Last post, I wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek (I hope!) that it had just occurred to me that as I get older, I could be getting worse not better.
Here’s what comes to mind when I think worse, not better: Less ambitious, less courageous, more cautious, more conservative, less likely to throw myself into something new wholeheartedly, crabbier, boring, predictable, less engaged with the world, more fearful, content with the status quo, narrow-minded, petty, envious, self-indulgent, less willing to give of myself.
You probably have your own personal list of worse, not better.
Which makes me wonder, what’s on the better, not worse list? Funnier, looser, less concerned about what others think, flexible, giving, generous of mind and heart, trusting myself and others, sharing responsibilities, moral clarity, openness, curiosity, wonder, kind and tough, practical and impractical, disciplined and relaxed.
Oh dear. Some push-pull on that list.
What if: Instead of fearing that I’m getting worse as I get older, I acknowledge that I’m changing? My ambitions are changing. My desires are changing. Having checked the major life goals off my list (education, family, career), it seems harder to name what I want. Maybe the goals at this stage (mid-40s) are looser.
At moments, I do sense a wholeness, a oneness, an understanding of purpose that feels deep and wordless, and wondrous. But it is fleeting, as ecstatic experiences tend to be. I get the feeling, in these moments, that our purpose here on earth is to be brazenly present and wholly human, insatiably curious vessels of grace poured into imperfect containers, cracked and fragile and not meant to last. We’re meant to be brief, and aware of our limitations; in our brevity, we sense eternity; in our faultiness, generosity of spirit.
I used to dismiss religion’s various visions of heaven or paradise. Hated it, actually. But I’m starting to understand, more deeply, why these visions exist. Because here on earth, we’re bound to invent a series of flawed experiments, no matter how heart-felt our intentions. Criticism is easy, also necessary, also demonstrates involvement in the process; but the ease with which a critic can point out flaws, versus the challenge to she who attempts change, or reversal, or to implement a new idea, structure, system, vision, dream—well, it’s a pretty massive gulf. It’s why Canada keeps commissioning reports and implementing few/none of the reports’ recommendations.
The will to act almost has to be collective.
And while we wait for collective action, people suffer. As individuals, we see our neighbours suffering, and we find band-aid solutions, work-arounds, we tinker with the machinery we’ve inherited, upheld by greed and power and inertia. But we can’t knock it down till enough of us amass at the gates and demand change.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. Hope despite set-backs. Hope despite seeing the same script played again and again. How to serve hope, see hope, carry hope? And I think, ah, that’s where the vision of heaven comes in. It’s something to hold onto, to imagine, to dream of. It’s often present in art. Think of gospel songs: crossing the river, being called home, carried home, the relief and sweetness of rest after labour. This represents what we long for, and can’t quite glimpse. Wholeness, resolution, peace.
I can’t possibly know exactly what a better world would look like, let alone figure out how to get there. Just like I can’t even seem to see what a better Carrie would look like, let alone figure out how to get her there. I do hope I’m not getting worse. I hope the small actions I undertake every day in hopes of being healthy, humble, self-aware, humorous, curious, generous, trustworthy and trust-giving, are not outweighed by my multitude of neurotic tics, anxieties, fears, lethargy, indecision, vanity, ignorance, injury and self-interest. But who knows, really?
I’ll just have to hope without knowing, be without knowing, and take action without knowing, exactly, the consequences. Better or worse? Change keeps happening whether we notice or not, sanction it or not. So, whether better or worse, definitely different. Hopefully braver. Hopefully clearer. Hopefully lighter. But who knows.
Watching: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” (Ted Talk)
Listening: Today’s program from Tapestry, on “how to ethically navigate the pandemic’s new normal as restrictions begin to lift” (CBC Radio)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
While leading a recent yoga class, my friend Kasia said, These are beautiful times and we’re lucky to be alive right now.
I appreciate that perspective.
It’s easy to get bogged down in how hard everything is. How the things that used to be simple to do now require pre-planning and masks and protocols. How our bodies can feel like disease vectors. How familiar I’m becoming with my own physical manifestations of anxiety (tight chest, buzzing brain, inability to alight).
But I don’t deny that what Kasia says may also be true: that these are beautiful times and we are lucky to be alive right now.
Because change feels possible. Because it feels like we’re seeing with new eyes. Because we are freed from what it was like before to maybe figure out how we can make what comes after better. Because our own strengths and weaknesses are more visible. Because we need to know what’s broken in order to fix it. Because we can’t keep building on the same broken foundations. Because we’re being forced to identify our core values, our reasons for being, and what we really care deeply about.
I’m not pretending this is an ideal time to live through, or a fun time. I’m not pretending everyone’s equally affected, either. It’s a scary time, a discordant time, a time when we’re required to hold dissonant information, and altogether too much of it, in our heads all at once.
The interiority of this time has freed me to write a lot. One day, during a meditation, I heard the words create and destroy used together, and my brain suddenly couldn’t peel them apart. It was the strangest thing. It was like the two words, apparent opposites, had fused in my mind. Create/destroy. I saw how interconnected those states of being are, so tightly bound that, in truth, one cannot exist without the other. We tend to posit that one is good and the other is bad. But if both belong to each other, that duality of judgement is rendered inconsequential.
In every end, a new beginning. But also, in every beginning, an end. To make something is to unmake something else.
When I write, I create/destroy.
We are in create/destroy right now. Is it a beautiful time? It’s not a time of symmetry and balance, if that’s what beauty means to you; it’s a time of extremes. Our house is very quiet. The world is roiling. But if beauty means potential (no matter how far from realization), if beauty means truth (no matter how painful), if beauty means invention (create/destroy), then now, right now, is beautiful.
These are beautiful times and I am lucky to be alive right now.
Like many of you, my days — their very substance — have changed. And I’m finding comfort in a daily drawing and writing session, the results of which I’ve been sharing here. Will it last? I don’t know, but I’m debating whether these cartoons and poems should replace the ordinary content of my blog, which is more like this … more like me talking to you (rather than me talking to my notebook), more conversational, a little more “newsy.” The writing I’ve been doing in my notebook is closer to fiction or poetry; and its tone might not fit the blog’s, perfectly.
But, still. I’m making it, and I enjoy sharing it. I will keep sharing it for the time being, and perhaps find another way to do so, in order to preserve this space for, well, this.
How are you? I hope you’re finding ways to enjoy your days, which may feel extra-long and extra-slow; the stretched-out passage of time, in the absence of much happening, reminds me of my days spent parenting small children.
We are good, here. Our eldest returned from his trip to Montreal (where the city had shut down around them); he’s restless, and has yet to settle in to the strangely calm routine the rest of us have invented for ourselves. Kevin is our designated leave-the-house-for-supplies-person. We are grateful for our big back yard. There’s room to kick a soccer ball. Room to refinish a coffee table. My office is an oasis of peace. I’m mainlining meditation, and have been tuning in every evening at 8PM to my friend Kasia’s livestream kundalini session on Facebook. At some point this week, I baked a double batch of cinnamon raisin bread that was divine. Yesterday, I wiped down every major surface with a bleach solution, a tedious and wearying project that opened my heart with gratitude and amazement for everyone whose job it is to wipe down surfaces, to keep us safe. My admiration and thanks are with each and every worker on the front-lines, putting themselves at risk, doctors and nurses, and also cashiers and cleaners. My job by comparison is ridiculously easy: stay home, stay calm. I think often of those who have lost work, who fear the immediate future, the basics of survival. A couple of weeks ago, I was mercifully awarded a major grant from the Canada Council for a novel I’m working on, the timing of which has been a major relief; I’m certain we’ll be okay even if the kids can’t work their summer jobs, even if Kevin’s business shrinks in the near-term. I feel fortunate, too, to share my home with five other people, plus dog. We might irritate each other from time to time; but we also have close companionship. Staying connected, generally, has taken on increased significance. I enjoyed tuning in to my church’s virtual service this morning. Last week, my sibs and I met for drinks via Zoom.
The forced presence and stillness suits me, at least for now. But, as you’ll see from my “poems” below, I’m also aware of underlying anxiety, of uncertainty, of the fear of the unknown that seems to be floating through the atmosphere, bubbling up from the depths.
Below, you’ll find samples of my drawing and writing from the past couple of days. Feel free to read, or skip, as you wish. Sending you presence, light, hope, stillness, and, in place of anxiety, free-floating poetry.
PS Add this to your recommended reading list: Washington Post article about a poet in Southern Italy who shared his personal cellphone number on social media, offering to talk to anyone who wanted to call. As Seth Meyers would say: this is the kind of story we need right now.
Thursday’s cartoon was drawn to Lindi Ortega’s “Fires.” I think it’s a double self-portrait, of me, right now, waving to me, from a time before coronavirus. But who knows? These portraits seem to draw themselves.
What’s on your mind?
Today’s poem comes to you from a land of uncertainty where nothing and everything has changed from one moment to the next, and the landscape looks the same, only bleaker, and the world is windswept and bleary, all crispness reduced to the edges of dried grass rustling as we shuffle past, keeping a safe distance from one another. When our hands brush briefly, accidentally, before parting, I flinch as if I’ve touched fire, fever, the source of fever — or is it I who am a danger to you? Either way, I bear responsibility for the possibility of infection, and this reminds me that we must be guarded and vigilant, we must restrict our children’s movement and our own.
Is twenty seconds long enough to thoroughly clean my hands?
The pressure in my chest expands. I sneak into the bathroom to take my temperature again, momentary reassurance that I am well. But is this well? I stand in the bathroom looking at the number that presents itself to me, a neutral number, on a neutral device of measurement, and I ask, what about the invisible suffering parts of us, how can we measure and assess those fevers and chills and aches?
There is so much surface that needs to be disinfected, vast and spreading; what’s underneath must be even vaster, almost infinite, the darkness we fall into, the anxious pain that presses against the ribs, trying to get out. I see it everywhere, written on everyone, muted, uneasy, restlessly awake now.
We knew we would die one day.
We thought we would know better what we had dominion over, what we could control. These depths bubbling like lava, like an eruption at the bottom of the sea, like rumour — are not the message we’d been awaiting. We want instruction. A six-step undertaking to cleanse our surroundings. A bleach solution (9 parts to 1).
A tincture, an inoculation. A cure.
Friday’s cartoon was drawn to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” A friend observed that the past two portraits seem to be expressing a fractured self; in any case, the figures are all boxed up and separated, though some of them are reaching out.
What’s on your mind?
My mind empties out and I see behind the overcast grey sky a clean-swept blue; now hidden, but still there, and I imagine the wind pushing at the clouds and opening a smear of light; the clouds torn like paper, ripped like fabric.
Experience has the same effect, working on my mind to rub away the clouds of certainty. In its place, a frayed understanding — that nothing holds, and that certainty is less desirable than I’d imagined, that instead I am happy to settle for being useful, for finding myself, occasionally, in the right place at the right time.
I see that vulnerability is like an invitation, while certainty silences. The rip in the massing clouds reveals the sky, blue, which was always there, if I’d known to open myself, frayed, worn, fragile, as I’ve always been, whether I knew it or not. I let myself be seen. And in return, I see you.
Saturday’s cartoon was drawn to Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream.” I drew it with my eyes closed. I took the theme rather too literally, which is why I’m running, sort of, though I couldn’t visualize what dream, exactly, I was running down. So I drew a few little star-like flowers that can be seen near my right elbow, like the flowers I noticed on the spider fern whose tendrils are hanging over our sink (pictured at the top of this post).
What’s on your mind?
This time is this time is this time of now and now and now and it is almost impossible to be anywhere else or with anything else but what’s before me.
I notice the spider fern is flowering, tiny delicate blooms hanging over the sink.
I notice my son’s head smells like sweat, and my daughter’s head smells like coconut oil. I touch their hair.
My hands smell of bleach, though I used gloves, and I wonder if the smell is real or remembered, is it in my nostrils or just the memory of it, the way I can smell cigarette smoke from someone else’s car even after I’ve rolled up my window and driven away, even after I’ve left my car in the parking lot to sit outside the door of my daughter’s piano lesson, how even here I think I can smell the stranger’s cigarette smoke in my hair — and by extension, her poor decisions and regrets and longing; which are, of course, my own.
The piano studio has locked its doors.
We live inside.
We do not drive anywhere. We are in a time of plague and even yesterday seems very far from today, estranged from today.
Now. Now. Now. The sound of my pen scratching — too fast, sloppily — across the page. I’ve only just noticed that I grip it as near to the tip, the nib, as is possible. I only just see it — my pen — as an instrument I am playing, an extension of my body, a tool encircled by five tips of fingers, each with a half-moon circle of curved, opaque nail. There are no straight lines on my hand. The pen is straight and hard and useful to me, it is made for this task and nothing more; but I am made for bending, praying, curling, holding, I am made for giving way. I am made for praise. For contorting myself anew.
I am made for change and ever-change, evermore, now, as before.
This is a gift from a friend, from Iran. She gave it to me on Wednesday evening. While I had the words to thank her for the gift, I felt tongue-tied and incapable of properly expressing my grief and horror for what is happening in her homeland. I have felt submerged and helpless by the news of the plane shot down near Tehran, and all those lives senselessly gone; 138 people on that plane were coming to Canada, some were citizens, others were permanent residents or students. Young and old. The wealth of talent they had brought and were bringing to Canada speaks to how fortunate we are, as Canadians, to be blessed by the knowledge and skills and gifts of people from around the world. I hope we live up to expectations, though I know for sure that’s not always true. I wish we would be the country we aspire to be, and that we often tell ourselves we are.
This coming week, my life fills up again with extra activities, beyond writing and parenting. Soccer starts on Monday, with practices and exhibition games to plan; and The X Page workshop starts on Wednesday, twelve weeks of adventure and potential and hopes and challenge, leading to a performance on April 3. Click here for more information (you can already buy tickets!).
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing and writing. Let me tell you what that feels like: BLISS.
The release into another way of being feels so effortless while inside of this state. This is bliss, I’ve said almost every day this week, by which I mean transcendence, by which I mean, entrance into this other realm of existence where I am open to mystery, filled with wonder and delight, delighting in not-knowing, as if on a perpetual adventure and also feeling deeply powerful — feeling certain that it is a worthy undertaking to attempt to bring forth and make manifest and visible the spiritual, the otherwise unknowable and unknown world, through stories, through fiction.
How to connect that world to this one? That way of being and seeing and existing to this one? I don’t know. How to make sense of this escape when all around me is need, responsibility, confusion, and how can I live both there and here?
I wrote the two paragraphs above at my writing group, yesterday, and after I’d read the reflection aloud, one of my friends said: This should be our manifesto. We spend a lot of time talking, in the group, about why we write, what matters, what draws us to this discipline. How can we live both there and here?
One last curiosity: this morning, I opened a notebook that I thought was blank, and discovered several entries, scribbled in pen, dated not long after the birth of my first child. More than seventeen years ago. I was in my twenties. I was pregnant with my second child. Here’s something I wrote, in between describing teething, exhaustion, and anxiety dreams: “have felt mildly depressed after getting no writing time all week, no breaks from mothering & cleaning & cooking, etc. i need it, it feeds me. i think it is this other world for me, an escape, a place where things make sense and have significance or can be made to seem so.”
What a remarkable reminder: I’ve needed it, it’s been feeding me, for as long as I can remember. I don’t know whether I can make sense of what’s happening in the world right now, and I can’t make sense of grief, nor fury, nor fear, and I can’t explain why terrible things happen, nor why leaders behave irrationally, cruelly, impulsively, and without regard for human life. I don’t know why. I don’t know, I don’t know. But I know, on a very small scale, that writing helps. Telling stories helps. As necessary as bread.
My word of the year is SPACE. What I didn’t expect to find within this word is its companion, SILENCE. Silence can be a challenging state to sit within. I don’t always want to hear my own thoughts so clearly, or recognize the distracted and tumbling, tangled nature of my own interior life.
We spent last week, the last week before school started, at the cottage that belonged to my stepmom, and still feels like hers, even though she’s been gone for more than a year now. We love going there, love being there. It’s been a gift to have this place in our lives, and the kids have memories that go back, now, 11 summers. It’s the kind of place that has become a touchstone, and returning is a kind of pilgrimage. Returning is a measure of time passing. While we’re there, though only for a week at most, it feels like we’ve always been there and will always be there.
You can only get there (easily, practically) by boat. About five years ago, Kevin developed an inner ear disturbance that’s triggered by boat rides, and each year the after-effects would last longer and longer (months, even), so for the past two summers, he’s hiked in on a path that literally no one else uses. It’s overgrown. It takes him about an hour and a half. And this year, it was occupied by swarms of insects. He arrived at the cottage looking like a wild man. He wasn’t sure he could manage the hike out, but on Monday, he and Rose trekked the path again, to save his brain.
The corollary to his necessary hike is that I’ve had to learn how to drive a boat (not high on my list of things I wanted to learn how to do). We do what needs doing to get us to this place.
There is plenty of space at the cottage. Space for the kids to play. A big lake for kayaking and adventuring, alone or together. Star-gazing at night. Shelves of books. Late, lazy mornings. Late-night all-family card games. We never seem to need anything more than what we’ve got. Even when meals get creative, by necessity.
Space, silence. Quiet.
I tuned out from the news, from podcasts, from the internet almost altogether. But I did listen to one podcast, On Being, on Sunday. The title was: Silence and the Presence of Everything.
Isn’t that something? How the themes of our lives get tied together by invisible thread? I’d been worrying about space and silence. Silence as a negative. Silence as too much space for my mind to listen, anxiously, to itself.
Silence. Presence. Everything.
“Silence and the Presence of Everything” was about listening. Not active listening for a particular thing you expect to hear, or have been told to listen for, or pay attention to. Listening to what’s there to be heard. Listening without judgement.
An interesting thing happened at the cottage. I managed to write a bit every afternoon, when no one was paying attention; no one even really noticed. What was strange and thrilling was how I would fall into the writing (fiction), almost as if by drifting toward an idea. An image would surface. I would let it drift. I would be resting or sitting by the water. And some small fragment would drift toward me. And then I would get up and write. The writing felt similar to listening.
It didn’t feel active. It didn’t feel forced. It felt like I’d tipped sideways into another time and place and body, and I was just there.
Now I’m here, home again. Dreading a root canal tomorrow morning, but otherwise glad for a day, today, in which I’ve done exactly what I want to do with all my new-found, new-made space: I wrote. I’d gotten up early to exercise with friends and by 10AM when everyone had left the house and the laundry was underway, I felt tired. So I meditated/napped for 10 minutes. And then I got up and wrote. I told myself: Remember to meditate/listen/nap before writing. Drift into what you’re about to do. Listen. It’s okay if listening turns into dreaming. Let yourself drift.
Space = silence. Silence = listening. Listening = drifting. Drifting = door opening to fictional world. Step inside. Space = writing.
Also, space = rest.
I’ll write another blog post (maybe) about what it feels like to let go of the need to pay attention to a particular something, and just be. It’s almost the opposite of striving. I’m such a striver. To be without purpose, listen without demand; it eliminates the task of waiting. It makes silence okay. Drifting toward mystery. Because mystery is okay too.
Erase, and try again. Erase, and try again.
I sit down at my desk to try to write, wanting to scream. Maybe that’s the problem. I want to scream, not write. I want to rant, not write. I want to tweet my rage, not write.
On Friday, my dad and daughter and I drove to Princeton, New Jersey for the funeral of my dad’s uncle, my grandma’s younger brother, who passed away in June at the age of 93. He and his wife had been married for 68 years (makes our 20 sound like a drop in the bucket!). The drive was long, but Dad brought lots of snacks, and we enjoyed the conversation and the scenery. Friday night, rather late, we had dinner in downtown Princeton at a Turkish restaurant, a feast that included a surprise delivery to our table of fresh-baked pitas, which we dipped in house-made hot sauce. We were tired, but we were happy. Flora and I stayed up late watching Friends. On Saturday morning, we breakfasted at the hotel with Grandma and her younger sister and her sister’s husband (who live in Argentina), and my aunt and uncle, who’d all travelled together from Indiana. It was fun. Grandma took one look at me, and sent me back to my room for a sweater (she was sure I’d be chilled due to the A/C), and then led the way, and organized the seating, which should tell you something about her character. She’s 97! I wanted to shout to the room in general, because, honestly, no one would ever guess it.
We dressed up, went to the memorial service and interment, sang, prayed, heard beautiful music. Met relatives. Visited.
Went back to the hotel to change before more family time that afternoon. Turned on the TV. News of a shooting underway in El Paso, Texas. Turned off TV. Pushed news out of mind. Changed, drove to a quiet tree-lined street near downtown Princeton, the home of one of my dad’s cousins. Feasted on a magnificent spread of appetizers. Went for a walk with Flora. Met more relatives. Visited. Listened to grandma and her sister and sister-in-law tell stories. Laughed. Feasted on a magnificent Argentine meal prepared by my dad’s cousins. Argentine music on the stereo. Red wine. Grandma having to be forcibly stopped from helping with the dishes.
Back at the hotel, Flora and Dad and I visited with Grandma in her hotel room. I returned the earrings I’d borrowed from Grandma. It was Grandma who asked whether we’d heard about the shooting. “He’s evil,” she said. She meant Trump. If you knew my Grandma, you’d know that word was not one she would use lightly. The ferocity of her emotion surprised me, even if I was feeling the same.
Flora and I spent the rest of the evening goofing off, wandering the hotel, making ourselves tea, tried to stay up late again to watch Friends, but fell asleep instead.
When my alarm sounded at 7AM, I turned on the news, using my CBC radio app — news from Canada. “Almost thirty people killed in less than 24 hours in mass shootings in the United States …” I thought more people had died of their wounds in El Paso, but no — there had been a second shooting overnight, this time in Dayton, Ohio, a city not an hour from where I grew up. The shooter was killed by police within the first minute that he opened fire, but he still killed at least 9 people; this is the scale of damage that can be done with an assault weapon, and in a world where anything made any sense, it would be evidence to silence the “good guy with a gun” theory forever.
In the breakfast area of the hotel, the news of both shootings played on the large-screen TV. The hotel’s guests were visibly disturbed. The feeling in the room was something unlike anything I’d felt before. It wasn’t shock. It was bewilderment, horror, shame. This keeps happening. This is not an anomaly. This is the new normal. How can this be?
Nevertheless, we had a fun, sociable breakfast with Grandma and everyone else. Briefly, though I don’t think we wanted to go there, the conversation tilted to the causes of this violence. White supremacy. Gun culture. Trump. Racism. White evangelicals — how could they support Trump? But even within our group there was no unity on the solutions. Maybe there are too many solutions, rather then too few?
After our goodbyes, we packed up for the long drive. About half an hour north of Princeton, we drove past Bedminster. It was only later that evening, at home, when I was scouring news sites for opinions and information, that I saw Trump had given his statement (paltry, weak, vague) at his estate in Bedminster, New Jersey. I said, “We drove right by that monster this morning!” And then I thought, good grief, that word rolled out of my mouth unprompted. Do I actually believe he’s a monster? If I call him a monster, what does that make me? And I felt as if rage and hatred was a hole down which I did not want to spiral. Yet I couldn’t turn off the news. I kept scrolling and scrolling, looking for some kind of answer to questions I couldn’t even form. I stayed up till my phone battery was almost dead, at which point, I left my phone downstairs because I knew if I brought it up to bed, I’d never sleep. Would the shootings have affected me in the same way if I hadn’t been in the States when they’d happened? If I hadn’t felt that collective bewilderment in the breakfast area of a Hampton Inn on Highway 1 near Princeton, New Jersey?
This can’t be healthy — and by this, I mean this obsession with the news, in particular this news (though I’ve also been obsessed, this summer, with news of climate change and melting ice, and the murderers, teenagers, crossing Canada, who haven’t been seen for two weeks, whose motives seem linked with the nihilist beliefs of these American shooters). Should I turn it off? Hide my phone? Do I struggle to turn it off because I’m addicted to the feelings of rage and horror this news incites in me?
I feel a need to respond, and not with tweets or rants. To protest. To be an activist. To try to change the way things are. To work to make a better world. To identify possible change and bulldoze toward it. But I also feel very very tired. Overwhelmed. Bewildered. It’s too much. Enough. Do something!
But what? What narratives am I creating? Isn’t it my job to respond with narrative? A narrative is purposeful and directed, but the news confuses me. A confused mind cannot create narrative. Somehow, I have to un-confuse my mind, and also my spirit.