Life feels softer, fuller, rounder. Sometimes this feels just right—for my age, my ambitions. Sometimes my eyes ache behind my glasses. I am softer, fuller, rounder. I don’t like this so much. It’s partly body dysmorphia and partly not—I am larger than I used to be, objectively speaking. I have had to upsize my pants. There are days when I don’t even go for a walk, because I can’t squeeze it in, let alone one of those hard runs I used to rely on to keep me sane, and fit, and possibly also fitting in those pants of the past. My body has fluctuated and changed over these nearly five full decades on planet earth. Pregnancies will change a person’s body. And endurance training. But so will mid-life hormones, and aging, and a myriad of other factors that are beyond my control. Out of control is what I feel sometimes, when squeezing into my upsized pants. Yet, since when am I in control?
Control is an illusion, a fable told to comfort myself—that I am choosing for my body to be the way that it is, at any given stage in my life and development. Our bodies, ourselves—caught in time, turning and turning.
But my head, my outlook, my mind—softer, fuller, rounder? Yes. And how do I feel about that? I don’t entirely know. I’ve had practice accepting change, loosening my hold on expectations, letting go, you might say, or holding lightly (parenting gives a person practice; being a writer, too). But practice doesn’t necessarily ease the challenge, in real life situations. It is easier to breathe when there’s breathing room. It is easier to accept what’s happening when it’s pleasant or hoped for.
I try to go into new situations without writing the script beforehand; but how does that fit with my love of plotting and planning and dreaming big? Maybe it’s both/and, not either/or.
Which brings me around to the softness in the structure of my life right now, its curves and rounded edges. There is time for all things, but not all at once. This new year, I’ve completed two workshops in conflict management, and I’m considering working toward certification as a mediator. But I don’t know where it might lead, in truth, nor how these skills might be applied. At the library, I pad around in my “librarian sandals,” and enjoy creating moments of surprise and delight and welcome for the students (and maybe for the teachers too, at least some of them!). I’m building relationships there; but also trying to apply boundaries, and keep the job easy and light, as it should be. I’m on board for another season of the X Page workshop, starting very soon; I’ll be an editor and lead some of the writing exercises, but others are taking on the more substantial leadership roles; I felt a lightness at our recent planning meeting. This has given me room to take on more of a leadership role at my church, which is small and relies on volunteers; this Sunday I’ll be preaching—a new genre for me. It took me weeks to write a 15-minute sermon, but I enjoyed the layers of exploration that came from a close reading of text.
Where in this is my fiction writing? Still very present; just not occupying my mind as an identity that I should be fulfilling at all times, lest it slip from my grip. Hold lightly. I’m approaching writing no differently from these other facets of commitment, responsibility—I want to enjoy myself while doing all these things, even committee meetings! And the quickest path to enjoyment (in my experience) is full immersion.
Basically, I put my phone away. Often it is out of sight, especially when I’m in a meeting or at work or writing. That limits distractions. Any task on which I’m fully focused is a task I’ll genuinely enjoy, or find interesting in some way—my brain is hungry for the details, for sensory information, for connection. Often, this actually feels like I’m leaning back in a comfy chair, taking everything in, hyper-aware of the nuances, the emotional tones; or my mind in its relaxation will see big-picture structures as clearly as if they were architectural drawings.
I love structure so much. Design. Sequence. Noticing how these things work in practice, or do not work, and investigating changes to systems. I like figuring out the pacing and rhythm; how these ephemeral/practical/felt structures support the why of what is being made—its desired outcome—whether it’s a worship service, or a novel; there’s not a single or “right” answer, of course, which is what makes it so fascinating. Endlessly fascinating.
How does writing fit into the systems and structures of my life? Like any task, I need to make room for it, make practical plans, and I need to seize the moments. Occasionally, I’ve been able to write with focus after work, or into the evening, but that requires a) being well-rested, b) someone else cooking supper, c) no evening meetings or obligations. It’s rare. So mostly, I’m setting aside chunks of time—like last weekend at the farm with my writing friends. Nothing on the schedule except writing, eating, talking, sharing our writing. I love when we read to each other in the evenings. Our times together are so cozy, so warm and peaceful; conducive to writing, but also to fostering a relaxed state of mind in which creativity thrives. I might not get to do this very often, but it’s a wonderful state in which to write. As proof, each of us has finished at least one major book-length project during our several years of writing together that we’ve either published, or will be publishing soon. Amazing!
Blogging, when it happens, fits into the in-between times. Like this post, written almost entirely on a Friday afternoon, sitting overlooking an indoor soccer field, feet up, travel mug of tea nearby, and my laptop open; but finished the following afternoon, because the previous sentence is where my writing stopped, when I turned to chat with a parent—a dad who was open to talking soccer with a woman, which is not, I must tell you, always the case. So I relished the opening, and went with it.
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.
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.
What’s on my mind?
Being able to read, being able to write; the gift and the struggle.
With my word for this year, CONTRAST, I am exploring the balance—what my life needs, what elements it contains to support my overarching goals and themes—
“Please prepare me to be a sanctuary”
“What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty?”
“Discipline feeds curiosity”
“Everyone deserves to be known, cherished, lifted up”
“You belong here”
“How can I create spaces of welcome?”
“Follow the energy”
“Listen to your body”
—my life itself is like a structure being built as I live it, like a story whose ending isn’t known, nor even its middle or beginning. In flux. I live like my body is an experiment, my mind a mystery to be explored, my relationships threads that weave together, fray, are repaired.
When I think of noticing CONTRAST, I think of playing with balance. I remember a set of questions that I taped to the fridge years ago, with hopes that everyone in the family might reference them—questions that asked: what have you done today?—for yourself, for someone else, for play, for friendship, for rest, for exercise, what have you learned, what have you made…? It was a way to try to consciously notice life’s balance, within the structure of a day—an arbitrary measure of time, but easiest to grasp. Big picture is impressionistic—what has this year held? Or even this month? A day has items in it. Moments that can be recalled and noted, written down, like the notes to a simple melody. What melody have I composed today? What line of song have I built from my hours, today?
I love my job at the library because on those days it is easy to do things for others. But my fridge list of hoped-for balance items is perhaps too long to be ticked every day. When I choose to do something (like work in the library), I choose implicitly not to do other things. My energy is limited. My time is limited.
The idea of a Sabbath day—day of rest. Day of nature, connecting with loved ones, reflection, salve for the soul. Every day I want to build these notes of Sabbath into my melody. I am a soul and a body. Am I living inside my soul, too? I work toward this discovery. What happens when I follow my breath, pay attention to an automatic and unnoticed function or sensation, like the ambient sounds around me, like the patterns and colours and contrasts observed on a quiet walk, or the sensations that are ever-present inside my body, on my skin? Like the breath, of course, where meditation might begin, over and over again. Paying attention brings me into a different relationship with time. I relax. I am calmer, soothed by the ever-rhythm of the universe. I can carry this “neutral” mind back into the world. I know it exists and that I have access to it, even in times of stress, or under duress. There is peace in the underlying rhythms and patterns of the world surrounding me—within me. Knowing this, I come closer to trust.
To trust that my life is a form of art or meditation, a series of creative acts, my life is expansive, it is being built and newly built within the structure of these universal patterns and rhythms—the song being sung within and beyond my self. The song that is time itself, that belongs to the patience of eternity.
I’ve been sick. The new year is off to a slow and hacking start. But— I’ve also been dreaming of my projects for this coming year, and making paper crafts of favourite book characters for my library bulletin boards (see below), and revising a manuscript, with what feels like contentment rather than panic.
Okay, so I haven’t been well enough to go for a run, or even very man walks, but yoga is on all but the most fevered of days. And the house has been wonderfully full of children and friends of children, visiting or hanging out or needing a temporary home base for rest and recovery (our two sons currently live here full-time). I am content in a full house. It gives me great pleasure to come downstairs and discover several teenage boys making breakfast in my kitchen. I’m happiest when visitors feel comfortable enough to make their own food, and come and go as they please. I don’t try to “host” and that’s probably why sharing space doesn’t feel onerous or invasive. I grew up in a crowded house, with five siblings and many visitors coming and going, including guests who lived with our family for months at a time. I prefer the bustle. I also know how go to my own space and unwind.
I’ve been thinking about the word “livelihood.” It’s not my word of the year (still to come!), but it reflects, more than other words related to money-earning, my relationship to working and to sharing resources. A livelihood is enough to get by on. It isn’t focused on earning riches or accumulating wealth, rather it represents the comfort of enough. A livelihood also seems quite flexible: it doesn’t have to be a vocation or even a career. It’s a means to an end—a livelihood helps support yourself and your family and those you share your resources with. Others in your family circle or economic community can share in your livelihood, and contribute to a shared livelihood. What constitutes a livelihood changes as you change.
I begin this new year thinking about sharing resources.
I think about the ways in which sharing makes all aspects of life easier.
I want to live with ease. I’m beginning to understand that living with ease involves both support from within and support from without. An overarching theme in my own life has been the creation of structures and practices that strengthen and feed my inner resources (and my posture, my lungs and heart, my muscles!), but I’ve experienced this in collaboration with others. I’m not doing this alone—as vital to my inner strength are the friendships and relationships that hold me up, as I hope to hold others up in return.
Sometimes it’s my turn to be held. Sometimes I have the privilege of holding. And sometimes I’m part of a fun and hilarious dance, no holding or lifting required.
All for now. Thank you for reading along.
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?