What felt good this month?
We had Christmas in February! Two family get-togethers in one weekend, Flora and I made Christmas cookies, we sang through the carolling songbook. It all happened. There was even an adorable kitten in a tree, delightfully destroying the ornaments. Other things that felt good this month: yoga, puzzles, walks with friends, couch-time with Kevin.
What did you struggle with?
Depression, anxiety, fears. I’ve been listening to the news, first obsessed with the “freedom” occupation in Ottawa and now with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The lightbox has its limits. I didn’t do enough cardio this month. And as always, I’m struggling to turn down my inner critic, who would like to inform me at all hours that my efforts are falling short. What’s useful; what’s useless? I’ve noticed that I use those words a lot, applied to myself and my work. It’s like a poison pill in my brain, self-sabotage. You aren’t doing anything useful, says the voice. Even writing here about this tendency feels like it could be self-sabotage. Useful in terms of what, I wonder, on what scale, how is this usefulness measured, who is adding this up? The antidote to comparison and judgement may be gratitude. Or it may be something even more fundamental, habit-altering, changing the grooves in the brain: doing the work, putting one foot in front of the other, facing the sun.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month?
More worried. I want to see friends, I want to go places and do things, I want the world to open up. I want the luxury of making plans. Transitions are hard. I wonder how the pandemic has changed us. Are we coping? Are we okay, collectively? Do I remember how to interact, do I still have a social filter or have I kind of jumped off the deep-end? In yoga this morning, I bent my head to the floor in grief over this endless cycle of war, and people fleeing from war, from the madness and greed of leaders, from rape and destruction and hunger and terror (stretching back through the years, not fresh and new, just seemingly forever and ever and ever). And I thought: writing is the only response I’ve got. A few words. I’ll keep trying. It’s not useless effort!
How did you take care of yourself?
I tried. I appreciated the gift of cooking healthy delicious meals for my family. I appreciated this roof over my head. I listened to the birds, stared at the moon, sloshed through puddles, hugged my children, did pushups while waiting for the kettle to boil. I kept up supportive habits and routines.
What would you most like to remember?
Hmmm… February already seems like a forgotten month. One fresh memory is singing carols with my sibs; it was also fun crowding around a cellphone to watch the end of a soccer game on Sunday (all the way to penalty kicks). Another is going for a walk on family day, ordering take-out and watching a movie with the kids. And for a third, I’ll say, talking to Grandma on Thursday mornings.
What do you need to let go of?
Measures of success that don’t come from some place deep inside, or from a deeper source. I need to let go of external validation, even while giving myself permission to be critical of my own work when it’s coming from a place that makes sense — it makes sense to want to push to the edges of my talents and abilities, to test my own limits, it makes sense to be curious about what’s possible, to want to share some measure of beauty and truth, whatever I can muster. But it doesn’t make sense to stop or quit because I can’t make the beautiful thing that I long to, no matter my efforts. I need to let go of wanting to feel finished or satisfied or done. I want to learn to live in liminal space, in between, in process, flowing along in the flow. Right now, I’m finding this space to be crowded with discomfort and self-doubt. So it isn’t easy. Why do I keep thinking it will be easy? I need to let go of that too.
My general rule for writing posts here is to do it for fun, or when the spirit moves me, to paraphrase something my mother said a lot when I was a kid. Today I’m breaking that rule a bit. Nothing seems to be particularly fun just now, and the spirit is moving me only insofar as it’s saying, give it a shot, Carrie. Try to write something and see what comes up.
There are many things I don’t want to write about. I don’t want to write about war, or political instability, or pain or suffering or fear or anxiety. This isn’t a politically minded blog and I’m no expert, nor pundit, nor do I aspire to be.
I was thinking that it would be funny to write a post called “Five Bad Things Right Now”; but then I decided that might not be that funny. But I don’t have “Five Good Things” to report on, particularly; or maybe those things feel a bit superficial or artificial under the circumstances. How about “Five Things Right Now” and no judgment as to their quality or worth? Here goes.
Page proofs for Francie
My editor sent me a hard copy of typeset page proofs for review. I opened the package three days ago. This should be a most wonderful thing, but I’ll confess that I’ve yet to work up the courage to begin to read through. It’s a last pass. Last chance to catch typos. What comes next? I don’t know, exactly, which is why, I think, it will take courage to put this stage to bed. Next means new projects, publicity work, and whatever that requires of me (different skills from reading proofs, that’s all I know for sure).
Reading a library copy of Moonglow, by Michael Chabon
This was super-pleasurable, a big sprawling novel loosely based on the life of the author’s grandfather (which is why I wanted to read it, to get clues about how such a project might unfold). In the end, I was convinced this was more novel than biography, and I admired the apparent ease and ruthlessness with which the author muddied the waters; but part of me resented it too. I spent most of the book trusting in the author’s voice, and felt a bit cheated at the end. I wonder what this impulse is to believe that something is true, or to want to believe it, even when the writer is reminding me over and over that he’s a novelist, for heaven’s sake. He makes shit up for a living! (Isn’t that what I do too?) Anyway … an excellent read, highly recommended.
Drawing a cartoon
I stopped doing my daily cartoon late last month. I was following the same basic principle as I do for this blog: do it as long as it’s fun, and the spirit moves you. It was feeling less fun, more of a chore. But I picked up the habit again this week because I needed a different way to express my emotions, and drawing to music, colouring with crayons, is legit a fun way to journal, to record a tiny reminder of hey, here’s what happened today. A cartoon makes all the emotions more bearable. Drawing has lightened my load this week. (not pictured because I don’t have a photo on hand, and I love this one, above, taken around sunrise on an excruciatingly cold morning, recently)
Making pancakes for dinner
I don’t even like pancakes. But my kids do! Yesterday, that’s all I wanted: to give someone else something to enjoy. The gesture didn’t need to be grand, the recipients didn’t even need to know my intentions. Recipe here; I quadrupled it. (also not pictured; above is from a less-lauded meal involving squash, beets, turnips and sweet potatoes)
I might go so far as to say, admittedly hyperbolically, that my friend Kasia’s kundalini yoga classes have been saving me this week. They’ve definitely been lighting a fire, and making me feel alive and whole and present in my body in a positive way. Music, movement, breath work: breaks me open, sparks creativity, and openness, and belief that there are wonderful things in this world. And I need that reminder, especially right now. (photo above represents the feeling rather than the activity itself)
This will be a rather obvious window into the thrilling state of my evenings, but I am getting through February on puzzles and podcasts. Puzzles, podcasts, and pots of herbal tea.
Last night’s Puzzle ‘n Podcast podcast was on how often we misinterpret how others perceive us: apparently, a lot. It’s a show called The Hidden Brain, and the episode is “Mind Reading 2.0: How Others See You.” Listening to this I was thinking about friendship, and wondering what prevents us (sometimes? often?) from saying what we really mean. Politeness? Fear of rejection? False assumptions about what may happen? Or maybe assumptions based past experience? Maybe we don’t always know what we really mean. Or maybe we get mixed up due to the social setting, confused by the extra information we’re taking in (and quite possibly misinterpreting!). Anyway, it’s fascinating.
I keep puzzling over why it’s not common practice to set out boundaries or expectations or even state hopes for our friendships (it really isn’t, though). Why are friendships more tenuous, undefined things, when other relationships carry expectations, stated and otherwise? Maybe in friendship there’s both more at stake and less. Friendship enriches life. But we don’t usually buy a house with a friend, or share a pet with a friend, or move to another city if our friend moves to another city. We might go months without seeing a friend and then fall back into closeness in an instant. We know in advance that we may lose friends in a way that’s more baked in than in other relationships. We probably also expect to have many friends in different contexts over a lifetime. I’m riffing here.
and yet, and yet, and yet … I acknowledge that big emotions get stirred up in friendships, fears get tapped, there can be jealousy, envy, comparison, grasping, insecurity … and love, caring, commitment, thoughtfulness, kindness, spontaneity, fun … friendship is a spacious concept, elastic, flexible … that’s a good thing, but it also means there’s more uncertainty … maybe friendship is an almost liminal space where we have the opportunity to become comfortable with not-knowing, not-clinging, letting go?
A friendship is a relationship that can change as we change; and/or it can offer the familiarity of someone who knew us when. There’s insecurity in the uncertainty of what being a friend means and demands of us. I feel it as I try to write about my experience(s) of friendship.
For myself, I think friendship is always and forever an opportunity to learn, to be challenged, to get to know myself more honestly (weaknesses, strengths, boundaries, sense of humour). If I’m feeling down or low the cure ALWAYS is to reach out to a friend. ALWAYS. Paradoxically, this is also the moment it’s hardest to reach out. (This is what texting is for!)
The other thing on my mind (unrelated to friendship) is how people seem really angry right now. People are struggling with their emotions, looking for easy targets of blame. Positions are getting entrenched (which always seems dangerous to me). The pandemic years have been a good reminder that I can’t assume I know what anyone else is thinking or feeling. Maybe in friendships we dance around this, maybe it’s one of friendship’s most important gifts — maybe within the uncertain structure of a friendship there’s an implicit understanding that we aren’t always on the same page, and we’re trying to listen and be curious about our differences, we’re paying attention to another’s experiences.
In friendship, there’s so much room for exchange. Generous exchange. Friendship is a practice in curiosity, attention, lightness, vulnerability, caring, holding and letting go.
P.S. Please send podcast recommendations. I’m addicted to the puzzling (the puzzles shown above are just from the past week!!!! True confession). And winter continues.
P.S. 2 I’m adding this note in post-publication, with thanks to Julia who tipped me to a fabulous (and recent) article in The Atlantic about friendship, in which appears this memorable (and useful) analysis of what holds friendship together:
Practically everyone who studies friendship says this in some form or another: What makes friendship so fragile is also exactly what makes it so special. You have to continually opt in. That you choose it is what gives it its value.
What felt good this month? Mid-month, I started walking every single morning, despite the extreme cold. It brought me back to life, especially on the morning there was a huge snowstorm. Just remembering that walk gives me a child-like delight. January is a hard month, and this year we were locked down for most of it. Getting outside was imperative. I also started using a light box in the mornings for half an hour, while doing a puzzle. My daughter and I are now working on separate puzzles simultaneously (she wisely decided not to participate in my attempt to become a better person through puzzle-sharing, as it was clear to all that I was not particularly improving). Other good feelings: backyard fire with friends; eating fermented foods; tea and meditation; and finishing the copy edits for FRANCIE with my editor!!! YESS!
What did you struggle with? Exhaustion, lassitude, a general lack of motivation. But I’m going to turn this question around and explain that I’ve actually experienced less struggle this month. I think I’ve lowered my expectations. Or maybe my expectations are in line with what’s possible for me to achieve on any given day. Whatever’s happening, I’ll take it. Some part of my brain has settled into accepting that I don’t have the answers to many of the questions. I’m letting myself off the hook: it isn’t my job to craft perfect responses in this imperfect world. It is my job to be truthful about how I’m feeling, to speak from a place of thoughtful vulnerability rather than apprehensive face-saving, and to have the courage to say No if it’s what I mean. (As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve discovered that saying NO is HUGELY DIFFICULT for me. I like to please. I’m going to try to get comfortable with the discomfort of not pleasing.)
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I finished the major textual work on FRANCIE. So that’s done. Good. Other than that, I’m working on another writing project, while considering what other activities may be calling. It’s important to keep space cleared for writing. The more writing I do, the more it’s part of my every day routine, the easier it is to step into the flow. Also, my focus is pretty limited I’ve realized. In any given day, week, month, I can maybe focus deeply on one project and stay present for my family and friends — and that’s it! Luckily, I think that constitutes a pretty good life. As pandemic guidelines change again, and things open up, I need to think carefully before piling on new projects, activities or responsibilities. What matters? What matters most?
How did you take care of yourself? I listened to a kind voice in my head. Somehow, this kind voice gave me permission not to take myself too seriously. I laughed at my foibles and missteps rather than fearing them, or wanting to hide them away. Try it: Talk to yourself like you’re talking to a very dear friend (I heard this advice on the “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast — and it worked for me!). I also did 30 days of yoga with Adriene (and Kevin). And I initiated a two-week tea ritual with my word of the year group again, which is bringing me new ideas for meditative practices, and much wise reflection. What enriches your life? I think it’s worth asking. I think it’s worth acting on, too. Trust yourself, trust your body, the kind voice tells me (she sounds a lot like Adriene, at least in this example). You have everything you need, right here.
What would you most like to remember? Walking in a snowstorm is the best! If it’s snowing, go outside and play! Dress for the weather and have an adventure.
What do you need to let go of? Any sense of self-importance. What do I mean by this? There’s a part of the self that wants to be admired. It’s the same part of the self, strangely enough, that fears being exposed as not worthy of admiration. It’s the part that’s really scared of dying too, and not being here in the world anymore, being forgotten, not doing enough with the time remaining, not leaving something valuable behind. I see this part of myself. I feel compassion toward its fear, and all the pressure that fear can bring. What alleviates my fear, makes it irrelevant? This: To do the work I see before me, no matter the outcome. If I can name a want, that’s it. In this vision, the work of grammar and imagery and structure and ideas holds my attention, and I can laugh gently and appreciate the humour of this funny, foolish, wishful, hopeful, grasping flurry of imperfect human beingness attempting to do this work. It’s gonna be a mess. I think that’s what we get.
And hey, we made it through January! Thank you for reading along.
The secret to writing books is to give yourself a ridiculous expanse of luxurious empty time and space to dream, play, and not do anything that taxes the mind with external cares.
Is this true? Well, I’ve found it to be true.
It means you might not do much else with your day, your hours. You might cook dinner. You might go for a walk, or a run. You might see a friend. You might do a puzzle. You might scroll through Netflix watching the intros to thirty shows as entertainment before bed.
I struggle justifying how much time is spent on staring out the window. Or writing things that don’t turn out, writing draft after draft after draft. So many words assembled tenderly, hopefully, excitedly, only to be discarded.
If this is what it takes to write books, is it worth it? Who am I serving? Just myself?
Well, what if the answer is yes? Yes, I’m serving my writing, at the expense of many other things I could be doing with this one precious life.
What makes you feel purposeful, as you go about your day? What tells you, gut-deep: you are worthy? I don’t know. I’m asking.
It’s a funny thing to be a human, to want to be purposeful, to want to make decisions independently, freely, but to be inextricably embedded in a culture, context, generation, family structure, biology, language(s), place.
I notice that I easily accept the value of tasks or actions that measurably help someone else, like donating blood; concrete chores also have value, and doing them feels valuable, like laundry and cooking; it’s also easy to measure worth by monetary reward, doing X and receiving Y in return. In my experience, writing is generally untethered from any of these logical measurements. But I don’t believe anyone’s worth rests on external evaluation; or on evaluation, period.
You are worthy because you are fighting it out here on planet earth.
You are worthy because you are worthy.
I drew that cartoon a few days ago. I keep returning to look at it. There’s something there that’s whispering to me: peace, and calm, and acceptance, and worthiness. I’ve been drawing daily cartoons again, as a way of journaling. I draw a moment I want to remember, and on this particular day, the moment I wanted to remember was being asleep and dreaming about my new book, which has a tree on its cover — the dream vibe was contentment.
The last day of the month. The last day of the year. Can I orient myself right here?
What felt good this month? Focus, Carrie, focus. I’ve just typed and erased several attempts at an opening sentence here — because they contained nothing good! Answer the question. Just answer the question. Okay, here goes. What felt good this month was a long walk and rant that started with me feeling like I was breaking down, and ended with laughter and understanding. All the walks felt good. Yoga in the morning: good. My Christmas morning sticky buns turned out. Good! Definitely taking a few small gifts and cards and offerings of food around to friends and family felt good. Hey, getting my new author photo taken felt good too, as an exercise in acceptance and maybe even celebration of aging. I also was happy with the gifts I gave and received.
What did you struggle with? Um, everything? Our Christmas plans were interrupted by friends and family testing positive for covid. I’m feeling the strain of multiple daily decisions that need to be made, as if it were on me to ascertain what’s safe for my loved ones to do or not to do. And I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve been tuning out the news more; maybe that helps? It isn’t that I want to be ignorant, it’s that no one seems to know what to do, and we’re in the middle of something incomplete, with not enough data, and whether or not I pay attention right now, I’m confused, I’m perplexed, I’m baffled; as mentioned, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s freeing to pay less attention to the noise outside. I’ve got piles of books to read, and an upstairs bathroom to paint, and I’ve been drawing every day. I even wrote two new stories.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I accomplished several goals set at the beginning of December, including cleaning and organizing the whole house (or most of it!); and finishing half of a major writing project, though the other half remains in limbo; but I never did spend an entire day lying on the couch and reading. The difference from the beginning of the month to now seems largely to do with the pandemic, and how that affects my ability to plan ahead. I just can’t. It’s a funny way to stand on the cusp of a new year, but I also feel strangely at peace with it. My writing projects can continue. Loving my family can continue. Connecting with my friends can continue. For now, for today, and tomorrow, that’s enough.
How did you take care of yourself? This is always a trickier question over the holidays, when routines fall off. I haven’t been running much this month. Walks, yoga, texting friends, a few more phone calls than usual. I blissed out on the feeling of gratitude and thankfulness: I’ve felt it so powerfully this year, and it seems to be growing stronger and stronger. I played the piano and sang. I listened to music and drew a daily cartoon. When I reached my breaking point(s), some wonderful safety measures kicked in, and I took care of myself, instinctively. Sometimes the mind wants to enjoy wallowing — like, it feels good to feel bad — but the body knows better. Go for a walk. Stretch. Let yourself feel. I’m grateful for all the groundwork laid that helped me to stand when some part of me wanted to sink, sulk, and drown in self-pity.
What would you most like to remember? Keep kneading and all the butter will get incorporated into the dough, even though it seems impossible! Also, I’d like to keep feeling my feelings. Even the ones that make me feel just a bit out of control. Calm is good, and it makes me feel good about myself; but other emotions are welcome here, too. Can I let myself feel excitement, for example? One other thing I’ve noticed: I love crying over a good story. Almost nothing makes me happier.
My birthday dinner: Angus made veggie lasagna and Flora baked two pumpkin pies (not pictured). What could be better?
What do you need to let go of? Last month, in answer to this question, I wrote: Control, control, control. This month, I think: hey, I’ve definitely let go of that, at least right now. I feel as if I’ve surrendered to the moment, which is a moment in time I can’t make sense nor get ahold of, and I’m just letting things be as they are. How about this: I need to let go of saying yes when I really mean no. Bring on the whole-hearted yes, the full-of-gratitude yes; and when I know it’s a no, let me stand whole and complete and trust that someone else will be able to fill whatever space I’m leaving. I need to let go of performing, and pay attention to what’s calling from deep inside.
May your new year be blessed! Thank you, ever so much, for reading along.