Category: Organizing

Softer, fuller, rounder

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Life feels softer, fuller, rounder. Sometimes this feels just right—for my age, my ambitions. Sometimes my eyes ache behind my glasses. I am softer, fuller, rounder. I don’t like this so much. It’s partly body dysmorphia and partly not—I am larger than I used to be, objectively speaking. I have had to upsize my pants. There are days when I don’t even go for a walk, because I can’t squeeze it in, let alone one of those hard runs I used to rely on to keep me sane, and fit, and possibly also fitting in those pants of the past. My body has fluctuated and changed over these nearly five full decades on planet earth. Pregnancies will change a person’s body. And endurance training. But so will mid-life hormones, and aging, and a myriad of other factors that are beyond my control. Out of control is what I feel sometimes, when squeezing into my upsized pants. Yet, since when am I in control?

Control is an illusion, a fable told to comfort myself—that I am choosing for my body to be the way that it is, at any given stage in my life and development. Our bodies, ourselves—caught in time, turning and turning.

But my head, my outlook, my mind—softer, fuller, rounder? Yes. And how do I feel about that? I don’t entirely know. I’ve had practice accepting change, loosening my hold on expectations, letting go, you might say, or holding lightly (parenting gives a person practice; being a writer, too). But practice doesn’t necessarily ease the challenge, in real life situations. It is easier to breathe when there’s breathing room. It is easier to accept what’s happening when it’s pleasant or hoped for.

I try to go into new situations without writing the script beforehand; but how does that fit with my love of plotting and planning and dreaming big? Maybe it’s both/and, not either/or.

Which brings me around to the softness in the structure of my life right now, its curves and rounded edges. There is time for all things, but not all at once. This new year, I’ve completed two workshops in conflict management, and I’m considering working toward certification as a mediator. But I don’t know where it might lead, in truth, nor how these skills might be applied. At the library, I pad around in my “librarian sandals,” and enjoy creating moments of surprise and delight and welcome for the students (and maybe for the teachers too, at least some of them!). I’m building relationships there; but also trying to apply boundaries, and keep the job easy and light, as it should be. I’m on board for another season of the X Page workshop, starting very soon; I’ll be an editor and lead some of the writing exercises, but others are taking on the more substantial leadership roles; I felt a lightness at our recent planning meeting. This has given me room to take on more of a leadership role at my church, which is small and relies on volunteers; this Sunday I’ll be preaching—a new genre for me. It took me weeks to write a 15-minute sermon, but I enjoyed the layers of exploration that came from a close reading of text.

Where in this is my fiction writing? Still very present; just not occupying my mind as an identity that I should be fulfilling at all times, lest it slip from my grip. Hold lightly. I’m approaching writing no differently from these other facets of commitment, responsibility—I want to enjoy myself while doing all these things, even committee meetings! And the quickest path to enjoyment (in my experience) is full immersion.

Dive in.

Basically, I put my phone away. Often it is out of sight, especially when I’m in a meeting or at work or writing. That limits distractions. Any task on which I’m fully focused is a task I’ll genuinely enjoy, or find interesting in some way—my brain is hungry for the details, for sensory information, for connection. Often, this actually feels like I’m leaning back in a comfy chair, taking everything in, hyper-aware of the nuances, the emotional tones; or my mind in its relaxation will see big-picture structures as clearly as if they were architectural drawings.

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I love structure so much. Design. Sequence. Noticing how these things work in practice, or do not work, and investigating changes to systems. I like figuring out the pacing and rhythm; how these ephemeral/practical/felt structures support the why of what is being made—its desired outcome—whether it’s a worship service, or a novel; there’s not a single or “right” answer, of course, which is what makes it so fascinating. Endlessly fascinating.

How does writing fit into the systems and structures of my life? Like any task, I need to make room for it, make practical plans, and I need to seize the moments. Occasionally, I’ve been able to write with focus after work, or into the evening, but that requires a) being well-rested, b) someone else cooking supper, c) no evening meetings or obligations. It’s rare. So mostly, I’m setting aside chunks of time—like last weekend at the farm with my writing friends. Nothing on the schedule except writing, eating, talking, sharing our writing. I love when we read to each other in the evenings. Our times together are so cozy, so warm and peaceful; conducive to writing, but also to fostering a relaxed state of mind in which creativity thrives. I might not get to do this very often, but it’s a wonderful state in which to write. As proof, each of us has finished at least one major book-length project during our several years of writing together that we’ve either published, or will be publishing soon. Amazing!

Blogging, when it happens, fits into the in-between times. Like this post, written almost entirely on a Friday afternoon, sitting overlooking an indoor soccer field, feet up, travel mug of tea nearby, and my laptop open; but finished the following afternoon, because the previous sentence is where my writing stopped, when I turned to chat with a parent—a dad who was open to talking soccer with a woman, which is not, I must tell you, always the case. So I relished the opening, and went with it.

xo, Carrie

the Grandma project

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My Grandma, who died in October, gave me a wonderful gift—a project whose resonances continue to unfold. Over many months (years, actually), she gave me her story. She thought it might make good material for a novel, and we had a lot of fun together, exploring, talking through ideas, and trying to dig down into what it meant to write fiction using biography.

But.

I’m coming around to believing that what Grandma was trying to teach me, or tell me, was something maybe greater, definitely more subtle. Yes, there was the gift of her story; and there was the gift of trust—that told me implicitly that she believed I could make something of the material. But through the time we spent together, in our roles—me as listener, she as storyteller—she offered something different, too, valuable and profound. I did not see it at the time. I was focused on trying to map out her story, to imagine it into a fictional form, to gather imagery, to play with structure, and to dig into what mattered to her. 

So many wonderful clues. 

So many wonderful conversations on Zoom.

The novel exists now. It has been deemed by an important editor to be “too quiet.” But I don’t want to dwell on failure, or rejection, because I don’t see this project in those terms, or even on a particular timeline of known outcome or goal. 

Grandma gave me her story and her trust, and I believe she trusted me to find the gold at the centre of our conversations—the conversations themselves.

Grandma reminded me that other people are the gold in my life. She reminded me of the gifts within that I had been overlooking—the capacity to listen deeply, for example. The capacity to give my time and attention to others. To create welcoming spaces. To invite response. The joy in that exchange.

My writing life has represented a longing for meaning and purpose.  I wanted it to be a calling, I think—a universal longing, no doubt. Meaning and purpose is an answer to pain of all kinds: loneliness, fear, stasis. Grandma reminded me, over and over, in words and in deeds, that meaning and purpose isn’t found in rumination, but in participation. What I learned during our conversations was to notice my own desire, perhaps a very primal need, to share time with others. 

My writing life alone has not been the answer to this longing for meaning and purpose. This has been hard for me to accept, or even to see.

Grandma’s mantra, her life’s focus, was helping others—she advised me pretty constantly to practice this too. When in doubt, when down and out, do something for someone else. Take your mind off your own troubles and busy yourself trying to ease someone else’s. This could hold negative connotations: distracting oneself or meddling or avoiding personal reflection. But I don’t think the one cancels out the other. In fact, deeper personal reflection is facilitated within relationships. And reflection deepens the capacity to walk with others in times of need.

And there is need! People have cares and troubles!

And we all, each one of us, have valuable gifts to share.

I believe that Grandma was trying to teach me this: find ways to share your life and share your gifts. The act of sharing helps you see that you do have gifts to share that are appreciated (and maybe not the ones you’d thought), and this lifts you into an ease within your own bones and bdy that others experience in your presence—a state of welcoming.

When I spent those mornings “interviewing” Grandma, I was learning how to listen deeply, with honour and care—and her appreciation fed me, in return. Ultimately, our interactions nudged me to get out of my own head, and go exploring in the world.

Would I be working in a school library if I hadn’t spent that time with Grandma? Something about our conversations, and her example, gave me permission to not be so precious about my writing life. What was I trying to protect, by wrapping my hands around its specialness? Writing is a durable craft to be held lightly. So many of the things I told myself about my writing wasn’t true: that it required sacrifice, that if I wasn’t doing it every day, I wasn’t a writer, that I would squander my purpose if I did not bow down before this apparent gift that I had been given.

It wasn’t writing I was (have been, am) wrapping my hands around. It was (has been, is) ego, fragile and important, surely, but painfully self-involved, performative. 

I’m settling into a new perspective on projects themselves, a delightful sense of give and trust to the time they take in their unfolding. I love a project, it must be said. I love a goal; but the path to discovery is not direct. I’m aware, now more than ever, of the gentle unfurling of projects, letting them become inside my mind before I attempt to bring them forward—or just the pieces or parts that come to the fore, and mix with available materials and the response of others. I relish responses. In this way, a project becomes, it lives. This is the opposite of creating in a panic, or with anxiety, or focused on outcome—a project can be like a magnet, pulling in ideas. A project is of its moment, too, its time, its place, its surroundings, dependent on its context and relationships. A project is responsive.

It is not a lonely undertaking. Grandma knew that, surely.

Oh beautiful improvisation. Beautiful congregation.

xo, Carrie

May you live with ease

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I have been drawing and writing again: four weeks in my new position at a school library and creative energy has returned — it isn’t all being used on the job. In fact, working in the library seems to energize and soothe me in equal measure. The space is mine to play with, building on themes, displaying books, decorating with paper crafts (bulletin boards and such, see example above — not my forte, but I’ll learn!), reading stories to classes, and finding tasks for the many many library helpers (close to 30 grade 5/6 students) who the previous library clerk had brought in. The space has a wall of windows, and when I unlock the door and walk in every morning, I feel a sense of excitement and gratitude. 

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I love to put things in order. A library that is being used properly will forever give me things to put in order. And I LOVE reading to children and interacting with children.

Yet I also recognize and honour that the decision to change course took courage and did not feel straightforward or easy — it was painful to leave the students and staff and those fulfilling relationships at my previous school. I miss them. 

There are situations and experiences that may not be healthy for us, or suited to true needs, long-term, but may nevertheless be valuable and wonderful in the moment. To leave something is not to diminish its worth.

Last year (2022), I focused on what I was feeling, trying to understand better the underlying sensations and emotions that were fuelling my decision-making and moods and interactions (often without my awareness), and this year (2023) I’ve focused on identifying my needs—so that I am better able to meet those needs, and not expect others to meet them for me. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when I know what I need, I become less needy. 

But I don’t always know what I need. Or I think I need a particular something, when really, what would satisfy and fill me is something else quite different.

I didn’t write much this fall; my creative spark vanished. I couldn’t find it, and didn’t even want to, particularly, or care much. All my creative energy went into problem solving at work—and I liked it, in many ways, because it made me feel useful and mildly heroic, which writing and drawing never really does, to be perfectly honest; but it was a sacrifice that ultimately was making me very sad, on some fundamental level. My rational mind didn’t notice or care, but my body did, my heart did, my guts did, my intuition noticed: and Sad Carrie was not really helping anyone.

What I was missing more than anything, what I needed, was my creative spark. I didn’t consciously know this till the spark reappeared. 

Every morning before going to my new library job, I have time (and energy and the desire) to draw and write—and so I do. And the pleasure it gives me is without measure. There’s no purpose to it other than joy. No use. No rational worth or monetary value.

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I’ve been reunited with this joyful part of myself.

To be joyful in the world is such a gift. Joy isn’t blind or ignorant, and joy doesn’t ignore suffering; it bubbles out of ordinary encounters, it is born of gratitude and grace, and interior space, which allows a person the bandwidth to be attuned outwardly, or open somehow, sensing and knowing the sacredness of every interaction and experience — that is what I mean by joy. 

Joy can’t be manufactured, but it can be quietly drained from the body and mind by overwhelm and exhaustion. You can’t meditate yourself into a place of joy when you are drowning. The collective message to people in overwhelm and exhaustion and burnout and grief, drowning under a weight of responsibilities and impossible tasks, is: save yourselves! Do some yoga, or be more mindful, or whatever “wellness” trend is being pushed at the moment. I love yoga, and I appreciate the value of mindfulness; but when drowning in overwhelm, there isn’t a person on planet earth who can meditate themselves back to joy. Maybe to temporary relief of symptoms; maybe to a hope for a different path, or a glimpse at possibilities; but when the light goes out, it’s dark.

What lights your creative spark? 

What are you feeling?

What are your feelings telling you about your needs?

What do you need?

Food, shelter, health, safety. What about ease? What brings you ease, and how does your ease express itself? How do you live when life is not such a struggle? How does your joy appear? How do you know when you are joyful? 

My ease bubbles out in laughter. My ease fills a page with colour and lines. My ease delights in reading a book to a group of children and listening to their comments and questions.

May you be be safe. May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you live with ease.

xo, Carrie

One human, seeking balance

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I’m about to start week four of my new job. It’s intense and lively and challenging for brain and body and spirit — and I love that. It is also consuming of energy and focus. And it’s what I wanted and needed, I feel that deeply. I thrive on friction and have sought it out in various ways, from kundalini yoga classes to filling my house with four children to taking on volunteer roles that threw me into situations with high learning curves and the reward of appreciation and adventure (think — soccer coaching, or co-founding and running the storytelling workshop).

Now I’ve found myself a job where I get paid to enter into a swirl of friction: activity, human interaction, conflict and attempts at resolution. Everything I’ve learned in my life leading up to this moment feeds my ability to thrive and respond with integrity and kindness (while setting firm boundaries) in a constantly changing, constantly interrupted environment of constant problem-solving. But it’s early days! I recognize that such jobs can also, over time, create calluses for protection and self-preservation, which outwardly can look like cynicism, burnout, detachment, depression.

So I’m testing out ways to build in channels for release, for rest, to make space for ongoing enjoyment. 

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NEED is my word of the year. Attuning to my needs has been such a helpful guide! What do I need to set myself up for success? Each one of us will need something a bit different — or a lot different. I’m relishing the opportunity to test out my needs and my ability to meet those needs, with the focus of the job as an anchoring point. 

I need: healthy food and hydration; cardio; yoga and meditation; time with Kevin; balanced connection with my kids (meeting them where they’re at); the give and take of strong friendships; sleep and rest; friction and challenge; to learn new things; creative outlets; appreciation for my work; compensation for my work; a sense of adventure and discovery; to feel purposeful and useful; joy and humour; spiritual connection.

My new job meets the following needs (just by showing up, these needs are met! Amazing!): friction and challenge; to learn new things; appreciation for my work; compensation for my work; a sense of adventure and discovery; to feel purposeful and useful; joy and humour. I sense that friendships may develop through this job as well.

So what’s left out? What needs are not being met at my job and can I find ways to meet these needs in other ways?

Well, I’ve been biking to work — there’s cardio, and I’m planning to get up extra-early to fit in a 30-min run a few times a week on days when I don’t feel like biking. Packing myself good lunches and keeping a water bottle at my desk; plus cooking as therapy when I get home for work — there’s healthy food and hydration. Kevin and I do yoga and meditation together almost every day, first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, and we walk the dog most evenings — there’s time with Kevin, and yoga and meditation, and spiritual connection (at least to some degree). I reach out to friends by text (it’s a great way to stay in touch, especially from afar, and with kids too), and arrange times to meet in person, like a Friday after-work drink, or an early morning walk. Our family eats most suppers together (those living at home, that is). So a lot of the bases are being covered. 

Rest and sleep — working on it! I’m aiming to leave most weekends and evenings relatively open and free. This means cutting back on almost all volunteer work. Cutting out activities that drain my energy, or that I simply don’t have time to complete.

I’m missing creative outlets. 

I have two writing weekends at the farm planned for this fall — so that’s something. But what about daily creative connection? Connection to my writing self? What’s happening in that part of my self? I haven’t felt the urge to write, to start something new, or even to finish the novel project that’s underway. I’ve got a completed manuscript waiting for an editor to read it and reject or accept; touching that part of my life hurts, sometimes. Or I anticipate that it will be painful. Too hard. Unnecessary pain.

But writing and drawing bring me joy — I know that!

So I’m going to test out writing/drawing for 15 mins during my lunch break (first I have to take a lunch break, but this will be motivation!). Rest and restoration — much-needed to avoid burn-out. I’d like to make myself a list of 20 or so prompts that I can cycle through, for days when I’m not feeling inspired to get started (which is most days, these days!). 

I’ll post some prompts here too (next time). Maybe you have a favourite prompt you return to? Let me know, please.

xo, Carrie

Lyrics in my head right now: “Life is a balance, you lose your grip, you can slip into an abyss…” J. Cole, “False Prophets”

You bring light

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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.

xo, Carrie

Sharing good news

The X Page workshop’s 2022 performance of “Voices” is now available to view online. And the stories have been published online in The New Quarterly.

This year’s workshop ran from the beginning of May through the end of July. We met in person weekly, adapting to the changing pandemic protocols during those months. Miraculously, everyone was healthy and able to be present for our final performance at the end of July. It was momentous to be together again, and to experience the warmth and support of an in-person audience. The flexibility and generosity of everyone involved in this project made it all possible.

It is hard to say goodbye — there’s an intensity to the experience, collaboration and shared energy building toward a final goal. It’s thrilling and then it’s over.

We are always looking for ways to extend the project. Last year, we launched a monthly online “writing club,” and I’m looking forward to helping host those meetings starting in September. The writing club is open to all past, present (and future!) X Page participants and team members — essentially, those interested in staying connected or getting involved are welcome.

If you’d like to learn more about the workshop, please visit the website.

xo, Carrie