Life feels softer, fuller, rounder. Sometimes this feels just right—for my age, my ambitions. Sometimes my eyes ache behind my glasses. I am softer, fuller, rounder. I don’t like this so much. It’s partly body dysmorphia and partly not—I am larger than I used to be, objectively speaking. I have had to upsize my pants. There are days when I don’t even go for a walk, because I can’t squeeze it in, let alone one of those hard runs I used to rely on to keep me sane, and fit, and possibly also fitting in those pants of the past. My body has fluctuated and changed over these nearly five full decades on planet earth. Pregnancies will change a person’s body. And endurance training. But so will mid-life hormones, and aging, and a myriad of other factors that are beyond my control. Out of control is what I feel sometimes, when squeezing into my upsized pants. Yet, since when am I in control?
Control is an illusion, a fable told to comfort myself—that I am choosing for my body to be the way that it is, at any given stage in my life and development. Our bodies, ourselves—caught in time, turning and turning.
But my head, my outlook, my mind—softer, fuller, rounder? Yes. And how do I feel about that? I don’t entirely know. I’ve had practice accepting change, loosening my hold on expectations, letting go, you might say, or holding lightly (parenting gives a person practice; being a writer, too). But practice doesn’t necessarily ease the challenge, in real life situations. It is easier to breathe when there’s breathing room. It is easier to accept what’s happening when it’s pleasant or hoped for.
I try to go into new situations without writing the script beforehand; but how does that fit with my love of plotting and planning and dreaming big? Maybe it’s both/and, not either/or.
Which brings me around to the softness in the structure of my life right now, its curves and rounded edges. There is time for all things, but not all at once. This new year, I’ve completed two workshops in conflict management, and I’m considering working toward certification as a mediator. But I don’t know where it might lead, in truth, nor how these skills might be applied. At the library, I pad around in my “librarian sandals,” and enjoy creating moments of surprise and delight and welcome for the students (and maybe for the teachers too, at least some of them!). I’m building relationships there; but also trying to apply boundaries, and keep the job easy and light, as it should be. I’m on board for another season of the X Page workshop, starting very soon; I’ll be an editor and lead some of the writing exercises, but others are taking on the more substantial leadership roles; I felt a lightness at our recent planning meeting. This has given me room to take on more of a leadership role at my church, which is small and relies on volunteers; this Sunday I’ll be preaching—a new genre for me. It took me weeks to write a 15-minute sermon, but I enjoyed the layers of exploration that came from a close reading of text.
Where in this is my fiction writing? Still very present; just not occupying my mind as an identity that I should be fulfilling at all times, lest it slip from my grip. Hold lightly. I’m approaching writing no differently from these other facets of commitment, responsibility—I want to enjoy myself while doing all these things, even committee meetings! And the quickest path to enjoyment (in my experience) is full immersion.
Basically, I put my phone away. Often it is out of sight, especially when I’m in a meeting or at work or writing. That limits distractions. Any task on which I’m fully focused is a task I’ll genuinely enjoy, or find interesting in some way—my brain is hungry for the details, for sensory information, for connection. Often, this actually feels like I’m leaning back in a comfy chair, taking everything in, hyper-aware of the nuances, the emotional tones; or my mind in its relaxation will see big-picture structures as clearly as if they were architectural drawings.
I love structure so much. Design. Sequence. Noticing how these things work in practice, or do not work, and investigating changes to systems. I like figuring out the pacing and rhythm; how these ephemeral/practical/felt structures support the why of what is being made—its desired outcome—whether it’s a worship service, or a novel; there’s not a single or “right” answer, of course, which is what makes it so fascinating. Endlessly fascinating.
How does writing fit into the systems and structures of my life? Like any task, I need to make room for it, make practical plans, and I need to seize the moments. Occasionally, I’ve been able to write with focus after work, or into the evening, but that requires a) being well-rested, b) someone else cooking supper, c) no evening meetings or obligations. It’s rare. So mostly, I’m setting aside chunks of time—like last weekend at the farm with my writing friends. Nothing on the schedule except writing, eating, talking, sharing our writing. I love when we read to each other in the evenings. Our times together are so cozy, so warm and peaceful; conducive to writing, but also to fostering a relaxed state of mind in which creativity thrives. I might not get to do this very often, but it’s a wonderful state in which to write. As proof, each of us has finished at least one major book-length project during our several years of writing together that we’ve either published, or will be publishing soon. Amazing!
Blogging, when it happens, fits into the in-between times. Like this post, written almost entirely on a Friday afternoon, sitting overlooking an indoor soccer field, feet up, travel mug of tea nearby, and my laptop open; but finished the following afternoon, because the previous sentence is where my writing stopped, when I turned to chat with a parent—a dad who was open to talking soccer with a woman, which is not, I must tell you, always the case. So I relished the opening, and went with it.
I have been drawing and writing again: four weeks in my new position at a school library and creative energy has returned — it isn’t all being used on the job. In fact, working in the library seems to energize and soothe me in equal measure. The space is mine to play with, building on themes, displaying books, decorating with paper crafts (bulletin boards and such, see example above — not my forte, but I’ll learn!), reading stories to classes, and finding tasks for the many many library helpers (close to 30 grade 5/6 students) who the previous library clerk had brought in. The space has a wall of windows, and when I unlock the door and walk in every morning, I feel a sense of excitement and gratitude.
I love to put things in order. A library that is being used properly will forever give me things to put in order. And I LOVE reading to children and interacting with children.
Yet I also recognize and honour that the decision to change course took courage and did not feel straightforward or easy — it was painful to leave the students and staff and those fulfilling relationships at my previous school. I miss them.
There are situations and experiences that may not be healthy for us, or suited to true needs, long-term, but may nevertheless be valuable and wonderful in the moment. To leave something is not to diminish its worth.
Last year (2022), I focused on what I was feeling, trying to understand better the underlying sensations and emotions that were fuelling my decision-making and moods and interactions (often without my awareness), and this year (2023) I’ve focused on identifying my needs—so that I am better able to meet those needs, and not expect others to meet them for me. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when I know what I need, I become less needy.
But I don’t always know what I need. Or I think I need a particular something, when really, what would satisfy and fill me is something else quite different.
I didn’t write much this fall; my creative spark vanished. I couldn’t find it, and didn’t even want to, particularly, or care much. All my creative energy went into problem solving at work—and I liked it, in many ways, because it made me feel useful and mildly heroic, which writing and drawing never really does, to be perfectly honest; but it was a sacrifice that ultimately was making me very sad, on some fundamental level. My rational mind didn’t notice or care, but my body did, my heart did, my guts did, my intuition noticed: and Sad Carrie was not really helping anyone.
What I was missing more than anything, what I needed, was my creative spark. I didn’t consciously know this till the spark reappeared.
Every morning before going to my new library job, I have time (and energy and the desire) to draw and write—and so I do. And the pleasure it gives me is without measure. There’s no purpose to it other than joy. No use. No rational worth or monetary value.
I’ve been reunited with this joyful part of myself.
To be joyful in the world is such a gift. Joy isn’t blind or ignorant, and joy doesn’t ignore suffering; it bubbles out of ordinary encounters, it is born of gratitude and grace, and interior space, which allows a person the bandwidth to be attuned outwardly, or open somehow, sensing and knowing the sacredness of every interaction and experience — that is what I mean by joy.
Joy can’t be manufactured, but it can be quietly drained from the body and mind by overwhelm and exhaustion. You can’t meditate yourself into a place of joy when you are drowning. The collective message to people in overwhelm and exhaustion and burnout and grief, drowning under a weight of responsibilities and impossible tasks, is: save yourselves! Do some yoga, or be more mindful, or whatever “wellness” trend is being pushed at the moment. I love yoga, and I appreciate the value of mindfulness; but when drowning in overwhelm, there isn’t a person on planet earth who can meditate themselves back to joy. Maybe to temporary relief of symptoms; maybe to a hope for a different path, or a glimpse at possibilities; but when the light goes out, it’s dark.
What lights your creative spark?
What are you feeling?
What are your feelings telling you about your needs?
What do you need?
Food, shelter, health, safety. What about ease? What brings you ease, and how does your ease express itself? How do you live when life is not such a struggle? How does your joy appear? How do you know when you are joyful?
My ease bubbles out in laughter. My ease fills a page with colour and lines. My ease delights in reading a book to a group of children and listening to their comments and questions.
May you be be safe. May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you live with ease.
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
On the soundtrack, right now: Everything is Everything by Lauryn Hill.
I’ve spent March break catching up on course-related work and preparing for a couple of presentations next week. I also worked on my taxes. But you know, the pace has been forgiving. I’ve cooked some excellent meals, walked as much as possible, rested more. I even got a haircut.
Next week, Thursday, March 23, 4PM, I’ll be giving a public lecture at Western University in London (Ontario). If you’re interested in attending, it will also be live streamed; register here. The remarks I’ve prepared feel like the culmination of all my years of experiencing life as a writer — aspiring writer, struggling writer, published writer, uncertain writer, obscure writer, hopeful writer, thankful writer. This is an opportunity to express my deep appreciation and love for the act of writing itself, which is magical, healing, and so very alive.
But I’m currently distracted by the young people passing on my sidewalk whooping and shouting and wearing tiny green hats. St Patrick’s day is here, blowing through our city despite the rain and melting shit-speckled piles of snow. Everything is everything. It really and truly is.
And after winter must come spring.
Winter solstice. Do you mark this day?
I shared the morning with women from the neighbourhood, many of whom I’ve known for nearly twenty years, a few even longer. (I don’t host this event — I just get to go! It was dreamed up eleven years ago by my friend Kasia, who deeply understands the power of ritual.) It’s been two years since we’ve been able to come together to share in this ritual of welcoming back the light, on the darkest day of the year. There was magic in the room.
I love how as we age, we are freer with our emotions, freer to express our whole selves. We knew each other when our children were babies; and now our children are teens and young adults, and our parents are growing older. Crises are familiar to us, during this stage of life. And so, I think, we’ve all learned through experience how to offer each other support and care. With laughter. With tears. Without judgement.
I would like to honour the women of my generation, who are edging up to fifty, or already there. I see in my friends such a wealth of wisdom, honouring care, love, and intention. We’re in a gritty time in our lives. Yet we are not depleted. I love what I’ve learned from my friends: how to care for myself, how to care for others without losing myself, how to be kind. When I think back on dark times, there’s a friend coming toward me, carrying the light, meeting me where I’m at. I can picture these exchanges inside my mind, a private photo album of kindnesses. Honestly, there’s so much kindness in this photo album, it’s bursting at the seams, and so many of the gestures are seemingly small — yet they live on inside me. Isn’t that a good to know? That your / my gestures of kindness don’t need to be extravagant. They don’t even need to totally make sense: spontaneous, simple, brief, non-intrusive (trust; the kindness I’ve learned from my friends doesn’t presume or assume or even claim to understand, it just shows up).
Light doesn’t need the right words. It comes from inside.
You / I / we all carry it. How powerful we are, how brave.
What felt good this month?
We had Christmas in February! Two family get-togethers in one weekend, Flora and I made Christmas cookies, we sang through the carolling songbook. It all happened. There was even an adorable kitten in a tree, delightfully destroying the ornaments. Other things that felt good this month: yoga, puzzles, walks with friends, couch-time with Kevin.
What did you struggle with?
Depression, anxiety, fears. I’ve been listening to the news, first obsessed with the “freedom” occupation in Ottawa and now with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The lightbox has its limits. I didn’t do enough cardio this month. And as always, I’m struggling to turn down my inner critic, who would like to inform me at all hours that my efforts are falling short. What’s useful; what’s useless? I’ve noticed that I use those words a lot, applied to myself and my work. It’s like a poison pill in my brain, self-sabotage. You aren’t doing anything useful, says the voice. Even writing here about this tendency feels like it could be self-sabotage. Useful in terms of what, I wonder, on what scale, how is this usefulness measured, who is adding this up? The antidote to comparison and judgement may be gratitude. Or it may be something even more fundamental, habit-altering, changing the grooves in the brain: doing the work, putting one foot in front of the other, facing the sun.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month?
More worried. I want to see friends, I want to go places and do things, I want the world to open up. I want the luxury of making plans. Transitions are hard. I wonder how the pandemic has changed us. Are we coping? Are we okay, collectively? Do I remember how to interact, do I still have a social filter or have I kind of jumped off the deep-end? In yoga this morning, I bent my head to the floor in grief over this endless cycle of war, and people fleeing from war, from the madness and greed of leaders, from rape and destruction and hunger and terror (stretching back through the years, not fresh and new, just seemingly forever and ever and ever). And I thought: writing is the only response I’ve got. A few words. I’ll keep trying. It’s not useless effort!
How did you take care of yourself?
I tried. I appreciated the gift of cooking healthy delicious meals for my family. I appreciated this roof over my head. I listened to the birds, stared at the moon, sloshed through puddles, hugged my children, did pushups while waiting for the kettle to boil. I kept up supportive habits and routines.
What would you most like to remember?
Hmmm… February already seems like a forgotten month. One fresh memory is singing carols with my sibs; it was also fun crowding around a cellphone to watch the end of a soccer game on Sunday (all the way to penalty kicks). Another is going for a walk on family day, ordering take-out and watching a movie with the kids. And for a third, I’ll say, talking to Grandma on Thursday mornings.
What do you need to let go of?
Measures of success that don’t come from some place deep inside, or from a deeper source. I need to let go of external validation, even while giving myself permission to be critical of my own work when it’s coming from a place that makes sense — it makes sense to want to push to the edges of my talents and abilities, to test my own limits, it makes sense to be curious about what’s possible, to want to share some measure of beauty and truth, whatever I can muster. But it doesn’t make sense to stop or quit because I can’t make the beautiful thing that I long to, no matter my efforts. I need to let go of wanting to feel finished or satisfied or done. I want to learn to live in liminal space, in between, in process, flowing along in the flow. Right now, I’m finding this space to be crowded with discomfort and self-doubt. So it isn’t easy. Why do I keep thinking it will be easy? I need to let go of that too.