Friday morning. Waiting to cross at the border beside what appears to be the best dog ever. Maybe this will be Kevin and Rose 10 years from now?
Saturday morning. Posing with the birthday girl on her 100th.
Saturday evening. At the birthday banquet. It happens that our eldest shares a birthday with his great-grandma, and this was a big one — 21. He was a good sport about everything.
Sunday afternoon. Packed up to go drive home. What looks like a picnic stop. But is not.
Nope. It’s a Walmart parking lot. Tire damaged on Michigan highway needs replacing before we drive home. Walmart the only repair shop open. When I took this photo we were still optimistic about travelling home as a group.
This is a wetland, apparently, fenced off and beside the Walmart parking lot. I closed my eyes for a moment, seeking peace, and heard a lot of birdsong. Still feeling optimistic.
Optimism diminishing. Can’t drive home on donut tire. Can’t replace tire today. Will we all stay or will some get to drive home with Grandpa? Quick decisions made. One kid left behind with parents.
Somehow I neglected to take any photos of the lovely campus and guesthouse where we spent the weekend, including an extra night — with the one child who was left behind with his parents.
Sunday evening. I was feeling pretty grim after the kids drove off for Canada. I was worrying about … well, everything. But good company, and a walk to Ricky’s Taqueria for supper was soul-reviving.
A lot happened this weekend, more than is suitable for a blog post. I think I could write a novella.
During a brief visit to the land of self-pity, I thought, this is a nightmare! And then I heard what I’d just told myself, and I gave my head a shake — c’mon, Carrie, this is hardly a nightmare, it’s a minor inconvenience! You’re not feeling great right now because you’re anxious and you don’t know what will happen next, but you’ve got somewhere safe to stay, good food, the resources to fix your damaged car, and if all goes well, you’ll be reunited with your family within a day.
My brain tends toward disaster thinking. What is it good for, disaster thinking? I’d love to learn how to prevent it altogether, but my sense is that instead I’ll have to keep noticing my personal tendency to imagine the worst (in vivid detail) and find ways to turn away from indulging that tendency, over and over. (It helps to have a partner who counters my fears with, “Okay, but what if everything works out?”)
Monday evening. Everything worked out. Called a bunch of repair shops, early, found a friendly voice with the tires in stock. Tire fixed. Car survived return trip on Michigan highways. Miraculously home in time to host a birthday dinner for our 21-year-old. While we were still en route, the cake was baked by one of the children who’d gotten to go home early.
You know what else I’ve got? Great role models. Happy birthday to this exceptional woman, who is always looking up, and looking forward to what comes next.
I spent the weekend at a location somewhat north and west of home, out in the country, at my brother and sister-in-law’s farmhouse, on a little retreat. A writing retreat to be specific; although I wrote very little.
In truth, I’m all written out.
So I leaned heavy on the retreat aspect of this weekend’s potential. Last Thursday, I sent the final revisions for Francie’s Got a Gun; next step: copy edits. I worked on the dedication and acknowledgements this weekend. I re-read the project that had been set aside during these several months of revisions. I re-read my old notebook, too. Napped a bit. Walked. Picked tomatoes from my sister-in-law’s garden and made a salad. Stayed up late talking and reading stories with my writing companions (who got lots of writing done! Yay!).
I’m home again, now. A new week before me, and how strange not to have Francie waiting for my attention. Of course, I felt elated upon finishing. Relieved, delighted, stunned. But emotions are complicated. Today, I also feel tired, a bit worn out, depleted, anxious about what to focus on next, pretty sure I need to give myself a break, and hoping I’ll be kind to myself during this transition to whatever’s next.
Maybe I’ll try to dream up a ritual or a plan or some structure — stepping stones? — to bridge the uncomfortable gap between projects. What’s your survival strategy, to enjoy life and reset and stay calm and present between projects?
Week three of intensive revisions. It will take as long as it takes; but also, the work somehow needs to fit itself into the deadline. When I last revised this novel, it was pre-pandemic, and I had a ten-day window to overhaul the whole thing, and somehow I shifted into what in retrospect seems an improbable state of mind, in which I worked twelve hours a day or more, writing brand-new material, sometimes as much as 10,000 to 15,000 words a day. By the end of the process, I was pretty sure I was in an altered state, that I’d driven myself to the brink of madness, and that what I’d accomplished had been a feat of stamina and focus that seemed impossible (and unwise) ever to put myself through again.
So this round, I have more time, and I’m taking it.
I find that I can write for about 6 hours maximum, before my focus begins to wane, or my mind just shuts down, weary, out of gas, the errors and typos beginning to multiply. So I figure it’s best to stay within these limitations (which feel physical as much as mental). I’m trying to stay patient, I’ve got a solid road map to follow, and I keep assuring myself that the work will get done, it will get done. I just have to give myself space to rest, when I hit a tough spot, and time to relax in the off hours: I have to go for walks, runs, see friends. And I must use the golden hours of maximum attention for nothing but this work.
To this end, I’ve set up a vacation message on my email account, naming what I’m doing as a writing sabbatical. I’m at my desk, the message says, but I’m not available. The power of creating this message can not be understated. Why? Because it names what I’m doing as important, it outlines in simple terms my priorities. I think it’s a message to myself as much as to anyone who might be reaching out via email. The message says (to me): It is my responsibility to protect what matters. No one else will do it for me.
These photos are from this past weekend, when my daughter and I visited a friend’s new farm. It was a holiday, but I also took my laptop and worked in various locations, mostly in the car, while chauffeuring my daughter and her friends around.
When I got home yesterday evening, I finally turned down a volunteer opportunity that I’d been weighing, and really wanting to say yes to. But I realized that to say yes to this would be to squeeze my writer self. And she can only be squeezed so much before she begins to fade, to waver in her belief in herself, but also in her basic ability to get her work done. I am trying to take the lessons I’ve learned during the pandemic, which has been the most productive writing time of my entire life, and continue to apply them as the world opens: lessons about the cost of accepting (even seeking!) responsibilities atop responsibilities, commitments atop commitments. Lessons about the cost of squeezing out my writing self. Which is, at core, my fundamental self: the self I am that is not attached to anyone or anything else.
The pandemic freed me, quite a lot; it forced a change in long-held patterns. It jolted parts of me to life again. It reorganized my priorities.
I’ve seen this happen for many others, too, including my friend at the farm who until very recently was my neighbour; the leap she’s made is bigger and more challenging than the leap I need to make, to protect my space and time for writing. I watch her meet this amazingly brave and heart-led challenge and think: I BELIEVE.
“What do people do when they don’t have a family on Family Day?” CJ wondered. And it does rather feel obligatory to spend time together, given the title of the holiday. It’s strangely warm today, so we went for a hike at the nearest conservation area. We took the dogs along too.
“Better than hot yoga,” said CJ, reminiscing about that time we tried to turn our living room into a hot yoga studio on Family Day. His comments came before we decided to take the scenic route to the look-out.
After looking out at the empty water reserve (not an actual lake) for a few minutes, the complaining began. The scenic route was decried for its lack of scenic-ness. The eldest remembered he would have to work at 6 o’clock and then his weekend would be over and he’d just spent TWO HOURS doing nothing but going for a walk. CJ slipped and fell while reaching for his pocket snacks and spent some time wallowing with self-pity in a patch of melting ice, after which he spent more time complaining that his pants were wet. “I’m dying of thirst,” he hollered for awhile. The dogs met another dog. Things fell apart.
But briefly there, while we were on the good side of the scenic route, I had a vision of us walking in the woods maybe a decade and a half or two decades from now, all of us, with our accumulated future dogs and partners and children — how many of us there might be, with added people and pets — and of how much I would love seeing everyone together. How fortunate it would make me feel, and also how fortunate I felt at that very moment, with these big independent personalities lumbering and chatting and laughing and complaining around me.
We started something, when we made this family, but I feel it’s out of our hands now — a family is not one person’s idea of it, after all. A family is who we are when we’re together. It’s complicated sometimes and sometimes things go wrong in families. And sometimes you get to spend two hours doing nothing but going for a walk.
I do not take this for granted, especially the laughter.
In other news, I cut CJ’s hair, finally, and the girls baked him a happy haircut-day cake (the cake was hair-free).
Yesterday, I hosted the first of three Teen Writing Adventures, here in our home. I also vacuumed upstairs and down (worth noting, given how rarely it happens). And I went to church with a friend, and then we went out for a leisurely vegetarian lunch.
On Saturday, CJ beat me at chess at the library; and my girls’ soccer team went on a movie outing.
On Saturday evening, a friend invited me to the symphony, and my new yoga soundtrack is now Sibelius.
On Friday night, I fell asleep for two hours in front of the fire.
That pretty much covers it. You’re all caught up now.
Our Globe and Mail newspaper never arrived this weekend, so Kevin went out to buy one. He was gone so long that I started to fear that it might turn into one of those sad mysteries … “He went out for the newspaper and he hasn’t been seen since.”
When he did come back, he was carrying zero newspapers.
He had been to four or five different shops (gas station, pharmacy, convenience store). He said people in the shops had looked at him with bafflement, perplexity, confusion, pity. Like, you mean, an old newspaper? It was as if he’d stepped out of a time warp and into the future (actually, the present), where nobody buys newspapers anymore.
I don’t know what people do while they’re eating breakfast. Or lunch. Or having a cup of tea. But I read the newspaper, and life feels off-kilter without it. Scrolling through an article on my phone is not the same experience, not at all.
Next thing you know, I’ll be blogging about how emails and texts are not the same as a nice handwritten letter. Which is true, but …
This morning, I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms lifted over my head, lowering and raising and lowering, and aching and burning, and I began thinking about something else entirely. I remembered baking bread on Sunday afternoon, while listening to the Sunday Edition on podcast, an hour on Man’s Search for Meaning, a book written by Victor Frankl in 1946, shortly after he was released from a German concentration camp; his parents, brother and pregnant wife all died in concentration camps, a suffering I cannot fathom. And yet, Frankl wrote a book that is still in print, its words still luminous with love. On the program, his biographer discussed the fundamental flaw in the pursuit of happiness—the pursuit itself, the pursuit of a goal that cannot be forced into being, if happiness is even a reasonable or desirable pursuit at all. The more you chase it, the further from you it speeds. And, said the man, the relentless focus on the self, on creating happiness for oneself, dooms the enterprise. It’s only when we turn away from ourselves and focus on others that we become—not happy, but whole. We find meaning in our life because we’ve reached beyond ourselves.
Love is meaning. The only way to fully inhabit the self is to look, listen, love beyond the self.
I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms aching, and remembered, and remembered more: yesterday afternoon, chopping mounds of onions and sweet potatoes for our Thanksgiving dinner, listening to another podcast: Tapestry, with Mary Hines, an interview with a woman who had corresponded with Omar Khadr when he was a prisoner at Guantanomo Bay; the woman had become his teacher, and she testified on his behalf at a trial. She talked about the fear of God in a way that made this fear make sense: not cowering under fear of punishment by an angry god, but fear of refusing God’s invitation to action. Fear of making a choice based on the shallow terms on which we so often base our choices: fear of being judged by others, fear of looking foolish, fear of being singled out, fear of taking a stand and having to suffer the consequences. When none of these worldly or earthly pressures could shake the more profound fear of not doing justice, of not doing right—this, she said, was the fear of God. I look in awe at those with courage to stand firm in their convictions; does this strength come from a bigger place and purpose?
Do we know what is right? Do we know what is just?
The woman on Tapestry spoke about being pulled in an unexpected direction, a direction not of her own choosing. An invitation, an opening, a tidal pull, a crack where the light gets in.
As I sat in kundalini, I asked myself, as my arms spun circles and ached terribly, where am I pulled, who are the others upon whom I turn my gaze?
Stories, I heard.
You have stories, you already have stories, and stories pull you always out of yourself. Yet you resist their pull, you resist even the idea that you might be good at something, that you’ve written stories that are like gifts, in a way, that mean something larger than yourself—that don’t belong to you.
Who are you to say you should change course and seek a new outlet for your desire to be of use in this world? That’s not pull, that’s push, that’s pursuit.
I am so tired.
I stayed up to watch the Blue Jays game on Sunday night; the Blue Jays game and the presidential debate. After the debate, the Blue Jays won, which was fun. But I found myself unable to shake the image from earlier, of a composed, self-contained woman being stalked around the stage by a much-larger, hostile man, his eyelids narrowed, his rage and disgust scarcely contained.
It disturbed me.
Today, when I walked to yoga class, I had to pass by a number of men who were working on the hydro lines outside my house. I was one woman, they were many men. I did not fear them. But somewhere in the back of my brain, I wondered whether these men might speak of women the way that Trump was heard speaking of women, I wondered whether Trump is telling the truth and most men (or even some men, or even a few, which is more than enough) view women as sexual objects, to be desired or loathed, end of story; or are we to be “championed and revered,” as another Republican (Paul Ryan, to be precise) said when rebutting Trump, which sounded almost as terrible, in a weird way, as if I, as a woman, could not operate on my own steam, as if I, as a woman, were a figure of worship, mythical, not quite real. And then I shook my head and thought of all the open-hearted men in my life. And I kept on walking.
I’ve always chosen to believe that I can be myself, as a woman—small in stature, ordinary, complicated, messy, curious—and be accepted as an equal in any situation, and much of my experience confirms this; but when confronted with the evidence shown in that debate on Sunday night, my spirit shrank, a bit.
I wonder whether other women feel the same.