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.
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.
This tangential post is brought to you by an x page exercise, written during last week’s workshop (week 2 of 12), in the company of other women, in response to the prompt word: PARTY. It must have tapped some essential emotion, because I came home and kept writing till it felt done. I’d like to call this fiction, but maybe more accurately it’s a version of poetry, instead. (Where were you at age 20, and what were you doing, and hoping, and dreaming of?)
Phil’s $1.50 drinks
I am at Phil’s, an underground bar where the pipes overhead are wrapped in asbestos and the drinks are $1.50 on Wednesdays, but they must really water them down because I need to drink at least four to feel anywhere near tipsy. I’ve invited everyone I can think of, I’ve telephoned, left messages all over town. Friends are here, some have come, but no one is happy. The bar is too empty, the friends have no money either. Wet salt patches melt from our boots on the floor.
I had forgotten, or wanted to forget, why I used to love this place—because I’d come here during the day when I was a first year student, with a friend, Rich. (Now I’m in third year.) I had a car and he did not, even though I was no more than 17 or 18, and he was 21 or so. I would pick him up in my red Honda Civic, and I’d do my laundry (maybe he would too, but I don’t remember that now), and we’d sit by the pool tables and play cards in the middle of the day, drinking coffee. Gin rummy was our favourite game. It felt like we were the only people there and maybe we were. The good feeling I had on those afternoons seems irreplaceable, now. A feeling of possibility, excitement, tenderness, desire, amiable companionship. Rich was funny and he made me laugh, he never made me feel like I was wrong to be a goofy silly earnest person.
I’d forgotten all of this till exactly now, and now the friends I’m with don’t satisfy me—we’re too much the same in our longings and dissatisfaction—I want different, other, more, but Rich doesn’t live here anymore, and anyway, he never loved me like I loved him, if obsession counts as love, which I seem to think it does. What do I know about it? About love? I’ve mixed it all up with other things. Obsession feels like I think love should—dangerous, exciting.
I’m 20 now and feel so old when I look in the mirror. I finish my diluted drink and go to the gross damp women’s washroom, where one time I saw the lead singer of the Cowboy Junkies washing her hands, and I stand in front of the mirror and check my own eyes—not drunk enough, not interesting enough (as if these were the same thing). I see fine wrinkles around my eyes—could it be? “I’m getting so old!” I go back out and shout to my friends over the music. But they are too. We are so old! And we maybe hardly know each other really at all, we’re just proximate to each other, accidentally revolving around each other. We are so lost. Lonely. Alone.
In this mood, I take my misery to the little raised dance floor, even though no one is dancing, and I dance holding onto a fresh drink, gin and tonic in a flimsy plastic cup with a slice of lime floating in the bubbly mixture. I’ll promise anyone anything to get them to join me at this party that is not a real party. I’ll promise, but I won’t follow through. I can’t drink enough to get myself drunk, so I throw it down on the dance floor, metaphorically, to make myself feel something, anything, in my lungs. I’m smoking, at that time. You can smoke, at that time, indoors. Soon, this will end too, like everything else. I can see all of us dispersing, shot wide into the rest of our lives, fanning out in different directions, toward the parts of our other selves that are drawing us like magnets, while we, we, we, a mere two decades into inhabiting our bodies, prepare to part from whatever this era is, a time of loss, and exploration, poverty, and unrecognized riches.
My coat is ugly and it slips to the floor and gets stepped on, spilled on, but I’ll have to wear it home at the end of the night. I’ve spent my money on drinks, tomorrow I will eat a packet of Mr Noodles and lie on my mattress on the floor of the basement apartment I share with my brother (it will flood come spring), and I’ll read all of Pride and Prejudice, cover to cover, just for fun, laughing and crying and yearning and dreaming. I haven’t met the man who will become my husband yet. I don’t have an email account. I can’t imagine a cellphone and we have no tv. I have my books, a telephone with an answering machine, and enough money in savings to get myself partway to drunk on Wednesdays at Phil’s (I’ll buy cigarettes but can’t afford cheese; I have these priorities).
But every night, even on this night, after brushing my teeth and before going to bed, I sit at my desk and write poetry. I write about the things that happen to me, and the things that I wish would happen to me, and the language, words, images entrance me, as if they were magical forms, and I were a witch casting spells on myself, I were a person from another time come to bring myself back to earth, inside my body, filling all of it with the silly goofy earnestness that is actually my version of joy (though I don’t know it yet), whispering you are enough, you are sufficient, you are alive, you are not alone.
You are a whole person, or you will be; no—you are, you already are.
I’ve been doing art therapy for about a year now. At my most recent appointment, the therapist recognized the work I’ve been doing and said that she had seen changes over this past year. She observed that when we started I was struggling to find space for myself, to make space, give myself space, feel deserving or worthy of space. And she thinks that’s changed. I agree. That feeling of worthiness might be the root of other changes I’ve observed, which feel profound; even while I know myself to be the very same person, plagued by the same anxieties and tics and inclinations. I can change and still be familiar to myself; I find this comforting and funny. It’s revelatory and delightful to discover (again and again?) that the self is so sturdy. Being mindful is just a way to observe more closely what I’m feeling and thinking in any given moment, and then I can decide what to do with that information. Mindfulness springs from worthiness: I trust that what I’m thinking and feeling is worthy of my attention. No judgement, no self-castigation, just observation.
It is as simple as that.
Here’s an example. I’m feeling impatient sitting in traffic. I’m going to be late, I think! I can feel my heart rate rising. I’m hitting every red light! I drop an f-bomb. At some point during this mini-escalation, I notice what I’m thinking and feeling. I say (maybe even out loud!), kindly, to myself, hey you seem pretty stressed out. That simple kindness is helpful. Yes, I am stressed out! Now I can assess whether my feelings and thoughts are attached to reality — to what’s actually happening. Am I actually running late? Even if I am running late, is this actually a crisis? (Usually the answer is no, everything is okay.) But there’s an even deeper and more profound question available here, too: Even if this really is a crisis, is this how I want to respond?
Of course not.
Do I have a choice in how I respond?
I believe that I do. I believe that I can laugh (lovingly) at my frailties and weaknesses, I can appreciate the vulnerable anxious impulsive human I am — the impatience, the rising heart rate, the swearing — and I can speak kindly to myself, and notice that everything is okay, right now. It’s always the right now in which I’m living. It’s amazing how this frees me to settle in and appreciate what’s happening, right now. I’m at a red light, but I can sing along to the radio, I can look out the window and see what’s there to be seen. There’s always something there to be seen, heard, felt, wondered about. The world is an amazing mystery that’s always present, available to be experienced, observed, cherished.
Thankfulness just wells up naturally when this shift in perspective happens — and I can be thankful and surprised and renewed by the world’s wonders, over and over again. It never gets old.
A few more changes I’ve observed:
I’ve stopped enforcing rules I don’t believe in.
If I don’t want to do something, I say so. Often someone else can do it instead. If not, I figure out how to make the task more enjoyable. By taking on less of the things I don’t want to do, I’m able to give more freely. A paradox. The way that being kinder to myself makes me inclined to be kinder to others.
I pay attention to a feeling I call “the shame sandwich.” Sometimes I wake up feeling like I’ve eaten a shame sandwich. What I know about shame: it’s attached to deeply rooted fears, specific to my life experiences. If I can identify the trigger, this helps me be kind to myself and the feeling tends to resolve. Shame makes it harder to be kind to myself, so it’s important to notice when I’ve eaten the sandwich.
I am kinder to myself. I know that I can’t do everything, and also that I’m not responsible to solve most things. I can help you find your lost book, and pick you up from piano lessons, but I can’t tell you how to be the person you want to be. I shouldn’t be trying to tell you that anyway. I’ll just love you, and care about you, for being who you are. I’ll pay attention to what interests you. I’ll ask questions and listen. I’ll find ways to connect that meet you where you’re at, wherever that may be. I won’t ask you to change, because I think you are sacred and amazing, exactly as you are.
I’ll hold you lightly. As lightly as I hold myself.
One last change I’ve observed: I let myself feel happiness. I know that I’ve been afraid in my life to feel happiness, to fully experience it, that I tamped the sensation down, afraid of being up too high and floating away, or afraid of what would happen when the feeling went away. I’m not letting those fears stop me from feeling happiness anymore. I think that by feeling happiness, I will feel it more often, in more situations: this glorious sensation of wellness and wholeness, and lightness. I’m willing to test this theory out.
For some reason, it’s snowing and stormy today in Southern Ontario, which sums up my experience of a typical March day in this part of the world. It’s a mess, the weather veers wildly from hope to disappointment, and yet somehow I’m always surprised by this!
I would like you to know that life here in my house, in my family, in my little writing studio, in my imagination, as a parent, as a daughter, a friend, a partner, a neighbour, a writer is much the same: messy, with its ups and downs, both predictable and somehow wildly not. I’m repeatedly surprised by this!
Here is something I find to be true yet surprising right now: When I write a book, it takes a very long time. Years at best. I usually have to write a half-dozen versions of the same project before landing on a container for the material that feels like it halfway meets up with the book that lives in my mind. Sometimes I am very patient about this process, and patient with myself for my limitations. Sometimes I am not.
Also true yet surprising: When I’m not patient with myself, I tend to question not just my choice of this as a career, but everything else about my life, both in my control and out of it. It’s panic-thinking, spiralling, and I am convinced, at least for an hour or a day, that I will never get my shit together. What tends to calm me is realizing that my shit is not something I can actually get together. It’s a messy cycle.
This week, what pulled me out of the spin was a) walking and talking with a friend while in the middle of the spin, acknowledging what I was feeling; b) laughter; c) accepting that this was the weather, today; d) not trying to fix it; e) realizing that I am not afraid of hard work; f) accepting that I probably can’t know what’s worth my while or whether I’m wasting my life no matter what I’m doing; g) realizing that I’m not going to give up on a book just because it requires more effort and work; h) sitting down at my keyboard and following the energy.
That day, I wrote steadily for hours, with excitement and delight and wonder. I wrote despite knowing it might take me years to write another book that I am satisfied with. In fact, I wrote because I knew it.
Here is another thing that I find to be true yet surprising right now: I’ve forgotten how to organize things — and also, it doesn’t seem to matter, people still have fun, including me. This past week, I organized a bowling party for a kid and I did so in the most lackadaisical manner, quite unlike my pre-pandemic self. In fact, I was so lackadaisical, I didn’t even recognize how many details I was leaving to chance — details that in the past I would have tried to control through advance preparation. Calm and unstressed in the hours leading up the party, I actually did all that writing I described, above, without a thought of what was coming next.
Details that I had not thought through: whether or not to wear masks at the bowling alley; what we were going to eat and when; whether we had pop and snacks in the house in sufficient quantity; how we were going to fit everyone into our two vehicles; what time the party might end; and on and on. The revelation was that none of this ultimately mattered in the least. The fun did not rest on my advance planning. Choices could be made in the moment. Alternatives existed. Not everything was perfect. And it didn’t matter, it just didn’t matter. The party was fun, it sprawled into its own rhythm.
Here is one last thing that I find to be surprisingly / unsurprisingly true right now, in the midst of this storm in the middle of my life: I am an imperfect parent, a writer who sometimes completely forgets how to write, and a woman whose responsibilities are changing rapidly as her children grow up. I am not always adapting as effortlessly and beautifully as I might wish. I’m not going to fix my shit. I’m not going to get it all together. I’m just not. I’m not even going to say: but I’ll keep trying to fix it. I’m just not going to.
What I’ll do instead, I hope, is stay open to experimenting, trying new things, letting myself become different and be changed by my connections, my experiences. I’m not going to let my messiness stop me from loving this wild and precious life. Actually, I think that I’ll love it all the more for being an unpredictable, stormy, beautiful mess.
Wait, October is over? That happened fast.
What felt good this month? I got stuff done! I focused on my writing. I sent the final revisions for my new novel to my editor, and she’s very happy with what was accomplished. I’ve been easier on myself, too, trying to subtly change my patterns of thought, so that my knee-jerk response when things go awry or feel uncomfortable is not to beat myself up, or talk down to myself, but to quietly acknowledge: you’re human, Carrie, and you make mistakes, and that’s okay. You’re still a worthy being, like every other human who makes mistakes, needs rest, has off days, and puts her foot in her mouth regularly. I also got my hair cut for the first time since the pandemic started (see photo above, taken on a sibs night). And I’ve booked a photo shoot for a new headshot. Update with glasses needed!
What did you struggle with? Being done. Finishing a big project. I know it sounds strange, but completing those revisions threw me for a loop. After working with such purpose and intention for these past few months (and with great joy, I must add!), I knew that the after-effects of finishing would challenge my action-oriented tendencies; but knowing it in advance didn’t prevent it from happening. Thankfully, I had friends and routines to steady me — and to help me celebrate a genuinely monumental accomplishment. I let myself rest (a bit!). And I let myself set some new goals (writing-related). I read a bunch of books, too. I didn’t revise my resume, or take online quizzes about careers suited to my personality type, or apply for any master’s programs, or scroll through job ads for “real” jobs. (Yes, this is what I would usually do when falling into a brief period of inactivity after accomplishing a big project.)
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I’m looking for ways to ground more deeply into accepting, supporting and celebrating this writing career I’ve chosen to pursue, come hell or high water. This means building community. This means saying yes to some things, and no to others: thoughtfully, taking care. This means supporting and celebrating others. And, like last month, my outlook remains: let’s enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it.
How did you take care of yourself? I went on an actual gd writing retreat with my writing group!!! That experience is still taking care of me, as I sink back into grateful memories of our weekend in paradise. There is harmony in caring for the self and caring for others. For example, I’ve noticed that by giving myself substantial writing time throughout the work week, I’m able to be more fully present with friends and family. My fantasy for the future (and the present!) is to offer safe haven, retreat, peaceful attention, relaxation, hospitality and safe harbour to friends and family, by whatever means are available to me; while also writing books. That’s it. That sums up my brand-new Artist’s Statement!
What would you most like to remember? That there is ease within the effort, and that effort is easier when one’s circumstances are aligned to support the goals. This is not always possible. I have to live the life that’s coming at me, and that includes the parts that are challenging, deeply sad, irritating, wearying, not chosen. On those days and in those hours when the circumstances align with the goals, I need to give thanks and do the work. I would also like to remember that I won’t run out of ideas for books to write! Somehow that’s been a persistent underlying fear — that I’ll write myself out of stories if I write too much. Impossible! The context is ever-changing, as am I, and stories reflecting those changes just keep flowing in. It isn’t stories I’ll run out 0f, it’s time! Plus, I write better the more I write. It’s the only way to get really good (confident, comfortable, at ease) doing anything: practice, practice, practice.
What do you need to let go of? It would be lovely to worry less. My mind would like to think that its worries protect me, somehow; and they don’t. A worry worn smooth in the mind is not a protective talisman, it’s a rut. Maybe a persistent worry points to patterns that hold strong, and resist change. Maybe I can look at a persistent worry and ask: do I want to keep holding this? I’ll be very kind to my worrying self: you worry because you care, and that’s okay. And then I’ll ask my worrying self: what would happen if you set this worry aside, even for a breath? That’s where I’ll start. I’ll go from there.
“Little Things” with full cast; illustrations by Tarunima Mittal
Well, in truth I can hardly remember what happened yesterday, let alone these past few months, but apparently, during the blur of lockdown and walks around the block and waiting, a few remarkable things have happened, of which I’ve been a part.
The X Page Workshop is completing its season three run TONIGHT (July 7th, 2021) with a live performance on Zoom! Tickets are free and you can register to attend right up till it starts at 7PM. I am truly in awe of what’s been accomplished by this group in 12 short weeks … on a compressed schedule … in a virtual space … Live online means accepting that some unknowns are out of our control (like, should I start worrying about a massive thunderstorm that shuts off the power? Okay, just checked the Weather Network and it’s calling for light rain over that time); but we’ve done everything we can to prepare those elements over which we do have some agency. And I think that’s the key to life, isn’t it? Prepare, and also let go. Let it be what it will be.
And here’s what it already is:
Sixteen women from the community, writing, editing, and polishing their own original, personal story.
Rehearsing it, vocal coaching, staging it, practicing it in small groups and at home.
Learning framing, lighting, how to angle the camera, troubleshooting tech issues.
Negotiating with children and pets and housemates to create a stage on which to present.
Choosing photos, props, outfits, hairstyles.
Supporting everyone else on the team and in the cast with collaboration, creative ideas, presence, encouragement, cheers. Such generosity!
Not to mention all the behind-the-scenes work to create a slideshow, program, original artwork, cohesive script, extra rehearsal time, tech support, and clear communication to keep everyone rowing in synch.
And on a personal note, there’s more work in the works, for which I am over-flowing with gratitude. As soon as this project ends, I’ll be diving into revisions for my new novel, with a planned pub date of next summer. It’s called Francie’s Got A Gun, and I’m starting to believe it will be a real thing … but you can ask me again in a month or so, when the first round of revisions are due. I plan to dive deep and stay deep till that work is complete.
I’ve also received a second grant toward the project I’m working on with my grandma. Much of the research is complete, and writing has begun; but I will be setting it aside temporarily to finish Francie. One thing at a time. One big project at a time, anyway. (I think I can keep cooking dinner and fetching veggies and doing yoga and other good summer things.) At times, it feels like I’m half-asleep, working in slow-motion, digging my way through deep tunnels, burrowing into what seem like dead ends, and then I surface and wake in wonder at all that is being accomplished, even if the pace seems whimsical, even if I lose some of the good stuff underground. I don’t know how much time I’ll get in this life, but I hope to use it all up, and make (and discover) some beautiful things along the way — ephemeral as a performance, strong as a connection, life-giving as a community, sustaining as a story, well-told.
Hope to see you tonight. And if not there, then somewhere, sometime, virtually or in real life, soon.