Yesterday was my birthday. But I did not feel contemplative; I have avoided contemplation for this entire holiday. I’ve given myself a solid break from my office, from email, from planning, from organizing. Instead, I’ve read books, watched movies in the theatre (with popcorn), done some yoga and walking, hung out with family, worked on puzzles, listened obsessively to Joni Mitchell’s Blue. As soon as thoughts of duties and responsibilities approach, or anything to do with the future, both near and far, I’ve turned away.
The next four months of this new year resemble quite closely the past four months of this old year, with changes only minimally implemented or inched toward. Is change so important? And if so, why?
Because you can’t leave a fire untended. It will burn out or burn out of control.
Because some fuel burns bright and quick, while other fuel lasts a long time.
How many fires can one person tend? What fuels me, long and slow, sustaining? Are there fires I could let burn out, or would I grow cold?
(Do I just need more sleep, maybe? I’ve slept so much this holiday. It’s been blissful.)
What is it I want from this coming year?
What did I want from this past year? I can’t recall.
But I can tell you what I got. This past year, I recognized and accepted my own grief (and shame) for all the ways in which my writing career has not been what I’d hoped and perhaps even expected it would be. This was the fire untended, burning out. Without even noticing, I’d been setting other fires, here and there, and this was the year I became a pyromaniac, when the flames from all these fires rose so high, so hot, the smoke so thick I couldn’t see myself, or breathe. Now the question hangs: Which fires? Which fires, Carrie, will you continue to tend?
I seem to vacillate between wanting to lead a big bold busy demanding life, and seeking the small peace a spirit can aspire to embrace. The former requires support and agreement from others, attention that must be earned and commanded (and that feels good and affirming); but the latter hangs only on the self allowing the self to live without any notice at all (and that feels hard and awfully quiet).
Both are possible, in theory. But in practice, the balance isn’t so easy to calibrate.
Begin with the honest admission that one person cannot do all the things, all at once, all the time. Acknowledge that some things take up more space than other things. (A career, for example; becoming an expert in anything, for example.) Come January, as before, I’ll still be teaching, coaching, coordinating The Shoe Project KW. I’ll still be mother of four, wife, friend, daughter, sister, puppy trainer, laundry-doer, meal-maker, chauffeur, occasional bathroom cleaner. I’ll still go to the gym, practice yoga, try to run, meditate. And then there’s my writing. And all of the things that support it: grant-writing, story submissions, revising, research, reading, speaking, relationships with peers.
Yet here it is — writing — at the end of the list, because it’s one of those things that takes up a lot of space, if done with devotion and cause for hope. And I’ve not been willing or able (which is it? is it important to know?) to give writing that kind of space. I’ve squeezed it into an ever-smaller corner of the room, in truth, as if this part of myself only deserves attention if there’s proof of validity, permission, signs pointing toward success. And there hasn’t been, not for a long while. This is the year, 2018, I’ve come to recognize: there may not be. And with that the reckoning: what now?
What if it turns out I’m not a very good writer? What if I can’t earn (more) money as a writer? Are these the same things? What if I’m not very good and I can’t earn money, but I still want to make space — lots of space — to keep trying? Is that okay? Especially if it means not doing other more worthy, more admirable, more noticeable, more helpful things?
How can I convince myself that it’s okay?
You step onto a treadmill because it is a guarantee that you will move (paradoxically, it is also a guarantee that you will stay in one place). What is the desire to press ever-forward? To progress? You want new experiences and challenges, but you want, too, to build a big roaring fire around which to gather — the fire itself ever-changing, as the mind is ever-changing, and this body. It is time that keeps turning, or that is the sensation — that time churns forward, with or without you. Maybe you feel obliged to run in order to keep up with time itself. But isn’t time always with you, wherever you are, whether you are running or sitting, paused in thought or too busy to stop and think, or feel? There is no need to run, to catch up. You aren’t behind, no more than you could ever be ahead. You’re exactly where you are.
Set your timer and write for three minutes. This is your prompt: What would you change if you could?
What would you change if you could?
I would make a few key strategic changes in priority that would blow my current life to smithereens. I see myself running in the woods with the puppy, my mind as open as the sky, no lists churning, just the hidden lives of my characters, these avatars of the self, the better and clearer self, and I see myself returning home to a clear office, light and empty, to pour out what I’ve found in effort and solitude.
It would be amazing.
I wrote this passage a month ago, during an in-class exercise.
For the next part of the exercise, you put boxes around all of the phrases that jump out at you and then use one as a title for a new story. This passage had plenty to choose from.
CHANGE; BLOW MY LIFE TO SMITHEREENS; I SEE MYSELF RUNNING; MY MIND AS OPEN AS THE SKY; CHURNING; HIDDEN LIVES; AVATARS OF THE SELF; LIGHT AND EMPTY; SOLITUDE
Which would you pick? I chose “Avatars of the Self,” a story I’m still working on.
While I haven’t blown my life to smithereens in the past month, I have made changes. After agonizing for ages, I dropped one of the courses I’d signed on to teach this winter. (I’m still teaching the new course, Creativity Unplugged.) Essentially, by this simple act, I’ve given myself the gift of time.
The question is, can I accept the gift of time without filling it with more responsibilities? (I’m going to try.)
Set your timer and write for three minutes. This is a your prompt: What are your goals as a writer?
What a great prompt for today. Because it’s all I’m thinking about right now — how to feed and sustain this writer self, how to hustle for her without resentment or bitterness, how to celebrate her, how to make space, and as important, hold space. I am going to honour this being that I’m becoming and I’m going to honour her with offerings of food and care and kindness, and in this way, I will let myself be.
I wrote this passage one week ago.
Earlier this month, I went to the Wild Writers Festival here in Waterloo, and was especially inspired by a panel on mentorship; it expanded my definition of mentorship, which can and should include peer-to-peer support. It’s what I try to foster and nurture in my classes; and I recognized, profoundly, it’s time to do this for myself. The key to feeding the writing self is nurturing community. I know how to do this. It takes energy and vulnerability. It’s generative, it’s sustainable, it’s beautiful, it’s meaningful, it’s worthwhile. And maybe, just maybe, it will blow my current life to smithereens … and make space for a better, clearer self.
Who will you be in 25 years? This is an exercise I’ve done twice this fall, with different results each time. The first time, I was led through the exercise by someone else. Today, I led my students through the same exercise.
Here’s how to do it, if you want to try:
Draw a self-portrait as if you were posing for an author photo on the back of the book you’ve always dreamed of publishing. Use crayons. If you have a notebook, draw the portrait on the very last page. (10 minutes)
Next, write your author bio blurb. Remember to write in the third person. Cast yourself deep into the future (25 years or so), and discover who you imagine yourself to be. (10 minutes)
Here’s mine, from today. (Note: I draw self-portraits as if I were 25 years younger …)
Carrie Snyder has devoted her life — or the better part of it — to the pursuit of an ideal self that she first imagined into being as a seven-year-old child, when, as a reader of far-ranging taste with a wild imagination she said to herself (and to anyone who would listen): I’m going to do that too! I’m going to write books! While the perfection of her notion would prove impossible to achieve, the truth of its imagery was uncanny (she saw a forest path and a treehouse hideaway, which, as she grew, became representations rather than literal spaces). Through writing, Carrie found herself transported, frequently, into a deeper understanding of her relationship to the world itself and to its many mysteries. She came to a kind of peace with its mysteries, by holding them to the light and examining their facets with care and attention — and love. Love figures heavily in Carrie’s work, specifically in her discipline to craft, and to sharing the joy of a discipline with others. She has not yet finished, and she hopes she never will. What has changed, with time, is her understanding that finishing something is temporary, and that what lasts is the pull of discovery itself. The process. The adventure of it. She will never be satisfied nor think her work on earth complete, and that is the fuel that invites her to continue — to be the ideal self she imagined at age seven: an artist. Someone who by alchemy transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. Someone who sees what is possible. Someone who looks at the world and loves it with her attention.
Here is the original exercise, completed in October, with a different result (except for the youthful portrait).
Carrie Snyder, despite crippling bouts of self-doubt, has managed to put herself forward, into positions of service, of leadership, roles that demanded the ability to see herself as more powerful and more capable than anyone else did, and by believing, to become. She was not always confident. Was not always the presence she presented. At times, she thought she was doubled, the face to the world not the face she turned to herself. Was it possible to live doubled like this? What did it mean to do work that challenged and frightened her to her very core — could she get up the next day and rise again? But something deep inside ran like an engine or furnace, the flame of desire, the flame of meaning, and she knew she could live in no other way — could she? She tried listening to reason, to her heart, to her spirit, but the fire was the constant that gave her life, renewed her desire to inhabit bodies and minds bigger and braver than her natural own. She said: If I can do it, then I will. She said: Be the change you want to see. And she was. And that was marvellous to her. Because if she could do this, anyone could — anyone loved and believed in and cherished. Carrie Snyder cherishes herself, believes in herself, loves herself and that has made her strong enough to love, believe in and cherish each of you —
each of you —
each of you — beautiful, aching beings
PS It’s tempting, when presented with two things, to compare them … but let’s not. I like that both of these projections into the future are, in fact, deeply embedded in the emotional reality of a present moment. Like putting a thumb-tack onto a map to say: I was here.
FIRE is my word of the year, and its many meanings are very present with me at present. On my run this morning, I thought about how a fire can be an emergency, how it can burn down a house, or raze a forest. Going through fire is a metaphor for suffering and surviving, for being tempered by a painful experience. But after a fire, the soil is enriched by ash and carbon, and new life begins to grow.
Like fire that is an emergency, loss changes the landscape. Losing Marg was like going through fire. Of course, it was also like many other things, too, because Marg was extremely generous in her dying, and did everything possible to show her love and care for us, despite how sick she was. She had clarity about what was happening, and her wisdom gave us clarity, too. The fire tempered her, and it tempered us, too.
After loss comes grief. Sometimes grief comes even before loss — as we see loss coming toward us on the horizon. Grief isn’t predictable. It doesn’t follow a set timeline. At different points this spring, I recognized that grief was my companion, and that it was helping me to set my course.
Immediately after Marg’s death, I felt like a sleepwalker, numb, too tired to think, but slowly and steadily I drifted toward a different phase of being in the world — of being in the world. I began to meditate outside in our back yard. I let myself rest. I let myself not do next to nothing; listen, pay attention, breathe. Instinctively, I gave myself space. And with space, with breath, with oxygen to feed it, my interior fire began to flicker to life again. It was in that burnt out quiet space, in the aftermath and ash, that new shoots of green began to grow. I thought about (think about) Marg all the time. She was and is present in my mind, in my decision-making. Her clarity guides me, and her willingness in life to step forward, to be responsible, to take charge and to lead.
Because fire has another meaning, too — fire as passion, as heat and light and desire. There are times when I live without noticing how I’m feeling, numbed by routine and responsibility and the relentless obligations of being a mother to four children, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer. These are times when I’m dull, ticking boxes, struggling to keep my weak flame lit. And then there are times when I’m on fire! I’m paying attention — my attentiveness becomes acute, and I can see clearly what matters and what doesn’t matter.
From a place of quiet attention, comes clarity.
I have been tempered by fire, and my sense of purpose is strengthened. This I know: to feed my spirit, to remain grounded and whole, I must live creatively. Living creatively means improvising, sometimes; it means pursuing work that may not have a financial value; it means making space for others to play too. Since Marg’s death, I’ve found myself making choices from a place that feels powerful and certain. I ask: what matters to me, and am I acting on what matters to me? Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at church because when I saw the call for volunteers, instead of questioning the impulse, wondering whether I had the authority to speak, or the time to prepare, or the courage to stand up, I just said yes: this matters to me, and I will do it.
Another example: This spring, as I heard about protests in Nicaragua, as the situation became ever more troubling and desperate, as protestors were being killed, I wondered: Why isn’t this news being covered in the Canadian media? What can our government do to help the situation? And then I asked: Is there anything I can do? Yes! I could use my resources, skills, and contacts to write an opinion piece appealing to the Canadian government and getting this news before the public, at least to a small degree — I pitched the idea to an editor at the Globe and Mail, and wrote the piece while sitting in a tent on a rainy afternoon last weekend. I consulted with Nicaraguan contacts to ensure my facts were accurate. I sought feedback. And the piece was published in today’s Opinion section of the Globe. It’s a small act, but it’s something.
I’ve discovered something powerful about acting on what matters to me: It gives me fuel for the fire, energy to do more.
There are so many small ways to be whole, to feel whole. I don’t seek a work-life balance, because my work and life are utterly intertwined. I’m not interested in the concept of balance. I’m interested in recognizing which fires need to be fed, and which should be smothered. That’s a different kind of balance. It means asking: what do I have control over and what do I need to let go of?
A fire can burn out of control. Some emergencies cannot be prevented or stopped, can only be endured, withstood, survived, contained. But there are many smaller fires: a candle, a campfire, the flame inside a wood stove. These fires draw us, warm us, soothe us, invite community. The constantly changing shape of the flame is meditative and centring. We gather with others around the light and heat.
I hope to have more news to share in the weeks to come. More irons in the fire. More heat, more light. Meanwhile, more summer.
The hardest day of the week to get oriented. There seem to be an infinite number of tasks that could be tackled — a few that should be tackled, and many that are just pleasant possibilities awaiting attention. But to be done properly these tasks require full attention. There are many ways to begin, but here is one that’s been working for me: I put on Marg’s green scarf and sit in the back yard and meditate.
On my general to-do list:
- Fall creative writing course at U of Waterloo: revamp reading list; tweak structure of peer review workshops; tweak participation rubric.
- Winter creative writing course at St. Jerome’s (new course!!!!): solidify curriculum, leaving room for student input within broader units.
- Write/edit/submit short stories: I’m working on editing a short story collection. I keep picking away at the stories, one by one; highly satisfying. I’m also setting the goal of submitting these polished stories, one by one, to literary magazines.
- Edit/submit poems: Same as # 3, only in poetry form.
- Expand/explore career options: Here is where I begin to drift off, untethered. I’m feeling a significant pull to further my education. I’ve narrowed my field(s) of interest to the following: spiritual work, counselling/therapy/coaching, writing/art therapy, conflict resolution, public speaking.
On Twitter, today, I retweeted an opinion from a thread on CanLit by Amanda Leduc, who wrote: “Literature is a special thing only insofar as it helps us to navigate the world & connect with one another.” Someone else replied: “I hear what you’re saying, but I have also talked to people who are alive today because literature literally saved their lives.”
And I wonder what I believe?
My experience as a teacher leads me to believe that writing can be powerful medicine, that telling our stories and being heard, no matter the medium, can be powerfully validating. Reading or seeing or hearing a story or image that strikes a chord within us can also be powerful. It can heal, or create an opening for healing. Who knows why something moves us? It may have nothing to do with the technical prowess of its creator.
I’m not saying that technical skill doesn’t matter or is immaterial. My God, when I read a book by someone who’s mastered the craft, I’m utterly transported. Most recently, that would be Ali Smith’s Autumn. I wanted to linger — am lingering, in memory — inside the richness and simultaneous spareness of her style. Yet I flew through the book and couldn’t put it down. That’s magic. There’s magic in deciding to pick up a book and read it, and discovering in it exactly what you need.
There is magic in the process, in all parts of the process, that’s what I’m saying. There’s work and then there’s magic. And magic doesn’t come in a form that’s graspable; magic, spiritual depth, grace — however you term it — does not arrive because you demand its arrival. A writer is not someone with special powers. A writer is someone who, with luck, occasionally finds a way to share an idea or an image with the the world, or whatever tiny piece of the world picks up our book and reads it and finds something within those pages. But there are lots of other ways to connect, even for writers. I come back to connection, to navigating the world. The world is what interests me. Relationships interest me. And, yes, spiritual life in particular interests me, even though or maybe because it’s almost impossible to put that life into words. (This is why we need images.)
Long story short. I’m happy to keep writing and practicing the craft of writing (see items #3 and #4 on above list). But I think I’m being called out beyond the borders of the page. I think there are other ways and means of connecting to the world using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about writing and shaping narrative, but also using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about being human, being mortal, being fallible, being forgiven, and loving and being loved.
Anxiety is not a stranger in this house.
Lately, it’s been visiting me regularly. I suppose it could be grief. It could also be the loose, unfinished nature of the work I try to do. I’ve trained myself to be patient, to trust, to allow things to unfold in their time, not to push too hard, not to rush the process. But it’s taken training because I am actually someone who appreciates a firm decision. I like to make plans and execute them. In the fuzzy existence of being a writer, plans seem forever in flux, at the mercy of whim or economics or both. I like to take action, I like to make and to do. But there is only so much I can make or do or act upon in this fuzzy existence of being a writer. If that is where I exist. If that is what I am.
Anxiety is not a stranger.
I haven’t cartooned for two days. Soccer season is upon us, and most evenings are packed and late. I haven’t shifted my routine to cartoon at another time, or even to cartoon in another fashion — by speeding up the process, or limiting my expectations, drawing faster, messier, more piecemeal. I’d come to expect something of myself in my drawings, which had become less and less like cartoons. (That sentence is written deeply in the past tense, I realize.)
Anxiety preys on expectations.
I’ve been writing. Diligently. Every day. But the project is self-indulgent. It’s all about the writing itself, language, structure, stripped down sentences, ideas, and not at all about the plot. I’m torn: do I write to please myself, or do I write to please others? I think that by pleasing myself I will please almost no one else.
Anxiety is another word for doubt. Self-doubt.
It is rainy today. I haven’t sat outside on my stump. Sometimes, the meditation soothes me, especially listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. Being outdoors soothes me. Yesterday evening, we gathered to bury the ashes of my stepmother. The beauty of where we were came rushing up to meet us. A wide softly sloping ploughed field, a stand of thick green trees. As the brief ceremony beside the grave began, I saw a hawk holding over the field, riding the air currents in a soft sloping arc.
Later, we sang: I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.
The comfort of the gospel songs felt like medicine, and made holy space, and we kept hearing a lone bird chirping in the trees overhead, as if it were joining our song.
Anxiety reminds me of all the smart, brave, kind things I should have done and did not do. Anxiety reminds me of all the wrong, stupid, foolish things I have done. Anxiety plants inertia.
Sometimes, it seems I am so closed, even to myself, that only writing will dig up what hurts. But I don’t know what hurts, if anything. I don’t know why a sensation of nervous energy froths beneath my ribs, no matter how I rise early to exercise it into submission. I wonder, what have I learned from sitting down to write this post? Perspective is a long game. Introspection comes up short.
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