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.
Summer Carrie is here. Summer Carrie is traveling, swimming, reading, hanging laundry on the line, doing copious amounts of yoga, walking with friends, hosting family, eating entire cucumbers, picking backyard berries, and soaking in the sunshine (and rain).
Will I finish my summer writing project? Will I learn how to watercolour flowers? Will I eat enough cherries to last me all year? When will I see the Barbie movie? Can anyone slice a watermelon better than my dad? Why are so many people from my past visiting in my dreams? Do the ones I love know that I love them, do I tell them often enough, and in languages that speak directly to their hearts? Should I aim for more sleep and rest, or more play and fun? Am I brave enough to do all the things I’ve said yes to?
Need to pack up for class and head to campus, but also wanted to write about … well … a list of things too long for one post, so to boil it down, I’ve landed on an image that’s making me grin.
Saturday morning, woke to a smell of someone cooking something in the kitchen. Went downstairs in my pjs and found three teenage boys, none belonging to me, making pancakes by committee, no lights on but the stove’s fan was going. An avid discussion was underway on when exactly to flip, were there enough bubbles, and was this first pancake cooked all the way through, turning to me to ask, what did I think? The pancake in question was definitely not cooked all the way through.
My son, their host, they told me, was still asleep. We laughed about that.
They didn’t need my help or advice, I could see, so I assured them that the pancake that wasn’t quite done wouldn’t kill anyone if eaten with maple syrup, and I continued on to the living room to do some yoga.
This image might represent the peak of my parenting joy, the pinnacle of any parenting success I dare claim. My children’s friends feel at home in our house! The pandemic temporarily robbed us of this rare and fleeting delight. My youngest is about to turn 15. I know this too shall pass, but I won’t grieve it while it’s happening, I’ll just make a note of its existence — here, and in my mind’s eye.
There are moments when one’s actual happening life feels fully integrated and aligned with one’s intentions and beliefs. This was that. (And other moments this past week, too, but this is the easiest to write about in a compressed snippet of time.)
It’s okay to be okay.
Is it vulnerable to confess that I am happy, content, that I feel cherished and full of gratitude? It feels that way sometimes. Or it feels like I’m tempting fate. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone or it will get taken away. I wonder why. I wonder why there is pressure to confess only the misery and pain and missteps, as a signal of vulnerability and openness and being human, rather than the joy? But both are true of being human: we know joy and contentment too. I wonder why I would ever feel guilty for or superstitious about being content? Yet, it’s there. Like I’m bragging, maybe? Like I’m setting up a comparison that might make someone else feel less than? Like I deserve to be taken down a notch.
Be that as it may, I want to spread the word that it’s okay to be okay. It’s okay to be okay with all the feelings. It’s okay to ask for what you want. It’s okay to declare that you need a personal time-out to cool down. It’s okay to look around and say, hey, this is pretty sweet.
This morning, I created a word-storm. I invite you to do the same. The prompt is: WORDS THAT FEED ME.
Useful, worthwhile, care, purpose, value, meaningful, attention, calm, observant, responsive, kind, fun, joyful, clear, open, wonder, curious, grace, gratitude, improvisation, generosity, spirit, longing, prayer, adventure, trust, serve.
To each of these words, an image or images attach.
USEFUL: I’ve struggled with this word, yet it comes to mind first. It’s connected to WORTHWHILE, VALUE, SERVE. My Mennonite words. Is spending a year drawing cartoons useful? Well, who is to say it’s not? I’m beginning to learn with my whole body that useful is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe I drew cartoons for a year in order to become the person that I am right now: someone who values PLAY and creativity in others, and knows how to make space for it. It’s okay to be okay — I don’t need to apologize or explain to anyone why something is or has been useful to me. TRUST.
CARE: I love this word. I have a friend who always calls me “Care Bear.” It was my childhood nickname too, bestowed on me by my brother, who is the king of nickname-bestowing (it’s a gift!). CARE is connected to MEANINGFUL, ATTENTION, WONDER, CURIOUS, GENEROSITY, SPIRIT. I’m learning that it’s okay to be okay with caring deeply; but I’m also learning how to set boundaries, so my care doesn’t swamp me, or burn me out. CARE can be expressed in so many ways. I don’t want my care to burden the people about whom I care. That’s where boundaries come in: knowing what’s mine to offer, and what’s mine to leave be.
PURPOSE: Here’s where PURPOSE comes into it. I am beginning to accept that my PURPOSE is most mysterious. It’s not for me to decide or drive toward or push into. What I’m making isn’t CLEAR while I’m making it. This is true of any writing project — I know this is my very bones — but it’s also true of the project of being alive, being human. You don’t know what you’re making while making it. When I’m writing, I lean into the mystery, I let myself be led, I follow what makes me WONDER, what makes me CURIOUS. I chase the energy that’s playing with me. What I’m making is not static, and it doesn’t require me to bring it to life: it’s animating me in return, or animating my imagination. Why not apply this sensation of ADVENTURE, of exploration, of following where you’re being led to real life too? When something brings me energy and delight, when I revel in what I’m doing, then I know: this is my PURPOSE.
It’s funny how we tell ourselves that we need to know our PURPOSE in advance — to set goals, and be useful, and climb the mountain, and use our gifts to the fullest. When no — we need to be comfortable not knowing. As in writing, we don’t get to decide the outcome. Leave that to someone else. Or leave it alone altogether and don’t give it another thought.
GRATITUDE: This is the this. But I don’t want to force it. I can’t really force it. To be in a GENEROUS mindset is to know GRATITUDE. Then it’s impossible not to give thanks for the GRACE that speaks in many voices. I do think this can be a practice, though. I notice myself saying thank you more and more frequently, in funny ways, too. Thank you, plant, for not dying even though I’ve forgotten to water you! Thank you, weary body, for getting me through this day. Thank you, brain, for keeping me safe in busy traffic. Thank you, heart, for beating all these beats. You know? And then this thankfulness spills everywhere, over everything and everyone.
KIND: Hey. It’s also okay to not be okay. That’s the kindest thing you can say to yourself, and to those around you. Let yourself RESPOND to the situation that’s unfolding, and you will be KIND.
FUN: For me it’s so much fun to be CURIOUS, to WONDER, to IMPROVISE, to PLAY, to RESPOND. Your FUN recipe will be totally different from mine. It’s WORTHWHILE experimenting with your own ingredients. You’ll know it when you feel it. It feels easy, light, delightful. You will laugh at yourself a lot. You will be patient and relaxed and gentle. You will be JOYFUL. Those around you may sense your joy and feel freed to respond in kind. It’s possible.
It’s okay to be okay.
My goodness. What a year, what a season.
Boundaries are love!! a friend texts me.
Another friend helps me dig into my worry that writing has served as a form of therapy, lo these many years, and with medication now lowering my anxiety to levels previously never experienced, I wonder, will writing still come to me, will I still feel the urge if it’s not an obsessive impulse?
I am collecting the wisdom of the sisterhood. I made my birthday (December 29th) into an opportunity to connect and confer and laugh and reunite and relax with friends and family, near and far. In fact, the whole of this holiday season has been about this: connection, and ease. Sleep when tired. Rest when the stomach flu takes you down. Let someone else (Kevin! Angus!) cook the big turkey dinner. Bake in concert with kids and kids’ friends. Knead sticky bun dough for a good half hour while listening to a meditation. Walk through the snow storm. Snuggle the dog. Savour the warmth. Sing carols and hymns for hours. Be clear of mind. Drink in the kindness of others. Pour out what you can. Invite. Delight. Say yes, and thank you, and welcome, and thank you, and eat till you’re filled to the brim.
I’ve often been more reflective on birthdays past. This birthday, I chose to socialize all day long.
Can a woman contented with her life still be a writer? I woke up this morning and thought: I wouldn’t trade this contentment, this inner peace and delight that flickers with promise and hope, in order to write another book. But why am I building a case for either / or? Surely there are other paths in. I could argue as effectively that I’ve written books in order to be published, as some kind of proof of belonging, or proof of a longed-for identity (though that’s not how belonging works, nor grounding in identity; another hard-won revelation this year).
I’ll be teaching creative writing again this winter, and I’m interested in exploring what writing feels like now, again, anew; what feeds the urge to create; what sates it; what can I learn with / from my students?
If I’m not writing to ease my anxiety … if I’m not writing in order to be published … what sparks the desire to write a-whole-nother-book? It’s gruelling work that doesn’t quite make sense, as those close to me have observed — the effort I put into draft after draft can’t be paid off in the resulting novel. Effort and result are disconnected; even, I’d argue, unrelated. I’ve experienced book-writing as a painful process, I guess I’m confessing. It hasn’t made logical sense, not from a financial perspective, nor from an artistic perspective either, really; which is why I’m curious to know: will I still be able to make a beautiful book, with alive characters, built on an elaborate structure I see in my head, if I’m not obsessed, or in pain, or seeking to soothe deep anxiety? I’m hopeful. I am.
And I’m willing to shed all ambition to be a person with delight in her voice, and love in her throat, and patience in her bones.
What a wild experiment this living is.
What a lucky woman I am, to get to live in concert on this planet with so many wise, kind, generous spirits and friends. What a wonderful year this has been of feeling intensely (gratitude, shame, pride, uncertainty, clarity, anger, delight and so much more) and of paying attention to what the feelings are telling me; of making mistakes and being forgiven; and of seeing Francie in the world. The feeling I’m feeling right this very second is GRATITUDE! I’m thankful for a new job that brings me satisfaction and delight (as a temporary secretary / library clerk in the public schools); and for everyone who loves me as I am, a mess of flaws and inadequacies and intentions and goofiness. I carry you somewhere inside me, everyone who’s walked even a step with me on this path. Thank you for letting me give, when and what I could, and thank you for the gifts you offered me, whether I deserved them or not. I am a grateful, humbled recipient.
Please forgive me the times I let you down, or was too inward-looking to notice what you needed; or stuck in my own head, or protecting my pride. (I’ll forgive myself too; I’ll try.)
Boundaries are love!! Do I know what this means? I’m learning / unlearning, but I get it muddled often enough to cause pain.
Well. I’m human. Let’s all be human together. We’re so interesting and strange and difficult and curious. But we’re not disappointing! Not really, not truly, with a shift of perspective.
Wishing you time for reflection and / or fun as you look toward a whole new year.
A friend has offered to redesign the banner on my website to remove the title “Obscure CanLit Mama,” which no longer fits so well. On a hot August morning in 2008, I titled the blog on a whim, and began sending out posts to the universe. My youngest was newborn. He’s now in high school. In those early days, I wrote a lot about the kids. I posted recipes and meal plans. I wrote about juggling constant stay-at-home childcare with attempts to steal even a smidgen of writing time. I’d published one collection of short stories, four years earlier. It seemed presumptuous to attach myself to CanLit as a participant (even an Obscure one). The Mama was the ascending identifying force in my life at that time.
I haven’t posted a recipe in a very long time.
I don’t write about my kids, except glancingly.
These days, I come here, to this familiar space, to reflect mostly on writing, but also on what seem to me to be ephemeral, spiritual matters: aging, artistic discipline, setting routines, learning new things, re-learning old things, the repetition of the seasons, creative practices, play, emotional weather / weathering emotions. Etc.
In the 14 years that this blog has existed, I’ve poured energy into being a writer, laying claim to that identity, earning grants, publishing three more books, teaching creative writing, organizing writing workshops, serving as a consulting editor with The New Quarterly, speaking, travelling, practicing the craft, seeking to keep my connection to my writing alive and thriving.
Obscurity is a self-effacing mindset (erasing? shrinking? minimizing? hiding?). I know that. But it was necessary protection as I tried to become / be a writer. I’ve been afraid of being a writer, of laying claim to this identity and its shifting cultural responsibilities. Since childhood, I’ve wanted to perform magic tricks with language, to conjure imaginary landscapes, converse with imaginary people, finding solace in their losses and successes. I did not aspire beyond that — that was a big-enough dream. I knew my writing wouldn’t be activist in nature, because I am not an activist by nature. I’m a ventriloquist, an observer, a performer, agnostic, hungry to learn, curious about the questions, less-so the answers, the mystery, not the proof.
It’s a rather exalted view of being a writer. Or maybe I mean ecstatic. Or impractical. But I admire it, I love what my former self was attempting.
I dipped into The Juliet Stories this morning, a book now ten years old, and the writing sang off the page, just like magic. I couldn’t remember the person who’d written it. It was like reading a stranger’s words. Did I know then what I’d made? No. I didn’t trust its worth. I didn’t need to. I just kept trying, year after year, focused on the writing, and eventually made something.
I want very much to be that same writer, to write with confidence, believing in the magic of language. “You know it’s not the same as it was”: this song came on my “Run Fast” playlist this morning (oh Harry! so nostalgic); maybe “As It Was” especially resonates in These Times, when we’re trying to remember who we were Before. But life is lived in the present, and time carries us onward. We change; and experiences change us. It’s not the same as it was. That’s a neutral statement, at heart. It doesn’t have to weigh heavily, though it’s tempting to roll around in those deliciously bittersweet emotions.
What’s next? What path am I running, where does it lead? I can’t see very far ahead of my feet. Whose hands am I holding? What’s pulling me onward?
What kind of a writer am I now? What kind of a writer do I aspire to be? Do I need to know? No. As Lynda Barry would remind me: it’s none of your business. Follow the energy, get comfortable in the not-knowing.
I don’t have a new title for this blog, just my name. Enough? Enough. Yes.