On April 1st, I started a 30-day journaling project (inspired by Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals). What I’ve noticed so far is that prompts really help. On days when I try to jot down random thoughts, not much comes squeezing out. I’m preoccupied by surface tasks and must-dos, and a feeling of emptiness prevails. This is a most unpleasant feeling. So, today I said to myself, what advice would you give your students, if they were feeling stuck? You’d say, Stop trying to “journal” and do a daily diary (a la Lynda Barry), or an X Page prompt (ditto). Get out of your own head. Come alive by entering the world.
Other prompts have worked well too. My word-of-the-year group is spending April responding to each other’s words (we were each assigned someone else’s word to reflect on). My assignment was to reflect on the word ROOT. One of the associations that jumped out was “long-standing friendship.” A long-standing friendship, like a long-standing tree, has deep roots, has weathered many storms, and has had good fortune.
Reflecting on this imagery, related to ROOTS, and separate from the word-of-the year assignment, I landed on a journaling prompt: What roots in your own life are long-standing? And also, what roots are tender and new? It’s spring, after all! People are planting seedlings, tiny buds are opening. Feel free to use this prompt if it sparks something in you, too.
Words unfurling across a page, a screen, scrawled in the margins and end pages, marking time, holding ambition, bright with rage, lyrical, lyrical, lyrical
Born family, brothers and sister, all of us rooted in time, in blood and DNA
Music, song, rhythm, pulse
My feet walking, running, my body in motion, powerful, strong
Friendships that hold, light in the window, light at the door, and bread, and wine, and laughter and forgive me
Performance, putting on a show
Reading, imagination’s flow
The trees themselves, and water, mud, grass under bare feet
A big appetite, hoarding, cheapness, knowing best
A quietness amidst chaotic flow
The impulse to make places home
Loneliness, fear of not belonging
Thrift against decadence, earnestness
Wanting to make people laugh, to entertain, to put at ease, and yet aloof, sharp edges
Horses, dogs, children
Memory, curiosity, mystery, questions without answers
Tender new roots
Medication to lift the load
Healing estrangements, more trust, talking about tough stuff, tender stuff too
Kids moving home and away, vegetarian meals
Big job interview, looking for work that satisfies my need to earn a living and to feel/be purposeful
Transitioning X Page workshop to a sustainable long-term project
Parenting teenagers and young adults
Spending time with little kids again, delighting in their presence
Getting reacquainted with teaching
Practicing social skills and conflict resolution
Expanding my skill set, seeing my skills as having other applications, exploring outlets for my desire to connect, create, be fruitful, self-sufficient, purposeful, to serve
Doing “the work” to counter harmful patterns and habits
Yoga and meditation—soaking it up!
Body awareness, body love, healing
Caring for elders, patience, tenderness, listening to the wisdom of elders
Honouring needs, resting, relaxing, spontaneity
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?
You bring light. Say it to yourself. How does it feel?
The words came into my mind during a recent morning meditation and lit me up from the inside out.
My word of the year is not LIGHT, though I considered it. It is not EASE or FREE, though it could be. My word for 2023 is NEED. Beneath the word is another word that’s been guiding me, too: ONE. Too many words? But really, just one. Just one word to respond to any given moment. Just one goal. Just one purpose. What do you need? What does this situation call for? What need is not being met that may be preventing you from being wholly yourself in the world? And as important! What needs are you meeting wonderfully well right now?
I am also playing with the concept of the “joy snack,” which can be savoured in little bites throughout the day. Listen to a podcast on the subject (from the Washington Post). Your “joy snacks” are your own, they’re personal, and they’re small, and they just need to be noticed in order to exist. They’re probably already happening, whether you know it or not. For me, I have a “joy snack” every morning when I do a silly aerobic warm-up in the kitchen, usually in my pjs, after brushing my teeth and before doing anything else. It takes between 2-4 minutes and never fails to give a sweet little boost to my mood.
I’ve been thinking about what matters — to me. Not to anyone else, not to an imaginary host of external projections. But to me. The core, the centre, the oneness of myself. This could be misused, to be sure, or misconstrued as selfish, but could it really be selfish to care about how you feel, inside your own body, inside your own mind? What matters? I’m the one living inside this body. My time is finite here on earth, inside this experience of being me, in the world. So it’s worth checking in: What do I care about? Do I really know? Am I living in my body, in this world, in ways that make me feel good, whole, content?
What activities and actions and experiences and routines help me feel good, whole, content? What leaves me feeling empty, anxious, drained? As I explore what I FEEL (last year’s word), I gain clues to what I NEED.
I’m learning so much at my new job in schools (and in parallel, by teaching creative writing again, too).
I NEED to feel purposeful. I NEED to be with people. I NEED to understand my role. I NEED clear boundaries around my responsibilities (either clearly set out for me in a given context, or clearly set out and articulated by myself, which is much much harder to do). I NEED recognition for work done. I NEED dignity in my work. I NEED to live in alignment with my values. I NEED laughter, playfulness, connection.
It’s funny, but as I experiment with this new job, which takes me into different environments, often several different work cultures in any given week, I’m learning like a sea sponge. And I’m positively alight with discovery. I might be doing a task like putting labels on student records, and I’ll feel a giddy leap of joy — this is so satisfying, I’ll laugh to myself! Who was telling me all along that I needed to do something big or visible or large-scale to feel purposeful? It must have been me. And it was making me so unhappy, believing this about myself, because I couldn’t ever reach my own ridiculously outsized expectations for what I was supposed to be achieving. How amazing to discover that I feel purposeful doing small repetitive tasks that take focus and patience, and that almost no one will notice, except that important information will be available in an organized fashion when they come looking for it later. And that matters to me!
Same with recognition — the scale is unimportant. How did I not know this about myself? Recognition that satisfies my need is wholly about connection. When a connection is been made, between me and someone else, my heart soars with joy. When I sense that trust has been established, even very tentative or brief, I feel recognized. I hope the other person does too. Trust is mutual. So is recognition.
And I’m revelling in this discovery (re-discovery?) that I love being with people. I spend the day responding to other people’s requests, needs, and directions, and leave bursting with energy. I am not drained by this work. Quite the opposite. How is this possible? I’d assumed I was an introvert, but it turns out the thing that’s been draining me, in a lot of my other work, isn’t people, it’s having a role that isn’t clearly defined, or that requires of me responsibility without power, or just a ton of decision-making while having to invent and reinvent my boundaries. When I know what’s required of me, I am relaxed and at ease, no matter how chaotic the situation, no matter the complexity of the needs being presented. It’s the not-knowing what my role is — what the limits of my role are — that’s exhausting.
Can I apply what I’m learning to other parts of my life?
It remains to be seen. But I’m excited to keep learning and exploring, and enjoying.
And labelling files, alphabetizing books, and filling in where called and needed.
My goodness. What a year, what a season.
Boundaries are love!! a friend texts me.
Another friend helps me dig into my worry that writing has served as a form of therapy, lo these many years, and with medication now lowering my anxiety to levels previously never experienced, I wonder, will writing still come to me, will I still feel the urge if it’s not an obsessive impulse?
I am collecting the wisdom of the sisterhood. I made my birthday (December 29th) into an opportunity to connect and confer and laugh and reunite and relax with friends and family, near and far. In fact, the whole of this holiday season has been about this: connection, and ease. Sleep when tired. Rest when the stomach flu takes you down. Let someone else (Kevin! Angus!) cook the big turkey dinner. Bake in concert with kids and kids’ friends. Knead sticky bun dough for a good half hour while listening to a meditation. Walk through the snow storm. Snuggle the dog. Savour the warmth. Sing carols and hymns for hours. Be clear of mind. Drink in the kindness of others. Pour out what you can. Invite. Delight. Say yes, and thank you, and welcome, and thank you, and eat till you’re filled to the brim.
I’ve often been more reflective on birthdays past. This birthday, I chose to socialize all day long.
Can a woman contented with her life still be a writer? I woke up this morning and thought: I wouldn’t trade this contentment, this inner peace and delight that flickers with promise and hope, in order to write another book. But why am I building a case for either / or? Surely there are other paths in. I could argue as effectively that I’ve written books in order to be published, as some kind of proof of belonging, or proof of a longed-for identity (though that’s not how belonging works, nor grounding in identity; another hard-won revelation this year).
I’ll be teaching creative writing again this winter, and I’m interested in exploring what writing feels like now, again, anew; what feeds the urge to create; what sates it; what can I learn with / from my students?
If I’m not writing to ease my anxiety … if I’m not writing in order to be published … what sparks the desire to write a-whole-nother-book? It’s gruelling work that doesn’t quite make sense, as those close to me have observed — the effort I put into draft after draft can’t be paid off in the resulting novel. Effort and result are disconnected; even, I’d argue, unrelated. I’ve experienced book-writing as a painful process, I guess I’m confessing. It hasn’t made logical sense, not from a financial perspective, nor from an artistic perspective either, really; which is why I’m curious to know: will I still be able to make a beautiful book, with alive characters, built on an elaborate structure I see in my head, if I’m not obsessed, or in pain, or seeking to soothe deep anxiety? I’m hopeful. I am.
And I’m willing to shed all ambition to be a person with delight in her voice, and love in her throat, and patience in her bones.
What a wild experiment this living is.
What a lucky woman I am, to get to live in concert on this planet with so many wise, kind, generous spirits and friends. What a wonderful year this has been of feeling intensely (gratitude, shame, pride, uncertainty, clarity, anger, delight and so much more) and of paying attention to what the feelings are telling me; of making mistakes and being forgiven; and of seeing Francie in the world. The feeling I’m feeling right this very second is GRATITUDE! I’m thankful for a new job that brings me satisfaction and delight (as a temporary secretary / library clerk in the public schools); and for everyone who loves me as I am, a mess of flaws and inadequacies and intentions and goofiness. I carry you somewhere inside me, everyone who’s walked even a step with me on this path. Thank you for letting me give, when and what I could, and thank you for the gifts you offered me, whether I deserved them or not. I am a grateful, humbled recipient.
Please forgive me the times I let you down, or was too inward-looking to notice what you needed; or stuck in my own head, or protecting my pride. (I’ll forgive myself too; I’ll try.)
Boundaries are love!! Do I know what this means? I’m learning / unlearning, but I get it muddled often enough to cause pain.
Well. I’m human. Let’s all be human together. We’re so interesting and strange and difficult and curious. But we’re not disappointing! Not really, not truly, with a shift of perspective.
Wishing you time for reflection and / or fun as you look toward a whole new year.
Yesterday afternoon, I set out solo in the sunshine. I love the people in my house and I love my house; yet the need to escape was powerful. To move.
On the busier sections of path, snippets of conversation floated past:
“The single-best way to leave a legacy, guaranteed, is to have a lot of children—” (Spoken by one young man to another, both wearing sunglasses, coming toward me on the trail.)
“Actually, I had a bit of a set-back this week. My tennis friend called and said ‘I have bad news….'” (Two women crossing my path diagonally.)
The sun was so warm, I took off my scarf and hat, unzipped my jacket.
On the quiet stretches of path, I told myself stories about who I wanted to be, who I remembered being. Who knows what a calling is anyway? I miss interacting with people. I miss working with students, I miss coaching. I said this out loud, so I could really hear it.
I listened to an On Being podcast three times yesterday, while mixing and kneading bread dough, doing laundry, searing a small roast, chopping veggies (though not while out walking): Krista Tippett’s conversation with Ariel Burger. I listened and listened and listened, trying to absorb the wisdom.
Do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
It sounds very basic: a recipe for being a witness, not a spectator.
I wondered what to do if the person being humiliated was yourself; what then? (The podcast does not discuss power.) I see people who are hurt and wounded by their interactions with systems designed to crush and humiliate them, hurt by people acting within those systems, and I think: what protection is there against this cruelty, injustice? We are asking too much of individuals to fight for themselves, by themselves.
Maybe that’s the power of witness? If you can, if you are able, be a witness, a true witness, and do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
Be a blessing.
Be a blessing? How? Alone in my studio, writing stories? With my family? Reaching out to friends?
We are also called to be as strangers to each other, to recognize and acknowledge that others can and will surprise us, if we allow them to. If we approach each other (strangers, family, friends) neither from a place of fear, nor from a place of over-familiarity, what will we learn?
To be a blessing is to push against, as well as to meet. My ideas, experiences, perspective, beliefs will not match up perfectly with yours, no matter how we might wish it. Unity is not conformity.
The divine in me sees the divine in you.
But you are not me. I am not you.
To be blessed is to be given something to carry. A blessing can be heavy. It can ask a lot of the other, the one who is seen. As a coach, as a teacher, as a parent, what I hope to communicate is the deep value in trying; not striving, necessarily, it doesn’t have to be so strenuous; trying. To say: I tried, is to acknowledge your own effort. To say: You tried, is to see someone else’s, to name it.
There’s a lightness to trying. There’s acceptance that trying doesn’t always lead to success. There’s room for surprise. Experiment. Consider. Be blessed. Leap. What if you try and you discover something different, something unexpected, something you weren’t looking for? Isn’t that wonderful too? To try is to leave room for curiosity.
Do you ever feel too superstitious to mention that you’re feeling good? Like by speaking such words out loud, the universe will notice and you’ll call down your fair share of trouble and grief?
This morning, I noticed that I didn’t feel tired. In fact, I felt energized. I was looking forward the day ahead. The obstacles seemed surmountable and I wanted to go for a run just to enjoy how at easy I felt inside my own body. But I also noticed an underlying emotion — was it shame, almost? I was feeling good, even great, not tired … because I’m not that busy right now.
I’m not busy.
I’ve been busy, so I know what busy feels like, and I’m really not busy right now. I’m not struggling on the verge of complete burn-out. I don’t have to fantasize that I’m going to step out of my life and vanish, as a coping mechanism for getting through the day’s tasks. Kind of the opposite, actually, and this absence of extreme stress, even distress, triggers a certain fear in me that may be familiar to some of you, too — that my value, my worth is directly connected to my busyness.
By not being busy, I’m attempting to rewire my understanding of worth and value. Time, space, attention: what are these worth to us? Attention to tasks, to desires, to emotions, to motivations, to goals. Neutral attention. Non-judgemental attention. The attention of curiosity. The attention of immersion in a moment. The attention of presence. Contemplative attention, calm, stillness, peace — the opposite of busyness.
This is my current goal: to give myself these moments. What does it feel like to move easily through a day? What does it feel like to breathe? (Take a deep breath now, and feel what it feels like.) What does it feel like to relax into a task, to give myself a break, metaphorically and literally?
It feels good.
I feel good. I acknowledge this feeling in the present, in the now. The now is where we live, and yet our minds would carry us back in time or push us forward, with worries about what’s to come, or what could have happened differently, if only. Sometimes the ability to move forward and back in time is a wonderful magic trick and a saving grace, but often it’s a form of self-torment.
For example … yesterday, I received student evaluations in the mail, for the cartooning course I taught this winter. I stood in the kitchen in my coaching gear, minutes before we had to leave for a soccer game, for some reason choosing to take that moment to scan through the comments and ratings (anyone who receives evaluations knows this was a terrible idea!).
The positive comments far outweighed the negative, yet had zero effect on me. I can’t even remember them now, but I remember the student who didn’t think I used the readings well, and the student who said the storyboarding didn’t work for them, and the student who was disappointed that we hadn’t done more writing.
My attention was attuned to the negative.
Why? It occurred to me this morning that what I wanted was an excuse, a reason beyond myself, to justify my decision not to teach, at least for now — and a handful of negative comments did the trick. Playing the comments on a loop generated unpleasant emotions, but also made me feel justified. (side note: I wonder why I keep needing to justify this decision to myself? No one else is asking me to do so!)
Viewed from a neutral standpoint, the comments have nothing to do with my decision not to teach: a decision made months ago, not yesterday, that, viewed from a neutral standpoint, made it possible, this morning, to feel good, not tired, not stressed, not burnt-out. A decision I can feel inside my body. A decision that isn’t actually about teaching or not teaching. It’s about making space.
I love that word: contemplative. It speaks to me.