I love that my birthday falls so close to the end of the year; it’s the perfect time for reflection. Last night I wrote by hand in my journal, as I’ve done for many years now, on the night before my birthday. This is just one of a few simple rituals that make each birthday feel special, squeezed as it is between Christmas and New Year’s. For example, this morning started with a hot yoga class; something I’ve been doing on my birthday since 2009, when I first tried out a hot yoga class. That first yoga class was a treat and an adventure, to try something new, and to steal time for myself. I couldn’t have guessed how it would change me. I was hooked — not necessarily hooked on hot yoga, although that has served me well over the years, but hooked on moving my body, becoming present in my body through physical challenge. I’m now entering my seventh years of serious and regular physical practice: running, walking the dogs, cycling, spin class, weight training, boot camp, kundalini yoga, hot yoga, swimming, soccer, dancing, cross-country skiing.
In 2011, I focused on competition and races.
In 2012, I first learned how to work through injury.
Also in 2012, I joined a women’s soccer team and became a teammate. I hadn’t participated in team sports since I’d last played soccer at age 11. I had a fun season that summer, but we moved to the country and I didn’t play soccer again. Later, I would have said definitively that team sports was not for me; was it trauma and shame from having been, often, picked last in gym class, a lingering sense of not belonging, not knowing how to belong? We moved often when I was a child. I was often the new kid and new kids who are shy are picked last in gym class. But that wasn’t my interpretation at the time; instead, I thought I was bad at team sports. If you’d known me as a teen, you would never have thought, oh yes, Carrie will make a good coach someday. Belonging to a team as an adult changed me, and it has changed my outlook on team sports. Seeing my kids belong to teams, even during times when they’ve struggled, has given me insight into the potential of being part of something bigger than oneself.
Also, it’s just plain fun. Have I mentioned that part?
Today, I turn 41 years old. This is middle age, if you’re honest about average human lifespans. Today, I don’t mind being older. I’m grateful for a body that is able to move and stretch and participate. I do not take it for granted. Much brings me joy in this rich and textured time of life. Connection to my children. Soaking up time together as a family. The adventure of writing. Opportunities to be a mentor, to teach, to coach. Sharing and receiving the ongoing story of our daily lives with friends, with siblings. Getting to hug my mom, and my dad and stepmother. Reading wonderful books. I’m humbled by the luxuries of my life. If there’s one thing I want for the year ahead it is to seek out, look for, and recognize opportunities to serve, to offer what’s mine to give, and also to share. To share a sense of adventure. To have fun. To play. May none of us ever be too old for that.
Today, I want to write about the little things. Little things that might seem unimportant because they’re not on any to-do list, they’re not responsibilities. Little things that might seem incidental in a bigger picture, not the heart of any day, but the flavour. Little things that give me a little peace. I’m knee-deep in marking and have to stay on schedule, so this is not what I should be doing, but I’m going to make a list of “little things” to mark this particular moment in time. At other moments, I might put other things on this list. But today, now, here is what’s given me a little peace recently.
Playing the piano. Either my own improvised noodling around, or sight-reading cheesy Christmas songs, or accompanying my ten-year-old during her violin practice.
Crafting. I know, weird, right? Not my usual thing. But I’ve gotten into a latch-hooking project, initiated by my ten-year-old (who loves her crafts). Same child also initiated an ornament-making craft-time this weekend, and everyone in the family got involved. My personal fave are the Trudeau ornaments, crafted by my thirteen-year-old (who has a new haircut, very stylish, if I do say so myself; I gave both my teenagers haircuts recently, which is another kind of craft, in a way, I suppose).
Walking the dogs. I’m running very little right now due to injury, but I’ve found surprising peace in walking the dogs before bedtime, or on an early weekend morning when the neighbourhood is quiet. The pace is gentle. The dogs amuse me.
Swimming. To replace the running. Monday was my first day, and I went with my swim coach, who also happens to by my thirteen-year-old daughter. She should be your swim coach too. Our session was as tough as a boot camp. She’s demanding, encouraging and kind, and smart about correcting technical flaws in my stroke. (She also coaches Kevin and her younger sister on Thursday mornings. So this is a little thing many of us in the family are enjoying right now.)
Coaching. Right now, I’m coaching my fourteen-year-old’s indoor futsal team (similar to soccer), and I’m volunteering with my ten-year-old’s soccer team, too. I love working with both groups of kids — the teenaged boys and the younger girls. I’ve been practicing my deeper coach’s voice around the house, and every practice or game is another opportunity to learn something new, or put some new concept into practice (for me, and for them). It’s the perfect activity for a person with a growth mindset outlook. We can always get better! Hurray!
Writing. I haven’t had a lot of writing time, recently, so I’ve been taking my laptop to basketball and soccer practices at which I’m not involved. Earplugs in. Sweet vanishing into another world.
Stretching. My body needs to stretch, loves to stretch. I’ve been squeezing in a few yoga classes.
Reading. A couple of days ago, I thought I had a few free minutes. Ever have those moments? When you think, how strangely wonderful that I should have nothing to do? So I sat in front of the fire devouring Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name. I was so relaxed, so blissful — so blissfully forgetting that in fact I did have something to do. This strangely wonderful moment had been brought to me by a memory lapse. I’d forgotten to pick up my youngest at school; friends had to help out; and I felt embarrassed and somewhat shamed for my parenting lack as I jogged along the sidewalk, late, late, late. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wish for more of those rare “free” minutes for daytime reading.
All for now. Please comment if you have “little things” that give you a little peace, too.
Discernment is something Mennonites are expert at; in fact, Mennonites are so good at discernment that it sometimes seems it’s code for clearly we don’t all agree so let’s keep discerning in perpetuity so as to never make a decision. Given that this is my cultural background, perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy process so much. But I do also like to come around to decisions now and again. That said, discernment is rather brilliant, in my opinion. What it does is allow a decision to unfold slowly, with voice given to many different opinions and angles; it’s a process of listening as much as speaking.
This post is a continuation of my thoughts from yesterday’s confession: that I don’t like being the speaker at the front of the room.
I’ve been trying to discern why.
It isn’t that I don’t like being in a leadership position. In fact, I enjoy taking the lead, to which my younger siblings could attest. But there are different styles and types of leadership, and the leadership I prefer to practice is the kind that asks questions, that operates in relationship, that collaborates with, that is creative and responsive and in the moment. I want to ask questions. I want to hear stories, I want to hear and try to understand other perspectives. I want to see my small ideas opening up small ideas in someone else, and I want to be opened up too; I want to learn too.
It’s the reason I like reading and writing short stories, the kind that end in a questioning, open way that unfolds into the reader and the reader’s experience, rather than telling the reader what the answer is. Resonance. That’s what I’m looking for, in everything I do.
Yesterday evening, off I went with my eldest son to coach his soccer team. I was as tired as I’d been all day. There wasn’t time to eat supper. But when we got onto the field, the hour flew by, my exhaustion vanished. I love coaching soccer. I don’t love it because I’m an expert. I’m not. I love it because it’s a creative undertaking, and because I find myself, in this role, engaged with the kids on the team: trying to figure out what will motivate them as individuals, assessing their levels of interest and skill, and asking them to push themselves in small ways—for each player this will be different. I also love it because it’s fun. We’re meeting up so they can play a game.
I think we all need to play. We should all be doing something every day that feels playful, just for fun, something that lifts us out of the ordinary. Something we don’t have to do for any reason other than it makes us happy.
When teaching is going well, it’s for the same reasons. It’s because we’re engaged in a creative enterprise together. Writing and revision should feel playful. I know this won’t always be the case, and writing is work, no doubt about it, but for me—and what I want to share—is that writing, especially fiction, is play. You get to live inside your imagination like you haven’t had permission to do since you were a child. You get to explore whatever interests you. You get to ask questions and wonder and roam freely around your own mind, making it all up, drawing from the back of your mind “perishable moments you hadn’t even noticed that you noticed.” To paraphrase Lynda Barry.
And that’s about where I’ve gotten in my process of discernment. Expect me to release a mission statement in the next decade or so.
P.S. Read this, from the New Yorker (wish I had a subscription!): an inspiring and moving essay by George Saunders about his own creative writing teachers. (Side note: how the heck did Tobias Wolff have time to help parent three children, work full-time leading graduate classes in creative writing, thoroughly read every submission to the program, and write and publish his own books?)
P.S. 2 Here’s how I started this morning. I slept in until 6:45. Then I listened to this song and did kundalini exercises for about half an hour, while the older kids started their day too, but before the younger two got up. It was a good start and I feel much more rested. First discernment decision: I’m limiting my 5AM exercise to no more than three times per week; I’m open to dropping to even less if I’m still really tired. I will reassess in six weeks.
Confession: I do not enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to myself talk.
I do, however, enjoy standing at the front of a room, listening to others talk about a subject I’ve opened up for them: this is the method I’ve been using in my class, asking the students to break into smaller groups and discuss a subject, then return to the larger group to share their thoughts, and I love how ideas begin to flow, to cross-pollinate, to deepen, and I am simply a facilitator, responding to the discussion, but not imposing my will upon it. I am not there to be the expert. I am not an expert. This is not to downplay my experiences, simply to state the facts: I have no advanced degrees, no areas of speciality. I am a human being, alive to the world around me, I am a parent, attuned to my children’s needs as best I can be, I am a reader who loves language and the structuring of ideas in many forms, and I am a writer who will never be convinced that accomplishment matters—my own accomplishment, that is. What is accomplishment? It sounds so final. I am interested in process.
I am always willing to examine a problem from a different angle. I am willing to change my mind, based on new evidence, or a new argument.
I want to play and be playful, no matter how old I get.
And so my goals are changing before my eyes. They are changing as the year progresses, this year in which my focus has been WRITE. When I woke up this morning, early and exhausted, I thought that this past year has not been about WRITING at all, but about the after-effects of having written. I wrote, I published, and I am living the part that comes next. And I do not love it. I do not even seem to like it, most of the time. Even while I pour myself into it, even while I work to make the most of what has been offered to me, I only find myself growing wearier and wearier, drained, exhausted, perhaps even depressed. Lost. Uncertain. Bereft of a clear goal to call me onward; a steady dull and dulling march that I continue because I don’t know how to stop.
Here I am.
What comes next? How do I access my passion once again? How do I reset my routines, alter them, even minutely, to feed the life I want to have? If I can’t name that life, can’t see it, how can I make changes to my routines in order to step toward it?
Here is where my imagination stalls out. What do I want?
I want to write challenging stories: stories that challenge me, conceptually, that push me in a new direction.
I want …
Do I want to train for a race? Do I want to teach more classes? Do I want to change careers? Do I want to study yoga or meditation more deeply? Do I want to spend more time with children? Do I want to coach more soccer? Do I want to go on a writing retreat? Do I want more quiet writing days or weeks? Do I want to host more friends for dinner? Do I want to sponsor and host a refugee family? Do I want to make more music?
Oh, what small voice is calling me?
Why can’t I hear you, small voice?
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
While I’m blogging lots this week, and because I won’t be blogging much (I suspect) in the week or two ahead, I’ll take this moment to highlight another tab, above, on my web site: Upcoming Events. It’s not new. But it’s handy. It’s where I keep track of readings, speaking engagements, festivals, launches — everything book-related.
For starters, next week I’m heading to the Sunshine Coast Festival in Sechelt, B.C. This is my first time at the festival, which I hear is amazing, and my first time on the Sunshine Coast, and my first time bringing the whole family along to an event like this (they likely won’t come to the reading itself, but the organizers have kindly invited our family to several other events and found us a family-friendly cottage by the ocean to stay in, while we’re there — see, amazing!). This is also our first major summer family holiday ever. The last time we flew somewhere together, we spent Christmas in Nicaragua — and we only had three kids. That’s a long time ago. (Note to self: must find a way to return to Nica again; I’ve visited once a decade since childhood.)
Then, in September, I’m going to Spain! I’ve been invited to the Hay Festival in Segovia, with the Spanish-language version of Girl Runner: La corredora. This trip will be a whirlwind, hosted by my Spanish publisher, Alfaguara, which is launching the book this fall. (The family is staying home; sorry, guys.)
I return home in time to visit the Halton Hills library, which has chosen Girl Runner for its One Book: One Community program (very exciting!), and then just a few weeks later, in October, I’m flying out to Victoria (solo) where I’m a guest speaker at the Victoria marathon. Sadly, there’s no way I’ll be in shape to run the marathon, but in my dreams I somehow manage to conquer the half. This hasn’t been a high-mileage summer. I’ve been averaging three runs a week, rarely more than 10km, often less. One change is that I rarely run alone anymore. Almost all of my exercise is social, right now: meeting a friend is motivating, and it’s fun. But if I’m going to add more miles, I will have to do some longer solo runs.
Kevin is recommending that I start listening to podcasts while running. He’s become a convert to the short story form by listening to The New Yorker fiction podcast while running around the neighbourhood with the dogs. I listened to one just this morning, while making poached eggs for Fooey (it’s her Birthday Eve!): a story called “Love” by Grace Paley, as read by George Saunders. If you think you don’t like short stories, try out this podcast. It combines the reading of a story with a conversation afterward between a well-known writer and the New Yorker story editor: it’s like listening in on a really informed book club discussion.
Love is poaching eggs for your almost-ten-year-old; love is kicking a soccer ball for two hours with your seven-year-old; love is watching a leader’s debate (Canadian version) with your twelve-year-old; love is driving back to camp to fetch your fourteen-year-old; love is sharing earphones and stories with your husband.
Hm. That was really cheesy. I feel compelled to apologize a) for writing it and b) for not erasing it. But hey, maybe you’ll want to make your own list? Enjoy your weekend.