Where am I? Where do I place myself? How much say do I have in where I’m placed?
In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn titled “Longing for Light,” that has the line: “Make us your bread, broken for others, shared until all our fed.” It feels like a very Mennonite sentiment. It rings true, it compels me: this desire to use one’s energy and work for a purpose that helps others, or serves others. But, I wonder, do I need to be broken to be of service? If I’m broken like bread, turned to crumbs, what then?
It’s an old puzzle, I think, trying to figure out how to give without depletion. I’d hoped and believed that I had the tools and skills necessary to make the job in the office sustainable. But I did not. This has left me feeling like a failure. What I’ve failed to do is to work within my means, at a job that I truly loved doing; instead, I kept burning all available fuel, day after day, till it was becoming harder to be kind, especially to myself.
I’m in a school library now, as of this week. It’s quieter, but students will come and fill it with noise. It’s a different job, easier. It’s only day two, but I’m not a zombie when I walk out of the building. “I didn’t rescue anyone today!” I texted to Kevin after work on Monday. His reply: “Just yourself.”
What will I do with more energy, again? Do I have the self-control not to get myself into trouble, the patience not to sign myself up for other jobs and volunteer positions till I’ve got no space to think again? I’ve missed having the bandwidth to write. I’ve missed writing. My thoughts are clearer on the page. Contradictory impulses: I don’t want this spare energy to go to waste; I don’t want to be used up till I’m nothing but crumbs.
I want to do no harm. I want to serve others. I want to live with ease. I want to share joy.
What I learned in the office job is how to ask questions. Ask and ask till I could be sure I understood what the other person wanted or needed. What is being asked of me? It isn’t always so clear. I learned that I’m steady in a crisis—focused, calm, decisive, very present. I’m a good listener, when very present. I would like to combine these skills with training that would place me in a job or occupation that calls on them, regularly, while giving me some power to solve or resolve the problems being presented.
It’s quite possible that no job or occupation has the power to solve or resolve problems—or not to satisfaction, not the problems that are unfixable. But I’d like to try. Not to demand perfect or ideas solutions, but to move in practical ways toward wholeness, support, improved states of mind, healthier relationships.
Where will I place myself?
So much depends upon that. I feel it very strongly. Where I place myself—where I’m placed, physically, in the world—changes the possibilities that open (or close).
As a writer, it has seemed there are fewer opportunities to be placed, to find a place, especially in the company of others. My kids are growing up, and out of the house. I need to be placed with people, with strangers, with colleagues, with a crowd, children or teens or adults, young and older and old, or a mixture; friction, conflict, noise, laughter, issues raised, questions, needs to be met, time to be managed, hands held, stories heard.
My job-job has given me that—a place. Many places, in fact. Many different people to interact with. I’m currently placing myself part-time in a school library. That leaves space to be placed somewhere else, too, or to work/train toward a different kind of placement. I would like to explore working in a context that involves conflict—defusing it, specifically, and helping those caught up in conflict to move toward resolution.
Longing for light. Longing to be light—lighter in spirit, light-hearted, light on the path.
On April 1st, I started a 30-day journaling project (inspired by Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals). What I’ve noticed so far is that prompts really help. On days when I try to jot down random thoughts, not much comes squeezing out. I’m preoccupied by surface tasks and must-dos, and a feeling of emptiness prevails. This is a most unpleasant feeling. So, today I said to myself, what advice would you give your students, if they were feeling stuck? You’d say, Stop trying to “journal” and do a daily diary (a la Lynda Barry), or an X Page prompt (ditto). Get out of your own head. Come alive by entering the world.
Other prompts have worked well too. My word-of-the-year group is spending April responding to each other’s words (we were each assigned someone else’s word to reflect on). My assignment was to reflect on the word ROOT. One of the associations that jumped out was “long-standing friendship.” A long-standing friendship, like a long-standing tree, has deep roots, has weathered many storms, and has had good fortune.
Reflecting on this imagery, related to ROOTS, and separate from the word-of-the year assignment, I landed on a journaling prompt: What roots in your own life are long-standing? And also, what roots are tender and new? It’s spring, after all! People are planting seedlings, tiny buds are opening. Feel free to use this prompt if it sparks something in you, too.
Words unfurling across a page, a screen, scrawled in the margins and end pages, marking time, holding ambition, bright with rage, lyrical, lyrical, lyrical
Born family, brothers and sister, all of us rooted in time, in blood and DNA
Music, song, rhythm, pulse
My feet walking, running, my body in motion, powerful, strong
Friendships that hold, light in the window, light at the door, and bread, and wine, and laughter and forgive me
Performance, putting on a show
Reading, imagination’s flow
The trees themselves, and water, mud, grass under bare feet
A big appetite, hoarding, cheapness, knowing best
A quietness amidst chaotic flow
The impulse to make places home
Loneliness, fear of not belonging
Thrift against decadence, earnestness
Wanting to make people laugh, to entertain, to put at ease, and yet aloof, sharp edges
Horses, dogs, children
Memory, curiosity, mystery, questions without answers
Tender new roots
Medication to lift the load
Healing estrangements, more trust, talking about tough stuff, tender stuff too
Kids moving home and away, vegetarian meals
Big job interview, looking for work that satisfies my need to earn a living and to feel/be purposeful
Transitioning X Page workshop to a sustainable long-term project
Parenting teenagers and young adults
Spending time with little kids again, delighting in their presence
Getting reacquainted with teaching
Practicing social skills and conflict resolution
Expanding my skill set, seeing my skills as having other applications, exploring outlets for my desire to connect, create, be fruitful, self-sufficient, purposeful, to serve
Doing “the work” to counter harmful patterns and habits
Yoga and meditation—soaking it up!
Body awareness, body love, healing
Caring for elders, patience, tenderness, listening to the wisdom of elders
Honouring needs, resting, relaxing, spontaneity
I’m attempting to post here about once a week; but that is not always possible. There are weeks when I prioritize writing in my notebook over writing publicly if I have some moments to spare; or lying on the couch and reading a book. Setting priorities is becoming a habit, of necessity. Am I filling my cup, so that I can serve the needs of others? For example, I’ve figured out that it takes me at least 2 hours to get up and out the door in the morning — one hour minimum to do my wake-up and exercise routine (including yoga and meditation), and one hour precisely to shower, dress, make and eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and screech out the door clutching a travel mug of coffee, the correct set of keys for the job of the day in my pocket, and a backpack over my shoulders loaded with whatever items I’ve determined will serve in the hours ahead (this may include but is not limited to licorice, Birkenstocks, head-phones, notebook and pen, and folder with instructions on various systems and processes).
Point being, setting priorities requires first knowing what these priorities are — not ignoring what makes me a happier healthier person. It helps to identify why I’m choosing to do certain things instead of other things. What I’ve discovered is that the why is usually about pleasure, ease, fun, enjoyment, fulfillment, connection, and purpose. The good things in life. My exercise routine makes me happy, energized, calmer, in tune with my body and mind, which sets the whole day on course, so I choose it over sleeping in — and I get to bed earlier in the evening in order to make this habit sustainable. I love savouring my cup of coffee, which makes it perfect to enjoy while sitting at a desk somewhere. But breakfast is a sit-down affair with the newspaper and two poached eggs on toast, so I make time for that (even if it’s just 12 minutes — I’ll literally calculate how much time I have to relax and enjoy this ritual, setting a timer on my phone to cue me when it’s time to switch gears).
This morning during quiet meditation, a complex and wild and wonderful thought came upon me. Here it is: everything I’m doing to serve and understand my own needs reverberates outward, so that I am able to better serve and understand the needs of those around me. When I teach creative writing, what I’m actually offering are methods and practices for how pay attention to the world, how to observe others with curiosity and openness, and how to respond (through writing) without judgement. This is a deep mindset shift, I think. Attention without judgement, without the desire to manipulate or change or profit from, is love. If you pay attention to the world, you will love it more than you realized was possible. This love will break you down and build you up. And you will want to serve others because you can see them more clearly. The skills I’ve honed and continue to hone as a writer might make me a better writer; but I’m coming to believe that’s a side product of the real gift of these skills — of creativity itself. At the core of my being, I don’t want to be a better writer in order to publish books that become bestsellers and earn me fame and fortune. I want to practice writing and creativity because I believe these deeply intuitive and generative acts will help me become a more observant, open-minded, human being while I’m here on planet earth.
I teach creative writing. And I’ve struggled with this, because I don’t believe it can really be taught effectively. I can’t download my knowledge of how to write creatively into the minds of students in a rational, lecture-based, logistical way. All I can do is open opportunities for students to interact with their own minds and experiences creatively — and with each other. Creativity isn’t a state of being that can be monetized or harnessed for profit. If you get into it, if you allow yourself to follow the energy and be led by whatever magic and mystery and grace is pulling you, money, power, and profit will feel so insignificant that you won’t be able to make sense of them. They don’t make sense, in the vast universe of creative action and practice.
Here is what I know: To create is also to destroy. It is to witness the breaking down of what appears substantial, and to witness and partake in a generative improbable renewal. The impossible presents itself. What you discover in this state can’t be explained adequately through words, so words climb into images and images emerge and show themselves to be transferable between human beings, and expression of deep emotion and experience is possible. It is possible.
So. I teach creative writing, but what I really hope to do is to plant seeds. I know that my job in the schools (not teaching creative writing) is an outward expression my own potential beginning to root and grow. By becoming more grounded and secure (paradoxically, through becoming more vulnerable and soft), I can serve others with less fear, judgement, and hunger for external reward. Every day I’m in a school, I have the opportunity to practice paying attention. I love this practice. I get to do it over and over again. I ask, how can I help you? I listen to what the other person is saying. If possible, I look them in the eye. If appropriate, I ask how they are doing. I listen to what they tell me, and I repeat back to them what I’ve understood them to say, because I want to be sure it’s clear to me. If possible, I try to solve their problem, or brainstorm a solution they can try (it’s usually a small problem that has a simple solution).
That’s it. That’s the practice. Greet, listen, repeat, ask questions, acknowledge, try to understand, solve or resolve.
Greet, listen, acknowledge.
Over and over again, throughout the day. I know these interactions have the power to change me. They have the power to change my approach to creativity and writing too. It’s an integrated and interactive and generative cycle, the relationship with self, other, and creative spirit.
What are you practicing these days? Where are your practices, habits, and routines leading you?
You bring light. Say it to yourself. How does it feel?
The words came into my mind during a recent morning meditation and lit me up from the inside out.
My word of the year is not LIGHT, though I considered it. It is not EASE or FREE, though it could be. My word for 2023 is NEED. Beneath the word is another word that’s been guiding me, too: ONE. Too many words? But really, just one. Just one word to respond to any given moment. Just one goal. Just one purpose. What do you need? What does this situation call for? What need is not being met that may be preventing you from being wholly yourself in the world? And as important! What needs are you meeting wonderfully well right now?
I am also playing with the concept of the “joy snack,” which can be savoured in little bites throughout the day. Listen to a podcast on the subject (from the Washington Post). Your “joy snacks” are your own, they’re personal, and they’re small, and they just need to be noticed in order to exist. They’re probably already happening, whether you know it or not. For me, I have a “joy snack” every morning when I do a silly aerobic warm-up in the kitchen, usually in my pjs, after brushing my teeth and before doing anything else. It takes between 2-4 minutes and never fails to give a sweet little boost to my mood.
I’ve been thinking about what matters — to me. Not to anyone else, not to an imaginary host of external projections. But to me. The core, the centre, the oneness of myself. This could be misused, to be sure, or misconstrued as selfish, but could it really be selfish to care about how you feel, inside your own body, inside your own mind? What matters? I’m the one living inside this body. My time is finite here on earth, inside this experience of being me, in the world. So it’s worth checking in: What do I care about? Do I really know? Am I living in my body, in this world, in ways that make me feel good, whole, content?
What activities and actions and experiences and routines help me feel good, whole, content? What leaves me feeling empty, anxious, drained? As I explore what I FEEL (last year’s word), I gain clues to what I NEED.
I’m learning so much at my new job in schools (and in parallel, by teaching creative writing again, too).
I NEED to feel purposeful. I NEED to be with people. I NEED to understand my role. I NEED clear boundaries around my responsibilities (either clearly set out for me in a given context, or clearly set out and articulated by myself, which is much much harder to do). I NEED recognition for work done. I NEED dignity in my work. I NEED to live in alignment with my values. I NEED laughter, playfulness, connection.
It’s funny, but as I experiment with this new job, which takes me into different environments, often several different work cultures in any given week, I’m learning like a sea sponge. And I’m positively alight with discovery. I might be doing a task like putting labels on student records, and I’ll feel a giddy leap of joy — this is so satisfying, I’ll laugh to myself! Who was telling me all along that I needed to do something big or visible or large-scale to feel purposeful? It must have been me. And it was making me so unhappy, believing this about myself, because I couldn’t ever reach my own ridiculously outsized expectations for what I was supposed to be achieving. How amazing to discover that I feel purposeful doing small repetitive tasks that take focus and patience, and that almost no one will notice, except that important information will be available in an organized fashion when they come looking for it later. And that matters to me!
Same with recognition — the scale is unimportant. How did I not know this about myself? Recognition that satisfies my need is wholly about connection. When a connection is been made, between me and someone else, my heart soars with joy. When I sense that trust has been established, even very tentative or brief, I feel recognized. I hope the other person does too. Trust is mutual. So is recognition.
And I’m revelling in this discovery (re-discovery?) that I love being with people. I spend the day responding to other people’s requests, needs, and directions, and leave bursting with energy. I am not drained by this work. Quite the opposite. How is this possible? I’d assumed I was an introvert, but it turns out the thing that’s been draining me, in a lot of my other work, isn’t people, it’s having a role that isn’t clearly defined, or that requires of me responsibility without power, or just a ton of decision-making while having to invent and reinvent my boundaries. When I know what’s required of me, I am relaxed and at ease, no matter how chaotic the situation, no matter the complexity of the needs being presented. It’s the not-knowing what my role is — what the limits of my role are — that’s exhausting.
Can I apply what I’m learning to other parts of my life?
It remains to be seen. But I’m excited to keep learning and exploring, and enjoying.
And labelling files, alphabetizing books, and filling in where called and needed.
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.
My word this year has been FEEL. On Friday evening my word group chose photos that represented our word, and cut them apart and put them back together again. I chose two: one showed a young girl standing in a creek, exploring, and the other a group of people dancing at a party.
FEEL has been a complicated word to explore. Do I trust my feelings? Shove them down? Give them too much prominence? Misinterpret them? Feelings are transitory, embodied experiences. What are my feelings telling me? A revelatory moment came this fall when I told a friend (who is also a life coach) that I was trying not to be angry, even though that was the main feeling that kept emerging; she said, oh no, bring that anger, feel it, it’s got a message for you. Our feelings, she said, tell us what our needs are.
So I learned: If I’m angry, a need is not being met. It might not be a terribly obvious need. It might be a need I don’t even recognize as valuable. It might be a need I’ve been trained not to pay attention to. It might be a need that traces all the way back to childhood. You know? It’s messy in here. It’s a jumble.
So both photos seemed to capture FEEL — ever-shifting. I felt wild at times this year, out of control, swinging to emotional heights, careering to dangerous lows (more the former than the latter–but still unsettling). The people dancing freely represented this wildness. Yes, I’ve felt unsettled. No amount of advance preparation or knowledge or planning could shift what came at me, poured through me, but as the year progressed, I got more comfortable with that. Comfortable with being unsettled. Or, perhaps more accurately, comfortable exploring the sensation.
What is my body telling me?
I’ve been jumping into the stream, getting wet, getting muddy. That’s the childlike aspect of this past year: I’m exploring more like a child would, in terms that could seem simplistic or naive, not necessarily in an organized or well-planned way, just doing it. Doing what comes naturally, doing what feels right. It’s active. I wouldn’t say I’ve been impulsive, but I have let myself do things I didn’t, before. I’ve let myself do things that I enjoy, just because. No explanation needed.
One of my needs is recognition. (I don’t like this need, but ignoring it won’t make it disappear.) This year, I’ve discovered that the recognition I crave doesn’t need to be elaborate, or large-scale, or noticeable to anyone else. Recognition could be a kid excited to discover a soccer book I’ve placed prominently on a library shelf. I’ve realized, too, that the people who care about me don’t need me to achieve “great” things, they’re delighted when I’m happy, that’s all, as I am for them. I’ve put too much emphasis on achievement, is what I’ve recognized. External recognition has been a hole to be filled, affecting my life choices; it’s still there, but now I know it’s there, and I can find different ways to satisfy that need.
I have loved this year, in all its messiness.
I have loved feeling my feelings, listening, giving them freedom to wing loose. What is this feeling telling me? I pause to wonder, rather than judging it for being negative or ugly or inappropriate. Is it an old feeling, rising from an old pattern? Is this feeling my own, or am I confusing it with someone else’s?
One last discovery this year: my voice. That one session with the vocal cord physio last spring was unexpectedly revelatory. I discovered that my voice can be loud and strong! But at the very same moment, I realized that I hated hearing my voice speak loudly — I felt my feelings: embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, uncomfortable. What on earth? Think about what those feelings were telling me, and how deep they must go: I actually find it painful to put into words.You have nothing to say. You will embarrass yourself if anyone hears you. It’s safer this way: Keep quiet.
I had no idea my body believed this. Once I had this valuable information, I could address it, actively. My feelings were trying to tell me: pay attention! For your voice to be strong, dig down into the roots of this belief. Is it true? Do you really believe that it’s true? And if not, counter it by practicing those vocal cord exercises, practice walking around the house speaking loudly, even if you feel silly. Practice till it feels natural and right.
And that’s what I did. And there was a shift. And that’s what this year has been.