Summer holiday was sweet. I spent more than two weeks at a boat-access-only cottage, where I saw only a few (very dear) people, slept soundly, did yoga twice a day, swam, kayaked, cooked meals, read, napped, showered outside, tried to watch every sunset.
Fear and anxiety also visited. There was so much space to notice. I noticed what a variety of fears my mind entertains, how many worst-case scenarios play out in vivid detail, flashing through my brain, even as I seek to soothe myself, or try to control outcomes. This is going on a list to discuss with my therapist.
My fears did not stop me from driving the boat, kayaking in rough waters, swimming in the lake, or staying as the lone adult at the cottage. My fears did not stop me. But I wonder: could I change the habits and patterns of my brain? Could the fears diminish in intensity? I don’t want to transfer my fears to my children (another fear!); parenting is an ongoing practice of attempts, improvisations, chance encounters with sorrow and appreciation, raw emotion, apologies for what could have been, letting go, embracing.
Today, I am alone in the house for the first time in a very long time. I can’t seem to settle. The house feels too big for the people who remain here (two children have moved out, graduating to university studies, one living in residence, one living in an apartment with a partner). Less laundry, yes, less grocery shopping, less chaos; less.
Who am I in the quiet? What’s my purpose, again? (Another item on the to-be-discussed-with-therapist list.)
I am not restless, exactly. But I seem always to be seeking, seeking. Expecting more of myself: to be kinder, better, more generous, softer, funnier, sharper, more confident, humbler, less demanding, firmer, more grounded, freer. Do you sense the contradictions? Do you feel the same desire to live amply, comfortably amidst contradiction?
For the past five weeks, I set-up an automatic response on my email that went something like this: “I’m on a writing sabbatical.” I was tempted to keep it forever, but on Tuesday of this week, I turned it off, at least temporarily. This is the week between writing sabbatical and actual holiday (but how to tell the difference between those two amazing and lovely states of being?!). My writing sabbatical felt like a holiday except possibly even better, because it felt so purposeful. I felt so purposeful within it, doing the work. This week of errands and catch-up and to-do lists has been distinctly unsatisfying, by comparison.
To update you on my current project, I spent five weeks working daily (with the exception of most weekends), revising this novel called Francie’s Got a Gun, which is scheduled for publication next summer (2022). Some days got a bit chaotic and I couldn’t stop, working deep into the evening hours, while others had a more orderly rhythm and pace. But overall, I kept returning to the idea of patience, and inviting patience into the process. It’s hard to explain, maybe, but once I get rolling it’s very difficult to stop. My challenge, once working, is to find a way to stop, to detach myself from the work at the appropriate hour: to rest, to relax, to let the thing be.
So I practiced. I stopped to eat supper with my family almost every evening. I went for walks. If my 13-year-old knocked on my door for a dog walk mid-afternoon, I always said yes, no matter where I was at. And I forced myself to take real breaks on weekends, to see friends and family, to take a few (small) trips, to socialize, unwind, or simply just to remove myself from the work.
I practiced taking breaks away because I knew it would benefit the work. Toward the end of the process, I was hugely tempted to pull an all-nighter to finish everything all in one fell swoop, but I stopped myself. Patience, patience. My eyes were tired, it was already late, my brain was addled. The writing would be better in the morning, after a rest. (And I’m sure that it was.)
One of the places I worked, at my youngest’s swim lessons, sitting outside under a tree near the pool.
I’m not a big believer in balance (seems like a concept designed to torment the person attempting and failing to achieve it); but I do believe in focus. I believe that to go deep and be present, I need to set up the conditions that allow me to focus on one thing at a time. Dog walk with son. In-depth revisions. Backyard picnic with friends. This is easier when I have sufficient time to focus on the things that matter deeply to me. What made it possible to ease away from the book on the weekends was knowing I’d be able to focus full-tilt the following week. And this all falls apart when my week-days are split between a bunch of must-dos, errands, meetings and external responsibilities, the disruptions and lack of sustained time prevent focus from ever happening in the first place. Disappointment, disillusionment, derangement is the result. That’s why the conditions need to be deliberately set up, revisited often, and maintained; that’s why I might actually need “I’m on a writing sabbatical” as my automatic email response in perpetuity.
During this week in-between, this liminal week, I’m reflecting on what life will be like with fewer children living at home this fall (only two!!!!); and I’m daring to look ahead a few years and invite some dreaming about what I may want, as the house empties out. (So far the biggest issue has been that I can’t calibrate my cooking for a smaller group; the leftovers my meals create is a legit problem!)
What’s next for Francie’s Got a Gun? Within the next few weeks, I expect to hear back from my editor with comments and notes, and I’ll set up the conditions to get further revisions completed before the manuscript goes to copy editing. There’s a timeline, and it’s a real pleasure to work within it. Comforting. When that work is done, I’ve got more work planned, more projects underway, more reasons to protect many hours of each day to write (and research, and revise).
I almost wrote “just” to write. But no. Why tamp down the fire? Why minimize the desire, the joy, the pleasure I take from this discipline? It’s enough. It’s enough. It’s enough to fill to the brim this one small and precious life.
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.
- What felt good this month? Being on holiday and, more importantly, feeling on holiday. Being outside, as much as possible — I’m writing this outside, for example. Daily yoga with Annabella, and in the past couple weeks, we’ve bumped it to twice-daily. Going easy on myself in terms of expectations (especially while on holiday). Seeing friends and family in person, for walks or on porches, or back patios, or back yards.
- What did you struggle with? I’ve noticed a few things. One, it’s harder to remain vigilant about the pandemic, the further we get from its initial shock. Summer has given us a blissful break, but I dread the possibility of an interior, locked-in, limited-contact fall/winter. Two, I’m hyper-critical of my social interactions; specifically, any social error that I make now feels magnified and terrible, and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night replaying these moments. There’s a piece in today’s New York Times about how we’re all becoming more socially awkward, and I, for one, can attest that this is painfully true. Three, I feel a longing and almost a panic about finding things to do that will connect me with other people: I had a dream that I’d gotten a job working at a newspaper as a copy editor two days a week, and in the dream I was thrilled and excited, till I realized that it was likely work I could do from home, and I wouldn’t be with people. I woke up feeling confused, as this hasn’t been a conscious desire — to be with people, to work with people; in fact, I’ve been carefully arranging my life in order to work alone, writing things. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong? Or even somewhat wrong? Maybe I need to find outlets / work that allow me to be with others? (And is this a pandemic-induced feeling of starvation-for-contact, or a more fundamental issue, career-wise?)
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Flatter. I’m not sure I can explain this better. I feel suspended between seasons. There are too many unknowns looming. I’m riding the moment, trying not to think ahead or get ahead of where I’m actually at. My expectations feel low, and I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Mostly good, I think. But sometimes I think I need more … more ambition (?), a defined goal (?), something concrete to bolster my otherwise circular practices (?).
- How did you take care of yourself? Same as last month: I’m practicing radical self-love! (Try saying that out-loud and not undercutting it with a self-deprecating aside.) Reminding myself and my body that to be imperfect is to be human. Speaking up when I feel upset or ignored. Trying to address conflict directly. Trying to notice my own shortcomings and dysfunctional patterns, emotionally, so I can at least take a step back and say, hey, do I like this? Do I want to change this? And if so, try to respond differently than I ordinarily would. I’m talking very very small-scale changes: like, whether I eat a piece of chocolate now or save it for later. (To this point: I’ve noticed I tend to hoard for the future rather than permit myself to enjoy in the present; what does it mean to give myself permission to use my resources freely, without fear? What does a mindset of plenty, of enough, of bountiful, of abundance feel like? How would it change how I live?)
- What would you most like to remember? The lake. The way the water moves differently depending on the wind and the time of day: long ripples; flat; waves; dappled. The sunsets. Card games with the kids. The meals: potato crust quiche, beans and rice, risotto made with homemade broth, roasted beets. Bike adventures with CJ.
- What do you need to let go of? What I should probably let go of is news from the States. But I can’t and I won’t. I’m practically an obsessive about it, even when on holiday. I’m by turns baffled and infuriated, disbelieving, resigned. It’s like everything that’s been simmering under the surface has been turned up to a boil, all the chickens are coming home to roost: the country is armed to the teeth, divided, sick, hungry, the inequality is obscene, the systems corrupt and built on racist and misogynist beliefs, and reality itself seems upended by the lies and false narratives being peddled and eagerly devoured online. What am I witnessing? I can’t make sense of it, and want to. So much doesn’t make sense to my mind, perhaps most basic, the willingness to let so many people get sick and even die, when there are simple solutions that could stop the spread of the virus. If they’re willing, as a country, to accept so much death, what else will they be willing to accept? It frightens me. (And what am I willing to accept, as a Canadian, that I shouldn’t?) So … should I let this go, turn off the news? It doesn’t affect my life directly, does it? Wouldn’t I be more content, more peaceable of mind, if I were to let it go? How important is this form of passive engagement? In what ways do I become actively engaged for knowing more? (For one, as a dual citizen I’ve registered to vote, but that’s not new.) Is it a sick form of entertainment, in a way, or is there value in staying informed?
- What felt good this month? Being outside! The weather has been splendid (I live for the heat), and our back yard is inviting, lush, pretty, full of birds and wild critters (including skunks, but that discovery goes into a different category). I’ve been running regularly, never more than 5km, always early in the morning through the park. This past week, CJ and I have been on almost-daily bike adventures, on paths and trails and quiet streets throughout the city (and I’m so glad he’s still happy to go on adventures with me!). Annie and I do yoga outside every morning, and it’s bliss to lie back and look at the sky. Our family has been using the gazebo area to entertain friends, socially distanced, of course; meeting face-to-face is so much sweeter than Zoom, though I’ll continue to appreciate Zoom for making it possible to see each other when it isn’t otherwise feasible. We’ve been camping, we’ve lounged at the beach. Bottom line: I’m drinking up this season, positively gorging on it, while it lasts.
- What did you struggle with? Resigning from coaching soccer. It was a painful decision. But I wasn’t comfortable returning to the field this summer, and I had to make the call one way or the other. I’m a big believer in finishing what you start, and in not bailing on commitments even when it gets hard; but ultimately it didn’t feel like I was being asked to do what I’d signed up for. In truth, my decision came from deep in my guts, and when a decision rises from there, it’s important to listen. So I said goodbye to the players; with gratitude for other coaches willing to step in. For someone who has difficulty saying “No,” this has been a valuable process to work through. My mental health seems more stable this month, too, and I wonder whether the looming return-to-play was weighing more heavily on my mind than I was willing to acknowledge at the time.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? More chilled-out. I’ve been reading lots of books, and napping on the couch. Less Twitter too! Haven’t written much new material in the past two weeks … but it hasn’t felt imperative. What feels imperative is feeding my mind with new ideas, hanging out with my kids, seeing friends, sticking to an early morning exercise routine. To everything there is a season. I’m submitting to the flow.
- How did you take care of yourself? This month, I continued to tend to my physical and mental health. I’ve been countering negative thoughts with journaling. I try to notice when I’m being unkind to myself, and to assess whether it’s accurate or based on an irrational or subconscious pattern of thought. I’m doing tons of stretching and strengthening (physio homework). Texting/talking with friends is also good self-care, I realize. I’ve been telling my body how much I appreciate it. I’ve been trying to apply the idea of acceptance as a form of love to myself, as well as to my loved ones. Don’t we all just want to be loved and appreciated for who we are, flaws and all? Becoming takes a lifetime. We’re all going it at our own pace, so let’s walk there together, in kindness and generosity.
- What would you most like to remember? Standing in the driveway, listening to my mom tell stories about her past. Biking behind CJ as he learns to lead the way. Laughing around the campfire. Wind blowing through open car windows. The comet shining like a flashlight in the night sky. The sound of many many birds. Being in motion, going somewhere, even if just around the block. The sky.
- What do you need to let go of? Anxiety, especially about everything that’s out of my control. Maggie Nelson writes about “prophylactic anxiety” in her book The Argonauts (her marvellous, genre-defying, mind-stretching book). In fact, I’m noticing that it’s her own mother who cannot escape from this need to anticipate and rehearse for the very worst, at all times. Maggie Nelson quotes Freud’s definition of anxiety: “Anxiety describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one.” My kids have been helping me notice the many ways in which I apply prophylactic anxiety, which I’ve preferred to call “vigilance,” to a multiplicity of situations in our shared lives. But you know—one cannot be ever-vigilant, ever-watchful. I cannot be. It’s a poor state in which to live one’s life. There’s no fun in it; dire warnings aren’t fun to broadcast or receive, and all but the most crucial are probably counter-productive. Is it the responsibility of a mother to prevent disaster? I feel quite certain that this has been the standard you-are-a-mother-and-this-is-your-job messaging. But maybe, just maybe, it’s not.
The bugs whirring in the trees. The sound of wind through branches. Cars and trucks grinding by on the nearby streets. I am gliding through these days. Maybe I want to keep this time, but maybe I also want to let it be. Let it roll like weather, let myself rest in the grass and look at the sky, so different every time, completely clear this morning with sunlight at the tips of the trees, the leaves lit from behind, green etched on pale blue.
I am waiting to discover something—what?—new?—about myself? about my purpose? about what I might become? I wonder why I always feel so sure that I am becoming—it seems so optimistic; because of course I am so sure that what I am becoming will be an improvement on this present iteration of self.
I’ve noticed that my flaws are magnified by this time of intense closeness with my little family unit. There are fewer of the everyday, outside, fleeting social interactions that help me to see myself differently; at home, my relationships tend to be more raw, less inhibited by boundaries and graces. In the outside world, I perform civility. Home is where I let my hair down (or wind it into a messy bun, more often!), seen only by those closest to me, who are also most bound to me and therefore most forgiving. Within these close relationships, I see reflected my limitations, my tendencies, my patterns, my behavioural tics and triggers. In truth, it is more often than not painful, humbling.
The question presents itself almost non-stop: Do I want to change? And if the answer is yes, what would I like to become, if not this?
Also, acceptance: this is what I’ve got to build upon.
This weekend, I listened to this On Being interview from 2013 with John Lewis. I’ve been thinking a lot about non-violent resistance, and what it means; and its relationship to my faith and faith tradition in the Mennonite church. I am planted in this soil. Here are my roots. How do I flower and grow and express “love in action”? The idea of resistance infers that against which you must resist—there is an implied relationship, a force that is pushing back. What John Lewis seemed to know is that in order for “good trouble” to bear fruit, you must present yourself at the edge, where you can meet resistance. You must be morally unassailable, dignified, restrained, patient, but also forgiving (of yourself and others). Non-violent resistance is hard, it requires self-discipline, rehearsal, practice (you learn to protect your head with your arms, you learn to curl into a ball on the ground, in practical terms). To win the moral battle, which may or may not move you closer toward your goal, you must be spiritually prepared to suffer. But to meet resistance effectively, you also need clarity of mission. The thing against which you are resisting must be clearly in view.
I’ve been thinking, too, that I lack clarity of mission. I don’t know my own goals. And this is why it feels like I’m waiting. (I’ve also been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and thinking about the many ways in which human beings cause each other pain and are hurt, despite our best intentions, despite trying to protect ourselves; and how powerless that can make us feel, to act, to respond, to seek out relationship with others.)
re resistance, re mission, re goals, just found this in my notes: I still need to write that blog post about the flaws in the system. Which flaws? Which system?
Too many flaws, too many systems.
On this subject, more to come. But I shall spare you and stop here for now.
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