- What felt good this month? Being outside! The weather has been splendid (I live for the heat), and our back yard is inviting, lush, pretty, full of birds and wild critters (including skunks, but that discovery goes into a different category). I’ve been running regularly, never more than 5km, always early in the morning through the park. This past week, CJ and I have been on almost-daily bike adventures, on paths and trails and quiet streets throughout the city (and I’m so glad he’s still happy to go on adventures with me!). Annie and I do yoga outside every morning, and it’s bliss to lie back and look at the sky. Our family has been using the gazebo area to entertain friends, socially distanced, of course; meeting face-to-face is so much sweeter than Zoom, though I’ll continue to appreciate Zoom for making it possible to see each other when it isn’t otherwise feasible. We’ve been camping, we’ve lounged at the beach. Bottom line: I’m drinking up this season, positively gorging on it, while it lasts.
- What did you struggle with? Resigning from coaching soccer. It was a painful decision. But I wasn’t comfortable returning to the field this summer, and I had to make the call one way or the other. I’m a big believer in finishing what you start, and in not bailing on commitments even when it gets hard; but ultimately it didn’t feel like I was being asked to do what I’d signed up for. In truth, my decision came from deep in my guts, and when a decision rises from there, it’s important to listen. So I said goodbye to the players; with gratitude for other coaches willing to step in. For someone who has difficulty saying “No,” this has been a valuable process to work through. My mental health seems more stable this month, too, and I wonder whether the looming return-to-play was weighing more heavily on my mind than I was willing to acknowledge at the time.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? More chilled-out. I’ve been reading lots of books, and napping on the couch. Less Twitter too! Haven’t written much new material in the past two weeks … but it hasn’t felt imperative. What feels imperative is feeding my mind with new ideas, hanging out with my kids, seeing friends, sticking to an early morning exercise routine. To everything there is a season. I’m submitting to the flow.
- How did you take care of yourself? This month, I continued to tend to my physical and mental health. I’ve been countering negative thoughts with journaling. I try to notice when I’m being unkind to myself, and to assess whether it’s accurate or based on an irrational or subconscious pattern of thought. I’m doing tons of stretching and strengthening (physio homework). Texting/talking with friends is also good self-care, I realize. I’ve been telling my body how much I appreciate it. I’ve been trying to apply the idea of acceptance as a form of love to myself, as well as to my loved ones. Don’t we all just want to be loved and appreciated for who we are, flaws and all? Becoming takes a lifetime. We’re all going it at our own pace, so let’s walk there together, in kindness and generosity.
- What would you most like to remember? Standing in the driveway, listening to my mom tell stories about her past. Biking behind CJ as he learns to lead the way. Laughing around the campfire. Wind blowing through open car windows. The comet shining like a flashlight in the night sky. The sound of many many birds. Being in motion, going somewhere, even if just around the block. The sky.
- What do you need to let go of? Anxiety, especially about everything that’s out of my control. Maggie Nelson writes about “prophylactic anxiety” in her book The Argonauts (her marvellous, genre-defying, mind-stretching book). In fact, I’m noticing that it’s her own mother who cannot escape from this need to anticipate and rehearse for the very worst, at all times. Maggie Nelson quotes Freud’s definition of anxiety: “Anxiety describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one.” My kids have been helping me notice the many ways in which I apply prophylactic anxiety, which I’ve preferred to call “vigilance,” to a multiplicity of situations in our shared lives. But you know—one cannot be ever-vigilant, ever-watchful. I cannot be. It’s a poor state in which to live one’s life. There’s no fun in it; dire warnings aren’t fun to broadcast or receive, and all but the most crucial are probably counter-productive. Is it the responsibility of a mother to prevent disaster? I feel quite certain that this has been the standard you-are-a-mother-and-this-is-your-job messaging. But maybe, just maybe, it’s not.
The bugs whirring in the trees. The sound of wind through branches. Cars and trucks grinding by on the nearby streets. I am gliding through these days. Maybe I want to keep this time, but maybe I also want to let it be. Let it roll like weather, let myself rest in the grass and look at the sky, so different every time, completely clear this morning with sunlight at the tips of the trees, the leaves lit from behind, green etched on pale blue.
I am waiting to discover something—what?—new?—about myself? about my purpose? about what I might become? I wonder why I always feel so sure that I am becoming—it seems so optimistic; because of course I am so sure that what I am becoming will be an improvement on this present iteration of self.
I’ve noticed that my flaws are magnified by this time of intense closeness with my little family unit. There are fewer of the everyday, outside, fleeting social interactions that help me to see myself differently; at home, my relationships tend to be more raw, less inhibited by boundaries and graces. In the outside world, I perform civility. Home is where I let my hair down (or wind it into a messy bun, more often!), seen only by those closest to me, who are also most bound to me and therefore most forgiving. Within these close relationships, I see reflected my limitations, my tendencies, my patterns, my behavioural tics and triggers. In truth, it is more often than not painful, humbling.
The question presents itself almost non-stop: Do I want to change? And if the answer is yes, what would I like to become, if not this?
Also, acceptance: this is what I’ve got to build upon.
This weekend, I listened to this On Being interview from 2013 with John Lewis. I’ve been thinking a lot about non-violent resistance, and what it means; and its relationship to my faith and faith tradition in the Mennonite church. I am planted in this soil. Here are my roots. How do I flower and grow and express “love in action”? The idea of resistance infers that against which you must resist—there is an implied relationship, a force that is pushing back. What John Lewis seemed to know is that in order for “good trouble” to bear fruit, you must present yourself at the edge, where you can meet resistance. You must be morally unassailable, dignified, restrained, patient, but also forgiving (of yourself and others). Non-violent resistance is hard, it requires self-discipline, rehearsal, practice (you learn to protect your head with your arms, you learn to curl into a ball on the ground, in practical terms). To win the moral battle, which may or may not move you closer toward your goal, you must be spiritually prepared to suffer. But to meet resistance effectively, you also need clarity of mission. The thing against which you are resisting must be clearly in view.
I’ve been thinking, too, that I lack clarity of mission. I don’t know my own goals. And this is why it feels like I’m waiting. (I’ve also been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and thinking about the many ways in which human beings cause each other pain and are hurt, despite our best intentions, despite trying to protect ourselves; and how powerless that can make us feel, to act, to respond, to seek out relationship with others.)
re resistance, re mission, re goals, just found this in my notes: I still need to write that blog post about the flaws in the system. Which flaws? Which system?
Too many flaws, too many systems.
On this subject, more to come. But I shall spare you and stop here for now.
A marvellous way to escape from the stasis and repetition of the everyday is by reading books. I’ve been reading more books these days than I have for a very long time, reading not merely for professional purposes, but as a fan.
And I just want to say: Read, friends, read!
Read a book! You won’t regret it! Sink in, let your brain get accustomed to taking the long, slow, scenic route instead of scrolling yourself down an endless wall of text. This might sound like self-serving advice, but really, I feel born-again.
Read a book!
It’s an immersion in a way that other forms of “entertainment” and learning are not, because it also involves engagement, as your mind works to build worlds and make connections. There are ideas and images forming inside your brain—new to you, exciting, challenging, alarming, frustrating, fresh and unknown—as you follow the line of words across the page. These brand-new images are transferred into the landscape of experiences, memories, and images that already belong to you. Connections between these worlds pop and crackle and spark something that has the potential to feel revelatory and transformative (at best), or at least interesting, different from your usual point of view.
Inside your mind, as you read a book, you’re actively creating something that is both collaborative and personal. You’re reading something written in a different time that is speaking to where you are right now (or attempting to). I think this is why it can feel like you know an author really well—because you’ve actually made something together when you read their book, even when you’re collaborating across cultures, languages, places, and times.
This past weekend, in related news, we camped at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, and went to the beach. And we read books. I even stayed up late one night to finish a conventional but highly entertaining murder mystery, borrowed from my brother (Ann Cleeves, The Long Call). I’d finished the book I’d brought camping (Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day), a book with which I had an ongoing argument, as it featured wealthy white British characters, several of whom were artists; at times, I strongly disliked everything about the book, but then bits seemed to capture something important about creating art, especially as a woman, and how valuable it is to have a champion, especially a patron with money and influence, but also how dangerous. In the end, it was the engagement with ideas, the argument with the book itself, that kept me transported and hooked.
Books transport me in so many different ways. Reading Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You brought me into characters who broke my heart, and with whom I craved even more time, and afterward I wanted to talk about these people like they were real; reading Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was both accusation and encouragement to reflect on my own transactional relationships, even while it pulled me along with a propulsive plot; reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed stirred up a mixture of emotions, including the desire to protect this seemingly vulnerable writer from her own blind spots, and respect for occasions of raw insight.
I’ve just started Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and already I feel like the top of my head has been lifted to make room for more seeing, more questions, more ways to jab at and unpeel my identity, my ways and means of performing myself.
Writing is not a glamorous job. Progress is made at a glacial pace, if what you’re doing can be even be seen as progress; it might be more rightly called meandering, looping, wondering, wandering. You can’t see what you’re making. You can’t know how it will be received, if it ever gets loose, let alone completed. You don’t know what arguments a stranger might have with what you’ve conjured on the page.
It often doesn’t feel like important or valuable work; certainly it doesn’t feel very useful a lot of the time. But when I read books, I know exactly why I write, and why I’ve chosen this wondering, wandering path. When I read, I feel belonging and expansion, both, at once. When I write, I feel like a giddy participant in a long, ongoing conversation about being alive, being a part of it all, in my own time and place and body, right now.
Right now, Canadian publishing is suffering. (Read this, if you want to know more about the nitty-gritty business of the industry.) But listen up, friends! If you’re lucky, you still have an independent bookstore operating despite the pandemic, and they’re the ones (according to the cited article) who have the potential to keep this fragile/tough cultural industry alive. All the books mentioned above (and many more!) were purchased at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo. Order online, pick up in the alley behind the store; or they deliver locally. Do a bit of searching. Find what’s available near you. There are many independent options other than Amazon, and these options are run by people who love books, too. They love reading. They believe in the collaboration between words on the page and individual minds. They want to challenge your horizons, send you on adventures, keep you up late at night. Amazon’s algorithm just wants to sell you more of the same.
Those are my thoughts for today. More ideas, coming soon.
I wasn’t in a good cartooning mood yesterday. But I wanted to capture this quotation from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton, which I was reading. So I sat down and wrote it out, arranging the words on the page as if they were a poem. I started by writing the words in non-photo blue pencil, and inked them in afterward. I was quite sleep-deprived, and realized only later, when reading over my efforts, how many “typos” I’d made. So it wasn’t a good cartooning day. To cartoon, you need patience, focus, concentration. In keeping with my word of the year, I’m trying to pay attention to what manifests, in order to understand what’s underneath. In all honesty, I might not have noticed I was lacking those traits yesterday if I hadn’t tried to cartoon.
In conclusion, I need more sleep. I have been trying to get 7 hours of sleep each night, consistently; trying and failing, I must add. I’m addicted to early morning exercise. It’s my bliss. And that means getting to bed earlier. Which means turning off my phone earlier, and climbing into bed with a book. Like the one in which I found the words I felt compelled to record, above. But I confess it’s a hard habit to change — to read a book instead of scrolling though social media feeds. The latter offers the illusion of connection, and sometimes, in the case of Twitter, a steady stream of outrage that temporarily livens my brain; but also drains me of real purpose, or the desire to act in real, tangible ways.
When I read, especially fiction, I transcend the body I’m in and become familiar with other bodies, other realities, through immersive sensory perceptions. I see through other eyes. And in this exchange, I often feel seen, or feel able to see myself more clearly. That is how I felt reading the passage above: It says what I cannot.
Reading it, I wanted to write out the words so I could keep them in tangible form. The words called out from me a response. Which led me here. Which is, where, exactly? Sitting at my desk on a dull Saturday afternoon, the first day of February, my fingers smelling of peeled garlic, not vacuuming or cleaning the bathrooms, composing a small gathering of thoughts for release, winging out into the ether.
One final thought: I write fiction to know how others are, in large part because “I realize I don’t know how others are.” But one of the oddest things I’ve discovered while writing a collection of autobiographical stories, is that I also don’t know how I am. Fiction is a necessary construction, and sometimes it becomes a mirror. A fictional character, like Lucy Barton, can say what we cannot because as a projection of her author’s imagination she is elaborately protected from the particular dangers of human pain, and this makes her free, as a character, to reveal what our human minds protect us from most vigilantly — her ambiguities, confusion, contradictions, the places where she gets stuck, the ways in which she hurts others, her lies and her truths. We see her, and we see ourselves more clearly for a moment, too.
There are times, unexpected —
I’ve been wandering through a book kindly sent to me by my Canadian publisher, Anansi, called The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, by Sharon Blackie. One of her suggestions is to find a place to return to, daily if possible, outside somewhere. A place where you can sit and simply be, and observe the natural world around you.
At first, I fantasized about biking or walking to a nearby park to sit beside the little creek that runs through it. But after several days of not biking or walking to the park to do this, I recognized that, as is often the case, fantasy and reality are two divergent paths. I do love my fantastical life, as lived in my imagination, but down here in reality, setting into action even small life changes requires a different toolbox.
Let me back-track.
I’ve just finished a three-day workshop on instructional skills (teaching skills), which was intensive, immersive, challenging, and rewarding. My takeaway could apply to life as surely as it applies to lesson-planning: to meet your objective, you need to identify it clearly, and create a process that leads you toward it.
So if my objective or goal is to sit outside in nature, and specifically, to find a place that I can return to daily if possible, what process would lead me toward that goal?
The answer turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, in this example. Best of all, it emerged naturally. After several days of not biking or walking to the park, one morning last week, I went to the back yard and sat down on a stump. Something must have called to me. I’d just walked my youngest up to meet his friends before school and instead of going into the house as usual, I went into the yard. The dog was with me, the air was sweet and temperate, and the buds were at their very newest, just barely emerging in a soft fuzz of yellow and green overhead. I took off my sandals and sat with bare feet in the grass. I closed my eyes. I listened to the birds and the traffic, and the jingle of the dog’s collar.
Aha. I’d found my spot, my place outside in nature to which I could return almost daily.
So I’ve been returning, not quite daily, but often enough to see already small changes in the grass and weeds and flowers. Today, I opened my eyes after a ten-minute meditation and thought, This is my work, too.
It might not look like work. And it might not register as work, because it is so full of pleasure. But I know that in order to write, to create, and yes, to teach, I must be contemplative. I must reflect. I must be quiet and listen and observe and watch, and be. In this quiet place — quiet on the inside, I mean — such wonderful fantastical ideas play across my mind. So much of my work happens in the imagination. So it is inevitable that some of these ideas will capture my interest enough to be named as possibilities to pursue here in the real world.
The process by which these possibilities are achieved seems to me both practical and mysterious. We are ever-changing, and our needs and interests are ever-shifting. The process by which we move toward goals, and the goals themselves, also change and shift, as they must; often unconsciously. I like when I can recognize what’s happening and celebrate it. I like when I can recognize what I want to have happen, and can tweak my daily routine to see it come about.
Exercise is one area where it’s been easy for me to set goals and achieve them. These goals have changed and continue to change, affected by injury, age, and intention. I am aware of both the changing nature of my goals, and of the changing processes required to meet them. Therefore, I feel ease and flexibility in my approach. Parenting is the same for me, somehow; ever-changing, but replete with clear objectives: to support and to love. The work might be hard, but the meaning of the work is clear.
Naming a goal is perhaps the most difficult step. Narrowing it down. Understanding it, understanding why you want this particular change, or outcome. Committing to it. Why do I want to sit quietly in nature as often as possible? Immediately, answers float to the surface. Because it calms me, because it connects me to something bigger than myself, because it clears my mind. It helps me to see the bigger picture. It feeds my spirit.
What if I were to name a different goal: to publish another novel. I’ll confess that my motives feel less clear in this example, even though the goal appears straightforward. Certainly, I understand the process. But the underlying objective, the greater why of it all, eludes and troubles me; no doubt it’s different now than it was when I first published. And so I wonder … Is it to further my professional career, both as a writer and a teacher? Is it to share knowledge in a creative way? To entertain an audience? Is it to earn a living? Is it to publicly express ideas important to me that can’t be otherwise expressed? Is it to garner attention and feed my ego? (How I fear this last intention, how I fear it might be a secret intention I hide even from myself.)
It seems to me that writing a novel expresses a different intention than publishing a novel. I’m at ease with the former; I’m uncomfortable with the latter.
Yet I want to name it as a goal. I want to publish another novel.
I want to learn from the process, again, how to go forth into the world carrying an idea, and how to share it openly, generously, without fear or shame. I want, also, to polish an idea until it becomes a publishable book, full of breathing characters that live beyond me.
Somehow, my body understands that sitting quietly on a stump is part of the process that will lead me there.
In the past couple of creative writing courses I’ve taught, I’ve devoted an entire class to listening to and writing fairy tales. Why? Sometimes I introduce an exercise without fully understanding its necessity, until I’ve been through it several times. After my fairy tale class yesterday, my brain was spinning, like I’d learned how to spin flax into gold. I may not entirely understand why the fairy tale is so valuable to listen to and enter into, but I’m getting closer.
Fairy tales are full of archetypal imagery: images that are powerful and timeless, even if they may be interpreted differently by different cultures and in different eras. Brothers and sisters; transformations; talking beasts; wise women and witches; kings and queens; red shoes; axes; forests; water. As we wrote our own fairy tales, some of these images no doubt found their way into our stories, and we knew they had meaning beyond themselves, we understood it at gut level. A dark forest conjures a meaning different from a river; the moon means something different from the sun; the power of a witch is different from the power of a king or a queen. Maybe we also understood that the meaning of these images was somehow malleable, too, and that we could work with it, we could subvert it, we could make it our own—we understood that meaning shifts. Sometimes it’s even our duty to shift meaning or fight against it.
Fairy tales are by their nature grim, even gruesome; the characters suffer horrors and sorrow that is difficult to comprehend. And yet the stories are told in a way that makes them enjoyable to listen to—not frightening, but compelling. One of the hardest tasks as a writer is to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader: fairy tales do exactly that. How do fairy tales protect us, even as they reveal traumatic narratives? Perhaps it is in part our detachment from their one-dimensional characters. But I think protection also relies on the use of archetypes to contain and control horror, and shape meaning.
What is the difference between meaning that is political or ideological and meaning that is literary? The world is not magical. In other words, what happens to us is not meaningful, in and of itself. We make it magical: we create the meaning. We impose shape onto the events we witness, onto our own experiences, onto the random gathering of routines, activities, sights and sounds, interactions and reactions that make up our lives—much of what falls through and into our lives is like the weather, out of our control. This could be terrifying, paralyzing. It is not a truth our brains accept easily; in fact, our brains are built to create narrative to explain the randomness, to comfort ourselves, in order to survive and to thrive. The same source of comfort drives our impulse toward religion, politics, and poetry: narrative. We need narrative because we need meaning. Meaning comes from shape, pattern, images that carry thematic weight, from threads being pulled together to weave a tapestry that is so satisfying to our brains that we don’t care that it’s not real because it feels real—it feels as it should.
Why do we seek to understand the motive of a man wielding an AR-15 in a church? (I’ve been wondering and wondering about this, because in my opinion, trying to pin down a motive in cases like this is a waste of our collective energy; but most news media would disagree.) There may be a fundamentally human reason driving this search: because without motive there’s no sense of cause and effect, there is only shapeless unformed chaos resulting in death and grief. Audiences want their stories to make sense, and the news media are storytellers and we are their audience. Think of all the different ways we impose narrative on the world around us—my interest is largely literary, but political narratives are inevitable and create competing storylines that truly fail to intersect. Some narratives exclude, lock out, imprison rather than connect.
How can literary narratives help us? By creating empathy—through windows and doors, through the lens of another’s eyes. By refusing to be ideological. By appealing to our human frailty and flaws—by showing us our possibilities and our hopes, and our failures. By releasing us from our humanness, too, sometimes, the way that fairy tales do. Fiction is inherently unrealistic (even so-called realism). Fiction will always be much more and much less than reality is—it contains both too much or too little of reality to be real. Fiction is interpretation. Fiction pushes the writer to identify what matters in whatever moment is being described. It creates magic inside of us all of a sudden! We become magical when we write and also when we read, because we are transforming what is into what could be—a recreation that has substance, shape, and meaning.
Something from something, as Etger Keret writes.
I wrote this in a white heat of emotionless thought after yesterday’s class, as if it were tearing from me whole: the reason I write, the power of writing, the value of it.
“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside of us.” – Silvana Ocampo
Write these words on my heart.
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