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.
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.
You bring light. Say it to yourself. How does it feel?
The words came into my mind during a recent morning meditation and lit me up from the inside out.
My word of the year is not LIGHT, though I considered it. It is not EASE or FREE, though it could be. My word for 2023 is NEED. Beneath the word is another word that’s been guiding me, too: ONE. Too many words? But really, just one. Just one word to respond to any given moment. Just one goal. Just one purpose. What do you need? What does this situation call for? What need is not being met that may be preventing you from being wholly yourself in the world? And as important! What needs are you meeting wonderfully well right now?
I am also playing with the concept of the “joy snack,” which can be savoured in little bites throughout the day. Listen to a podcast on the subject (from the Washington Post). Your “joy snacks” are your own, they’re personal, and they’re small, and they just need to be noticed in order to exist. They’re probably already happening, whether you know it or not. For me, I have a “joy snack” every morning when I do a silly aerobic warm-up in the kitchen, usually in my pjs, after brushing my teeth and before doing anything else. It takes between 2-4 minutes and never fails to give a sweet little boost to my mood.
I’ve been thinking about what matters — to me. Not to anyone else, not to an imaginary host of external projections. But to me. The core, the centre, the oneness of myself. This could be misused, to be sure, or misconstrued as selfish, but could it really be selfish to care about how you feel, inside your own body, inside your own mind? What matters? I’m the one living inside this body. My time is finite here on earth, inside this experience of being me, in the world. So it’s worth checking in: What do I care about? Do I really know? Am I living in my body, in this world, in ways that make me feel good, whole, content?
What activities and actions and experiences and routines help me feel good, whole, content? What leaves me feeling empty, anxious, drained? As I explore what I FEEL (last year’s word), I gain clues to what I NEED.
I’m learning so much at my new job in schools (and in parallel, by teaching creative writing again, too).
I NEED to feel purposeful. I NEED to be with people. I NEED to understand my role. I NEED clear boundaries around my responsibilities (either clearly set out for me in a given context, or clearly set out and articulated by myself, which is much much harder to do). I NEED recognition for work done. I NEED dignity in my work. I NEED to live in alignment with my values. I NEED laughter, playfulness, connection.
It’s funny, but as I experiment with this new job, which takes me into different environments, often several different work cultures in any given week, I’m learning like a sea sponge. And I’m positively alight with discovery. I might be doing a task like putting labels on student records, and I’ll feel a giddy leap of joy — this is so satisfying, I’ll laugh to myself! Who was telling me all along that I needed to do something big or visible or large-scale to feel purposeful? It must have been me. And it was making me so unhappy, believing this about myself, because I couldn’t ever reach my own ridiculously outsized expectations for what I was supposed to be achieving. How amazing to discover that I feel purposeful doing small repetitive tasks that take focus and patience, and that almost no one will notice, except that important information will be available in an organized fashion when they come looking for it later. And that matters to me!
Same with recognition — the scale is unimportant. How did I not know this about myself? Recognition that satisfies my need is wholly about connection. When a connection is been made, between me and someone else, my heart soars with joy. When I sense that trust has been established, even very tentative or brief, I feel recognized. I hope the other person does too. Trust is mutual. So is recognition.
And I’m revelling in this discovery (re-discovery?) that I love being with people. I spend the day responding to other people’s requests, needs, and directions, and leave bursting with energy. I am not drained by this work. Quite the opposite. How is this possible? I’d assumed I was an introvert, but it turns out the thing that’s been draining me, in a lot of my other work, isn’t people, it’s having a role that isn’t clearly defined, or that requires of me responsibility without power, or just a ton of decision-making while having to invent and reinvent my boundaries. When I know what’s required of me, I am relaxed and at ease, no matter how chaotic the situation, no matter the complexity of the needs being presented. It’s the not-knowing what my role is — what the limits of my role are — that’s exhausting.
Can I apply what I’m learning to other parts of my life?
It remains to be seen. But I’m excited to keep learning and exploring, and enjoying.
And labelling files, alphabetizing books, and filling in where called and needed.
My word this year has been FEEL. On Friday evening my word group chose photos that represented our word, and cut them apart and put them back together again. I chose two: one showed a young girl standing in a creek, exploring, and the other a group of people dancing at a party.
FEEL has been a complicated word to explore. Do I trust my feelings? Shove them down? Give them too much prominence? Misinterpret them? Feelings are transitory, embodied experiences. What are my feelings telling me? A revelatory moment came this fall when I told a friend (who is also a life coach) that I was trying not to be angry, even though that was the main feeling that kept emerging; she said, oh no, bring that anger, feel it, it’s got a message for you. Our feelings, she said, tell us what our needs are.
So I learned: If I’m angry, a need is not being met. It might not be a terribly obvious need. It might be a need I don’t even recognize as valuable. It might be a need I’ve been trained not to pay attention to. It might be a need that traces all the way back to childhood. You know? It’s messy in here. It’s a jumble.
So both photos seemed to capture FEEL — ever-shifting. I felt wild at times this year, out of control, swinging to emotional heights, careering to dangerous lows (more the former than the latter–but still unsettling). The people dancing freely represented this wildness. Yes, I’ve felt unsettled. No amount of advance preparation or knowledge or planning could shift what came at me, poured through me, but as the year progressed, I got more comfortable with that. Comfortable with being unsettled. Or, perhaps more accurately, comfortable exploring the sensation.
What is my body telling me?
I’ve been jumping into the stream, getting wet, getting muddy. That’s the childlike aspect of this past year: I’m exploring more like a child would, in terms that could seem simplistic or naive, not necessarily in an organized or well-planned way, just doing it. Doing what comes naturally, doing what feels right. It’s active. I wouldn’t say I’ve been impulsive, but I have let myself do things I didn’t, before. I’ve let myself do things that I enjoy, just because. No explanation needed.
One of my needs is recognition. (I don’t like this need, but ignoring it won’t make it disappear.) This year, I’ve discovered that the recognition I crave doesn’t need to be elaborate, or large-scale, or noticeable to anyone else. Recognition could be a kid excited to discover a soccer book I’ve placed prominently on a library shelf. I’ve realized, too, that the people who care about me don’t need me to achieve “great” things, they’re delighted when I’m happy, that’s all, as I am for them. I’ve put too much emphasis on achievement, is what I’ve recognized. External recognition has been a hole to be filled, affecting my life choices; it’s still there, but now I know it’s there, and I can find different ways to satisfy that need.
I have loved this year, in all its messiness.
I have loved feeling my feelings, listening, giving them freedom to wing loose. What is this feeling telling me? I pause to wonder, rather than judging it for being negative or ugly or inappropriate. Is it an old feeling, rising from an old pattern? Is this feeling my own, or am I confusing it with someone else’s?
One last discovery this year: my voice. That one session with the vocal cord physio last spring was unexpectedly revelatory. I discovered that my voice can be loud and strong! But at the very same moment, I realized that I hated hearing my voice speak loudly — I felt my feelings: embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, uncomfortable. What on earth? Think about what those feelings were telling me, and how deep they must go: I actually find it painful to put into words.You have nothing to say. You will embarrass yourself if anyone hears you. It’s safer this way: Keep quiet.
I had no idea my body believed this. Once I had this valuable information, I could address it, actively. My feelings were trying to tell me: pay attention! For your voice to be strong, dig down into the roots of this belief. Is it true? Do you really believe that it’s true? And if not, counter it by practicing those vocal cord exercises, practice walking around the house speaking loudly, even if you feel silly. Practice till it feels natural and right.
And that’s what I did. And there was a shift. And that’s what this year has been.
Yesterday, while working at the end of my dining room table, I looked up and saw this (above).
I saw that a room can be a composition of light, colour, shadow. Even the corner of a room can be a poem. Or the end of a table. A windowsill. I am curious about performance art, about sculpture, about creating ritual and integrating it into the every day. A few years ago, I drew an artist’s statement for a course I was leading, centred around these words: What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty?
Well, what if?
What if that’s what I’m attempting to pull off, in the whole of my messy not-always-well-planned life? What if I’m already on this path? What if I already have a job to do, and I’m doing it (even if it doesn’t pay much, except in connections).
What are we here for if not to be held, at least for a moment now and again, in beauty, in the pursuit of beauty. What does beauty mean to you? For me, it is ease, delight, sometimes it is a shock to the system, it is new, original, wholly formed, or it is raw and unplanned, rising from seemingly nothing at all, unexpected, it is a moment of recognition, a moment of pause. It leaves a trace even after the glimpse is gone.
Welcome to my newly titled website, wherein, with the help of my dear friend Tasneem Jamal and my brother Clifford, I am declaring more fully that this is who I am: writer. Writer is a capacious carry-all for my spirit. It’s big enough to hold all the parts of me. I write for purposes both private and public, pen to page, keyboard to screen, words scrawled or printed, arrows pointing, words circled, underlined, crossed out and written again; words in response to; lists, poems, prayers, pleas, letters, dreams, captions, formulations; words reaching out to connect … with you and you and you.
Thanks for reading along, and for writing too.
PS More to come, more to unfold, in the weeks and months ahead. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, look up: is there a corner in your space waiting to give you a moment of pause, of delight, of relief, of release into beauty? Please share (here or elsewhere).
A friend has offered to redesign the banner on my website to remove the title “Obscure CanLit Mama,” which no longer fits so well. On a hot August morning in 2008, I titled the blog on a whim, and began sending out posts to the universe. My youngest was newborn. He’s now in high school. In those early days, I wrote a lot about the kids. I posted recipes and meal plans. I wrote about juggling constant stay-at-home childcare with attempts to steal even a smidgen of writing time. I’d published one collection of short stories, four years earlier. It seemed presumptuous to attach myself to CanLit as a participant (even an Obscure one). The Mama was the ascending identifying force in my life at that time.
I haven’t posted a recipe in a very long time.
I don’t write about my kids, except glancingly.
These days, I come here, to this familiar space, to reflect mostly on writing, but also on what seem to me to be ephemeral, spiritual matters: aging, artistic discipline, setting routines, learning new things, re-learning old things, the repetition of the seasons, creative practices, play, emotional weather / weathering emotions. Etc.
In the 14 years that this blog has existed, I’ve poured energy into being a writer, laying claim to that identity, earning grants, publishing three more books, teaching creative writing, organizing writing workshops, serving as a consulting editor with The New Quarterly, speaking, travelling, practicing the craft, seeking to keep my connection to my writing alive and thriving.
Obscurity is a self-effacing mindset (erasing? shrinking? minimizing? hiding?). I know that. But it was necessary protection as I tried to become / be a writer. I’ve been afraid of being a writer, of laying claim to this identity and its shifting cultural responsibilities. Since childhood, I’ve wanted to perform magic tricks with language, to conjure imaginary landscapes, converse with imaginary people, finding solace in their losses and successes. I did not aspire beyond that — that was a big-enough dream. I knew my writing wouldn’t be activist in nature, because I am not an activist by nature. I’m a ventriloquist, an observer, a performer, agnostic, hungry to learn, curious about the questions, less-so the answers, the mystery, not the proof.
It’s a rather exalted view of being a writer. Or maybe I mean ecstatic. Or impractical. But I admire it, I love what my former self was attempting.
I dipped into The Juliet Stories this morning, a book now ten years old, and the writing sang off the page, just like magic. I couldn’t remember the person who’d written it. It was like reading a stranger’s words. Did I know then what I’d made? No. I didn’t trust its worth. I didn’t need to. I just kept trying, year after year, focused on the writing, and eventually madesomething.
I want very much to be that same writer, to write with confidence, believing in the magic of language. “You know it’s not the same as it was”: this song came on my “Run Fast” playlist this morning (oh Harry! so nostalgic); maybe “As It Was” especially resonates in These Times, when we’re trying to remember who we were Before. But life is lived in the present, and time carries us onward. We change; and experiences change us. It’s not the same as it was. That’s a neutral statement, at heart. It doesn’t have to weigh heavily, though it’s tempting to roll around in those deliciously bittersweet emotions.
What’s next? What path am I running, where does it lead? I can’t see very far ahead of my feet. Whose hands am I holding? What’s pulling me onward?
What kind of a writer am I now? What kind of a writer do I aspire to be? Do I need to know? No. As Lynda Barry would remind me: it’s none of your business. Follow the energy, get comfortable in the not-knowing.
I don’t have a new title for this blog, just my name. Enough? Enough. Yes.
This is the lake into which I’ve dunked my full self every day for the past seven days. Some days it has been warm and sunny, even hot. Other days, like today, it is cool and windy, cloudy, rainy, almost cold.
Today, I went kayaking first, to warm up.
I never take my cellphone out kayaking (for obvious reasons), which means I’ve never gotten a photo of those rocks and trees visited only by water. I didn’t kayak the first few days here, because I was waiting to feel rested up and restless, and when that happened, it was bliss to be back out on the lake in the little blue kayak, wearing my baseball cap and favourite blue lifejacket.
I got a very large tattoo this summer (as well as a small one). When I catch a glimpse in the mirror, it gives me pleasure to think: this woman could be an aging rock star, or an aging artist! I still can’t give a particularly good reason for getting the very large tattoo, or even for the chosen image (an owl made of woven ribbons), other than I like it.
I like it. It makes me feel both more myself and more like a different, alternative self, living a much edgier, cooler, artistic life, that probably involves less cooking and cleaning, overall. Fewer challenging parenting decisions.
At the cottage, we mostly unplug and read. I’ve read all the August New Yorkers from cover to cover. I just finished my friend Emily Urquhart’s memoir, Beyond the Pale, which explores folklore and genetics. And I’m currently tearing through a novel called Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder, a writer with whom I share Mennonite roots (she was raised in Ohio); the book seems to me to be an answer to the question: why is motherhood so confusing and impossible? Or, maybe it’s a theory of motherhood, or an abstract on how to respond to motherhood, including positing motherhood as intensely lived performance art. Whatever it is, it’s deeply weird, hilariously funny, and consoling. I keep reading lines out loud to anyone who will listen.
Bracing. Just like the cool lake water. Some summers I haven’t gone under the water even once. I used to swim no matter what, training and doing lengths back and forth in the deeper water, but after a near-drowning experience a few years ago, I’ve been cautious and nervous in the lake. This summer, I decided to try, at least, to walk in and go under, no matter the weather. I’m fascinated by people who’ve taken up immersing themselves in freezing cold water, hacking holes in icy lakes in the middle of winter. It seems to have become a popular thing during the pandemic. I don’t live close to a body of water that would qualify as a lake, but in truth, even if a handy icy lake existed nearby, I’m not sure I’d have the fortitude for it. My alter-ego with the owl tattoo totally would. But for now, I feel practically heroic for paddling around the shallows of this little bay on an overcast and cool day, limbs tingling and bright, and chasing it with a blissful hot shower, enjoyed outdoors under the pine trees.
Maybe this is where my owl tattoo self lives all the time. I love the sound of the lake water on the rocks at night. I love the isolation. Everything slows, here. My racing mind. Time. Longing. Experience. Expression. It feels like we could always be here, when we are here.
Wherever you've come from, wherever you're going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause. Thank you for stopping by. Your comments are welcome.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a fiction writer, reader, editor, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, forever curious. I believe words are powerful, storytelling is healing, and art is for everyone.