If I were to write a blog post today, I would reflect on the past five days of utter solitude, days during which I rarely spoke out loud; there were several days when I spoke to no one in English. I read, I noodled, I listened to podcasts and surfed the news, emailed Kevin, ate pretty good food, kept to a reasonably regular routine, wrote and edited the museum piece, and went for several runs and many more walks.
I was not bored.
I was not even particularly lonely, except for the morning when I woke up with a raging bladder infection. Good thing I carry antibiotics with me in case of such an occurrence. Yes, that morning I was lonely and in pain and felt far from home and prone to worst-case-scenario thinking, but even that morning, I understood that I was self-sufficient and knowledgeable enough to cope with the unexpected crisis.
During these five days of solitude, I haven’t been lonely, I haven’t been bored, and I haven’t been restless either, not restless of mind or body. The body has taken care of itself. I’ve gone for long walks, and finally on Sunday felt a twinge of anxiety that whispered — you need to sweat! So I went for a run, and ran and ran and ran on the beautiful trail, discovering only afterward that I’d gone nearly 9 km, the longest and least painful run in many many months. Today, I ran again, pushing even further as I could feel my body beginning to trust that it would be okay: nearly 11 km. How joyous it is to run without pain; I’ve been injured for so long that I’d forgotten the joy of pushing against the ordinary discomforts and limitations of a body being asked to run — breath, heart, muscles, endurance. Running with a chronic injury you feel all these limitations, but you feel also a terrible dread that springs from pain from a different source, pain that whispers, Are you doing yourself damage?
For the month of March, my theme was health. This month, it would seem natural to name my theme: travel. But strangely, I think instead it’s: paying attention. The theme has arisen because I am travelling, and also because I am alone. What I’ve been paying attention to are my own interests, whims, rhythms, appetites, and desires. How often in a person’s daily life does an opportunity like this present itself? I’ve fantasized over the years about going on writing retreats in the middle of nowhere, and someone told me about a retreat where you do yoga and ride horses (not at the same time) that sounded fabulous, and a couple of years ago my mom did a silent retreat that intrigued me. But the risks seemed too great (the risk of it being a waste troubled me), especially given the heavy load of responsibility I’d be leaving on Kevin’s shoulders while away. So I never pursued these ideas.
I didn’t pursue this trip, either. It just landed in my lap, and because it was work-related, I said yes.
I thought I was saying yes, in part, to a writing retreat. I was excited to see what I would make with all this free time. (And I’ve made something interesting and specific related to the Museum’s exhibit, but it belongs here, and will stay here.) Why am I not writing my new novel? I thought, as the week went on. I tried, but the words felt dead. Yet the words, here, in my daily meditations and on my blog, these words felt alive. They interested me. And so I’ve been writing after all, just not the material I’d pencilled into the schedule.
Something else happened as the week went on. I stopped panicking about what I was not doing. I stopped worrying about what I should be doing. I started paying attention to what I wanted to do.
I wanted to read. So I’ve been reading: a David Sedaris essay collection (which has a story set in Normandy, as it happens); Ali Smith’s brilliant novel How to be both that somehow merges the world of a 15th century painter with a British teenager from the now, and weirdly also happens to be a book about sitting and looking at paintings, which I did not know when I chose it for this trip; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, on black bodies in Amercian history and the present, which challenged me, moved me to tears, and has inspired me to think differently about Dreamers and Dreams (and he’s going to be in Rouen THIS SATURDAY at the same bookstore where I had an event on Thursday, and I must figure out how to go, because, honestly, how is that even possible?); and now I’m trucking through Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I wanted to write. So I’ve been writing. Mostly things like this. Scraps. Ephemera.
I wanted to rest. So I’ve been resting.
Most of all, it seems, I’ve been resting my mind.
It’s taken exactly 13 days of rest to recognize that I may already be writing what I’m supposed to be writing. I am writing what has come to me, which is all we can ever do, when we’re trying to make something out of what we love and believe.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ve been anxiously searching for purpose down dead ends, without seeing what is open before me. Wide open, like that field at the end of our street when I was a child in Managua, with its dusty path and matted grass and garbage and crumbling concrete walls — the place my mind travelled to when I wrote the phrase: open before me.
I will probably never be content, exactly, with what I’ve made. But maybe, just maybe, I can be content with what I’m doing.
P.S. Just thought of my word of the year: PEACE. Yes.
There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged.
What I’ve enjoyed about this experience in France is being given something to do, an assignment, a commission. It gives me purpose and direction. In my usual writing life, I am the sole source of my purpose and direction. I have to propel myself toward something no one else can see and when the work is done I have to convince people to care. It takes a lot energy. The pleasure of this commission is that I’ve been asked to do something, and I’m doing it, to the best of my abilities. It’s up to the Festival to convince people to care about what I’m making, just as they invented the goal. It takes so much weight off.
My sense, as I’ve worked, is of being at play, in a playful and free state of mind, digging in, like a child with a wad of modelling clay having just been told: go ahead and get messy!
When I am busy and rushing around, I imagine that what I want is to be still, to do nothing. But here I am, today, with nothing pressing to do, well-rested, in a state of quiet and relaxation, and it is almost as if I’ve come to a stop and can’t begin again. The idea that we will get to do whatever we want in our state of needing-to-do-nothing ignores that it is a state that requires some force to exit. I think I sense this in my every day life, that it is easier to keep going than to stop and recalibrate. Now is my chance to recalibrate, now that I am at a stop, and it’s up to me to decide what that means.
Today, I went for a run on the trail by the river where I’ve been walking almost every day. What a good choice it was to run, as I knew it would be. The air was sweet, the wind was cool, it was sunny, I got a good sweat going, I made myself work on some stretches and let myself go easier on others. I heard songbirds, and saw the green popping out faintly on the trees, and my thoughts came calmly and clearly.
I thought about doing rather than thinking. How important it is to do. To do is to be. I’m proudest of myself and most satisfied with my life when I am active, involved, taking risks, in the public space, using my body, along with my mind. My idlest and least productive times have been when I’ve had “all the time in the world,” or “nothing but time.” During those seasons (winter, age 19; fall, age 23), I tried to write and produced nothing; more nothing than at any other time in my life. For example, as soon as I got a job, age 24, I started to write again. Another example: I started to write Hair Hat as soon as I’d given birth to my eldest, but not during the months of relative idleness before. That says to me something quite profound: that my being a writer is not dependent on having grand expanses of free time. It may even be dependent on the opposite, on being squeezed for time because life is so interesting and full, and I’m doing so much, and then in reverence and thanks can I come to a quiet space and write, in a way that feels crucial, important, necessary. If I could go around the planet working on commissions like this, I would; but this is unique, this is grace.
Something came to me while I was running — running past a ramshackle farmhouse with a red attic door and orange brick outbuildings, running past a field of bright yellow blooms, running under a row of fat-trunked trees with bird-shit splattered on the pavement below them — I thought, in order to write I must have something to say, and I’ll only have something to say if I have something to do.
I need to do.
If I want to be the writer that I want to be, I need to do more … but what? … than write.
I tell you, spend a little time on your own and you start to develop a picture of yourself that is not that flattering. Do you know what I’ve done for the last hour? I’ve eaten a chocolate croissant, watched a bunch of HIGH-larious and/or weep-inducing videos on FB, and drunk a small glass of white wine (Reisling, from the Alsace region, purchased for less than $6 at a nearby supermarket). To tell the truth, I’m feeling pretty happy. I’m wearing my new sweater, which I purchased earlier this evening in a small boutique up the street, because I didn’t bring sweaters and it turns out that spring in France is chilly, like spring everywhere, really, except back home in Canada where apparently spring is winter, and there’s literally a foot of snow on the ground.
If I were to live alone …
Well, first of all, I would start talking to myself. Out loud. Loudly. Everywhere. With dramatic emphasis and an occasionally nagging tone, and a lot of swearing. In the second person. As in “you.” That sweater is totally you, I mean, it’s practical and it’s warm and it’s a nice colour, plus you got it for a deal. Nicely done, Carrie!
Oh, and the conversation would be banal. Even the swearing would be banal, as it would refer to the tiny irritations that come from doing every day tasks alone, like opening bottles of wine with cheap corkscrews. I worked my way in, but by God, it was touch and go for a few minutes.
Have I mentioned I’m in a new town, where I’m staying in a small flat? Louviers is about an hour and a half south of Dieppe. I arrived here on Sunday. I’ll be here for most of the next two weeks. I assumed I would want to write all the time. But I spent this morning writing at the museum and was completely spent by lunchtime—emptied out, emptied of words, emptied of the desire to process ideas. So this afternoon, I went for a long walk. There is a beautiful walking path beside the river, paved, and it goes for miles and miles between all the little towns in this region. I thought I would use the walk to think about things, but instead I just walked, as one does, and watched the families on bicycles and roller blades and scooters, and saw some swans and ducks, and a lot of dog turds. You really have to watch out for dog turds (I told myself, as I walked along).
The other thing I’ve taken to doing is hanging around outside the tourist office, which is fortuitously nearby. The wifi in my flat can’t be coaxed into working with my phone, so if I want to text or upload photos, I simply stand outside the tourist office and borrow their free wifi. I do feel like a bit of deviant or thief as I nonchalantly lean on the bricks between the windows, hunched over the screen of my phone, but I’m like a junkie for the wifi; I can’t get enough. I guess I could go inside, but there really isn’t anywhere to sit: it’s just a woman behind a desk with a shelf of brochures, and I’ve already taken several maps. I think the woman behind the desk is beginning to wonder about me. Tonight, after purchasing the sweater and the chocolate croissant, I stood outside the tourist office and texted Kevin while watching three young men fish in the river, a few metres away. I stayed for awhile, missing home, enjoying the happily timed back and forth conversation with my husband.
I wonder what this town will look like to me when I’ve been here for two weeks. Already its winding narrow streets are beginning to map themselves in my mind.
There is a hookah bar directly across the street from my flat. Also a Turkish kebab shop—two, in fact—a pizzeria, and a “Flanders-style” bar. When it starts to get dark, I close the shutters. Closing the shutters involves opening the windows, which look like huge doors and are level with the street. When they’re open, I could high-five strangers walking by on the sidewalk, not that I’ve tried. Then I unfold the shutters, pull them in, and close the latch, and shut the windows, and sit in my suddenly dark flat and see myself for who I really am.
Last night, at Fooey’s dance class I read an article in The Atlantic about the benefits of changing careers in mid-life, or, more accurately, the health benefits of doing something new and difficult and challenging, forcing the brain to learn new skills and patterns. Coincidentally, yesterday I also spent over an hour filling out a career-profile questionnaire at the University of Waterloo’s career site, which asked me to reflect on six “pride” moments in my life, and what skills I’d needed to achieve those; I filled it out thinking I would make an appointment with a career counsellor and get some professional advice on the subject, but the results were so baffling that it stopped me right there. The quiz claimed I was investigative and would be suited to careers like doctor, dentist, accountant, actuary, and a bunch of other jobs that didn’t sound like me at all. I was also entrepreneurial, and careers in that area include sales and marketing, publicity, human resources, which, let’s be honest here, are definitely not me. I scored extremely low in the areas that include work I’ve actually pursued: writer, artist, teacher, and coach.
I had to laugh. The quiz seemed so pointless. The results indecipherable, meaningless. Yes, I’m curious and organized, I’m a risk-taker and I’m logical, I’m assertive and introverted, I’m intuitive and practical, I like helping people and being independent.
(At this point, you may be wondering: why, Carrie? Why are you taking quizzes on mid-life career changes? And for that, I have no answer.)
Upon reflection, the quiz’s results were rudimentary, but the process itself was useful and perhaps revealing. In analyzing it myself (and I do like analysis), here’s what I observe: my “pride” experiences revolve around learning new things. Learning how to swim: I rated learning to swim at age 35 as my highest pride story. Learning how to coach. Learning how to teach. My other pride moments were watching and helping my children learn new things, gathering a group of friends to write together, and when The Juliet Stories was named a finalist for the GG’s, which was a moment that I felt (and feel) I could claim no credit for, yet was nevertheless a moment of enormous pride.
Another theme that I noticed: I love doing physical tasks. I love using my body. I love playing and coaching soccer. I love boot camp. I love walking and running. I love yoga. I loved cycling. I love doing these things alone and with others. Even when I’m injured, I’m physically confident and strong. It brings me great pleasure to move.
I also like helping people, and I like connecting people. I like working with kids. I like being playful. I like shared experiences, such as singing, game-playing, puzzle-making, eating together, gatherings.
In a similar vein, I cherish coming through something meaningful with someone else. It’s what I loved about being a doula. I was able to walk through an intense emotional and physical experience with someone else in a way that was respectful, caring, and supportive.
I don’t know what career these skills and interests are suited to, but I’m quite sure it isn’t an accountant.
My question is: is it a writer?
The Atlantic article suggested that the career change need not be drastic, it may be a matter of adapting one’s career in some way; learning something new but in the same field. The woman writing the article had been a broadcaster, and became a writer: in both, she was telling stories, but in different mediums.
The open doors before me are ones I’ve walked through before, in one guise or another: I’m going to France next week and I will write while I’m there, I will see my work presented, I will do some publicity for the French translation of Girl Runner; when I get home, I’m leading a full day of workshops at an elementary school; and in May, a writing workshop in the woods (click the link and scroll down to find info on “Words in the Woods”). The most unusual door I’ve walked through recently involves coaching soccer.
What I learned when teaching is that I’m a dreadful lecturer, but I’m good at devising hands-on tasks to illuminate ideas or concepts. I like workshops. In a sense, that’s what a coach does: devise practices around themes that get players physically involved in tasks they need to learn and master. I love the challenge of it. I even love the risk of it—that my plan may need to be adapted. That it’s an experiment. That the outcome isn’t known or guaranteed. I feel nervous before practices and workshops, but often elated and consumed while inside of them. And afterward I can reflect on what did or didn’t work; I enjoy the critical analysis.
When I think about doing this kind of work, it excites me.
So here’s my analysis of results.* I want a career in which I get to learn new things, be physically active, help others, experience intense emotions, be creative, and teach through practical and applied means. Writing may or may not be a part of it, from what I’m exploring, although right now, writing is what I know best; I can claim to be an expert because others have recognized my expertise. That said, with enough study and practice, I’m perfectly willing to believe that I could become an expert in another area.
*I have no job matches associated with these observations.
I haven’t been inspired to write much this week. We are on March break in Canada, which means the kids have the week off school. Yesterday, I basically drove back and forth between our house and indoor sports fields: twice to basketball camp, once to a soccer game, and once more to take a child to a referee clinic and then pick her up. I considered, briefly, going to one more indoor field to watch one more soccer game, but couldn’t muster the strength. Instead, if memory serves, I sat in my office in my coat and looked at videos on FB. People post a lot of videos there, now. I reposted one, which shows the faces of every woman who has won a Nobel prize. So I’m part of the problem, not the solution.
The solution, I find, is not to go onto FB. In fact, when I’m writing well, I’m not tempted and check it rarely. I go there to be entertained, and I’m aware of that.
On the weekend, I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, which I couldn’t put down, plus it was scaring me, so I had to read it during daylight hours, not before bed. I rarely read books during the day, almost only before bed. This seems ridiculous given that every day I read magazines (including The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Macleans) and the daily newspaper (The Globe and Mail). I’m reading all day long! So why not books? Why reserve book-reading for just-before-sleep? I wonder if it’s because books are so consuming? I need to fall asleep in order to stop reading them. If I were to pick up a book during the day, I wouldn’t want to put it down. Newspapers, magazines, these are meant to be digested in short spurts, glanced at; but a book is immersive.
Maybe people join book clubs to give themselves permission to sit and read a book, especially fiction. There’s almost something illicit about the attention a book demands. You’re going to another world, you’re time-travelling, you’re living inside someone else, seeing through another’s eyes, you’re lost to the present moment. I have found books to be healing, necessary, important. But despite this, my mind categorizes books as indulgences, sweet treats, guilty pleasures. I have to let myself go in order to enjoy them. Maybe I should do that more often … especially during a week when I haven’t felt much like writing.
This morning, as on many mornings, I’m expending more brain power than I would like on soccer. Agreeing to be the head coach of a travel team involves a level of volunteer commitment that at times verges on the ridiculous. Leave aside the fundraising, the scheduling of practices, the budgeting, the banking, the forms that require more forms, the deadlines, the meetings, the mandatory training, the communication with parents, and you still haven’t touched on the most important part of the job: the actual coaching. Planning and running practices, trying to elevate and understand each child’s strengths and weaknesses, keeping the training fun but intense, setting up and following an overarching plan for the season. My brain is full of exercises, drills, games, goals, skills. My brain is not used to being used for this purpose!
I was wondering why I don’t take photos anymore. I love taking photos. I thought it was because my photo computer conked out, but Kevin fixed that problem: he loaded software onto a different computer, to which I have easy access. Yesterday, while trying to complete an online evaluation in order to get an official number in order to fill out more forms in order to request permission in order to register our team for festivals, all of which required contacting half a dozen different people at different organizations, I thought: oh, this is what I’m doing instead of taking photos.
This is my new hobby.
Maybe it gets easier. Maybe I should be delegating even more responsibility (and I am thankful for the helpful parent volunteers on this team). But I’ll tell you what. The next time you’re standing on the sidelines questioning your kid’s coach’s strategy, complaining about everything the coach isn’t noticing, check yourself, please. I promise to do the same. The coach may indeed be noticing what you’re noticing. Even if he or she isn’t noticing it, he or she is noticing a million other things that you’re not aware of. The game is the least of it. Really, the game should be the fun part, the peak, the celebration, the reward, win or lose. If you feel like complaining, think of everything that stands behind the game, all of the invisible effort and thought and care …
This is an excellent learning experience, that’s all I can say.
Enough soccer for now. Above, that’s the cover of Girl Runner as it will appear in Turkey.