Where am I? Where do I place myself? How much say do I have in where I’m placed?
In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn titled “Longing for Light,” that has the line: “Make us your bread, broken for others, shared until all our fed.” It feels like a very Mennonite sentiment. It rings true, it compels me: this desire to use one’s energy and work for a purpose that helps others, or serves others. But, I wonder, do I need to be broken to be of service? If I’m broken like bread, turned to crumbs, what then?
It’s an old puzzle, I think, trying to figure out how to give without depletion. I’d hoped and believed that I had the tools and skills necessary to make the job in the office sustainable. But I did not. This has left me feeling like a failure. What I’ve failed to do is to work within my means, at a job that I truly loved doing; instead, I kept burning all available fuel, day after day, till it was becoming harder to be kind, especially to myself.
I’m in a school library now, as of this week. It’s quieter, but students will come and fill it with noise. It’s a different job, easier. It’s only day two, but I’m not a zombie when I walk out of the building. “I didn’t rescue anyone today!” I texted to Kevin after work on Monday. His reply: “Just yourself.”
What will I do with more energy, again? Do I have the self-control not to get myself into trouble, the patience not to sign myself up for other jobs and volunteer positions till I’ve got no space to think again? I’ve missed having the bandwidth to write. I’ve missed writing. My thoughts are clearer on the page. Contradictory impulses: I don’t want this spare energy to go to waste; I don’t want to be used up till I’m nothing but crumbs.
I want to do no harm. I want to serve others. I want to live with ease. I want to share joy.
What I learned in the office job is how to ask questions. Ask and ask till I could be sure I understood what the other person wanted or needed. What is being asked of me? It isn’t always so clear. I learned that I’m steady in a crisis—focused, calm, decisive, very present. I’m a good listener, when very present. I would like to combine these skills with training that would place me in a job or occupation that calls on them, regularly, while giving me some power to solve or resolve the problems being presented.
It’s quite possible that no job or occupation has the power to solve or resolve problems—or not to satisfaction, not the problems that are unfixable. But I’d like to try. Not to demand perfect or ideas solutions, but to move in practical ways toward wholeness, support, improved states of mind, healthier relationships.
Where will I place myself?
So much depends upon that. I feel it very strongly. Where I place myself—where I’m placed, physically, in the world—changes the possibilities that open (or close).
As a writer, it has seemed there are fewer opportunities to be placed, to find a place, especially in the company of others. My kids are growing up, and out of the house. I need to be placed with people, with strangers, with colleagues, with a crowd, children or teens or adults, young and older and old, or a mixture; friction, conflict, noise, laughter, issues raised, questions, needs to be met, time to be managed, hands held, stories heard.
My job-job has given me that—a place. Many places, in fact. Many different people to interact with. I’m currently placing myself part-time in a school library. That leaves space to be placed somewhere else, too, or to work/train toward a different kind of placement. I would like to explore working in a context that involves conflict—defusing it, specifically, and helping those caught up in conflict to move toward resolution.
Longing for light. Longing to be light—lighter in spirit, light-hearted, light on the path.
It’s okay to be okay.
Is it vulnerable to confess that I am happy, content, that I feel cherished and full of gratitude? It feels that way sometimes. Or it feels like I’m tempting fate. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone or it will get taken away. I wonder why. I wonder why there is pressure to confess only the misery and pain and missteps, as a signal of vulnerability and openness and being human, rather than the joy? But both are true of being human: we know joy and contentment too. I wonder why I would ever feel guilty for or superstitious about being content? Yet, it’s there. Like I’m bragging, maybe? Like I’m setting up a comparison that might make someone else feel less than? Like I deserve to be taken down a notch.
Be that as it may, I want to spread the word that it’s okay to be okay. It’s okay to be okay with all the feelings. It’s okay to ask for what you want. It’s okay to declare that you need a personal time-out to cool down. It’s okay to look around and say, hey, this is pretty sweet.
This morning, I created a word-storm. I invite you to do the same. The prompt is: WORDS THAT FEED ME.
Useful, worthwhile, care, purpose, value, meaningful, attention, calm, observant, responsive, kind, fun, joyful, clear, open, wonder, curious, grace, gratitude, improvisation, generosity, spirit, longing, prayer, adventure, trust, serve.
To each of these words, an image or images attach.
USEFUL: I’ve struggled with this word, yet it comes to mind first. It’s connected to WORTHWHILE, VALUE, SERVE. My Mennonite words. Is spending a year drawing cartoons useful? Well, who is to say it’s not? I’m beginning to learn with my whole body that useful is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe I drew cartoons for a year in order to become the person that I am right now: someone who values PLAY and creativity in others, and knows how to make space for it. It’s okay to be okay — I don’t need to apologize or explain to anyone why something is or has been useful to me. TRUST.
CARE: I love this word. I have a friend who always calls me “Care Bear.” It was my childhood nickname too, bestowed on me by my brother, who is the king of nickname-bestowing (it’s a gift!). CARE is connected to MEANINGFUL, ATTENTION, WONDER, CURIOUS, GENEROSITY, SPIRIT. I’m learning that it’s okay to be okay with caring deeply; but I’m also learning how to set boundaries, so my care doesn’t swamp me, or burn me out. CARE can be expressed in so many ways. I don’t want my care to burden the people about whom I care. That’s where boundaries come in: knowing what’s mine to offer, and what’s mine to leave be.
PURPOSE: Here’s where PURPOSE comes into it. I am beginning to accept that my PURPOSE is most mysterious. It’s not for me to decide or drive toward or push into. What I’m making isn’t CLEAR while I’m making it. This is true of any writing project — I know this is my very bones — but it’s also true of the project of being alive, being human. You don’t know what you’re making while making it. When I’m writing, I lean into the mystery, I let myself be led, I follow what makes me WONDER, what makes me CURIOUS. I chase the energy that’s playing with me. What I’m making is not static, and it doesn’t require me to bring it to life: it’s animating me in return, or animating my imagination. Why not apply this sensation of ADVENTURE, of exploration, of following where you’re being led to real life too? When something brings me energy and delight, when I revel in what I’m doing, then I know: this is my PURPOSE.
It’s funny how we tell ourselves that we need to know our PURPOSE in advance — to set goals, and be useful, and climb the mountain, and use our gifts to the fullest. When no — we need to be comfortable not knowing. As in writing, we don’t get to decide the outcome. Leave that to someone else. Or leave it alone altogether and don’t give it another thought.
GRATITUDE: This is the this. But I don’t want to force it. I can’t really force it. To be in a GENEROUS mindset is to know GRATITUDE. Then it’s impossible not to give thanks for the GRACE that speaks in many voices. I do think this can be a practice, though. I notice myself saying thank you more and more frequently, in funny ways, too. Thank you, plant, for not dying even though I’ve forgotten to water you! Thank you, weary body, for getting me through this day. Thank you, brain, for keeping me safe in busy traffic. Thank you, heart, for beating all these beats. You know? And then this thankfulness spills everywhere, over everything and everyone.
KIND: Hey. It’s also okay to not be okay. That’s the kindest thing you can say to yourself, and to those around you. Let yourself RESPOND to the situation that’s unfolding, and you will be KIND.
FUN: For me it’s so much fun to be CURIOUS, to WONDER, to IMPROVISE, to PLAY, to RESPOND. Your FUN recipe will be totally different from mine. It’s WORTHWHILE experimenting with your own ingredients. You’ll know it when you feel it. It feels easy, light, delightful. You will laugh at yourself a lot. You will be patient and relaxed and gentle. You will be JOYFUL. Those around you may sense your joy and feel freed to respond in kind. It’s possible.
It’s okay to be okay.
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!
At least an hour ago, I sat down in my newly cleaned and organized office with the intention of writing a blog post. The post has been writing itself in my head for the past few days, while I vacuumed, organized, biked on errands, walked the dog — at any time when I had a few uninterrupted moments to myself. But when I sat down, at least an hour ago, instead of writing this post I answered emails, created a rough outline for the new course I’ll be teaching this winter (Creativity Unplugged), scrolled news headlines, and even watched a short video on “Coach Burnout.”
In other words, I’ve done everything except write the blog post I’d been meaning to write.
My new office is brilliantly organized (if I do say so myself). It feels peaceful. It’s amazing the difference this makes in my mind, opening space both literally and figuratively. A critical organizational piece is a filing unit discarded from one of my daughter’s rooms: in it, I’ve labelled a set of accessible folders to collect material that has been piling up, related to projects of immediate importance. Maybe a photo of this would be the easiest way to share the news I seem to be avoiding — it isn’t bad news, not at all, just a shift in my energies, and that feels … well, a recurring theme in my dreams is our house being torn apart, or moving into a new house, or not recognizing rooms that should be familiar.
Change. Risk. The potential for failure.
Change. Adventure. The potential for … success? That seems too limited in its definition, too vague. The potential for … hiking new trails, seeing the landscape from new perspectives, learning new things about myself, my limitations but also my gifts. They’re one and the same, in some fundamental way.
The labels read as follows (not weighted in any particular order): ENGL 332, The Shoe Project, Soccer Coaching, MA Theology, ENGL 335.
Let me break it down, by category.
ENGL 332 is the new course I’ve been contracted to teach this winter. It will be based on Lynda Barry’s workshops, and on her books What It Is and Syllabus. The exercises and projects will be a combination of text and drawings, largely hand-drawn, and the outline is taking shape in my mind (and on paper, as mentioned above) even now.
The Shoe Project is a *big* project I’ve been working on all summer, since reading an article about it in the Globe and Mail in June, and contacting The Shoe Project’s executive and artistic directors about starting a local version of the project here in KW. It’s a writing & performance workshop that connects local artists with women who are immigrants, to write, shape, and tell their stories. This project is currently being fuelled on energy, connection, and collaboration, and the next step is funding, which is a high bar indeed, but not, I believe, impossible.
Soccer coaching continues even as our season winds down. We played our last league game on Tuesday, but still have practices and a final tournament that will take us into September. Whether or not I coach again next season has yet to be determined, but remains a strong possibility.
MA Theology is the wild-card, about which I’ve offered no hints, in part because I applied only recently on something of a whim when a spot opened up, and in part because, well, I must be feeling some hesitance about it, some desire to explain why, even to myself. The full title of the program is MA (Theology): Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy. I *think* my interest was sparked last fall when a student discussed the idea of leading writing workshops in different settings and for different purposes — therapeutic purposes. But I think, too, that as I continue to coach and to teach, I’ve been craving more tools and knowledge with which to approach conflict, as well as a way to frame my beliefs around the value of creativity in nourishing and healing the spirit. I will be attending part-time. As my sister said, “Well, you know your limits!” to which I replied, “Or I know how to test my limits!!” “Haha yes, that’s more accurate.”
ENGL 335 is the final file, and that’s my usual creative writing course, which I continue to update and revamp in an attempt to simplify the marking scheme, and ease the workload, which I think has become too heavy and rigid over the years. I’ve been asked to teach this course in both the fall and winter terms, which means I’ll be teaching two courses this winter, plus going to school part-time. I’ll confess this thought woke me at 4AM two mornings ago. (Knowing my limits v testing my limits?)
My writing is not, you may observe, in those files. Instead, my current project, a collection of stories, is much closer, piled at my left elbow, very much a presence on my desk, and in my mind, and a very pleasurable presence indeed. It feels peaceful to work on these stories as they call out to me; I work on them with contentment and patience, not as if they are a crisis or emergency (which is how other writing work has felt, sometimes).
What I think is this: I’ve got too much energy to pour it all into my writing. Whenever I’ve tried to do so, tried to live the fantasy of “being a writer,” I’ve been mostly unhappy, plagued by self-doubt, banging my head against immovable plot points, overcome by inertia, thinking thinking thinking — and that’s no way to solve a problem or write a book or help the people around you. You need patience for all of these pursuits, patience and clarity, not anxiety. You need to clear your mind, and weirdly, my mind is clearer, my purpose stronger, my focus keener and energy smoother, when I’m occupied on a variety of fronts. I am a woman who requires a certain amount of extremity to thrive. The calm comes from being within the whirl; when all is calm and little is required of me, my mind becomes the whirl.
Did I already know this?
But it feels like a brand-new revelation: to stop fighting who I am, and get on with living the life that’s pulling on me.
I am sitting near the window in my dining room. The kettle is rattling on the stove. So far, I’ve scarcely glanced out the window, except to acknowledge that I am sitting near enough to it to see out. But it occurs to me that it’s the window over the kitchen sink where I should write this, and the kettle is now nearly at the boil, so I will be going there — now.
I choose a tea made for relaxation and stand at the window looking out over the sink. My timing is poor — the subjects I’d intended to observe are coming inside. Why? Because they are done — the older child beat the younger one at a game of soccer, played with a mini ball and nets. The older one tells me the score but I do not remember it long enough to write it down. I see now that the yard is growing dark and it will be difficult to observe much of anything. A neighbour’s porch light glows bright yellow from beyond the back fence — far away, but the brightest thing there this is. Green leaves still hang on the branches of the big maple, moving fitfully in the breeze. The leaves on the black walnut are of a lighter green, almost yellow, pointier, and hang like drips, trembling. The sky has gone the colour of bath water, clouds pale like veins or striations of veins.
I have the sensation of already having written all of this, of having stood here writing these words, already, before, as if there were nothing new in them. And yet. And yet the very sureness of their existence is the surprise — that they are known or flow from me as if already known. I hear the youngest begin to sing in the shower; the bathroom’s just off the kitchen. He is singing his own version of the Spanish words to Despacito.
I see plane lights blink red and white across the darkening sky. By the time I write down the words that prove they exist, they are gone. I glance back up to confirm it — gone. The leaves now look like hair overhanging swampland. I see in the window my own face, reflected against the blackening surface. This is not what I came here to see. Tired and ghostly. The youngest emerges in a towel, leaving sopping wet footprints across the tiles.
“I’m cold, Mama.”
All the writers I read about, the ones I long to emulate, write in longhand on lined yellow notepads. Well, I think, this will have to do.
I am writing this in block letters into a notebook, standing up, staring out of a dark window at my own face whose reflection can’t escape being sectioned by the shining porch light, while the youngest, now in pajamas, returns to guzzle water. He stands far too near to me. The sound of the water being gulped and gasped down his wide open throat — “Dogs can’t drink water like people, Mom!” — disgusts me irrationally. He belches. His chest is bare. He is gone.
I’ve now written long past the clock. Will my students do the same? Will they get lost in their own windows?
New things are happening around our house.
The kids started school. Yeah, that was a few weeks ago already. I’ve been a touch distracted.
this was as happy as I could get them to look, and oh how we tried!
New instruments are being played. CJ has started the piano. Fooey has retired from piano and taken up the violin. AppleApple has the opportunity to play both the French horn and the cello through her school, and on Tuesday evening practiced that horn for an hour and twenty minutes. I kid you not. Then she went outside and practiced some more. The neighbours kid you not. “It doesn’t sound quite so much like an elephant’s butt,” her helpful father told her. And Albus joined the school orchestra (he plays the viola), because, he told me, participants will be rewarded with a trip to Canada’s Wonderland at the end of the year. Hey, whatever works.
I’ve newly begun teaching, again. It’s much easier the second time around. So much easier. It helps not to be suffering the effects of concussion, too. (How did I manage that last fall??)
Also new: swim kid is no longer swim kid. She’s just going to be soccer kid, field hockey kid, cross country kid, music kid, theatre kid, hanging-out-with-friends kid. This was no small decision. But I think I’m mourning it more than she is, which means it’s absolutely the right decision (she had tears, but moved on). Truth be told, we couldn’t fit the extra commitment into our lives. It’s hard to stop doing something you’ve enjoyed, and that has brought you success. But success doesn’t always mean you should keep doing it. When you’re good at lots of things, you’ve gotta choose what you absolutely love. (I mean, this is a kid who will obsessively focus on whatever is before her. She’s playing the damn horn again as I type. I mean, the melodious completely non-elephant-butt-like horn. She’s trained herself, with literally hour upon consecutive hour of practice over the summer to juggle—with her feet—a soccer ball 379 times without dropping it, when she could barely manage 2 back in June. Discipline is not her issue.)
Here is the reward: she would have been swimming for two hours last night. Instead, when I walked through the front door, home from teaching, I was greeted by this sight:
Sweeping toward me, decked out in feathered mask and cape, she burst forth in low dramatic tones. Shakespeare? Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, to be precise. “She’s in a mood,” said her father, fondly.
One more reward: eating supper together as a family.
See? We tried. We really did. It’s what we do around here.