You bring light. Say it to yourself. How does it feel?
The words came into my mind during a recent morning meditation and lit me up from the inside out.
My word of the year is not LIGHT, though I considered it. It is not EASE or FREE, though it could be. My word for 2023 is NEED. Beneath the word is another word that’s been guiding me, too: ONE. Too many words? But really, just one. Just one word to respond to any given moment. Just one goal. Just one purpose. What do you need? What does this situation call for? What need is not being met that may be preventing you from being wholly yourself in the world? And as important! What needs are you meeting wonderfully well right now?
I am also playing with the concept of the “joy snack,” which can be savoured in little bites throughout the day. Listen to a podcast on the subject (from the Washington Post). Your “joy snacks” are your own, they’re personal, and they’re small, and they just need to be noticed in order to exist. They’re probably already happening, whether you know it or not. For me, I have a “joy snack” every morning when I do a silly aerobic warm-up in the kitchen, usually in my pjs, after brushing my teeth and before doing anything else. It takes between 2-4 minutes and never fails to give a sweet little boost to my mood.
I’ve been thinking about what matters — to me. Not to anyone else, not to an imaginary host of external projections. But to me. The core, the centre, the oneness of myself. This could be misused, to be sure, or misconstrued as selfish, but could it really be selfish to care about how you feel, inside your own body, inside your own mind? What matters? I’m the one living inside this body. My time is finite here on earth, inside this experience of being me, in the world. So it’s worth checking in: What do I care about? Do I really know? Am I living in my body, in this world, in ways that make me feel good, whole, content?
What activities and actions and experiences and routines help me feel good, whole, content? What leaves me feeling empty, anxious, drained? As I explore what I FEEL (last year’s word), I gain clues to what I NEED.
I’m learning so much at my new job in schools (and in parallel, by teaching creative writing again, too).
I NEED to feel purposeful. I NEED to be with people. I NEED to understand my role. I NEED clear boundaries around my responsibilities (either clearly set out for me in a given context, or clearly set out and articulated by myself, which is much much harder to do). I NEED recognition for work done. I NEED dignity in my work. I NEED to live in alignment with my values. I NEED laughter, playfulness, connection.
It’s funny, but as I experiment with this new job, which takes me into different environments, often several different work cultures in any given week, I’m learning like a sea sponge. And I’m positively alight with discovery. I might be doing a task like putting labels on student records, and I’ll feel a giddy leap of joy — this is so satisfying, I’ll laugh to myself! Who was telling me all along that I needed to do something big or visible or large-scale to feel purposeful? It must have been me. And it was making me so unhappy, believing this about myself, because I couldn’t ever reach my own ridiculously outsized expectations for what I was supposed to be achieving. How amazing to discover that I feel purposeful doing small repetitive tasks that take focus and patience, and that almost no one will notice, except that important information will be available in an organized fashion when they come looking for it later. And that matters to me!
Same with recognition — the scale is unimportant. How did I not know this about myself? Recognition that satisfies my need is wholly about connection. When a connection is been made, between me and someone else, my heart soars with joy. When I sense that trust has been established, even very tentative or brief, I feel recognized. I hope the other person does too. Trust is mutual. So is recognition.
And I’m revelling in this discovery (re-discovery?) that I love being with people. I spend the day responding to other people’s requests, needs, and directions, and leave bursting with energy. I am not drained by this work. Quite the opposite. How is this possible? I’d assumed I was an introvert, but it turns out the thing that’s been draining me, in a lot of my other work, isn’t people, it’s having a role that isn’t clearly defined, or that requires of me responsibility without power, or just a ton of decision-making while having to invent and reinvent my boundaries. When I know what’s required of me, I am relaxed and at ease, no matter how chaotic the situation, no matter the complexity of the needs being presented. It’s the not-knowing what my role is — what the limits of my role are — that’s exhausting.
Can I apply what I’m learning to other parts of my life?
It remains to be seen. But I’m excited to keep learning and exploring, and enjoying.
And labelling files, alphabetizing books, and filling in where called and needed.
My goodness. What a year, what a season.
Boundaries are love!! a friend texts me.
Another friend helps me dig into my worry that writing has served as a form of therapy, lo these many years, and with medication now lowering my anxiety to levels previously never experienced, I wonder, will writing still come to me, will I still feel the urge if it’s not an obsessive impulse?
I am collecting the wisdom of the sisterhood. I made my birthday (December 29th) into an opportunity to connect and confer and laugh and reunite and relax with friends and family, near and far. In fact, the whole of this holiday season has been about this: connection, and ease. Sleep when tired. Rest when the stomach flu takes you down. Let someone else (Kevin! Angus!) cook the big turkey dinner. Bake in concert with kids and kids’ friends. Knead sticky bun dough for a good half hour while listening to a meditation. Walk through the snow storm. Snuggle the dog. Savour the warmth. Sing carols and hymns for hours. Be clear of mind. Drink in the kindness of others. Pour out what you can. Invite. Delight. Say yes, and thank you, and welcome, and thank you, and eat till you’re filled to the brim.
I’ve often been more reflective on birthdays past. This birthday, I chose to socialize all day long.
Can a woman contented with her life still be a writer? I woke up this morning and thought: I wouldn’t trade this contentment, this inner peace and delight that flickers with promise and hope, in order to write another book. But why am I building a case for either / or? Surely there are other paths in. I could argue as effectively that I’ve written books in order to be published, as some kind of proof of belonging, or proof of a longed-for identity (though that’s not how belonging works, nor grounding in identity; another hard-won revelation this year).
I’ll be teaching creative writing again this winter, and I’m interested in exploring what writing feels like now, again, anew; what feeds the urge to create; what sates it; what can I learn with / from my students?
If I’m not writing to ease my anxiety … if I’m not writing in order to be published … what sparks the desire to write a-whole-nother-book? It’s gruelling work that doesn’t quite make sense, as those close to me have observed — the effort I put into draft after draft can’t be paid off in the resulting novel. Effort and result are disconnected; even, I’d argue, unrelated. I’ve experienced book-writing as a painful process, I guess I’m confessing. It hasn’t made logical sense, not from a financial perspective, nor from an artistic perspective either, really; which is why I’m curious to know: will I still be able to make a beautiful book, with alive characters, built on an elaborate structure I see in my head, if I’m not obsessed, or in pain, or seeking to soothe deep anxiety? I’m hopeful. I am.
And I’m willing to shed all ambition to be a person with delight in her voice, and love in her throat, and patience in her bones.
What a wild experiment this living is.
What a lucky woman I am, to get to live in concert on this planet with so many wise, kind, generous spirits and friends. What a wonderful year this has been of feeling intensely (gratitude, shame, pride, uncertainty, clarity, anger, delight and so much more) and of paying attention to what the feelings are telling me; of making mistakes and being forgiven; and of seeing Francie in the world. The feeling I’m feeling right this very second is GRATITUDE! I’m thankful for a new job that brings me satisfaction and delight (as a temporary secretary / library clerk in the public schools); and for everyone who loves me as I am, a mess of flaws and inadequacies and intentions and goofiness. I carry you somewhere inside me, everyone who’s walked even a step with me on this path. Thank you for letting me give, when and what I could, and thank you for the gifts you offered me, whether I deserved them or not. I am a grateful, humbled recipient.
Please forgive me the times I let you down, or was too inward-looking to notice what you needed; or stuck in my own head, or protecting my pride. (I’ll forgive myself too; I’ll try.)
Boundaries are love!! Do I know what this means? I’m learning / unlearning, but I get it muddled often enough to cause pain.
Well. I’m human. Let’s all be human together. We’re so interesting and strange and difficult and curious. But we’re not disappointing! Not really, not truly, with a shift of perspective.
Wishing you time for reflection and / or fun as you look toward a whole new year.
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.