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.
- What felt good this month? It’s February 1st, and the beginning of January seems eons ago. I’m grateful to my cartoon journal entries for recording the emotional ups and downs — but especially the ups. Otherwise, I might forget that January was a productive writing month, for example, or that our family looked forward to fun activities, which brightened the overall dulling effect of our generally similar days. In January, I’ve started charting out daily/weekly aspirational goals in my notebook (a messy page of activities that I can check off): these include things I value but might not otherwise prioritize, like reaching out to friends and family, or reading, or playing piano. I’ve been giving myself permission, and even incentive (three cheers for reward sheets!), to follow through on aspirational goals that have little worldly value, but feed me in every other way: spiritually, creatively, and in relationship with others.
- What did you struggle with? Career stall-out; stasis. It helps that there’s been a spotlight in Canada on the plight of artists, including writers, during the pandemic; I’m not the only one with a pushed pub date, or other delays and disappointments. But here’s the thing: the struggle has felt surface level, ego-level. Underneath, I’m full of hope and belief in my writing direction, in the research I’m doing, and in nurturing this life-long habit of curiosity and exploration, no matter the outcome. Process interests me, rather endlessly. So how could I complain or worry, when I’m able to tick through that list of entertaining and enriching daily aspirational goals and activities?
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I have no idea. This question is impossible! I’m relieved that the US has a new president. That happened! I’m a month older than when we last checked, and I feel essentially the same in terms of goals, hopes, dreams, concerns. I waver between, it’s going to be okay, eventually, isn’t it, right?, and, be here now, that’s what matters. I live in the latter as often as possible.
- How did you take care of yourself? I’m trying to notice my irritating flaws (pretty easy to spot when confined in tight quarters with five others + dog), name them, and laugh at myself when I notice I’m going down one rabbit hole or another. Should it irritate me so much that Kevin leaves the cupboard doors open? Or that people let the dog out but never back in again?
- What would you most like to remember? That I can trust myself to make decisions that support those I love, and myself, even when the conversations are challenging.
- What do you need to let go of? Timelines. Control over timelines. The paralyzing idea that I’m losing time to this pandemic, that my life is suspended in some fundamental way; that as the months tick past and nothing changes, I’m aging past relevance. Whoa, I’ve named a lot of fears here. Now to let them go … I think the checklist of aspirational activities helps with the letting go: when I sit at the piano and play Bach, I don’t think, you are wasting time. I just sink into the moment and concentrate on what I’m making, and feeling, and hearing, and experiencing — time travel through music, connecting across the centuries with other minds and hands and ears. And these moments are always available, maybe even especially right now! I’ve only got to give myself over to them, and let go of my need to predict the future. (BTW, this is my favourite question, every time! It’s so cathartic to name the thing that needs letting go, often something that catches me by surprise. I highly recommend answering it for yourself, and all the better if you write it down.)
Onward into February!
PS Here’s a sample aspiration chart …
My most recent list of categories goes like this: cardio; yoga; get outside; stretch; extra exercise; piano; cartoon; nap; read; meditate + “Source” (my word of the year, 2021); write; transcribe; revise; research; grants; cook/bake; clean; orders; family time; friends; sibs/parents; fun; thankful; X page.
I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
Welcome to my studio.
A friend said she’s noticed she’s not feeling so anxious anymore. I think this is true. We’ve travelled into the boring part of this experience. The part where we still don’t know what exactly will happen, or when; but the novelty, such as it was, is gone. And a dullness, a bleh feeling prevails.
I’m continue to enjoy at-home yoga, riding the spin bike, baking bread (it’s so easy), and gathering to eat supper together every night. The things I look forward to in a day are pretty basic: food, food, food; sometimes I even look forward to cooking the food.
I’m writing (fiction) quite a lot. That’s lovely.
I try to get outside for a walk every day. It’s validating (as a parent) to see the kids develop their own routines and healthy survival strategies. Jogging. Homework. Baking. Quiet time. Naps. I try to lie on the couch with a book a few times a week.
There is very little to report.
Nevertheless, at supper, I like to go around the table and find out what everyone did that day. I spend large chunks of my day in my office, so even though we’re all together under the same roof, I’ve missed things. I like how leisurely it feels, chatting around the table at suppertime. We’ve nowhere special to get to. After supper, the kids do the dishes and Kevin and I walk the dog around the block. And it isn’t hard to find ourselves saying: well, this part is pretty nice.
The kids don’t like when I report what would have been happening on any given day. So I’ve stopped. What’s the point of being sad about something that isn’t going to happen? Anyway, we’ve given ourselves a few things to look forward to in May. 1. My mom’s birthday: we’ve got plans to bake a cake. 2. Prom. We are doing prom, just us; everyone has a role, and mine is DJ!! The theme is “Starry Night.” The chaperone (Kevin) is going to have to keep a sharp eye on Kevin — if anyone’s going to spike the punch, it’s him. 3. Our eldest’s birthday. It’s a big one (19), so we’ve got plans to turn our living-room into a nightclub.
However, we aren’t making any such plans for June. According to one teenager, it’s too depressing to think of still being stuck with one’s family in June. Basically, we get through this one day at a time.
Like we always have, except now we know it for sure.
In summation: less anxiety; more boredom; even more bread. The days, they blur. Drifting awake this morning, I thought it was Sunday. Definitely not Saturday, I told myself, Sunday.
Friends, it’s Tuesday.
Joy. Gratitude. Thanksgiving.
As I’ve written about in previous posts, my moods are not exactly fixed at the moment, nor do they tend toward neutrality. There are wild swings, some into dark regions of the soul. But also, and as wildly, toward delight, pleasure, and even joy. Take Thursday. I got up at 5AM for a sunrise kundalini yoga class, live on Zoom, led by my friend Kasia. I lit candles and sat in the dark, feeling connected to the others who were out there, sitting in the dark, doing this practice together. The movement from darkness to light was gradual, as night turned to dawn and moved toward morning. It was a rainy morning, if I remember correctly, so the light never got very bright, but it came. It came.
I did a lot of writing on Thursday. Journal writing. Reflecting. Working through the unpleasant emotions that had been bubbling up all week. It felt like grief had taken me over and was spilling into bitterness. There were some big and hopeful things I’d been working towards, which were coming to fruition, and which had stopped, suddenly, like almost everything else has stopped, suddenly.
I hadn’t let myself name those losses — others have lost so much more; I have so much to be thankful for.
And that is true, but it is also true that naming what I’ve lost (temporarily or permanently) turned out to be a helpful exercise. I’d been wallowing blindly, and on Thursday I laid it all out — here’s what I don’t have; here’s what I can’t do; here’s what may not happen — and I saw that my fears were interconnected, that I wasn’t angry at anyone, not even myself, or even disappointed, exactly. I was longing for someone to promise me that everything would be okay.
And no one can do that.
No one ever could, really. As a parent, I know what it’s like to be on the other side — the side that is in the position to make promises of safety, security, comfort. I know how impossible it is. I know that instinctively, during these times, I want to hold my child close, and the words that I whisper are “I love you. I’m with you. I’m here. I won’t leave you. It will be okay.” But the “it will be okay” part isn’t a promise that it will be as we wish it to be, rather that sorrow / pain / sickness is part of life, that everyone feels despair, and that this too shall pass.
Victor Frankl wrote about finding meaning and purpose amidst tragedy. Resilience and hope come not from ease but from challenge, from a focus beyond ourselves and our own needs and fears.
On Thursday, I wrote all this down, I baked another loaf of sourdough and cooked a delicious meal for my family, but I was still feeling mostly wretched; irritable, restless, cramped and sour. I knew my friend Kasia was leading a second class that evening, so I decided to do it. It felt excessive, needy and messy, embarrassing to turn up again on Kasia’s screen, hey I’m back for more of your medicine, and it also felt necessary. (Find what your prayer is, and pray — to paraphrase Brother David Steindl-Rast, interviewed on the latest On Being podcast.) Again, I lit candles. This time, the light outside the windows turned by invisible gradations to darkness. I’d seen it come and I’d seen it go.
I emerged from my office cave/yoga studio brimming with energy. I’m tempted to call it hope. It definitely felt joyful. I’d thought some big and comforting thoughts. I’d written them down. (Another form of prayer, for me.)
Love the form, container, body you’re in.
Fear is the self trying to protect the self.
No to anticipatory suffering
Yes to anticipatory joy
Reality will look, feel, be different anyway.
I don’t know, these thoughts seemed big in the moment.
How to live the big thoughts? Isn’t that what we’re all trying to figure out how to do? Make manifest what burns bright within us?
Well, here’s what I did on exiting my cozy office: I went to the living-room to have a beer and some popcorn with Kevin. And I started live-streaming my sister Edna’s concert, which she was performing in her living-room (as part of a line-up of DJs). Edna’s music is for dancing, so instead of sitting down with my glass of beer, I started dancing. My kids, as they wandered in, were all combinations of horrified, intrigued, embarrassed, amused. Kevin plugged in our disco light. We pushed back the couches. Sock feet slid best on the wood floorboards. By the time Edna’s set ended, we were six dancers dancing. And didn’t I feel it all — joy, gratitude, thanksgiving!
The joy builds inside, to paraphrase Brother David Steindl-Rast again, and it has the opportunity to spill out into thanksgiving, which is what you share with everyone around you.
Don’t keep it in. Don’t hide it. Don’t feel guilty for feeling it. Don’t be parsimonious with your joy, it’s a renewable resource. You can’t be happy all the time, and you can’t be grateful for all moments, but all moments are opportunities for gratitude.
from On Being’s newsletter “The Pause”
This photo is completely unrelated to this post, and purely for your amusement (or, if you don’t much like dogs in glasses, mine).
This morning, sitting cross-legged and meditating in my friend Kasia’s virtual-yet-live yoga class, my head was quiet with deep and peaceful thoughts. Hours later, though I scribbled a cue for myself in my notebook, the same head seems to be noisy with surface natter.
We’ve entered our fourth week in lockdown, or whatever this is called.
There are times, like during this morning’s meditation, when I feel grounded and calm. But I think my family would likely point to all the times I’ve appeared wild-eyed or grim, or perhaps both in delightful combination.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always intended to improve as life goes on; and how it’s pleasant to consider that hard times can be improving times; but, let’s be honest, hard times also expose fundamental personal weaknesses and flaws in the most obvious and predictable ways. For example, pre-children, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Post-children, I was merely a mild hypochondriac, too focused on my kids’ needs and on our packed schedule to be obsessively tracking and self-diagnosing my own (mostly psychosomatic) symptoms. In the midst of this pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful service beyond the walls of this house, the terrible hypochondriac in me has returned, and she turns up most regularly in the middle of the night.
So … am I improving as life goes on? Or am I regressing?
Am I helper or do I desperately need help?
Maybe it’s both; and maybe it always is, always was, always will be.
This was not the post I’d intended to compose. Instead, as happens when I come to this space, this is the post that wants to be written. This is how writing works, in my experience. It is always a surprise, and, crucially, it’s never a painful or disappointing or scary surprise. I just find it interesting; curious; the strangeness of what’s lurking in my subconscious amuses me. Discovering it makes me feel better.
Recommended new podcast: Sugar Calling (NYT), which is Cheryl Strayed talking to writers, starting with George Saunders, who read out a letter he’d written to his students in which he told them that the job of the writer continues even now (and that we can all do this job): be a witness to this moment. Now isn’t the time for interpretation or elucidation; it’s the time to pay attention to your interior emotional life, to the things you notice around you, to the details. (Honestly, it’s always that time, for a writer; but now is even more keenly the time.)
In that spirit, to finish this post, here are a few small details I’ve recently observed about this time.
I open the snack drawer, hoping to find a stray chocolate almond. I know there won’t be any; they were finished off days ago and Kevin won’t be shopping till at least tomorrow. But I open the drawer in hope. And lo — I discover the very large bag of dried apricots! I’d forgotten about the apricots! The apricots are orange and bright and sweet. And I am happy.
When I wander to the living-room to narrate, unprompted, this tiny emotional journey to my (mostly indifferent) daughters, the elder child lights up: she’s experienced the same hope / disappointment / surprise / happiness each time she opens the snack drawer too.
(At this time, I often wander into rooms to narrate, unprompted, my mundane experiences to whoever is sitting there. I don’t always get a reply.)
A second observation, which I haven’t yet dumped on my children (because I think they will mock me for it), is this little oddity: I’m actually enjoying washing my hands. Multiple times a day. For at least twenty seconds each time. I’ve always washed my hands somewhat obsessively, but after watching a how-to video, I knew I could do even better; however, the thought of all that hand washing, and the actual fact of it, was almost overwhelming. The way thinking about changing your baby’s diapers day after day after day can feel overwhelming if you let your mind go there. The endless futility of the task! Standing there, doing the same thing over and over and over again. I felt impatient every time I squirted soap on my hands, washing, washing, washing.
But more recently, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the hand-washing ritual has become almost welcome. It feels like a deliberate pause, a gentle self-massage, a quiet moment to myself. I plant my feet, and breathe deeply (our soap smells really good). Weird, huh.
My mantra these days (whispered only to myself) is: What’s your rush? What’s your hurry?
That feeling of impatience that arises at various moments throughout the day — I know it’s not coming from my circumstances, because there’s literally nowhere to rush to. So it must be coming from deep within my self. (Where do I think I’m going? Why do I need to get there? What could be better than here and now?) And if I notice this, I can feel my way through it, somehow, to a place where at least for a few breaths, I’m in no hurry at all.
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