I’ve spent the afternoon by the fire reading Meet the Austins, by Madeleine L’Engle, likely for the tenth-or-so time. I hadn’t meant to spend the afternoon reading, but my nine-year-old asked for a book recommendation, and I came back to her with this one and Harriet the Spy, and she chose Harriet the Spy, so I picked up Meet the Austins. I knew I wouldn’t be able to read just a page or two. Sometimes it’s hard to pick up a book because I know how consuming it will be.
But there is nothing to do today, on January 1st. It is one of the quietest days in our whole year. We had a fun celebration last night, a houseful of friends and their kids, music-playing and games and good food and drink, up past the midnight hour, and today is for doing absolutely nothing other than what we want to do.
For me, that’s been lying in pyjamas reading a book and sipping cups of tea.
What I love about reading, and what is so unique about the experience, is that it opens the mind in a particularly vivid way. It elevates my thinking, even while I’m doing it. I can feel my mind opening on a number of different levels as I read a story. I’m empathizing with characters, experiencing an emotional response to their situations, I’m analyzing the structure and style of the text itself, I’m aware of what’s going on around me in the real world, and I’m thinking bigger braver thoughts about my own life and intentions and work. I’m considering why I write, and what I want to write, and why I tell stories, and what stories I want to tell. I’m thinking about the writer herself, Madeleine L’Engle, whose stories I’ve been reading for probably thirty years, and about what I know of her life and career. I’m doing this almost all at once, it seems. And all of this activity enlivens me, even while I’m lying in pyjamas by the fire, at ease, comfortable, relaxed.
And then I come here to this screen, and I write about it. What a fortunate life this is.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote mainly for children and young adults. Her books are full of philosophical questions, moral conundrums, acts of anger, compassion, and forgiveness, quotations from other work (Einstein and Thomas Browne, in this book), engagement with other forms of art. They feel to me like spiritual works. Oh, to write like Madeleine L’Engle. And maybe to live like her — or like her characters, in their rambling houses full of purpose and energy and music and good food and friendship and chores and order amidst the noisy chaos. (Maybe this is what I’ve based my ideal family on, all these years, without even realizing it…)
Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. —Leonard Cohen
Goodnight, year past. Welcome, another circle of seasons. All I want to say is: keep letting the light in, no matter where it’s coming from. But also, let the light out, let the light shine through. It’s in you.
Seen: park bench, Vancouver
I spent part of this morning at a friend’s annual solstice breakfast, a neighbourhood gathering of women friends, many of us known to each other for a decade or more, and I think the feeling around the table this morning was gratitude for the deepening of friendships over time, and the welcoming of new friendships, too.
Kevin and I landed by chance in this neighbourhood eleven years ago; we knew one couple who lived nearby (she was there this morning too). I wouldn’t have even known what to hope for at the time, much less could I have imagined how the move would shape our lives–our daily lives and our lives as they’ve unfolded and continue to unfold through all of the stages and seasons. My own childhood was very different from the childhood I’ve chosen to give to my own kids. There are upsides and downsides to both. I moved often as a kid, changed schools often, had to make new friends, find ways to fit in, and say goodbye, often. I remember relishing the adventures. It was sometimes hard to be the outsider, but I also became almost effortlessly adaptable, a natural observer and mimic; and also effortlessly open to adventure, my mind full of possibilities and dreams, open to new places, cultures, languages. It was a lucky childhood for a writer, and perhaps it made me into one. My own children know what I didn’t know, and what I sometimes longed for — friendships predating memory, continuity of ritual and landscape and seasons, the stability of rootedness.
I didn’t know what moving to this neighbourhood would give me. But maybe I intuited the possibilities. It is so good to be a part of a community. We went around the table this morning, each naming what we were grateful for. I felt grateful that friends continue to invite and include me, even though I’ve been missing-in-action so much of this year, often too tired or simply not present, not available to come and share the friendship. I recognize how important presence is to friendship. I’m so grateful to be invited to the table.
This may sound ever so slightly off-topic, but bear with me. There are times when I’m overwhelmed by fear or sadness. And I ask, in those moments, what comforts me? The answer is friendship. Even if I don’t always choose to reach out, I know in my bones that help and support would flood in my direction if I were to call out in need, just as I would offer the same. To be part of a community is to know, to trust, I’m not alone. We’re not alone.
I can’t think of a greater comfort.
I hope for you the same.
PS My two-word letter to my younger self is up on the 4Mothers blog today. An interesting and challenging exercise, if you want to try it too.
It’s been a week of busyness with little opportunity for reflection. It’s been an up and down week, emotionally, and it’s just struck me that I’m finishing my November, as I often do, in a bit of funk. Is it the shortened days, the vanishing light, the overhanging clouds, the chilly winds, the general gloom of a world stripped bare and not yet blanketed in bright snow? Probably, yes.
But it’s also an existential Novemberness that alights every year. A wondering what it is I’ve accomplished this year, and what’s left to complete, as if I am a list of tasks done or undone. And maybe I am? But maybe, maybe I’m not, in truth.
As Kevin tells me, Life is not going to give you First Prize. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’ve written a good book. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good parent. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good person.
I’ve fallen to pieces on a few occasions this past week. I’ve been filled with unaccountable shame. This is not the face or person I present to the world, but my kids have to stumble over it. They’ve seen me crying and have found ways to comfort me, with compassion and rationality; and I worry that I’m harming them by not being as solid as rock, as rooted as an oak tree, as strong as diamonds.
I suspect that this feeling of vulnerability and exposure is cumulative. It’s been a fall of presenting my book in public to audiences interested and sometimes not so much; that’s the reality and necessity of publishing books. One must promote one’s work. One must speak on behalf of the work in hopes that the work gets found and adopted and championed by others. I have many many wonderful memories from events this fall, and in truth, very few that are even mildly distressing. So I suspect this feeling of vulnerability and exposure has little to do with the quality and worthiness of the events themselves, but rather with a sustained public stance that has been more difficult for me to participate in than I’ve allowed myself to recognize.
After all, I enjoy reading from my work. I enjoy meeting other writers, and readers. I enjoy sharing my thoughts, and appreciate immensely being invited to participate. These are enormous blessings. I am enormously grateful.
But the shadow side is that I don’t think the human character is designed to absorb even the modest amount of attention that’s come to me this fall. I don’t think we’re particularly good at it. It doesn’t tend to make us into better people. It tends to make us think we’re something special. And even while we’re thinking that, we know we’re not special at all, and the disconnect and disharmony of having to sustain and project the confidence of having something worth saying, while fearing one doesn’t, creates a cognitive dissonance.
I’ve felt kind of hollow this last little while. Hollow, and, in truth, lonely. Removed from myself.
Restoring an interior balance and sense of location and groundedness seems the answer. Advent starts tomorrow, a season of waiting, and I like that metaphor. I don’t mind waiting. I’ll never arrive, not really, because I’ll never cease changing. I want to inhabit deliberate patience. I want to discipline my mind away from its taste for quick hits of attention, and return it to the slow and steady onward pace of life in its daily ritual and routine, a life of small adventures, private successes, and strength through connection.
How I fit in the public work that is necessary to my job — and important (teaching is important, for example!) — is a question I’m not entirely able to answer at the moment, but I think it relates directly to maintaining disciplined habits and routines. Maybe too — this has just come to me, just now — it relates to forgiveness. Maybe it is mainly in my own mind that I’m falling short. Maybe, secretly, I really do believe in a First Prize for anything and everything, and as long as I cling to my imaginary scale of external validation, I’ll exist in a kind of permanent November of the spirit. And I would rather not.
I want to write about a subject of some difficulty to process and confess.
I’ve been thinking about how I ascribe value to the things that I do. If something is hard, I assign it greater value. If something comes easy, I assign it less. Therefore, when a task or job or skill comes naturally for me, I tend to shrug off its worth. Oh, that was easy, that was nothing.
I respond to success by accepting or seeking out tasks of greater difficulty. I readily take on challenges. I choose to do the things that will be hard precisely because they will be hard. I take on this work in order to improve underused or underdeveloped skills, and to force myself out of my comfort zone. I choose it on the premise that it’s healthy for the ego and the soul to attempt and practice activities, tasks, or jobs that expose inner flaws, that force one to confront fears, that are therefore in many ways gut-wrenchingly difficult. Any accomplishment that comes out of such a frightening and challenging place is, frankly, astonishing and wonderful.
But I’m beginning to question the wisdom, at this time in my life, of this approach.
I’m beginning to wonder whether by tackling tasks of great challenge and difficulty, tasks that do not necessarily align with my natural talents, I’m unconsciously selling myself short. Rather than resting and calling myself to go more deeply into that which comes (superficially) easily, am I displaying a kind of boredom and restlessness, a mind that demands constant stimulation, even in negative form?
I seem to be good at writing fiction. Storytelling comes easy to me, more easy than anything else I’ve ever tried, always has, as far back as I can remember. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s what I need to focus on, strictly, as a life-long cause, as a hard-earned practice.
Just because something comes easy doesn’t mean it’s not hard, that’s what I’m beginning to perceive, to glimpse, ever so dimly. In fact, it may be the more difficult path because it comes easy, because I fail to value it, because ease can lead to boredom, because by delving deeper into a natural-born talent I risk discovering my limits. And that’s bloody terrifying, way scarier than failing at something I already know I’m not particularly good at.
It seems that the challenge that’s before us is not always the most obvious.
To do what I want to, as a storyteller, I need to bear witness to what is. I need to shed light. But I want, too, to bring light. And maybe that’s more about imagining what could be.
I’ve been thinking about this: about shedding light and bearing light, and how the two are not the same at all, yet I want to be able to do both at once. I want to illuminate the dark areas of our culture and our lives, and I want to bring light while doing so.
It’s a small “big thought” on a day when it seems the snow will never stop falling, nor the wind whipping. The kids are hoping for a snow day tomorrow. Maybe I am too …