On April 1st, I started a 30-day journaling project (inspired by Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals). What I’ve noticed so far is that prompts really help. On days when I try to jot down random thoughts, not much comes squeezing out. I’m preoccupied by surface tasks and must-dos, and a feeling of emptiness prevails. This is a most unpleasant feeling. So, today I said to myself, what advice would you give your students, if they were feeling stuck? You’d say, Stop trying to “journal” and do a daily diary (a la Lynda Barry), or an X Page prompt (ditto). Get out of your own head. Come alive by entering the world.
Other prompts have worked well too. My word-of-the-year group is spending April responding to each other’s words (we were each assigned someone else’s word to reflect on). My assignment was to reflect on the word ROOT. One of the associations that jumped out was “long-standing friendship.” A long-standing friendship, like a long-standing tree, has deep roots, has weathered many storms, and has had good fortune.
Reflecting on this imagery, related to ROOTS, and separate from the word-of-the year assignment, I landed on a journaling prompt: What roots in your own life are long-standing? And also, what roots are tender and new? It’s spring, after all! People are planting seedlings, tiny buds are opening. Feel free to use this prompt if it sparks something in you, too.
Words unfurling across a page, a screen, scrawled in the margins and end pages, marking time, holding ambition, bright with rage, lyrical, lyrical, lyrical
Born family, brothers and sister, all of us rooted in time, in blood and DNA
Music, song, rhythm, pulse
My feet walking, running, my body in motion, powerful, strong
Friendships that hold, light in the window, light at the door, and bread, and wine, and laughter and forgive me
Performance, putting on a show
Reading, imagination’s flow
The trees themselves, and water, mud, grass under bare feet
A big appetite, hoarding, cheapness, knowing best
A quietness amidst chaotic flow
The impulse to make places home
Loneliness, fear of not belonging
Thrift against decadence, earnestness
Wanting to make people laugh, to entertain, to put at ease, and yet aloof, sharp edges
Horses, dogs, children
Memory, curiosity, mystery, questions without answers
Tender new roots
Medication to lift the load
Healing estrangements, more trust, talking about tough stuff, tender stuff too
Kids moving home and away, vegetarian meals
Big job interview, looking for work that satisfies my need to earn a living and to feel/be purposeful
Transitioning X Page workshop to a sustainable long-term project
Parenting teenagers and young adults
Spending time with little kids again, delighting in their presence
Getting reacquainted with teaching
Practicing social skills and conflict resolution
Expanding my skill set, seeing my skills as having other applications, exploring outlets for my desire to connect, create, be fruitful, self-sufficient, purposeful, to serve
Doing “the work” to counter harmful patterns and habits
Yoga and meditation—soaking it up!
Body awareness, body love, healing
Caring for elders, patience, tenderness, listening to the wisdom of elders
Honouring needs, resting, relaxing, spontaneity
Need to pack up for class and head to campus, but also wanted to write about … well … a list of things too long for one post, so to boil it down, I’ve landed on an image that’s making me grin.
Saturday morning, woke to a smell of someone cooking something in the kitchen. Went downstairs in my pjs and found three teenage boys, none belonging to me, making pancakes by committee, no lights on but the stove’s fan was going. An avid discussion was underway on when exactly to flip, were there enough bubbles, and was this first pancake cooked all the way through, turning to me to ask, what did I think? The pancake in question was definitely not cooked all the way through.
My son, their host, they told me, was still asleep. We laughed about that.
They didn’t need my help or advice, I could see, so I assured them that the pancake that wasn’t quite done wouldn’t kill anyone if eaten with maple syrup, and I continued on to the living room to do some yoga.
This image might represent the peak of my parenting joy, the pinnacle of any parenting success I dare claim. My children’s friends feel at home in our house! The pandemic temporarily robbed us of this rare and fleeting delight. My youngest is about to turn 15. I know this too shall pass, but I won’t grieve it while it’s happening, I’ll just make a note of its existence — here, and in my mind’s eye.
There are moments when one’s actual happening life feels fully integrated and aligned with one’s intentions and beliefs. This was that. (And other moments this past week, too, but this is the easiest to write about in a compressed snippet of time.)
On the soundtrack, right now: Everything is Everything by Lauryn Hill.
I’ve spent March break catching up on course-related work and preparing for a couple of presentations next week. I also worked on my taxes. But you know, the pace has been forgiving. I’ve cooked some excellent meals, walked as much as possible, rested more. I even got a haircut.
Next week, Thursday, March 23, 4PM, I’ll be giving a public lecture at Western University in London (Ontario). If you’re interested in attending, it will also be live streamed; register here. The remarks I’ve prepared feel like the culmination of all my years of experiencing life as a writer — aspiring writer, struggling writer, published writer, uncertain writer, obscure writer, hopeful writer, thankful writer. This is an opportunity to express my deep appreciation and love for the act of writing itself, which is magical, healing, and so very alive.
But I’m currently distracted by the young people passing on my sidewalk whooping and shouting and wearing tiny green hats. St Patrick’s day is here, blowing through our city despite the rain and melting shit-speckled piles of snow. Everything is everything. It really and truly is.
And after winter must come spring.
My word of the year group met last night, despite the thundersnow storm, and we did a meditative exercise — we asked our hearts a question. First, we needed to find a question. Do you really want the answer to this question? our gentle leader asked. As instructed, each of us tried to clarify our own question. And then we closed our eyes and lowered our questions down to our hearts, and let them go.
We sat in silence, meditating as we wished, for 15 minutes. At first my mind was jumping all around, trying to get the wording just right on my question. But the right wording never quite materialized, so I dropped down a plea: What do I value? What matters to me, heart? Then I tried to follow the instructions and let the question go. Goodbye question. Off you go.
I began breathing in for a count of four, retaining breath for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four, holding at the bottom of the breath for a count of four — box breath, I’ve heard this called; I’ve been practicing it off and on for over a decade. This breathing pattern helps my body to relax, which helps my mind to relax. I’ve even tried it in the middle of the night for insomnia. And it does seem to stall a spiralling of 3AM thoughts — or any version of busy-mind thoughts, relentlessly turning around and around, scrabbling for answers in the walls of the mind. Breath is powerful.
After some minutes in box breath, I saw in my mind’s eye the library where I’ve been working regularly for a few months, the desk behind which I sit. A memory from the day unfolded, and I saw a child standing at the desk. I heard our conversation. Tears flowed down my cheeks through closed eyelids. That was all. Outside my friend’s house, a neighbour with a snowblower was clearing the sidewalk; I felt comfortable and relaxed, warm, calm. When the timer chimed, I took off my glasses and wiped my face, and we wrote in our journals for a little while.
Do you trust your heart? Do I trust mine? When something unexpected invites an emotional response, do I pay attention to the cues? Does my response say more about how I’ve been socialized, my unconscious biases, my hangups and desires than about some pure and true core of self singing? I am sentimental about things that do not make me proud. For example, I habitually prefer to see myself in the role of “helper.” Is this why the library image moved me? Or was it something else — or that, but also something else?
I do like to help people. I especially like solving small problems. That’s not what this image showed me, however. I wasn’t solving a small problem, I was listening to a little story. Brief window. Glimpse. Delight and joy animating a child’s face.
I like considering that there is a “wise watcher” within me, paying attention, ever-present, not judging, not criticizing, just watching. I think this wise watcher’s calm presence supercedes my interior critic, if given the chance. With practice, I hear her voice more clearly than the clamouring cruel critic who also takes an observer’s role (the voice I connect to shame, to roiling stomach, closed-up throat). Maybe this wise watcher is connected to my heart. I would like to imagine that. The wise watcher is the calm presence in the room of the self. I would like to imagine that everyone has a wise watcher within themselves. Everyone has a quiet place of respite that belongs only to them.
In writing this out, I sense what matters to me — that I nurture the capacity to embody the wise watcher, to be a calm presence in the room. Not directing, not manipulating, not telling, not wanting, just requesting permission to be present, and to be with.
Work that invites me closer to this possibility? My heart overflows with thanks.
I’m attempting to post here about once a week; but that is not always possible. There are weeks when I prioritize writing in my notebook over writing publicly if I have some moments to spare; or lying on the couch and reading a book. Setting priorities is becoming a habit, of necessity. Am I filling my cup, so that I can serve the needs of others? For example, I’ve figured out that it takes me at least 2 hours to get up and out the door in the morning — one hour minimum to do my wake-up and exercise routine (including yoga and meditation), and one hour precisely to shower, dress, make and eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and screech out the door clutching a travel mug of coffee, the correct set of keys for the job of the day in my pocket, and a backpack over my shoulders loaded with whatever items I’ve determined will serve in the hours ahead (this may include but is not limited to licorice, Birkenstocks, head-phones, notebook and pen, and folder with instructions on various systems and processes).
Point being, setting priorities requires first knowing what these priorities are — not ignoring what makes me a happier healthier person. It helps to identify why I’m choosing to do certain things instead of other things. What I’ve discovered is that the why is usually about pleasure, ease, fun, enjoyment, fulfillment, connection, and purpose. The good things in life. My exercise routine makes me happy, energized, calmer, in tune with my body and mind, which sets the whole day on course, so I choose it over sleeping in — and I get to bed earlier in the evening in order to make this habit sustainable. I love savouring my cup of coffee, which makes it perfect to enjoy while sitting at a desk somewhere. But breakfast is a sit-down affair with the newspaper and two poached eggs on toast, so I make time for that (even if it’s just 12 minutes — I’ll literally calculate how much time I have to relax and enjoy this ritual, setting a timer on my phone to cue me when it’s time to switch gears).
This morning during quiet meditation, a complex and wild and wonderful thought came upon me. Here it is: everything I’m doing to serve and understand my own needs reverberates outward, so that I am able to better serve and understand the needs of those around me. When I teach creative writing, what I’m actually offering are methods and practices for how pay attention to the world, how to observe others with curiosity and openness, and how to respond (through writing) without judgement. This is a deep mindset shift, I think. Attention without judgement, without the desire to manipulate or change or profit from, is love. If you pay attention to the world, you will love it more than you realized was possible. This love will break you down and build you up. And you will want to serve others because you can see them more clearly. The skills I’ve honed and continue to hone as a writer might make me a better writer; but I’m coming to believe that’s a side product of the real gift of these skills — of creativity itself. At the core of my being, I don’t want to be a better writer in order to publish books that become bestsellers and earn me fame and fortune. I want to practice writing and creativity because I believe these deeply intuitive and generative acts will help me become a more observant, open-minded, human being while I’m here on planet earth.
I teach creative writing. And I’ve struggled with this, because I don’t believe it can really be taught effectively. I can’t download my knowledge of how to write creatively into the minds of students in a rational, lecture-based, logistical way. All I can do is open opportunities for students to interact with their own minds and experiences creatively — and with each other. Creativity isn’t a state of being that can be monetized or harnessed for profit. If you get into it, if you allow yourself to follow the energy and be led by whatever magic and mystery and grace is pulling you, money, power, and profit will feel so insignificant that you won’t be able to make sense of them. They don’t make sense, in the vast universe of creative action and practice.
Here is what I know: To create is also to destroy. It is to witness the breaking down of what appears substantial, and to witness and partake in a generative improbable renewal. The impossible presents itself. What you discover in this state can’t be explained adequately through words, so words climb into images and images emerge and show themselves to be transferable between human beings, and expression of deep emotion and experience is possible. It is possible.
So. I teach creative writing, but what I really hope to do is to plant seeds. I know that my job in the schools (not teaching creative writing) is an outward expression my own potential beginning to root and grow. By becoming more grounded and secure (paradoxically, through becoming more vulnerable and soft), I can serve others with less fear, judgement, and hunger for external reward. Every day I’m in a school, I have the opportunity to practice paying attention. I love this practice. I get to do it over and over again. I ask, how can I help you? I listen to what the other person is saying. If possible, I look them in the eye. If appropriate, I ask how they are doing. I listen to what they tell me, and I repeat back to them what I’ve understood them to say, because I want to be sure it’s clear to me. If possible, I try to solve their problem, or brainstorm a solution they can try (it’s usually a small problem that has a simple solution).
That’s it. That’s the practice. Greet, listen, repeat, ask questions, acknowledge, try to understand, solve or resolve.
Greet, listen, acknowledge.
Over and over again, throughout the day. I know these interactions have the power to change me. They have the power to change my approach to creativity and writing too. It’s an integrated and interactive and generative cycle, the relationship with self, other, and creative spirit.
What are you practicing these days? Where are your practices, habits, and routines leading you?
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.