This, I promise myself, shall be a quick post, written in haste while the bread for our supper bakes.
Yes, I’m onto the sourdough trend, like everyone else on Instagram; and I’m rather chuffed to say I developed my starter from scratch during the early days of this lockdown when it seemed like there was almost nothing to do except huddle-on-sofa-scrolling-the-news and make-your-own-sourdough-from-scratch, and so I did both.
But anyway. We’re past that point at our house, now. I think it’s week 5? We’re into the rhythm of being with each other all the time; and hardly with anyone else. The kids, by some strange miracle, recently started a running club, plus they cleaned the basement, like really cleaned it, like three days’ worth of organizing, purging, rearranging, and decision-making, in order to make a rec room haven. Impressive!
And, at last (and so far!), this has been a good writing week for me, which is more than I can say for all the other weeks. Today, for example, I spent an hour and a half drawing ideas for my 16th century novel. It was an odd way to start my writing day, and not in the least what I’d planned or intended, but it helped. It lit a flame. After lunch, I worked on a chapter from another project. And that’s been the day. What more do I need? It was ever so satisfying. Tangible, calm, simple.
Sit down, do it.
Hey, just realized my recipe for a writing day is kind of like my recipe for sourdough! You mix up a starter. It spend days on the counter. You feed it: flour and water. It ferments and bubbles. When it’s ready, you fold part of it into a bowl with more flour and water. You bake it. You serve it. And you feed the part you didn’t use, so you can use it tomorrow. You do this over and over again. Every day. It’s repetitive. It requires only a few ingredients. Every loaf is a bit different. But every loaf draws on the same bubbling, fermenting starter, and so it’s also of the original source — like every story I write draws on the same bubbling fermenting starter of my mind, and I have to keep feeding it, and I have to keep using it, and it’s exactly that simple. (Oh, and during those times when you can’t use it, you can put your starter in the fridge for awhile and it will wait till you’re ready again.)
Feed it, use it. Feed it, use it. Feed it, use it.
Recipe for a writing life.
PS Here’s today’s loaf, fresh out of the oven! And my post just done! Did you know that if you put your ear close to the bread when it’s fresh out of the oven, you can hear it “singing”? It pops and crackles.
This photo is completely unrelated to this post, and purely for your amusement (or, if you don’t much like dogs in glasses, mine).
This morning, sitting cross-legged and meditating in my friend Kasia’s virtual-yet-live yoga class, my head was quiet with deep and peaceful thoughts. Hours later, though I scribbled a cue for myself in my notebook, the same head seems to be noisy with surface natter.
We’ve entered our fourth week in lockdown, or whatever this is called.
There are times, like during this morning’s meditation, when I feel grounded and calm. But I think my family would likely point to all the times I’ve appeared wild-eyed or grim, or perhaps both in delightful combination.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always intended to improve as life goes on; and how it’s pleasant to consider that hard times can be improving times; but, let’s be honest, hard times also expose fundamental personal weaknesses and flaws in the most obvious and predictable ways. For example, pre-children, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Post-children, I was merely a mild hypochondriac, too focused on my kids’ needs and on our packed schedule to be obsessively tracking and self-diagnosing my own (mostly psychosomatic) symptoms. In the midst of this pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful service beyond the walls of this house, the terrible hypochondriac in me has returned, and she turns up most regularly in the middle of the night.
So … am I improving as life goes on? Or am I regressing?
Am I helper or do I desperately need help?
Maybe it’s both; and maybe it always is, always was, always will be.
This was not the post I’d intended to compose. Instead, as happens when I come to this space, this is the post that wants to be written. This is how writing works, in my experience. It is always a surprise, and, crucially, it’s never a painful or disappointing or scary surprise. I just find it interesting; curious; the strangeness of what’s lurking in my subconscious amuses me. Discovering it makes me feel better.
Recommended new podcast: Sugar Calling (NYT), which is Cheryl Strayed talking to writers, starting with George Saunders, who read out a letter he’d written to his students in which he told them that the job of the writer continues even now (and that we can all do this job): be a witness to this moment. Now isn’t the time for interpretation or elucidation; it’s the time to pay attention to your interior emotional life, to the things you notice around you, to the details. (Honestly, it’s always that time, for a writer; but now is even more keenly the time.)
In that spirit, to finish this post, here are a few small details I’ve recently observed about this time.
I open the snack drawer, hoping to find a stray chocolate almond. I know there won’t be any; they were finished off days ago and Kevin won’t be shopping till at least tomorrow. But I open the drawer in hope. And lo — I discover the very large bag of dried apricots! I’d forgotten about the apricots! The apricots are orange and bright and sweet. And I am happy.
When I wander to the living-room to narrate, unprompted, this tiny emotional journey to my (mostly indifferent) daughters, the elder child lights up: she’s experienced the same hope / disappointment / surprise / happiness each time she opens the snack drawer too.
(At this time, I often wander into rooms to narrate, unprompted, my mundane experiences to whoever is sitting there. I don’t always get a reply.)
A second observation, which I haven’t yet dumped on my children (because I think they will mock me for it), is this little oddity: I’m actually enjoying washing my hands. Multiple times a day. For at least twenty seconds each time. I’ve always washed my hands somewhat obsessively, but after watching a how-to video, I knew I could do even better; however, the thought of all that hand washing, and the actual fact of it, was almost overwhelming. The way thinking about changing your baby’s diapers day after day after day can feel overwhelming if you let your mind go there. The endless futility of the task! Standing there, doing the same thing over and over and over again. I felt impatient every time I squirted soap on my hands, washing, washing, washing.
But more recently, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the hand-washing ritual has become almost welcome. It feels like a deliberate pause, a gentle self-massage, a quiet moment to myself. I plant my feet, and breathe deeply (our soap smells really good). Weird, huh.
My mantra these days (whispered only to myself) is: What’s your rush? What’s your hurry?
That feeling of impatience that arises at various moments throughout the day — I know it’s not coming from my circumstances, because there’s literally nowhere to rush to. So it must be coming from deep within my self. (Where do I think I’m going? Why do I need to get there? What could be better than here and now?) And if I notice this, I can feel my way through it, somehow, to a place where at least for a few breaths, I’m in no hurry at all.
This post is for my dad, who says he likes reading these blog posts (though we also communicate one-on-one). He noticed that I’d had a regular flourishing of posts when the pandemic was first announced and we were suddenly thrown into this strange time of global uncertainty and disruption; and then, I kind of stopped.
It’s been pretty up and down over here. And sharing the downs is harder than sharing the ups. This is not a great time to be a hypochondriac, for example. Is everyone else in a panic when they wake with a runny nose? The anxiety alone causes tightening in my chest. In truth, it’s not that hard for me to stay home with my family. I can easily list five things to be grateful for today! But to be stuck home, sick, would be a totally different story, one I find overwhelming to imagine; just as I find it overwhelming to imagine being a health care worker right now. So, I vacillate between many different emotions, including guilt for enjoying any part of this time.
My mood shifts throughout the day, and from one day to the next. I had a night of shimmering, comforting dreams. The next night, I woke every hour certain something was catastrophically wrong (like, a global pandemic, maybe?). Last night, I slept from the moment my eyes closed till the moment my alarm went off.
I know my mood affects my family’s mood. When I am frightened, anxious, spiralling from too-much-Twitter feed (note to self: remove that app from your phone!), I’m helping no one. I’m seeding worry in our tiny family plot. And, yes, that’s going to happen from time to time. What I’m trying to do, when it does happen, is to recognize that it’s happening, name it, and ask my family for forbearance and forgiveness. Apologize. Accept feedback. Forgive myself. Try again. And do my level best to change the channel by seeking out activities that improve my mindset.
Here are my current top five comfort-giving, mood-boosting, survival-tactic activities:
My first sourdough loaf, six days in the making, an experiment necessitated by the national yeast shortage. Can you believe this loaf is made of flour, water, salt, and time? And that’s all???
One. Baking, cooking, cleaning
I must confess, if I were to get sick and need to self-isolate within our house for 14 days, as the guidelines suggest, my biggest challenge (assuming I was still functioning well enough to stand and breathe), would be to stop baking, cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry. Performing these tasks assures me that I’m nurturing my family, and also that I’m in control of something: keeping the house functioning, relatively smoothly.
On the flip side, maybe I should practice ceding control over some of these tasks, while everyone is home together now?
Two. Meditation and yoga
I have a new best friend. Her name is Adriene, and she posts free yoga on her YouTube channel, and our relationship is entirely one-sided, but feels strangely real at the moment, especially when I sneak away from the family, close the door, and join her for a 20 minute heart-and-hip opening practice, or some such, which inevitably scrolls into another video of whatever yummy-sounding Adriene-offering is popping up next. Combined with my real friend Kasia’s nightly live-streamed yoga classes on Facebook, I’ve been doing excessive amounts of yoga. I’ve also been meditating. A lot. My office, which is tiny, has become a yoga and meditation studio, primarily.
For some reason, I’ve been framing all this yoga and meditation as a guilty pleasure, maybe because it feels really good, and I keep wanting to do more and more of it, and that seems … wrong, under the circumstances? But my eldest daughter pointed out last night that as far as guilty pleasures go, this one is downright healthy, and possibly even healing and helpful. So I’m giving myself the permission to do as much yoga as I need to, to get through the day.
Three. Going outside
I feel better when I’m outside early in the morning, when hardly anyone else is out and about; this is when I’ve been running. I’m nervous about adding any non-essential traffic to the sidewalks and parks right now; but it’s amazing how even a short dog-walk around the block after supper can lift the spirits. The birds are awake and busy. In our backyard this afternoon, I kept kneeling to look at tiny green sprouts unfurling their heads from the ground.
How can we live without fresh air, and sun? It seems essential.
Four. Talking to friends and family
My sibs and I have been meeting on Wednesday evenings for a catch-up. Like everyone else, we’re using Zoom. I also text quite regularly to check in with friends and family. I’m pretty sure this interaction, even from afar, is saving my sanity and restoring my humour right now. I never feel lighter of heart than after I’ve spent some time with my sibs. And feeling light of heart — it’s a challenge right now, I confess.
My kids have their video games. Kevin likes Netflix. Sometimes the two of us watch something together (like Schitt’s Creek on CBC’s Gem; and Sex Education and Feel Good on Netflix) while drinking a beer. (I haven’t taken up video games yet). What got me through some extra-anxious hours recently, however, was the combination of listening to a podcast (on a subject completely unrelated to the pandemic) while playing free-cell solitaire online. Who knew? I also like lounging around reading random articles in The New Yorker, and re-reading comfort-fiction like Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton’s National Velvet. And I’m watching the late-night hosts on YouTube attempting to broadcast, with varying degrees of success, from locations around their houses. There’s also writing & drawing, which should probably have its own separate category; on the rare day I don’t do it, I notice.
In terms of distractions, I know things are bad when I start compulsively scrolling through Twitter; that’s a sign that my anxiety and focus are spiralling dangerously downhill. (Follow-up note to self: remove that app already!) So I’m trying to minimize that form of entertainment, which is actually more of a form of self-immolation.
So that’s my list. What’s comforting you right now?
Five things I am grateful for
1 My kids’ teachers, who have been reaching out to their students with such empathy about the unprecedented collective experience we’re sharing; among their offerings are optional assignments that invite connection with other students, and even breathing techniques for finding calm during anxious moments. Thank you to all the teachers who are doing their best to support their students right now. #education
2 My kids, who have been finding ways to keep themselves soothed and entertained without entirely relying on screens. This includes doing puzzles in their rooms, figuring out how to play Battleship with a friend via FaceTime, practicing piano, baking cookies and sour cherry bread, kitchen clean-up, imaginary games in the backyard, soccer, playing with Rose, drawing with me or painting with Kevin, and above all, accepting the situation rather than fighting it. #parenting
3 Kevin, whose bottomless well of optimism, flexibility and creativity is an especially useful toolbox right now (to mix metaphors!). He’s self-employed, I’m self-employed: generally speaking, we’re both tolerant of risk, practical, disciplined, and comfortable with the necessary short-term pivot in service of deeper, long-term goals. It’s a partnership suited to current circumstances. I’m also thankful that I can tell him what I really think, even if it ain’t pretty. #marriage
4 The pair of cardinals in our front bush, who popped out yesterday as if to say hello, just as I was looking out the front window. The peach-coloured female hopped onto the windowsill and cocked her head, inches from me on the other side of the glass. I held my breath. #nature
5 That everything I’m doing right now feels like it has spiritual purpose: it’s a gift. The focus of my waking hours seems to be to seek the spirit, nourish the spirit, bring forth the spirit, pay attention to all in my life that is spiritual. Practice, pray, reflect, share, write, dream. I’m loving all the online tools available for connecting with others. Sibs night via Zoom. Church service via YouTube and Skype. My friend Kasia’s yoga, live-streamed via Facebook into my tiny peaceful office every evening at 8PM. I have more time to spend meditating every day, accompanied by beautiful poetry podcasts or meditation reflections. It feels like my emotional life is closer to the surface and more visible, plainer, simpler; I feel more vulnerable, but also quieter. Within the restlessness, I’m finding stillness. There isn’t much I can do to help at the moment, except stay home. But that gives me even greater permission (if I need it, and sometimes I do!) to pause, breathe deeply, sense connection, reflect on the ties that bind us together, and pray for the possibility that our global community may unite around principles of mutual protection, dignity and care. #hope
spot the dog
While in this time of strangeness, isolation, social distancing, and hunkering down waiting, waiting, I’m trying to sort out how to get through each day intact, as whole as possible. I’ve been informed by my children that I must must must limit my intake of coronavirus news; and they’re right; and I’m trying.
But I’ve felt distracted, full of questions about what’s right to do, what’s wrong to do, and whether the decisions I’m making are harming or helping our collective cause, and the individual lives in our immediate family. Last week was a whirl of decision-making, including cancelling The X Page’s remaining workshop sessions and the performance, while making plans for publishing the stories. There was a constantly changing flow of information from public health officials and various levels of government. We found out on Thursday that schools would be closed at least till early April; all soccer cancelled too; just last night, it was recommended that all bars and restaurants in Ontario close or move to take-out or delivery only.
And I’m pretty sure the phrase “social distancing” entered my vocabulary less than a week ago, but now we all know it, and we’re trying to practice it, and to understand why, and to explain it to those people in our lives who don’t see what the point is, exactly.
It’s been a bit too much, while also being not nearly enough. Fears: diffuse; particular; unseen.
And now the late-night talk shows have gone off the air, just when I most need their mixture of news, satire, reassurance and comedy!
So here’s what I’m doing to stay afloat, mentally. I’m not saying it’s all working for me, just that these are the lifelines I’m grabbing hold of today, and did yesterday, and in all likelihood will again tomorrow.
Meditation. I have a kneeling bench that my dad made for me a few years ago, which is comfortable to sit on yet prevents me from falling asleep. (An habitual problem.) I recommend The New York Times’s guide to meditation, if you’re just getting started. There are also lots of apps to try out (I like Headspace; it’s not free, but you might be able to access a free trial to see if you like it).
Over on Instagram, Elizabeth Gilbert posted an easy-to-do meditation you can bring into any moment of your day, taking notice of a descending list of things all around you. This is my scribbled version, below, and it’s helped me at least once today when I was waiting to wash my hands, as there was a line-up for the bathroom, and I was feeling irrationally irritated about the waiting:
Podcasts. Below are a few. If you have a favourite, could you please leave your suggestions in the comments? I need more!
The Daily from The New York Times, a podcast that lasts just about long enough for a quick morning run (and, yes, it has been a lot about the coronavirus lately, but the info is solid and trustworthy, not inflammatory).
On Being, a podcast that I sometimes have patience for and sometimes not (it’s dense with spirituality).
Poetry Unbound, a podcast in which a poem is read, discussed, then read again. Episodes are about 11 minutes, the perfect amount of time to sit in quiet mediation.
Dog walks with Kevin and Rose have also been a balm. However, I cancelled a walk with a friend this morning, perhaps an over-reaction? I just don’t know. Does anyone?
Finally, here’s one last lifeline, which I’m hoping to share with my writing friends: daily drawing/writing in my notebook. I haven’t done this yet today, but it’s on my to-do list. (That’s yesterday’s cartoon, above.)
Follow this recipe for 10 minutes of bliss: Put on a song at random from my Lynda Barry playlist on Spotify (which has 64 followers at present!); draw a self-portrait to that song; then write for 3 minutes, answering the question: What’s on Your Mind? Or Why Did This Song Choose You Today?
I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to let others be. How often when I express anger or frustration it’s about a situation over which I have no control. And my anger and frustration is not about the situation, exactly, but about my lack of control.
Knowing that, recognizing it, makes it easier to let go.
You are not responsible for fixing everything.
Saying these words to myself brings a feeling of great calm. I allow myself to let go of even those I love most, of expectations, of desire, of the need to protect, to keep safe, to confirm, to hold, to beg for proof of. I let it be. Whatever it is. I don’t necessarily want to let it be, but I let it be anyway.
In this way, I am able to look directly at what is before me and see it clearly. We find ourselves, often, every day at least, in situations over which we have no control. This is challenging to accept. Challenging to understand. What makes it even more challenging, maybe, is that we live in a culture that prizes control, that sells us a version of reality in which whoever wants it most wins, that tells us that we can improve exponentially if we try and that if we don’t, we aren’t trying hard enough. That a winner wins and a loser loses and those are the only two options. That we just have to set our minds to it. Decide to do it. You can do anything, you just need to work harder, yell louder, demand more, bend the rules if you must, take what you deserve!
No, and no, and no.
Clarity of vision recognizes all that is not ours to claim, to own, to change, to bully into being. And that’s pretty much everything. Anything I bring forth is a gift. It belongs to grace, not to me.
The way that I see it is this: with acceptance comes clarity. When I accept that I inhabit this earthly body and mind for a fraction of time, when I understand how small I am, how easy, then, it is to accept and love not only myself, my tiny precious singular brief flawed radiant self, but also to love and accept all that swims beyond me, beyond my control.
To be aware that I am, in concert and with all others who are, too, who will be, and who were.
Does this mean I will just lie back and gaze at the stars and let life wash over me? Actually, that sounds lovely. Maybe I’ll achieve that level of inner calm and peace someday. Right now, it means that I’m still wrestling with the urge to strive for better and more. But also that I’m finding it ever and ever easier to embrace and celebrate the joy of process. Of being. Of simply being, here, now.
If my calling is to sit with someone I love more than life itself and simply be, if that’s what I’m called to do, that is the highest calling I can imagine.
I also love making things. I love expressing what I’m discovering by making things.
When I write stories, I sit with my characters. I listen to what they’re telling me, I record what I discover. It’s the most joyful work. I feel nothing but wonder that I get to do this work, because it’s wonder I feel as I do it.
I’ve received good news in the past week, news that offers support and external encouragement to keep doing this work. This news fills me with wonder. I cherish it, thank it and welcome it, even while I know that it isn’t of me, it isn’t me. In the presence or absence of news, I continue to do as I’m called to do. I sit with those I love more than life itself and simply be. Thank you, thank you, benevolence and grace.
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