I’ve been wandering through a book kindly sent to me by my Canadian publisher, Anansi, called The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, by Sharon Blackie. One of her suggestions is to find a place to return to, daily if possible, outside somewhere. A place where you can sit and simply be, and observe the natural world around you.
At first, I fantasized about biking or walking to a nearby park to sit beside the little creek that runs through it. But after several days of not biking or walking to the park to do this, I recognized that, as is often the case, fantasy and reality are two divergent paths. I do love my fantastical life, as lived in my imagination, but down here in reality, setting into action even small life changes requires a different toolbox.
Let me back-track.
I’ve just finished a three-day workshop on instructional skills (teaching skills), which was intensive, immersive, challenging, and rewarding. My takeaway could apply to life as surely as it applies to lesson-planning: to meet your objective, you need to identify it clearly, and create a process that leads you toward it.
So if my objective or goal is to sit outside in nature, and specifically, to find a place that I can return to daily if possible, what process would lead me toward that goal?
The answer turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, in this example. Best of all, it emerged naturally. After several days of not biking or walking to the park, one morning last week, I went to the back yard and sat down on a stump. Something must have called to me. I’d just walked my youngest up to meet his friends before school and instead of going into the house as usual, I went into the yard. The dog was with me, the air was sweet and temperate, and the buds were at their very newest, just barely emerging in a soft fuzz of yellow and green overhead. I took off my sandals and sat with bare feet in the grass. I closed my eyes. I listened to the birds and the traffic, and the jingle of the dog’s collar.
Aha. I’d found my spot, my place outside in nature to which I could return almost daily.
So I’ve been returning, not quite daily, but often enough to see already small changes in the grass and weeds and flowers. Today, I opened my eyes after a ten-minute meditation and thought, This is my work, too.
It might not look like work. And it might not register as work, because it is so full of pleasure. But I know that in order to write, to create, and yes, to teach, I must be contemplative. I must reflect. I must be quiet and listen and observe and watch, and be. In this quiet place — quiet on the inside, I mean — such wonderful fantastical ideas play across my mind. So much of my work happens in the imagination. So it is inevitable that some of these ideas will capture my interest enough to be named as possibilities to pursue here in the real world.
The process by which these possibilities are achieved seems to me both practical and mysterious. We are ever-changing, and our needs and interests are ever-shifting. The process by which we move toward goals, and the goals themselves, also change and shift, as they must; often unconsciously. I like when I can recognize what’s happening and celebrate it. I like when I can recognize what I want to have happen, and can tweak my daily routine to see it come about.
Exercise is one area where it’s been easy for me to set goals and achieve them. These goals have changed and continue to change, affected by injury, age, and intention. I am aware of both the changing nature of my goals, and of the changing processes required to meet them. Therefore, I feel ease and flexibility in my approach. Parenting is the same for me, somehow; ever-changing, but replete with clear objectives: to support and to love. The work might be hard, but the meaning of the work is clear.
Naming a goal is perhaps the most difficult step. Narrowing it down. Understanding it, understanding why you want this particular change, or outcome. Committing to it. Why do I want to sit quietly in nature as often as possible? Immediately, answers float to the surface. Because it calms me, because it connects me to something bigger than myself, because it clears my mind. It helps me to see the bigger picture. It feeds my spirit.
What if I were to name a different goal: to publish another novel. I’ll confess that my motives feel less clear in this example, even though the goal appears straightforward. Certainly, I understand the process. But the underlying objective, the greater why of it all, eludes and troubles me; no doubt it’s different now than it was when I first published. And so I wonder … Is it to further my professional career, both as a writer and a teacher? Is it to share knowledge in a creative way? To entertain an audience? Is it to earn a living? Is it to publicly express ideas important to me that can’t be otherwise expressed? Is it to garner attention and feed my ego? (How I fear this last intention, how I fear it might be a secret intention I hide even from myself.)
It seems to me that writing a novel expresses a different intention than publishing a novel. I’m at ease with the former; I’m uncomfortable with the latter.
Yet I want to name it as a goal. I want to publish another novel.
I want to learn from the process, again, how to go forth into the world carrying an idea, and how to share it openly, generously, without fear or shame. I want, also, to polish an idea until it becomes a publishable book, full of breathing characters that live beyond me.
Somehow, my body understands that sitting quietly on a stump is part of the process that will lead me there.
This is my 1500th post since launching my blog, nearly nine years ago. Today is a gorgeous spring day, and I am spending part of it indoors, writing, which is just where I want to be, in fact. This morning, a cardinal visited the bare branches of a small tree outside my window, a bright little jewel dancing and holding my attention, until he flew away. Friends invited us for an impromptu lunch. It’s a holiday and it feels like the weekend, only more relaxed. Across the street, there are police visiting the neighbours, but I don’t detect any violence, no shouting. When we walked by earlier, the neighbours were sitting in a patio area behind the small apartment complex, and it looked like they were having a meal together. People are outside.
I might have a small sunburn. My fingers are getting warmed up on the keys.
Last night I went to my sister Edna’s show. She made music that was like a soundtrack for a movie inside my head. I closed my eyes and the half hour vanished, fed by beats that rumbled up through the floorboards and through my whole body, a soundscape that produced vivid images in my mind. Mostly images of war, but I think that’s because of what’s happening not so covertly in a number of countries which Donald Trump (or his generals) have deemed evil. How many beautiful children of God were incinerated when a bomb the size of a bus was dumped into the wilderness of Afghanistan, its burn radius a mile wide? Yesterday, I waited with my Syrian friend at a bus stop and we talked about two homeless men we’d seen asking for change, sitting on the sidewalk as we walked by, and she said in Lebanon there were Syrian children at every stoplight crowding up to cars, begging, or trying to sell a single tissue at a time from a box of Kleenex. Small children, this high, she showed me. I saw the same sight when we visited Nicaragua a decade ago; I remember. I could not think what to say, except, That is so sad. I felt the shame of a response so wholly inadequate. As if I could fix it, as if there were an adequate response. I did not give change to the men sitting on the sidewalk, but, I told my friend, sometimes I do. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Same, same. Does it make a difference? I did not say this last part out loud.
There are too many things that infuriate and enrage me, so I choose not to think about them most of the time. Banks that seem to exist to make money for the wealthiest. A stock market that seems to exist to make money for those who know how to game the system. Corporate boards that seem to exist to inflate the already obscene salaries of the wealthiest. Corporations that traffic in the tools of warfare. Leaders who will never suffer for even their most craven and cruel decisions. The insulation of individuals due to privilege and extreme wealth. Why isn’t there a maximum wage? The furrow in my brow grows deeper.
I’ve had a good week. In addition to being asked to teach again this fall, I’m taking over the spring creative writing course at UW, something I’ve never done before. If I think about it too much, I’ll panic at the unexpected workload, but I wouldn’t have said yes if didn’t think it was manageable. Teaching is my version of a writing grant. Plus I get to work with young people. There’s an office on campus. A classroom. A big library. I can bike or walk to work.
No matter what happens, people need to get their stories out. Sometimes I think this is my life’s work: bearing witness, and helping others to bear witness. Bear witness, expel torment, see the red cardinal in the bare tree.
These blossoms have already bloomed and fallen off the little apple tree in our back yard. I can’t keep up, that is what I’m trying to say. Today, I went for a run at noon and the word relentless came into my mind. I don’t like that word, I thought, running on, enjoying the run, because it was pain-free. Okay, then, what about the word relent, I thought, and no that word did not suit what I was doing, nor what I wanted to do: continue.
On Wednesday night I visited a book club. I visited the book club after a day that included an early morning walk with the dogs; biking to see this daughter at her school track meet; biking to the university library to work between races; biking home for lunch; driving back for the final race of the afternoon in order to take this daughter to piano lessons; driving to pick up youngest and bring him to piano lessons; home in time to eat and quickly clean up from supper; driving this daughter to soccer practice. By the time we were home again, it was almost 8:30. And then I went to the book club. I did not leave until I’d made sure this daughter was collapsing in her bed rather than on the couch. I texted Kevin, who was at a soccer game with another child, to please check in on the kids when he got home. And then I spent an hour at a book club, a warm, friendly, thoughtful, generous group of women. It was 10 when I got home. Tea, snack, finish cleaning up, last load of laundry, bed. I can’t tell you which of these activities I chose to do because I wanted to, and which I felt responsible for doing and therefore simply did.
Up again at 6AM to run with a friend.
It is puzzling. What is it that I want to be doing? I have no idea. I’m so busy doing things that I don’t really have the need to ask that question.
Last weekend, I was here, on Lake Huron, spending one night at a cottage with girlfriends. Same weekend: I led a writing workshop at a nature centre; and got home from the cottage in time to see my thirteen-year-old in a performance of Macbeth (her second production of said play this spring).
Relentless? Relent? At some point, during longer solo runs, a mantra will enter my head in rhythm with my stride. Here was today’s: Powerful strong. Whispering light. A reminder to keep my stride both strong and light.
Relentless/relent. Dig in. Lightly. Continue.
“There’s a big white flower behind one of the stumps, Mom, I’ll show you.”
Dream: I am at a long conference table set up in my mother-in-law’s back porch. Two women sit at the other end of the table, conducting an interview about art for live national radio, but I’m just here because it’s a convenient place to work. Earlier in the dream I spent way too much time anxiously trying to figure out why my children missed the school bus; the children are everywhere, all around the house, when I know they should be in school. So I’m sitting here, trying not to be too obvious or interrupt the interview, trying to work. I think that my work is writing, but when I look down, it turns out that my work is chopping potatoes. End of dream.
Things I’ve done since 5:30AM yesterday: ran with a friend, helped children practice violin and piano, made supper in the crockpot, washed three loads of laundry, meditated twice, blogged, edited an essay, answered emails, texted with friends and family, picked up and dropped off kids for piano lessons, worked on novel while sitting in car between pick-ups/drop-offs, visited with a friend while at piano lessons, attended a soccer coaching clinic, had tea with husband (talking soccer, hockey, and Fun Things We Want To Do), read books and newspaper, listened to radio (news and songs), slept, did strength exercises. Waited. Hurried. Tried not to fight with time.
I think of time in blocks and chunks and sections. I think of myself as travelling between these blocks and chunks and sections and trying to negotiate the transitions as smoothly as possible, trying to settle in wherever I’m at and not resist what’s happening. But sometimes it feels like what I’m resisting is time itself. These chunks of time, this careful measuring of hours and minutes, calculating these small openings and anticipating these sudden slammings-shut gives me a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency is very helpful when working to complete a big project. But to enjoy being alive, to relish it, savour it, swim with it, you need to be flexible, you need to let go of the sense of urgency in the moments when urgency would only serve to make you anxious or frustrated.
Because life is full of many many tasks and events and rituals that are long slow dreamy, unrelenting, without obvious beginnings or endings, mundane, repetitive, completely necessary, or completely unnecessary, often lovely — not projects. Not artifacts. Just unmarked rivering moments in the flow of time. If there’s a balance I seek, perhaps it’s between these two states of being: the urgent efficient ambitious project-driven state of creating something new; and the flow of life as it unwinds through its time, through its here and now, and being here, present and without the need to make anything of it.
First, to the news: I’m pleased to announce that Girl Runner is going to Greece! The book has been picked up for translation by Thines Editions. This brings the foreign sales of Girl Runner to eleven languages, plus the US and the UK & Australia. I know. Astonishing, huh.
Every once in awhile it comes to me: thousands of people have read Girl Runner. Thousands of people have taken into their minds this story shaped by my mind. That is a staggering thought, and comes close to fulfilling what I’d hoped to achieve, in thinking back on my early years of hoping to become a writer. It was to be read. Those people who’ve read Girl Runner aren’t thinking about me, Carrie Snyder, they’re thinking about her, Aganetha Smart.
I think that gives me a certain amount of flexibility too, in terms of the choices I intend to make in my career, the projects I intend to pursue, their variety. I see myself as someone who can shape-shift to some degree, with a malleable voice, rather than someone who has a very distinctive style and voice and subject. I can use that in positive ways rather than seeing it as a weakness, but it’s a talent more readily used by someone who doesn’t have a big personal public profile. These stories come from me, but they aren’t me. Or more precisely, I am not them. I am just the mediator, in a sense, or perhaps the medium, the interpreter between worlds.
Ultimately, I’d like to be read because I send out into the world interesting, creative, curious, insightful, moving, maybe even life-giving stories.
It’s a lot to ask. Because it means I want my writing to be excellent. It puts the weight on the writing, and is my writing good enough? Is my thinking deep enough? I don’t honestly know.
For the purposes of achieving this goal, I’m challenging myself to direct attention and energy onto the books that I write, and to otherwise be at peace with my authentic, ordinary self when asked to appear in public. It’s my problem, not anyone else’s, is what I’m getting around to—I’m the one who has been dissatisfied, in the past, with my public performance or persona, always thinking that I should be more charismatic, more out there, more … well, more not myself. Recently, I’ve been trying to let go. And I’ve found myself surprisingly content with being adequate, average, competent at the jobs that are not within my main area of expertise. I’m not splendid or charismatic on stage, but what I can do is make people feel comfortable in the slightly awkward formal environment. My sense is that that’s something I’m able to offer, and that’s good enough. Forget trying to shine or, much worse, to outshine. It’s not who I am. I’m more of a cozy fire in the fireplace, a friendly candle on the table, a light in the window to show you the way home, here to make you feel comfortable in your environment.
So. Let go. Let go of chasing fame in any way, shape, or form. And keep writing for the writing in any way, shape, or form.
My meditation guide invites me to enjoy sitting in silence for twenty minutes, taking these quiet moments for myself, to which I must reply: GAH! Yesterday, I meditated on the train home from a day-trip to Toronto, while just behind me a woman agreed compulsively with everything her friend said, even while her friend was in the midst of saying it: “yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes!” Today, I meditated in my office with the constant beep-beep and deep motorized rumble of trucks as Hydro employees work on the wires in front of our house, which has been a constant for at least a week. The dogs chimed in during the last five minutes of the meditation to howl at … well, whatever dogs howl at, and I think ours are particularly thick in their choices. Are you making good choices, dogs? Are you?
Am I making good choices?
Well, I keep meditating, despite the lack of silence, inner or outer. I think that’s a good choice. I’ve returned to a regular running schedule, despite some twinges in the hamstring. I think that could prove not to be a good choice, but I feel better about running than not running, and I’m making some gains in endurance and cardio again, so, hey, there’s probably a fifty-fifty chance that it’s not a bad choice.
Kevin chose to invest in some new soccer nets for our backyard. Really good choice. Fabulous choice! The kids have been outside non-stop, either on the trampoline or playing soccer in this happy spring weather we’ve been having. We may never be able to grow grass in that strip between nets, but I’m still thinking it’s a good choice.
I was also thinking, while looking out the train window yesterday, and watching the just-rained-upon farmland zoom past, that here in Canada we have such a low threshold for excitement about what constitutes spring. A bit of sun, a touch of warmth beneath a brisk breeze, and we’re all outside grinning and hi-fiving each other. Sure, the grass is brown, the ground is wet, the flowers have scarcely peeked through the mud, and all the trash left behind by melting snow banks is suddenly visible. Sure, it’s windy and rainy and when the sun goes behind a cloud it’s kind of chilly, in fact—but there’s light after supper, and the birds are noisy, and the kids are outside being noisy too, and we’re leaping and kicking our heels together for spring, spring, spring.
PS I successfully checked off from my list all of the work-related responsibilities for the past eight days. Book club; followed by ceremony for the winners of the KPL contest; followed by a reading in Ridgeway, Ontario (where the organizer, who also owns a lovely bookshop in Ridgeway, near Niagara Falls, let me come to her store after the reading to pick out books for each of my kids! isn’t that generous!?); followed by a meeting in Toronto yesterday; followed by an interview today. And now I’ve completed the public work for a little while and can dig back into the private, quiet, sitting-and-writing-all-day work. Oh, and the laundry. Light lifting. That’s the phrase that comes to mind. I don’t know why, but I’m glad. Maybe because it’s spring? All of this, despite the busyness and the effort, and the noise, has felt like light lifting. On we go.