Category: School

Spring burst

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As much as I long to find just a little more rhythm to my writing life, damn but it’s taken the pressure off to work in a school library. Childhood is bursting with magic. To be with kids is to be in the presence of pure creativity. When I was a child, we would visit the Nashville public library for their puppet shows. I remember being utterly entranced by the puppets. How were they speaking? Who was making them move? They seemed real — in some fundamental way, they were real to my imagination.

Now, on a very small scale, I get to participate in magic-making with the children who come into my library — it’s homemade, it’s improvised, it’s nothing fancy, but even the smallest surprise is sufficient to spark delight, curiosity, questions. Children are not fussy; the youngest of them pay the closest attention to the tiniest details. If you’ve ever read a picture book to a group of kindergarteners, you’ve been blessed by the deepest attention you’ll ever hope to receive. “Oh, those aren’t raindrops, those are tadpoles!” “How did Curious George jump higher?” “Why did he let go of the balloons?”

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On my story time bulletin board, I add characters or objects from books we’ve read. The seasons change. Nothing is static — things move around. Somehow, it’s more magical because it’s tactile. It isn’t digital. It isn’t online, or on a screen. It’s present with us, to be experienced and observed by all, as we gather in the same moment and place in time and space. We experience it collectively, from our different positions around the room, our different heights and ages. Like the magic of the puppet theatre, I don’t think this is repeatable, really, online. We don’t live solely in our minds; we live in our bodies, as sensory creatures.

In truth, however, my main job in the library is to maintain the collection — a tactile mode of interacting with this most beloved of mediums (beloved to me!): text and illustration bound up in pages. The sensation of handling books affects me similarly to doing a puzzle; it’s soothing and peaceful to create order.

As for the other hours in my days and weeks, I’m currently on a “spring burst.” I’m going to gym regularly to spin, sweat, lift weights, stretch, and take good care of this deep-into-midlife body (and mind). The X Page is entering its final month of preparation (!!): mark your calendars if you’re local. We’ll be performing this season’s stories on Sunday, June 16th at the Registry theatre in downtown Kitchener (more info coming soon). And my writing life is bursting with beautiful blooms too: seeing a dear friend’s book project come to fruition, editing stories, dreaming up a new novel, and more that I’ll share when the time is right.

Come summer, I’ll have a two-month break from the library — writing sabbatical??? And time to repair, restore, relax, too. It’s been very non-stop. I keep thinking I’ll catch up, but there’s no up to be caught. The routine swings round and round.

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My instinct is to maximize efficiency on tasks. But more and more, I’m focused on making space to maximize enjoyment, no matter the tasks. What do I love doing? Mostly, really simple things that are easy to call forth, that don’t require a lot of extra planning or resources. I love sweating and the rush of endorphins. I love meeting new people and diving in deep. I love collaborating, learning new skills, appreciating the strengths and techniques and wisdom that others bring. I love grappling with text, creating narrative sequences on both the macro and micro scale that maximize pleasure for an audience. I love eating supper with my family and hearing about their days. I love stopping to smell blossoms on trees. I love blasting songs on the radio when I’m driving alone. I love making magic — out-of-time experiences, opportunities for surprise — through the simplest means possible: a drawing, a story, a group exercise. I love taking care of people. I love cooking (but only when I’m not rushing). I love being outdoors, walking, biking, running. I love creating order out of chaos. I love living in my imagination, in my many imaginary worlds. I love to dream.

Nothing is ideal. I love that too, the reassurance of it. I mutter this phrase to myself a lot — “This is not ideal!” —- and not negatively, but encouragingly. I mean it as a form of freedom. Nothing about this is ideal. (And it does not need to be.) This thing you’re doing, this thing you’re creating, this solution, this story, this hard conversation — whatever it may be — you’re doing it to the best of your abilities; be reassured. There are many possibilities, many directions, many discoveries, of which you will try one and then another and another, testing things out forever and ever, amen.

xo, Carrie

What inspires you to create?

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Spending time with children is a fabulous fortune. It’s pure gold. 

A friend and I were talking recently about older people whom we love and care about, whose lives have been robbed of dignity by ailments and illnesses, and we wondered what could be done for those we love, when the options for care are so limited? Long-term care: the place where nobody wants to go, nor enters willingly. Could multi-generational living situations be a solution, my friend wondered? But that would require women (most likely) in their prime earning years to become full-time caregivers; our North American culture and norms and the economy itself is not geared toward this, even if it were something women in their prime earning years would wish to do.

What about a dorm-like set-up where university students or young adults lived alongside elderly people, sharing common space and meals? And animals or pets were part of the picture too? Maybe even a nursery school? Personally, I can imagine moving more willingly into a care situation like that. (Yes, even with the germs!)

In the dominant North American culture, we tend to hive ourselves off into age groups. Think of university students who have a tiny window when they can live in dorms communally, then it’s over. We think of independence as living solo or with immediate family. There aren’t many opportunities to experience life as part of a multi-generational whole, and that’s challenging, I think. It’s alienating.

My children are now young adults, and soon they will be quite grown. I don’t want to relive those years again—caring for young children—but I’ve missed the generative energy of children. I’ve missed their naturalness and ease in conversation. I’ve missed their seriousness, too, and the way children pay attention. So it’s been good medicine to be working in an elementary school library. Not only do I get to be in a big quiet (sometimes!) room full of books, but I also get to open those books and read them out loud. Story time is a highly participatory experience (and I need to work on my pacing, to speed this part up a bit, for the teachers’ sake!). But I’m just about nearly as curious as the kids are to explore the effect of words and imagery on the pages. As I read the same book over and over to different mini-audiences, I gain deepening insight into what draws their interest and attention. What matters to them.

The details they notice in the illustrations are fantastic—they’re putting together narrative on a visual level. And they listen carefully to the words, making connections to their own experiences, wondering out loud. Trying to understand.

Working with children, being in their presence again, is like looking into a mirror of how I want to be (on a spirit-level). I hope I’ll always get to be with children, one way or another; or at least I hope I’ll feel free to approach everyone, no matter their age, the way I approach children—with openness and trust, attention, curiosity. It’s in this mind-space (spirit-space) that I am inspired to make things, to write, to draw, to create. It seems to me that the only way to survive being alive, surrounded by inequality, imbalance, suffering and pain—and as a participant in these pain-filled structures and systems too—is to make, to create, to mediate experiences through imagery. To go searching for beauty. And sometimes, to find it.

xo, Carrie

PS That’s me and my brother in Waterloo Park, when we were very young.

May you live with ease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What lights your creative spark? 

What are you feeling?

What are your feelings telling you about your needs?

What do you need?

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

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

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

xo, Carrie

To find a place

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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.

xo, Carrie

It’s ok to be ok

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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.

Well.

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.

xo, Carrie

Be together

2022-05-31_11-30-02I 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.

2022-05-31_11-28-38On 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?

2022-05-31_11-29-28When 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.

2022-05-31_11-29-46Francie’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.

2022-05-31_11-29-06This 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!

xo, Carrie