I’m in between, right now.
In between tasks, in between seasons. Maybe it’s always this way? Maybe I’m always in liminal space, in flux, free-floating. I do set goals and meet them. But I also set daily practices, which don’t necessarily develop into full-fledged goals other than hoping to experience discoveries that slowly accrue and weave themselves into my way of being in the world.
I don’t set a goal unless I believe it’s something I have the will, time, energy, drive and desire to accomplish. A practice is lighter: it’s exploration, experiment, play; it’s something that draws my interest, that feeds my body, soothes my mind.
Writing can be either, for me: goal or practice; and these get tangled up and confused.
I set goals for my writing; but it’s really more fundamentally a basic practice, a constant companion and comfort. I’ve earned money from my writing; but in a nonsensical way, or impractically, unpredictable and sometimes completely disconnected from time and effort expended. Writing has opened other doors — to teaching and participating as an artist in the community, for example; but I don’t come to writing from a logical place, nor as a transaction. I don’t often exchange my writing for a tangible reward; mostly, I can’t, even if I wanted to. Anyway, that’s not how a practice works —
And I know that’s what my writing actually is.
It’s a practice. It’s not a vocation, it’s not a career, it’s not a way to get ahead or succeed, it’s not a means to an end. It’s how I function in the world, it’s kept me whole, it gives me clarity and release and it helps me — especially fiction — to organize my panicked, irrational, awestruck, mysterious, and otherwise unknown and unseen underworld.
The practice of writing radiates back so many life-giving things. Friendship. Connection. Challenge. Adventure. Doors open and doors close. Writing continues the conversation.
Like how … I needed to write this, this morning.
How it’s helped me refocus on what matters; on the real goal that pulls me onward. That goal is to connect. It’s not my word of the year (that’s “feel”), but the principle of connection is guiding most every decision that I make right now, as a parent, a friend, a community member. It helps me make moral choices, too. When I boil down what I believe and what guides my every action, it’s to build, strengthen, and maintain connections. The starting place is to feel — connecting to others is rooted in connecting to self, by knowing what’s inside of me, what I truly want to do.
Feel = Connect = Enjoy
Maybe that’s true? It feels true.
I started this post by writing: I’m in between, right now.
I meant: I don’t know what to do next. My big project for these past many years, my overwhelming goal, has been to publish another novel. It’s coming soon. I don’t really have much left to do, to prepare. It’s out of my hands now.
It’s not that I’m not writing fiction. I am, in volume and with great enjoyment. Yet, I don’t seem to have that combo right now of will, drive, energy and desire, or not directed toward the goal of publishing another novel. I’m not even sure anymore that it’s a healthy goal to take on; to be frank with you, the publishing part of the equation was, is, and will always be out of my hands. And that’s scary, honestly. What am I doing, trying to forge a career on such unstable earth? That’s a question asked by fear. I ask it, because I am that person, I have such fear. But I’m also a person with a practice. A career is a thing outside myself; a practice dwells within.
The practice asks: What’s drawing your attention? The practices reminds me: Follow the energy, write toward that. Trust this time, be in between. Feel, connect. Feel, connect. Be where you are. What’s enjoyable, here, right now? (Oh, so much! Plenty! Enough, and more! Maybe I’ll write about that next time?)
This tangential post is brought to you by an x page exercise, written during last week’s workshop (week 2 of 12), in the company of other women, in response to the prompt word: PARTY. It must have tapped some essential emotion, because I came home and kept writing till it felt done. I’d like to call this fiction, but maybe more accurately it’s a version of poetry, instead. (Where were you at age 20, and what were you doing, and hoping, and dreaming of?)
Phil’s $1.50 drinks
I am at Phil’s, an underground bar where the pipes overhead are wrapped in asbestos and the drinks are $1.50 on Wednesdays, but they must really water them down because I need to drink at least four to feel anywhere near tipsy. I’ve invited everyone I can think of, I’ve telephoned, left messages all over town. Friends are here, some have come, but no one is happy. The bar is too empty, the friends have no money either. Wet salt patches melt from our boots on the floor.
I had forgotten, or wanted to forget, why I used to love this place—because I’d come here during the day when I was a first year student, with a friend, Rich. (Now I’m in third year.) I had a car and he did not, even though I was no more than 17 or 18, and he was 21 or so. I would pick him up in my red Honda Civic, and I’d do my laundry (maybe he would too, but I don’t remember that now), and we’d sit by the pool tables and play cards in the middle of the day, drinking coffee. Gin rummy was our favourite game. It felt like we were the only people there and maybe we were. The good feeling I had on those afternoons seems irreplaceable, now. A feeling of possibility, excitement, tenderness, desire, amiable companionship. Rich was funny and he made me laugh, he never made me feel like I was wrong to be a goofy silly earnest person.
I’d forgotten all of this till exactly now, and now the friends I’m with don’t satisfy me—we’re too much the same in our longings and dissatisfaction—I want different, other, more, but Rich doesn’t live here anymore, and anyway, he never loved me like I loved him, if obsession counts as love, which I seem to think it does. What do I know about it? About love? I’ve mixed it all up with other things. Obsession feels like I think love should—dangerous, exciting.
I’m 20 now and feel so old when I look in the mirror. I finish my diluted drink and go to the gross damp women’s washroom, where one time I saw the lead singer of the Cowboy Junkies washing her hands, and I stand in front of the mirror and check my own eyes—not drunk enough, not interesting enough (as if these were the same thing). I see fine wrinkles around my eyes—could it be? “I’m getting so old!” I go back out and shout to my friends over the music. But they are too. We are so old! And we maybe hardly know each other really at all, we’re just proximate to each other, accidentally revolving around each other. We are so lost. Lonely. Alone.
In this mood, I take my misery to the little raised dance floor, even though no one is dancing, and I dance holding onto a fresh drink, gin and tonic in a flimsy plastic cup with a slice of lime floating in the bubbly mixture. I’ll promise anyone anything to get them to join me at this party that is not a real party. I’ll promise, but I won’t follow through. I can’t drink enough to get myself drunk, so I throw it down on the dance floor, metaphorically, to make myself feel something, anything, in my lungs. I’m smoking, at that time. You can smoke, at that time, indoors. Soon, this will end too, like everything else. I can see all of us dispersing, shot wide into the rest of our lives, fanning out in different directions, toward the parts of our other selves that are drawing us like magnets, while we, we, we, a mere two decades into inhabiting our bodies, prepare to part from whatever this era is, a time of loss, and exploration, poverty, and unrecognized riches.
My coat is ugly and it slips to the floor and gets stepped on, spilled on, but I’ll have to wear it home at the end of the night. I’ve spent my money on drinks, tomorrow I will eat a packet of Mr Noodles and lie on my mattress on the floor of the basement apartment I share with my brother (it will flood come spring), and I’ll read all of Pride and Prejudice, cover to cover, just for fun, laughing and crying and yearning and dreaming. I haven’t met the man who will become my husband yet. I don’t have an email account. I can’t imagine a cellphone and we have no tv. I have my books, a telephone with an answering machine, and enough money in savings to get myself partway to drunk on Wednesdays at Phil’s (I’ll buy cigarettes but can’t afford cheese; I have these priorities).
But every night, even on this night, after brushing my teeth and before going to bed, I sit at my desk and write poetry. I write about the things that happen to me, and the things that I wish would happen to me, and the language, words, images entrance me, as if they were magical forms, and I were a witch casting spells on myself, I were a person from another time come to bring myself back to earth, inside my body, filling all of it with the silly goofy earnestness that is actually my version of joy (though I don’t know it yet), whispering you are enough, you are sufficient, you are alive, you are not alone.
You are a whole person, or you will be; no—you are, you already are.
I’ve been doing art therapy for about a year now. At my most recent appointment, the therapist recognized the work I’ve been doing and said that she had seen changes over this past year. She observed that when we started I was struggling to find space for myself, to make space, give myself space, feel deserving or worthy of space. And she thinks that’s changed. I agree. That feeling of worthiness might be the root of other changes I’ve observed, which feel profound; even while I know myself to be the very same person, plagued by the same anxieties and tics and inclinations. I can change and still be familiar to myself; I find this comforting and funny. It’s revelatory and delightful to discover (again and again?) that the self is so sturdy. Being mindful is just a way to observe more closely what I’m feeling and thinking in any given moment, and then I can decide what to do with that information. Mindfulness springs from worthiness: I trust that what I’m thinking and feeling is worthy of my attention. No judgement, no self-castigation, just observation.
It is as simple as that.
Here’s an example. I’m feeling impatient sitting in traffic. I’m going to be late, I think! I can feel my heart rate rising. I’m hitting every red light! I drop an f-bomb. At some point during this mini-escalation, I notice what I’m thinking and feeling. I say (maybe even out loud!), kindly, to myself, hey you seem pretty stressed out. That simple kindness is helpful. Yes, I am stressed out! Now I can assess whether my feelings and thoughts are attached to reality — to what’s actually happening. Am I actually running late? Even if I am running late, is this actually a crisis? (Usually the answer is no, everything is okay.) But there’s an even deeper and more profound question available here, too: Even if this really is a crisis, is this how I want to respond?
Of course not.
Do I have a choice in how I respond?
I believe that I do. I believe that I can laugh (lovingly) at my frailties and weaknesses, I can appreciate the vulnerable anxious impulsive human I am — the impatience, the rising heart rate, the swearing — and I can speak kindly to myself, and notice that everything is okay, right now. It’s always the right now in which I’m living. It’s amazing how this frees me to settle in and appreciate what’s happening, right now. I’m at a red light, but I can sing along to the radio, I can look out the window and see what’s there to be seen. There’s always something there to be seen, heard, felt, wondered about. The world is an amazing mystery that’s always present, available to be experienced, observed, cherished.
Thankfulness just wells up naturally when this shift in perspective happens — and I can be thankful and surprised and renewed by the world’s wonders, over and over again. It never gets old.
A few more changes I’ve observed:
I’ve stopped enforcing rules I don’t believe in.
If I don’t want to do something, I say so. Often someone else can do it instead. If not, I figure out how to make the task more enjoyable. By taking on less of the things I don’t want to do, I’m able to give more freely. A paradox. The way that being kinder to myself makes me inclined to be kinder to others.
I pay attention to a feeling I call “the shame sandwich.” Sometimes I wake up feeling like I’ve eaten a shame sandwich. What I know about shame: it’s attached to deeply rooted fears, specific to my life experiences. If I can identify the trigger, this helps me be kind to myself and the feeling tends to resolve. Shame makes it harder to be kind to myself, so it’s important to notice when I’ve eaten the sandwich.
I am kinder to myself. I know that I can’t do everything, and also that I’m not responsible to solve most things. I can help you find your lost book, and pick you up from piano lessons, but I can’t tell you how to be the person you want to be. I shouldn’t be trying to tell you that anyway. I’ll just love you, and care about you, for being who you are. I’ll pay attention to what interests you. I’ll ask questions and listen. I’ll find ways to connect that meet you where you’re at, wherever that may be. I won’t ask you to change, because I think you are sacred and amazing, exactly as you are.
I’ll hold you lightly. As lightly as I hold myself.
One last change I’ve observed: I let myself feel happiness. I know that I’ve been afraid in my life to feel happiness, to fully experience it, that I tamped the sensation down, afraid of being up too high and floating away, or afraid of what would happen when the feeling went away. I’m not letting those fears stop me from feeling happiness anymore. I think that by feeling happiness, I will feel it more often, in more situations: this glorious sensation of wellness and wholeness, and lightness. I’m willing to test this theory out.
Life. It’s bigger. It’s bigger than you and you are not me. The lengths that I will go to. The distance in your eyes. Oh no I’ve said too much. I haven’t said enough.
Fellow Gen Xers probably recognize that song (REM’s “Losing My Religion”). I don’t know why exactly it came to me as I sat down to write about Life. Maybe because it’s bigger. It’s bigger than it’s been, anyway, even after weeks of recovery (or maybe especially after that). I’m making plans, though they may change last-minute. My plans are mere sketches, a few chords on which to improvise; they delight me.
Last week, I took a spontaneous trip to Toronto on the train. Got me some vocal cord physio and an intensive on how to use my voice, in preparation for reading the audiobook version of my new novel (!!!!). Reading the audiobook goes on my bucket list (I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did …). Recording in studio is set to start next week. While in Toronto, I also visited my sister and her delightful pup (pictured below). I saw a man dance with a pigeon on the subway (not pictured). My eyes were overwhelmed by the sights out the train window. I was in bliss. It was exactly what I needed. Good medicine.
This weekend we hosted family. I didn’t feel like cooking, so I asked my eldest to make the scalloped potatoes — and he did! On Monday our second-eldest kid moved back home from residence, so the house was fuller when we woke up this morning. And our Open House for the 2022 X Page Workshop is tomorrow evening. In person! I feel myself buzzing with energy and new life. It’s not anxiety, it’s excitement. It’s a desire for connection that’s leaping out of me, off my skin, I can almost see it flashing from me in pinging waves, or like antennae reaching out. I don’t think I’ve turned into an extrovert during the pandemic, but I’ve clearly built up some extra space for social interaction.
Something I’m noticing about myself, as I return to life, bigger, is that I love being the still centre of a whirl — the ringmaster at the circus. Does this mean I enjoy stirring things up? I don’t know. I hope not. It isn’t conflict I’m after, but contact, connection, a performance that’s almost entirely improvised and feels natural because it relies on mutual trust, and self-trust.
This reflection came from a recent 100-day creativity prompt …
A list of things that are true about me.
I’m on day 2 of listing things. Here’s day 1 —
1 I love being the still centre of a whirl — the ringmaster at the circus
2 I am happiest when I am with people
3 I am trying to become less controlling
4 I love relating to teenagers — I think it’s an especially beautiful, searching, changing, vulnerable time of life
5 I experience big swings of emotion
6 Writing fiction is a form of therapy, for me
7 I love the feeling of trusting myself, it feels like a safety net into which I can fall
8 Discovering I’ve hurt someone is incredibly painful news and I resist hearing it, and/or respond defensively, and/or torture myself for it
9 I can be very self-pitying
10 I am oddly comfortable at the front of the room
11 I love learning new things and challenging myself to leave my comfort zone
12 My first instinct isn’t always right
13 I value strong relationships built on mutual trust, and care
14 I am not perfect at all
What felt good this month? Mid-month, I started walking every single morning, despite the extreme cold. It brought me back to life, especially on the morning there was a huge snowstorm. Just remembering that walk gives me a child-like delight. January is a hard month, and this year we were locked down for most of it. Getting outside was imperative. I also started using a light box in the mornings for half an hour, while doing a puzzle. My daughter and I are now working on separate puzzles simultaneously (she wisely decided not to participate in my attempt to become a better person through puzzle-sharing, as it was clear to all that I was not particularly improving). Other good feelings: backyard fire with friends; eating fermented foods; tea and meditation; and finishing the copy edits for FRANCIE with my editor!!! YESS!
What did you struggle with? Exhaustion, lassitude, a general lack of motivation. But I’m going to turn this question around and explain that I’ve actually experienced less struggle this month. I think I’ve lowered my expectations. Or maybe my expectations are in line with what’s possible for me to achieve on any given day. Whatever’s happening, I’ll take it. Some part of my brain has settled into accepting that I don’t have the answers to many of the questions. I’m letting myself off the hook: it isn’t my job to craft perfect responses in this imperfect world. It is my job to be truthful about how I’m feeling, to speak from a place of thoughtful vulnerability rather than apprehensive face-saving, and to have the courage to say No if it’s what I mean. (As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve discovered that saying NO is HUGELY DIFFICULT for me. I like to please. I’m going to try to get comfortable with the discomfort of not pleasing.)
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I finished the major textual work on FRANCIE. So that’s done. Good. Other than that, I’m working on another writing project, while considering what other activities may be calling. It’s important to keep space cleared for writing. The more writing I do, the more it’s part of my every day routine, the easier it is to step into the flow. Also, my focus is pretty limited I’ve realized. In any given day, week, month, I can maybe focus deeply on one project and stay present for my family and friends — and that’s it! Luckily, I think that constitutes a pretty good life. As pandemic guidelines change again, and things open up, I need to think carefully before piling on new projects, activities or responsibilities. What matters? What matters most?
How did you take care of yourself? I listened to a kind voice in my head. Somehow, this kind voice gave me permission not to take myself too seriously. I laughed at my foibles and missteps rather than fearing them, or wanting to hide them away. Try it: Talk to yourself like you’re talking to a very dear friend (I heard this advice on the “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast — and it worked for me!). I also did 30 days of yoga with Adriene (and Kevin). And I initiated a two-week tea ritual with my word of the year group again, which is bringing me new ideas for meditative practices, and much wise reflection. What enriches your life? I think it’s worth asking. I think it’s worth acting on, too. Trust yourself, trust your body, the kind voice tells me (she sounds a lot like Adriene, at least in this example). You have everything you need, right here.
What would you most like to remember? Walking in a snowstorm is the best! If it’s snowing, go outside and play! Dress for the weather and have an adventure.
What do you need to let go of? Any sense of self-importance. What do I mean by this? There’s a part of the self that wants to be admired. It’s the same part of the self, strangely enough, that fears being exposed as not worthy of admiration. It’s the part that’s really scared of dying too, and not being here in the world anymore, being forgotten, not doing enough with the time remaining, not leaving something valuable behind. I see this part of myself. I feel compassion toward its fear, and all the pressure that fear can bring. What alleviates my fear, makes it irrelevant? This: To do the work I see before me, no matter the outcome. If I can name a want, that’s it. In this vision, the work of grammar and imagery and structure and ideas holds my attention, and I can laugh gently and appreciate the humour of this funny, foolish, wishful, hopeful, grasping flurry of imperfect human beingness attempting to do this work. It’s gonna be a mess. I think that’s what we get.
And hey, we made it through January! Thank you for reading along.
The secret to writing books is to give yourself a ridiculous expanse of luxurious empty time and space to dream, play, and not do anything that taxes the mind with external cares.
Is this true? Well, I’ve found it to be true.
It means you might not do much else with your day, your hours. You might cook dinner. You might go for a walk, or a run. You might see a friend. You might do a puzzle. You might scroll through Netflix watching the intros to thirty shows as entertainment before bed.
I struggle justifying how much time is spent on staring out the window. Or writing things that don’t turn out, writing draft after draft after draft. So many words assembled tenderly, hopefully, excitedly, only to be discarded.
If this is what it takes to write books, is it worth it? Who am I serving? Just myself?
Well, what if the answer is yes? Yes, I’m serving my writing, at the expense of many other things I could be doing with this one precious life.
What makes you feel purposeful, as you go about your day? What tells you, gut-deep: you are worthy? I don’t know. I’m asking.
It’s a funny thing to be a human, to want to be purposeful, to want to make decisions independently, freely, but to be inextricably embedded in a culture, context, generation, family structure, biology, language(s), place.
I notice that I easily accept the value of tasks or actions that measurably help someone else, like donating blood; concrete chores also have value, and doing them feels valuable, like laundry and cooking; it’s also easy to measure worth by monetary reward, doing X and receiving Y in return. In my experience, writing is generally untethered from any of these logical measurements. But I don’t believe anyone’s worth rests on external evaluation; or on evaluation, period.
You are worthy because you are fighting it out here on planet earth.
You are worthy because you are worthy.
I drew that cartoon a few days ago. I keep returning to look at it. There’s something there that’s whispering to me: peace, and calm, and acceptance, and worthiness. I’ve been drawing daily cartoons again, as a way of journaling. I draw a moment I want to remember, and on this particular day, the moment I wanted to remember was being asleep and dreaming about my new book, which has a tree on its cover — the dream vibe was contentment.
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