Last week was a hard one for me. Home alone (with the children), I thought, well, I’ll think of it as a holiday. But it didn’t feel like a holiday. It felt like me, home alone with the children, with no writing time. It felt like in one short week, I’d lost the ability to talk coherently to grownups. My patience was thin. My envy of anyone with a job outside the home was thick. Note to all mothers of young children who read this blog and wonder how the heck I do the things that I do: I do those things while other people look after my children. There’s no secret to it, really. When I’m home alone with my children, I can barely string together a sentence without interruption. It’s a recipe for madness, not for insightful thought.
(I write this while one child quizzes me in multiple choice form and we all stare out the window at a man with a hammer breaking apart some copper piping in front of our house — not our piping, but I’m guessing he didn’t come by it honestly; but as I’m sitting in my bathing suit because it’s really really hot, and though the kids have suggested it, I’m not going to approach the man with the hammer to ask what he’s doing on our sidewalk).
Neither, really. But this morning, I got up early and went to a yoga class: my first in nearly two weeks. A short list for mental survival arrived. I must write this down and remember it, I thought. Why is it so hard to remember the little things that make life better? And then to step out of inertia to do them?
– yoga, for meditation and quiet thought
– writing, journalling
– reading poetry
And while this week alone with children is not a holiday, and it’s not going to be productive work-wise either, it is time with my children, unstructured together-time. We made an attempt at an adventure this morning. It didn’t really turn out (too many mosquitoes), but everyone enjoyed it. “This really is an adventure!” someone said, as we fled the woods amidst a storm of bugs. This week, I’m going to write a bit more, hang out a bit more, and yoga a bit more. And not try to wish this summer into something it’s not.
My friend Rebecca wrote this thought-provoking post on ‘thin spaces’, the Celtic concept of places (or moments) where the spirit world comes very near to our world. We can reach through and touch it; or it brushes us. She asked where we find our thin spaces. It might be a physical place, or it might be an experience. It might be something we can seek out, or it might be something that we can’t, that just comes upon us.
Here is my short list, the things that jumped immediately into my mind:
– being with someone during labour and birth
– sometimes while writing, when the words seem to come from beyond me
– when someone reads a poem out loud
– when my body is working very hard and my mind becomes very quiet
I was out with my siblings last night (and Kevin!), and I was thinking about how all five of us Snyder kids are both creative and impractical (thank heavens Kevin is practical). I don’t mean we’re disorganized or incapable of functioning in the world, but I do think we look at some practical things, such as work and earning a living, differently. Somehow, we must have been raised to value the making of things more than the buying of things. I think within that is some quiet value, never spoken of, of thin spaces. And our thin spaces maybe aren’t that profitable, but we were raised to choose unprofitable over practical if unprofitable feeds us in other ways.
I think many people choose the work they choose because it brings them closer to those thin spaces. What’s your work? Does it take you to unexpected moments or places of peace / calm / meditation / joy / insight / grace / giving / acceptance / fill-in-the-blank-with-your-word-for-a-thin-space?
Wait. I have something to add to my previous post. Just went out for a (luxurious) late lunch with my husband, as our evenings have been consumed by soccer soccer soccer. Got a chance to bounce my guilt/greed/gratitude thoughts off of him, which is always helpful: processing out loud.
And I realized that I feel something very strongly: neither sport, nor art, is a luxury. Both are human necessities, and if not expressed in positive ways, will find other ways out. Sport is a way for human beings to live fully in their bodies, and to compete, without doing violence to one another. At its best, sport can be clean competition, without conflict; a pure expression of physical exertion and skill. Every human should have the opportunity to experience the joy of his or her body, and of physical expression.
Sport over war.
And art is so essential to human life. Without it, there is darkness and depression and silence and disconnection. How could we live in a world without creativity, without lasting expression, without some way to translate the pieces of human experience that would otherwise be beyond us? It is so essential that you might not even recognize it around you. Buildings, graffiti, a photograph album, a blog post, the design of a garden, the words of a song that get stuck in your head, dancing.
So maybe my gratitude should go like this: I am grateful that I get to participate in sports, and that I get to create and enjoy art. These are gifts that should be available to everyone on earth. How can I share the wealth?
I keep starting this post, then erasing the words and trying again. I’ve been wondering how best to express my feeling of gratitude for the support and luck that make possible the arc of my days.
I am grateful to be able to send my children to school and nursery school where they are nurtured by caring teachers. I am grateful that I have a babysitter who picks my youngest up from nursery school three days a week, walks patiently home with him, feeds him lunch, plays with him, and loves him, so that I can write (that she happens to be a qualified teacher in her country of origin, who speaks five languages, is our fortune, too, though I’m rooting for her to get her Canadian qualifications so many more children can benefit from her gifts).
I am grateful to have a grant, and an advance, that allows me to focus on my fiction writing (and pay for said nursery school and babysitting time). I am grateful my husband has a job that covers our household expenses, so that my grant/advance can go toward writing time.
I am grateful for my family’s willingness to make room for my crazy triathlon project, and the countless hours of training it’s required (hours from which they are excluded).
I am grateful to live in a country with universal health care.
I am grateful for clean water from our taps, for fresh ingredients from which to prepare healthy meals, for the shelter and space of our home and yard, for safe sidewalks, and a community-oriented neighbourhood.
I am grateful for all of these things, while knowing that my fortune is neither deserved nor earned, and that the individual pursuits of art and athleticism are gifts. They are not mine for the taking. They could not exist without the offerings of many others, and of even larger, structural offerings that are pure luck: where I was born and to whom. I wonder sometimes how the relative few of us can bear to live with such wealth, when so many live with less than a little. How can I?
What I’m saying is that my gratitude is mixed with guilt, and questioning. What luxury–to train my body to complete an arbitrary task that has nothing to do with real survival. What luxury–to sit and to think and to create in repose, without anxiety or fear or threat. Are my luxuries just for me? Is that how I’m using them, and if so, does that not express greed rather than gratitude?
I’ve noticed an uptick in visitors reading this blog, and it would be a pleasure to hear your voices (thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration: your post on engagement made me want to invite more engagement and conversation, here, too). So, what are your thoughts on being grateful/guilty? How do you take the luxury of your individual gifts and use them to satisfy something greater than your own comforts and desires?
Because my heart, speaking literally, powers my body as I work toward the goal of completing a triathlon and/or half-marathon this year.
Because I live in my head. Because I want to allow myself to respond spontaneously, without checking in with my head. If the heart says do this, I want to. At least, most of the time. Okay, even some of the time. (I’m a little bit afraid of giving myself over to my heart; I sense that mistakes will be made; I sense also that mistakes must be made).
Because of love, compassion, empathy. Because in my efficiency, I am sometimes deficient in these most important gifts.
Because it’s a challenging word, filled with challenging ideas, for me.
Because I want to explore other aspects of myself, even if it means just pushing ever so slightly against the seeming-solidity of who I am, right now.
But I’m keeping spirit, last year’s word. I nominate it to be word of the decade, an umbrella under which I will develop different aspects of the spirit. What does spirit mean, to me? It means the life unseen, not of this world, and yet expressed within this world, through words and deeds. It means: there’s more to life than what can be seen. It means mystery. It means being moved. Being open. Being emptied out to make room for God, for the divine.
My poetry book club met for the third time on Saturday evening. We were unable to get copies of the book we’d planned on reading, a collection by Giller-winner Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press, we suspect, is even now hand-sewing the binding in readiment for shipment by ox-cart); so instead, we all brought favourite poems to share. We were giddy. It was ridiculously fun. We are getting to know each other that much better. And best of all, there’s poetry. I was deeply moved by a number of the poems, unexpectedly moved, caught off guard: ah, there’s my heart, opening.
Being moved by a poem. It feels of enormous significance to me, right now, as I struggle to balance my ambitions and my sense of self, to figure out what matters, and why.
To create something that moves someone else, it’s a strange talent. It might not even be a talent, but a gift, given and taken away on a whim. It’s also a strange thing to want to do: to express the mysterious, to give it shape and form, and to share the beauty, joy, grief, loneliness, ache with others. It’s not a profitable enterprise. It’s not of this world.
My new year’s anomie seems to be somewhat late-flowering; 2010 was a fine, fine year, and it seemed, at its end, that perhaps nothing needed changing, not a whit. Four weeks in, and it suddenly seems everything needs changing.
I’m conscious of my underlying desire to be independent, financially; not because my survival depends on it, but because, as Fran Lebowitz says in an interview in Bust magazine: “Here is the key to independence: earn your own money … This is true of life–people who are paying you, whether they are paying for you like parents who pay for children or paying like a boss pays an employee, they’re in charge of you. You don’t want someone to be in charge of you? Don’t take their money.”
Now, I am in a marriage I consider happy, in a partnership I consider equal; nevertheless, the fact that I earn next to nothing, that I rely on Kevin to support our family financially, bothers me, and it has for a long time. I read that Fran L. interview on Saturday and it went click in my brain: the key to independence. (I read it out to Kevin, too, and he understood). I wish I could say that writing were my key to independence; but it’s not. If my family relied on my earnings, I would have to do something else, use my current skill-set in a different way; and I can’t think of any job I’d want to do that would use my current skill-set. And so, I continue to return to the question: do I want to retrain? Do I want to gain a new skill-set? Do I want to equip myself for an entirely different job?
It’s not that I imagine myself never writing, were I to earn my money differently. It’s that I imagine myself writing the way most writers write: look around–most writers, even successful writers, have day-jobs. The most successful writers, those earning a reasonable living from their writing, work their tails off pitching stories, writing grant requests, and working freelance from job to job until they become Mordecai Richler and editors come to them with story-requests (and I happen to know that Mordecai Richler was an extremely hard-working and not at all precious writer).
I’m not much good at pitching stories. I work pretty slowly. My overall interest, when I write, is to make something lovely, not to earn money.
And that is why I come back to the idea of retraining and earning my living in another way. Earning my living, period. I’ve given myself the imaginary deadline of CJ entering school, which is in a year and a half, when he starts kindergarten. I will be thirty-seven, not too old, I think, to start something new.
I’m not sure that heart relates remotely to this dilemma. Or, maybe it does and I haven’t puzzled out how, yet.
Writing week. This is the official week of writing, planned many moons ago. Last week, I started the new year with an extra day and a half of writing, and a brand-new story, and inspired energy and spirit; which was quickly subtracted by losing a day and a half of writing at the end of the week due to a mild stomach virus. Thankfully, only the youngest succumbed, and it was never terrible (and when it comes to stomach viruses, I know from terrible, let me tell you; or, rather, I’d best not tell you).
Where was I?
Up and down, that was last week. I ended the week feeling low indeed, struggling with a story that has plagued me since its conception back in June. I’ve been telling myself (very helpfully) that the story is more ambitious than my talents. And it may be, that. Or, it may be that I’ve been shovelling into this one story far too much; stories can only hold what they can hold. I spent the weekend in a grumpy panicky state, distracted, anxious, wondering whether I’d lost my nerve here at the last minute; because the damn book is so close to done. This story is the last major story that needs to be written. After this, it’s tinkering and chink-filling and trim.
I did what I could. I tried to remember what works. I did not curl up in bed under the covers (though it was awfully tempting). I prepared for this upcoming writing week the only way I know how: in the kitchen. I baked a batch of granola, filled a container with oatmeal cookies, converted four litres of milk into fresh yogurt, cookied up a batch of tomato sauce for quick meals this week, and finished my Sunday evening by baking four loaves of wholesome bread. I also ran errands, restocked the pantry, went for two long runs, to church, and to a kundalini yoga class. But “class” isn’t the right word for this semi-regular event, led by a friend and shared with other friends; it’s more like a religious experience. It’s pretty much impossible to put into words. I just tried, and erased my attempt. But I think the feeling that is shared in that warm dimly lit studio room is of collective joy: individual effort that somehow becomes shared effort, appreciation, compassion.
I left that beautiful room believing myself capable of finishing the book. I also left knowing I’d scrap the story and start from scratch. I trust yoga to open me to big/simple ideas: that was my big/simple idea. I also understood the image this new story will revolve around.
I think this weekend was good for me. It was unpleasant in a lot of ways: hard not to be writing, hard to bide my time, hard to live with such uncomfortable anxiety and to be around others; but I’m proud of myself for slogging onward. It’s really all that can be done when staring down doubt. In the past, I might have holed up and gone even more interior. It’s difficult to talk to friends, to reach out, or even just to be out and about when in a state of anxious distraction; but that’s exactly when it’s so important to keep on keeping on. It’s not about faking it. It’s about continuing to feed yourself even when you don’t feel hungry.
My writing week started yesterday, with a bang: a brand-new story to fill another chink (though not the major story). Today, I attempt it. The big one. It’s going to be a whole lot smaller. Maybe it will be small enough to fit into a dimly lit warm room crowded with friends. Who are chanting. We’re all chanting.