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.
Listening to Joni Mitchell’s River.
I listen to this song even when it’s not the Christmas season. They’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Oh, Joni. I recently read a profile about her early songwriting in the New York Times and then drifted over to read another piece in The New Yorker from 2012 by Zadie Smith about becoming a Joni convert. I’d already read the Zadie Smith essay, maybe when it was originally published, but I read it again. The internet will give you so many windows and doors to open, chasing ideas that you might tell yourself are inspirational or aspirational, when really, you just want to be as original and seemingly free as Joni Mitchell. But it’s okay just being you. Isn’t it?
I’ve started a new project that I’m planning to do every day in December, and possibly beyond. It’s a way of crossing the threshold from the every day into the imagination, a daily portrait and caption, created in about 20 minutes or so, while listening to music. I draw a portrait on an index card in pen, then colour it with crayons (an important part of the playful process!), then write a few lines about whatever’s on my mind, giving myself no more than 3 minutes for the text so I don’t start sweating over it. Like this:
Here are a few other good things and random thoughts, on this Friday afternoon when I’ve run out of steam and am about to turn to fun videos on youtube while doing my stretching routine on the office floor, which isn’t a half-bad way to spend half an hour, truth be told — maybe I’ll count that as one of the random good things going on right now. I’m also attempting to do sets of 10 burpees whenever I think of it throughout the day. While waiting for lunch to heat in the microwave, for example. Before bed. The goal is to raise my heart rate in spurts throughout the day, maybe to compensate for not running right now (though I do ride the spin bike pretty frequently). Whatever. It lifts my spirits every time. I finish my burpee set and throw my hands in the air in victory! Yes! (I should draw that.)
Other daily goals: Go outside! Every day.
And: Flip my current pattern of writing in a frantic panic late in the afternoon, and write in the mornings instead (answer email only after I’m all written-out). The daily portrait and caption kickstarts this goal, and so far it’s worked wonders. Start with something fun and easy, something I look forward to doing, and suddenly I’m pitched into writing new material without even thinking twice.
Also: Work harder. (Weird, I originally wrote “Word harder.” That works too.) Work/word harder is my main life goal. But I mean that only insofar as I mean work harder to dig in, commit, finish projects, even if I don’t know what will happen to them. Hard things are hard. Curiosity is my fuel. Patience is a gift but also can be a weakness if it turns into numb acceptance. Grit is necessary. Add it to your breakfast. Relish and savour what you’re doing because you never know what you’re making. Or what will stick, what will matter, what others will appreciate.
For example: A student sent me a message this week, writing: “I also wanted to tell you that as a graduate, I still appreciate your class. I’ve read books a little differently since, with more compassion, and more interest in the beauty of the work.” How could I guess that a student would come away from a writing class with a new lens on reading? What a gift. I love thinking about the accident of connections, about the things we keep that perhaps someone else has given us, but they don’t know.
Okay, one more goal: Reach out with appreciation for the gifts received from others. I might also add, if there’s a teacher who’s helped you in some way, let her know. Especially now. Any teacher who can engage her students through the screen or the mask is working at a level of commitment and energy and preparation that is almost impossible to understate.
In conclusion, as this seems to be a post that has brought up boundless wells of inner gratitude, I’m grateful for a friend’s idea to create our own collectively brainstormed advent calendar of family activities. As a family of six, each of us contributed four ideas which were randomly sprinkled into the calendar’s pockets. Day 1: decorate Christmas cookies (made by F); Day 2: breakfast for dinner (waffles, made by me); Day 3: ice cream delivery to grandparents; Day 4: games night. (Days 1 and 2 shifted the responsibility to the baker and the cook, and both of us were slightly crusty about this; as a result, we’ve also created a bunch of back-up activities to be accessed should one idea not work out on a particular day).
I’m grateful for a little surprise to look forward to every day of advent.
And I’m grateful to you, my friends who read this blog. It gives me a little boost knowing you’re out there. Connections. They’re harder to come by right now, and I cherish them all the more for that.
- What felt good this month? This month has been a bit of a blur, and I’ve spent half of it thinking it’s already December, but there have been some genuine highlights. Unexpectedly warm weather early in the month made possible some spontaneous outdoor gatherings. I’m especially grateful that my siblings and I were able to gather with both my dad, and my mom. The last time we gathered together with either parent, all of us, was last Christmas, and we know this Christmas will be challenging. So that was a real gift. Another highlight was watching Kamala Harris speak after the election was declared — especially awesome because we watched outside in our backyard shack with friends. I’ve been looking after my physical body, with physio, chiro and massage, and daily stretching and exercise. While I wait to hear back from my editor, I’ve been writing new stories using cues learned from Lynda Barry. And I continue to connect with friends in person, outdoors, which keeps me going.
- What did you struggle with? This month was better than last, in terms of my mental state. I seem to be more settled into established routines, and accepting of this liminal state we’re all in. In some strange way, I’m thankful to be in a rather unambitious mindset at present, and therefore don’t have specific goals that are being thwarted by the circumstances. Nevertheless, I’m trying to use my time fruitfully even if I don’t know what will come of it. I’ve noticed that it cheers me to share what I’m doing with others; if I have any goal, it’s figuring out ways (perhaps new and creative) to share my writing, meditations, stories, photos, cartoons, musings with others. I’ve also loved getting opportunities to read and comment on and engage with other writers’ work. Reciprocity and community feels critical to a sustainable path as a writer/artist. I need to foster more of that, somehow.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Better. At the beginning of the month, the American election was weighing on me, plus I was feeling pretty bummed about trying to invent a Christmas experience in a pandemic. But my awesome little family has been brainstorming and getting creative, planning for different kinds of celebratory and brightening activities, throwing out expectations and starting fresh, which is a wonderful gift in and of itself. More on this in a future post. Basically, I’m feeling sturdier than I was at the beginning of November. Calmer. (Although my daughters have both informed me, separately, that I’m the most impatient person in the house.) As I reflect on this, I realize that I’m looking forward to things without wishing everything were different; let’s call this stage “acceptance.”
- How did you take care of yourself? Plugging into my Lynda Barry Spotify playlist, drawing, writing. Tara Brach meditations. Being kind to my body. Getting outside. Remembering to text friends. Checking into literary events on Zoom. Sibs nights. Popcorn and shows with Kevin (this month we watched Ted Lasso, The Morning Show, and we just started Steve McQueen’s Small Axe). Redecorating the living-room with Kevin (a work-in-progress).
- What would you most like to remember? That I am alive in my body and in my mind. That connecting with others is the necessary spark to feeling and being alive (especially thinking of this in the context of my writing life). That I love reading, responding, editing, digging into ideas and images. That food for the mind is as necessary as food for the body. That the jolt and challenge of the unexpected encounter is something I’m often missing right now, and craving.
- What do you need to let go of? Good intentions. That just popped up, and I’m going to let it stand. Maybe what I mean is, I need to let go of superficial attempts to be helpful, and respond and act from somewhere deeper, more grounded, more raw, more real instead. I’ve been saying yes every time it feels like it’s coming from a place of genuine yes-ness! (And saying no when I know the answer is no, no matter how painful or uncomfortable.)
I’ve been pausing to take photos of the morning, the early morning light and sky and trees, as they change. The days are shorter, and now I run in darkness especially when it’s recently rained, as it had last night. This morning I’d already decided that I would stop at the bottom of a hill on the opposite side of the park, to get a different view than I usually do. I’d pulled out my cellphone when the sky filled up with birds. They flew toward me and then on and on, a great stream of them; it looked like they were heading north, not south.
I don’t wear my glasses to run, and the result is photos that are often slightly (or wildly) out of focus.
But my writing life feels more in focus, both this week and last. I’ve been working on revisions, and have been grateful for the energy to be methodical in my planning and execution. Last week, when I was feeling so low, the novel was a complete escape; I needed it, I could see that. I needed something big and whole to tether me to purpose, something outside of myself, that would carry me out of my body and mind into the bodies and minds of other people. Characters. Avatars embodying my questions and testing my theories about how to be (or not to be).
Fiction is escape. Writing fiction is immersive. Like plunging into another bloodstream, or being set free into a new landscape that isn’t mine to tend and repair, only to wander through like a voyeur. Looking through windows. Inside cupboards. What’s on the bathroom floor? I don’t have to pick it up, clean it up, I just get to snoop through imaginary rooms, imaginary weather, climb imaginary trees, hum imaginary tunes in someone else’s dreamy voice. Feel imaginary sadness; that too. And I get to come through it, by piecing together a puzzle so all the edges fit and make sense, the way real life never does, never can.
This morning, I was wearing headphones, listening to my “Run Fast” playlist. Missy Elliot was playing. But I could hear the birds.
(As I ran on, up that hill and turned down a very dark stretch, and the birds kept coming, all I could think was: Please don’t poop on my head!)
Goodbye, goodbye, hello, hello, good morning.
What to do when having a bad day? Or a bad couple of days? What does that even mean, to have a bad day?
For me, it means feeling extremely low in spirit. And it happens. I’m trying to track these low days, to figure out whether there is a pattern. On Monday, on my desk calendar, I wrote: “feeling very low.” On Tuesday: “still low.” Today I didn’t write anything, probably because I am feeling a bit better.
I’ve noticed a few things, during these low couple of days.
First, I noticed that I’d quit Twitter and hadn’t replaced that social media scroll with anything in particular … which sounds amazing and very healthy and all the rest of it, but in fact, has contributed to this low feeling, because Twitter and doomscrolling was exactly as soothing as any addiction, it was a distraction from my own inner life, and without it, I’m left facing: my own inner life.
And a whole collection of anxieties, fears, doubts, and nameless sadness lurks inside here. It was easier not to notice when I was busy distracting myself.
This is the push of the pandemic as a whole. It dares us to pause and observe what’s waiting to be noticed underneath our once-busy schedules, our racing around, our frantic quests for acknowledgement and personal satisfaction. Here I am.
What’s come up this week is a recognition that I’m still struggling to come to peace with certain childhood indignities, specifically the feeling of being an outsider always looking in but never fully understanding what’s going on (we moved often, and lived in a few different countries); being an outsider gave me the gift of observation, but what I’ve been more reluctant to acknowledge is that it also dug a hole of insecurities that manifests in unlikeable and unpleasant ways when I’m feeling … well … low …
Oh, how I attempt to protect myself from even the smallest rejection, from loss, from disappointment.
For example. I had a mini-tantrum at the dinner table several nights ago, when I wanted the last piece of pie and didn’t get it. I could have had a tart instead, but I wanted that last piece of pie and, also, I thought my children should have appreciated and loved me enough to give me the last piece of pie. (They may not have seen that piece of pie in quite the same way). I said (and this is an exact quote): “If I don’t get what I want, I don’t want anything at all.” I might as well have stomped my foot before running out of the room. I mean, I didn’t. I spoke in a calm and rational (if petulant) tone, but the words and the feeling were undeniably childish; and I did leave the room. One of my kids said, Mom, I can’t tell if you’re kidding right now. And my inner child said, I’m not kidding!
This got me thinking about two guiding principles I’ve been living by, and would like to stop living by, mostly because I hadn’t realized until recently that I was living by them.
The first is: Save it for later.
The second is: If I don’t get what I want, I don’t want anything at all. Or: I’d rather quit than lose.
Save it for later, as my siblings could tell you, goes back to early childhood, when I would hoard my Easter bunny, uneaten, for MONTHS. The end result, predictably, was that the candy became completely inedible, melting into a sticky disgusting mass hidden away in my sock drawer. This had the effect of not only depriving me of enjoying the original treat, but also of depriving anyone else of enjoying it too. It’s quite possible that I actually didn’t like chocolate Easter bunnies and could have given the candy away to my brothers; but I didn’t. Instead, I hoarded it like I was preparing for the apocalypse. The perfect time to eat it simply never came. Note to self: It never will.
I still do this. I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to eat the chocolate now, or share it, if I don’t want it. I’m trying to treat myself, and others, to little luxuries, today, right now. It takes practice. It’s a pretty sweet practice to practice, though.
I guess the outlook is to change from a scarcity mindset to a mindset of plenty, of abundance; not hedonism, but simply enough.
I’d rather quit than lose, my siblings could also probably weigh in on. Suffice it to say, it’s a shitty way to live a life. And I’ve only just noticed that this tendency is bubbling up in me again; thought I’d cured it over the years by committing to do a bunch of things I was guaranteed never going to win at—like running races, or coaching soccer.
This mindset comes with its own sub-mindset that is a bit more complicated, but summarizes roughly as: If this is as good as I’m going to get, I’m outta here. It’s about sensing when I’m reaching my own limitations and becoming frustrated with my inability to progress. I know this was part of what frustrated me with coaching, and with teaching; I was okay at both, learned lots and absorbed lots pretty quickly, but plateaued: it would have taken so much work to get even incrementally better, and it started not to seem worth it. I don’t like being okay at things. I like to be (dare I say it?) the best.
I’m going to dare to say it, because it’s my only chance of excavating that belief, and leaving it by the side of the road.
To sum up (should I even try to sum up this mess of a post???) …
Remove an addiction and you’re going to notice issues surfacing that were conveniently masked by said addiction.
This is a bit scary. But maybe your childhood self has some messages you’ll be able to hear again. Maybe you’d like a shot at changing some of those things that are, admittedly, painful, even excruciatingly painful, embarrassing, humiliating, frightening, etc., to notice.
One last thing: Make sure to tell someone if you’re feeling low. It’s really really hard, and it really really helps, just to confess out loud: I’m struggling here. Here’s the thing: other people can’t read your mind. I know it’s hard. But reach out and tell someone. The alternative is to keep sinking lower and lower, and that becomes quite a dangerous thing. Just so you know, I did reach out and talk to someone, and it made me feel almost instantly better. Didn’t fix the lowness, exactly, but immediately I felt less alone. My inner child was so relieved.
Find your safe person, or a counsellor. Please. A bad day can feel like the end of the world; it doesn’t have to be. You might feel selfish or foolish or ashamed to be asking for help, especially if you’re seen as (or see yourself as) a high-functioning person who wears a mask of competence. We’ve all got our masks on, and sometimes the person behind the mask just needs to take it off and be seen.
My goal is keep my mask off. Someday. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here, helping my inner child through the important life experience of not getting the last piece of pie.
Be clear with yourself. It’s a practice worth practicing.
Be clear even when it’s uncomfortable. Be clear, even if you’re worried you’re letting someone else down.
This week has not been my best (see previous post …), but I’ve been noticing that it helps, in uncomfortable moments, to ask myself: What do you want to do? Are you doing it?
I almost always know the answer.
And just asking brings me into the present moment.
I can say, yes, this is actually what I want to be doing. Or hell no, it’s not.
If I am doing what I want to do, it becomes so much easier to keep doing it, but with a new perspective, a feeling of agency and freedom. Hey, this is what I’ve chosen to do! Maybe it’s harder than I expected, or maybe it’s not bringing up the feelings I’d anticipated, but I want to do it, I’ve chosen to do it, so I’m going to get on with doing it.
If it’s not, I can dig a bit, and find out whether the situation is changeable; often it is, even if it isn’t. By which I mean, often, the thing I’m doing that I don’t want to do is made less tolerable by what’s going on inside my head. An imaginary conversation. A pointless outrage. An excited or anxious or fraught connection to something that actually has no connection to my immediate well-being.
So, I ask:
Are you okay?
What do you want to do?
(And I remind myself: Don’t worry about what you think everyone else might want you to do — let go of imaginary projections. What do you, Carrie Anne Snyder, want to do?)
Oh. Okay, well, I’m right here, running in the rain, and what I want is to take the long way home, and there’s time, and my body can handle it, and now that I know these things, I’m feeling the rain and the wind on my face, and the breath in my lungs, and I’m okay. I know I’m okay. This is what I want to do, and I’m doing it.
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