Category: Death

the Grandma project

2024-02-02_10-54-03

My Grandma, who died in October, gave me a wonderful gift—a project whose resonances continue to unfold. Over many months (years, actually), she gave me her story. She thought it might make good material for a novel, and we had a lot of fun together, exploring, talking through ideas, and trying to dig down into what it meant to write fiction using biography.

But.

I’m coming around to believing that what Grandma was trying to teach me, or tell me, was something maybe greater, definitely more subtle. Yes, there was the gift of her story; and there was the gift of trust—that told me implicitly that she believed I could make something of the material. But through the time we spent together, in our roles—me as listener, she as storyteller—she offered something different, too, valuable and profound. I did not see it at the time. I was focused on trying to map out her story, to imagine it into a fictional form, to gather imagery, to play with structure, and to dig into what mattered to her. 

So many wonderful clues. 

So many wonderful conversations on Zoom.

The novel exists now. It has been deemed by an important editor to be “too quiet.” But I don’t want to dwell on failure, or rejection, because I don’t see this project in those terms, or even on a particular timeline of known outcome or goal. 

Grandma gave me her story and her trust, and I believe she trusted me to find the gold at the centre of our conversations—the conversations themselves.

Grandma reminded me that other people are the gold in my life. She reminded me of the gifts within that I had been overlooking—the capacity to listen deeply, for example. The capacity to give my time and attention to others. To create welcoming spaces. To invite response. The joy in that exchange.

My writing life has represented a longing for meaning and purpose.  I wanted it to be a calling, I think—a universal longing, no doubt. Meaning and purpose is an answer to pain of all kinds: loneliness, fear, stasis. Grandma reminded me, over and over, in words and in deeds, that meaning and purpose isn’t found in rumination, but in participation. What I learned during our conversations was to notice my own desire, perhaps a very primal need, to share time with others. 

My writing life alone has not been the answer to this longing for meaning and purpose. This has been hard for me to accept, or even to see.

Grandma’s mantra, her life’s focus, was helping others—she advised me pretty constantly to practice this too. When in doubt, when down and out, do something for someone else. Take your mind off your own troubles and busy yourself trying to ease someone else’s. This could hold negative connotations: distracting oneself or meddling or avoiding personal reflection. But I don’t think the one cancels out the other. In fact, deeper personal reflection is facilitated within relationships. And reflection deepens the capacity to walk with others in times of need.

And there is need! People have cares and troubles!

And we all, each one of us, have valuable gifts to share.

I believe that Grandma was trying to teach me this: find ways to share your life and share your gifts. The act of sharing helps you see that you do have gifts to share that are appreciated (and maybe not the ones you’d thought), and this lifts you into an ease within your own bones and bdy that others experience in your presence—a state of welcoming.

When I spent those mornings “interviewing” Grandma, I was learning how to listen deeply, with honour and care—and her appreciation fed me, in return. Ultimately, our interactions nudged me to get out of my own head, and go exploring in the world.

Would I be working in a school library if I hadn’t spent that time with Grandma? Something about our conversations, and her example, gave me permission to not be so precious about my writing life. What was I trying to protect, by wrapping my hands around its specialness? Writing is a durable craft to be held lightly. So many of the things I told myself about my writing wasn’t true: that it required sacrifice, that if I wasn’t doing it every day, I wasn’t a writer, that I would squander my purpose if I did not bow down before this apparent gift that I had been given.

It wasn’t writing I was (have been, am) wrapping my hands around. It was (has been, is) ego, fragile and important, surely, but painfully self-involved, performative. 

I’m settling into a new perspective on projects themselves, a delightful sense of give and trust to the time they take in their unfolding. I love a project, it must be said. I love a goal; but the path to discovery is not direct. I’m aware, now more than ever, of the gentle unfurling of projects, letting them become inside my mind before I attempt to bring them forward—or just the pieces or parts that come to the fore, and mix with available materials and the response of others. I relish responses. In this way, a project becomes, it lives. This is the opposite of creating in a panic, or with anxiety, or focused on outcome—a project can be like a magnet, pulling in ideas. A project is of its moment, too, its time, its place, its surroundings, dependent on its context and relationships. A project is responsive.

It is not a lonely undertaking. Grandma knew that, surely.

Oh beautiful improvisation. Beautiful congregation.

xo, Carrie

Is that what an image is?

2023-10-21_08-09-48

I’m sitting at my desk listening to the voices of my sons behind me, as they play a game together—spontaneously, after supper. It is a Saturday night in mid-October, and I am sick (literally, not figuratively) with something most likely picked up in the germ-swirl that is an elementary school’s main office.

In my dream last night, I was laughing/lamenting that my talent is for making these rectangular objects filled with words, but another part of me said, no, your talent is for taking real life and converting it into something tangible that others can understand and feel too—an image. In the dream, I could see that it wasn’t the book-shaped piles of words that were important, but the images themselves, the core pieces of representation that shine on in the imagination, that last or spark or make meaning inside the consciousness—who knows why?

Images that I’m carrying right now—too many to count, stuck to me like burrs, alive and imagined, some from my own experience, some utterly invented. 

Have you watched Reservation Dogs? It’s in its final season (of three), and I can’t bear to think of it coming to an end. Each episode is a jewel. I end each one weeping (but it’s oh so full of laughter too). An image I’m carrying comes from season two, when an elder, a grandmother, is dying in her home, and the house fills up with relatives and neighbours, food, stories, silence, words. Nothing is rushed, and there is time to let this singular passage unfold.

Another image I’m carrying is happening in a room I’ve never seen, where a person very dear to me is lying in a bed with the lights turned down, beside a beeping bright hallway, dozing on and on, sick and frail and afraid. She is not alone, but she feels alone. I can’t reach her, I am not able to reach her right now. There’s more that I could see, or imagine, but for now, I hover merely in the conjured room. It’s where I am, it’s where things are. Liminal space.

Unfinished stories. Fragments. Is that what images are?

To write a whole book—it’s within my capacity, I can do it, I have done it, and almost to my own satisfaction. But it does cost me—it costs me living in the real world, living my whole life. My whole life is too full right now—full of experiences I’m living through and in and among, experiences that may never be translated into words placed inside a rectangular object, to try to keep. I want to keep the things I love. (Wasn’t that my calling—to fight to observe and preserve the things I’ve loved and love?) But not everything can be kept, or contained, or held. Not even the most precious, the most wondered-at and cherished. (It has to be changed to be kept, in any case. It has to be turned into something else—an image, alive but only in the mind.) 

And most things are carried away, let go. Here and felt, but not kept. Ephemeral. 

xo, Carrie

Bring the light

2022-12-21_04-09-16

Winter solstice. Do you mark this day?

I shared the morning with women from the neighbourhood, many of whom I’ve known for nearly twenty years, a few even longer. (I don’t host this event — I just get to go! It was dreamed up eleven years ago by my friend Kasia, who deeply understands the power of ritual.) It’s been two years since we’ve been able to come together to share in this ritual of welcoming back the light, on the darkest day of the year. There was magic in the room.

2022-12-21_04-08-03

I love how as we age, we are freer with our emotions, freer to express our whole selves. We knew each other when our children were babies; and now our children are teens and young adults, and our parents are growing older. Crises are familiar to us, during this stage of life. And so, I think, we’ve all learned through experience how to offer each other support and care. With laughter. With tears. Without judgement.

I would like to honour the women of my generation, who are edging up to fifty, or already there. I see in my friends such a wealth of wisdom, honouring care, love, and intention. We’re in a gritty time in our lives. Yet we are not depleted. I love what I’ve learned from my friends: how to care for myself, how to care for others without losing myself, how to be kind. When I think back on dark times, there’s a friend coming toward me, carrying the light, meeting me where I’m at. I can picture these exchanges inside my mind, a private photo album of kindnesses. Honestly, there’s so much kindness in this photo album, it’s bursting at the seams, and so many of the gestures are seemingly small — yet they live on inside me. Isn’t that a good to know? That your / my gestures of kindness don’t need to be extravagant. They don’t even need to totally make sense: spontaneous, simple, brief, non-intrusive (trust; the kindness I’ve learned from my friends doesn’t presume or assume or even claim to understand, it just shows up).

Light doesn’t need the right words. It comes from inside.

You / I / we all carry it. How powerful we are, how brave.

xo, Carrie

On friendship

20220126_070211

Friendship is on my mind.

Long-lived friendship, enduring friendship, friendship that gets through and past some hard stuff, including conflict.

It’s not a subject that we talk about much. Maybe it can seem like talking about friends is a kind of a flex, like my friends are better than your friends, or something like that. Friendship can also be a place many of us have experienced loss we don’t know how to talk about, friendships that ended or faded, and we’re not sure why. Personally, I hold a fair bit of insecurity around friendship. I was very lonely some of those high school years, and that feeling of being an outsider burrowed deep into my brain. Am I good friend or a bad friend? What’s the rule book, and am I not understanding something that I should? People won’t like me if I’m too [fill in the blank]; or if I [fill in the blank].

But that’s a limited way to frame friendship, I think (note: I’m still figuring out friendship, even though high school was a long long time ago). Friendship isn’t about getting people to like you. It’s not a popularity contest, or a competition.

It’s about finding and connecting with people whose company you enjoy, people you admire and trust and love, people you want to be with and learn from, and to whom you can offer the same in return. There’s also some mystery in friendship: timing, chemistry, mutuality. It doesn’t always click or work out. Maybe part of being a friend is being okay with the relationship changing without feeling (or, more accurately, reacting to feelings of) resentment or jealousy or hurt. (I don’t know, as I said, I’m still figuring this out.) It can help if both people have similar expectations for the friendship (this seems really important, actually, but I’ve literally never discussed this with a friend — have you?)

Do you have role models for friendship? Older people in your life who have maintained and nurtured friendships you aspire to?

A few things I’ve noticed about myself and friendship: I’m most comfortable one-on-one. I like doing an activity with a friend, rather than sitting and chatting (like going for a walk, or making food together). I like hosting parties (this has not been a viable outlet during the pandemic!). In groups, I prefer meeting with a purpose or theme (and friend groups are even harder to talk about than individual friendship). I consider my siblings my friends.

I’ve been reflecting on this subject in part because I’ve been texting with a friend’s mother, who just lost one of her closest friends, quite suddenly. She sent me this poem from Rilke, which was part of a text thread between herself and her friend. (I aspire to send poems to my friends by text.)

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. -Rilke

A friendship is like any other relationship that is full of love and care. It is a most dangerous thing. If you love someone, losing them will break your heart. But these relationships, no matter how dangerous, are vital, life-giving, affirming, enriching. Each of us is like a locked room, or a book written in a very foreign tongue. In friendship, we walk the questions together. We feel less alone. Every one who has been your friend, at one time or another in your life, has walked the questions with you. And there are a few we may be fortunate enough to walk with till the end.

xo, Carrie

January reflections

20220131_070642

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!

20220117_070137

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.)

IMG_20220123_194338_800

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?

2022-01-22_05-30-32

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.

20220117_065258

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.

20220118_064110

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.

xo, Carrie

Views from inside another lockdown

2021-01-28_10-30-3901/14/21

Our morning routine is sturdy and pleasant. Exercise, shower, breakfast. We’ve worked out a shower schedule, since there are six of us vying for a spot. I’ve been eating chia seeds and oats soaked in yogurt, or scrambled eggs on homemade bread for breakfast. Everyone is at their desk (or couch, or bed) by 9AM. Peaceful. And motivating, too. I’m wasting less time in the mornings getting to my own work.

2021-01-28_10-31-2901/15/21

Today, I wrote for so long that two of my pens ran out of ink! Something that brings me pleasure each day is to check in on my plants. I’ve got two new ones that I repotted from cuttings, and it gives me such a kick to see the progress their little shoots are making, day by day, slowly, slowly, rising and unfurling into shiny new leaves.

2021-01-28_10-32-2201/16/21

If I’m getting “better” at drawing, as a few people have commented recently, does it change my approach to this project? I’d like to keep this fun, unselfconscious, an adventure into the unknown, into the hidden parts of myself that only my hand and pen can discover; like what’s shown today, above, in my awkward hesitant shape, revealing the vulnerability I felt (but didn’t want to admit) during this conversation with a friend.

2021-01-28_10-32-5801/17/21

Many lovely grace notes on this quiet Sunday—baking bread, playing hymns and singing harmony with Annabella, church on YouTube and Zoom followed by watching the Liverpool game while everyone sat around in the living-room—but it all revolved around breath. Controlled. In, out, long, smooth.

2021-01-28_10-33-2501/18/21

Talked to my Grandma this afternoon, asking questions about specific times and experiences in her life. We will keep talking. I want to ask her about big things, like, how do you feel about death? How did you survive the upsets and shocks in your life? (Talk about self-conscious: I do not like the drawing of myself in the corner of the Zoom screen, and nearly scribbled over it before posting here; but decided to let it stand.)

2021-01-28_10-33-5801/19/21

Sometimes I can’t keep my eyes open and I unroll my yoga mat and lie down in a very particularly way on my studio floor (which is heated), and I nap—for no more than 24 minutes. More stories via Zoom from my Grandma this morning. I’m listening. I have time to listen.

2021-01-28_10-34-3501/20/21

I paused my day to watch Kamala Harris take her oath of office, and was later transfixed by Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb.” We aren’t broken, we are unfinished, she proclaimed. I write these words on my heart. (I’ll admit, I held my breath till Joe Biden was sworn in, and then—relief.)

2021-01-28_10-35-0601/21/21

It can get very busy in the kitchen at breakfast time: for accuracy, this drawing should have at least two more people squeezed into it. I spent the morning talking to Grandma again, and she told me about celebrating the inauguration last night, even watching the entire TV special, sitting through all the musical acts, even when she didn’t love the songs. Someone chose them for a reason, she told me. We talked about change today, and next time we are going to talk about death.

2021-01-28_10-35-3401/22/21

I’ve scarcely left my desk all day; but after supper last night, our whole family walked uptown. It was the first time we’d all been out together since lockdown. I get very panicked and queasy seeing new businesses opening now, and trying to survive. Like, the worst feeling! I wonder why?

*

I should have taken photos of my drawings in full natural daylight, but I forgot till it was too late (too late being just after 5PM). I notice a lingering and annoying dissatisfaction with the imperfection caused by the poor lighting. The colours are faded and distorted, for one thing! But I’m too tired and it’s too much end-of-the-week to start all over again (plus, I’d have to wait till tomorrow to re-take all the photos!). Hey, it’s Friday evening, and we’ve got take-out on the table, from Sari-Sari Filipino Cuisine. Look them up, if you live in Kitchener. They post their menus daily on Facebook, and the food is delicious and inexpensive, and served in the most generous portions.

Happy weekend, everyone.

xo, Carrie

Note: About a week after originally posting this, I photographed all the drawings again, in natural daylight, and uploaded them to replace the ones that had annoyed me so much. Is the post measurably better because of this? I don’t know, but I feel better!