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.
I want to write about how to be, how to get through the days when I’m feeling weak, discouraged, overwrought (or perhaps under-wrought?), weighed down, anxious. I want to know how to be the kind of person who can experience such emotions and somehow surf atop the worries and fears and enjoy the day, nevertheless. There are many things to worry about, after all. The details may change, but there is always a list, available for the mind to scroll through, no matter the season.
Why are some days harder than others? Is it what’s happening externally, or is it how I’m framing things, seeing things, inside my own mind?
I don’t know.
But there is no perfect day, no perfect hour; that I do know. There is no reason to wait.
I lay out the template for survival, for dressing for the weather, for putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. I step into it.
What am I missing? Can I fill a gap, answer a need? Is there something on my mind that I long to say to someone, a message I long to share that is waiting for the right moment to be spoken out loud … or let go of, maybe? Is the sense of fear or worry based on something real? And, if it is based on something real, is it something over which I have control? Would the problem, whatever it may be, be solved or helped by my immediate attention and focus?
Or, is everything actually okay, right now? Or, is it both? Not okay and okay.
How to clear a pathway for the mind to do its work, with clarity? How to be not okay and okay at once?
Not okay: The house smells like skunk and mothballs, the kitchen is somewhat torn apart, there is an excess of cucumbers and zucchini in the refrigerator, someone I love is in pain, I woke every hour last night.
Okay: The dog doesn’t smell too much of skunk, the neutralizing paste mixed up at midnight was quite effective, there is an excess of cucumbers and zucchini, the stove works, I walked with a friend this morning, yoga felt amazing.
The details of our days matter. It’s where we live, after all. Not in some theoretical place, but here, now, with whatever our bodies are telling us. I haven’t cracked the code for how to enjoy every bit of it; that bar is too high. So I tell myself: bring the bar down a bit lower … lower … lower yet … and appreciate what you’re doing on a small scale, how you broached a tough conversation, or bit your tongue, how you looked up new recipes, got creative, took a nap, did what you needed to be more kind.
How can I be more kind? To myself, to everyone else? This is where I begin, over and over again.
I have a wise future self, who I consult sometimes through drawing or writing, or meditation. But I also have a wise past self, who reminds me that there is wisdom in that which has already been discovered, and which I’ve lost track of along the way.
From my notebook, April 10, 2016, written on a writing residency in France:
There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged. Whatever are you make, celebrate its potential to meet someone else in the occasion of their need. Don’t wish you were writing something different. Be at peace with whatever comes from you.
On July 26, I’ll be publishing my new novel, Francie’s Got a Gun, which has a title that’s a little bit terrifying to me, I’ll be honest; but it’s also frank and open about a particular theme that obsessed me when I was writing the very first draft and persisted into the iteration that is coming into existence at the end of next month. The novel is an anti-gun allegory, but the gun also serves as a metaphor for danger, for adult failure, for a problem that’s bigger than a kid can solve. And it asks something else too: Can adults solve these big problems? How do we respond, as a collective, and as individuals, when a child, children, are struggling?
When I wrote the first draft, I had no inkling that a pandemic would disrupt our lives. Even when I wrote the final draft, last summer, I didn’t fully grasp the reverberations and costs of being distanced from each other, so profoundly, for so long. It is only in returning to more normalcy that I can sense my own grief, especially for my children who have had several important years of development stalled or disrupted; I wonder what the consequences are; and I hope for reunion, for occasions at which we can come together, collectively, to celebrate and have fun and be together. Be together. Feel together. Pull together. Thrive together.
Francie’s Got a Gun is about people trying their best, individually, and collectively, to respond to challenges in their midst — within their own families, their closest relationships, their friendships, and their community. They are flawed, or distracted, or struggling, or sheltered, or raw, or imaginative, or hungry, but they’re all hopeful in some way; and they are trying to come together.
This is what I’m thinking about today, on the last day of the month of May, when usually I’d be writing my “May Reflections.”
Here they are, in brief:
What felt good this month? Running in the park. Feeding lots of people around the table. Writing funny scenes in a new novel.
What did you struggle with? How to parent. Setting boundaries. Waking in the middle of the night, mind racing. Disaster thinking.
Where are you now compared to at the beginning of the month? Less certain. More questioning, more worried than I’d like to be. Thankful for my notebook. Thankful for habits that re-set my mind, and direct my focus toward my heart.
How did you take care of yourself? Drawing, writing, attempting to get to bed on time. Good food. Walks with friends. Laughter. Listening to music. Running and yoga. Planting seeds for future social events, big and small. Pouring out my thoughts on paper. Weighing my words and actions. Participating when invited.
What would you most like to remember? What it feels like to soak in the atmosphere at a big, collective event organized for young people: to be specific, yesterday, at my youngest’s junior high track meet — the first meet that’s been held (for my kids anyway) since 2019!
I’ve been doing art therapy for about a year now. At my most recent appointment, the therapist recognized the work I’ve been doing and said that she had seen changes over this past year. She observed that when we started I was struggling to find space for myself, to make space, give myself space, feel deserving or worthy of space. And she thinks that’s changed. I agree. That feeling of worthiness might be the root of other changes I’ve observed, which feel profound; even while I know myself to be the very same person, plagued by the same anxieties and tics and inclinations. I can change and still be familiar to myself; I find this comforting and funny. It’s revelatory and delightful to discover (again and again?) that the self is so sturdy. Being mindful is just a way to observe more closely what I’m feeling and thinking in any given moment, and then I can decide what to do with that information. Mindfulness springs from worthiness: I trust that what I’m thinking and feeling is worthy of my attention. No judgement, no self-castigation, just observation.
It is as simple as that.
Here’s an example. I’m feeling impatient sitting in traffic. I’m going to be late, I think! I can feel my heart rate rising. I’m hitting every red light! I drop an f-bomb. At some point during this mini-escalation, I notice what I’m thinking and feeling. I say (maybe even out loud!), kindly, to myself, hey you seem pretty stressed out. That simple kindness is helpful. Yes, I am stressed out! Now I can assess whether my feelings and thoughts are attached to reality — to what’s actually happening. Am I actually running late? Even if I am running late, is this actually a crisis? (Usually the answer is no, everything is okay.) But there’s an even deeper and more profound question available here, too: Even if this really is a crisis, is this how I want to respond?
Of course not.
Do I have a choice in how I respond?
I believe that I do. I believe that I can laugh (lovingly) at my frailties and weaknesses, I can appreciate the vulnerable anxious impulsive human I am — the impatience, the rising heart rate, the swearing — and I can speak kindly to myself, and notice that everything is okay, right now. It’s always the right now in which I’m living. It’s amazing how this frees me to settle in and appreciate what’s happening, right now. I’m at a red light, but I can sing along to the radio, I can look out the window and see what’s there to be seen. There’s always something there to be seen, heard, felt, wondered about. The world is an amazing mystery that’s always present, available to be experienced, observed, cherished.
Thankfulness just wells up naturally when this shift in perspective happens — and I can be thankful and surprised and renewed by the world’s wonders, over and over again. It never gets old.
A few more changes I’ve observed:
I’ve stopped enforcing rules I don’t believe in.
If I don’t want to do something, I say so. Often someone else can do it instead. If not, I figure out how to make the task more enjoyable. By taking on less of the things I don’t want to do, I’m able to give more freely. A paradox. The way that being kinder to myself makes me inclined to be kinder to others.
I pay attention to a feeling I call “the shame sandwich.” Sometimes I wake up feeling like I’ve eaten a shame sandwich. What I know about shame: it’s attached to deeply rooted fears, specific to my life experiences. If I can identify the trigger, this helps me be kind to myself and the feeling tends to resolve. Shame makes it harder to be kind to myself, so it’s important to notice when I’ve eaten the sandwich.
I am kinder to myself. I know that I can’t do everything, and also that I’m not responsible to solve most things. I can help you find your lost book, and pick you up from piano lessons, but I can’t tell you how to be the person you want to be. I shouldn’t be trying to tell you that anyway. I’ll just love you, and care about you, for being who you are. I’ll pay attention to what interests you. I’ll ask questions and listen. I’ll find ways to connect that meet you where you’re at, wherever that may be. I won’t ask you to change, because I think you are sacred and amazing, exactly as you are.
I’ll hold you lightly. As lightly as I hold myself.
One last change I’ve observed: I let myself feel happiness. I know that I’ve been afraid in my life to feel happiness, to fully experience it, that I tamped the sensation down, afraid of being up too high and floating away, or afraid of what would happen when the feeling went away. I’m not letting those fears stop me from feeling happiness anymore. I think that by feeling happiness, I will feel it more often, in more situations: this glorious sensation of wellness and wholeness, and lightness. I’m willing to test this theory out.
Life. It’s bigger. It’s bigger than you and you are not me. The lengths that I will go to. The distance in your eyes. Oh no I’ve said too much. I haven’t said enough.
Fellow Gen Xers probably recognize that song (REM’s “Losing My Religion”). I don’t know why exactly it came to me as I sat down to write about Life. Maybe because it’s bigger. It’s bigger than it’s been, anyway, even after weeks of recovery (or maybe especially after that). I’m making plans, though they may change last-minute. My plans are mere sketches, a few chords on which to improvise; they delight me.
Last week, I took a spontaneous trip to Toronto on the train. Got me some vocal cord physio and an intensive on how to use my voice, in preparation for reading the audiobook version of my new novel (!!!!). Reading the audiobook goes on my bucket list (I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did …). Recording in studio is set to start next week. While in Toronto, I also visited my sister and her delightful pup (pictured below). I saw a man dance with a pigeon on the subway (not pictured). My eyes were overwhelmed by the sights out the train window. I was in bliss. It was exactly what I needed. Good medicine.
This weekend we hosted family. I didn’t feel like cooking, so I asked my eldest to make the scalloped potatoes — and he did! On Monday our second-eldest kid moved back home from residence, so the house was fuller when we woke up this morning. And our Open House for the 2022 X Page Workshop is tomorrow evening. In person! I feel myself buzzing with energy and new life. It’s not anxiety, it’s excitement. It’s a desire for connection that’s leaping out of me, off my skin, I can almost see it flashing from me in pinging waves, or like antennae reaching out. I don’t think I’ve turned into an extrovert during the pandemic, but I’ve clearly built up some extra space for social interaction.
Something I’m noticing about myself, as I return to life, bigger, is that I love being the still centre of a whirl — the ringmaster at the circus. Does this mean I enjoy stirring things up? I don’t know. I hope not. It isn’t conflict I’m after, but contact, connection, a performance that’s almost entirely improvised and feels natural because it relies on mutual trust, and self-trust.
This reflection came from a recent 100-day creativity prompt …
A list of things that are true about me.
I’m on day 2 of listing things. Here’s day 1 —
1 I love being the still centre of a whirl — the ringmaster at the circus
2 I am happiest when I am with people
3 I am trying to become less controlling
4 I love relating to teenagers — I think it’s an especially beautiful, searching, changing, vulnerable time of life
5 I experience big swings of emotion
6 Writing fiction is a form of therapy, for me
7 I love the feeling of trusting myself, it feels like a safety net into which I can fall
8 Discovering I’ve hurt someone is incredibly painful news and I resist hearing it, and/or respond defensively, and/or torture myself for it
9 I can be very self-pitying
10 I am oddly comfortable at the front of the room
11 I love learning new things and challenging myself to leave my comfort zone
12 My first instinct isn’t always right
13 I value strong relationships built on mutual trust, and care
14 I am not perfect at all
The last time I did this exercise was at the end of April (I’d just gotten my first dose of vaccine, and we were in full lockdown in Ontario, kids home from school, nowhere to go, almost all connections happening online). Anyway, at the end of May, I just forgot to check in, and by the time I’d remembered, it was the middle of summer. And now summer is over. Seems like a good time to take the temperature.
What felt good this month? At the beginning of September, we were still at the cottage. I was blissed out and unconnected from the “real world”; the re-entry back to school, children moving out, work commitments was steep, brisk, and sometimes brutal. But I’ve kept some important habits from the cottage days, especially habits of mind and routine. I do yoga every morning. And I’ve been establishing boundaries around my working hours, recognizing how important it is to say “this is a day for catching up on reading,” or “this is a writing week,” or “Sunday is for resting.” So it’s been a productive month. Best of all, I’ve been able to run regularly, and without pain. I do not take this for granted! I savour every stride. (Blog post on this to come!)
What did you struggle with? Changes, changes, changes. Kids growing up. How to be a supportive parent to teenagers. Plus the usual ever-needed inner work to address self-doubt, anxiety, fears. But I’ve been more deliberate about talking to a counsellor, journaling, and saying the hard parts out loud, and that’s helping. It also helped to listen to several recent On Being podcasts, including one with Stephen Batchelor called “Finding Ease in Aloneness,” where he talked about never being finished. That idea was oddly comforting to me. If I don’t have to worry about getting to some imaginary finish line, I’m free to enjoy the scenery.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I’m not at the cottage, but even here at home, I’ve been careful not to overload my plate, and I’m feeling relaxed. I have time to do the things that matter to me. I’m meeting deadlines. I’m taking concrete, practical steps to make certain dreams a reality. I’m cooking excellent homemade meals using fresh veggies from our CSA boxes. I’m reaching out to people who matter to me. Cases here in Ontario, and locally, remain low. I’m cautiously optimistic that vaccines and other measures are helping, a lot, and my outlook is: let’s enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it.
How did you take care of yourself? In so many ways! A highlight this month has been early morning back yard yoga with my friend Kasia (check out her in-person and online offerings this fall!). Am I binging on self-care? So be it. I’m calmer, kinder, more compassionate, and I see that daily in my interactions with my kids and others. I’ve been thinking that care / self-care really is a practice. It has the potential to extend into everything you do. For example, on this morning’s run, I passed a woman who was smoking, and my first thought was judgemental, pretty harsh and self-righteous if I’m being perfectly honest, something along the lines of you’d be much happier and healthier if you’d just quit smoking and try running; and then I thought, what if instead of this judgement, I poured out care onto this stranger, even just in my thoughts? What if I thought toward her, this stranger, you are worthy, exactly as you are. Oddly, it boomeranged back, and I felt kinder toward myself too. You are worthy echoed through my thoughts, for her, for myself.
What would you most like to remember? That I live in an imperfect country, on stolen land, where for 150+ years it was government policy to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their families to live in residential “schools” under the pretence of education, and with the aim of destroying family connections, and eradicating Indigenous cultures and languages (thankfully, these cultures and languages survived, which speaks to their resilience, to the depths of their roots). But the abuse, the cruelty, the deliberate ignorance, the greed, the evil … this is Canada’s legacy, too, as much as we want to imagine ourselves tolerant, prosperous, peaceful, and open-minded. Let’s be honest about who we are! The reverberations are ongoing. There’s too much to say here, and I’m not the one to be saying it, but it’s what I want to remember, every day, and especially today: the first time Canada is marking a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. I’m home alone, thinking about what Canadians could learn, and how our country could be changed, even healed, if we listened.
What do you need to let go of? I need to let go of my fear of being judged. Of being wrong. Of getting something wrong. I need to accept that I will definitely, absolutely, guaranteed get some things wrong, especially when stepping outside my comfort zone. Okay. Exhale. I don’t want to live in my comfort zone. I want to be broken open, to see the world through others’ eyes, to connect, to learn, to care more not less. Oh how I hate doing something, anything wrong. But if I give in to self-loathing and perfectionism, I’m paralyzed. I’d rather try than hide.
PS I highly recommend taking the virtual tour at the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School, which is facilitated by the Woodland Cultural Centre. It’s an eye-opening walk through the longest-running residential school in Canada’s history, located in Brantford, Ontario. (Or donate to them; the educational work they’re doing is heart-rending and invaluable.)
CBC Radio is also running programming all day today, so listening to Indigenous voices and stories is as easy as turning on your radio, or you can stream it online through the link.