Where am I? Where do I place myself? How much say do I have in where I’m placed?
In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn titled “Longing for Light,” that has the line: “Make us your bread, broken for others, shared until all our fed.” It feels like a very Mennonite sentiment. It rings true, it compels me: this desire to use one’s energy and work for a purpose that helps others, or serves others. But, I wonder, do I need to be broken to be of service? If I’m broken like bread, turned to crumbs, what then?
It’s an old puzzle, I think, trying to figure out how to give without depletion. I’d hoped and believed that I had the tools and skills necessary to make the job in the office sustainable. But I did not. This has left me feeling like a failure. What I’ve failed to do is to work within my means, at a job that I truly loved doing; instead, I kept burning all available fuel, day after day, till it was becoming harder to be kind, especially to myself.
I’m in a school library now, as of this week. It’s quieter, but students will come and fill it with noise. It’s a different job, easier. It’s only day two, but I’m not a zombie when I walk out of the building. “I didn’t rescue anyone today!” I texted to Kevin after work on Monday. His reply: “Just yourself.”
What will I do with more energy, again? Do I have the self-control not to get myself into trouble, the patience not to sign myself up for other jobs and volunteer positions till I’ve got no space to think again? I’ve missed having the bandwidth to write. I’ve missed writing. My thoughts are clearer on the page. Contradictory impulses: I don’t want this spare energy to go to waste; I don’t want to be used up till I’m nothing but crumbs.
I want to do no harm. I want to serve others. I want to live with ease. I want to share joy.
What I learned in the office job is how to ask questions. Ask and ask till I could be sure I understood what the other person wanted or needed. What is being asked of me? It isn’t always so clear. I learned that I’m steady in a crisis—focused, calm, decisive, very present. I’m a good listener, when very present. I would like to combine these skills with training that would place me in a job or occupation that calls on them, regularly, while giving me some power to solve or resolve the problems being presented.
It’s quite possible that no job or occupation has the power to solve or resolve problems—or not to satisfaction, not the problems that are unfixable. But I’d like to try. Not to demand perfect or ideas solutions, but to move in practical ways toward wholeness, support, improved states of mind, healthier relationships.
Where will I place myself?
So much depends upon that. I feel it very strongly. Where I place myself—where I’m placed, physically, in the world—changes the possibilities that open (or close).
As a writer, it has seemed there are fewer opportunities to be placed, to find a place, especially in the company of others. My kids are growing up, and out of the house. I need to be placed with people, with strangers, with colleagues, with a crowd, children or teens or adults, young and older and old, or a mixture; friction, conflict, noise, laughter, issues raised, questions, needs to be met, time to be managed, hands held, stories heard.
My job-job has given me that—a place. Many places, in fact. Many different people to interact with. I’m currently placing myself part-time in a school library. That leaves space to be placed somewhere else, too, or to work/train toward a different kind of placement. I would like to explore working in a context that involves conflict—defusing it, specifically, and helping those caught up in conflict to move toward resolution.
Longing for light. Longing to be light—lighter in spirit, light-hearted, light on the path.
I’m about to start week four of my new job. It’s intense and lively and challenging for brain and body and spirit — and I love that. It is also consuming of energy and focus. And it’s what I wanted and needed, I feel that deeply. I thrive on friction and have sought it out in various ways, from kundalini yoga classes to filling my house with four children to taking on volunteer roles that threw me into situations with high learning curves and the reward of appreciation and adventure (think — soccer coaching, or co-founding and running the storytelling workshop).
Now I’ve found myself a job where I get paid to enter into a swirl of friction: activity, human interaction, conflict and attempts at resolution. Everything I’ve learned in my life leading up to this moment feeds my ability to thrive and respond with integrity and kindness (while setting firm boundaries) in a constantly changing, constantly interrupted environment of constant problem-solving. But it’s early days! I recognize that such jobs can also, over time, create calluses for protection and self-preservation, which outwardly can look like cynicism, burnout, detachment, depression.
So I’m testing out ways to build in channels for release, for rest, to make space for ongoing enjoyment.
NEED is my word of the year. Attuning to my needs has been such a helpful guide! What do I need to set myself up for success? Each one of us will need something a bit different — or a lot different. I’m relishing the opportunity to test out my needs and my ability to meet those needs, with the focus of the job as an anchoring point.
I need: healthy food and hydration; cardio; yoga and meditation; time with Kevin; balanced connection with my kids (meeting them where they’re at); the give and take of strong friendships; sleep and rest; friction and challenge; to learn new things; creative outlets; appreciation for my work; compensation for my work; a sense of adventure and discovery; to feel purposeful and useful; joy and humour; spiritual connection.
My new job meets the following needs (just by showing up, these needs are met! Amazing!): friction and challenge; to learn new things; appreciation for my work; compensation for my work; a sense of adventure and discovery; to feel purposeful and useful; joy and humour. I sense that friendships may develop through this job as well.
So what’s left out? What needs are not being met at my job and can I find ways to meet these needs in other ways?
Well, I’ve been biking to work — there’s cardio, and I’m planning to get up extra-early to fit in a 30-min run a few times a week on days when I don’t feel like biking. Packing myself good lunches and keeping a water bottle at my desk; plus cooking as therapy when I get home for work — there’s healthy food and hydration. Kevin and I do yoga and meditation together almost every day, first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, and we walk the dog most evenings — there’s time with Kevin, and yoga and meditation, and spiritual connection (at least to some degree). I reach out to friends by text (it’s a great way to stay in touch, especially from afar, and with kids too), and arrange times to meet in person, like a Friday after-work drink, or an early morning walk. Our family eats most suppers together (those living at home, that is). So a lot of the bases are being covered.
Rest and sleep — working on it! I’m aiming to leave most weekends and evenings relatively open and free. This means cutting back on almost all volunteer work. Cutting out activities that drain my energy, or that I simply don’t have time to complete.
I’m missing creative outlets.
I have two writing weekends at the farm planned for this fall — so that’s something. But what about daily creative connection? Connection to my writing self? What’s happening in that part of my self? I haven’t felt the urge to write, to start something new, or even to finish the novel project that’s underway. I’ve got a completed manuscript waiting for an editor to read it and reject or accept; touching that part of my life hurts, sometimes. Or I anticipate that it will be painful. Too hard. Unnecessary pain.
But writing and drawing bring me joy — I know that!
So I’m going to test out writing/drawing for 15 mins during my lunch break (first I have to take a lunch break, but this will be motivation!). Rest and restoration — much-needed to avoid burn-out. I’d like to make myself a list of 20 or so prompts that I can cycle through, for days when I’m not feeling inspired to get started (which is most days, these days!).
I’ll post some prompts here too (next time). Maybe you have a favourite prompt you return to? Let me know, please.
Need to pack up for class and head to campus, but also wanted to write about … well … a list of things too long for one post, so to boil it down, I’ve landed on an image that’s making me grin.
Saturday morning, woke to a smell of someone cooking something in the kitchen. Went downstairs in my pjs and found three teenage boys, none belonging to me, making pancakes by committee, no lights on but the stove’s fan was going. An avid discussion was underway on when exactly to flip, were there enough bubbles, and was this first pancake cooked all the way through, turning to me to ask, what did I think? The pancake in question was definitely not cooked all the way through.
My son, their host, they told me, was still asleep. We laughed about that.
They didn’t need my help or advice, I could see, so I assured them that the pancake that wasn’t quite done wouldn’t kill anyone if eaten with maple syrup, and I continued on to the living room to do some yoga.
This image might represent the peak of my parenting joy, the pinnacle of any parenting success I dare claim. My children’s friends feel at home in our house! The pandemic temporarily robbed us of this rare and fleeting delight. My youngest is about to turn 15. I know this too shall pass, but I won’t grieve it while it’s happening, I’ll just make a note of its existence — here, and in my mind’s eye.
There are moments when one’s actual happening life feels fully integrated and aligned with one’s intentions and beliefs. This was that. (And other moments this past week, too, but this is the easiest to write about in a compressed snippet of time.)
I’ve spent March break catching up on course-related work and preparing for a couple of presentations next week. I also worked on my taxes. But you know, the pace has been forgiving. I’ve cooked some excellent meals, walked as much as possible, rested more. I even got a haircut.
Next week, Thursday, March 23, 4PM, I’ll be giving a public lecture at Western University in London (Ontario). If you’re interested in attending, it will also be live streamed; register here. The remarks I’ve prepared feel like the culmination of all my years of experiencing life as a writer — aspiring writer, struggling writer, published writer, uncertain writer, obscure writer, hopeful writer, thankful writer. This is an opportunity to express my deep appreciation and love for the act of writing itself, which is magical, healing, and so very alive.
But I’m currently distracted by the young people passing on my sidewalk whooping and shouting and wearing tiny green hats. St Patrick’s day is here, blowing through our city despite the rain and melting shit-speckled piles of snow. Everything is everything. It really and truly is.
I’m attempting to post here about once a week; but that is not always possible. There are weeks when I prioritize writing in my notebook over writing publicly if I have some moments to spare; or lying on the couch and reading a book. Setting priorities is becoming a habit, of necessity. Am I filling my cup, so that I can serve the needs of others? For example, I’ve figured out that it takes me at least 2 hours to get up and out the door in the morning — one hour minimum to do my wake-up and exercise routine (including yoga and meditation), and one hour precisely to shower, dress, make and eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and screech out the door clutching a travel mug of coffee, the correct set of keys for the job of the day in my pocket, and a backpack over my shoulders loaded with whatever items I’ve determined will serve in the hours ahead (this may include but is not limited to licorice, Birkenstocks, head-phones, notebook and pen, and folder with instructions on various systems and processes).
Point being, setting priorities requires first knowing what these priorities are — not ignoring what makes me a happier healthier person. It helps to identify why I’m choosing to do certain things instead of other things. What I’ve discovered is that the why is usually about pleasure, ease, fun, enjoyment, fulfillment, connection, and purpose. The good things in life. My exercise routine makes me happy, energized, calmer, in tune with my body and mind, which sets the whole day on course, so I choose it over sleeping in — and I get to bed earlier in the evening in order to make this habit sustainable. I love savouring my cup of coffee, which makes it perfect to enjoy while sitting at a desk somewhere. But breakfast is a sit-down affair with the newspaper and two poached eggs on toast, so I make time for that (even if it’s just 12 minutes — I’ll literally calculate how much time I have to relax and enjoy this ritual, setting a timer on my phone to cue me when it’s time to switch gears).
This morning during quiet meditation, a complex and wild and wonderful thought came upon me. Here it is: everything I’m doing to serve and understand my own needs reverberates outward, so that I am able to better serve and understand the needs of those around me. When I teach creative writing, what I’m actually offering are methods and practices for how pay attention to the world, how to observe others with curiosity and openness, and how to respond (through writing) without judgement. This is a deep mindset shift, I think. Attention without judgement, without the desire to manipulate or change or profit from, is love. If you pay attention to the world, you will love it more than you realized was possible. This love will break you down and build you up. And you will want to serve others because you can see them more clearly. The skills I’ve honed and continue to hone as a writer might make me a better writer; but I’m coming to believe that’s a side product of the real gift of these skills — of creativity itself. At the core of my being, I don’t want to be a better writer in order to publish books that become bestsellers and earn me fame and fortune. I want to practice writing and creativity because I believe these deeply intuitive and generative acts will help me become a more observant, open-minded, human being while I’m here on planet earth.
I teach creative writing. And I’ve struggled with this, because I don’t believe it can really be taught effectively. I can’t download my knowledge of how to write creatively into the minds of students in a rational, lecture-based, logistical way. All I can do is open opportunities for students to interact with their own minds and experiences creatively — and with each other. Creativity isn’t a state of being that can be monetized or harnessed for profit. If you get into it, if you allow yourself to follow the energy and be led by whatever magic and mystery and grace is pulling you, money, power, and profit will feel so insignificant that you won’t be able to make sense of them. They don’t make sense, in the vast universe of creative action and practice.
Here is what I know: To create is also to destroy. It is to witness the breaking down of what appears substantial, and to witness and partake in a generative improbable renewal. The impossible presents itself. What you discover in this state can’t be explained adequately through words, so words climb into images and images emerge and show themselves to be transferable between human beings, and expression of deep emotion and experience is possible. It is possible.
So. I teach creative writing, but what I really hope to do is to plant seeds. I know that my job in the schools (not teaching creative writing) is an outward expression my own potential beginning to root and grow. By becoming more grounded and secure (paradoxically, through becoming more vulnerable and soft), I can serve others with less fear, judgement, and hunger for external reward. Every day I’m in a school, I have the opportunity to practice paying attention. I love this practice. I get to do it over and over again. I ask, how can I help you? I listen to what the other person is saying. If possible, I look them in the eye. If appropriate, I ask how they are doing. I listen to what they tell me, and I repeat back to them what I’ve understood them to say, because I want to be sure it’s clear to me. If possible, I try to solve their problem, or brainstorm a solution they can try (it’s usually a small problem that has a simple solution).
That’s it. That’s the practice. Greet, listen, repeat, ask questions, acknowledge, try to understand, solve or resolve.
Greet, listen, acknowledge.
Over and over again, throughout the day. I know these interactions have the power to change me. They have the power to change my approach to creativity and writing too. It’s an integrated and interactive and generative cycle, the relationship with self, other, and creative spirit.
What are you practicing these days? Where are your practices, habits, and routines leading you?
Is it vulnerable to confess that I am happy, content, that I feel cherished and full of gratitude? It feels that way sometimes. Or it feels like I’m tempting fate. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone or it will get taken away. I wonder why. I wonder why there is pressure to confess only the misery and pain and missteps, as a signal of vulnerability and openness and being human, rather than the joy? But both are true of being human: we know joy and contentment too. I wonder why I would ever feel guilty for or superstitious about being content? Yet, it’s there. Like I’m bragging, maybe? Like I’m setting up a comparison that might make someone else feel less than? Like I deserve to be taken down a notch.
Be that as it may, I want to spread the word that it’s okay to be okay. It’s okay to be okay with all the feelings. It’s okay to ask for what you want. It’s okay to declare that you need a personal time-out to cool down. It’s okay to look around and say, hey, this is pretty sweet.
This morning, I created a word-storm. I invite you to do the same. The prompt is: WORDS THAT FEED ME.
To each of these words, an image or images attach.
USEFUL: I’ve struggled with this word, yet it comes to mind first. It’s connected to WORTHWHILE, VALUE, SERVE. My Mennonite words. Is spending a year drawing cartoons useful? Well, who is to say it’s not? I’m beginning to learn with my whole body that useful is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe I drew cartoons for a year in order to become the person that I am right now: someone who values PLAY and creativity in others, and knows how to make space for it. It’s okay to be okay — I don’t need to apologize or explain to anyone why something is or has been useful to me. TRUST.
CARE: I love this word. I have a friend who always calls me “Care Bear.” It was my childhood nickname too, bestowed on me by my brother, who is the king of nickname-bestowing (it’s a gift!). CARE is connected to MEANINGFUL, ATTENTION, WONDER, CURIOUS, GENEROSITY, SPIRIT. I’m learning that it’s okay to be okay with caring deeply; but I’m also learning how to set boundaries, so my care doesn’t swamp me, or burn me out. CARE can be expressed in so many ways. I don’t want my care to burden the people about whom I care. That’s where boundaries come in: knowing what’s mine to offer, and what’s mine to leave be.
PURPOSE: Here’s where PURPOSE comes into it. I am beginning to accept that my PURPOSE is most mysterious. It’s not for me to decide or drive toward or push into. What I’m making isn’t CLEAR while I’m making it. This is true of any writing project — I know this is my very bones — but it’s also true of the project of being alive, being human. You don’t know what you’re making while making it. When I’m writing, I lean into the mystery, I let myself be led, I follow what makes me WONDER, what makes me CURIOUS. I chase the energy that’s playing with me. What I’m making is not static, and it doesn’t require me to bring it to life: it’s animating me in return, or animating my imagination. Why not apply this sensation of ADVENTURE, of exploration, of following where you’re being led to real life too? When something brings me energy and delight, when I revel in what I’m doing, then I know: this is my PURPOSE.
It’s funny how we tell ourselves that we need to know our PURPOSE in advance — to set goals, and be useful, and climb the mountain, and use our gifts to the fullest. When no — we need to be comfortable not knowing. As in writing, we don’t get to decide the outcome. Leave that to someone else. Or leave it alone altogether and don’t give it another thought.
GRATITUDE: This is the this. But I don’t want to force it. I can’t really force it. To be in a GENEROUS mindset is to know GRATITUDE. Then it’s impossible not to give thanks for the GRACE that speaks in many voices. I do think this can be a practice, though. I notice myself saying thank you more and more frequently, in funny ways, too. Thank you, plant, for not dying even though I’ve forgotten to water you! Thank you, weary body, for getting me through this day. Thank you, brain, for keeping me safe in busy traffic. Thank you, heart, for beating all these beats. You know? And then this thankfulness spills everywhere, over everything and everyone.
KIND: Hey. It’s also okay to not be okay. That’s the kindest thing you can say to yourself, and to those around you. Let yourself RESPOND to the situation that’s unfolding, and you will be KIND.
FUN: For me it’s so much fun to be CURIOUS, to WONDER, to IMPROVISE, to PLAY, to RESPOND. Your FUN recipe will be totally different from mine. It’s WORTHWHILE experimenting with your own ingredients. You’ll know it when you feel it. It feels easy, light, delightful. You will laugh at yourself a lot. You will be patient and relaxed and gentle. You will be JOYFUL. Those around you may sense your joy and feel freed to respond in kind. It’s possible.
Wherever you've come from, wherever you're going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause. Thank you for stopping by. Your comments are welcome.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a fiction writer, reader, editor, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, forever curious. I believe words are powerful, storytelling is healing, and art is for everyone.