’ve been thinking about how comparing ourselves to others is a fast-track to misery. It’s a fast-track to bitterness, envy, and a form of self-loathing that we often turn outward on the object of our comparison. I fought these very feelings yesterday morning in a weight class at the gym, working out next to a woman who seemed effortlessly to wield weights heavier than mine, whose endurance was always greater than mine. My attention was divided, and I kept diminishing my own efforts, even while thinking things like: She must have more time to work out than I do, or even, It can’t be healthy to work out as much as she must, to be in such good shape. I also recognized, even as my thoughts ran in this direction, that any discontent I was feeling was so wholly not this stranger’s responsibility, but my own.
I wonder whether comparison whispers to us that we should have been wanting more all along, that our suppression of desire has cheated us somehow? Does it make us question our life choices? Recognize invisible alternate realities all around us that may already be closed to us?
Is our comparative envy perhaps also related to a scarcity of resources? For women, there is an extreme scarcity of resources around desire, success, and achievement. We have a very narrow window of acceptable achievement, and of the way to acceptably achieve. Naming our desires is not so straightforward. We have to be so careful not to name desires that would hurt others (as I said above), especially our children. We struggle, too, to claim our own successes. We work so hard to keep in balance all these pieces of ourselves — and our expectations for ourselves — that we inevitably fail on one important front or another.
We cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy. Is this a gift we could give to each other, especially as women? — admiration for each other’s strengths, in tandem with appreciation for our own.
Here I sit, Monday morning, trying to distill my thoughts into a package tidy enough to make sense. I’ve been reading “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” by Jenny Odell, which is not the type of book I usually manage to wade all the through; non-fiction seems to take me a long time to process, especially when it’s offering new ideas or new ways of looking at the world. Odell uses stories from her own life and experience to analyze different forms of attention, and different ways of being in community with others: with humans, with animals and birds, with ecosystems, with any animate or inanimate being that exists within our particular intersection of time and space.
Here’s a quote that jumped out at me, as I read this morning (Oh, yes, I’m trying to start every weekday/work morning by reading a book): “A community in the thrall of the attention economy feels like an industrial farm, where our jobs are to grow straight and tall, side by side, producing faithfully without ever touching. Here, there is no time to reach out and form horizontal networks of attention and support—nor to notice that all the non-“productive” life-forms have fled.”
Immediately, I thought of my life as a contract lecturer: how lonely it was. How, when I asked an administrator how many other contract lecturers there were at the university and whether there would be some way to reach out to others, to attempt to form a community, share stories (and possibly even to organize for better working conditions), I was told that no one knew how many lecturers there were, and that there was no easy way to identify and contact others who shared my situation.
How many people work jobs like this, now? Part-time, contract, isolated, without benefits or protection, jobs with no guarantee of future contracts, temporary, often with baffling administrative or online systems to learn and negotiate, no set hours, and workloads that creep outside the boundaries of what we’d thought we’d signed on for, our value measured by anonymous evaluations. “Producing faithfully without ever touching.”
It’s a recipe for burn-out. In my experience, it’s not a sustainable way to live a life. But this isn’t a post about disappointment. Because the next thought that came into my mind was how different life can be, if you have the ability (and privilege) to step away from “producing faithfully” and turn instead toward the networks of attention, support, and all the non-“producing” life forms that continue to exist. What am I willing to sacrifice in order to afford a different pace, a different way of being in the world?
Most obviously, I’m willing (and temporarily able) to sacrifice a regular paycheque. I’m willing to live with more risk, to invest time into projects that are underway or unfolding, but not yet profitable (and which may never be profitable). I’m willing to live with uncertainty. I’m willing to live in a nebulous zone of invisible productivity where others may not understand what I’m doing, or why. I’m willing to give up status and authority. I’m willing to *not* be too busy. I’m willing to say no. I’m willing to protect my time to go for walks, to read books, to draw, to write, as fiercely as I would any task deemed important or productive. I’m willing to work inefficiently.
Do I squander my time when I cook a meal from scratch? Is it a waste to go for a walk with the dog and notice trees, birds, other dogs, to stop and talk to neighbours out walking with small children and dogs? Is napping wasteful? I think most would agree that, no, these things are not wasteful; and yet, I feel a shame and guilt as I write this, because there are so many people expending their time and energy to do and achieve big things, or just to survive. Cooking, walking, resting, stopping seem like luxuries only a few can afford. I wonder: is that true?
One final thought, arising from this quotation: how necessary, how critical, how important to our survival as a species is the collective—the opposite of being alone, or being isolated from others who would both support and challenge us. Odell writes about how the self is not, in fact, a fixed property, even if algorithms may insist on its fixedness, and how boring life becomes when our likes and dislikes are made to seem predictable. In fact, we need to know and care about others who aren’t like us: to expand our understanding and empathy, to help us see in new ways, to live interesting lives.
Maybe that’s all I’m after: a life that interests me, not because it’s full of drama, excitement, glamour, but because its fundamentals are present to me in the smallest ways, the most mundane places, the simplest interactions. Fundamentals: birth, death, relationships, conflict, love, beauty, pain, the air, the ground, the sounds, my material self, the spirit. And so here I sit, recommitting to the responsibilities that I’ve decided matter to me; alone, but not feeling alone. Thinking of groups of people with whom I’ve formed bonds; thinking about what it means to be on a team; thinking about everything else, animate and inanimate, that is present with me in this time and this space.
Unrelated to this post, but worthy of an update via caption: our team won the cup final to cap off our season.
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