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.
This post is for my dad, who says he likes reading these blog posts (though we also communicate one-on-one). He noticed that I’d had a regular flourishing of posts when the pandemic was first announced and we were suddenly thrown into this strange time of global uncertainty and disruption; and then, I kind of stopped.
It’s been pretty up and down over here. And sharing the downs is harder than sharing the ups. This is not a great time to be a hypochondriac, for example. Is everyone else in a panic when they wake with a runny nose? The anxiety alone causes tightening in my chest. In truth, it’s not that hard for me to stay home with my family. I can easily list five things to be grateful for today! But to be stuck home, sick, would be a totally different story, one I find overwhelming to imagine; just as I find it overwhelming to imagine being a health care worker right now. So, I vacillate between many different emotions, including guilt for enjoying any part of this time.
My mood shifts throughout the day, and from one day to the next. I had a night of shimmering, comforting dreams. The next night, I woke every hour certain something was catastrophically wrong (like, a global pandemic, maybe?). Last night, I slept from the moment my eyes closed till the moment my alarm went off.
I know my mood affects my family’s mood. When I am frightened, anxious, spiralling from too-much-Twitter feed (note to self: remove that app from your phone!), I’m helping no one. I’m seeding worry in our tiny family plot. And, yes, that’s going to happen from time to time. What I’m trying to do, when it does happen, is to recognize that it’s happening, name it, and ask my family for forbearance and forgiveness. Apologize. Accept feedback. Forgive myself. Try again. And do my level best to change the channel by seeking out activities that improve my mindset.
Here are my current top five comfort-giving, mood-boosting, survival-tactic activities:
My first sourdough loaf, six days in the making, an experiment necessitated by the national yeast shortage. Can you believe this loaf is made of flour, water, salt, and time? And that’s all???
One. Baking, cooking, cleaning
I must confess, if I were to get sick and need to self-isolate within our house for 14 days, as the guidelines suggest, my biggest challenge (assuming I was still functioning well enough to stand and breathe), would be to stop baking, cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry. Performing these tasks assures me that I’m nurturing my family, and also that I’m in control of something: keeping the house functioning, relatively smoothly.
On the flip side, maybe I should practice ceding control over some of these tasks, while everyone is home together now?
Two. Meditation and yoga
I have a new best friend. Her name is Adriene, and she posts free yoga on her YouTube channel, and our relationship is entirely one-sided, but feels strangely real at the moment, especially when I sneak away from the family, close the door, and join her for a 20 minute heart-and-hip opening practice, or some such, which inevitably scrolls into another video of whatever yummy-sounding Adriene-offering is popping up next. Combined with my real friend Kasia’s nightly live-streamed yoga classes on Facebook, I’ve been doing excessive amounts of yoga. I’ve also been meditating. A lot. My office, which is tiny, has become a yoga and meditation studio, primarily.
For some reason, I’ve been framing all this yoga and meditation as a guilty pleasure, maybe because it feels really good, and I keep wanting to do more and more of it, and that seems … wrong, under the circumstances? But my eldest daughter pointed out last night that as far as guilty pleasures go, this one is downright healthy, and possibly even healing and helpful. So I’m giving myself the permission to do as much yoga as I need to, to get through the day.
Three. Going outside
I feel better when I’m outside early in the morning, when hardly anyone else is out and about; this is when I’ve been running. I’m nervous about adding any non-essential traffic to the sidewalks and parks right now; but it’s amazing how even a short dog-walk around the block after supper can lift the spirits. The birds are awake and busy. In our backyard this afternoon, I kept kneeling to look at tiny green sprouts unfurling their heads from the ground.
How can we live without fresh air, and sun? It seems essential.
Four. Talking to friends and family
My sibs and I have been meeting on Wednesday evenings for a catch-up. Like everyone else, we’re using Zoom. I also text quite regularly to check in with friends and family. I’m pretty sure this interaction, even from afar, is saving my sanity and restoring my humour right now. I never feel lighter of heart than after I’ve spent some time with my sibs. And feeling light of heart — it’s a challenge right now, I confess.
My kids have their video games. Kevin likes Netflix. Sometimes the two of us watch something together (like Schitt’s Creek on CBC’s Gem; and Sex Education and Feel Good on Netflix) while drinking a beer. (I haven’t taken up video games yet). What got me through some extra-anxious hours recently, however, was the combination of listening to a podcast (on a subject completely unrelated to the pandemic) while playing free-cell solitaire online. Who knew? I also like lounging around reading random articles in The New Yorker, and re-reading comfort-fiction like Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton’s National Velvet. And I’m watching the late-night hosts on YouTube attempting to broadcast, with varying degrees of success, from locations around their houses. There’s also writing & drawing, which should probably have its own separate category; on the rare day I don’t do it, I notice.
In terms of distractions, I know things are bad when I start compulsively scrolling through Twitter; that’s a sign that my anxiety and focus are spiralling dangerously downhill. (Follow-up note to self: remove that app already!) So I’m trying to minimize that form of entertainment, which is actually more of a form of self-immolation.
So that’s my list. What’s comforting you right now?
I thought I’d wasted the day. I was lying on the couch under a blanket, feeling so tired, waking after a nap, a needless nap in the middle of the day, with sun pouring through the windows. I’d woken when an alarm went off on my phone: the province of Ontario alerting all travellers returning home to go home and stay home. A few minutes later, the alarm sounded again: same info, this time in French.
The dog lay atop the couch, stretched out. I stared at the wall. Is this a panic attack? But it didn’t feel dire, it felt like being flattened by something, unable to rise. My eldest son appeared on the scene. “Oh, are you napping?” “No, just lying here doing absolutely nothing,” I said. He accepted this at face value. He’d been cleaning his room, and wondered where to put some stuff he didn’t need anymore — boxes, binders. I was able to assist him while still prone. “Could you bring me the New Yorker magazine that’s open on the table?” I asked him. It was the latest issue, open to the fiction, a short story about tennis, of all things.
I read the whole story. It was a long story.
Soon after that, I got up off the couch. In the bathroom, I surreptitiously took my temperature. Normal. Then I went to my office, plugged myself into my Lynda Barry Spotify playlist, hit shuffle play, and wrote in my notebook for the next hour: a brand new story for a book I’d been working on diligently before … before … all of this; it seemed so long ago.
After that, I met a friend for a walk. Keeping to a safe distance. Dodging others on the Iron Horse Trail.
Home again, I returned to the story. I wrote more. My pen scratched away at the lines on the page, words flying from some unknown part of myself, turning visible, printed in block letters, the nascent form of something that might become something, someday; no, that already is. Forget someday, Carrie. It already is. This is.
When I finished writing the story, I sat back in my chair and almost cried. It felt like I’d connected with some distant memory of myself, some estranged part of myself in whose renewed acquaintance I was delighting — I remember you! Writing, through confusion, following the through-line of a plot, seeing the world through a character’s eyes instead of my own — I felt purposeful in a way I feel at no other time. Not purposeful in a practical way, like when I’m baking bread, or helping a child; but purposeful in the way of being used wholly. Not used in a bad way. Used entirely. All my parts work in concert to do this bright bruised blessed work that does not feel in any way like work.
It’s a good feeling.
Today was not wasted; I got up off the couch, but also, I let myself lay there. Maybe I needed to do both of those things to figure out how to write that story that now is, whatever it is, whatever it may be. I got it out of my head.
(These photos were taken immediately after I got up off the couch — and before I’d established that my temperature was normal. For some reason, I went to the back door by the garage, opened it and squinted into the sunshine. I just stood there on the stoop for awhile.)
Five things I am grateful for
1 My kids’ teachers, who have been reaching out to their students with such empathy about the unprecedented collective experience we’re sharing; among their offerings are optional assignments that invite connection with other students, and even breathing techniques for finding calm during anxious moments. Thank you to all the teachers who are doing their best to support their students right now. #education
2 My kids, who have been finding ways to keep themselves soothed and entertained without entirely relying on screens. This includes doing puzzles in their rooms, figuring out how to play Battleship with a friend via FaceTime, practicing piano, baking cookies and sour cherry bread, kitchen clean-up, imaginary games in the backyard, soccer, playing with Rose, drawing with me or painting with Kevin, and above all, accepting the situation rather than fighting it. #parenting
3 Kevin, whose bottomless well of optimism, flexibility and creativity is an especially useful toolbox right now (to mix metaphors!). He’s self-employed, I’m self-employed: generally speaking, we’re both tolerant of risk, practical, disciplined, and comfortable with the necessary short-term pivot in service of deeper, long-term goals. It’s a partnership suited to current circumstances. I’m also thankful that I can tell him what I really think, even if it ain’t pretty. #marriage
4 The pair of cardinals in our front bush, who popped out yesterday as if to say hello, just as I was looking out the front window. The peach-coloured female hopped onto the windowsill and cocked her head, inches from me on the other side of the glass. I held my breath. #nature
5 That everything I’m doing right now feels like it has spiritual purpose: it’s a gift. The focus of my waking hours seems to be to seek the spirit, nourish the spirit, bring forth the spirit, pay attention to all in my life that is spiritual. Practice, pray, reflect, share, write, dream. I’m loving all the online tools available for connecting with others. Sibs night via Zoom. Church service via YouTube and Skype. My friend Kasia’s yoga, live-streamed via Facebook into my tiny peaceful office every evening at 8PM. I have more time to spend meditating every day, accompanied by beautiful poetry podcasts or meditation reflections. It feels like my emotional life is closer to the surface and more visible, plainer, simpler; I feel more vulnerable, but also quieter. Within the restlessness, I’m finding stillness. There isn’t much I can do to help at the moment, except stay home. But that gives me even greater permission (if I need it, and sometimes I do!) to pause, breathe deeply, sense connection, reflect on the ties that bind us together, and pray for the possibility that our global community may unite around principles of mutual protection, dignity and care. #hope
Like many of you, my days — their very substance — have changed. And I’m finding comfort in a daily drawing and writing session, the results of which I’ve been sharing here. Will it last? I don’t know, but I’m debating whether these cartoons and poems should replace the ordinary content of my blog, which is more like this … more like me talking to you (rather than me talking to my notebook), more conversational, a little more “newsy.” The writing I’ve been doing in my notebook is closer to fiction or poetry; and its tone might not fit the blog’s, perfectly.
But, still. I’m making it, and I enjoy sharing it. I will keep sharing it for the time being, and perhaps find another way to do so, in order to preserve this space for, well, this.
How are you? I hope you’re finding ways to enjoy your days, which may feel extra-long and extra-slow; the stretched-out passage of time, in the absence of much happening, reminds me of my days spent parenting small children.
We are good, here. Our eldest returned from his trip to Montreal (where the city had shut down around them); he’s restless, and has yet to settle in to the strangely calm routine the rest of us have invented for ourselves. Kevin is our designated leave-the-house-for-supplies-person. We are grateful for our big back yard. There’s room to kick a soccer ball. Room to refinish a coffee table. My office is an oasis of peace. I’m mainlining meditation, and have been tuning in every evening at 8PM to my friend Kasia’s livestream kundalini session on Facebook. At some point this week, I baked a double batch of cinnamon raisin bread that was divine. Yesterday, I wiped down every major surface with a bleach solution, a tedious and wearying project that opened my heart with gratitude and amazement for everyone whose job it is to wipe down surfaces, to keep us safe. My admiration and thanks are with each and every worker on the front-lines, putting themselves at risk, doctors and nurses, and also cashiers and cleaners. My job by comparison is ridiculously easy: stay home, stay calm. I think often of those who have lost work, who fear the immediate future, the basics of survival. A couple of weeks ago, I was mercifully awarded a major grant from the Canada Council for a novel I’m working on, the timing of which has been a major relief; I’m certain we’ll be okay even if the kids can’t work their summer jobs, even if Kevin’s business shrinks in the near-term. I feel fortunate, too, to share my home with five other people, plus dog. We might irritate each other from time to time; but we also have close companionship. Staying connected, generally, has taken on increased significance. I enjoyed tuning in to my church’s virtual service this morning. Last week, my sibs and I met for drinks via Zoom.
The forced presence and stillness suits me, at least for now. But, as you’ll see from my “poems” below, I’m also aware of underlying anxiety, of uncertainty, of the fear of the unknown that seems to be floating through the atmosphere, bubbling up from the depths.
Below, you’ll find samples of my drawing and writing from the past couple of days. Feel free to read, or skip, as you wish. Sending you presence, light, hope, stillness, and, in place of anxiety, free-floating poetry.
PS Add this to your recommended reading list: Washington Post article about a poet in Southern Italy who shared his personal cellphone number on social media, offering to talk to anyone who wanted to call. As Seth Meyers would say: this is the kind of story we need right now.
Thursday’s cartoon was drawn to Lindi Ortega’s “Fires.” I think it’s a double self-portrait, of me, right now, waving to me, from a time before coronavirus. But who knows? These portraits seem to draw themselves.
What’s on your mind?
Today’s poem comes to you from a land of uncertainty where nothing and everything has changed from one moment to the next, and the landscape looks the same, only bleaker, and the world is windswept and bleary, all crispness reduced to the edges of dried grass rustling as we shuffle past, keeping a safe distance from one another. When our hands brush briefly, accidentally, before parting, I flinch as if I’ve touched fire, fever, the source of fever — or is it I who am a danger to you? Either way, I bear responsibility for the possibility of infection, and this reminds me that we must be guarded and vigilant, we must restrict our children’s movement and our own.
Is twenty seconds long enough to thoroughly clean my hands?
The pressure in my chest expands. I sneak into the bathroom to take my temperature again, momentary reassurance that I am well. But is this well? I stand in the bathroom looking at the number that presents itself to me, a neutral number, on a neutral device of measurement, and I ask, what about the invisible suffering parts of us, how can we measure and assess those fevers and chills and aches?
There is so much surface that needs to be disinfected, vast and spreading; what’s underneath must be even vaster, almost infinite, the darkness we fall into, the anxious pain that presses against the ribs, trying to get out. I see it everywhere, written on everyone, muted, uneasy, restlessly awake now.
We knew we would die one day.
We thought we would know better what we had dominion over, what we could control. These depths bubbling like lava, like an eruption at the bottom of the sea, like rumour — are not the message we’d been awaiting. We want instruction. A six-step undertaking to cleanse our surroundings. A bleach solution (9 parts to 1).
A tincture, an inoculation. A cure.
Friday’s cartoon was drawn to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” A friend observed that the past two portraits seem to be expressing a fractured self; in any case, the figures are all boxed up and separated, though some of them are reaching out.
What’s on your mind?
My mind empties out and I see behind the overcast grey sky a clean-swept blue; now hidden, but still there, and I imagine the wind pushing at the clouds and opening a smear of light; the clouds torn like paper, ripped like fabric.
Experience has the same effect, working on my mind to rub away the clouds of certainty. In its place, a frayed understanding — that nothing holds, and that certainty is less desirable than I’d imagined, that instead I am happy to settle for being useful, for finding myself, occasionally, in the right place at the right time.
I see that vulnerability is like an invitation, while certainty silences. The rip in the massing clouds reveals the sky, blue, which was always there, if I’d known to open myself, frayed, worn, fragile, as I’ve always been, whether I knew it or not. I let myself be seen. And in return, I see you.
Saturday’s cartoon was drawn to Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream.” I drew it with my eyes closed. I took the theme rather too literally, which is why I’m running, sort of, though I couldn’t visualize what dream, exactly, I was running down. So I drew a few little star-like flowers that can be seen near my right elbow, like the flowers I noticed on the spider fern whose tendrils are hanging over our sink (pictured at the top of this post).
What’s on your mind?
This time is this time is this time of now and now and now and it is almost impossible to be anywhere else or with anything else but what’s before me.
I notice the spider fern is flowering, tiny delicate blooms hanging over the sink.
I notice my son’s head smells like sweat, and my daughter’s head smells like coconut oil. I touch their hair.
My hands smell of bleach, though I used gloves, and I wonder if the smell is real or remembered, is it in my nostrils or just the memory of it, the way I can smell cigarette smoke from someone else’s car even after I’ve rolled up my window and driven away, even after I’ve left my car in the parking lot to sit outside the door of my daughter’s piano lesson, how even here I think I can smell the stranger’s cigarette smoke in my hair — and by extension, her poor decisions and regrets and longing; which are, of course, my own.
The piano studio has locked its doors.
We live inside.
We do not drive anywhere. We are in a time of plague and even yesterday seems very far from today, estranged from today.
Now. Now. Now. The sound of my pen scratching — too fast, sloppily — across the page. I’ve only just noticed that I grip it as near to the tip, the nib, as is possible. I only just see it — my pen — as an instrument I am playing, an extension of my body, a tool encircled by five tips of fingers, each with a half-moon circle of curved, opaque nail. There are no straight lines on my hand. The pen is straight and hard and useful to me, it is made for this task and nothing more; but I am made for bending, praying, curling, holding, I am made for giving way. I am made for praise. For contorting myself anew.
I am made for change and ever-change, evermore, now, as before.
I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to let others be. How often when I express anger or frustration it’s about a situation over which I have no control. And my anger and frustration is not about the situation, exactly, but about my lack of control.
Knowing that, recognizing it, makes it easier to let go.
You are not responsible for fixing everything.
Saying these words to myself brings a feeling of great calm. I allow myself to let go of even those I love most, of expectations, of desire, of the need to protect, to keep safe, to confirm, to hold, to beg for proof of. I let it be. Whatever it is. I don’t necessarily want to let it be, but I let it be anyway.
In this way, I am able to look directly at what is before me and see it clearly. We find ourselves, often, every day at least, in situations over which we have no control. This is challenging to accept. Challenging to understand. What makes it even more challenging, maybe, is that we live in a culture that prizes control, that sells us a version of reality in which whoever wants it most wins, that tells us that we can improve exponentially if we try and that if we don’t, we aren’t trying hard enough. That a winner wins and a loser loses and those are the only two options. That we just have to set our minds to it. Decide to do it. You can do anything, you just need to work harder, yell louder, demand more, bend the rules if you must, take what you deserve!
No, and no, and no.
Clarity of vision recognizes all that is not ours to claim, to own, to change, to bully into being. And that’s pretty much everything. Anything I bring forth is a gift. It belongs to grace, not to me.
The way that I see it is this: with acceptance comes clarity. When I accept that I inhabit this earthly body and mind for a fraction of time, when I understand how small I am, how easy, then, it is to accept and love not only myself, my tiny precious singular brief flawed radiant self, but also to love and accept all that swims beyond me, beyond my control.
To be aware that I am, in concert and with all others who are, too, who will be, and who were.
Does this mean I will just lie back and gaze at the stars and let life wash over me? Actually, that sounds lovely. Maybe I’ll achieve that level of inner calm and peace someday. Right now, it means that I’m still wrestling with the urge to strive for better and more. But also that I’m finding it ever and ever easier to embrace and celebrate the joy of process. Of being. Of simply being, here, now.
If my calling is to sit with someone I love more than life itself and simply be, if that’s what I’m called to do, that is the highest calling I can imagine.
I also love making things. I love expressing what I’m discovering by making things.
When I write stories, I sit with my characters. I listen to what they’re telling me, I record what I discover. It’s the most joyful work. I feel nothing but wonder that I get to do this work, because it’s wonder I feel as I do it.
I’ve received good news in the past week, news that offers support and external encouragement to keep doing this work. This news fills me with wonder. I cherish it, thank it and welcome it, even while I know that it isn’t of me, it isn’t me. In the presence or absence of news, I continue to do as I’m called to do. I sit with those I love more than life itself and simply be. Thank you, thank you, benevolence and grace.