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 is the lake into which I’ve dunked my full self every day for the past seven days. Some days it has been warm and sunny, even hot. Other days, like today, it is cool and windy, cloudy, rainy, almost cold.
Today, I went kayaking first, to warm up.
I never take my cellphone out kayaking (for obvious reasons), which means I’ve never gotten a photo of those rocks and trees visited only by water. I didn’t kayak the first few days here, because I was waiting to feel rested up and restless, and when that happened, it was bliss to be back out on the lake in the little blue kayak, wearing my baseball cap and favourite blue lifejacket.
I got a very large tattoo this summer (as well as a small one). When I catch a glimpse in the mirror, it gives me pleasure to think: this woman could be an aging rock star, or an aging artist! I still can’t give a particularly good reason for getting the very large tattoo, or even for the chosen image (an owl made of woven ribbons), other than I like it.
I like it. It makes me feel both more myself and more like a different, alternative self, living a much edgier, cooler, artistic life, that probably involves less cooking and cleaning, overall. Fewer challenging parenting decisions.
At the cottage, we mostly unplug and read. I’ve read all the August New Yorkers from cover to cover. I just finished my friend Emily Urquhart’s memoir, Beyond the Pale, which explores folklore and genetics. And I’m currently tearing through a novel called Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder, a writer with whom I share Mennonite roots (she was raised in Ohio); the book seems to me to be an answer to the question: why is motherhood so confusing and impossible? Or, maybe it’s a theory of motherhood, or an abstract on how to respond to motherhood, including positing motherhood as intensely lived performance art. Whatever it is, it’s deeply weird, hilariously funny, and consoling. I keep reading lines out loud to anyone who will listen.
I recommend pairing Nightbitch with this New York Times opinion piece on the “mothering instinct.”
Bracing. Just like the cool lake water. Some summers I haven’t gone under the water even once. I used to swim no matter what, training and doing lengths back and forth in the deeper water, but after a near-drowning experience a few years ago, I’ve been cautious and nervous in the lake. This summer, I decided to try, at least, to walk in and go under, no matter the weather. I’m fascinated by people who’ve taken up immersing themselves in freezing cold water, hacking holes in icy lakes in the middle of winter. It seems to have become a popular thing during the pandemic. I don’t live close to a body of water that would qualify as a lake, but in truth, even if a handy icy lake existed nearby, I’m not sure I’d have the fortitude for it. My alter-ego with the owl tattoo totally would. But for now, I feel practically heroic for paddling around the shallows of this little bay on an overcast and cool day, limbs tingling and bright, and chasing it with a blissful hot shower, enjoyed outdoors under the pine trees.
Maybe this is where my owl tattoo self lives all the time. I love the sound of the lake water on the rocks at night. I love the isolation. Everything slows, here. My racing mind. Time. Longing. Experience. Expression. It feels like we could always be here, when we are here.
The last day of the month. The last day of the year. Can I orient myself right here?
What felt good this month? Focus, Carrie, focus. I’ve just typed and erased several attempts at an opening sentence here — because they contained nothing good! Answer the question. Just answer the question. Okay, here goes. What felt good this month was a long walk and rant that started with me feeling like I was breaking down, and ended with laughter and understanding. All the walks felt good. Yoga in the morning: good. My Christmas morning sticky buns turned out. Good! Definitely taking a few small gifts and cards and offerings of food around to friends and family felt good. Hey, getting my new author photo taken felt good too, as an exercise in acceptance and maybe even celebration of aging. I also was happy with the gifts I gave and received.
What did you struggle with? Um, everything? Our Christmas plans were interrupted by friends and family testing positive for covid. I’m feeling the strain of multiple daily decisions that need to be made, as if it were on me to ascertain what’s safe for my loved ones to do or not to do. And I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve been tuning out the news more; maybe that helps? It isn’t that I want to be ignorant, it’s that no one seems to know what to do, and we’re in the middle of something incomplete, with not enough data, and whether or not I pay attention right now, I’m confused, I’m perplexed, I’m baffled; as mentioned, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s freeing to pay less attention to the noise outside. I’ve got piles of books to read, and an upstairs bathroom to paint, and I’ve been drawing every day. I even wrote two new stories.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I accomplished several goals set at the beginning of December, including cleaning and organizing the whole house (or most of it!); and finishing half of a major writing project, though the other half remains in limbo; but I never did spend an entire day lying on the couch and reading. The difference from the beginning of the month to now seems largely to do with the pandemic, and how that affects my ability to plan ahead. I just can’t. It’s a funny way to stand on the cusp of a new year, but I also feel strangely at peace with it. My writing projects can continue. Loving my family can continue. Connecting with my friends can continue. For now, for today, and tomorrow, that’s enough.
How did you take care of yourself? This is always a trickier question over the holidays, when routines fall off. I haven’t been running much this month. Walks, yoga, texting friends, a few more phone calls than usual. I blissed out on the feeling of gratitude and thankfulness: I’ve felt it so powerfully this year, and it seems to be growing stronger and stronger. I played the piano and sang. I listened to music and drew a daily cartoon. When I reached my breaking point(s), some wonderful safety measures kicked in, and I took care of myself, instinctively. Sometimes the mind wants to enjoy wallowing — like, it feels good to feel bad — but the body knows better. Go for a walk. Stretch. Let yourself feel. I’m grateful for all the groundwork laid that helped me to stand when some part of me wanted to sink, sulk, and drown in self-pity.
What would you most like to remember? Keep kneading and all the butter will get incorporated into the dough, even though it seems impossible! Also, I’d like to keep feeling my feelings. Even the ones that make me feel just a bit out of control. Calm is good, and it makes me feel good about myself; but other emotions are welcome here, too. Can I let myself feel excitement, for example? One other thing I’ve noticed: I love crying over a good story. Almost nothing makes me happier.
My birthday dinner: Angus made veggie lasagna and Flora baked two pumpkin pies (not pictured). What could be better?
What do you need to let go of? Last month, in answer to this question, I wrote: Control, control, control. This month, I think: hey, I’ve definitely let go of that, at least right now. I feel as if I’ve surrendered to the moment, which is a moment in time I can’t make sense nor get ahold of, and I’m just letting things be as they are. How about this: I need to let go of saying yes when I really mean no. Bring on the whole-hearted yes, the full-of-gratitude yes; and when I know it’s a no, let me stand whole and complete and trust that someone else will be able to fill whatever space I’m leaving. I need to let go of performing, and pay attention to what’s calling from deep inside.
May your new year be blessed! Thank you, ever so much, for reading along.
It got cold and snowy in addition to the dark, and I haven’t run since Sunday. Instead, I’ve been spending about an hour, first thing in the morning, doing yoga.
I’m on my second Christmas puzzle of the season. This has become a bit of an evening addiction: cup of tea, podcasts, and puzzle.
My to-do list for this weekend includes making two extra-large batches of cookie dough to wrap up and store in the fridge, to be baked on demand. Ginger cookies and plain butter cut-out cookies.
Over the past week and a half, I’ve cleaned the house bit by bit in preparation for advent and hosting. How long can we keep these surfaces clean and clear? It looks dazzling to my eye.
I’m potting clippings from my plants, a small ongoing project to green our rooms. Side note: My amaryllis bulb has come to life, miraculously, after I left it outside for a few months this fall. It looked dead and I thought it was dead. Then a bit of green started to poke through, so I brought it back inside and set it on one of the few windowsills where we get good light. A red flower is beginning to burst from the very tall green stem.
I’ve been playing (and singing) Christmas songs after everyone leaves for school and work. This is best done without witnesses.
This week is the calm before the busyness. (Next week rather randomly includes a dentist appointment, a photo shoot, donating blood, and leading the x page’s last writing club meeting of 2021.)
As I prepare for the holidays, for intense family time, big cooking projects, hosting, gathering, imbibing, keeping safe and healthy, establishing and maintaining boundaries, dealing with the hormonal spin-the-wheel of perimenopause combined with teenagers and routines being rocked, I’m reflecting on ways to stay present and whole. Strategies. Reminders. A mantra. A cue to return the self to the body. Here’s what I’m thinking (beyond morning yoga and low-alcohol-consumption): focus on others. Pay attention to the needs of those around me, allow them to be, and this will allow me to be, too. Be where we are. Be who we are.
I’ll try to remember that there are many languages for love. (And my own include: spending time together, talking one-on-one, making music together, doing an activity together like going for a walk or doing a puzzle, and acts of service. I love feeding the people I love.)
The antidote to disconnection is connection. The path to connection includes: slowing down, looking at the world in its detail, taking a breath, trusting your instincts, acknowledging what the body is holding / feeling, and being kind and gentle to self and others. You can take a break when you need a break. Someone will catch you.
I’ll remind myself of that.
I spent the weekend at a location somewhat north and west of home, out in the country, at my brother and sister-in-law’s farmhouse, on a little retreat. A writing retreat to be specific; although I wrote very little.
In truth, I’m all written out.
So I leaned heavy on the retreat aspect of this weekend’s potential. Last Thursday, I sent the final revisions for Francie’s Got a Gun; next step: copy edits. I worked on the dedication and acknowledgements this weekend. I re-read the project that had been set aside during these several months of revisions. I re-read my old notebook, too. Napped a bit. Walked. Picked tomatoes from my sister-in-law’s garden and made a salad. Stayed up late talking and reading stories with my writing companions (who got lots of writing done! Yay!).
I’m home again, now. A new week before me, and how strange not to have Francie waiting for my attention. Of course, I felt elated upon finishing. Relieved, delighted, stunned. But emotions are complicated. Today, I also feel tired, a bit worn out, depleted, anxious about what to focus on next, pretty sure I need to give myself a break, and hoping I’ll be kind to myself during this transition to whatever’s next.
Maybe I’ll try to dream up a ritual or a plan or some structure — stepping stones? — to bridge the uncomfortable gap between projects. What’s your survival strategy, to enjoy life and reset and stay calm and present between projects?
The last time I did this exercise was at the end of April (I’d just gotten my first dose of vaccine, and we were in full lockdown in Ontario, kids home from school, nowhere to go, almost all connections happening online). Anyway, at the end of May, I just forgot to check in, and by the time I’d remembered, it was the middle of summer. And now summer is over. Seems like a good time to take the temperature.
What felt good this month? At the beginning of September, we were still at the cottage. I was blissed out and unconnected from the “real world”; the re-entry back to school, children moving out, work commitments was steep, brisk, and sometimes brutal. But I’ve kept some important habits from the cottage days, especially habits of mind and routine. I do yoga every morning. And I’ve been establishing boundaries around my working hours, recognizing how important it is to say “this is a day for catching up on reading,” or “this is a writing week,” or “Sunday is for resting.” So it’s been a productive month. Best of all, I’ve been able to run regularly, and without pain. I do not take this for granted! I savour every stride. (Blog post on this to come!)
What did you struggle with? Changes, changes, changes. Kids growing up. How to be a supportive parent to teenagers. Plus the usual ever-needed inner work to address self-doubt, anxiety, fears. But I’ve been more deliberate about talking to a counsellor, journaling, and saying the hard parts out loud, and that’s helping. It also helped to listen to several recent On Being podcasts, including one with Stephen Batchelor called “Finding Ease in Aloneness,” where he talked about never being finished. That idea was oddly comforting to me. If I don’t have to worry about getting to some imaginary finish line, I’m free to enjoy the scenery.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I’m not at the cottage, but even here at home, I’ve been careful not to overload my plate, and I’m feeling relaxed. I have time to do the things that matter to me. I’m meeting deadlines. I’m taking concrete, practical steps to make certain dreams a reality. I’m cooking excellent homemade meals using fresh veggies from our CSA boxes. I’m reaching out to people who matter to me. Cases here in Ontario, and locally, remain low. I’m cautiously optimistic that vaccines and other measures are helping, a lot, and my outlook is: let’s enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it.
How did you take care of yourself? In so many ways! A highlight this month has been early morning back yard yoga with my friend Kasia (check out her in-person and online offerings this fall!). Am I binging on self-care? So be it. I’m calmer, kinder, more compassionate, and I see that daily in my interactions with my kids and others. I’ve been thinking that care / self-care really is a practice. It has the potential to extend into everything you do. For example, on this morning’s run, I passed a woman who was smoking, and my first thought was judgemental, pretty harsh and self-righteous if I’m being perfectly honest, something along the lines of you’d be much happier and healthier if you’d just quit smoking and try running; and then I thought, what if instead of this judgement, I poured out care onto this stranger, even just in my thoughts? What if I thought toward her, this stranger, you are worthy, exactly as you are. Oddly, it boomeranged back, and I felt kinder toward myself too. You are worthy echoed through my thoughts, for her, for myself.
What would you most like to remember? That I live in an imperfect country, on stolen land, where for 150+ years it was government policy to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their families to live in residential “schools” under the pretence of education, and with the aim of destroying family connections, and eradicating Indigenous cultures and languages (thankfully, these cultures and languages survived, which speaks to their resilience, to the depths of their roots). But the abuse, the cruelty, the deliberate ignorance, the greed, the evil … this is Canada’s legacy, too, as much as we want to imagine ourselves tolerant, prosperous, peaceful, and open-minded. Let’s be honest about who we are! The reverberations are ongoing. There’s too much to say here, and I’m not the one to be saying it, but it’s what I want to remember, every day, and especially today: the first time Canada is marking a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. I’m home alone, thinking about what Canadians could learn, and how our country could be changed, even healed, if we listened.
What do you need to let go of? I need to let go of my fear of being judged. Of being wrong. Of getting something wrong. I need to accept that I will definitely, absolutely, guaranteed get some things wrong, especially when stepping outside my comfort zone. Okay. Exhale. I don’t want to live in my comfort zone. I want to be broken open, to see the world through others’ eyes, to connect, to learn, to care more not less. Oh how I hate doing something, anything wrong. But if I give in to self-loathing and perfectionism, I’m paralyzed. I’d rather try than hide.
PS I highly recommend taking the virtual tour at the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School, which is facilitated by the Woodland Cultural Centre. It’s an eye-opening walk through the longest-running residential school in Canada’s history, located in Brantford, Ontario. (Or donate to them; the educational work they’re doing is heart-rending and invaluable.)
CBC Radio is also running programming all day today, so listening to Indigenous voices and stories is as easy as turning on your radio, or you can stream it online through the link.