Reading Canadian short stories in The New Yorker
We have a subscription to the actual magazine, and sometimes issues pile up and I feel badly for not reading them cover to cover. But then I go on a binge of discovery and find … “Lu, Reshaping,” by Madeleine Thien and “Once Removed,” by Alexander MacLeod. (I also just listened to Lauren Groff, who is not Canadian, reading her story “Annunciation” from the most recent issue, on The New Yorker’s New Fiction podcast. Side note: I’m considering trying out audiobooks; any recommendations for an app?)
Getting outside in the snow
I let myself sleep in yesterday morning instead of getting up for a walk, but that was a mistake. Note to self: you never regret getting up and going for a walk. This morning I got up, and I’m feeling much calmer at my desk today. I actually love the darkness of the early mornings. It’s like walking in a cocoon. It’s so quiet. Whether I’m with a friend or on my own, I feel awakened to my senses, to the world around me, to my deeper, more contented self.
Talking to my grandma on Zoom
She lives across the border, which once again is feeling a bit impenetrable, but we can click a link and suddenly there we are, on screen, side by side, talking about our morning routines, and learning how to swim as an adult, and the meaning of life (well, maybe not quite that! But close!). Note our differences in attire. Grandma dresses for the day. I dress for the possibility that nap time might break out at any hour.
I know, I know. I keep talking about the puzzles. They’re keeping me going, I swear. Look how much progress I’ve made on the yellow one (Flora’s is the other one; she’s made progress too!). I won’t always be doing puzzles, but for now they scratch an itch to be doing something, working toward something, figuring something out. A puzzle is especially satisfying in the evening, when my brain is too weary to be put to good use. I’ve been pairing the puzzles with podcasts, but I won’t make any recommendations today; I’ve got a heavy rotation of news shows on right now, which is not a good thing.
photo credit Hilary Gauld
New lenses for my glasses
I was getting lots of headaches, and now I’m not. That’s gotta be a good thing. I was especially relieved that I didn’t have to get new frames. I just got new author photos taken (well, in December). These glasses are now part of my face. Hey, just realized that scarf was a gift from my grandma when we visited in November. She not only knows how to dress for the day — she knows how to dress me for the day! And this is basically as dressy as I get.
PS What’s keeping you going right now?
This will be a rather obvious window into the thrilling state of my evenings, but I am getting through February on puzzles and podcasts. Puzzles, podcasts, and pots of herbal tea.
Last night’s Puzzle ‘n Podcast podcast was on how often we misinterpret how others perceive us: apparently, a lot. It’s a show called The Hidden Brain, and the episode is “Mind Reading 2.0: How Others See You.” Listening to this I was thinking about friendship, and wondering what prevents us (sometimes? often?) from saying what we really mean. Politeness? Fear of rejection? False assumptions about what may happen? Or maybe assumptions based past experience? Maybe we don’t always know what we really mean. Or maybe we get mixed up due to the social setting, confused by the extra information we’re taking in (and quite possibly misinterpreting!). Anyway, it’s fascinating.
I keep puzzling over why it’s not common practice to set out boundaries or expectations or even state hopes for our friendships (it really isn’t, though). Why are friendships more tenuous, undefined things, when other relationships carry expectations, stated and otherwise? Maybe in friendship there’s both more at stake and less. Friendship enriches life. But we don’t usually buy a house with a friend, or share a pet with a friend, or move to another city if our friend moves to another city. We might go months without seeing a friend and then fall back into closeness in an instant. We know in advance that we may lose friends in a way that’s more baked in than in other relationships. We probably also expect to have many friends in different contexts over a lifetime. I’m riffing here.
and yet, and yet, and yet … I acknowledge that big emotions get stirred up in friendships, fears get tapped, there can be jealousy, envy, comparison, grasping, insecurity … and love, caring, commitment, thoughtfulness, kindness, spontaneity, fun … friendship is a spacious concept, elastic, flexible … that’s a good thing, but it also means there’s more uncertainty … maybe friendship is an almost liminal space where we have the opportunity to become comfortable with not-knowing, not-clinging, letting go?
A friendship is a relationship that can change as we change; and/or it can offer the familiarity of someone who knew us when. There’s insecurity in the uncertainty of what being a friend means and demands of us. I feel it as I try to write about my experience(s) of friendship.
For myself, I think friendship is always and forever an opportunity to learn, to be challenged, to get to know myself more honestly (weaknesses, strengths, boundaries, sense of humour). If I’m feeling down or low the cure ALWAYS is to reach out to a friend. ALWAYS. Paradoxically, this is also the moment it’s hardest to reach out. (This is what texting is for!)
The other thing on my mind (unrelated to friendship) is how people seem really angry right now. People are struggling with their emotions, looking for easy targets of blame. Positions are getting entrenched (which always seems dangerous to me). The pandemic years have been a good reminder that I can’t assume I know what anyone else is thinking or feeling. Maybe in friendships we dance around this, maybe it’s one of friendship’s most important gifts — maybe within the uncertain structure of a friendship there’s an implicit understanding that we aren’t always on the same page, and we’re trying to listen and be curious about our differences, we’re paying attention to another’s experiences.
In friendship, there’s so much room for exchange. Generous exchange. Friendship is a practice in curiosity, attention, lightness, vulnerability, caring, holding and letting go.
P.S. Please send podcast recommendations. I’m addicted to the puzzling (the puzzles shown above are just from the past week!!!! True confession). And winter continues.
P.S. 2 I’m adding this note in post-publication, with thanks to Julia who tipped me to a fabulous (and recent) article in The Atlantic about friendship, in which appears this memorable (and useful) analysis of what holds friendship together:
Practically everyone who studies friendship says this in some form or another: What makes friendship so fragile is also exactly what makes it so special. You have to continually opt in. That you choose it is what gives it its value.
Friendship is on my mind.
Long-lived friendship, enduring friendship, friendship that gets through and past some hard stuff, including conflict.
It’s not a subject that we talk about much. Maybe it can seem like talking about friends is a kind of a flex, like my friends are better than your friends, or something like that. Friendship can also be a place many of us have experienced loss we don’t know how to talk about, friendships that ended or faded, and we’re not sure why. Personally, I hold a fair bit of insecurity around friendship. I was very lonely some of those high school years, and that feeling of being an outsider burrowed deep into my brain. Am I good friend or a bad friend? What’s the rule book, and am I not understanding something that I should? People won’t like me if I’m too [fill in the blank]; or if I [fill in the blank].
But that’s a limited way to frame friendship, I think (note: I’m still figuring out friendship, even though high school was a long long time ago). Friendship isn’t about getting people to like you. It’s not a popularity contest, or a competition.
It’s about finding and connecting with people whose company you enjoy, people you admire and trust and love, people you want to be with and learn from, and to whom you can offer the same in return. There’s also some mystery in friendship: timing, chemistry, mutuality. It doesn’t always click or work out. Maybe part of being a friend is being okay with the relationship changing without feeling (or, more accurately, reacting to feelings of) resentment or jealousy or hurt. (I don’t know, as I said, I’m still figuring this out.) It can help if both people have similar expectations for the friendship (this seems really important, actually, but I’ve literally never discussed this with a friend — have you?)
Do you have role models for friendship? Older people in your life who have maintained and nurtured friendships you aspire to?
A few things I’ve noticed about myself and friendship: I’m most comfortable one-on-one. I like doing an activity with a friend, rather than sitting and chatting (like going for a walk, or making food together). I like hosting parties (this has not been a viable outlet during the pandemic!). In groups, I prefer meeting with a purpose or theme (and friend groups are even harder to talk about than individual friendship). I consider my siblings my friends.
I’ve been reflecting on this subject in part because I’ve been texting with a friend’s mother, who just lost one of her closest friends, quite suddenly. She sent me this poem from Rilke, which was part of a text thread between herself and her friend. (I aspire to send poems to my friends by text.)
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. -Rilke
A friendship is like any other relationship that is full of love and care. It is a most dangerous thing. If you love someone, losing them will break your heart. But these relationships, no matter how dangerous, are vital, life-giving, affirming, enriching. Each of us is like a locked room, or a book written in a very foreign tongue. In friendship, we walk the questions together. We feel less alone. Every one who has been your friend, at one time or another in your life, has walked the questions with you. And there are a few we may be fortunate enough to walk with till the end.
What felt good this month? Mid-month, I started walking every single morning, despite the extreme cold. It brought me back to life, especially on the morning there was a huge snowstorm. Just remembering that walk gives me a child-like delight. January is a hard month, and this year we were locked down for most of it. Getting outside was imperative. I also started using a light box in the mornings for half an hour, while doing a puzzle. My daughter and I are now working on separate puzzles simultaneously (she wisely decided not to participate in my attempt to become a better person through puzzle-sharing, as it was clear to all that I was not particularly improving). Other good feelings: backyard fire with friends; eating fermented foods; tea and meditation; and finishing the copy edits for FRANCIE with my editor!!! YESS!
What did you struggle with? Exhaustion, lassitude, a general lack of motivation. But I’m going to turn this question around and explain that I’ve actually experienced less struggle this month. I think I’ve lowered my expectations. Or maybe my expectations are in line with what’s possible for me to achieve on any given day. Whatever’s happening, I’ll take it. Some part of my brain has settled into accepting that I don’t have the answers to many of the questions. I’m letting myself off the hook: it isn’t my job to craft perfect responses in this imperfect world. It is my job to be truthful about how I’m feeling, to speak from a place of thoughtful vulnerability rather than apprehensive face-saving, and to have the courage to say No if it’s what I mean. (As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve discovered that saying NO is HUGELY DIFFICULT for me. I like to please. I’m going to try to get comfortable with the discomfort of not pleasing.)
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I finished the major textual work on FRANCIE. So that’s done. Good. Other than that, I’m working on another writing project, while considering what other activities may be calling. It’s important to keep space cleared for writing. The more writing I do, the more it’s part of my every day routine, the easier it is to step into the flow. Also, my focus is pretty limited I’ve realized. In any given day, week, month, I can maybe focus deeply on one project and stay present for my family and friends — and that’s it! Luckily, I think that constitutes a pretty good life. As pandemic guidelines change again, and things open up, I need to think carefully before piling on new projects, activities or responsibilities. What matters? What matters most?
How did you take care of yourself? I listened to a kind voice in my head. Somehow, this kind voice gave me permission not to take myself too seriously. I laughed at my foibles and missteps rather than fearing them, or wanting to hide them away. Try it: Talk to yourself like you’re talking to a very dear friend (I heard this advice on the “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast — and it worked for me!). I also did 30 days of yoga with Adriene (and Kevin). And I initiated a two-week tea ritual with my word of the year group again, which is bringing me new ideas for meditative practices, and much wise reflection. What enriches your life? I think it’s worth asking. I think it’s worth acting on, too. Trust yourself, trust your body, the kind voice tells me (she sounds a lot like Adriene, at least in this example). You have everything you need, right here.
What would you most like to remember? Walking in a snowstorm is the best! If it’s snowing, go outside and play! Dress for the weather and have an adventure.
What do you need to let go of? Any sense of self-importance. What do I mean by this? There’s a part of the self that wants to be admired. It’s the same part of the self, strangely enough, that fears being exposed as not worthy of admiration. It’s the part that’s really scared of dying too, and not being here in the world anymore, being forgotten, not doing enough with the time remaining, not leaving something valuable behind. I see this part of myself. I feel compassion toward its fear, and all the pressure that fear can bring. What alleviates my fear, makes it irrelevant? This: To do the work I see before me, no matter the outcome. If I can name a want, that’s it. In this vision, the work of grammar and imagery and structure and ideas holds my attention, and I can laugh gently and appreciate the humour of this funny, foolish, wishful, hopeful, grasping flurry of imperfect human beingness attempting to do this work. It’s gonna be a mess. I think that’s what we get.
And hey, we made it through January! Thank you for reading along.
Way back when, before I had kids, before I was married, when I was kind of a kid myself, I started a tradition of staying up on “birthday eve” till midnight, writing in my journal, reflecting on the year that had been and the one to come. It’s fitting for the season. I like that my birthday lands on the cusp of things, in liminal time, in between.
Yesterday, I spent some time reflecting on perennial fears and worries, and trying to corral them into sense. This is what it looked like (a mess!):
Mostly, I was worrying about money. It’s my go-to worry. First in line. A stand-in for all the other worries. It’s like a short-form for will we be okay? But a more practical question is: Are we okay right now? Am I okay, right now? Because no amount of money (or stuff!) will guarantee future okay-ness. So this was where I needed to start, with this messy colour-map; and then reflection led elsewhere.
I noticed how significant people were on my messy map.
I wrote: The people around you seem to appreciate what you’re able to give. And they tolerate your whims.
Images and scenes bubbled up: I remembered driving three girls around the Bruce Peninsula, listening to music, playing cards together till late. I remembered biking with Calvin to swim lessons and sitting on a picnic blanket outside the pool with my laptop, during my intensive writing time. I remembering hosting friends at the cottage; picking late-season tomatoes from my brother and sister-in-law’s garden during a writing retreat with friends; taking my mom to the doctor; reading letters to my Grandma in Indiana; a funny night spent in a roadside motel with my daughters, laughing and hardly sleeping a wink. Big emotions. I remembered some hard conversations, some tears.
I wrote: And these were really good and memorable things to do. Maybe they were even wonderful.
Of this year to come, I think: Who the heck knows? That’s a gift of living in pandemic times, for those of us who’d imagined we had more control over things — we get to see and feel and know how precarious our plans were all along. I’ve been lucky. I’ve gotten to hunker down with those I love most. We’ve adapted. We’ve had spells of respite and sweetness when gathering is safer, and we’re freer to meet and mingle; those times will come again. This Christmas, we ate scalloped potatoes and ham sandwiches off paper plates in the snow around a fire. It’s easier under these circumstances to know what matters most. We know it because we miss it; we know it because when we get it again, we hold it close.
I wrote: You have enough to do if you just do it. You don’t need to look for new and shiny opportunities. You really just need to focus on deepening your connections to (and faith in) what you’ve already got.
You have a small gift you’ve been fortunate enough to develop — you can write books. So go on and keep doing that and enjoy everything else that surrounds you — your precious friendships; your sibs and their families; your Mom; your Dad; your children and their friends; your life partner and his family; your neighbourhood; your peers, your teachers; your dog; the women who farm your food; your body; your paths; your writing group and your word of the year group; your church; your studio; your work — your work, for heaven’s sake, just do it and do your best and accept what lands and what doesn’t.
That’s my birthday pep talk.
One final thought: I’ve discovered (re-discovered?) how joyful and fun it is to do things for people who aren’t expecting anything at all — to surprise others (friends, family, acquaintances, strangers) with small gifts or offerings or even just a kind gesture, some tiny act of attention and caring that says: I see you. I’m glad we’re on the planet together at the same time. It’s okay. The truth is, thinking about someone else and how I might lighten a moment in their day gives me more than I can possibly offer. It’s a direct line to hope.
As promised, November has been busy — so busy that I’ve hardly noticed or mourned the shrinking of the light, or the encroachment of the cold and snow.
I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been doing therapy regularly since the summer. It’s been, if I dare say so, essentially transformational. I wish therapy were affordable and accessible for everyone, anytime. I’ve definitely gone without therapy due to cost (for years and years), and it feels like a complete splurge even now; but it’s getting me through some challenging times, so it’s become a priority. Another priority is twice-weekly kundalini classes. These, combined with walks / runs with friends, solo runs, yoga and stretching are my go-to sustainers for body and mind.
Yesterday’s prompt from my art therapist was this: When do you feel your inner light shine brightest?
At first, I couldn’t feel my inner light shining at all. Then, I saw myself with eyes closed in my studio space right here, in the dark, with the moon shining through my window, practicing kundalini yoga. Here in the dark, inside myself, I can come and sit no matter my energy level (tired, anxious, jittery, exhausted); here, no matter what’s happening in the rest of my life, I can sense my inner light flowing forth: a restorative activity, a practice that renews, comforts, meets me wherever I’m at. Gradually, other moments of inner light shining brightly emerged, and I drew them, one by one, smaller figures embedded in the world being conjured and held by the brightly shining meditative central figure in the drawing.
I saw an inner light communicating with the page, through words, as I worked on a manuscript: such a deep radiant concentrated focus.
I saw myself speaking in front of an audience, in the spotlight, being seen, but also radiating outward in connection with the energy and attention I was receiving: magnetic energy.
I saw myself having fun with my kids on a road trip, a loose goofy say-anything lightness: riffing off each other, appreciative, a curious attention, relaxed yet attuned to adventure.
And I saw myself with a raggedy light that was a bit of a blaze, honestly, an energy of determined persistence that engulfed me and pushed me toward a goal and wouldn’t quit till I got there: usually in service of someone else’s needs.
What I recognized through this work was that my inner light has the capacity to shine brightly in many situations; but there is payment afterward (or before) when that energy burns. Or, it’s simply not always accessible. Inhabiting fun isn’t always an option (but could it be more often, if I recognized my capacity to invent it?). Speaking in front of people, or managing within a larger group can be affirming and exciting and energizing; but I have trouble coming down, turning down the temperature afterward, which means I tend toward of a crash on the other side (could I learn better how to manage these fluctuations in attention?). I love my writing days, I love being pulled deeply into other worlds and bodies and times and spaces; but it’s hard to drag myself out, I struggle to return, to re-engage with the real needs of those around me (there may not be a solution to this, rather more of an acceptance, and a structuring of the writing times to acknowledge this reality). Finally, the energy of determination gets shit done; but I risk burn-out in this mode. I’ve seen it happen again and again.
The final thing we talked about in our session yesterday was how I envisioned my ordinary, every day inner light. An image came to me immediately: as a pilot light, patiently burning, not noticeable but ever-present, steady, reliable.
When I turn down the other flames, the pilot light remains. I’d like to learn more about how my body functions in these heightened environments and relationships, as I seek to support both my children and my elders, to serve my writing and career, and to prepare for publicity work in support of the new novel. I don’t want to dread any of these tasks I’m being called to do. It’s occurred to me that what I dread isn’t the tasks themselves, but how my body responds to them — in preparation, in the moment, or afterwards. Being drained is a real feeling. So is being burnt-out. So is being eaten up by anxiety. So is frustration, impatience, grief at what you’re not able to accomplish when you’re focusing on a necessary task. Being amped up and super-high and hyper-distracted is also a real feeling, which doesn’t fit with early morning responsibilities and regular life.
That’s my November, summed up in inner light.
When does your inner light shine brightest?
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