This is the lake into which I’ve dunked my full self every day for the past seven days. Some days it has been warm and sunny, even hot. Other days, like today, it is cool and windy, cloudy, rainy, almost cold.
Today, I went kayaking first, to warm up.
I never take my cellphone out kayaking (for obvious reasons), which means I’ve never gotten a photo of those rocks and trees visited only by water. I didn’t kayak the first few days here, because I was waiting to feel rested up and restless, and when that happened, it was bliss to be back out on the lake in the little blue kayak, wearing my baseball cap and favourite blue lifejacket.
I got a very large tattoo this summer (as well as a small one). When I catch a glimpse in the mirror, it gives me pleasure to think: this woman could be an aging rock star, or an aging artist! I still can’t give a particularly good reason for getting the very large tattoo, or even for the chosen image (an owl made of woven ribbons), other than I like it.
I like it. It makes me feel both more myself and more like a different, alternative self, living a much edgier, cooler, artistic life, that probably involves less cooking and cleaning, overall. Fewer challenging parenting decisions.
At the cottage, we mostly unplug and read. I’ve read all the August New Yorkers from cover to cover. I just finished my friend Emily Urquhart’s memoir, Beyond the Pale, which explores folklore and genetics. And I’m currently tearing through a novel called Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder, a writer with whom I share Mennonite roots (she was raised in Ohio); the book seems to me to be an answer to the question: why is motherhood so confusing and impossible? Or, maybe it’s a theory of motherhood, or an abstract on how to respond to motherhood, including positing motherhood as intensely lived performance art. Whatever it is, it’s deeply weird, hilariously funny, and consoling. I keep reading lines out loud to anyone who will listen.
I recommend pairing Nightbitch with this New York Times opinion piece on the “mothering instinct.”
Bracing. Just like the cool lake water. Some summers I haven’t gone under the water even once. I used to swim no matter what, training and doing lengths back and forth in the deeper water, but after a near-drowning experience a few years ago, I’ve been cautious and nervous in the lake. This summer, I decided to try, at least, to walk in and go under, no matter the weather. I’m fascinated by people who’ve taken up immersing themselves in freezing cold water, hacking holes in icy lakes in the middle of winter. It seems to have become a popular thing during the pandemic. I don’t live close to a body of water that would qualify as a lake, but in truth, even if a handy icy lake existed nearby, I’m not sure I’d have the fortitude for it. My alter-ego with the owl tattoo totally would. But for now, I feel practically heroic for paddling around the shallows of this little bay on an overcast and cool day, limbs tingling and bright, and chasing it with a blissful hot shower, enjoyed outdoors under the pine trees.
Maybe this is where my owl tattoo self lives all the time. I love the sound of the lake water on the rocks at night. I love the isolation. Everything slows, here. My racing mind. Time. Longing. Experience. Expression. It feels like we could always be here, when we are here.
For some reason, it’s snowing and stormy today in Southern Ontario, which sums up my experience of a typical March day in this part of the world. It’s a mess, the weather veers wildly from hope to disappointment, and yet somehow I’m always surprised by this!
I would like you to know that life here in my house, in my family, in my little writing studio, in my imagination, as a parent, as a daughter, a friend, a partner, a neighbour, a writer is much the same: messy, with its ups and downs, both predictable and somehow wildly not. I’m repeatedly surprised by this!
Here is something I find to be true yet surprising right now: When I write a book, it takes a very long time. Years at best. I usually have to write a half-dozen versions of the same project before landing on a container for the material that feels like it halfway meets up with the book that lives in my mind. Sometimes I am very patient about this process, and patient with myself for my limitations. Sometimes I am not.
Also true yet surprising: When I’m not patient with myself, I tend to question not just my choice of this as a career, but everything else about my life, both in my control and out of it. It’s panic-thinking, spiralling, and I am convinced, at least for an hour or a day, that I will never get my shit together. What tends to calm me is realizing that my shit is not something I can actually get together. It’s a messy cycle.
This week, what pulled me out of the spin was a) walking and talking with a friend while in the middle of the spin, acknowledging what I was feeling; b) laughter; c) accepting that this was the weather, today; d) not trying to fix it; e) realizing that I am not afraid of hard work; f) accepting that I probably can’t know what’s worth my while or whether I’m wasting my life no matter what I’m doing; g) realizing that I’m not going to give up on a book just because it requires more effort and work; h) sitting down at my keyboard and following the energy.
That day, I wrote steadily for hours, with excitement and delight and wonder. I wrote despite knowing it might take me years to write another book that I am satisfied with. In fact, I wrote because I knew it.
Here is another thing that I find to be true yet surprising right now: I’ve forgotten how to organize things — and also, it doesn’t seem to matter, people still have fun, including me. This past week, I organized a bowling party for a kid and I did so in the most lackadaisical manner, quite unlike my pre-pandemic self. In fact, I was so lackadaisical, I didn’t even recognize how many details I was leaving to chance — details that in the past I would have tried to control through advance preparation. Calm and unstressed in the hours leading up the party, I actually did all that writing I described, above, without a thought of what was coming next.
Details that I had not thought through: whether or not to wear masks at the bowling alley; what we were going to eat and when; whether we had pop and snacks in the house in sufficient quantity; how we were going to fit everyone into our two vehicles; what time the party might end; and on and on. The revelation was that none of this ultimately mattered in the least. The fun did not rest on my advance planning. Choices could be made in the moment. Alternatives existed. Not everything was perfect. And it didn’t matter, it just didn’t matter. The party was fun, it sprawled into its own rhythm.
Here is one last thing that I find to be surprisingly / unsurprisingly true right now, in the midst of this storm in the middle of my life: I am an imperfect parent, a writer who sometimes completely forgets how to write, and a woman whose responsibilities are changing rapidly as her children grow up. I am not always adapting as effortlessly and beautifully as I might wish. I’m not going to fix my shit. I’m not going to get it all together. I’m just not. I’m not even going to say: but I’ll keep trying to fix it. I’m just not going to.
What I’ll do instead, I hope, is stay open to experimenting, trying new things, letting myself become different and be changed by my connections, my experiences. I’m not going to let my messiness stop me from loving this wild and precious life. Actually, I think that I’ll love it all the more for being an unpredictable, stormy, beautiful mess.
My general rule for writing posts here is to do it for fun, or when the spirit moves me, to paraphrase something my mother said a lot when I was a kid. Today I’m breaking that rule a bit. Nothing seems to be particularly fun just now, and the spirit is moving me only insofar as it’s saying, give it a shot, Carrie. Try to write something and see what comes up.
There are many things I don’t want to write about. I don’t want to write about war, or political instability, or pain or suffering or fear or anxiety. This isn’t a politically minded blog and I’m no expert, nor pundit, nor do I aspire to be.
I was thinking that it would be funny to write a post called “Five Bad Things Right Now”; but then I decided that might not be that funny. But I don’t have “Five Good Things” to report on, particularly; or maybe those things feel a bit superficial or artificial under the circumstances. How about “Five Things Right Now” and no judgment as to their quality or worth? Here goes.
Page proofs for Francie
My editor sent me a hard copy of typeset page proofs for review. I opened the package three days ago. This should be a most wonderful thing, but I’ll confess that I’ve yet to work up the courage to begin to read through. It’s a last pass. Last chance to catch typos. What comes next? I don’t know, exactly, which is why, I think, it will take courage to put this stage to bed. Next means new projects, publicity work, and whatever that requires of me (different skills from reading proofs, that’s all I know for sure).
Reading a library copy of Moonglow, by Michael Chabon
This was super-pleasurable, a big sprawling novel loosely based on the life of the author’s grandfather (which is why I wanted to read it, to get clues about how such a project might unfold). In the end, I was convinced this was more novel than biography, and I admired the apparent ease and ruthlessness with which the author muddied the waters; but part of me resented it too. I spent most of the book trusting in the author’s voice, and felt a bit cheated at the end. I wonder what this impulse is to believe that something is true, or to want to believe it, even when the writer is reminding me over and over that he’s a novelist, for heaven’s sake. He makes shit up for a living! (Isn’t that what I do too?) Anyway … an excellent read, highly recommended.
Drawing a cartoon
I stopped doing my daily cartoon late last month. I was following the same basic principle as I do for this blog: do it as long as it’s fun, and the spirit moves you. It was feeling less fun, more of a chore. But I picked up the habit again this week because I needed a different way to express my emotions, and drawing to music, colouring with crayons, is legit a fun way to journal, to record a tiny reminder of hey, here’s what happened today. A cartoon makes all the emotions more bearable. Drawing has lightened my load this week. (not pictured because I don’t have a photo on hand, and I love this one, above, taken around sunrise on an excruciatingly cold morning, recently)
Making pancakes for dinner
I don’t even like pancakes. But my kids do! Yesterday, that’s all I wanted: to give someone else something to enjoy. The gesture didn’t need to be grand, the recipients didn’t even need to know my intentions. Recipe here; I quadrupled it. (also not pictured; above is from a less-lauded meal involving squash, beets, turnips and sweet potatoes)
I might go so far as to say, admittedly hyperbolically, that my friend Kasia’s kundalini yoga classes have been saving me this week. They’ve definitely been lighting a fire, and making me feel alive and whole and present in my body in a positive way. Music, movement, breath work: breaks me open, sparks creativity, and openness, and belief that there are wonderful things in this world. And I need that reminder, especially right now. (photo above represents the feeling rather than the activity itself)
- 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?
Just need to check in and mark this day. Which contains some significant news.
First, my eldest child is moving out to his own apartment! Last night, his sister baked him “Goodbye Brownies” and while we ate them, we went around the table and took turns expressing what we’d miss about having him around the house. And I didn’t even need to initiate this lovely, heart-warming ritual — his siblings did it all! So I feel my work as a parent is basically complete.
I’m feeling proud of him, and excited for him, and aware that change is ever with me, and I will adapt even if it takes time.
Second, I got my first dose of vaccine today. I had to overcome my irrational fears of the rare clotting complication: the doctor who gave me the vaccine was very very kind and helpful in explaining the risks; and I feel … well … I feel like I’m on the way somewhere, not there yet, but on a path that will lead to different vistas. Not back to before. The landscape will be changed, but how, and for better? It’s not clear.
What a day!
I started it with a solo run in the park, not fast, stiff wind in my face, taking walk breaks as needed, enjoying the quiet and the cold, fresh air. I gave thanks for right now.
I’ll do it again. I give thanks.
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.