It is the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, and my hair smells like bonfire smoke. I sat outside on the frozen ground from 4:30 – 7:30AM and watched the sky turn from dark to dim to pale grey dawn. Through my head came visions of friends, and the gratitude and love I’ve felt pouring into me and out of me all through these many months of pandemic otherworldliness, a circle of holding and care that has kept me not just afloat but enriched and comforted and stronger.
There are many ways to stay in touch, even from a distance. This year, I’ve quit Twitter and don’t seem to blog quite so often (perhaps you are surprised when a post drops into your email inbox). I rarely post to Facebook, more often check in on Instagram. Then, there are texts and emails. Occasionally a phone call (usually that’s my mom or dad). Even letters, cards, postcards (such a treat to receive!) And, of course, Zoom calls: sibs night, kundalini yoga, church.
There are walks with a friend, or a kid, or a dog, or the whole family.
Dec. 16, Family walk with dog, spontaneous snow angels
We meet outside, to meet in person. We learn the weather, we greet the seasons, the changing light, we pay attention.
Dec. 20, Family drinks in the back yard shack
All month, I’ve been drawing a daily portrait and writing a short caption, to capture a scene or moment from each day. I’ve noticed that my portraits most often depict me with others, not alone. Or, if I am alone, I’m thinking of someone else when I write the caption. This year of being apart has actually been a year of coming closer together, in some ways. In others ways, no — I no longer coach a team of lively teenaged girls, and I miss those casual and funny interactions. But I’ve grown closer with my own kids. There are friendships that have deepened.
Dec. 12, kundalini class on Zoom, in my studio
I’m closer to the ground. And my spirit is closer to the sky.
Enjoy the darkness, friends. Light a candle, and send out an I love you to someone you’ve been meaning to say that to. The days are short, but won’t always be so.
Two weeks is a long luxurious span of time to be on holiday, especially right now, especially when one’s holiday is basically a two-week quarantine away from other people and the world and news and thoughts of the future; it’s all a beautiful, slow-moving present; now, now, now.
We’re back home, but I’m holding onto my holiday brain for as long as I possibly can.
This is what I learned on holiday: Notice. Notice what I’m doing or about to do. Notice what effect it has on others around me. Notice what I like and don’t like about the things I’m doing and saying, and their effect. Do I want to change those things? Can I? (Don’t know. Maybe!) But it all starts by noticing. And then deciding what to do next.
As one of my kids told me: I think you have to want to change, Mom.
Yes. That is true.
On holiday, as an experiment, I sometimes did the opposite of what my first response would have been. I had the time. I noticed how I wanted to respond before I responded, and then if I didn’t want to respond that way, I paused myself and tried to respond differently, just to see what would happen. This was on a very small scale. For example, Annie and Kevin and I did yoga twice a day on the dock and one fine afternoon, I noticed that I wanted to announce to them—during tree pose—that I was wearing very slippery pants, and the pants were the reason I couldn’t place my foot up high on my opposite leg—I wanted to explain: hey guys, it’s not me, it’s my pants! But instead, I noticed that I wanted to do this before I did it. I noticed, too, that to speak would be to spoil this moment of shared concentration. I noticed that what I wanted to share was a) information not useful to them, and b) information that, if shared, wouldn’t actually solve anything. Any insecurity, any fear of failure, was mine; unrelated to what they were doing, and certainly not theirs to fix.
So I bit my tongue. I just did the pose. Obviously, this was a very tiny moment of noticing and making a very tiny decision, but I remembered it afterward, clearly, because I’m writing about it from memory now. What I noticed was that it didn’t hurt at all to stay quiet. It just shifted the moment, and my experience of the moment. It reminded me why I was doing yoga—as a gift to my body and mind, as a way of loving myself, respecting my body, no matter what it was/is capable of doing. It reminded me to thank my body for holding me up, no matter what the position.
It reminded to say: Thank you, body, for bringing me into this moment!
Notice, notice, notice. It’s why I meditate. I have to want to change if change is going to happen. But I also have to notice what I’m doing in the first place. So much of what we do, think, say is almost automatic. We’ve fit ourselves into systems, we’ve figured out how to survive, how to take the easiest route to self-soothing, how to comfort ourselves, how to minimize conflict (or ramp it up, if that’s what makes us feel alive/better). Our responses are formed by long experience, often dysfunctional, or harmful to our bodies and minds. Changing deep patterns takes patience, trial and error. Takes forgiveness and generosity above all else—to the self, which will extend then so easily to others too. If you can forgive yourself for your flaws and weaknesses it will be easy to forgive the flaws and weaknesses in others.
Insecurity, fear, the desire to be liked, the need to win and prove myself; these are among my deepest flaws. And I do want to change the way I respond when in their thrall. The only hope is to notice.
One more thing I learned on holiday (or learned anew, again): To notice when others are doing and saying things that make me feel good, cherished, calmer, more generous-minded—so I can learn from their deeds and words, and also be appreciative. For example, I’m so thankful that my children are kind and hopeful people, who are rolling with their changed circumstances, accepting what they’ve got and actively making the best of it, adapting, not complaining or mourning any perceived losses, just getting on with what’s being offered to them. I watch them, I notice, and I follow their lead.
- What felt good this month? Being on holiday and, more importantly, feeling on holiday. Being outside, as much as possible — I’m writing this outside, for example. Daily yoga with Annabella, and in the past couple weeks, we’ve bumped it to twice-daily. Going easy on myself in terms of expectations (especially while on holiday). Seeing friends and family in person, for walks or on porches, or back patios, or back yards.
- What did you struggle with? I’ve noticed a few things. One, it’s harder to remain vigilant about the pandemic, the further we get from its initial shock. Summer has given us a blissful break, but I dread the possibility of an interior, locked-in, limited-contact fall/winter. Two, I’m hyper-critical of my social interactions; specifically, any social error that I make now feels magnified and terrible, and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night replaying these moments. There’s a piece in today’s New York Times about how we’re all becoming more socially awkward, and I, for one, can attest that this is painfully true. Three, I feel a longing and almost a panic about finding things to do that will connect me with other people: I had a dream that I’d gotten a job working at a newspaper as a copy editor two days a week, and in the dream I was thrilled and excited, till I realized that it was likely work I could do from home, and I wouldn’t be with people. I woke up feeling confused, as this hasn’t been a conscious desire — to be with people, to work with people; in fact, I’ve been carefully arranging my life in order to work alone, writing things. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong? Or even somewhat wrong? Maybe I need to find outlets / work that allow me to be with others? (And is this a pandemic-induced feeling of starvation-for-contact, or a more fundamental issue, career-wise?)
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Flatter. I’m not sure I can explain this better. I feel suspended between seasons. There are too many unknowns looming. I’m riding the moment, trying not to think ahead or get ahead of where I’m actually at. My expectations feel low, and I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Mostly good, I think. But sometimes I think I need more … more ambition (?), a defined goal (?), something concrete to bolster my otherwise circular practices (?).
- How did you take care of yourself? Same as last month: I’m practicing radical self-love! (Try saying that out-loud and not undercutting it with a self-deprecating aside.) Reminding myself and my body that to be imperfect is to be human. Speaking up when I feel upset or ignored. Trying to address conflict directly. Trying to notice my own shortcomings and dysfunctional patterns, emotionally, so I can at least take a step back and say, hey, do I like this? Do I want to change this? And if so, try to respond differently than I ordinarily would. I’m talking very very small-scale changes: like, whether I eat a piece of chocolate now or save it for later. (To this point: I’ve noticed I tend to hoard for the future rather than permit myself to enjoy in the present; what does it mean to give myself permission to use my resources freely, without fear? What does a mindset of plenty, of enough, of bountiful, of abundance feel like? How would it change how I live?)
- What would you most like to remember? The lake. The way the water moves differently depending on the wind and the time of day: long ripples; flat; waves; dappled. The sunsets. Card games with the kids. The meals: potato crust quiche, beans and rice, risotto made with homemade broth, roasted beets. Bike adventures with CJ.
- What do you need to let go of? What I should probably let go of is news from the States. But I can’t and I won’t. I’m practically an obsessive about it, even when on holiday. I’m by turns baffled and infuriated, disbelieving, resigned. It’s like everything that’s been simmering under the surface has been turned up to a boil, all the chickens are coming home to roost: the country is armed to the teeth, divided, sick, hungry, the inequality is obscene, the systems corrupt and built on racist and misogynist beliefs, and reality itself seems upended by the lies and false narratives being peddled and eagerly devoured online. What am I witnessing? I can’t make sense of it, and want to. So much doesn’t make sense to my mind, perhaps most basic, the willingness to let so many people get sick and even die, when there are simple solutions that could stop the spread of the virus. If they’re willing, as a country, to accept so much death, what else will they be willing to accept? It frightens me. (And what am I willing to accept, as a Canadian, that I shouldn’t?) So … should I let this go, turn off the news? It doesn’t affect my life directly, does it? Wouldn’t I be more content, more peaceable of mind, if I were to let it go? How important is this form of passive engagement? In what ways do I become actively engaged for knowing more? (For one, as a dual citizen I’ve registered to vote, but that’s not new.) Is it a sick form of entertainment, in a way, or is there value in staying informed?
A marvellous way to escape from the stasis and repetition of the everyday is by reading books. I’ve been reading more books these days than I have for a very long time, reading not merely for professional purposes, but as a fan.
And I just want to say: Read, friends, read!
Read a book! You won’t regret it! Sink in, let your brain get accustomed to taking the long, slow, scenic route instead of scrolling yourself down an endless wall of text. This might sound like self-serving advice, but really, I feel born-again.
Read a book!
It’s an immersion in a way that other forms of “entertainment” and learning are not, because it also involves engagement, as your mind works to build worlds and make connections. There are ideas and images forming inside your brain—new to you, exciting, challenging, alarming, frustrating, fresh and unknown—as you follow the line of words across the page. These brand-new images are transferred into the landscape of experiences, memories, and images that already belong to you. Connections between these worlds pop and crackle and spark something that has the potential to feel revelatory and transformative (at best), or at least interesting, different from your usual point of view.
Inside your mind, as you read a book, you’re actively creating something that is both collaborative and personal. You’re reading something written in a different time that is speaking to where you are right now (or attempting to). I think this is why it can feel like you know an author really well—because you’ve actually made something together when you read their book, even when you’re collaborating across cultures, languages, places, and times.
This past weekend, in related news, we camped at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, and went to the beach. And we read books. I even stayed up late one night to finish a conventional but highly entertaining murder mystery, borrowed from my brother (Ann Cleeves, The Long Call). I’d finished the book I’d brought camping (Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day), a book with which I had an ongoing argument, as it featured wealthy white British characters, several of whom were artists; at times, I strongly disliked everything about the book, but then bits seemed to capture something important about creating art, especially as a woman, and how valuable it is to have a champion, especially a patron with money and influence, but also how dangerous. In the end, it was the engagement with ideas, the argument with the book itself, that kept me transported and hooked.
Books transport me in so many different ways. Reading Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You brought me into characters who broke my heart, and with whom I craved even more time, and afterward I wanted to talk about these people like they were real; reading Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was both accusation and encouragement to reflect on my own transactional relationships, even while it pulled me along with a propulsive plot; reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed stirred up a mixture of emotions, including the desire to protect this seemingly vulnerable writer from her own blind spots, and respect for occasions of raw insight.
I’ve just started Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and already I feel like the top of my head has been lifted to make room for more seeing, more questions, more ways to jab at and unpeel my identity, my ways and means of performing myself.
Writing is not a glamorous job. Progress is made at a glacial pace, if what you’re doing can be even be seen as progress; it might be more rightly called meandering, looping, wondering, wandering. You can’t see what you’re making. You can’t know how it will be received, if it ever gets loose, let alone completed. You don’t know what arguments a stranger might have with what you’ve conjured on the page.
It often doesn’t feel like important or valuable work; certainly it doesn’t feel very useful a lot of the time. But when I read books, I know exactly why I write, and why I’ve chosen this wondering, wandering path. When I read, I feel belonging and expansion, both, at once. When I write, I feel like a giddy participant in a long, ongoing conversation about being alive, being a part of it all, in my own time and place and body, right now.
Right now, Canadian publishing is suffering. (Read this, if you want to know more about the nitty-gritty business of the industry.) But listen up, friends! If you’re lucky, you still have an independent bookstore operating despite the pandemic, and they’re the ones (according to the cited article) who have the potential to keep this fragile/tough cultural industry alive. All the books mentioned above (and many more!) were purchased at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo. Order online, pick up in the alley behind the store; or they deliver locally. Do a bit of searching. Find what’s available near you. There are many independent options other than Amazon, and these options are run by people who love books, too. They love reading. They believe in the collaboration between words on the page and individual minds. They want to challenge your horizons, send you on adventures, keep you up late at night. Amazon’s algorithm just wants to sell you more of the same.
Those are my thoughts for today. More ideas, coming soon.
It’s too hot to think.
I’m as cranky as a baby with a heat rash.
Around 3:30AM, I lay awake and thought through how we might get air conditioning. It felt like the heat was lying on my chest, like it was a living creature, a pressure or weight that made it harder to breathe.
On Canada Day, we went to the beach. It felt safe, and it also felt like paradise, to be driving through lush Ontario countryside, undulating green, toward a deep, cold lake. It wasn’t that everything felt “normal,” but despite the differences between this summer and last summer — the complications of living in pandemic times — the possibility for adventure and temporary escape was proven to exist, too.
I’ve been running early in the morning, before it gets extra-hot. Despite all the stretching (dynamic pre-run; static post-run), my lower back aches as I sit here.
I’ve tried to write. But I’m not thinking in any organized fashion.
I’m going to take a trip to Dairy Queen this afternoon with a couple of the kids, we’ve made a plan, and part of my plan is to get a treat to deliver as a surprise to my mom … expeditiously, before it melts. She loves a strawberry sundae.
I’ve got a pile of rhubarb on the counter that needs to be made into something delicious. And loads of fresh greens in the fridge. Tiny eggs from Farmer Claire. Raspberry canes in the backyard loaded with fruit, on the cusp of ripening. Sprays of colourful flowers everywhere. This is a most bounteous season. But maybe not for story-writing.
It’s too hot to sleep.
It’s too hot to think.
My word of the year is SPACE. What I didn’t expect to find within this word is its companion, SILENCE. Silence can be a challenging state to sit within. I don’t always want to hear my own thoughts so clearly, or recognize the distracted and tumbling, tangled nature of my own interior life.
We spent last week, the last week before school started, at the cottage that belonged to my stepmom, and still feels like hers, even though she’s been gone for more than a year now. We love going there, love being there. It’s been a gift to have this place in our lives, and the kids have memories that go back, now, 11 summers. It’s the kind of place that has become a touchstone, and returning is a kind of pilgrimage. Returning is a measure of time passing. While we’re there, though only for a week at most, it feels like we’ve always been there and will always be there.
You can only get there (easily, practically) by boat. About five years ago, Kevin developed an inner ear disturbance that’s triggered by boat rides, and each year the after-effects would last longer and longer (months, even), so for the past two summers, he’s hiked in on a path that literally no one else uses. It’s overgrown. It takes him about an hour and a half. And this year, it was occupied by swarms of insects. He arrived at the cottage looking like a wild man. He wasn’t sure he could manage the hike out, but on Monday, he and Rose trekked the path again, to save his brain.
The corollary to his necessary hike is that I’ve had to learn how to drive a boat (not high on my list of things I wanted to learn how to do). We do what needs doing to get us to this place.
There is plenty of space at the cottage. Space for the kids to play. A big lake for kayaking and adventuring, alone or together. Star-gazing at night. Shelves of books. Late, lazy mornings. Late-night all-family card games. We never seem to need anything more than what we’ve got. Even when meals get creative, by necessity.
Space, silence. Quiet.
I tuned out from the news, from podcasts, from the internet almost altogether. But I did listen to one podcast, On Being, on Sunday. The title was: Silence and the Presence of Everything.
Isn’t that something? How the themes of our lives get tied together by invisible thread? I’d been worrying about space and silence. Silence as a negative. Silence as too much space for my mind to listen, anxiously, to itself.
Silence. Presence. Everything.
“Silence and the Presence of Everything” was about listening. Not active listening for a particular thing you expect to hear, or have been told to listen for, or pay attention to. Listening to what’s there to be heard. Listening without judgement.
An interesting thing happened at the cottage. I managed to write a bit every afternoon, when no one was paying attention; no one even really noticed. What was strange and thrilling was how I would fall into the writing (fiction), almost as if by drifting toward an idea. An image would surface. I would let it drift. I would be resting or sitting by the water. And some small fragment would drift toward me. And then I would get up and write. The writing felt similar to listening.
It didn’t feel active. It didn’t feel forced. It felt like I’d tipped sideways into another time and place and body, and I was just there.
Now I’m here, home again. Dreading a root canal tomorrow morning, but otherwise glad for a day, today, in which I’ve done exactly what I want to do with all my new-found, new-made space: I wrote. I’d gotten up early to exercise with friends and by 10AM when everyone had left the house and the laundry was underway, I felt tired. So I meditated/napped for 10 minutes. And then I got up and wrote. I told myself: Remember to meditate/listen/nap before writing. Drift into what you’re about to do. Listen. It’s okay if listening turns into dreaming. Let yourself drift.
Space = silence. Silence = listening. Listening = drifting. Drifting = door opening to fictional world. Step inside. Space = writing.
Also, space = rest.
I’ll write another blog post (maybe) about what it feels like to let go of the need to pay attention to a particular something, and just be. It’s almost the opposite of striving. I’m such a striver. To be without purpose, listen without demand; it eliminates the task of waiting. It makes silence okay. Drifting toward mystery. Because mystery is okay too.
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