Week three of intensive revisions. It will take as long as it takes; but also, the work somehow needs to fit itself into the deadline. When I last revised this novel, it was pre-pandemic, and I had a ten-day window to overhaul the whole thing, and somehow I shifted into what in retrospect seems an improbable state of mind, in which I worked twelve hours a day or more, writing brand-new material, sometimes as much as 10,000 to 15,000 words a day. By the end of the process, I was pretty sure I was in an altered state, that I’d driven myself to the brink of madness, and that what I’d accomplished had been a feat of stamina and focus that seemed impossible (and unwise) ever to put myself through again.
So this round, I have more time, and I’m taking it.
I find that I can write for about 6 hours maximum, before my focus begins to wane, or my mind just shuts down, weary, out of gas, the errors and typos beginning to multiply. So I figure it’s best to stay within these limitations (which feel physical as much as mental). I’m trying to stay patient, I’ve got a solid road map to follow, and I keep assuring myself that the work will get done, it will get done. I just have to give myself space to rest, when I hit a tough spot, and time to relax in the off hours: I have to go for walks, runs, see friends. And I must use the golden hours of maximum attention for nothing but this work.
To this end, I’ve set up a vacation message on my email account, naming what I’m doing as a writing sabbatical. I’m at my desk, the message says, but I’m not available. The power of creating this message can not be understated. Why? Because it names what I’m doing as important, it outlines in simple terms my priorities. I think it’s a message to myself as much as to anyone who might be reaching out via email. The message says (to me): It is my responsibility to protect what matters. No one else will do it for me.
These photos are from this past weekend, when my daughter and I visited a friend’s new farm. It was a holiday, but I also took my laptop and worked in various locations, mostly in the car, while chauffeuring my daughter and her friends around.
When I got home yesterday evening, I finally turned down a volunteer opportunity that I’d been weighing, and really wanting to say yes to. But I realized that to say yes to this would be to squeeze my writer self. And she can only be squeezed so much before she begins to fade, to waver in her belief in herself, but also in her basic ability to get her work done. I am trying to take the lessons I’ve learned during the pandemic, which has been the most productive writing time of my entire life, and continue to apply them as the world opens: lessons about the cost of accepting (even seeking!) responsibilities atop responsibilities, commitments atop commitments. Lessons about the cost of squeezing out my writing self. Which is, at core, my fundamental self: the self I am that is not attached to anyone or anything else.
The pandemic freed me, quite a lot; it forced a change in long-held patterns. It jolted parts of me to life again. It reorganized my priorities.
I’ve seen this happen for many others, too, including my friend at the farm who until very recently was my neighbour; the leap she’s made is bigger and more challenging than the leap I need to make, to protect my space and time for writing. I watch her meet this amazingly brave and heart-led challenge and think: I BELIEVE.
Hello there. This morning, I sit down again to work on revisions for what I’m calling my “new novel,” even though it is actually quite old, a thing I’ve been working on for a very long time, years. I have at various times committed myself to working on this book even when it meant not being with my family; sacrifices abound.
I am very afraid, at times, and at other times, I set my fear aside.
Should I call you “my fear”? Do you belong to me? Are you mine? I do not think you are separate from me. I think you are of me, generated within me, and therefore also tamped down by me, or lessened or diluted, diminished, by how I relate to you. I feel you in me, recognize the effect you have on me, in my body, in my mind.
Fear, you make me irritable.
Fear, you separate me from people I love.
Maybe I need you to do this, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel comfortable, but if I am too accommodating, too connected to the people around me, the people I love, I may not be able to go deep enough to do this work.
It’s debatable, however—how deep I need to go. I think this could prove to be a practical set of revisions, more head than heart, grubby, meticulous, grinding work, patient and methodical and a bit bland. The work required by the previous round of revisions was hot as a raging fire, it took me out of myself. Do I need to leave myself to do this work? I’m going to find out.
Am I afraid of leaving myself?
I don’t think that’s my fear—I don’t think you represent that, fear.
I think I am afraid of being insufficient to the task.
I know that is what I fear.
At least I can speak to you clearly and plainly. I can say, I get you fear, and I feel the same way, but while I notice you in the room, inside my chest, roiling up my thoughts, to notice you is to acknowledge your presence, not to give you a say in how I act, the choices I make.
I will use my resources.
I will respect my ability to learn and grow.
I will honour the work that’s already gone into this project, and accept with gratitude the support of my two insightful editors.
I will believe in my abilities, skills, work ethic, command of the English language, and years of experience.
I will trust my instincts, but I will be wary of moments when I sense that I’m becoming defensive—that’s telling me something too.
Fear, I don’t know that you’re telling me anything I need to hear. I can’t stop you from warning me to be small, to be cautious, to turn away, to keep myself safe from scrutiny and therefore from harm. But the relationships and connections that surround a creative piece of work, a creative offering, are part of the experience too—and that value is incalculable, unquantifiable. And that’s what this revision is too: a complicated multi-dimensional experience.
Can’t we lean toward love, fear?
I wish I could solve you or soothe you. Will you always be here? Are you part of the puzzle? An engine too, in a way? Fear of death, fear of being left behind, left out, fear of not achieving my potential, fear of being invisible. Strange, when I write this all out, I notice that I’m not as afraid of those things as I once was. I want to be who I am: a drop in an ocean of wonder.
Dear Fear, I see you, I know you so well. Let’s get to work on this book. You can come too, I can’t stop you, but let’s try to enjoy the ride, okay? Let’s have fun with this. Let’s appreciate the privilege of this opportunity, this supported opportunity, this fortunate and complicated experience.
artwork by Tarunima Mittal
For the past three years, I’ve been a part of a storytelling project that aims to foster connections between immigrant and refugee women in our region and the local arts community. The multidisciplinary workshop is named after the Lynda Barry writing exercise we use to find our way into the writing process: The X Page. Over twelve weeks, a group of women meets to write and revise original stories, collaborate on animating these stories through performance and artwork, and finally, to perform the stories for an audience.
This season, we’ve been transported by necessity into a virtual space, which has nevertheless felt like shared space, with room to explore, make connections, to listen, laugh, cry. For me, that’s the key to the whole project: to get to be taken inside someone else’s world, to hear what matters to them, the “little things” they’ve kept or lost along the way, and the themes to which they find themselves returning.
Lynda Barry’s exercise opens many pathways to the heart.
The trust involved in this process is immense. Each workshop session, I’m filled with gratitude for everyone’s efforts, kindness, generosity, and presence. This year, I’m working as the project’s coordinator, which involves me in almost every aspect of behind-the-scenes planning. We are in the homestretch now!!!! The performance will be live on the evening of Wednesday, July 7th, 7PM. Mark your calendars, register to attend (tickets are free, but registration is required), please come and please share news of this workshop with your friends.
The stories are beautiful. The art is beautiful. The connections are beautiful.
We chose the title “Little Things” for this season’s performance because the stories revolve around seemingly small moments, singular scenes, objects that have been kept and carried across borders, or lost along the way; and because even a little thing — held, cherished, and shared — is imbued with depth, meaning, promise, truth.
A story is a little thing. An offering. It is an invitation. Listen. Here I am. Here is something I’ve kept all this time, that matters to me, that I’ve carried all this way; do you see, do you understand? A story is a powerful little thing. Powerful good.
This is a photo of a squirrel eating tinfoil on our fence; there was also a cardinal, but he took off and is the streak of motion in front of one of the blue chairs.
The days have begun to whirl again. After such stillness and waiting, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I’m trying to declare the weekends sacred, and Sundays for meditation, reflection; a worthy aspiration, at the very least.
The truth is that I feel energized after a long quietness. So I’m not resenting an upsurge in activity even as this new stage unfolds and unfurls. But I must be cautious, awake: I don’t want to drift back into the non-stop tumble in which we found ourselves, pre-pandemic.
But, listen. It’s good. I’ll have news to share soon on a couple of creative projects. I’ve got work that feeds my heart and mind, and wonderful people around me and radiating out in expanding circles in whose company I delight, and from whom I am continually learning. I’ve been hanging laundry on the line. My children make music in the living-room. The gardens are bursting and blooming. What more do I need?
(Well, it would be nice if everyone in this house each had a chore they really loved … the way that I love doing laundry… and if that chore could be complementary, say, if someone just loved cleaning bathrooms, and someone loved vacuuming, and someone loved clearing the counters … now that would be heaven.)
But listen, too: our community, our country, our land, the whole world, it is shook up and reeling and in pain and in need, and we can’t fall asleep or wander half-dazed into how it was before, we need to be AWAKE and AWARE and CURIOUS and HUMBLE. I want this place I live in to be a little bit better because I’ve tried, in whatever ways, no matter how small … and that means stumbling, and being quiet, and apologizing a lot of the time too. There is so much to learn, and so much pain that cascades through generations. Every ceremony, every ritual, every practice, every meal I cook food for someone else, every time I stop and listen, pause, listen, pause, reflect, sit, still, breathe, laugh, hug, cry … no action is neutral. This past week in Canada, 215 children were found buried in a secret grave on the grounds of a former residential school, and this is our present. This is not history. This is our now. So much cannot be fixed, must not be forgotten; bad governments, bad systems, hierarchies built to maintain power, no matter the costs. And here we are, human beings, whirling and bumping into each other, trying, trying, trying to figure this out. Individuals trying to look each other in the eyes, to listen, to say, You matter. I’m sorry. I want to help. Help me?
Slow down, sit, listen. Someone is trying to tell you something (not me).
That’s my present, right now. That’s my goal. Slow down, sit, listen. Breathe. Pay attention. Burn something, that too. A candle, a stick of incense. Ego.
Inquiries for the universe…
A few years ago, after returning from a three-week writing residency in France, I put an idea out into the universe: hey, universe, could you send more cross-disciplinary collaboration my way? I’d worked with a wonderful actor / writer / translator as part of the residency, and both of us hoped to find a way to create together again. The universe didn’t align for the two of us to reconnect, though we tried; however, as so often happens, another door opened. In fact, a few different doors, one leading to the next. The first was that I began spending several mornings a week with a young woman who had recently come to Canada with her husband and children; she couldn’t get into a language program, so I volunteered to help her with some English studies. Really, what I remember most about those mornings are our conversations. I realized that my neighbourhood, my work, my friend group, even my church was its own bubble, a comfort zone, and pretty homogenous; and that I had a strong desire to connect with people across the possible barriers of language, religion and culture. The idea for The X Page storytelling workshop grew out of this friendship.
And lo and behold, The X Page became a forum for cross-disciplinary artistic collaboration, as well as new friendships and connections. Our third season starts this week, and will happen entirely online. We’ve adapted, but the goals remain the same: artistic collaboration and exploration, and cross-cultural conversations and connections. It genuinely feels like I sent an idea out to the universe, and the universe answered.
Today, I’ve woken with another kernel of an idea: Hey universe, could I expand on the X Page workshop somehow, to make its goals available more broadly, to many more people? Here’s the spark: Before drifting off to sleep last night, I read a New York Times article about an Australian community-building concept called “The Shed.” Apparently, these “sheds” began as retreats for retired and out-of-work men, and only recently have women started their own “sheds.” The story is about women taking over part of an unused school building; their shed is run by volunteers who are also participants, and it’s a mix of socializing (playing games, eating together) and crafts/ skills, like sewing, painting, gardening, cooking, singing in a choir. It’s a mix.
When I woke up, I was still mulling over the idea of “the shed,” which sounds a bit like a community centre, but which also seems more ground-up, or holistically invented and sustained.
It’s also all very post-pandemic, and impossible right now: gathering together, in person. But hey, universe: is there something here? What do you think? Maybe it’s the idea of a shared project, like “the shed.” Maybe it’s the fact that it’s free for all. Maybe it’s the concept of having space for a variety of activities, which I’ve found makes connections across barriers easier. I’m feeling this rather urgently right now: somehow we have to find ways to make more connections, especially outside of our bubbles, in order to nurture our sense of collective care. We’ve got big urgent crises to cope with. We need to find ways to have difficult conversations, and common ground. Social media does not work for these purposes; it seems almost designed to push us to greater and greater extremes. Belonging comes from something else, I’m convinced of it—outside of algorithms that fail to surprise us, that try to sell us more stuff, and that compete for our attention by exploiting our emotional weak points.
My attention is invaluable. So is yours. It is our time here on earth. It’s what we’ve got to give.
So if you’ve spent a few minutes of your attention reading this post, I send you immense thanks. And to the universe, I send this flicker of an idea: in what ways can I deepen my involvement in building community and connection on the ground, in the real world, both now and whenever we can meet in person again?
- What felt good this month? This has been a strange-feeling month. I’ve been writing a lot, living in other times and places, and inside other bodies. And honestly, that’s what feels good: writing. It’s my safety net, my therapy, the thing that I do when I’m feeling low (or high! or in-between!), the work that brings me courage and hope. Taking this question in a different direction, it also felt really good when both of my parents got their first dose of vaccine. The relief was overwhelming.
- What did you struggle with? I struggled with confidence in my leadership abilities. But I struggled on through that struggle and kept doing the work I’ve signed up for: and tonight is the Open House for The X Page workshop! We’ll be meeting and greeting the women who’ve applied to join this season, and while I’m feeling a bit nervous and hoping it all goes smoothly (online tech adds an extra layer of eep!!), we’re well-prepared, and excited, and ready to roll. On a different subject, I’m also struggling with increased anxiety over the current pandemic situation… it feels like we / our province might fumble the ball in the end zone.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I’m okay; same response as last month. I’ve been doing a shit-ton of meditation (I like Tara Brach), kundalini yoga, hatha yoga, trying to attune my awareness to my emotions, in order to take a breath before responding. Is it working? Actually, there have been stressful situations in the past month when I was able to be kinder and more understanding to myself, when debriefing afterward. The instinct for kindness arrives much sooner than it once did.
- How did you take care of yourself? See above. Meditation, yoga, writing. But I could be making more of an effort to go for walks with friends. I could be making more of an effort, period. My self-care waxes and wanes. Seems to be on a bit of a wane, as I take my temperature today. Maybe it’s the sweatpants: comfort and self-care, or sloth and utterly giving up? Hard to tell the difference, some days.
- What would you most like to remember? My baby turned 13 a few days ago. I would like to remember that. Not sure what exactly I’ll remember about it, but it felt momentous, like we’d officially graduated to a new plane of parenthood. We have the diploma. You know when your kids are babies and everyone is always telling you: it goes so fast! And you’re like, okay, but I’ve changed ten diapers today and my hands are chapped and cracked and I haven’t slept more than three hours at a stretch for several years — could it go a little faster, maybe? Well, it does, and then it’s over. And the truth is that now I harbour the exact same urge to run around warning everyone with babies: It goes so fast! Enjoy this time! You’ll miss it!
- What do you need to let go of? Outcomes. Process is so much more valuable than outcomes. Or maybe it’s that most of the things I value are unquantifiable: connection, moments of peace, learning something new, gaining a new perspective, experiencing generosity, awe, appreciation. And while I love creating the structure necessary to achieve a project, it’s all the little bits of living that happen within that structure that matter most. The work happens on the ground: grassroots work, civic engagement, trying to live the change you want to see in the world. I love putting my beliefs into motion, into action; but peace comes from understanding that it’s the work that counts, not some perfect outcome. When I know that, in my bones, there’s energy to continue: renewable energy! It’s not on my shoulders to fix the world or save anybody (that’s where boundaries come in); but it’s in me to participate, listen, engage, and let my heart lead.
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