Listening to Joni Mitchell’s River.
I listen to this song even when it’s not the Christmas season. They’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Oh, Joni. I recently read a profile about her early songwriting in the New York Times and then drifted over to read another piece in The New Yorker from 2012 by Zadie Smith about becoming a Joni convert. I’d already read the Zadie Smith essay, maybe when it was originally published, but I read it again. The internet will give you so many windows and doors to open, chasing ideas that you might tell yourself are inspirational or aspirational, when really, you just want to be as original and seemingly free as Joni Mitchell. But it’s okay just being you. Isn’t it?
I’ve started a new project that I’m planning to do every day in December, and possibly beyond. It’s a way of crossing the threshold from the every day into the imagination, a daily portrait and caption, created in about 20 minutes or so, while listening to music. I draw a portrait on an index card in pen, then colour it with crayons (an important part of the playful process!), then write a few lines about whatever’s on my mind, giving myself no more than 3 minutes for the text so I don’t start sweating over it. Like this:
Here are a few other good things and random thoughts, on this Friday afternoon when I’ve run out of steam and am about to turn to fun videos on youtube while doing my stretching routine on the office floor, which isn’t a half-bad way to spend half an hour, truth be told — maybe I’ll count that as one of the random good things going on right now. I’m also attempting to do sets of 10 burpees whenever I think of it throughout the day. While waiting for lunch to heat in the microwave, for example. Before bed. The goal is to raise my heart rate in spurts throughout the day, maybe to compensate for not running right now (though I do ride the spin bike pretty frequently). Whatever. It lifts my spirits every time. I finish my burpee set and throw my hands in the air in victory! Yes! (I should draw that.)
Other daily goals: Go outside! Every day.
And: Flip my current pattern of writing in a frantic panic late in the afternoon, and write in the mornings instead (answer email only after I’m all written-out). The daily portrait and caption kickstarts this goal, and so far it’s worked wonders. Start with something fun and easy, something I look forward to doing, and suddenly I’m pitched into writing new material without even thinking twice.
Also: Work harder. (Weird, I originally wrote “Word harder.” That works too.) Work/word harder is my main life goal. But I mean that only insofar as I mean work harder to dig in, commit, finish projects, even if I don’t know what will happen to them. Hard things are hard. Curiosity is my fuel. Patience is a gift but also can be a weakness if it turns into numb acceptance. Grit is necessary. Add it to your breakfast. Relish and savour what you’re doing because you never know what you’re making. Or what will stick, what will matter, what others will appreciate.
For example: A student sent me a message this week, writing: “I also wanted to tell you that as a graduate, I still appreciate your class. I’ve read books a little differently since, with more compassion, and more interest in the beauty of the work.” How could I guess that a student would come away from a writing class with a new lens on reading? What a gift. I love thinking about the accident of connections, about the things we keep that perhaps someone else has given us, but they don’t know.
Okay, one more goal: Reach out with appreciation for the gifts received from others. I might also add, if there’s a teacher who’s helped you in some way, let her know. Especially now. Any teacher who can engage her students through the screen or the mask is working at a level of commitment and energy and preparation that is almost impossible to understate.
In conclusion, as this seems to be a post that has brought up boundless wells of inner gratitude, I’m grateful for a friend’s idea to create our own collectively brainstormed advent calendar of family activities. As a family of six, each of us contributed four ideas which were randomly sprinkled into the calendar’s pockets. Day 1: decorate Christmas cookies (made by F); Day 2: breakfast for dinner (waffles, made by me); Day 3: ice cream delivery to grandparents; Day 4: games night. (Days 1 and 2 shifted the responsibility to the baker and the cook, and both of us were slightly crusty about this; as a result, we’ve also created a bunch of back-up activities to be accessed should one idea not work out on a particular day).
I’m grateful for a little surprise to look forward to every day of advent.
And I’m grateful to you, my friends who read this blog. It gives me a little boost knowing you’re out there. Connections. They’re harder to come by right now, and I cherish them all the more for that.
- What felt good this month? This month has been a bit of a blur, and I’ve spent half of it thinking it’s already December, but there have been some genuine highlights. Unexpectedly warm weather early in the month made possible some spontaneous outdoor gatherings. I’m especially grateful that my siblings and I were able to gather with both my dad, and my mom. The last time we gathered together with either parent, all of us, was last Christmas, and we know this Christmas will be challenging. So that was a real gift. Another highlight was watching Kamala Harris speak after the election was declared — especially awesome because we watched outside in our backyard shack with friends. I’ve been looking after my physical body, with physio, chiro and massage, and daily stretching and exercise. While I wait to hear back from my editor, I’ve been writing new stories using cues learned from Lynda Barry. And I continue to connect with friends in person, outdoors, which keeps me going.
- What did you struggle with? This month was better than last, in terms of my mental state. I seem to be more settled into established routines, and accepting of this liminal state we’re all in. In some strange way, I’m thankful to be in a rather unambitious mindset at present, and therefore don’t have specific goals that are being thwarted by the circumstances. Nevertheless, I’m trying to use my time fruitfully even if I don’t know what will come of it. I’ve noticed that it cheers me to share what I’m doing with others; if I have any goal, it’s figuring out ways (perhaps new and creative) to share my writing, meditations, stories, photos, cartoons, musings with others. I’ve also loved getting opportunities to read and comment on and engage with other writers’ work. Reciprocity and community feels critical to a sustainable path as a writer/artist. I need to foster more of that, somehow.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Better. At the beginning of the month, the American election was weighing on me, plus I was feeling pretty bummed about trying to invent a Christmas experience in a pandemic. But my awesome little family has been brainstorming and getting creative, planning for different kinds of celebratory and brightening activities, throwing out expectations and starting fresh, which is a wonderful gift in and of itself. More on this in a future post. Basically, I’m feeling sturdier than I was at the beginning of November. Calmer. (Although my daughters have both informed me, separately, that I’m the most impatient person in the house.) As I reflect on this, I realize that I’m looking forward to things without wishing everything were different; let’s call this stage “acceptance.”
- How did you take care of yourself? Plugging into my Lynda Barry Spotify playlist, drawing, writing. Tara Brach meditations. Being kind to my body. Getting outside. Remembering to text friends. Checking into literary events on Zoom. Sibs nights. Popcorn and shows with Kevin (this month we watched Ted Lasso, The Morning Show, and we just started Steve McQueen’s Small Axe). Redecorating the living-room with Kevin (a work-in-progress).
- What would you most like to remember? That I am alive in my body and in my mind. That connecting with others is the necessary spark to feeling and being alive (especially thinking of this in the context of my writing life). That I love reading, responding, editing, digging into ideas and images. That food for the mind is as necessary as food for the body. That the jolt and challenge of the unexpected encounter is something I’m often missing right now, and craving.
- What do you need to let go of? Good intentions. That just popped up, and I’m going to let it stand. Maybe what I mean is, I need to let go of superficial attempts to be helpful, and respond and act from somewhere deeper, more grounded, more raw, more real instead. I’ve been saying yes every time it feels like it’s coming from a place of genuine yes-ness! (And saying no when I know the answer is no, no matter how painful or uncomfortable.)
Ever get the feeling that too much is on your mind, so instead of trying to say it all, you say nothing instead? Yeah. That’s where I’m at. That’s where I’ve been at for a few weeks now. I’ve also been reasonably busy, trying to seize all the moments in all the days that have come calling. It was sunny and warm for a full five days, so I was outside as much as possible with friends and family. Then one of my kids had a migraine for three days last week. I haven’t been able to run, as the nagging pain has returned, so I’ve been experimenting with other forms of self-soothing. Early morning dog walk: unsuccessful, did not provide enough endorphins, although the dog was thrilled with all the new scents to sniff. Riding the spin bike: much more successful, with the added bonus of delightfully cheesy Canadian entertainment. (While spinning, I watch Murdoch Mysteries, and I’ve been told that I talk out loud to the characters, muttering things like “Don’t go in there, George! You’re going to regret it!” or “It’s the brother. It has to be the brother!”)
Up till last Friday, I was working full-tilt on novel revisions, and now need to pause and consult with my editor to make sure we’re on the same page. It’s been fun, and a relief, and an escape, immersing myself in an imaginary world, where imaginary characters make imaginary choices and try to figure out how to mend themselves, or inflict mending on others.
My corkboard is mostly empty, but for a number of physio exercises — I’ve drawn a series of reminders for myself on index cards, including instructions for stretching exercises that are meant to get a person up from her desk at least once an hour. (It has yet to happen, but a person can hope to change her ways!) The other items on the corkboard are a watercolour of two people in a tree, inspiration for my novel; a drawing of hands that look to be in prayer, to remind myself that my work requires patience and grace, and also as a reminder of the novel’s theme of spiritual searching; and some sketches that show the steps for making a labyrinth, though it looks more like I’ve drawn a strange, childlike version of the brain. Not on the corkboard, but critical to the revision process, is a sketched-out structure for the novel, done in a kind of personal visual code that I find very satisfying and comforting to look at.
Tomorrow, my oldest daughter turns 18. I’ve ordered donuts for pick-up. I’m planning to bike to pick them up, no matter how cold. Also this week, I’m introducing a conversation at the Wild Writers Festival on Thursday, 7-9PM, between two wonderful writer, Lamees Al Ethari and Antonio Michael Downing: here’s the registration information. And on Friday morning, I’m going to read my picture book Jammie Day to a friend’s kindergarten classroom. These last two events, needless to say, are happening online. One of my goals for this pandemic time is to become more tech-savvy; or at least, less-tech-anxious.
I’m grateful for plans. No matter how small. Like those donuts.
Almost every day, I lie on my office floor. Sometimes I take a nap. It’s a glorious floor for napping. More often, I do those physio exercises 0n the corkboard. I meditate, or listen to a podcast. Almost every day, my eyes fill with tears. It seems like a way to live now, on the verge of tears, but also attempting to strengthen and bolster oneself, to practice breathing, to pay attention to the pain, not to ignore it. Not to be overwhelmed by it.
Till next time—
- What felt good this month? This is a challenging question to start with. It’s been a hard month. What’s felt good? There have been some things! Methodically digging into my novel-rewrite has felt good and necessary. Writing a reflective essay for The Scales Project was absolutely wonderful. Thankfully, my long-established habits and routines have kept me afloat: running and yoga, even if the morning runs now happen in the dark. No matter how bleak I’ve felt, I get out of bed and exercise at an early hour, five mornings a week. Hanging out in Kevin’s “back yard shack” is the best, especially with friends. On Fridays, Kevin and I have been ordering take-out and eating outside by the fake fire, just the two of us. And my studio is a warm, welcoming cocoon to retreat to, for writing, planning, reading, stretching, relaxing, napping.
- What did you struggle with? Depression, in all honesty. I had some lows that felt lower than usual, and I stayed low longer. Thankfully, I was able to reach out and get help. And the help helped. I noticed that what also helped was digging more deeply into my writing work. It was a life raft, keeping me afloat, giving me purpose when the days felt otherwise blank and empty. Cooking and chores actually helped too. I think it’s a privilege to be needed, or to feel certain that one’s work is valuable and valued. I’m not always convinced of that, and that’s when I fall down into the deepest holes. This feels like a pretty dark confession. But I’m compelled to say these things out loud, because shame thrives on silence, and because I think others may be feeling similarly, especially anyone who’s lost their job, or is in a liminal period in their life. Purpose and meaning make life worthwhile. It can be hard to function without being connected to that.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I can’t really grasp where I was at the beginning of the month, which makes it difficult to compare. Apparently I was feeling calm at the end of September? Given that I’m on about draft five of trying to answer this question, what I’m feeling right now seems to be distracted, discombobulated, and wondering what the heck is going to happen. The American election is three days away, and I’m feeling wary of false optimism, and wary of “endings,” especially of this belief in some definitive happy ending that appears as if by magic. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that the answers in a crisis, as in ordinary life, change with the circumstances, require monitoring and reassessment, and must shift to take many factors into consideration. In other words: there are no easy answers. Related to this, at least in my confused mind: It seems a particularly American flaw to admire the huckster, the grifter, the entertainer, the fraud — the person who can make a buck out of nothing more than a talent for deception — and even though I’m a fiction writer, I don’t believe in personal deception as a solution to life’s challenges.
- How did you take care of yourself? Meditation, podcasts, reading silly mysteries, stretching, naps on my warm office floor, kundalini yoga, walks with friends, running, yoga, a regular bedtime, beer on the weekends.
- What would you most like to remember? I’m not going to remember much from this last month. But one really happy memory is the afternoon I drove the kids out to the country to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey. It was raining, the turkey line was long, and absolutely no one complained. The kids went over to the barn area and watched the chickens, pigs, and cows, and petted the dogs. No one was in a rush. The outing was mellow, chilled-out, and completely satisfying, and would only have happened in covid-times, when we’re all kind of starved for entertainment and stimulation, and a drive to the country to watch a chicken drink from a waterspout counts as memorable.
- What do you need to let go of? I’ll let go of my need for things to happen, maybe. Or no. I’ll let go of my need for things to happen in a particular way, according to expectation. I’ll celebrate when I respond according to my values, and forgive myself for not being perfect or better or best.
The darkest hour is before the dawn (says who?), but I don’t think we’re there yet. Our planet flares with alarms, and I keep scrolling the news like it’s entertainment. Like it’ll make a difference to know more and more, somehow. Like I’ll reach the end and go: there, done, at last, problem solved! 1
(Anonymous commenter: “The darkest hour is actually midnight.”)
The equality we’ve fought for is tenuous, incomplete, and may erode further. What hope is there that we humans on planet Earth will work together, pull together, row in a direction that honours difference, blesses the frail, lifts up everyone who is in pain? Where does it hurt? What’s your story? 2
Vote? Of course! I’ve got my ballot filled in, ready to mail back to Ohio. I will take deep breaths and hope. One voice, one gesture, one act of faith. But VOTE is not enough to fix what’s broken. Dividing, degrading, self-dealing; cynicism. What does democracy mean? For the people, by the people? Also, a corporation is a person?? Also, send more money? 3
Don’t pretend the end justifies the means. We live in the means! If you lie and cheat to win, you’re not a winner, you’re a liar and a cheat. If the only way to win is at all-costs, I’d rather be the sucker who spoke her heart and lost. 4
My heroes are the ones who saw the long road ahead and walked onward toward a light and promise they knew wouldn’t be found in their own lifetimes. Or maybe ever. But they saw it and articulated it. Our better selves. Where everyone will have enough, and dignity too. 5
Where love not greed rules. What I see: my brothers sisters friends strangers the ground underfoot the air trees stars the living oceans are of me and I of them. All of us humans are flawed, broken, in need. To share is to receive but also to give. 6
Look at this bountiful world. End
Two weeks is a long luxurious span of time to be on holiday, especially right now, especially when one’s holiday is basically a two-week quarantine away from other people and the world and news and thoughts of the future; it’s all a beautiful, slow-moving present; now, now, now.
We’re back home, but I’m holding onto my holiday brain for as long as I possibly can.
This is what I learned on holiday: Notice. Notice what I’m doing or about to do. Notice what effect it has on others around me. Notice what I like and don’t like about the things I’m doing and saying, and their effect. Do I want to change those things? Can I? (Don’t know. Maybe!) But it all starts by noticing. And then deciding what to do next.
As one of my kids told me: I think you have to want to change, Mom.
Yes. That is true.
On holiday, as an experiment, I sometimes did the opposite of what my first response would have been. I had the time. I noticed how I wanted to respond before I responded, and then if I didn’t want to respond that way, I paused myself and tried to respond differently, just to see what would happen. This was on a very small scale. For example, Annie and Kevin and I did yoga twice a day on the dock and one fine afternoon, I noticed that I wanted to announce to them—during tree pose—that I was wearing very slippery pants, and the pants were the reason I couldn’t place my foot up high on my opposite leg—I wanted to explain: hey guys, it’s not me, it’s my pants! But instead, I noticed that I wanted to do this before I did it. I noticed, too, that to speak would be to spoil this moment of shared concentration. I noticed that what I wanted to share was a) information not useful to them, and b) information that, if shared, wouldn’t actually solve anything. Any insecurity, any fear of failure, was mine; unrelated to what they were doing, and certainly not theirs to fix.
So I bit my tongue. I just did the pose. Obviously, this was a very tiny moment of noticing and making a very tiny decision, but I remembered it afterward, clearly, because I’m writing about it from memory now. What I noticed was that it didn’t hurt at all to stay quiet. It just shifted the moment, and my experience of the moment. It reminded me why I was doing yoga—as a gift to my body and mind, as a way of loving myself, respecting my body, no matter what it was/is capable of doing. It reminded me to thank my body for holding me up, no matter what the position.
It reminded to say: Thank you, body, for bringing me into this moment!
Notice, notice, notice. It’s why I meditate. I have to want to change if change is going to happen. But I also have to notice what I’m doing in the first place. So much of what we do, think, say is almost automatic. We’ve fit ourselves into systems, we’ve figured out how to survive, how to take the easiest route to self-soothing, how to comfort ourselves, how to minimize conflict (or ramp it up, if that’s what makes us feel alive/better). Our responses are formed by long experience, often dysfunctional, or harmful to our bodies and minds. Changing deep patterns takes patience, trial and error. Takes forgiveness and generosity above all else—to the self, which will extend then so easily to others too. If you can forgive yourself for your flaws and weaknesses it will be easy to forgive the flaws and weaknesses in others.
Insecurity, fear, the desire to be liked, the need to win and prove myself; these are among my deepest flaws. And I do want to change the way I respond when in their thrall. The only hope is to notice.
One more thing I learned on holiday (or learned anew, again): To notice when others are doing and saying things that make me feel good, cherished, calmer, more generous-minded—so I can learn from their deeds and words, and also be appreciative. For example, I’m so thankful that my children are kind and hopeful people, who are rolling with their changed circumstances, accepting what they’ve got and actively making the best of it, adapting, not complaining or mourning any perceived losses, just getting on with what’s being offered to them. I watch them, I notice, and I follow their lead.