Drawing a flower with CJ.
- What felt good this month? At the beginning of the month, it felt wonderful to be on holiday (we spent two weeks away at an isolated cottage). As always, I hoped to bring that holiday-feeling home; but inevitably it has slipped. I can’t drink a caesar while cooking supper every day! It isn’t even possible to keep up the habit of twice-daily yoga. But it is possible to get up early every week day morning for a walk or run, followed by yoga. It’s also been blissful to take charge of my studio space, to clean and organize and purge and paint, and to set new goals. And we have kept the holiday-feeling going in small ways: Kevin bought a fake fire pit (propane-powered) and we’ve been sitting outside some nights, watching the flames, listening to tunes.
- What did you struggle with? After rejigging my studio, I panicked—as if I didn’t deserve the space, full of fear and doubt about my work and worth as a writer. But then I journaled, meditated, and went for a dog walk with Kevin, and I came out the other side. It helped to reframe my work through the window of books. Books are my life’s work. If I feel unmoored, I can ground myself by reading, writing, or connecting with others who read and write. I am so thankful for this blog as a place to come to, to share ideas, and experiment, too. I am so thankful for each one of you who reads. Thank you.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Unexpectedly calm. When my mind spirals away, caught in fear or doubt or shame, I notice, and find a safe branch on which to land. I breathe. I think: Is this true? What’s really happening right now? Are you okay? Is there anything you need to do? I’ve noticed, too, that projects are so very satisfying to work on and complete: my mind is soothed, no matter the task. Cleaning out the bathroom cupboards. Cooking a meal from scratch. Painting a door. Writing a grant application. Revising a story to send to my writing group. In this way, small accomplishments accrue, and the days flow peacefully, but don’t feel dull. And in the evenings, I reward myself with some stretching, watching a show, reading, eating popcorn, letting my mind and body relax. (Note: this is so much easier to achieve now that I’m not coaching! I do not take my easy evenings for granted!)
- How did you take care of yourself? All of the above. Plus, remembering to reach out to friends. Working on my posture, and core strength. Sticking with established healthy routines. Putting away the pairs of jeans that don’t fit anymore. Thanking my body for carrying me through this life. I ask a lot of my body! I am in total awe that my chronic running injury has healed through physio, and that I’m able to run fast again, without pain, at least for now. Every morning run through the park is a full-body expression of thanks.
- What would you most like to remember? It’s okay if I don’t remember very much from this time. Sometimes the best days aren’t super memorable—I don’t remember much when inside the flow, but if I’m fortunate, from the flow will emerge some work of substance, or a strengthened relationship, or deepening insight and capacity for approaching conflict, suffering and pain. I will remember where I was when Ruth Bader Ginsberg died; and my own sadness and immediate despair. But I’ll remember just as much that her passing sparked a renewed connection with one of my beloved American cousins. I’ll remember, too, what she worked toward: equality for all, a far-seeing, long road of commitment that developed from her own experiences, that was encouraged to develop through the support of her husband and family, and that extended till her death. Like John Lewis, she is a true role model of character and vision, beyond the self.
- What do you need to let go of? I deactivated my Twitter account a week ago, after watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix. I also turned off most of the app notifications on my phone. It’s been good, and I hope it lasts. What I’ve noticed: I’m freed to work with more focus throughout the day. But I’m also not filling my mind with fury and outrage, the primary emotions sparked by “doom-scrolling.” True, there’s less to distract me from my own restlessness and boredom, but here’s the strangest part: I’ve felt less restless, less bored, since signing off. There are more productive and meaningful ways to connect with others in this world. I commit to choosing those instead.
I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
Welcome to my studio.
I have a toothache. It’s affecting my outlook, I confess. This is the week of doing things that need to get done, so I’m going to see a dentist. To tell the truth, I kind of want the tooth just pulled. Last fall, I paid for an expensive root canal and less than a year later, the ache is back; was it worth the drilling and pain and cost?
It occurs to me, as I write this out, that pulling the tooth — the desire to pull the tooth, and be done with it — is a metaphor that perhaps I should explore in more depth.
Let’s assume I want to pull the tooth. Am I, therefore, the sort of person who rips painful problems from her life, leaving gaping holes, rather than spend the time and energy to fix them? Or am I the sort of person who recognizes that the fix is a scam, that when all the work is done, the tooth will just be hollowed out and crammed with filler, a shell of its former self, shored up for cosmetic purposes? It’s interesting, isn’t it, how a metaphor can be twisted any which way, to support opposing views.
Maybe it’s just a toothache. But I want it fixed!
All the fixes are imperfect, okay, I accept that. My question is: Which imperfect fix is worth it, given the costs? How can I ever know, when I’m trying to sort these things out? What’s the healthiest allocation of resources, what’s important to prioritize, what will I miss when it’s gone? No wonder it’s so hard, when making a choice, to say no — it feels like giving up, but also, it feels like an absence, a void, is scarier to accept than something known, even if the known thing is causing pain and can’t be perfectly put right again.
I know, I know. I’m over-thinking.
One of the problems of the pandemic is seeing fewer people, less often. It’s a recipe for unchecked eccentricities!
A friend said to me that she asks herself (and others): What do you want to do, and what can you do?
Another friend recommended long ago not to choose resentment over discomfort. Or at least to notice if it’s become a habit: truth is, if it’s what you’re accustomed to, resentment feels easier to accept than discomfort. Many of us (women, especially) are socialized to believe that feeling discomfort is bad and wrong, and that, when we feel it, we are bad and wrong, or we’ve done something bad and wrong. Resentment, by contrast, is an outer-facing feeling — blame someone else, blame the situation, blame anything but your own choice. Oh, resentment, you’re so easy to step into and you go on and on and on.
I think these are similar philosophies that acknowledge the difficulty, the fraught-ness, of decision-making. And I’m making decisions, choices, whether by doing or not-doing, all day long; some more consequential than others, but all fed by my private interior calculations that take into account (unconsciously, more often than not) my values, my relationship to others, my whims, my interpretation of available resources.
My daughter, Annabella, says that human beings have limited will-power, and that’s why routines are so important: a habit is a choice already made, and our energy can be spent making other choices, instead.
What do I want to do, and what can I do?
I want my tooth to stop aching. I also want the least expensive, least complicated option. But I don’t know: will I feel ugly or self-conscious if there’s a gap in my teeth?
I wonder how often I make choices based on how I imagine I’ll be perceived.
This post was never about the toothache. Not exactly. I like how these posts drift into the unexpected, into the weeds. I don’t know what’s waiting to be found till I come here and look around. More and more, I appreciate that this space exists, whatever its nebulous purpose. It feels like there’s room here for nuance and exploration and questioning, and eccentricity. I wander out into this space to make a few observations, see if anyone’s around. This is my overgrown empty lot in the middle of the city. This is my front lawn.
- What felt good this month? Being outside! The weather has been splendid (I live for the heat), and our back yard is inviting, lush, pretty, full of birds and wild critters (including skunks, but that discovery goes into a different category). I’ve been running regularly, never more than 5km, always early in the morning through the park. This past week, CJ and I have been on almost-daily bike adventures, on paths and trails and quiet streets throughout the city (and I’m so glad he’s still happy to go on adventures with me!). Annie and I do yoga outside every morning, and it’s bliss to lie back and look at the sky. Our family has been using the gazebo area to entertain friends, socially distanced, of course; meeting face-to-face is so much sweeter than Zoom, though I’ll continue to appreciate Zoom for making it possible to see each other when it isn’t otherwise feasible. We’ve been camping, we’ve lounged at the beach. Bottom line: I’m drinking up this season, positively gorging on it, while it lasts.
- What did you struggle with? Resigning from coaching soccer. It was a painful decision. But I wasn’t comfortable returning to the field this summer, and I had to make the call one way or the other. I’m a big believer in finishing what you start, and in not bailing on commitments even when it gets hard; but ultimately it didn’t feel like I was being asked to do what I’d signed up for. In truth, my decision came from deep in my guts, and when a decision rises from there, it’s important to listen. So I said goodbye to the players; with gratitude for other coaches willing to step in. For someone who has difficulty saying “No,” this has been a valuable process to work through. My mental health seems more stable this month, too, and I wonder whether the looming return-to-play was weighing more heavily on my mind than I was willing to acknowledge at the time.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? More chilled-out. I’ve been reading lots of books, and napping on the couch. Less Twitter too! Haven’t written much new material in the past two weeks … but it hasn’t felt imperative. What feels imperative is feeding my mind with new ideas, hanging out with my kids, seeing friends, sticking to an early morning exercise routine. To everything there is a season. I’m submitting to the flow.
- How did you take care of yourself? This month, I continued to tend to my physical and mental health. I’ve been countering negative thoughts with journaling. I try to notice when I’m being unkind to myself, and to assess whether it’s accurate or based on an irrational or subconscious pattern of thought. I’m doing tons of stretching and strengthening (physio homework). Texting/talking with friends is also good self-care, I realize. I’ve been telling my body how much I appreciate it. I’ve been trying to apply the idea of acceptance as a form of love to myself, as well as to my loved ones. Don’t we all just want to be loved and appreciated for who we are, flaws and all? Becoming takes a lifetime. We’re all going it at our own pace, so let’s walk there together, in kindness and generosity.
- What would you most like to remember? Standing in the driveway, listening to my mom tell stories about her past. Biking behind CJ as he learns to lead the way. Laughing around the campfire. Wind blowing through open car windows. The comet shining like a flashlight in the night sky. The sound of many many birds. Being in motion, going somewhere, even if just around the block. The sky.
- What do you need to let go of? Anxiety, especially about everything that’s out of my control. Maggie Nelson writes about “prophylactic anxiety” in her book The Argonauts (her marvellous, genre-defying, mind-stretching book). In fact, I’m noticing that it’s her own mother who cannot escape from this need to anticipate and rehearse for the very worst, at all times. Maggie Nelson quotes Freud’s definition of anxiety: “Anxiety describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one.” My kids have been helping me notice the many ways in which I apply prophylactic anxiety, which I’ve preferred to call “vigilance,” to a multiplicity of situations in our shared lives. But you know—one cannot be ever-vigilant, ever-watchful. I cannot be. It’s a poor state in which to live one’s life. There’s no fun in it; dire warnings aren’t fun to broadcast or receive, and all but the most crucial are probably counter-productive. Is it the responsibility of a mother to prevent disaster? I feel quite certain that this has been the standard you-are-a-mother-and-this-is-your-job messaging. But maybe, just maybe, it’s not.
When I think about the word balance, a word I’ve considered maybe somewhat irrelevant or inapplicable to my life, what I’m beginning to sense or feel, as much as understand, is that I am always in transition. I almost never arrive anywhere, and certainly don’t stay. I exist in flux even while viewing myself as being a creature reaching toward, aiming toward, permanence.
Yet I am human, mortal, entirely impermanent.
Rituals exist to pin down significant moments; because the moments in my life run together like water. But what I’m glimpsing in the word balance is a peace in accepting this state. I’m seeing the fluidity in my being in all of existence, in the way time moves, and that I move in time. I’m seeing that I am of my time, immovable from the history that surrounds me even if this history will not remember or know me, especially.
During the lockdown, my work was not deemed essential. Because it isn’t. I am not planting vegetables or stocking shelves or administering tests or researching cures or triaging patients or caring for those who need special care. My work has been on the page, and in the home.
I’ve had time. And I’ve noticed that, given the time, I can write and imagine in a bigger way than I had before. I’ve noticed, too, that I continue to feel anxious, to experience existential dread, to float in the brine of my own small shames, to wish often to be better than I am. That has always been with me, will always be with me. Feelings come and go and come again. I’ll always have feelings, mixed up and catching me off-guard and demanding my attention. It’s my response to the feelings that is changing.
Can I live with discomfort? The answer is yes.
Disappoint myself or disappoint others? Sometimes the choice is pretty stark. Sometimes you can’t square the circle. Sometimes — often, really — you cannot please everyone, and by trying to do so, you please no one, least of all yourself. What is your inner voice whispering? Does it hurt to hear it?
I’m trying out an experiment. I’ve come to believe that I don’t have time to do most things, let alone all things. Just write. Cook. Read, research a bit. Yoga, run. That’s it. A little bit of housework. Parent, pay attention to my kids. Be a good friend. That’s it.
Whether it brings me anything, doesn’t matter. It’s the ego wants things brought to it. This is my river. Is it service enough to just write? I don’t know. But I’d like to find out. Or try.
Time to unfold, unfurl, spread out. What’s the rush?
What am I hurrying to discover? It all comes to light in time.
Noticing something, as I sit at my desk on this hazy hot afternoon: some days I feel like speaking and other days I do not. Some days I need to absorb information and other days I’m prepared to synthesize material into something else, to pour it out. Some days are wordless, other days alight with language, tumbling into sense.
Today is a reflective day, an observant day, a day when tears rise easily, and my brain is making connections almost riotously, but also chaotically. I’m hungry, absorbent as a sponge, alert to the world around me, but somehow unable to smooth everything I’m feeling and seeing into a scene, an act, a verse.
Fly buzzes against the window screen.
Two men argue loudly across the street. I’ve put ear plugs in, but still I hear them.
It is necessary to be quiet, to collect, to listen, to be attuned to the inner reaches of things; to everything its season. Two days ago, I wrote for hours in a trance-like state, emerging late in the afternoon feeling like I’d lifted the top off my head and aired everything out. I floated for hours afterward, certain I could call this bliss to come again the next day with the proper application of ritual. But it didn’t happen. Today, such bliss seems even further away as I trek between appointments and prepare for tasks I do not wish to do. Such is the flux of life itself; be kind to yourself, I say (speaking to myself, as well as to you).
As I drove home just now, listening to news and weather on the radio, enjoying the brief whirr of air conditioning, I thought: today you are absorbing, collecting, waiting, and that is okay. You have some important decisions to make. You need to give your mind space, not press so hard on it. Words, sense, shape can’t be squeezed out on demand like paste from a tube.
So let yourself do what today calls you to do: Attend. Prepare. Clarity is coming. Let is unfold in its time.
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