On Monday, I went for a solo run in the park. On Monday mornings, early, no matter the weather, no matter my mood, for weeks, months, years (more than a decade, at least), I’ve run or walked with my friend Nina, who has been our neighbour for 18 years, and my friend since we lived across the hall from each other on campus, our first year of university. This past weekend, she and her family moved away.
I’m still working out how to approach this absence.
I started by hand-writing Nina a letter and sending it in the mail. It felt like it approximated the feeling of the kinds of conversations we’ve had, over the years; the letter wasn’t about anything special, just the particularities of the now, and unlike an email or text, I folded it up and stuck it into the envelope and no copy was kept to remind me of what I’d said, it was of its moment, she was the recipient, no one else, and like our walks, it came and it went.
An observation: when I sat to write the letter, on paper with pen, it felt like Nina was present with me; I don’t get the same sensation when composing an email. (side note: Why is email so awful? I have a few theories …)
On Tuesday, a fox trotted near where I was stretching in the front yard; I feel that we know each other, as we see each other often, early in the morning. She’s very beautiful, her orange fur mottled with greys and blacks. She crossed the road, then sat for a moment, and watched me watching her.
That afternoon, I biked to pick up our first CSA box from Fertile Ground farm: greens, greens, greens! On Saturday, I’ll walk to pick up our first CSA box from Little Fields Farm, because, yes, for the second summer running, I belong to two CSAs; I am a fan of women-who-farm.
Please send salad recipes!
On Wednesday, everyone was out of the house, active, with friends. I took my mom to get her second dose of vaccine. The workshop session was an easy one for me: I got to watch my friend Melissa in action, vocal coaching. Mark your calendars: the X Page Performance “Little Things” will be live on Zoom, July 7th, at 7PM. Tickets are free, registration opens here on June 23!
On Thursday morning, I met my son in the park for a run. My grown son, who now lives away from home. I ate healthy food all day (greens for lunch, more greens for supper), but my back ached and I didn’t feel fabulous. Napped on the couch, groggy, too late in the day. Walked over to visit neighbours, still groggy. Trying to remember how to be social again. (Trying to remember what exactly I’m doing with my life, that too.)
After that, email. (Trying so hard not to start my days with email!)
Now this. Then lunch (more greens??). Laundry. Writing, revising. I want to cook lentils with spinach for supper, and braised bok choy on the side. But the kids will want to order in (our Friday ritual). Which of us will prevail?
I neglected to invite anyone over to our backyard this evening, a Friday ritual I’d intended to start again, and managed the past two Fridays in a row. But it’s raining, with a big thunderstorm forecast for this aft. Excuses, reasons: It’s raining. And inertia. And maybe social anxiety. Who knows? I’m trying to remember how to be in the world again, how to host, how to invite, how to converse, how to connect in real life, in ways that make sense and are sustainable. Y’know?
This is a photo of a squirrel eating tinfoil on our fence; there was also a cardinal, but he took off and is the streak of motion in front of one of the blue chairs.
The days have begun to whirl again. After such stillness and waiting, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I’m trying to declare the weekends sacred, and Sundays for meditation, reflection; a worthy aspiration, at the very least.
The truth is that I feel energized after a long quietness. So I’m not resenting an upsurge in activity even as this new stage unfolds and unfurls. But I must be cautious, awake: I don’t want to drift back into the non-stop tumble in which we found ourselves, pre-pandemic.
But, listen. It’s good. I’ll have news to share soon on a couple of creative projects. I’ve got work that feeds my heart and mind, and wonderful people around me and radiating out in expanding circles in whose company I delight, and from whom I am continually learning. I’ve been hanging laundry on the line. My children make music in the living-room. The gardens are bursting and blooming. What more do I need?
(Well, it would be nice if everyone in this house each had a chore they really loved … the way that I love doing laundry… and if that chore could be complementary, say, if someone just loved cleaning bathrooms, and someone loved vacuuming, and someone loved clearing the counters … now that would be heaven.)
But listen, too: our community, our country, our land, the whole world, it is shook up and reeling and in pain and in need, and we can’t fall asleep or wander half-dazed into how it was before, we need to be AWAKE and AWARE and CURIOUS and HUMBLE. I want this place I live in to be a little bit better because I’ve tried, in whatever ways, no matter how small … and that means stumbling, and being quiet, and apologizing a lot of the time too. There is so much to learn, and so much pain that cascades through generations. Every ceremony, every ritual, every practice, every meal I cook food for someone else, every time I stop and listen, pause, listen, pause, reflect, sit, still, breathe, laugh, hug, cry … no action is neutral. This past week in Canada, 215 children were found buried in a secret grave on the grounds of a former residential school, and this is our present. This is not history. This is our now. So much cannot be fixed, must not be forgotten; bad governments, bad systems, hierarchies built to maintain power, no matter the costs. And here we are, human beings, whirling and bumping into each other, trying, trying, trying to figure this out. Individuals trying to look each other in the eyes, to listen, to say, You matter. I’m sorry. I want to help. Help me?
Slow down, sit, listen. Someone is trying to tell you something (not me).
That’s my present, right now. That’s my goal. Slow down, sit, listen. Breathe. Pay attention. Burn something, that too. A candle, a stick of incense. Ego.
Today I went for a long bike ride on trails and paths around the city. I just kept going and going and going, seeing if I could find how the trails linked up, so I could go in a very big loop. The city is full of wildness, and birds.
I stopped to take photos, and I noticed that my mind and body and spirit were revelling in anything new. Turning down a path I’d never followed before. Discovering a street lined on both sides with flowering trees, in full bloom. Even a patch of construction gave me a sense of newness and discovery.
It’s what I crave, right now. How to exit from stasis, to experience my life in motion, as I know it to be, but do not often feel, right now. Time spins onward, but I’m like a stop-animation film performing a series of postures in my studio, my kitchen, my living-room, over and over and over. At night, the dreams have been difficult, sleep disturbed, as the day’s fears and anxieties try to untangle themselves.
Cruising slowly, gently on my bike today was pure bliss.
I think it helped to be part of the X Page workshop last night, too; to be in a space that is actively promoting the idea that the process is the experience, and the outcome or goal is a lovely result, but not the thing itself: the process is the thing. It is it. As we settled in to listen to each other’s stories, separated by our screens, by the occasional technological glitch, holding our elbows against a barrage of exceptionally sad, frightening, painful world news, the space became its own entity, and we were temporarily transported. What do I hear when I stop and listen, when I toodle along more slowly, when I take a new trail?
All day, I’m faced with choices. What if I kept turning again and again away from self-pity, away from anger, disappointment, away from the harsh self-talk that keeps me tangled in my own unhappiness. That voice will come, it will return, of course, but I have the choice to listen, notice, and say to myself, Is this what you want to do? Do you want to tell yourself you’re wasting your time, you’ve made the wrong call, you got it all wrong? Or do you want to say instead (or adjacent to, if instead is too challenging): Look what you’re making, be gentle, hold your heart dear.
In the words of Joy Harjo: “This is my heart. It is a good heart.”
Those are the opening lines of a poem / song, but I can’t find an accurate version of the text to share with you just now; below, a link to a YouTube video of Joy Harjo, the American poet laureate from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, playing saxophone and performing the text as a song.
This is my heart. It is a good heart. Something changes in my body when I hear those words.
For the X Page workshop, I’ve been doing the writing exercises we assign and practice each week; I’ve always written along when leading workshops or teaching, mostly because writing something new is always an adventure and I don’t want to miss out on the experience. On Friday (May 14, 2021), I’ll be leading a writing workshop for the Canadian Nonfiction Collective’s conference, in which we’ll be doing some of these same writing exercises. (Check here, if you’re interested in attending!)
The exercises are based on Lynda Barry’s method of writing and drawing by hand: allowing the hand to be the eye that leads us into the story, and shows us the images that we’ve kept and may not even know are alive within us. I’ve seen this teaching method work over and over again to unearth stories, scenes, details, emotions and insights that would otherwise lie dormant. The process can also unearth material that’s painful or unexpectedly emotional, but what I’ve noticed is that the writing itself also seems to be a tool for healing — telling a story, letting it be shaped by our present self, can be healing.
Though we won’t be doing this is in either workshop, my personal temptation is to veer off into fictional territory, and expand the scene or story out into what could have been or could yet be, or swing into the viewpoint of another person. It’s a very malleable writing method.
(And of course I call on other methods and practices during different stages of the writing process; but even revision and editing can feel free-wheeling and surprising when I’m deep inside the process, which is always an adventure. Using Lynda Barry’s generous, expansive methods have helped me learn how to turn down the voice in my head that is telling me “this is good” or “this sucks.” That’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from this practice: that little voice is my ego, and my ego is terrified of making a mistake, and wants so badly to impress others that it is really not trustworthy.)
These days of lockdown and aimless waiting affect us all differently … but what I often feel is disconnected, lonely, a bit apathetic or lacking in energy or drive.
When I open my notebook and begin to write, something changes. It might only change for those minutes when I’m writing, but while engaged with the pen and the page, I go somewhere else in my mind. I travel. The monotony shifts, the day is different — it opens into a different place or time or perspective. And that’s a little gift to myself, which I hope to give to others, too.
What felt good this month? This month has been a haze. What’s felt good in the past week or so is getting outside to run in the park, early in the morning. Delighting in the capacity of my body to run, to take deep breaths, to move. And yesterday, I got my first dose of vaccine. That felt nerve-wracking but real: a dose of hope. I’m loving the X Page workshop sessions: it feels like such a gift right now, when our province is locked down, being part of these intimate, meaningful conversations as new stories get discovered, told and shaped. Sometimes I think that’s my life’s calling — it’s not writing after all, but witnessing, creating structures that invite deep listening and telling, discovery and connection: sharing storytelling skills. Other things that felt good: Friday night games night (online) with my sibs and their partners; and, just in the past week, reconnecting with friends, after some weeks of feeling too down and inward even to try.
What did you struggle with? Everything? We are locked down in Ontario, and will be for the next month or so. My mood swings daily, hourly. I feel like I’m possibly going crazy and a few minutes later, I feel fine. Sometimes I can’t bear to open email or problem-solve a single thing. But usually if I push past the feeling and just attempt the task, I can do it, I can manage just fine. The word “languishing” is floating around right now. Yup. That’s about right.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? At the beginning of the month, dread was in the air: the signs of a disastrous rise in cases were all around us, but somehow, the kids were still going to school and we were able to visit friends outdoors in what felt like relatively normal social situations. By mid-month, that ended. I channelled my rage toward decision-makers into making a bunch of phone calls to politicians to argue for a sufficient safety net and protections for those people most affected by the pandemic’s surge. That felt cathartic. I won a small grant to research a project I’m working on. But, but, but … I’m struggling with changes, combined with a sense of stagnancy amidst the onrush of passing time. It was hard to say goodbye to my eldest, who moved out to a new apartment. His room looks really empty at the end of the hallway.
How did you take care of yourself? The usual. Meditation, yoga, writing, drawing, X Page meetings, texting friends, journaling, getting outside, exercise, stretching, preparing and eating good food. Not stressing over the messy state of the house. Watching shows with Kevin: Call My Agent; Le Bureau; and right now, Shtisel. My daily routine can feel a bit stale at times, but it keeps me going: the alarm goes off early, and I get up and the day begins, and that is good. “Why am I doing this?” I asked myself one early morning this week. “Because you can!” I replied. Gratitude. Loving engagement.
What would you most like to remember? That I am blessed. That my resources run deep. That I can ask for help, if I need it. That not everything can be fixed, but brokenness isn’t a flaw; can even deepen compassion, and understanding.
What do you need to let go of? Fear of failure. This hampers me almost more than I bear to admit. My answer to this question last month was so wise, I want to hold onto it: “Outcomes,” I wrote. “Process is so much more valuable than outcomes.” When my fear of failure rises, I get stuck on the holy grail of outcomes, which invites judgement, comparison, and demands quantifiables. Is it possible to live more freely? Maybe I need to let go of my idea of myself as a writer, or my idea of what that looks like, and how my experience compares. I’m attracted to the idea of a calling; maybe I need to let go of that too. What does a purposeful life look like? I long to be a “good” person, but what does that mean? Does fear of judgement, of getting things wrong, stop me from responding with my full heart — stop me from being a person who listens deeply, who responds with care, and who can laugh at herself because she loves herself, flaws, failures, and all?
Listen up. Life feels pretty off-kilter here in Ontario, month 13 of pandemic, and projections showing us flying off the rails, if, if, if. Or maybe no matter what.
Uncertainty. It’s where we’re at. Can we laugh while crying? Damn, I sure hope so.
To counteract the blahs, we’ve been trying to think up activities, ways to demarcate our days, things to plan for (like Fake Prom, last spring). One kid floated the idea that we should make a family newspaper, in the tradition of The Snyder News, a “popular” newsletter which I forced my brothers to help me produce back in the late 1980s. At its peak circulation, it cost more in Xeroxing and postage than the meagre subscription price was bringing in, causing it ultimately to fail. (Do not put me in charge of the money side of any venture.)
Back to the future (i.e. the present), while brainstorming who would write what for our family publication, someone suggested having an advice column, and I experienced in that moment a deeply personal calling: “Oh, this is so exciting! You can send me your problems and I’ll give you advice!” Awkward beat of silence. “Nobody has any questions that need my advice? They can be anonymous!”
“I think you give us enough advice already.”
“I know, you could call your column: ‘Unsolicited Advice.'”
(Insert overnight pause, to process my hurt feelings.)
And: Challenge accepted! Here’s my rough draft, which I’ll share with you first (since no one in my family reads my blog, as far as I know, and if they do, spoiler alert!).
Unsolicited Advice, by M.C.
Just think of everything that could go wrong! That’s a good place to start. After that, think of everything you could do to prevent anything bad from ever happening ever. If that feels overwhelming, you can start by closing all cupboard doors immediately after opening them, rather than leaving them swinging for an indefinite period of time because you think you might come back later for more chips, or whatever. Imagine all the concussions you’ll prevent! While you’re at it, close that drawer too! While less consequential in terms of disaster prevention, at least no one will catch their sleeve causing them to send a cup of hot coffee flying (worst-case scenario) or snagging their sweater (sad face emoji). And there’s more! (fortunately, my contract is on-going!), but these basic principles will get you started, and you’ll be off to the races.
Speaking of the races, if you’re thinking of running a race, or even just running, be sure to wear shoes designed for this specific purpose and not for some other event such as hiking or swimming or tennis (unless you’re experimenting with barefoot running, in which case, nothing can save you!). Double-tie your laces, and stretch beforehand—dynamic stretches, not the static kind like we used to do in gym class when I was a kid (this advice is based on real scientific advancement). When running, be careful not to step in any holes. That’s just generally good advice! But always worth restating! If on your run, you see an angry mob of Canada geese approaching (very dangerous, especially during mating season), spread your arms and scream. You’ll see! Highly effective. Be sure to practice your screaming before you get yourself into a situation that may involve Canada geese. You can scream into a pillow or just practice during Mario Kart races.
To reiterate, in case this isn’t sinking in (one can never be too careful!): our basic principle is prevent, prevent, prevent. Remember that fun goes hand-and-hand with risk (don’t hold hands, for heaven’s sake, do I even need to tell you that?), and is also pleasurable, addictive and difficult to avoid, and is therefore an ongoing threat to your health! It’s best to maintain a hyper-heightened risk-assessment mindset at all times. But be careful! Overloading your frontal cortex with stress hormones (which may or may not be a thing, just google it), could cause mental burnout. Counteract those effects with a calm and boring meditative practice, which is generally considered safe, provided you don’t burn incense while you’re at it (fire hazard alert!), but on the very rare occasion has been known to accidentally hypnotize practitioners into believing everything is okay (don’t hyperventilate, M.C.!), which causes them to let their guard down and enjoy their day, which may lead them to have fun (remember = risk!), so be sure to meditate with caution. You have been warned!
This column is accepting questions (and we remain disappointed); however, it seems reasonable to assume that the volume, force, and acuity of our unsolicited advice may serve as a disincentive. Who needs to ask questions, when all the questions you’ve never even thought to ask are already being answered? I understand: And that’s my job, as advice columnist, at your service.
Remember: stay alert, be afraid, and never stop worrying.
Wherever you've come from, wherever you're going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause. Thank you for stopping by. Your comments are welcome.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a fiction writer, reader, editor, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, forever curious. I believe words are powerful, storytelling is healing, and art is for everyone.