Category: Word of the Year
Last day of June. I’m on day 91 of my 100-day creativity project. Mostly I’ve drawn cartoon versions of myself, capturing transitory moods-of-the-moment, and I’ve written lists, based on a prompt called “Things that are true about me.”
I like these lists. They’re a simple way to gauge what I’m feeling, and often they’re ruthlessly honest. Also: sometimes things that are true in the moment don’t hold, and that’s useful to record and recognize too.
Here are some true items from recent lists.
1 I used to run long distances and call it fun — and it was fun for me. Now I seem to want to suffer less, I accept the easier paths to altered reality.
2 Change the state of my mind — it’s what I long to do, to be transported from pain into ease — and the gentlest, least harmful way to do so is not always obvious or easy.
3 I am more confused than ever.
4 I see myself in the world as this intransigent lump behind glasses, but glowing and appealing and maybe even dangerous; I see that everyone is lonely.
5 Started the day with a run and felt like a different person. Felt strong. Magnificent posture. Powerful. Beautiful. Alive.
6 The songs on my playlist were all my favourites. I listened to music even after my run, walking Rose, then walking uptown to get my errands done early. Having a soundtrack changes things up.
7 Doing yoga every day for more than two years has changed me — I have better posture, stronger core, I can drop into key moments smoothly; but I wonder whether it’s given me anything else? I don’t need it to — to be clear, excellent posture is a genuine gift — but I think I thought it would change me more fundamentally.
Here are my reflection questions for the month, answered in brief.
What felt good this month? Running pain-free and smooth and fast. How is this even possible, when I ran less than usual this month? Reading terrifically fun and engaging books. Going to parties in my skintight, not flowy, possibly age-inappropriate brightly patterned dress paired with Birkenstocks and blue toenail polish.
What did you struggle with? My inner life. My purpose. My usefulness and worth; or maybe I mainly struggled with my compulsion to tie usefulness to worth.
Where are you now compared to at the beginning of the month? Four people in this house have had covid this month (two have it right now). So that’s been a rather endless, slow-moving parade of care-giving and mild worry. I feel somewhat aimless. But also more celebratory.
How did you take care of yourself? Friendship. Journaling. Daily yoga. Being outside. Letting my hair down. Doing things I enjoy, like cooking and riding my bike. Letting myself feel what I was feeling, even when it wasn’t great. Letting myself off the hook. Being part of the X Page workshop.
What would you most like to remember? I loved seeing my youngest dressed up for his grade 8 grad, and I loved debriefing with him the next day, when we drove to pick up pizza together. I loved walking uptown with Kevin and listening to an outdoor concert on a warm Friday night; spontaneous and relaxed, and pretty much perfect. My mood went from blah to wow what a beautiful world.
What do you need to let go of? I’m holding on to some stuff really tightly right now, I can feel it. That makes it hard to imagine letting go. I need to let go of a childhood version of my dreamed-of life. I need to let go of imagining there’s a perfect version of me out there, a perfect version of what I can and should accomplish. But also: I need to let myself hold on if that’s where I’m at. I’ll let go when I can, it can’t be forced, or willed, just observed, noticed. (Yoga has taught me that.)
Let me leave you with this very on-the-nose cartoon. I laughed.
I’m in between, right now.
In between tasks, in between seasons. Maybe it’s always this way? Maybe I’m always in liminal space, in flux, free-floating. I do set goals and meet them. But I also set daily practices, which don’t necessarily develop into full-fledged goals other than hoping to experience discoveries that slowly accrue and weave themselves into my way of being in the world.
I don’t set a goal unless I believe it’s something I have the will, time, energy, drive and desire to accomplish. A practice is lighter: it’s exploration, experiment, play; it’s something that draws my interest, that feeds my body, soothes my mind.
Writing can be either, for me: goal or practice; and these get tangled up and confused.
I set goals for my writing; but it’s really more fundamentally a basic practice, a constant companion and comfort. I’ve earned money from my writing; but in a nonsensical way, or impractically, unpredictable and sometimes completely disconnected from time and effort expended. Writing has opened other doors — to teaching and participating as an artist in the community, for example; but I don’t come to writing from a logical place, nor as a transaction. I don’t often exchange my writing for a tangible reward; mostly, I can’t, even if I wanted to. Anyway, that’s not how a practice works —
And I know that’s what my writing actually is.
It’s a practice. It’s not a vocation, it’s not a career, it’s not a way to get ahead or succeed, it’s not a means to an end. It’s how I function in the world, it’s kept me whole, it gives me clarity and release and it helps me — especially fiction — to organize my panicked, irrational, awestruck, mysterious, and otherwise unknown and unseen underworld.
The practice of writing radiates back so many life-giving things. Friendship. Connection. Challenge. Adventure. Doors open and doors close. Writing continues the conversation.
Like how … I needed to write this, this morning.
How it’s helped me refocus on what matters; on the real goal that pulls me onward. That goal is to connect. It’s not my word of the year (that’s “feel”), but the principle of connection is guiding most every decision that I make right now, as a parent, a friend, a community member. It helps me make moral choices, too. When I boil down what I believe and what guides my every action, it’s to build, strengthen, and maintain connections. The starting place is to feel — connecting to others is rooted in connecting to self, by knowing what’s inside of me, what I truly want to do.
Feel = Connect = Enjoy
Maybe that’s true? It feels true.
I started this post by writing: I’m in between, right now.
I meant: I don’t know what to do next. My big project for these past many years, my overwhelming goal, has been to publish another novel. It’s coming soon. I don’t really have much left to do, to prepare. It’s out of my hands now.
It’s not that I’m not writing fiction. I am, in volume and with great enjoyment. Yet, I don’t seem to have that combo right now of will, drive, energy and desire, or not directed toward the goal of publishing another novel. I’m not even sure anymore that it’s a healthy goal to take on; to be frank with you, the publishing part of the equation was, is, and will always be out of my hands. And that’s scary, honestly. What am I doing, trying to forge a career on such unstable earth? That’s a question asked by fear. I ask it, because I am that person, I have such fear. But I’m also a person with a practice. A career is a thing outside myself; a practice dwells within.
The practice asks: What’s drawing your attention? The practices reminds me: Follow the energy, write toward that. Trust this time, be in between. Feel, connect. Feel, connect. Be where you are. What’s enjoyable, here, right now? (Oh, so much! Plenty! Enough, and more! Maybe I’ll write about that next time?)
I’ve been doing art therapy for about a year now. At my most recent appointment, the therapist recognized the work I’ve been doing and said that she had seen changes over this past year. She observed that when we started I was struggling to find space for myself, to make space, give myself space, feel deserving or worthy of space. And she thinks that’s changed. I agree. That feeling of worthiness might be the root of other changes I’ve observed, which feel profound; even while I know myself to be the very same person, plagued by the same anxieties and tics and inclinations. I can change and still be familiar to myself; I find this comforting and funny. It’s revelatory and delightful to discover (again and again?) that the self is so sturdy. Being mindful is just a way to observe more closely what I’m feeling and thinking in any given moment, and then I can decide what to do with that information. Mindfulness springs from worthiness: I trust that what I’m thinking and feeling is worthy of my attention. No judgement, no self-castigation, just observation.
It is as simple as that.
Here’s an example. I’m feeling impatient sitting in traffic. I’m going to be late, I think! I can feel my heart rate rising. I’m hitting every red light! I drop an f-bomb. At some point during this mini-escalation, I notice what I’m thinking and feeling. I say (maybe even out loud!), kindly, to myself, hey you seem pretty stressed out. That simple kindness is helpful. Yes, I am stressed out! Now I can assess whether my feelings and thoughts are attached to reality — to what’s actually happening. Am I actually running late? Even if I am running late, is this actually a crisis? (Usually the answer is no, everything is okay.) But there’s an even deeper and more profound question available here, too: Even if this really is a crisis, is this how I want to respond?
Of course not.
Do I have a choice in how I respond?
I believe that I do. I believe that I can laugh (lovingly) at my frailties and weaknesses, I can appreciate the vulnerable anxious impulsive human I am — the impatience, the rising heart rate, the swearing — and I can speak kindly to myself, and notice that everything is okay, right now. It’s always the right now in which I’m living. It’s amazing how this frees me to settle in and appreciate what’s happening, right now. I’m at a red light, but I can sing along to the radio, I can look out the window and see what’s there to be seen. There’s always something there to be seen, heard, felt, wondered about. The world is an amazing mystery that’s always present, available to be experienced, observed, cherished.
Thankfulness just wells up naturally when this shift in perspective happens — and I can be thankful and surprised and renewed by the world’s wonders, over and over again. It never gets old.
A few more changes I’ve observed:
I’ve stopped enforcing rules I don’t believe in.
If I don’t want to do something, I say so. Often someone else can do it instead. If not, I figure out how to make the task more enjoyable. By taking on less of the things I don’t want to do, I’m able to give more freely. A paradox. The way that being kinder to myself makes me inclined to be kinder to others.
I pay attention to a feeling I call “the shame sandwich.” Sometimes I wake up feeling like I’ve eaten a shame sandwich. What I know about shame: it’s attached to deeply rooted fears, specific to my life experiences. If I can identify the trigger, this helps me be kind to myself and the feeling tends to resolve. Shame makes it harder to be kind to myself, so it’s important to notice when I’ve eaten the sandwich.
I am kinder to myself. I know that I can’t do everything, and also that I’m not responsible to solve most things. I can help you find your lost book, and pick you up from piano lessons, but I can’t tell you how to be the person you want to be. I shouldn’t be trying to tell you that anyway. I’ll just love you, and care about you, for being who you are. I’ll pay attention to what interests you. I’ll ask questions and listen. I’ll find ways to connect that meet you where you’re at, wherever that may be. I won’t ask you to change, because I think you are sacred and amazing, exactly as you are.
I’ll hold you lightly. As lightly as I hold myself.
One last change I’ve observed: I let myself feel happiness. I know that I’ve been afraid in my life to feel happiness, to fully experience it, that I tamped the sensation down, afraid of being up too high and floating away, or afraid of what would happen when the feeling went away. I’m not letting those fears stop me from feeling happiness anymore. I think that by feeling happiness, I will feel it more often, in more situations: this glorious sensation of wellness and wholeness, and lightness. I’m willing to test this theory out.
What felt good this month?
Taking the train to Toronto for vocal cord physio, and seeing my sister: this was the best day all month, because it felt like an awakening. The day landed out of the blue, following a couple of weeks of recovering from covid, wearing a mask all day long to avoid getting family members sick, and missing out on fun activities. I was in a bit of a self-pity slump. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone felt amazing, important, necessary, medicinal. We had an open house for the X Page workshop; family came for Easter; I went on a weekend writing retreat; I’ve been driving to Stratford to record my audiobook. The 100 day creativity project has been an anchor too. I’ve been writing a lot, and playing the piano too. I love when the house is full of people, especially the kids’ friends. I’ve missed that so much.
What did you struggle with?
The first couple of weeks of April were lost to covid. I got it, Kevin got it, the kids seemed to escape. We ate so much take-out. I was tired for several weeks, and hoarse. Right now, at the end of the month, I’m struggling to meet all of my commitments. I’m most productive when focused on just one thing. I don’t want to let anyone down. I would love to be running more often. I ran two mornings this week and felt amazing — endorphins. But I was too tired the other mornings; so that’s a struggle. Trying to calibrate my biological limitations with my duties and responsibilities. The weather has also been very cold!! ARGH!
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month?
My life has opened up, almost miraculously. I’m feeling relaxed and accepting. I’ve got things to do and places to go; I feel purposeful. I’m letting myself say what I need, more often, more easily. I’m patient with the things I can’t control (most of the things, honestly). I’ve had a few experiences this month that made me think maybe my calling is to be an emotional support person. Just be there, when someone else is going through something, not trying to change things or giving advice, just be there. I keep seeing how strange the world is, how out of my grasp.
How did you take care of yourself?
Sticking with the 100 day creativity project, even when I wasn’t feeling remotely creative (today was day 30). Organizing a writing retreat. Being with friends. Asking others to help out. Looking for clothes that fit. Letting myself be where I’m at. Getting my glasses fixed. Mediative puzzling (I’m doing them slowly these days, taking my time). Opening the house to friends and family. Recording the audiobook has been a gift to myself too: not easy, but a jolt of something new, different, creative, that taps into my acting self from long ago.
What would you most like to remember?
See above. How I took care of myself this month is also what I would like to remember. Stopping at the plant shop up the street with my sister-in-law was fun, delightful, even. Parking practice with my sixteen-year-old. An unexpected reunion with high school friends. Doing voice exercises while listening to my favourite playlist, driving through countryside.
What do you need to let go of?
This practice of letting go of a need for control is revolutionary. I’ll just keep doing that. Because every time I remind myself of what I can’t control by worrying or holding on or dictating or insisting upon or fretting over or demanding or clutching or clinging to, I’m able to stop doing those things. I can stop and just be. More than that — I can be thankful. Being thankful also comes from knowing my own boundaries are firm, and my needs are being clearly articulated (to myself, to those around me who are affected when I’m filled with resentment or fear). It helps to say: I’m okay, right now. That’s quite grounding. It also helps to place my feet solidly on the ground and breathe deeply.
What felt good this month?
This has been a confusing month. It felt good to get to visit people again, to travel to see family, to go to the movies, go out to eat, host a kids’ birthday party. It felt good to embrace the human desire to connect and be together in person. I really loved it. I’m even glad for the desire to do things again. When everything shut down two years ago, I was so burnt out and overstretched that my main feeling was relief at not having to do everything all the time for everyone. In the interim, I’ve recalibrated my boundaries, and I feel more capable of saying yes and no with greater understanding of the costs and benefits of each. Having things to do — and wanting to do those things — the combination is a gift.
What did you struggle with?
In practical terms, I’m currently struggling with a case of covid. Because, yes, there are costs to the grand reopening; and it’s challenging to make informed decisions when the information available is limited and contradictory. I’m also going to say, I struggled with feeling impatient and ready to move past these endless covid-times, or at least figure out how to feel as alive as possible during these endless covid-times. I might have erred on the side of wanting to feel alive versus wanting to feel safe. That’s a struggle too — I don’t honestly know what’s right or what’s best or wisest. All along, we’ve made choices, often difficult, about how to keep our loved ones safe, trying to balance mental health with physical health, trying to maintain relationships and connections from a distance or in constrained circumstances, and on and on. I wanted to believe we could start to live with just a little less caution, but it looks like covid isn’t done with its part in our collective story yet. So that’s what I’m struggling with. (FYI I’m the only one in our household to test positive, and I’m hoping it stays that way; we are all doubled vaccinated and boosted; my symptoms have been like a very bad cold.)
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month?
Funny. I’m less worried now than I was at the beginning of the month. I’m more optimistic about writing projects underway. I’m convinced that people are resilient and relationships can be healed. I have no particular evidence or logic to support any of this; in fact, there’s probably ample evidence to support the opposite conclusion, particularly when it comes to how people are coping in these really hard times. But this is where I’m at. I admit to feeling hopeful! Oh dear. I’m almost too superstitious to declare such a thing out loud … dare I? I’m trying to let myself feel joy from time to time; hope and optimism too; and not believe that just by feeling or expressing such wonderful things I’ll attract the eye of a vengeful and punishing god. Consider this part of the experiment. I’ll let you know how it goes.
How did you take care of yourself?
I made a list of fun things to do. I did some of those things. I wrote even when it seemed like I was writing in circles. I got somewhere interesting. I pushed myself to try new things, even when it risked failure. It was a good month for those reasons. I went on lots of walks with friends, and enjoyed putting # 34 on my list of fun things into action: surprising friends with small gifts. Honestly, that brought me such joy. I talked about hard things in therapy. I made plans.
What would you most like to remember?
Beautiful plants on my desk. Dinner with kids and their friends. The joy of the Canadian men’s soccer team winning at home to clinch their ticket to the World Cup. Watching movies at the theatre. Heartfelt walks and talks with family and friends. Writing and writing and writing.
What do you need to let go of?
Ideally, I would like not to act or speak from a place of fear. Or at least to be aware if I’m acting or speaking from a place of fear. There are so many things in life that get broken. So often they’re broken by fear, which manifests as judgement, as anger, as dependency, as control. I don’t want to break anything, especially relationships, because I have fear that is unexpressed or unacknowledged, or blocking me from being truthful, open, clear, first with myself, then with others. I need to let go not of fear itself, which would be an impossible task, but of being swayed or deluded or misled by my fears. Life is complicated, relationships are complicated, desire is complicated. Fear is natural. But it doesn’t have to steer my choices.
This will be a rather obvious window into the thrilling state of my evenings, but I am getting through February on puzzles and podcasts. Puzzles, podcasts, and pots of herbal tea.
Last night’s Puzzle ‘n Podcast podcast was on how often we misinterpret how others perceive us: apparently, a lot. It’s a show called The Hidden Brain, and the episode is “Mind Reading 2.0: How Others See You.” Listening to this I was thinking about friendship, and wondering what prevents us (sometimes? often?) from saying what we really mean. Politeness? Fear of rejection? False assumptions about what may happen? Or maybe assumptions based past experience? Maybe we don’t always know what we really mean. Or maybe we get mixed up due to the social setting, confused by the extra information we’re taking in (and quite possibly misinterpreting!). Anyway, it’s fascinating.
I keep puzzling over why it’s not common practice to set out boundaries or expectations or even state hopes for our friendships (it really isn’t, though). Why are friendships more tenuous, undefined things, when other relationships carry expectations, stated and otherwise? Maybe in friendship there’s both more at stake and less. Friendship enriches life. But we don’t usually buy a house with a friend, or share a pet with a friend, or move to another city if our friend moves to another city. We might go months without seeing a friend and then fall back into closeness in an instant. We know in advance that we may lose friends in a way that’s more baked in than in other relationships. We probably also expect to have many friends in different contexts over a lifetime. I’m riffing here.
and yet, and yet, and yet … I acknowledge that big emotions get stirred up in friendships, fears get tapped, there can be jealousy, envy, comparison, grasping, insecurity … and love, caring, commitment, thoughtfulness, kindness, spontaneity, fun … friendship is a spacious concept, elastic, flexible … that’s a good thing, but it also means there’s more uncertainty … maybe friendship is an almost liminal space where we have the opportunity to become comfortable with not-knowing, not-clinging, letting go?
A friendship is a relationship that can change as we change; and/or it can offer the familiarity of someone who knew us when. There’s insecurity in the uncertainty of what being a friend means and demands of us. I feel it as I try to write about my experience(s) of friendship.
For myself, I think friendship is always and forever an opportunity to learn, to be challenged, to get to know myself more honestly (weaknesses, strengths, boundaries, sense of humour). If I’m feeling down or low the cure ALWAYS is to reach out to a friend. ALWAYS. Paradoxically, this is also the moment it’s hardest to reach out. (This is what texting is for!)
The other thing on my mind (unrelated to friendship) is how people seem really angry right now. People are struggling with their emotions, looking for easy targets of blame. Positions are getting entrenched (which always seems dangerous to me). The pandemic years have been a good reminder that I can’t assume I know what anyone else is thinking or feeling. Maybe in friendships we dance around this, maybe it’s one of friendship’s most important gifts — maybe within the uncertain structure of a friendship there’s an implicit understanding that we aren’t always on the same page, and we’re trying to listen and be curious about our differences, we’re paying attention to another’s experiences.
In friendship, there’s so much room for exchange. Generous exchange. Friendship is a practice in curiosity, attention, lightness, vulnerability, caring, holding and letting go.
P.S. Please send podcast recommendations. I’m addicted to the puzzling (the puzzles shown above are just from the past week!!!! True confession). And winter continues.
P.S. 2 I’m adding this note in post-publication, with thanks to Julia who tipped me to a fabulous (and recent) article in The Atlantic about friendship, in which appears this memorable (and useful) analysis of what holds friendship together:
Practically everyone who studies friendship says this in some form or another: What makes friendship so fragile is also exactly what makes it so special. You have to continually opt in. That you choose it is what gives it its value.
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