Listen up. Life feels pretty off-kilter here in Ontario, month 13 of pandemic, and projections showing us flying off the rails, if, if, if. Or maybe no matter what.
Uncertainty. It’s where we’re at. Can we laugh while crying? Damn, I sure hope so.
To counteract the blahs, we’ve been trying to think up activities, ways to demarcate our days, things to plan for (like Fake Prom, last spring). One kid floated the idea that we should make a family newspaper, in the tradition of The Snyder News, a “popular” newsletter which I forced my brothers to help me produce back in the late 1980s. At its peak circulation, it cost more in Xeroxing and postage than the meagre subscription price was bringing in, causing it ultimately to fail. (Do not put me in charge of the money side of any venture.)
Back to the future (i.e. the present), while brainstorming who would write what for our family publication, someone suggested having an advice column, and I experienced in that moment a deeply personal calling: “Oh, this is so exciting! You can send me your problems and I’ll give you advice!” Awkward beat of silence. “Nobody has any questions that need my advice? They can be anonymous!”
“I think you give us enough advice already.”
“I know, you could call your column: ‘Unsolicited Advice.'”
(Insert overnight pause, to process my hurt feelings.)
And: Challenge accepted! Here’s my rough draft, which I’ll share with you first (since no one in my family reads my blog, as far as I know, and if they do, spoiler alert!).
Unsolicited Advice, by M.C.
Just think of everything that could go wrong! That’s a good place to start. After that, think of everything you could do to prevent anything bad from ever happening ever. If that feels overwhelming, you can start by closing all cupboard doors immediately after opening them, rather than leaving them swinging for an indefinite period of time because you think you might come back later for more chips, or whatever. Imagine all the concussions you’ll prevent! While you’re at it, close that drawer too! While less consequential in terms of disaster prevention, at least no one will catch their sleeve causing them to send a cup of hot coffee flying (worst-case scenario) or snagging their sweater (sad face emoji). And there’s more! (fortunately, my contract is on-going!), but these basic principles will get you started, and you’ll be off to the races.
Speaking of the races, if you’re thinking of running a race, or even just running, be sure to wear shoes designed for this specific purpose and not for some other event such as hiking or swimming or tennis (unless you’re experimenting with barefoot running, in which case, nothing can save you!). Double-tie your laces, and stretch beforehand—dynamic stretches, not the static kind like we used to do in gym class when I was a kid (this advice is based on real scientific advancement). When running, be careful not to step in any holes. That’s just generally good advice! But always worth restating! If on your run, you see an angry mob of Canada geese approaching (very dangerous, especially during mating season), spread your arms and scream. You’ll see! Highly effective. Be sure to practice your screaming before you get yourself into a situation that may involve Canada geese. You can scream into a pillow or just practice during Mario Kart races.
To reiterate, in case this isn’t sinking in (one can never be too careful!): our basic principle is prevent, prevent, prevent. Remember that fun goes hand-and-hand with risk (don’t hold hands, for heaven’s sake, do I even need to tell you that?), and is also pleasurable, addictive and difficult to avoid, and is therefore an ongoing threat to your health! It’s best to maintain a hyper-heightened risk-assessment mindset at all times. But be careful! Overloading your frontal cortex with stress hormones (which may or may not be a thing, just google it), could cause mental burnout. Counteract those effects with a calm and boring meditative practice, which is generally considered safe, provided you don’t burn incense while you’re at it (fire hazard alert!), but on the very rare occasion has been known to accidentally hypnotize practitioners into believing everything is okay (don’t hyperventilate, M.C.!), which causes them to let their guard down and enjoy their day, which may lead them to have fun (remember = risk!), so be sure to meditate with caution. You have been warned!
This column is accepting questions (and we remain disappointed); however, it seems reasonable to assume that the volume, force, and acuity of our unsolicited advice may serve as a disincentive. Who needs to ask questions, when all the questions you’ve never even thought to ask are already being answered? I understand: And that’s my job, as advice columnist, at your service.
Remember: stay alert, be afraid, and never stop worrying.
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?
A good writing day is like manna, like heaven on earth, like a happy dream. You feel purposeful, adventurous, inspired. You’re carried along, you’re surprised and delighted by what you find.
But that’s not today.
Today’s revelation comes from a different place: Today was a slog.
You weren’t very happy with the bones of the story you’d laid out yesterday, and it felt insurmountable — the problems to overcome, the incoherent structure, the didactic tone, the clumsiness, the exposition. But you went ahead and tried, anyway, to dig into the story. To write.
And guess what! Note to self!: Even a writing day that feels like a slog is a glorious accomplishment. Maybe even more than the day that felt easy. Because you didn’t give up. Because you were kind to yourself. When you read over the ragged sentences, you didn’t say: this is crap! (Even if it was.) You said: this is a very rough draft. All drafts start out rough.
This is what a rough draft looks like.
This is a start. You start by telling the story to yourself.
Then you dig in, you get your hands dirty, you notice what’s alive and you go there and pay attention, and gradually these piles of bones begin to fit together, to fill out into a story that you can do something with.
Revise, play, revise, play.
It’s play, this process. Like playing imaginary games as a child, where there were rules but you were making them up as you went, and there were always more possibilities, depending on who or what drifted into the scene, and you got to get dressed up and be someone else, a changeable someone depending on what was needed, and you packed a snack, and you climbed a tree, and you sat up there, pretending till it seemed the world was yours to make and make up.
The slog is all of this. So don’t fear it, jump in.
A sunny Saturday, and cold. I spent lots of time outside today, walking with Angus to pick up eggs and veggies from Claire, then deliver some items to Mom. I also delivered tea to friends in the neighbourhood. This afternoon, I scored an entire set of bedroom furniture from a neighbour, for CJ’s basement room. I’m still hyped up on the high of a) seeing people b) free furniture c) exercise outside.
I drew today while listening to a Tara Brach meditation, where she invited us to think lovingly, compassionately toward someone else, feeling what they feel, feeling what we could offer. The smell of baking bread is in the air, and I’ve been behind all day. Late to all my tasks, all day. (What tasks? Getting out of bed, breakfast, church, playing piano, drawing, baking bread, riding spin bike, shower, making supper … so really …).
Today, I started a two-week “tea cleanse” with my word group. I’m the de facto facilitator and have spent a lot of time thinking of how we can use these moments of pause, as a group. I hope others try my daily writing practice: “What’s on your mind?” Today, I drew out a rewrite plan for my 16th century novel after writing “What’s on your mind?” and revised a tough essay. So it (the quick-journal practice) worked for me, at least for today.
Kasia’s kundalini tonight celebrated and called forth REST — as winter calls us to slow down, reflect, eat soup, drink tea. Be warm, gentle with yourself. Such a big writing day, starting with talking Grandma, then revised a big story, with feedback from my writing group. All this energy and activity has nothing to do with rest, but I’ll need the reminder soon enough; being gentle on to myself when I’m tired is one of my greatest challenges.
Today’s cartoon is inspired by the movie “Soul.” We watched it as a family tonight, for our pizza party, after we all earned our 10 stars on our reward charts. How to live every minute? What is a spark and how is it different from a purpose? How to see this water we’re swimming in as the whole ocean? (We had root beer floats, movie snacks aka candy, a homemade pudding cake, a fruit tray, wings and garlic bread, along with the pizza. We went all out.)
Everything has been slightly ahead of me today, but I’m doing it, I’m doing it all. Decided during kundalini (going seriously overtime), that I would draw my sibs night gathering. Everyone came! On time! I’m drinking a beer, which is a novelty right now. The full moon has been my companion all day, big and bright on the horizon this morning as I rode the spin bike, and rising out my window tonight while I was doing kundalini, and now, while I write and draw and laugh with my sibs.
Tired today. It’s a Friday tired. I do insist on getting up by 6AM to ride the spin bike every week day, even when I’ve stayed up late the night before. Woke feeling — not dread, just this: apathy. The very opposite of flow, today’s word for our tea cleanse. I don’t feel capable of giving my mind over to writing, so I’ve drawn, played piano, walked Kevin’s cellphone (forgotten at home) to his office, passing all the unnervingly shuttered shops uptown, thinking “this is nuts.” But it’s the same as it’s been for some time, no worse. So it must be me, not the circumstances. This is the day when I need REST, I need to remind myself to be gentle. Sometimes the flow eddies and slows, maybe it even looks frozen, but — have patience, rest — under the surface, down deep, it’s still there, moving. Believe it.
We’re in such a trippy time warp here in continuing lockdown (with cases heading in the right direction again, so there’s hope). But there’s always hope! And I’m noticing that hope comes in the form of a small change or surprise or pleasure that can be found, really, in any day. Even the dullest of days.
For example: supper! It happens every single day, but we all look forward to it. I currently have the time to put more thought and preparation into the evening meal, and it is worth it. We gather, talk, eat good food. It’s simple, it’s satisfying.
Another example: snow falling from the sky!
And: the days getting incrementally longer. It’s 5:19PM as I type this and it’s still light out!
Also: group activities!
With my word group, I’m doing a 2-week tea-cleanse, in which we brew and sip teas throughout the day, and connect with our words and with each other via email, and maybe, too, via psychic powers.
With my family, we are doing reward charts! Who knew? It began when I offered to print up a chart for our youngest, who needed encouragement to practice more often (online school is sapping his motivation). As soon as people spotted his reward chart, it quickly spiralled. Now everyone has one (mostly with the goal of practicing a musical instrument every day, although Kevin gets a pass—he’s drawing instead). When everyone earns 10 stars, we get a pizza party! Individuals can earn a separate reward for every 25 stars. The rules and rewards were discussed and agreed upon and planned for at some length; and tonight is the night: Pizza Party! Whoo-hoo! We even had a sign-up sheet so people could bring something extra (like a fruit tray, or Scotch mints, or a cake). We’re planning to watch a movie too (“Soul”). [Update: What a wonderful movie to share as a family; laughter, music, and the exploration of big existential questions. You should watch it too!]
Finally, on the group activity front, I’m connecting virtually as much as possible through yoga classes on Zoom, texts with friends and family, Zoom calls with my Grandma, and writing time with imaginary characters (that counts too, right?). Today I tried a midday movement class out of New York city that, frankly, seemed to be inviting me nap for an hour on my heated studio floor while making fractional movements with my arms and legs. So maybe that was a one-time thing. But I tried it!
Explore: that’s what’s giving me hope, and purpose, and spark right now. Try it, sign up, reach out, say yes to something different and new, even if it’s just challenging yourself to cook a meal with the weird passed-over ingredients haunting your cupboards (my supper plan for Thursday!).
I’d love to hear what’s giving you hope, in small surprising ways, right now.
Our morning routine is sturdy and pleasant. Exercise, shower, breakfast. We’ve worked out a shower schedule, since there are six of us vying for a spot. I’ve been eating chia seeds and oats soaked in yogurt, or scrambled eggs on homemade bread for breakfast. Everyone is at their desk (or couch, or bed) by 9AM. Peaceful. And motivating, too. I’m wasting less time in the mornings getting to my own work.
Today, I wrote for so long that two of my pens ran out of ink! Something that brings me pleasure each day is to check in on my plants. I’ve got two new ones that I repotted from cuttings, and it gives me such a kick to see the progress their little shoots are making, day by day, slowly, slowly, rising and unfurling into shiny new leaves.
If I’m getting “better” at drawing, as a few people have commented recently, does it change my approach to this project? I’d like to keep this fun, unselfconscious, an adventure into the unknown, into the hidden parts of myself that only my hand and pen can discover; like what’s shown today, above, in my awkward hesitant shape, revealing the vulnerability I felt (but didn’t want to admit) during this conversation with a friend.
Many lovely grace notes on this quiet Sunday—baking bread, playing hymns and singing harmony with Annabella, church on YouTube and Zoom followed by watching the Liverpool game while everyone sat around in the living-room—but it all revolved around breath. Controlled. In, out, long, smooth.
Talked to my Grandma this afternoon, asking questions about specific times and experiences in her life. We will keep talking. I want to ask her about big things, like, how do you feel about death? How did you survive the upsets and shocks in your life? (Talk about self-conscious: I do not like the drawing of myself in the corner of the Zoom screen, and nearly scribbled over it before posting here; but decided to let it stand.)
Sometimes I can’t keep my eyes open and I unroll my yoga mat and lie down in a very particularly way on my studio floor (which is heated), and I nap—for no more than 24 minutes. More stories via Zoom from my Grandma this morning. I’m listening. I have time to listen.
I paused my day to watch Kamala Harris take her oath of office, and was later transfixed by Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb.” We aren’t broken, we are unfinished, she proclaimed. I write these words on my heart. (I’ll admit, I held my breath till Joe Biden was sworn in, and then—relief.)
It can get very busy in the kitchen at breakfast time: for accuracy, this drawing should have at least two more people squeezed into it. I spent the morning talking to Grandma again, and she told me about celebrating the inauguration last night, even watching the entire TV special, sitting through all the musical acts, even when she didn’t love the songs. Someone chose them for a reason, she told me. We talked about change today, and next time we are going to talk about death.
I’ve scarcely left my desk all day; but after supper last night, our whole family walked uptown. It was the first time we’d all been out together since lockdown. I get very panicked and queasy seeing new businesses opening now, and trying to survive. Like, the worst feeling! I wonder why?
I should have taken photos of my drawings in full natural daylight, but I forgot till it was too late (too late being just after 5PM). I notice a lingering and annoying dissatisfaction with the imperfection caused by the poor lighting. The colours are faded and distorted, for one thing! But I’m too tired and it’s too much end-of-the-week to start all over again (plus, I’d have to wait till tomorrow to re-take all the photos!). Hey, it’s Friday evening, and we’ve got take-out on the table, from Sari-Sari Filipino Cuisine. Look them up, if you live in Kitchener. They post their menus daily on Facebook, and the food is delicious and inexpensive, and served in the most generous portions.
Happy weekend, everyone.
Note: About a week after originally posting this, I photographed all the drawings again, in natural daylight, and uploaded them to replace the ones that had annoyed me so much. Is the post measurably better because of this? I don’t know, but I feel better!
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