I want to write about how to be, how to get through the days when I’m feeling weak, discouraged, overwrought (or perhaps under-wrought?), weighed down, anxious. I want to know how to be the kind of person who can experience such emotions and somehow surf atop the worries and fears and enjoy the day, nevertheless. There are many things to worry about, after all. The details may change, but there is always a list, available for the mind to scroll through, no matter the season.
Why are some days harder than others? Is it what’s happening externally, or is it how I’m framing things, seeing things, inside my own mind?
I don’t know.
But there is no perfect day, no perfect hour; that I do know. There is no reason to wait.
I lay out the template for survival, for dressing for the weather, for putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. I step into it.
What am I missing? Can I fill a gap, answer a need? Is there something on my mind that I long to say to someone, a message I long to share that is waiting for the right moment to be spoken out loud … or let go of, maybe? Is the sense of fear or worry based on something real? And, if it is based on something real, is it something over which I have control? Would the problem, whatever it may be, be solved or helped by my immediate attention and focus?
Or, is everything actually okay, right now? Or, is it both? Not okay and okay.
How to clear a pathway for the mind to do its work, with clarity? How to be not okay and okay at once?
Not okay: The house smells like skunk and mothballs, the kitchen is somewhat torn apart, there is an excess of cucumbers and zucchini in the refrigerator, someone I love is in pain, I woke every hour last night.
Okay: The dog doesn’t smell too much of skunk, the neutralizing paste mixed up at midnight was quite effective, there is an excess of cucumbers and zucchini, the stove works, I walked with a friend this morning, yoga felt amazing.
The details of our days matter. It’s where we live, after all. Not in some theoretical place, but here, now, with whatever our bodies are telling us. I haven’t cracked the code for how to enjoy every bit of it; that bar is too high. So I tell myself: bring the bar down a bit lower … lower … lower yet … and appreciate what you’re doing on a small scale, how you broached a tough conversation, or bit your tongue, how you looked up new recipes, got creative, took a nap, did what you needed to be more kind.
How can I be more kind? To myself, to everyone else? This is where I begin, over and over again.
I’ve been doing art therapy for about a year now. At my most recent appointment, the therapist recognized the work I’ve been doing and said that she had seen changes over this past year. She observed that when we started I was struggling to find space for myself, to make space, give myself space, feel deserving or worthy of space. And she thinks that’s changed. I agree. That feeling of worthiness might be the root of other changes I’ve observed, which feel profound; even while I know myself to be the very same person, plagued by the same anxieties and tics and inclinations. I can change and still be familiar to myself; I find this comforting and funny. It’s revelatory and delightful to discover (again and again?) that the self is so sturdy. Being mindful is just a way to observe more closely what I’m feeling and thinking in any given moment, and then I can decide what to do with that information. Mindfulness springs from worthiness: I trust that what I’m thinking and feeling is worthy of my attention. No judgement, no self-castigation, just observation.
It is as simple as that.
Here’s an example. I’m feeling impatient sitting in traffic. I’m going to be late, I think! I can feel my heart rate rising. I’m hitting every red light! I drop an f-bomb. At some point during this mini-escalation, I notice what I’m thinking and feeling. I say (maybe even out loud!), kindly, to myself, hey you seem pretty stressed out. That simple kindness is helpful. Yes, I am stressed out! Now I can assess whether my feelings and thoughts are attached to reality — to what’s actually happening. Am I actually running late? Even if I am running late, is this actually a crisis? (Usually the answer is no, everything is okay.) But there’s an even deeper and more profound question available here, too: Even if this really is a crisis, is this how I want to respond?
Of course not.
Do I have a choice in how I respond?
I believe that I do. I believe that I can laugh (lovingly) at my frailties and weaknesses, I can appreciate the vulnerable anxious impulsive human I am — the impatience, the rising heart rate, the swearing — and I can speak kindly to myself, and notice that everything is okay, right now. It’s always the right now in which I’m living. It’s amazing how this frees me to settle in and appreciate what’s happening, right now. I’m at a red light, but I can sing along to the radio, I can look out the window and see what’s there to be seen. There’s always something there to be seen, heard, felt, wondered about. The world is an amazing mystery that’s always present, available to be experienced, observed, cherished.
Thankfulness just wells up naturally when this shift in perspective happens — and I can be thankful and surprised and renewed by the world’s wonders, over and over again. It never gets old.
A few more changes I’ve observed:
I’ve stopped enforcing rules I don’t believe in.
If I don’t want to do something, I say so. Often someone else can do it instead. If not, I figure out how to make the task more enjoyable. By taking on less of the things I don’t want to do, I’m able to give more freely. A paradox. The way that being kinder to myself makes me inclined to be kinder to others.
I pay attention to a feeling I call “the shame sandwich.” Sometimes I wake up feeling like I’ve eaten a shame sandwich. What I know about shame: it’s attached to deeply rooted fears, specific to my life experiences. If I can identify the trigger, this helps me be kind to myself and the feeling tends to resolve. Shame makes it harder to be kind to myself, so it’s important to notice when I’ve eaten the sandwich.
I am kinder to myself. I know that I can’t do everything, and also that I’m not responsible to solve most things. I can help you find your lost book, and pick you up from piano lessons, but I can’t tell you how to be the person you want to be. I shouldn’t be trying to tell you that anyway. I’ll just love you, and care about you, for being who you are. I’ll pay attention to what interests you. I’ll ask questions and listen. I’ll find ways to connect that meet you where you’re at, wherever that may be. I won’t ask you to change, because I think you are sacred and amazing, exactly as you are.
I’ll hold you lightly. As lightly as I hold myself.
One last change I’ve observed: I let myself feel happiness. I know that I’ve been afraid in my life to feel happiness, to fully experience it, that I tamped the sensation down, afraid of being up too high and floating away, or afraid of what would happen when the feeling went away. I’m not letting those fears stop me from feeling happiness anymore. I think that by feeling happiness, I will feel it more often, in more situations: this glorious sensation of wellness and wholeness, and lightness. I’m willing to test this theory out.
What felt good this month?
We had Christmas in February! Two family get-togethers in one weekend, Flora and I made Christmas cookies, we sang through the carolling songbook. It all happened. There was even an adorable kitten in a tree, delightfully destroying the ornaments. Other things that felt good this month: yoga, puzzles, walks with friends, couch-time with Kevin.
What did you struggle with?
Depression, anxiety, fears. I’ve been listening to the news, first obsessed with the “freedom” occupation in Ottawa and now with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The lightbox has its limits. I didn’t do enough cardio this month. And as always, I’m struggling to turn down my inner critic, who would like to inform me at all hours that my efforts are falling short. What’s useful; what’s useless? I’ve noticed that I use those words a lot, applied to myself and my work. It’s like a poison pill in my brain, self-sabotage. You aren’t doing anything useful, says the voice. Even writing here about this tendency feels like it could be self-sabotage. Useful in terms of what, I wonder, on what scale, how is this usefulness measured, who is adding this up? The antidote to comparison and judgement may be gratitude. Or it may be something even more fundamental, habit-altering, changing the grooves in the brain: doing the work, putting one foot in front of the other, facing the sun.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month?
More worried. I want to see friends, I want to go places and do things, I want the world to open up. I want the luxury of making plans. Transitions are hard. I wonder how the pandemic has changed us. Are we coping? Are we okay, collectively? Do I remember how to interact, do I still have a social filter or have I kind of jumped off the deep-end? In yoga this morning, I bent my head to the floor in grief over this endless cycle of war, and people fleeing from war, from the madness and greed of leaders, from rape and destruction and hunger and terror (stretching back through the years, not fresh and new, just seemingly forever and ever and ever). And I thought: writing is the only response I’ve got. A few words. I’ll keep trying. It’s not useless effort!
How did you take care of yourself?
I tried. I appreciated the gift of cooking healthy delicious meals for my family. I appreciated this roof over my head. I listened to the birds, stared at the moon, sloshed through puddles, hugged my children, did pushups while waiting for the kettle to boil. I kept up supportive habits and routines.
What would you most like to remember?
Hmmm… February already seems like a forgotten month. One fresh memory is singing carols with my sibs; it was also fun crowding around a cellphone to watch the end of a soccer game on Sunday (all the way to penalty kicks). Another is going for a walk on family day, ordering take-out and watching a movie with the kids. And for a third, I’ll say, talking to Grandma on Thursday mornings.
What do you need to let go of?
Measures of success that don’t come from some place deep inside, or from a deeper source. I need to let go of external validation, even while giving myself permission to be critical of my own work when it’s coming from a place that makes sense — it makes sense to want to push to the edges of my talents and abilities, to test my own limits, it makes sense to be curious about what’s possible, to want to share some measure of beauty and truth, whatever I can muster. But it doesn’t make sense to stop or quit because I can’t make the beautiful thing that I long to, no matter my efforts. I need to let go of wanting to feel finished or satisfied or done. I want to learn to live in liminal space, in between, in process, flowing along in the flow. Right now, I’m finding this space to be crowded with discomfort and self-doubt. So it isn’t easy. Why do I keep thinking it will be easy? I need to let go of that too.
Friendship is on my mind.
Long-lived friendship, enduring friendship, friendship that gets through and past some hard stuff, including conflict.
It’s not a subject that we talk about much. Maybe it can seem like talking about friends is a kind of a flex, like my friends are better than your friends, or something like that. Friendship can also be a place many of us have experienced loss we don’t know how to talk about, friendships that ended or faded, and we’re not sure why. Personally, I hold a fair bit of insecurity around friendship. I was very lonely some of those high school years, and that feeling of being an outsider burrowed deep into my brain. Am I good friend or a bad friend? What’s the rule book, and am I not understanding something that I should? People won’t like me if I’m too [fill in the blank]; or if I [fill in the blank].
But that’s a limited way to frame friendship, I think (note: I’m still figuring out friendship, even though high school was a long long time ago). Friendship isn’t about getting people to like you. It’s not a popularity contest, or a competition.
It’s about finding and connecting with people whose company you enjoy, people you admire and trust and love, people you want to be with and learn from, and to whom you can offer the same in return. There’s also some mystery in friendship: timing, chemistry, mutuality. It doesn’t always click or work out. Maybe part of being a friend is being okay with the relationship changing without feeling (or, more accurately, reacting to feelings of) resentment or jealousy or hurt. (I don’t know, as I said, I’m still figuring this out.) It can help if both people have similar expectations for the friendship (this seems really important, actually, but I’ve literally never discussed this with a friend — have you?)
Do you have role models for friendship? Older people in your life who have maintained and nurtured friendships you aspire to?
A few things I’ve noticed about myself and friendship: I’m most comfortable one-on-one. I like doing an activity with a friend, rather than sitting and chatting (like going for a walk, or making food together). I like hosting parties (this has not been a viable outlet during the pandemic!). In groups, I prefer meeting with a purpose or theme (and friend groups are even harder to talk about than individual friendship). I consider my siblings my friends.
I’ve been reflecting on this subject in part because I’ve been texting with a friend’s mother, who just lost one of her closest friends, quite suddenly. She sent me this poem from Rilke, which was part of a text thread between herself and her friend. (I aspire to send poems to my friends by text.)
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. -Rilke
A friendship is like any other relationship that is full of love and care. It is a most dangerous thing. If you love someone, losing them will break your heart. But these relationships, no matter how dangerous, are vital, life-giving, affirming, enriching. Each of us is like a locked room, or a book written in a very foreign tongue. In friendship, we walk the questions together. We feel less alone. Every one who has been your friend, at one time or another in your life, has walked the questions with you. And there are a few we may be fortunate enough to walk with till the end.
What felt good this month? Mid-month, I started walking every single morning, despite the extreme cold. It brought me back to life, especially on the morning there was a huge snowstorm. Just remembering that walk gives me a child-like delight. January is a hard month, and this year we were locked down for most of it. Getting outside was imperative. I also started using a light box in the mornings for half an hour, while doing a puzzle. My daughter and I are now working on separate puzzles simultaneously (she wisely decided not to participate in my attempt to become a better person through puzzle-sharing, as it was clear to all that I was not particularly improving). Other good feelings: backyard fire with friends; eating fermented foods; tea and meditation; and finishing the copy edits for FRANCIE with my editor!!! YESS!
What did you struggle with? Exhaustion, lassitude, a general lack of motivation. But I’m going to turn this question around and explain that I’ve actually experienced less struggle this month. I think I’ve lowered my expectations. Or maybe my expectations are in line with what’s possible for me to achieve on any given day. Whatever’s happening, I’ll take it. Some part of my brain has settled into accepting that I don’t have the answers to many of the questions. I’m letting myself off the hook: it isn’t my job to craft perfect responses in this imperfect world. It is my job to be truthful about how I’m feeling, to speak from a place of thoughtful vulnerability rather than apprehensive face-saving, and to have the courage to say No if it’s what I mean. (As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve discovered that saying NO is HUGELY DIFFICULT for me. I like to please. I’m going to try to get comfortable with the discomfort of not pleasing.)
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I finished the major textual work on FRANCIE. So that’s done. Good. Other than that, I’m working on another writing project, while considering what other activities may be calling. It’s important to keep space cleared for writing. The more writing I do, the more it’s part of my every day routine, the easier it is to step into the flow. Also, my focus is pretty limited I’ve realized. In any given day, week, month, I can maybe focus deeply on one project and stay present for my family and friends — and that’s it! Luckily, I think that constitutes a pretty good life. As pandemic guidelines change again, and things open up, I need to think carefully before piling on new projects, activities or responsibilities. What matters? What matters most?
How did you take care of yourself? I listened to a kind voice in my head. Somehow, this kind voice gave me permission not to take myself too seriously. I laughed at my foibles and missteps rather than fearing them, or wanting to hide them away. Try it: Talk to yourself like you’re talking to a very dear friend (I heard this advice on the “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast — and it worked for me!). I also did 30 days of yoga with Adriene (and Kevin). And I initiated a two-week tea ritual with my word of the year group again, which is bringing me new ideas for meditative practices, and much wise reflection. What enriches your life? I think it’s worth asking. I think it’s worth acting on, too. Trust yourself, trust your body, the kind voice tells me (she sounds a lot like Adriene, at least in this example). You have everything you need, right here.
What would you most like to remember? Walking in a snowstorm is the best! If it’s snowing, go outside and play! Dress for the weather and have an adventure.
What do you need to let go of? Any sense of self-importance. What do I mean by this? There’s a part of the self that wants to be admired. It’s the same part of the self, strangely enough, that fears being exposed as not worthy of admiration. It’s the part that’s really scared of dying too, and not being here in the world anymore, being forgotten, not doing enough with the time remaining, not leaving something valuable behind. I see this part of myself. I feel compassion toward its fear, and all the pressure that fear can bring. What alleviates my fear, makes it irrelevant? This: To do the work I see before me, no matter the outcome. If I can name a want, that’s it. In this vision, the work of grammar and imagery and structure and ideas holds my attention, and I can laugh gently and appreciate the humour of this funny, foolish, wishful, hopeful, grasping flurry of imperfect human beingness attempting to do this work. It’s gonna be a mess. I think that’s what we get.
And hey, we made it through January! Thank you for reading along.
The last day of the month. The last day of the year. Can I orient myself right here?
What felt good this month? Focus, Carrie, focus. I’ve just typed and erased several attempts at an opening sentence here — because they contained nothing good! Answer the question. Just answer the question. Okay, here goes. What felt good this month was a long walk and rant that started with me feeling like I was breaking down, and ended with laughter and understanding. All the walks felt good. Yoga in the morning: good. My Christmas morning sticky buns turned out. Good! Definitely taking a few small gifts and cards and offerings of food around to friends and family felt good. Hey, getting my new author photo taken felt good too, as an exercise in acceptance and maybe even celebration of aging. I also was happy with the gifts I gave and received.
What did you struggle with? Um, everything? Our Christmas plans were interrupted by friends and family testing positive for covid. I’m feeling the strain of multiple daily decisions that need to be made, as if it were on me to ascertain what’s safe for my loved ones to do or not to do. And I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve been tuning out the news more; maybe that helps? It isn’t that I want to be ignorant, it’s that no one seems to know what to do, and we’re in the middle of something incomplete, with not enough data, and whether or not I pay attention right now, I’m confused, I’m perplexed, I’m baffled; as mentioned, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s freeing to pay less attention to the noise outside. I’ve got piles of books to read, and an upstairs bathroom to paint, and I’ve been drawing every day. I even wrote two new stories.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I accomplished several goals set at the beginning of December, including cleaning and organizing the whole house (or most of it!); and finishing half of a major writing project, though the other half remains in limbo; but I never did spend an entire day lying on the couch and reading. The difference from the beginning of the month to now seems largely to do with the pandemic, and how that affects my ability to plan ahead. I just can’t. It’s a funny way to stand on the cusp of a new year, but I also feel strangely at peace with it. My writing projects can continue. Loving my family can continue. Connecting with my friends can continue. For now, for today, and tomorrow, that’s enough.
How did you take care of yourself? This is always a trickier question over the holidays, when routines fall off. I haven’t been running much this month. Walks, yoga, texting friends, a few more phone calls than usual. I blissed out on the feeling of gratitude and thankfulness: I’ve felt it so powerfully this year, and it seems to be growing stronger and stronger. I played the piano and sang. I listened to music and drew a daily cartoon. When I reached my breaking point(s), some wonderful safety measures kicked in, and I took care of myself, instinctively. Sometimes the mind wants to enjoy wallowing — like, it feels good to feel bad — but the body knows better. Go for a walk. Stretch. Let yourself feel. I’m grateful for all the groundwork laid that helped me to stand when some part of me wanted to sink, sulk, and drown in self-pity.
What would you most like to remember? Keep kneading and all the butter will get incorporated into the dough, even though it seems impossible! Also, I’d like to keep feeling my feelings. Even the ones that make me feel just a bit out of control. Calm is good, and it makes me feel good about myself; but other emotions are welcome here, too. Can I let myself feel excitement, for example? One other thing I’ve noticed: I love crying over a good story. Almost nothing makes me happier.
My birthday dinner: Angus made veggie lasagna and Flora baked two pumpkin pies (not pictured). What could be better?
What do you need to let go of? Last month, in answer to this question, I wrote: Control, control, control. This month, I think: hey, I’ve definitely let go of that, at least right now. I feel as if I’ve surrendered to the moment, which is a moment in time I can’t make sense nor get ahold of, and I’m just letting things be as they are. How about this: I need to let go of saying yes when I really mean no. Bring on the whole-hearted yes, the full-of-gratitude yes; and when I know it’s a no, let me stand whole and complete and trust that someone else will be able to fill whatever space I’m leaving. I need to let go of performing, and pay attention to what’s calling from deep inside.
May your new year be blessed! Thank you, ever so much, for reading along.
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