Listening to Joni Mitchell’s River.
I listen to this song even when it’s not the Christmas season. They’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Oh, Joni. I recently read a profile about her early songwriting in the New York Times and then drifted over to read another piece in The New Yorker from 2012 by Zadie Smith about becoming a Joni convert. I’d already read the Zadie Smith essay, maybe when it was originally published, but I read it again. The internet will give you so many windows and doors to open, chasing ideas that you might tell yourself are inspirational or aspirational, when really, you just want to be as original and seemingly free as Joni Mitchell. But it’s okay just being you. Isn’t it?
I’ve started a new project that I’m planning to do every day in December, and possibly beyond. It’s a way of crossing the threshold from the every day into the imagination, a daily portrait and caption, created in about 20 minutes or so, while listening to music. I draw a portrait on an index card in pen, then colour it with crayons (an important part of the playful process!), then write a few lines about whatever’s on my mind, giving myself no more than 3 minutes for the text so I don’t start sweating over it. Like this:
Here are a few other good things and random thoughts, on this Friday afternoon when I’ve run out of steam and am about to turn to fun videos on youtube while doing my stretching routine on the office floor, which isn’t a half-bad way to spend half an hour, truth be told — maybe I’ll count that as one of the random good things going on right now. I’m also attempting to do sets of 10 burpees whenever I think of it throughout the day. While waiting for lunch to heat in the microwave, for example. Before bed. The goal is to raise my heart rate in spurts throughout the day, maybe to compensate for not running right now (though I do ride the spin bike pretty frequently). Whatever. It lifts my spirits every time. I finish my burpee set and throw my hands in the air in victory! Yes! (I should draw that.)
Other daily goals: Go outside! Every day.
And: Flip my current pattern of writing in a frantic panic late in the afternoon, and write in the mornings instead (answer email only after I’m all written-out). The daily portrait and caption kickstarts this goal, and so far it’s worked wonders. Start with something fun and easy, something I look forward to doing, and suddenly I’m pitched into writing new material without even thinking twice.
Also: Work harder. (Weird, I originally wrote “Word harder.” That works too.) Work/word harder is my main life goal. But I mean that only insofar as I mean work harder to dig in, commit, finish projects, even if I don’t know what will happen to them. Hard things are hard. Curiosity is my fuel. Patience is a gift but also can be a weakness if it turns into numb acceptance. Grit is necessary. Add it to your breakfast. Relish and savour what you’re doing because you never know what you’re making. Or what will stick, what will matter, what others will appreciate.
For example: A student sent me a message this week, writing: “I also wanted to tell you that as a graduate, I still appreciate your class. I’ve read books a little differently since, with more compassion, and more interest in the beauty of the work.” How could I guess that a student would come away from a writing class with a new lens on reading? What a gift. I love thinking about the accident of connections, about the things we keep that perhaps someone else has given us, but they don’t know.
Okay, one more goal: Reach out with appreciation for the gifts received from others. I might also add, if there’s a teacher who’s helped you in some way, let her know. Especially now. Any teacher who can engage her students through the screen or the mask is working at a level of commitment and energy and preparation that is almost impossible to understate.
In conclusion, as this seems to be a post that has brought up boundless wells of inner gratitude, I’m grateful for a friend’s idea to create our own collectively brainstormed advent calendar of family activities. As a family of six, each of us contributed four ideas which were randomly sprinkled into the calendar’s pockets. Day 1: decorate Christmas cookies (made by F); Day 2: breakfast for dinner (waffles, made by me); Day 3: ice cream delivery to grandparents; Day 4: games night. (Days 1 and 2 shifted the responsibility to the baker and the cook, and both of us were slightly crusty about this; as a result, we’ve also created a bunch of back-up activities to be accessed should one idea not work out on a particular day).
I’m grateful for a little surprise to look forward to every day of advent.
And I’m grateful to you, my friends who read this blog. It gives me a little boost knowing you’re out there. Connections. They’re harder to come by right now, and I cherish them all the more for that.
Be clear with yourself. It’s a practice worth practicing.
Be clear even when it’s uncomfortable. Be clear, even if you’re worried you’re letting someone else down.
This week has not been my best (see previous post …), but I’ve been noticing that it helps, in uncomfortable moments, to ask myself: What do you want to do? Are you doing it?
I almost always know the answer.
And just asking brings me into the present moment.
I can say, yes, this is actually what I want to be doing. Or hell no, it’s not.
If I am doing what I want to do, it becomes so much easier to keep doing it, but with a new perspective, a feeling of agency and freedom. Hey, this is what I’ve chosen to do! Maybe it’s harder than I expected, or maybe it’s not bringing up the feelings I’d anticipated, but I want to do it, I’ve chosen to do it, so I’m going to get on with doing it.
If it’s not, I can dig a bit, and find out whether the situation is changeable; often it is, even if it isn’t. By which I mean, often, the thing I’m doing that I don’t want to do is made less tolerable by what’s going on inside my head. An imaginary conversation. A pointless outrage. An excited or anxious or fraught connection to something that actually has no connection to my immediate well-being.
So, I ask:
Are you okay?
What do you want to do?
(And I remind myself: Don’t worry about what you think everyone else might want you to do — let go of imaginary projections. What do you, Carrie Anne Snyder, want to do?)
Oh. Okay, well, I’m right here, running in the rain, and what I want is to take the long way home, and there’s time, and my body can handle it, and now that I know these things, I’m feeling the rain and the wind on my face, and the breath in my lungs, and I’m okay. I know I’m okay. This is what I want to do, and I’m doing it.
I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
Welcome to my studio.
Two weeks is a long luxurious span of time to be on holiday, especially right now, especially when one’s holiday is basically a two-week quarantine away from other people and the world and news and thoughts of the future; it’s all a beautiful, slow-moving present; now, now, now.
We’re back home, but I’m holding onto my holiday brain for as long as I possibly can.
This is what I learned on holiday: Notice. Notice what I’m doing or about to do. Notice what effect it has on others around me. Notice what I like and don’t like about the things I’m doing and saying, and their effect. Do I want to change those things? Can I? (Don’t know. Maybe!) But it all starts by noticing. And then deciding what to do next.
As one of my kids told me: I think you have to want to change, Mom.
Yes. That is true.
On holiday, as an experiment, I sometimes did the opposite of what my first response would have been. I had the time. I noticed how I wanted to respond before I responded, and then if I didn’t want to respond that way, I paused myself and tried to respond differently, just to see what would happen. This was on a very small scale. For example, Annie and Kevin and I did yoga twice a day on the dock and one fine afternoon, I noticed that I wanted to announce to them—during tree pose—that I was wearing very slippery pants, and the pants were the reason I couldn’t place my foot up high on my opposite leg—I wanted to explain: hey guys, it’s not me, it’s my pants! But instead, I noticed that I wanted to do this before I did it. I noticed, too, that to speak would be to spoil this moment of shared concentration. I noticed that what I wanted to share was a) information not useful to them, and b) information that, if shared, wouldn’t actually solve anything. Any insecurity, any fear of failure, was mine; unrelated to what they were doing, and certainly not theirs to fix.
So I bit my tongue. I just did the pose. Obviously, this was a very tiny moment of noticing and making a very tiny decision, but I remembered it afterward, clearly, because I’m writing about it from memory now. What I noticed was that it didn’t hurt at all to stay quiet. It just shifted the moment, and my experience of the moment. It reminded me why I was doing yoga—as a gift to my body and mind, as a way of loving myself, respecting my body, no matter what it was/is capable of doing. It reminded me to thank my body for holding me up, no matter what the position.
It reminded to say: Thank you, body, for bringing me into this moment!
Notice, notice, notice. It’s why I meditate. I have to want to change if change is going to happen. But I also have to notice what I’m doing in the first place. So much of what we do, think, say is almost automatic. We’ve fit ourselves into systems, we’ve figured out how to survive, how to take the easiest route to self-soothing, how to comfort ourselves, how to minimize conflict (or ramp it up, if that’s what makes us feel alive/better). Our responses are formed by long experience, often dysfunctional, or harmful to our bodies and minds. Changing deep patterns takes patience, trial and error. Takes forgiveness and generosity above all else—to the self, which will extend then so easily to others too. If you can forgive yourself for your flaws and weaknesses it will be easy to forgive the flaws and weaknesses in others.
Insecurity, fear, the desire to be liked, the need to win and prove myself; these are among my deepest flaws. And I do want to change the way I respond when in their thrall. The only hope is to notice.
One more thing I learned on holiday (or learned anew, again): To notice when others are doing and saying things that make me feel good, cherished, calmer, more generous-minded—so I can learn from their deeds and words, and also be appreciative. For example, I’m so thankful that my children are kind and hopeful people, who are rolling with their changed circumstances, accepting what they’ve got and actively making the best of it, adapting, not complaining or mourning any perceived losses, just getting on with what’s being offered to them. I watch them, I notice, and I follow their lead.
Our days have found their routines. I start with exercise: a good sweat puts me in a good mood. If I’m on the spin bike, I also get to watch a favourite show on Netflix. Right now, that’s Murdoch Mysteries, another Canadian television gem that I’ve taken too long to discover (like Schitt’s Creek). I like my entertainment understated.
Next, I might mix up a sourdough loaf, or pop one in the oven (if I mixed it up last night; very occasionally, what I pop in the oven is scones … mmm). Shower. Breakfast: eggs on toast, or porridge with seeds and yogurt. Newspaper, coffee. I take my time. Then I head to my office.
Meanwhile, the kids appear, and three of them, plus Kevin, lace up their running shoes and head out the door, no matter the weather, for the 10:30 Running Club. The same daughter who organized Fake Prom 2020 has somehow gotten her brothers and dad running daily. This is nothing short of a miracle. The kid is a motivational genius. Best of all, the 10:30 Running Club has a fan! Apparently, someone on the route noticed their regularly daily efforts, and began appearing on his porch to cheer them on as they passed. Last week, he made them a motivational poster. I mean, how awesome is that?!
I think this is a good time for good stories.
That said, the novel I’m working on is pretty dark. I hope it’s pretty and dark, or maybe romantic and dark, or magical and dark.
It’s where I spend most of the hours between 10AM and 5PM, week days. And it does feel like it’s a place, this novel, because I time travel to get there. It’s set in the 16th century and it’s pure escape for me to drop down into that imaginary place and write about whatever I find there.
Around 5PM, I exit the office and begin to cast about for supper ideas. I listen to a podcast or the radio, wash up the dishes that have accumulated throughout the day, and bake the loaf of sourdough (if I haven’t already). And cook a meal. It’s usually ready around 6:30/7PM. I haven’t mentioned the laundry and lunch breaks I’ll take at some point during my writing day (laundry time is when I watch Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert to catch up on my satirical news fix; I’ll often pop upstairs to check in on the youngest’s online schooling, but mostly I don’t do much parenting during these writing hours).
Supper is family time. We catch up. After supper, the kids do the cleanup. Kevin and I walk the dog. Around 8PM, I do yoga. And then watch something on Netflix with Kevin, or not. Depends on the day. Wednesdays is sibs night, when we meet via Zoom and consume a few beers.
Before bed, I feed my sourdough starter (“Doughy”), maybe mix up a loaf.
And that’s a day.
This morning, I received another good story in my inbox: one of The X Page writers, Swati, emailed to share her experience of publishing “Crayons,” her story about a favourite teacher that always makes me LOL when I read it. (Link here; enjoy!) A friend who read Swati’s story suggested that she look up the teacher and share it with her. And the teacher replied! Here are a few of the teacher’s words: “You have no idea how much you have lifted my spirits. I have been struggling lately, especially with this virtual teaching, not seeing my students and not knowing if I’m even making a difference. You have reminded me why I still teach and why I love it so much! Thank you!”
Actually, you have no idea how much this message lifted my spirits, too.
Thank you to Swati and her teacher and my 10:30 Running Club’s number one fan. Thank you for seeing, for cheering, for noticing, for your attention to someone else’s efforts. You’ve reminded me that the gift of appreciation is always in us to give, and immeasurably wonderful to receive.
We all need things to look forward to. Things to plan for. Events that lift us out of our ordinary lives and routines.
Our house, on Friday evening, was transformed into an event venue for our family’s Fake Prom 2020: Starry Night.
The party was magnificently planned by our younger daughter, who is a natural boss, with an eye for detail. Everyone was given a job. I was the DJ, Kevin was the bartender, our eldest did the menu planning and food prep, and the other two assisted with cleaning and decorating.
We were to appear at the venue, at 7PM, dressed to the nines. Furniture had been moved. Photos were taken.
Eating, drinking, dancing and lounging followed, supplemented by several rounds of back yard volleyball. The first round, I wore my jean jacket due to pure vanity (45-year-olds can still be vain), but for the second midnight round, I was in my actual winter coat! Kevin burned some stuff in our old fire pit. We attempted to see where the ball was going. Hilarity ensued.
DJ Carrots and Beats had everyone jumping with some dance classics, and relaxing at the after-party with a more mellow vibe. Canadian Trivia was featured at the after-party. I tossed in a late-night load of laundry. Ate a big bowl of late-night pasta salad.
The only melancholy note was the recognition that this would have been a really kick-ass party to host for friends. We miss you friends!
The next day, we all slept in and lazed around. There were snow squalls, so it was kind of the perfect day for that. (Side note: Are we in Narnia? Is it still March?)
Tell me, friends, what are you planning and looking forward to right now? Ideas to share?