I have a wise future self, who I consult sometimes through drawing or writing, or meditation. But I also have a wise past self, who reminds me that there is wisdom in that which has already been discovered, and which I’ve lost track of along the way.
From my notebook, April 10, 2016, written on a writing residency in France:
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. Whatever are you make, celebrate its potential to meet someone else in the occasion of their need. Don’t wish you were writing something different. Be at peace with whatever comes from you.
On July 26, I’ll be publishing my new novel, Francie’s Got a Gun, which has a title that’s a little bit terrifying to me, I’ll be honest; but it’s also frank and open about a particular theme that obsessed me when I was writing the very first draft and persisted into the iteration that is coming into existence at the end of next month. The novel is an anti-gun allegory, but the gun also serves as a metaphor for danger, for adult failure, for a problem that’s bigger than a kid can solve. And it asks something else too: Can adults solve these big problems? How do we respond, as a collective, and as individuals, when a child, children, are struggling?
When I wrote the first draft, I had no inkling that a pandemic would disrupt our lives. Even when I wrote the final draft, last summer, I didn’t fully grasp the reverberations and costs of being distanced from each other, so profoundly, for so long. It is only in returning to more normalcy that I can sense my own grief, especially for my children who have had several important years of development stalled or disrupted; I wonder what the consequences are; and I hope for reunion, for occasions at which we can come together, collectively, to celebrate and have fun and be together. Be together. Feel together. Pull together. Thrive together.
Francie’s Got a Gun is about people trying their best, individually, and collectively, to respond to challenges in their midst — within their own families, their closest relationships, their friendships, and their community. They are flawed, or distracted, or struggling, or sheltered, or raw, or imaginative, or hungry, but they’re all hopeful in some way; and they are trying to come together.
This is what I’m thinking about today, on the last day of the month of May, when usually I’d be writing my “May Reflections.”
Here they are, in brief:
What felt good this month? Running in the park. Feeding lots of people around the table. Writing funny scenes in a new novel.
What did you struggle with? How to parent. Setting boundaries. Waking in the middle of the night, mind racing. Disaster thinking.
Where are you now compared to at the beginning of the month? Less certain. More questioning, more worried than I’d like to be. Thankful for my notebook. Thankful for habits that re-set my mind, and direct my focus toward my heart.
How did you take care of yourself? Drawing, writing, attempting to get to bed on time. Good food. Walks with friends. Laughter. Listening to music. Running and yoga. Planting seeds for future social events, big and small. Pouring out my thoughts on paper. Weighing my words and actions. Participating when invited.
What would you most like to remember? What it feels like to soak in the atmosphere at a big, collective event organized for young people: to be specific, yesterday, at my youngest’s junior high track meet — the first meet that’s been held (for my kids anyway) since 2019!
This tangential post is brought to you by an x page exercise, written during last week’s workshop (week 2 of 12), in the company of other women, in response to the prompt word: PARTY. It must have tapped some essential emotion, because I came home and kept writing till it felt done. I’d like to call this fiction, but maybe more accurately it’s a version of poetry, instead. (Where were you at age 20, and what were you doing, and hoping, and dreaming of?)
Phil’s $1.50 drinks
I am at Phil’s, an underground bar where the pipes overhead are wrapped in asbestos and the drinks are $1.50 on Wednesdays, but they must really water them down because I need to drink at least four to feel anywhere near tipsy. I’ve invited everyone I can think of, I’ve telephoned, left messages all over town. Friends are here, some have come, but no one is happy. The bar is too empty, the friends have no money either. Wet salt patches melt from our boots on the floor.
I had forgotten, or wanted to forget, why I used to love this place—because I’d come here during the day when I was a first year student, with a friend, Rich. (Now I’m in third year.) I had a car and he did not, even though I was no more than 17 or 18, and he was 21 or so. I would pick him up in my red Honda Civic, and I’d do my laundry (maybe he would too, but I don’t remember that now), and we’d sit by the pool tables and play cards in the middle of the day, drinking coffee. Gin rummy was our favourite game. It felt like we were the only people there and maybe we were. The good feeling I had on those afternoons seems irreplaceable, now. A feeling of possibility, excitement, tenderness, desire, amiable companionship. Rich was funny and he made me laugh, he never made me feel like I was wrong to be a goofy silly earnest person.
I’d forgotten all of this till exactly now, and now the friends I’m with don’t satisfy me—we’re too much the same in our longings and dissatisfaction—I want different, other, more, but Rich doesn’t live here anymore, and anyway, he never loved me like I loved him, if obsession counts as love, which I seem to think it does. What do I know about it? About love? I’ve mixed it all up with other things. Obsession feels like I think love should—dangerous, exciting.
I’m 20 now and feel so old when I look in the mirror. I finish my diluted drink and go to the gross damp women’s washroom, where one time I saw the lead singer of the Cowboy Junkies washing her hands, and I stand in front of the mirror and check my own eyes—not drunk enough, not interesting enough (as if these were the same thing). I see fine wrinkles around my eyes—could it be? “I’m getting so old!” I go back out and shout to my friends over the music. But they are too. We are so old! And we maybe hardly know each other really at all, we’re just proximate to each other, accidentally revolving around each other. We are so lost. Lonely. Alone.
In this mood, I take my misery to the little raised dance floor, even though no one is dancing, and I dance holding onto a fresh drink, gin and tonic in a flimsy plastic cup with a slice of lime floating in the bubbly mixture. I’ll promise anyone anything to get them to join me at this party that is not a real party. I’ll promise, but I won’t follow through. I can’t drink enough to get myself drunk, so I throw it down on the dance floor, metaphorically, to make myself feel something, anything, in my lungs. I’m smoking, at that time. You can smoke, at that time, indoors. Soon, this will end too, like everything else. I can see all of us dispersing, shot wide into the rest of our lives, fanning out in different directions, toward the parts of our other selves that are drawing us like magnets, while we, we, we, a mere two decades into inhabiting our bodies, prepare to part from whatever this era is, a time of loss, and exploration, poverty, and unrecognized riches.
My coat is ugly and it slips to the floor and gets stepped on, spilled on, but I’ll have to wear it home at the end of the night. I’ve spent my money on drinks, tomorrow I will eat a packet of Mr Noodles and lie on my mattress on the floor of the basement apartment I share with my brother (it will flood come spring), and I’ll read all of Pride and Prejudice, cover to cover, just for fun, laughing and crying and yearning and dreaming. I haven’t met the man who will become my husband yet. I don’t have an email account. I can’t imagine a cellphone and we have no tv. I have my books, a telephone with an answering machine, and enough money in savings to get myself partway to drunk on Wednesdays at Phil’s (I’ll buy cigarettes but can’t afford cheese; I have these priorities).
But every night, even on this night, after brushing my teeth and before going to bed, I sit at my desk and write poetry. I write about the things that happen to me, and the things that I wish would happen to me, and the language, words, images entrance me, as if they were magical forms, and I were a witch casting spells on myself, I were a person from another time come to bring myself back to earth, inside my body, filling all of it with the silly goofy earnestness that is actually my version of joy (though I don’t know it yet), whispering you are enough, you are sufficient, you are alive, you are not alone.
You are a whole person, or you will be; no—you are, you already are.
I’ve been doing art therapy for about a year now. At my most recent appointment, the therapist recognized the work I’ve been doing and said that she had seen changes over this past year. She observed that when we started I was struggling to find space for myself, to make space, give myself space, feel deserving or worthy of space. And she thinks that’s changed. I agree. That feeling of worthiness might be the root of other changes I’ve observed, which feel profound; even while I know myself to be the very same person, plagued by the same anxieties and tics and inclinations. I can change and still be familiar to myself; I find this comforting and funny. It’s revelatory and delightful to discover (again and again?) that the self is so sturdy. Being mindful is just a way to observe more closely what I’m feeling and thinking in any given moment, and then I can decide what to do with that information. Mindfulness springs from worthiness: I trust that what I’m thinking and feeling is worthy of my attention. No judgement, no self-castigation, just observation.
It is as simple as that.
Here’s an example. I’m feeling impatient sitting in traffic. I’m going to be late, I think! I can feel my heart rate rising. I’m hitting every red light! I drop an f-bomb. At some point during this mini-escalation, I notice what I’m thinking and feeling. I say (maybe even out loud!), kindly, to myself, hey you seem pretty stressed out. That simple kindness is helpful. Yes, I am stressed out! Now I can assess whether my feelings and thoughts are attached to reality — to what’s actually happening. Am I actually running late? Even if I am running late, is this actually a crisis? (Usually the answer is no, everything is okay.) But there’s an even deeper and more profound question available here, too: Even if this really is a crisis, is this how I want to respond?
Of course not.
Do I have a choice in how I respond?
I believe that I do. I believe that I can laugh (lovingly) at my frailties and weaknesses, I can appreciate the vulnerable anxious impulsive human I am — the impatience, the rising heart rate, the swearing — and I can speak kindly to myself, and notice that everything is okay, right now. It’s always the right now in which I’m living. It’s amazing how this frees me to settle in and appreciate what’s happening, right now. I’m at a red light, but I can sing along to the radio, I can look out the window and see what’s there to be seen. There’s always something there to be seen, heard, felt, wondered about. The world is an amazing mystery that’s always present, available to be experienced, observed, cherished.
Thankfulness just wells up naturally when this shift in perspective happens — and I can be thankful and surprised and renewed by the world’s wonders, over and over again. It never gets old.
A few more changes I’ve observed:
I’ve stopped enforcing rules I don’t believe in.
If I don’t want to do something, I say so. Often someone else can do it instead. If not, I figure out how to make the task more enjoyable. By taking on less of the things I don’t want to do, I’m able to give more freely. A paradox. The way that being kinder to myself makes me inclined to be kinder to others.
I pay attention to a feeling I call “the shame sandwich.” Sometimes I wake up feeling like I’ve eaten a shame sandwich. What I know about shame: it’s attached to deeply rooted fears, specific to my life experiences. If I can identify the trigger, this helps me be kind to myself and the feeling tends to resolve. Shame makes it harder to be kind to myself, so it’s important to notice when I’ve eaten the sandwich.
I am kinder to myself. I know that I can’t do everything, and also that I’m not responsible to solve most things. I can help you find your lost book, and pick you up from piano lessons, but I can’t tell you how to be the person you want to be. I shouldn’t be trying to tell you that anyway. I’ll just love you, and care about you, for being who you are. I’ll pay attention to what interests you. I’ll ask questions and listen. I’ll find ways to connect that meet you where you’re at, wherever that may be. I won’t ask you to change, because I think you are sacred and amazing, exactly as you are.
I’ll hold you lightly. As lightly as I hold myself.
One last change I’ve observed: I let myself feel happiness. I know that I’ve been afraid in my life to feel happiness, to fully experience it, that I tamped the sensation down, afraid of being up too high and floating away, or afraid of what would happen when the feeling went away. I’m not letting those fears stop me from feeling happiness anymore. I think that by feeling happiness, I will feel it more often, in more situations: this glorious sensation of wellness and wholeness, and lightness. I’m willing to test this theory out.
Life. It’s bigger. It’s bigger than you and you are not me. The lengths that I will go to. The distance in your eyes. Oh no I’ve said too much. I haven’t said enough.
Fellow Gen Xers probably recognize that song (REM’s “Losing My Religion”). I don’t know why exactly it came to me as I sat down to write about Life. Maybe because it’s bigger. It’s bigger than it’s been, anyway, even after weeks of recovery (or maybe especially after that). I’m making plans, though they may change last-minute. My plans are mere sketches, a few chords on which to improvise; they delight me.
Last week, I took a spontaneous trip to Toronto on the train. Got me some vocal cord physio and an intensive on how to use my voice, in preparation for reading the audiobook version of my new novel (!!!!). Reading the audiobook goes on my bucket list (I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did …). Recording in studio is set to start next week. While in Toronto, I also visited my sister and her delightful pup (pictured below). I saw a man dance with a pigeon on the subway (not pictured). My eyes were overwhelmed by the sights out the train window. I was in bliss. It was exactly what I needed. Good medicine.
This weekend we hosted family. I didn’t feel like cooking, so I asked my eldest to make the scalloped potatoes — and he did! On Monday our second-eldest kid moved back home from residence, so the house was fuller when we woke up this morning. And our Open House for the 2022 X Page Workshop is tomorrow evening. In person! I feel myself buzzing with energy and new life. It’s not anxiety, it’s excitement. It’s a desire for connection that’s leaping out of me, off my skin, I can almost see it flashing from me in pinging waves, or like antennae reaching out. I don’t think I’ve turned into an extrovert during the pandemic, but I’ve clearly built up some extra space for social interaction.
Something I’m noticing about myself, as I return to life, bigger, is that I love being the still centre of a whirl — the ringmaster at the circus. Does this mean I enjoy stirring things up? I don’t know. I hope not. It isn’t conflict I’m after, but contact, connection, a performance that’s almost entirely improvised and feels natural because it relies on mutual trust, and self-trust.
This reflection came from a recent 100-day creativity prompt …
A list of things that are true about me.
I’m on day 2 of listing things. Here’s day 1 —
1 I love being the still centre of a whirl — the ringmaster at the circus
2 I am happiest when I am with people
3 I am trying to become less controlling
4 I love relating to teenagers — I think it’s an especially beautiful, searching, changing, vulnerable time of life
5 I experience big swings of emotion
6 Writing fiction is a form of therapy, for me
7 I love the feeling of trusting myself, it feels like a safety net into which I can fall
8 Discovering I’ve hurt someone is incredibly painful news and I resist hearing it, and/or respond defensively, and/or torture myself for it
9 I can be very self-pitying
10 I am oddly comfortable at the front of the room
11 I love learning new things and challenging myself to leave my comfort zone
12 My first instinct isn’t always right
13 I value strong relationships built on mutual trust, and care
14 I am not perfect at all
What felt good this month?
This has been a confusing month. It felt good to get to visit people again, to travel to see family, to go to the movies, go out to eat, host a kids’ birthday party. It felt good to embrace the human desire to connect and be together in person. I really loved it. I’m even glad for the desire to do things again. When everything shut down two years ago, I was so burnt out and overstretched that my main feeling was relief at not having to do everything all the time for everyone. In the interim, I’ve recalibrated my boundaries, and I feel more capable of saying yes and no with greater understanding of the costs and benefits of each. Having things to do — and wanting to do those things — the combination is a gift.
What did you struggle with?
In practical terms, I’m currently struggling with a case of covid. Because, yes, there are costs to the grand reopening; and it’s challenging to make informed decisions when the information available is limited and contradictory. I’m also going to say, I struggled with feeling impatient and ready to move past these endless covid-times, or at least figure out how to feel as alive as possible during these endless covid-times. I might have erred on the side of wanting to feel alive versus wanting to feel safe. That’s a struggle too — I don’t honestly know what’s right or what’s best or wisest. All along, we’ve made choices, often difficult, about how to keep our loved ones safe, trying to balance mental health with physical health, trying to maintain relationships and connections from a distance or in constrained circumstances, and on and on. I wanted to believe we could start to live with just a little less caution, but it looks like covid isn’t done with its part in our collective story yet. So that’s what I’m struggling with. (FYI I’m the only one in our household to test positive, and I’m hoping it stays that way; we are all doubled vaccinated and boosted; my symptoms have been like a very bad cold.)
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month?
Funny. I’m less worried now than I was at the beginning of the month. I’m more optimistic about writing projects underway. I’m convinced that people are resilient and relationships can be healed. I have no particular evidence or logic to support any of this; in fact, there’s probably ample evidence to support the opposite conclusion, particularly when it comes to how people are coping in these really hard times. But this is where I’m at. I admit to feeling hopeful! Oh dear. I’m almost too superstitious to declare such a thing out loud … dare I? I’m trying to let myself feel joy from time to time; hope and optimism too; and not believe that just by feeling or expressing such wonderful things I’ll attract the eye of a vengeful and punishing god. Consider this part of the experiment. I’ll let you know how it goes.
How did you take care of yourself?
I made a list of fun things to do. I did some of those things. I wrote even when it seemed like I was writing in circles. I got somewhere interesting. I pushed myself to try new things, even when it risked failure. It was a good month for those reasons. I went on lots of walks with friends, and enjoyed putting # 34 on my list of fun things into action: surprising friends with small gifts. Honestly, that brought me such joy. I talked about hard things in therapy. I made plans.
What would you most like to remember?
Beautiful plants on my desk. Dinner with kids and their friends. The joy of the Canadian men’s soccer team winning at home to clinch their ticket to the World Cup. Watching movies at the theatre. Heartfelt walks and talks with family and friends. Writing and writing and writing.
What do you need to let go of?
Ideally, I would like not to act or speak from a place of fear. Or at least to be aware if I’m acting or speaking from a place of fear. There are so many things in life that get broken. So often they’re broken by fear, which manifests as judgement, as anger, as dependency, as control. I don’t want to break anything, especially relationships, because I have fear that is unexpressed or unacknowledged, or blocking me from being truthful, open, clear, first with myself, then with others. I need to let go not of fear itself, which would be an impossible task, but of being swayed or deluded or misled by my fears. Life is complicated, relationships are complicated, desire is complicated. Fear is natural. But it doesn’t have to steer my choices.
For some reason, it’s snowing and stormy today in Southern Ontario, which sums up my experience of a typical March day in this part of the world. It’s a mess, the weather veers wildly from hope to disappointment, and yet somehow I’m always surprised by this!
I would like you to know that life here in my house, in my family, in my little writing studio, in my imagination, as a parent, as a daughter, a friend, a partner, a neighbour, a writer is much the same: messy, with its ups and downs, both predictable and somehow wildly not. I’m repeatedly surprised by this!
Here is something I find to be true yet surprising right now: When I write a book, it takes a very long time. Years at best. I usually have to write a half-dozen versions of the same project before landing on a container for the material that feels like it halfway meets up with the book that lives in my mind. Sometimes I am very patient about this process, and patient with myself for my limitations. Sometimes I am not.
Also true yet surprising: When I’m not patient with myself, I tend to question not just my choice of this as a career, but everything else about my life, both in my control and out of it. It’s panic-thinking, spiralling, and I am convinced, at least for an hour or a day, that I will never get my shit together. What tends to calm me is realizing that my shit is not something I can actually get together. It’s a messy cycle.
This week, what pulled me out of the spin was a) walking and talking with a friend while in the middle of the spin, acknowledging what I was feeling; b) laughter; c) accepting that this was the weather, today; d) not trying to fix it; e) realizing that I am not afraid of hard work; f) accepting that I probably can’t know what’s worth my while or whether I’m wasting my life no matter what I’m doing; g) realizing that I’m not going to give up on a book just because it requires more effort and work; h) sitting down at my keyboard and following the energy.
That day, I wrote steadily for hours, with excitement and delight and wonder. I wrote despite knowing it might take me years to write another book that I am satisfied with. In fact, I wrote because I knew it.
Here is another thing that I find to be true yet surprising right now: I’ve forgotten how to organize things — and also, it doesn’t seem to matter, people still have fun, including me. This past week, I organized a bowling party for a kid and I did so in the most lackadaisical manner, quite unlike my pre-pandemic self. In fact, I was so lackadaisical, I didn’t even recognize how many details I was leaving to chance — details that in the past I would have tried to control through advance preparation. Calm and unstressed in the hours leading up the party, I actually did all that writing I described, above, without a thought of what was coming next.
Details that I had not thought through: whether or not to wear masks at the bowling alley; what we were going to eat and when; whether we had pop and snacks in the house in sufficient quantity; how we were going to fit everyone into our two vehicles; what time the party might end; and on and on. The revelation was that none of this ultimately mattered in the least. The fun did not rest on my advance planning. Choices could be made in the moment. Alternatives existed. Not everything was perfect. And it didn’t matter, it just didn’t matter. The party was fun, it sprawled into its own rhythm.
Here is one last thing that I find to be surprisingly / unsurprisingly true right now, in the midst of this storm in the middle of my life: I am an imperfect parent, a writer who sometimes completely forgets how to write, and a woman whose responsibilities are changing rapidly as her children grow up. I am not always adapting as effortlessly and beautifully as I might wish. I’m not going to fix my shit. I’m not going to get it all together. I’m just not. I’m not even going to say: but I’ll keep trying to fix it. I’m just not going to.
What I’ll do instead, I hope, is stay open to experimenting, trying new things, letting myself become different and be changed by my connections, my experiences. I’m not going to let my messiness stop me from loving this wild and precious life. Actually, I think that I’ll love it all the more for being an unpredictable, stormy, beautiful mess.