What felt good this month? Mid-month, I started walking every single morning, despite the extreme cold. It brought me back to life, especially on the morning there was a huge snowstorm. Just remembering that walk gives me a child-like delight. January is a hard month, and this year we were locked down for most of it. Getting outside was imperative. I also started using a light box in the mornings for half an hour, while doing a puzzle. My daughter and I are now working on separate puzzles simultaneously (she wisely decided not to participate in my attempt to become a better person through puzzle-sharing, as it was clear to all that I was not particularly improving). Other good feelings: backyard fire with friends; eating fermented foods; tea and meditation; and finishing the copy edits for FRANCIE with my editor!!! YESS!
What did you struggle with? Exhaustion, lassitude, a general lack of motivation. But I’m going to turn this question around and explain that I’ve actually experienced less struggle this month. I think I’ve lowered my expectations. Or maybe my expectations are in line with what’s possible for me to achieve on any given day. Whatever’s happening, I’ll take it. Some part of my brain has settled into accepting that I don’t have the answers to many of the questions. I’m letting myself off the hook: it isn’t my job to craft perfect responses in this imperfect world. It is my job to be truthful about how I’m feeling, to speak from a place of thoughtful vulnerability rather than apprehensive face-saving, and to have the courage to say No if it’s what I mean. (As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve discovered that saying NO is HUGELY DIFFICULT for me. I like to please. I’m going to try to get comfortable with the discomfort of not pleasing.)
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I finished the major textual work on FRANCIE. So that’s done. Good. Other than that, I’m working on another writing project, while considering what other activities may be calling. It’s important to keep space cleared for writing. The more writing I do, the more it’s part of my every day routine, the easier it is to step into the flow. Also, my focus is pretty limited I’ve realized. In any given day, week, month, I can maybe focus deeply on one project and stay present for my family and friends — and that’s it! Luckily, I think that constitutes a pretty good life. As pandemic guidelines change again, and things open up, I need to think carefully before piling on new projects, activities or responsibilities. What matters? What matters most?
How did you take care of yourself? I listened to a kind voice in my head. Somehow, this kind voice gave me permission not to take myself too seriously. I laughed at my foibles and missteps rather than fearing them, or wanting to hide them away. Try it: Talk to yourself like you’re talking to a very dear friend (I heard this advice on the “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast — and it worked for me!). I also did 30 days of yoga with Adriene (and Kevin). And I initiated a two-week tea ritual with my word of the year group again, which is bringing me new ideas for meditative practices, and much wise reflection. What enriches your life? I think it’s worth asking. I think it’s worth acting on, too. Trust yourself, trust your body, the kind voice tells me (she sounds a lot like Adriene, at least in this example). You have everything you need, right here.
What would you most like to remember? Walking in a snowstorm is the best! If it’s snowing, go outside and play! Dress for the weather and have an adventure.
What do you need to let go of? Any sense of self-importance. What do I mean by this? There’s a part of the self that wants to be admired. It’s the same part of the self, strangely enough, that fears being exposed as not worthy of admiration. It’s the part that’s really scared of dying too, and not being here in the world anymore, being forgotten, not doing enough with the time remaining, not leaving something valuable behind. I see this part of myself. I feel compassion toward its fear, and all the pressure that fear can bring. What alleviates my fear, makes it irrelevant? This: To do the work I see before me, no matter the outcome. If I can name a want, that’s it. In this vision, the work of grammar and imagery and structure and ideas holds my attention, and I can laugh gently and appreciate the humour of this funny, foolish, wishful, hopeful, grasping flurry of imperfect human beingness attempting to do this work. It’s gonna be a mess. I think that’s what we get.
And hey, we made it through January! Thank you for reading along.
I like to write blog posts on days when I’m feeling grounded, calm, reflective, steady.
Today is not one of those days.
I could blame it on the extra cup of coffee. But of course it’s more than that. There’s more nerve-jangling energy out there right now than I can rightly calculate. Anyone else feeling the urge to hang out a window screaming AUGHHHH at the top of your lungs?
I haven’t tried that yet.
But relief has come here and there.
I led the X Page’s writing club yesterday evening, and for that hour, I was transported via storytelling — digging into my own memories and wandering around, and listening to the stories others unearthed and returned with, each one shining and whole-seeming. The keyword we used was TREE. There were so many different trees! Lemon tree, olive tree, avocado tree, breadfruit tree, fire tree, pine tree, climbing tree, scraggly bush. Each tree took us to a different place, time, space. We were outside. We were in the tree, we were under it, we were worried, we were grieving, we were gathered with others, we were alone and triumphant.
We were transported, away from all this.
Another moment of reprieve: On Tuesday, I had a photo shoot to update my author photo. The last one was taken in 2015, and I’ve gotten so much older. I wear glasses now. I ate a lot of sourdough during the early pandemic. I don’t run as fast or as far. My children are moving away from home. I haven’t gotten dressed up for events since pre-pandemic times. Do I even have anything remotely appropriate to wear?
What is my style now? When I put on makeup, I have to take off my glasses, and everything’s a blur, and did I ever know how to put on makeup properly even back when I could see?
The above approximates my interior monologue as I prepared myself to be a subject, to have my image imprinted in time, once again.
And … it was FINE!
It was better than fine. I would go so far as to say the experience was AFFIRMING. (Props to the photographer, who had big energy, and seemed capable of firing off nothing but compliments and exuberance even as she was directing me a million times over on how to stick out my neck, lower my chin, tilt my head — no, tilt it less — there, that’s perfect, don’t move!)
By the end, I sounded like I’d gone through a particularly successful therapy session. I kept making surprised declarations, such as: “Getting older is okay!”; and other inanities that felt profound in the moment, my hair whipping around in the warm wind on what was a weirdly mild and sunny December morning.
I floated home, feeling like a star.
And now … today … on another weirdly warm December day, the wind thrashing the bare trees, the skies grey and bleak, I am anxious and restless and worrying over all that I cannot control. All that none of us can. Grasping for answers, advice, solutions, information needed to make a whole series of decisions, large and small. I want to be out in the world. Don’t we all? And we have been, and the thought of our worlds shrinking and closing back in again … well, it’s next to intolerable.
But — the answers aren’t clear, we don’t know how this ends.
What are your escape valves? What’s rescuing you right now, even just briefly?
Have you learned how to live with uncertainty? I thought that I had; but it seems there’s always more to learn.
It’s too hot to think.
I’m as cranky as a baby with a heat rash.
Around 3:30AM, I lay awake and thought through how we might get air conditioning. It felt like the heat was lying on my chest, like it was a living creature, a pressure or weight that made it harder to breathe.
On Canada Day, we went to the beach. It felt safe, and it also felt like paradise, to be driving through lush Ontario countryside, undulating green, toward a deep, cold lake. It wasn’t that everything felt “normal,” but despite the differences between this summer and last summer — the complications of living in pandemic times — the possibility for adventure and temporary escape was proven to exist, too.
I’ve been running early in the morning, before it gets extra-hot. Despite all the stretching (dynamic pre-run; static post-run), my lower back aches as I sit here.
I’ve tried to write. But I’m not thinking in any organized fashion.
I’m going to take a trip to Dairy Queen this afternoon with a couple of the kids, we’ve made a plan, and part of my plan is to get a treat to deliver as a surprise to my mom … expeditiously, before it melts. She loves a strawberry sundae.
I’ve got a pile of rhubarb on the counter that needs to be made into something delicious. And loads of fresh greens in the fridge. Tiny eggs from Farmer Claire. Raspberry canes in the backyard loaded with fruit, on the cusp of ripening. Sprays of colourful flowers everywhere. This is a most bounteous season. But maybe not for story-writing.
It’s too hot to sleep.
It’s too hot to think.
The deeper I get into this current phase in my life — call it middle age, maybe — the closer I come to an understanding of what it means to be at peace with all these elements and circumstances within a life that cannot be changed. So much that envelopes me right now can’t be shifted. Some things are consequences of choices I’ve made and responsibilities willingly adopted. But others are like the weather — unpredictable and impossible to alter by will or imagination or self-deception.
If it’s raining, it’s raining. You can bring an umbrella and wear rain boots, and that will help, but you can’t by prayer or wishful thinking or desire alter the fact that it is raining. Sometimes you didn’t know it would be raining and you don’t even have an umbrella. This happens too. So life is often about rolling with what’s coming at you — the unexpected — and often it’s the hard kind of unexpected, not the exciting kind.
People you love will suffer, do suffer — and you will suffer when someone you love is hurt or sick or struggling, especially when you feel responsibility of care. There isn’t a solution to this. You can’t not love just because you will suffer too, in loving others in their suffering. Love is love. You have to accept that you can’t fix everything. You have to know what makes you feel comforted, what brings you peace and hope and even joy, and you have to do those things as often as you can. And you have to be prepared to change course quickly, to let the shape of your expected day be shifted by what is happening before you. Resistance in this regard is worse than futile — it will become resentment so fast.
If you can do this, even at the end of a challenging rainy day, you may find yourself saying, This was a good day. Because it was.
Yesterday, I drove my eldest to camp and dropped him off. The weather was sunny and hot. The car’s thermometer said it was 30 degrees outside. But as we came closer to our destination, a wall of grey cloud rose up on the horizon. Rain could be seen falling in sheets from a distance, lightning flashing occasionally. Albus took it in good humour—it always storms when he’s at camp. He had to go for cover during a severe tornado warning, several years ago.
We carried his gear to the dining hall along with everyone else who was arriving, and it soon started to thunder and lightning, and rain. After a brief introduction, the kids began gathering into their cabin groups, and the parents were sent on their way. I had brought an umbrella, and walked to the car in heavy rain, feeling chuffed with myself for being so prepared. But the air was cool, and I felt almost chilly in my t-shirt and knee-length leggings. When I started the car, I saw the thermometer now read 17 degrees.
I turned on the radio and found CBC as I left the camp grounds and headed east on the small country road, then south on the slightly larger country highway (Grey County 10) that cuts down to Clifford, through Hanover and Neustadt. But I didn’t get very far. Eleanor Wachtel was engaging three writers in a conversation on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which kept my mind occupied, even as I watched the ominous shelf of heavy cloud to the west, which seemed to be blowing my way. I accelerated to pass several cars, because I had the impression that I could somehow outrace the storm. I was in a strip of clear sky overhead, no rain, no wind, as I drove down the strip of paved road between vast stretches of fields, punctuated by little clumps of thickly treed areas, a few houses, fences, barns, but mostly fields and trees.
I crossed Highway 21, which goes to Southampton, and Lake Huron. I remember glancing to my right, again, to assess the location of the cloud, still thinking I could outrace it, if only I could get past this slow-moving trailer-home in front of me. Only a few hundred feet out the passenger window, I glimpsed a stream in amongst trees, the whole of the scene stirred into a whirl, as if it were being thrashed by an invisible force. I can see it right now in my mind’s eye: a grey force, rattling the leaves and branches, bending the trees, stirring the water, within a rapidly descending fog. It’s that near to me, I thought. I’ve got less than a minute and it will be here. And then it struck the tiny car full-force, a powerful wind, heavy rain. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. I kept driving like an automaton, not sure what else to do, following the trailer-home. We crossed a small bridge that took us between a thick patch of trees planted close to the road, and I could see debris flying, and the car was struck with a branch, the treetops were whirling, and I knew, suddenly, that this was very dangerous weather. But what could I do?
I must stop somewhere with less trees, I thought. The trailer-home pulled into the gravel at the side of the road, and other cars coming from the opposite direction were doing the same, so I pulled over too, coming to stop in an area with a few trees far enough from the road that I didn’t think they could fall on me. I didn’t even notice the power lines overhead. On the radio, making it all the much worse, a siren began sounding, interrupting the voices of the women talking about George Eliot, and an automated voice informed me that the area in which I was driving was under a tornado watch or warning, and that I was being advised to take shelter immediately.
Take shelter? Where? I’m sitting with the car still in drive, my foot on the brake pedal, my body shaking uncontrollably, asking the automated voice where exactly would it advise me to take cover? My new car felt approximately as substantial as a tin can. At moments, the blasts of wind seemed to lift it almost off the ground. I imagined it spinning through the air like a blown piece of trash. I realized that there was no point in keeping the car in drive, and that my muscles must relax in order to stop shaking. I geared into park, and remembered that I had a cellphone.
I began texting Kevin. No response. Here is my series of (completely over-the-top hysterical) texts to him:
I’m in tornado.
Can’t find hazards
Should I leave car and get down in ditch?
How big is storm?please help if you can
The reason I considered abandoning the car and getting down in the ditch was because only a couple of days ago I heard a news report about a massive tornado in western Canada that ravaged an area for hours, and two teens, brothers, recounted how they abandoned the pickup they’d been driving and lay flat in a ditch waiting for the storm to pass—should I do the same? Is this what one does? It came to me that I possessed zero survival knowledge in this situation, and that my instinct was paralysis, essentially: to freeze and fearfully hope for the best. Hope that I wouldn’t be the unfortunate person who finds herself in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
But I could find the hazards! I dropped the phone on the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment to find the manual. The car is new enough that I’d not yet had occasion to use the hazards, and couldn’t have found the symbol if my life depended on it—couldn’t even remember, in my state of mind, what the symbol for hazards looked like. In the index I found the page listing: “Page 176,” I said out loud, which curiously made me feel better, and I turned to the page, and read that the hazards are conveniently located near the radio controls.
Ah. That’s it. I pressed the button and felt more in control. I’d forced myself to behave in a calm and rational manner. The storm was not abating, however, so it occurred to me to phone home. My elder daughter answered, and I freaked her out while trying to sound calm, and then Kevin came on the line. He looked up the storm on the radar. Yes, I was right in the heart of it, but it was one long narrow path running north to south, and should be by me soon. He assured me that it was nowhere near camp, which eased my mind enormously. I kept thinking of how I’d left my kid in a camp dining-hall in what was maybe a tornado.
The trailer-home pulled out. I decided to pull out too.
I stopped once more when the wind got heavy again, parked in the shelter of a driving shed with another woman in her vehicle, both of us glancing at each other but what else could we do? Then I resumed driving again. The sky was alight with flickers of lightning, almost constant. I started to think I was imagining them. The storm didn’t seem to vanish, as promised. A utility pole that had snapped in half dangled over the highway on wires. It occurred to me, as I passed it, that I shouldn’t have parked underneath the electrical lines, earlier. I listened to a call-in show on the newly-called federal election, but I was hardly listening. I was in a dream-state, really. My focus on the road, my emotions pressed down deep. I chased the storm all the way home, kilometre after kilometre of tension and rain and wind—at one point tracking west to try to escape it, only to finish in Waterloo, on the homestretch, under a torrent of hail, and thick rain.
As I drove down Bridgeport, minutes from home, the sun came out and shone in my eyes—but it was raining heavily. The contrast was comical. Then it stopped suddenly, suddenly clear. The street ahead was blocked off by emergency vehicles, so I took a detour, and finally, I was in our driveway, home. On our front steps I leaned down and picked up a piece of hail that was quickly melting, as big as a quarter. I was jelly-limbed. Kevin fed me burritos. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t sit. When I lay down, I couldn’t rest. I felt both drained and wired all at once.
It wasn’t that I thought I was going to die—not really. But it did occur to me that this was a situation in which death would not be a completely unreasonable outcome. “Don’t let anyone publish anything I’ve been working on,” I instructed Kevin over the phone. “It’s not ready. It shouldn’t ever be published.”
“Um, okay,” he said.
I didn’t feel a need to give him last-minute instructions on child-rearing, because he knows what to do and what could I say in a ridiculously cliched phone conversation in the middle of a storm to make a worst-case scenario outcome better? But my publishing legacy—that seemed important to try to control.
Is it sad that I’m in the middle of projects that are incomplete, insufficient, unready? It isn’t that sad. I’ve published some good things, and it would be fine to leave it at that. It also isn’t sad because the potential of the incomplete and unready is good, when a person is around to fulfill it, and here I am, alive and well, sitting with earplugs in, listening to my daughter play and sing a song she’s composed on the ukulele—she’s even printed out the lyrics and chords—and I’m writing something, even if it’s only this. I’m here and I can keep working away at these ideas and projects and can hope, eventually, maybe, to finish something else I’ll be proud of, worth sharing.
When I walked through the door, safely home, I was drained of emotion. I’d spent the last two and a half hours trying to feel nothing at all—or instinctively feeling as little as possible, emotions useless in the situation, because they’d only overwhelm rational action and thought. I felt removed. The sensation was physical—that was why it felt so peculiar, so particular. It was like my eyes and ears couldn’t transmit deeper information to my brain, like there was a fog of rain between my brain and my body. My body was this blurred heavy weight that I was dragging like stone, but it was also me, I could recognize it as me. But this was a me that was blurred, heavy, indistinct. I couldn’t feel myself. And I didn’t care.
And now, let me be a little less melodramatic: passing through the storm was a minor trauma. Had I not been alone, it might not have seemed so dire, in truth.
After devouring the burritos and drinking several enormous glasses of water, I binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine with AppleApple. Later, I played the ukulele in the dark, somehow recalling lyrics and chords to a vast number of Leonard Cohen songs, which made me feel 18 again—exactly 18 years old, when Leonard Cohen songs were my summer soundtrack and longing and love were fresh and his lyrics made perfect and perfectly romantic sense: “I loved you in the morning, your kisses deep and warm, your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm. Many loved before us, I know that we are not new, in city and in forest, they smiled like me and you. But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie, your eyes are soft with sorrow, hey that’s no way to say goodbye.” (Except, I see now, in looking up the lyrics, that I’ve remembered them wrong, and the love or chains line comes in a later verse… but it is a good line, possibly the best in the song, so I’ll leave it as it is, and sing it like that, when I sing it again, in the dark.)
With apologies for the lacklustre photography; I just don’t have time to use my Nikon on this busy morning. #therefore #cameraphone
It’s Monday in Canada. I’m looking out at a postcard snowscape that makes me want to
get out my cross country skis hibernate in front of the fire for the next six months. (Let honesty reign.) The snow and its seasonal existence should not surprise me. Yet every year it does. The car needs to be scraped, the children require mittens, snow pants, boots, hats (why are at least one or two of these items per child always missing / suddenly too small / wet or dirty / lost / apparently too geeky and uncool to be suffered, and why is this discovery always made mere moments before said children need to leave for school?), and also, to continue this long run-on sentence, the dogs hate going outside and must be sternly encouraged and dressed in little sweaters, which we find adorable but I’m pretty sure they find humiliating. In short, everything takes longer. Even that sentence. I’ve yet to adjust, having yet to admit that this is actually happening, that this white stuff actually might just stick around for awhile. Deny. This is just the first stage. Don’t worry. I’ll get to Accept, even Embrace, if I can just stick it out through Wallow, Growl, Deep Abiding Desire to Stay Indoors, and Christmas.
A few things to tell you about on this Monday in Canada.
1. For local friends, two events to highlight if you’re up for getting out:
〉 A feminist film festival is coming to the Princess this week, Nov. 18-20, featuring films on a variety of important and of-the-moment subjects, including murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada. Website and ticket info here. Spread the word.
〉 After Hours at the Waterloo Public Library, this Friday, Nov. 21, 7PM, a fundraising event for the library with food & drink, and featuring inspirational speakers, including me. Come and watch me
try to be inspirational. Event and ticket info. More word-spreading, please.
2. Some nice news this morning from my Canadian publisher, House of Anansi. Girl Runner has been selected as a Best Book of the Year (#8) and a Best Canadian Book of the Year (#3) by Amazon.ca. (But if you can slog your way through the snow to your local indie bookstore, shop there instead.)
3. Question for you, people out there reading this blog: would you be interested in buying signed and personalized copies of Girl Runner for Christmas gifts? If there seems to be interest, I’m going to figure out a way to arrange for this to happen.
Mondays. They’re all about the paperwork and administration. This is today in a nutshell: make to-do lists, clear the desk, return the library books, go to the bank, renew both drivers’ licence and health card, soak the beans, and on and on. You know? So this post, I apologize, suffers from a similar tone.
Enjoy the white stuff, of the cold deceptively fluffy variety.