I sit down to write here, on the blog, and my mind goes round and round the purpose of this blog. I wonder why people are reading, perhaps, and why they may not be reading. I wonder why I am writing. Do I have something to say? Is my purpose to amuse, to inform, to muse, to form? Do I call out in hopes of a response? Am I launching quirky missives from an insular and isolated place? Am I writing as a writer, as a mother, as a seeker, as a knower? Am I writing to you? Or to me? Or to no one at all, to the ether?
I’ve come a long way on this path of being a writer. When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer like L.M. Montgomery or Lois Lenski. I wanted to be a writer like Emily of New Moon. I wanted create imaginary romantic worlds of adventure and mystery. As a teen, I was in love with language, and saw in it a violent risky potential. I wanted to write like Michael Ondaatje. I wanted to write barely coherent poetic scenes of romance and mystery and adventure. I didn’t care whether or not my stories or poems made sense, only that they burst with emotion and the fullness of self, perhaps. As an older teen and into my twenties, I wanted to write like Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. I wanted to craft brilliant sentences that both hid and displayed meaning, sentences that were as rich and big and complex as a whole story, characters whose motives were murky. I wanted to conjure worlds at a tilt from my own, veined and layered and dark.
And so I wrote and I read and I wrote and I read.
In some fundamental way, I refused to believe that I might not be a writer, someday. I willed myself to continue through years of small steps forward, and crushing rejections. I determined to improve. I determined to learn and to master the craft of storytelling. How to do this particular thing and do it well: how to tell a compelling story, not neglecting plot for style, not neglecting sentence structure for pace. I got better.
I got to where I am right now, here, sitting before this laptop, wondering, wondering. Do I still want to be a writer, so fiercely, so absolutely, so determinedly? Who do I wish to write like, now? Or, more importantly, perhaps, than I originally understood: what stories do I long to tell? And if I have no story that I long to tell, why craft the structure, why lovingly build the sentences? If the house is empty? (Is the house empty?)
Engagement is a key word of our era. That seems to me the purpose of social media. Anyone who wishes to earn attention, to market her work, must learn to engage with her audience, to maintain a call-and-response relationship, the bigger the better. It comes naturally to some, and less naturally to others. I put myself in the latter camp. Yet this blog is a form of engagement, whether or not I choose to see it that way. And when I recognize this and admit it, I become more and more uncomfortable as purveyor and publisher of posts. I cannot understand what I am doing, nor what my purpose may be. Is it, as originally intended when I started the blog in 2008, to narrate my every day life, to keep it in some form, and if so, for whom? For my children? For myself when I am older? Am I marketing my books? Practicing my craft? Indulging in cheap philosophy? Is this a publicly-kept journal?
Could I live without engagement? This specific form of engagement? (Silly question. Of course I could.)
Less, is the message that’s been coming my way. Not more, more, more, but less, less, less. For so long, I’ve fought to become more, to achieve more, to do more. I’ve worked toward big, specific goals and dreams. Now I’m confronted with this strange glimpse of myself, something I was afraid to see: I see that I will never write as wonderfully as I’d hoped to. I’m not possessed of a special gift. I’m a hard-working woman, that’s all, and I had a dream.
I’ve written that in the past tense without even noticing: and I had a dream. Strange. Isn’t it? Maybe the dream is shifting, deepening, altering course, becoming something else.
What now? What next?
Now: Life is strangely lovely at present. It is unexpectedly wonderful to hear less, less, less calling me. I feel myself relaxing into moments in a way that feels almost unfamiliar, unknown. I feel the pace changing. I feel myself at peace with what I have, right now.
Next? Being a writer isn’t something you quit. Writing is how I process the world around me; I’d be impaired without it. I continue to write, as always, but right now it’s a form of listening; without shape. I think my purpose is to listen, right now. I feel quiet. I feel a great deal of affection–of love–for those around me. The days are full, vivid, layered and veined and rich. I feel human. I feel flawed. I can’t think of anything I need or long for or crave, not even direction, right now. I feel present.
What I don’t feel is at an end with this blog. But I want to be honest about my ambivalence toward its purpose, and my use of it, at present. Thank you for listening.
PS Photos are from this past weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, taken after the sun went down, on the longest day of the year. Homework got burned, marshmallows got roasted and mushed between graham crackers, and the mosquitos almost won. Almost.
It’s actually been a difficult week. I’m on the periphery of two difficult recent losses, women gone too young, both taken by cancer; and wondering how, trying, hoping to support those friends for whom the loss is much much closer, terribly personal. I’m trying not to be paralyzed by the idea that a small gesture is too small, or to fear doing or saying the wrong thing; but I also want to acknowledge that it can be hard to know what to do or say in situations that fall outside of our normal every day interactions. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I wonder how many of us are paralyzed by the fear that we might do or say the wrong thing? Maybe that’s because it is easy to do or say the wrong thing. I think about what mattered when Kevin’s dad died seven and a half years ago, and remember that the questions and interest of people too many steps removed from the situation seemed callow and offensive, even when well-meant and kindly spoken. But the cards and casseroles were wonderful, no matter who they came from, and the presence of friends at the funeral really did help. So from this, I would observe that presence and a simple offering is far and away more valuable than trying to say the right thing. I remember another friend telling me (from personal experience) that the worst thing to say to someone who is grieving is “you must be feeling …” or “you must be so …” Just say, I’m sorry for your loss, he told me. Consider how common the “You must be …” sentence construction is and how often it gets applied to situations out of the norm. I wonder why. No matter the intention, it comes off sounding like the speaker is trying to dictate the ground rules for emotion. Thinking about everything I’ve written here, I’m coming around to concluding that to do is far more valuable than to say, in difficult times. After all, isn’t that our impulse when faced with someone else’s grief or loss: to do something. It’s just that we don’t always know what to do, what’s appropriate, what’s needed, what would help rather than add to the burden.
Perhaps some of you might be willing to share in a comment what words or (more likely) deeds helped you through a difficult time. And thanks for listening.
PS A link to an article in Slate magazine about a woman who designs empathy cards with messages she would have liked to have received during her cancer treatment.
“There’s a big white flower behind one of the stumps, Mom, I’ll show you.”
Dream: I am at a long conference table set up in my mother-in-law’s back porch. Two women sit at the other end of the table, conducting an interview about art for live national radio, but I’m just here because it’s a convenient place to work. Earlier in the dream I spent way too much time anxiously trying to figure out why my children missed the school bus; the children are everywhere, all around the house, when I know they should be in school. So I’m sitting here, trying not to be too obvious or interrupt the interview, trying to work. I think that my work is writing, but when I look down, it turns out that my work is chopping potatoes. End of dream.
Things I’ve done since 5:30AM yesterday: ran with a friend, helped children practice violin and piano, made supper in the crockpot, washed three loads of laundry, meditated twice, blogged, edited an essay, answered emails, texted with friends and family, picked up and dropped off kids for piano lessons, worked on novel while sitting in car between pick-ups/drop-offs, visited with a friend while at piano lessons, attended a soccer coaching clinic, had tea with husband (talking soccer, hockey, and Fun Things We Want To Do), read books and newspaper, listened to radio (news and songs), slept, did strength exercises. Waited. Hurried. Tried not to fight with time.
I think of time in blocks and chunks and sections. I think of myself as travelling between these blocks and chunks and sections and trying to negotiate the transitions as smoothly as possible, trying to settle in wherever I’m at and not resist what’s happening. But sometimes it feels like what I’m resisting is time itself. These chunks of time, this careful measuring of hours and minutes, calculating these small openings and anticipating these sudden slammings-shut gives me a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency is very helpful when working to complete a big project. But to enjoy being alive, to relish it, savour it, swim with it, you need to be flexible, you need to let go of the sense of urgency in the moments when urgency would only serve to make you anxious or frustrated.
Because life is full of many many tasks and events and rituals that are long slow dreamy, unrelenting, without obvious beginnings or endings, mundane, repetitive, completely necessary, or completely unnecessary, often lovely — not projects. Not artifacts. Just unmarked rivering moments in the flow of time. If there’s a balance I seek, perhaps it’s between these two states of being: the urgent efficient ambitious project-driven state of creating something new; and the flow of life as it unwinds through its time, through its here and now, and being here, present and without the need to make anything of it.
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.
[This is what I wrote in my “meditation journal” on Monday, March 16, which in Canada was the first official day of March break, when the kids get a week off school.]
photos in this post by AppleApple
It is the first official day of March break. The kids are doing an admirable job of entertaining themselves so far. AppleApple and I picked up dog poo in the backyard, two enormous bags’ worth. I know. Why even mention it? But it was my first act as my energy returned. The sun was shining, so that was nice. The melting poo was not nice, but the yard is a lot safer to walk in now.
My dad and stepmom are planning to take the kids on a maple syrup outing this afternoon. I’m trying to decide if I’m well enough to go along. I was hoping to do one fun activity each day of March break. I will put fun into air quotes. One “fun” activity each day!
Such as, movie at the Princess. Niko Niko’s for supper. The library. Yes, I include the library on my list of “fun” outings. Because I am nothing if not a “fun” Mom. Also because we have overdue books to return. Also because I love going to the library, although March break is not really all about me, is it.
“There were two little animals with horns on their heads, Mom!” CJ, age six, reporting
I should be doing work.
But I hardly slept last night, due to congestion in head and almost constant cough. I had to sleep half-sitting up. My throat was enormously sore when I woke at 1AM, though it seemed raw from the coughing, which was a different style of sore from the original soreness. Also, fever has gone. Energy is returning. So, good things are happening. For a few minutes this morning, I let myself lie flat in the bed, hoping I could rest better that way, but was soon sitting up with ears splitting. It felt like someone was pouring water into all of the cavities in my head, using a little spouted watering can to be sure to reach every crevice—which is probably a reasonable metaphor for what’s actually happening inside my head right now. The pressure is uncomfortable. The leaking from my nostrils is pathetic. My eyes stream. I cough.
I blow my nose.
I bore even myself.
Something is troubling me. I’m worried because I’m reading almost exclusively non-fiction right now. Why? Why read what I can’t write? Why do I want to express myself through fiction, and why is that what I’m better at?
I finished reading What I Think About When I Think About Running, and it’s so freaking simple that I wonder why the heck I couldn’t write a book like that? I liked it, very much, but I couldn’t understand why it had caught on.
There were two ideas in the book that I wanted to remember. I can’t remember either of them now.
Let me think.
“Aw, sweet brother picture!” “Actually, CJ was walking really slow, so Albus was pushing him along.” “Ah….”
The kids have been sitting around the table playing cards, but just now Fooey stormed off. She didn’t like that Albus was helping CJ to organize his cards. “You’re all a bunch of cheaters!” she yelled, and stomped upstairs. I tried to say soothing things from my position on the couch, but I have very little voice left. I was roundly ignored.
Now, from the upstairs come the persistent sounds of the Harry Potter theme song being played on the recorder.
The other three continue playing the card game.
I continue to type, with dog resting on my legs like she thinks I am a pillow.
The kids let drop on Saturday that Dad (i.e. Kevin) had been telling stories about “sick Carrie” while at my Dad’s for a pancake lunch, which I did not attend, in my contagious state. The kids were laughing about how I had given Kevin various instructions, in the middle of the night, for Important Signs that I Would Need To Go To the Hospital. “If I’m unconscious, don’t minimize it,” I told him. “If I can’t breathe, take me to the hospital. If I start to hallucinate, you have to promise to take me to the hospital.”
Apparently this was the cause of pleasant hilarity amongst Kevin and my wider family. I felt unreasonably hurt. Even though it was all true.
The kids have now all stopped playing cards and are being bored and annoyed around each other. CJ and Albus are still wearing pyjamas. CJ cries that he doesn’t want to change out of his pyjamas. I croak that he can wear his pyjamas to the sugar shack.
Now brothers are pushing each other while sort of playing with a soccer ball. I realize I have no voice available for effectively stopping children from harming one another, nor rallying them out the door.
I text Kevin.
Kevin texts back that he has found problem in most recent software changes, and needs to resolve them before coming home.
Okay, better take care of that.
Don’t worry, I’ll be here, ineffectually supervising children.
Dad calls to say he’ll be here at 2:30 to pick up kids. AppleApple talks because I no longer have working vocal cords. I want to call them vocal chords. But that’s not right, is it?
CJ gets dressed. Others do not. CJ relays Mom’s message to others to get dressed. Sound of doors slamming.
CJ comes down stairs. “Give me some ideas of what to do!”
“Read me a story,” I say.
He goes to get a story in French to read to me. Very cheerful.
I look up weather on Weather Network. It is 8 degrees, feels like 6. “That’s not cold!” says CJ.
“It’s not that warm either.” Thinking bush, thinking no sun, thinking I’m not sure how long this outing will be.
But I am not going. I can’t even talk. I used to lose my voice frequently when the kids were little. I wouldn’t even be particularly sick, but suddenly the voice would go, and be gone for several days. Very inconvenient. I was thinking in the night (night-time thinking = totally rational thinking, right?) that I get sick more often than other people I know. I wouldn’t be able to work a traditional job with an immune system like this. I have now been sick for seven straight days. I am in no state today to go into an office setting, or, say, do home visits with babies, or be a doula, or spend clinical hours with pregnant women. I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t teach yoga either, or even creative writing. I couldn’t conduct an interview. I couldn’t be on stage. Am I lacking in fortitude? How do other people do it? Or do they go to work sniffling and hacking and voiceless?
I even got my flu shot!
And yet I got the flu!
Kids are gone, all was oddly peaceful in the hour or so before they left, and now house is quiet, and they are going to see sugar shack, and I am free to cough rawly and blow my nose and leak mucus everywhere charmingly. Whatever am I going to do with this peace and quiet?
I know. I’ll look up the Kardashians. I’ve heard of them. But I have no idea who they are.
Well, that was one of the worst mistakes ever. I just didn’t know who they were. Now I do. And I wish I didn’t know so much.
First of all, I have to tell you that I’m still sick! (This is because, when I’m sick, I have to tell everyone! It’s a sickness in and of itself.) Here’s where I’m hanging out (see photo above): on the couch by the fire, with crocheted blanket, tea, lozenges, laptop, book, cellphone, and dogs. The dogs look like they’re in heaven. That’s nice, dogs. Happy snoring to you. I, however, am remembering how grumpy being sick makes me. Which is very. I also tend to take a melodramatic outlook, announcing at intervals how awful I feel, how lazy I feel, how pitiful I feel, and generally presenting as a less-than-lovely human specimen. My family puts up with it rather kindly, I must say, even if their reaction is to basically ignore my general pitifulness. Or gently mock me for it. Thanks, family. I mean that sincerely.
So I finally finished reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, which is a book about scientific discoveries (and the scientists who laboured, sometimes futilely, to discover verifiable facts about our planet, our environment, the origins of life on Earth, the chemical makeup of the universe, etc.). Excellent book, easy to read, lots of great stories, plus I felt like I was getting reacquainted with the teenaged self who really wanted to study biology and chemistry in university, if only those subjects could have been coordinated with an arts degree. (I couldn’t figure out how to do it.)
I’ve been using the word “anyway” a lot these past few days, as a handy segue. I think it indicates how little energy I have to spare. My throat is so sore, people!
Bill Bryson’s book ends with a devastatingly sad chapter, titled “Goodbye,” detailing the efficiently destructive ruin that homo sapiens have inflicted on other species who come into contact with us. We seem to be unique in our ruthlessness, and pointless destruction. When we show up, species vanish. So much of what makes us different from all of the other species of life on Earth — our consciousness that allows us to plan and remember and create communities and construct stories and share information and move easily across vast distances — is also what makes us a force deadlier than any other species that has ever existed. It’s like we were made to destroy. Looking at humans from this perspective is deeply sad. To counter my sadness, I think of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities, on the the front page of Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, saying, “We are in a world that is rather terrifying. People close ranks and hide behind their factions. There is great insecurity. … [And yet] it is possible for humans to live together as long as you let down the walls that separate you.”
Yes. I’m part of this species, of course. We all are. We’ve got this little window of time here on Earth to share with those around us. How to be more open, more vulnerable? How to do no harm?
I’m putting this couch-time time to good use! Reading a lot. Resting. Meditating (although this morning’s session turned into napping — dreaming). Writing a bit too. It’s not like I can’t do my job while lying on this couch. Well, this part of my job. This other part of my job, I can’t do while lying on the couch. See below.
terrible photo taken from current position on couch, using cellphone, which explains terribleness
This is just the first basket of two — clean laundry! — that look like this. I carried this one up to the dining-room table this morning in hopes that a) I would feel inspired to fold it and/or b) kids would arrive home from school and feel inspired to fold it. LOL. No, seriously. Do you think I can guilt them into folding it? It’s probably my parental duty to try. I realize that if I were a better parent, my children would already be trained to fold laundry themselves. Somehow, this hasn’t been the kind of parent I’ve turned out to be. Okay. I’m okay with it, actually. I can’t seem to fight against the tide of what matters to me, and what doesn’t.
Weekend! March break! Wishing all of you, all of us, everyone: Health!
PS After posting, I lay down and listened to a program that ran on Ideas this past fall, called “How To Do Ordinary Things.” You can hear Jean Vanier and others who work/live in L’Arche communities talk about freedom from fear, and being vulnerable not just in body (which I’m aware of right now), but also in relationships. Here’s a quote I wrote down while listening:
“Who will love me in my brokenness? …
To love someone is not to do things for people but to reveal to people who they are.” — Jean Vanier.