It’s okay to be okay.
Is it vulnerable to confess that I am happy, content, that I feel cherished and full of gratitude? It feels that way sometimes. Or it feels like I’m tempting fate. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone or it will get taken away. I wonder why. I wonder why there is pressure to confess only the misery and pain and missteps, as a signal of vulnerability and openness and being human, rather than the joy? But both are true of being human: we know joy and contentment too. I wonder why I would ever feel guilty for or superstitious about being content? Yet, it’s there. Like I’m bragging, maybe? Like I’m setting up a comparison that might make someone else feel less than? Like I deserve to be taken down a notch.
Be that as it may, I want to spread the word that it’s okay to be okay. It’s okay to be okay with all the feelings. It’s okay to ask for what you want. It’s okay to declare that you need a personal time-out to cool down. It’s okay to look around and say, hey, this is pretty sweet.
This morning, I created a word-storm. I invite you to do the same. The prompt is: WORDS THAT FEED ME.
Useful, worthwhile, care, purpose, value, meaningful, attention, calm, observant, responsive, kind, fun, joyful, clear, open, wonder, curious, grace, gratitude, improvisation, generosity, spirit, longing, prayer, adventure, trust, serve.
To each of these words, an image or images attach.
USEFUL: I’ve struggled with this word, yet it comes to mind first. It’s connected to WORTHWHILE, VALUE, SERVE. My Mennonite words. Is spending a year drawing cartoons useful? Well, who is to say it’s not? I’m beginning to learn with my whole body that useful is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe I drew cartoons for a year in order to become the person that I am right now: someone who values PLAY and creativity in others, and knows how to make space for it. It’s okay to be okay — I don’t need to apologize or explain to anyone why something is or has been useful to me. TRUST.
CARE: I love this word. I have a friend who always calls me “Care Bear.” It was my childhood nickname too, bestowed on me by my brother, who is the king of nickname-bestowing (it’s a gift!). CARE is connected to MEANINGFUL, ATTENTION, WONDER, CURIOUS, GENEROSITY, SPIRIT. I’m learning that it’s okay to be okay with caring deeply; but I’m also learning how to set boundaries, so my care doesn’t swamp me, or burn me out. CARE can be expressed in so many ways. I don’t want my care to burden the people about whom I care. That’s where boundaries come in: knowing what’s mine to offer, and what’s mine to leave be.
PURPOSE: Here’s where PURPOSE comes into it. I am beginning to accept that my PURPOSE is most mysterious. It’s not for me to decide or drive toward or push into. What I’m making isn’t CLEAR while I’m making it. This is true of any writing project — I know this is my very bones — but it’s also true of the project of being alive, being human. You don’t know what you’re making while making it. When I’m writing, I lean into the mystery, I let myself be led, I follow what makes me WONDER, what makes me CURIOUS. I chase the energy that’s playing with me. What I’m making is not static, and it doesn’t require me to bring it to life: it’s animating me in return, or animating my imagination. Why not apply this sensation of ADVENTURE, of exploration, of following where you’re being led to real life too? When something brings me energy and delight, when I revel in what I’m doing, then I know: this is my PURPOSE.
It’s funny how we tell ourselves that we need to know our PURPOSE in advance — to set goals, and be useful, and climb the mountain, and use our gifts to the fullest. When no — we need to be comfortable not knowing. As in writing, we don’t get to decide the outcome. Leave that to someone else. Or leave it alone altogether and don’t give it another thought.
GRATITUDE: This is the this. But I don’t want to force it. I can’t really force it. To be in a GENEROUS mindset is to know GRATITUDE. Then it’s impossible not to give thanks for the GRACE that speaks in many voices. I do think this can be a practice, though. I notice myself saying thank you more and more frequently, in funny ways, too. Thank you, plant, for not dying even though I’ve forgotten to water you! Thank you, weary body, for getting me through this day. Thank you, brain, for keeping me safe in busy traffic. Thank you, heart, for beating all these beats. You know? And then this thankfulness spills everywhere, over everything and everyone.
KIND: Hey. It’s also okay to not be okay. That’s the kindest thing you can say to yourself, and to those around you. Let yourself RESPOND to the situation that’s unfolding, and you will be KIND.
FUN: For me it’s so much fun to be CURIOUS, to WONDER, to IMPROVISE, to PLAY, to RESPOND. Your FUN recipe will be totally different from mine. It’s WORTHWHILE experimenting with your own ingredients. You’ll know it when you feel it. It feels easy, light, delightful. You will laugh at yourself a lot. You will be patient and relaxed and gentle. You will be JOYFUL. Those around you may sense your joy and feel freed to respond in kind. It’s possible.
It’s okay to be okay.
You bring light. Say it to yourself. How does it feel?
The words came into my mind during a recent morning meditation and lit me up from the inside out.
My word of the year is not LIGHT, though I considered it. It is not EASE or FREE, though it could be. My word for 2023 is NEED. Beneath the word is another word that’s been guiding me, too: ONE. Too many words? But really, just one. Just one word to respond to any given moment. Just one goal. Just one purpose. What do you need? What does this situation call for? What need is not being met that may be preventing you from being wholly yourself in the world? And as important! What needs are you meeting wonderfully well right now?
I am also playing with the concept of the “joy snack,” which can be savoured in little bites throughout the day. Listen to a podcast on the subject (from the Washington Post). Your “joy snacks” are your own, they’re personal, and they’re small, and they just need to be noticed in order to exist. They’re probably already happening, whether you know it or not. For me, I have a “joy snack” every morning when I do a silly aerobic warm-up in the kitchen, usually in my pjs, after brushing my teeth and before doing anything else. It takes between 2-4 minutes and never fails to give a sweet little boost to my mood.
I’ve been thinking about what matters — to me. Not to anyone else, not to an imaginary host of external projections. But to me. The core, the centre, the oneness of myself. This could be misused, to be sure, or misconstrued as selfish, but could it really be selfish to care about how you feel, inside your own body, inside your own mind? What matters? I’m the one living inside this body. My time is finite here on earth, inside this experience of being me, in the world. So it’s worth checking in: What do I care about? Do I really know? Am I living in my body, in this world, in ways that make me feel good, whole, content?
What activities and actions and experiences and routines help me feel good, whole, content? What leaves me feeling empty, anxious, drained? As I explore what I FEEL (last year’s word), I gain clues to what I NEED.
I’m learning so much at my new job in schools (and in parallel, by teaching creative writing again, too).
I NEED to feel purposeful. I NEED to be with people. I NEED to understand my role. I NEED clear boundaries around my responsibilities (either clearly set out for me in a given context, or clearly set out and articulated by myself, which is much much harder to do). I NEED recognition for work done. I NEED dignity in my work. I NEED to live in alignment with my values. I NEED laughter, playfulness, connection.
It’s funny, but as I experiment with this new job, which takes me into different environments, often several different work cultures in any given week, I’m learning like a sea sponge. And I’m positively alight with discovery. I might be doing a task like putting labels on student records, and I’ll feel a giddy leap of joy — this is so satisfying, I’ll laugh to myself! Who was telling me all along that I needed to do something big or visible or large-scale to feel purposeful? It must have been me. And it was making me so unhappy, believing this about myself, because I couldn’t ever reach my own ridiculously outsized expectations for what I was supposed to be achieving. How amazing to discover that I feel purposeful doing small repetitive tasks that take focus and patience, and that almost no one will notice, except that important information will be available in an organized fashion when they come looking for it later. And that matters to me!
Same with recognition — the scale is unimportant. How did I not know this about myself? Recognition that satisfies my need is wholly about connection. When a connection is been made, between me and someone else, my heart soars with joy. When I sense that trust has been established, even very tentative or brief, I feel recognized. I hope the other person does too. Trust is mutual. So is recognition.
And I’m revelling in this discovery (re-discovery?) that I love being with people. I spend the day responding to other people’s requests, needs, and directions, and leave bursting with energy. I am not drained by this work. Quite the opposite. How is this possible? I’d assumed I was an introvert, but it turns out the thing that’s been draining me, in a lot of my other work, isn’t people, it’s having a role that isn’t clearly defined, or that requires of me responsibility without power, or just a ton of decision-making while having to invent and reinvent my boundaries. When I know what’s required of me, I am relaxed and at ease, no matter how chaotic the situation, no matter the complexity of the needs being presented. It’s the not-knowing what my role is — what the limits of my role are — that’s exhausting.
Can I apply what I’m learning to other parts of my life?
It remains to be seen. But I’m excited to keep learning and exploring, and enjoying.
And labelling files, alphabetizing books, and filling in where called and needed.
My goodness. What a year, what a season.
Boundaries are love!! a friend texts me.
Another friend helps me dig into my worry that writing has served as a form of therapy, lo these many years, and with medication now lowering my anxiety to levels previously never experienced, I wonder, will writing still come to me, will I still feel the urge if it’s not an obsessive impulse?
I am collecting the wisdom of the sisterhood. I made my birthday (December 29th) into an opportunity to connect and confer and laugh and reunite and relax with friends and family, near and far. In fact, the whole of this holiday season has been about this: connection, and ease. Sleep when tired. Rest when the stomach flu takes you down. Let someone else (Kevin! Angus!) cook the big turkey dinner. Bake in concert with kids and kids’ friends. Knead sticky bun dough for a good half hour while listening to a meditation. Walk through the snow storm. Snuggle the dog. Savour the warmth. Sing carols and hymns for hours. Be clear of mind. Drink in the kindness of others. Pour out what you can. Invite. Delight. Say yes, and thank you, and welcome, and thank you, and eat till you’re filled to the brim.
I’ve often been more reflective on birthdays past. This birthday, I chose to socialize all day long.
Can a woman contented with her life still be a writer? I woke up this morning and thought: I wouldn’t trade this contentment, this inner peace and delight that flickers with promise and hope, in order to write another book. But why am I building a case for either / or? Surely there are other paths in. I could argue as effectively that I’ve written books in order to be published, as some kind of proof of belonging, or proof of a longed-for identity (though that’s not how belonging works, nor grounding in identity; another hard-won revelation this year).
I’ll be teaching creative writing again this winter, and I’m interested in exploring what writing feels like now, again, anew; what feeds the urge to create; what sates it; what can I learn with / from my students?
If I’m not writing to ease my anxiety … if I’m not writing in order to be published … what sparks the desire to write a-whole-nother-book? It’s gruelling work that doesn’t quite make sense, as those close to me have observed — the effort I put into draft after draft can’t be paid off in the resulting novel. Effort and result are disconnected; even, I’d argue, unrelated. I’ve experienced book-writing as a painful process, I guess I’m confessing. It hasn’t made logical sense, not from a financial perspective, nor from an artistic perspective either, really; which is why I’m curious to know: will I still be able to make a beautiful book, with alive characters, built on an elaborate structure I see in my head, if I’m not obsessed, or in pain, or seeking to soothe deep anxiety? I’m hopeful. I am.
And I’m willing to shed all ambition to be a person with delight in her voice, and love in her throat, and patience in her bones.
What a wild experiment this living is.
What a lucky woman I am, to get to live in concert on this planet with so many wise, kind, generous spirits and friends. What a wonderful year this has been of feeling intensely (gratitude, shame, pride, uncertainty, clarity, anger, delight and so much more) and of paying attention to what the feelings are telling me; of making mistakes and being forgiven; and of seeing Francie in the world. The feeling I’m feeling right this very second is GRATITUDE! I’m thankful for a new job that brings me satisfaction and delight (as a temporary secretary / library clerk in the public schools); and for everyone who loves me as I am, a mess of flaws and inadequacies and intentions and goofiness. I carry you somewhere inside me, everyone who’s walked even a step with me on this path. Thank you for letting me give, when and what I could, and thank you for the gifts you offered me, whether I deserved them or not. I am a grateful, humbled recipient.
Please forgive me the times I let you down, or was too inward-looking to notice what you needed; or stuck in my own head, or protecting my pride. (I’ll forgive myself too; I’ll try.)
Boundaries are love!! Do I know what this means? I’m learning / unlearning, but I get it muddled often enough to cause pain.
Well. I’m human. Let’s all be human together. We’re so interesting and strange and difficult and curious. But we’re not disappointing! Not really, not truly, with a shift of perspective.
Wishing you time for reflection and / or fun as you look toward a whole new year.
My word this year has been FEEL. On Friday evening my word group chose photos that represented our word, and cut them apart and put them back together again. I chose two: one showed a young girl standing in a creek, exploring, and the other a group of people dancing at a party.
FEEL has been a complicated word to explore. Do I trust my feelings? Shove them down? Give them too much prominence? Misinterpret them? Feelings are transitory, embodied experiences. What are my feelings telling me? A revelatory moment came this fall when I told a friend (who is also a life coach) that I was trying not to be angry, even though that was the main feeling that kept emerging; she said, oh no, bring that anger, feel it, it’s got a message for you. Our feelings, she said, tell us what our needs are.
So I learned: If I’m angry, a need is not being met. It might not be a terribly obvious need. It might be a need I don’t even recognize as valuable. It might be a need I’ve been trained not to pay attention to. It might be a need that traces all the way back to childhood. You know? It’s messy in here. It’s a jumble.
So both photos seemed to capture FEEL — ever-shifting. I felt wild at times this year, out of control, swinging to emotional heights, careering to dangerous lows (more the former than the latter–but still unsettling). The people dancing freely represented this wildness. Yes, I’ve felt unsettled. No amount of advance preparation or knowledge or planning could shift what came at me, poured through me, but as the year progressed, I got more comfortable with that. Comfortable with being unsettled. Or, perhaps more accurately, comfortable exploring the sensation.
What is my body telling me?
I’ve been jumping into the stream, getting wet, getting muddy. That’s the childlike aspect of this past year: I’m exploring more like a child would, in terms that could seem simplistic or naive, not necessarily in an organized or well-planned way, just doing it. Doing what comes naturally, doing what feels right. It’s active. I wouldn’t say I’ve been impulsive, but I have let myself do things I didn’t, before. I’ve let myself do things that I enjoy, just because. No explanation needed.
One of my needs is recognition. (I don’t like this need, but ignoring it won’t make it disappear.) This year, I’ve discovered that the recognition I crave doesn’t need to be elaborate, or large-scale, or noticeable to anyone else. Recognition could be a kid excited to discover a soccer book I’ve placed prominently on a library shelf. I’ve realized, too, that the people who care about me don’t need me to achieve “great” things, they’re delighted when I’m happy, that’s all, as I am for them. I’ve put too much emphasis on achievement, is what I’ve recognized. External recognition has been a hole to be filled, affecting my life choices; it’s still there, but now I know it’s there, and I can find different ways to satisfy that need.
I have loved this year, in all its messiness.
I have loved feeling my feelings, listening, giving them freedom to wing loose. What is this feeling telling me? I pause to wonder, rather than judging it for being negative or ugly or inappropriate. Is it an old feeling, rising from an old pattern? Is this feeling my own, or am I confusing it with someone else’s?
One last discovery this year: my voice. That one session with the vocal cord physio last spring was unexpectedly revelatory. I discovered that my voice can be loud and strong! But at the very same moment, I realized that I hated hearing my voice speak loudly — I felt my feelings: embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, uncomfortable. What on earth? Think about what those feelings were telling me, and how deep they must go: I actually find it painful to put into words.You have nothing to say. You will embarrass yourself if anyone hears you. It’s safer this way: Keep quiet.
I had no idea my body believed this. Once I had this valuable information, I could address it, actively. My feelings were trying to tell me: pay attention! For your voice to be strong, dig down into the roots of this belief. Is it true? Do you really believe that it’s true? And if not, counter it by practicing those vocal cord exercises, practice walking around the house speaking loudly, even if you feel silly. Practice till it feels natural and right.
And that’s what I did. And there was a shift. And that’s what this year has been.
Yesterday morning, walking the dog, I noticed the absence of a particular feeling that is usually with me, almost all the time: anxiety. It was just … gone. It’s absence was astonishing. I have become so accustomed to making it through my days while pushing against its tide. To tell the truth, it had come to seem entirely feasible that my anxiety has been integral to my personality and character, and that what I’ve accomplished in my writing career in particular was thanks to this undercurrent, almost ever-present, of anxious driving energy.
What did its absence mean? Would I still be myself, without a lingering certainty that something was going to wrong, that I was going to make a mistake? It’s what I’ve been pushing against, for years, I think. Its nervous buzz has motivated me to devote myself to yoga, meditation, journaling, running, and all the other lovely activities I enjoy so very much, and which feed me. There is not doubt they feed me. And, I realize, they feed me with or without anxiety’s hum running through my body.
I did a slow flow yoga on Tuesday night that was positively blissful, and in which I felt no pressure (interior or exterior) to do anything in any particular way, except to follow what felt good.
Here’s the funny part about this absence of anxiety: I have lots going on right now that could legitimately cause me to fret, stew, and otherwise send me into a spiral. And instead, I’m diving headlong into unknown territory, feeling a strange and unexpected delight. It reminds me of the change I experienced this summer, when the cold water of the lake seemed to call to me, come in, come in, this is quite wonderful! And it was! I’ve gone years avoiding lake swimming altogether because the water was too cold, and I “hate” being cold.
Except, I don’t. Or not anymore. I think it’s wise to check in from time to time with those stories we’re telling ourselves, about who we are. I “hate” talking on the phone. Except I don’t. I like not knowing who will be on the other end when I pick up, and what they might need, and how I might be able to help them in some small way.
I’m working a new job (started last week), and I’ve thrown myself into the deep end. It’s been oddly soothing to see myself differently, again. To find comfort with discomfort, joy with challenge, discovery with each new environment explored.
I’d forgotten my adventuring self. She was there all along.
A friend has offered to redesign the banner on my website to remove the title “Obscure CanLit Mama,” which no longer fits so well. On a hot August morning in 2008, I titled the blog on a whim, and began sending out posts to the universe. My youngest was newborn. He’s now in high school. In those early days, I wrote a lot about the kids. I posted recipes and meal plans. I wrote about juggling constant stay-at-home childcare with attempts to steal even a smidgen of writing time. I’d published one collection of short stories, four years earlier. It seemed presumptuous to attach myself to CanLit as a participant (even an Obscure one). The Mama was the ascending identifying force in my life at that time.
I haven’t posted a recipe in a very long time.
I don’t write about my kids, except glancingly.
These days, I come here, to this familiar space, to reflect mostly on writing, but also on what seem to me to be ephemeral, spiritual matters: aging, artistic discipline, setting routines, learning new things, re-learning old things, the repetition of the seasons, creative practices, play, emotional weather / weathering emotions. Etc.
In the 14 years that this blog has existed, I’ve poured energy into being a writer, laying claim to that identity, earning grants, publishing three more books, teaching creative writing, organizing writing workshops, serving as a consulting editor with The New Quarterly, speaking, travelling, practicing the craft, seeking to keep my connection to my writing alive and thriving.
Obscurity is a self-effacing mindset (erasing? shrinking? minimizing? hiding?). I know that. But it was necessary protection as I tried to become / be a writer. I’ve been afraid of being a writer, of laying claim to this identity and its shifting cultural responsibilities. Since childhood, I’ve wanted to perform magic tricks with language, to conjure imaginary landscapes, converse with imaginary people, finding solace in their losses and successes. I did not aspire beyond that — that was a big-enough dream. I knew my writing wouldn’t be activist in nature, because I am not an activist by nature. I’m a ventriloquist, an observer, a performer, agnostic, hungry to learn, curious about the questions, less-so the answers, the mystery, not the proof.
It’s a rather exalted view of being a writer. Or maybe I mean ecstatic. Or impractical. But I admire it, I love what my former self was attempting.
I dipped into The Juliet Stories this morning, a book now ten years old, and the writing sang off the page, just like magic. I couldn’t remember the person who’d written it. It was like reading a stranger’s words. Did I know then what I’d made? No. I didn’t trust its worth. I didn’t need to. I just kept trying, year after year, focused on the writing, and eventually made something.
I want very much to be that same writer, to write with confidence, believing in the magic of language. “You know it’s not the same as it was”: this song came on my “Run Fast” playlist this morning (oh Harry! so nostalgic); maybe “As It Was” especially resonates in These Times, when we’re trying to remember who we were Before. But life is lived in the present, and time carries us onward. We change; and experiences change us. It’s not the same as it was. That’s a neutral statement, at heart. It doesn’t have to weigh heavily, though it’s tempting to roll around in those deliciously bittersweet emotions.
What’s next? What path am I running, where does it lead? I can’t see very far ahead of my feet. Whose hands am I holding? What’s pulling me onward?
What kind of a writer am I now? What kind of a writer do I aspire to be? Do I need to know? No. As Lynda Barry would remind me: it’s none of your business. Follow the energy, get comfortable in the not-knowing.
I don’t have a new title for this blog, just my name. Enough? Enough. Yes.