Category: Word of the Year
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.
Do I have a simple Friday message? I do not.
On Monday, I went for a solo run in the park. On Monday mornings, early, no matter the weather, no matter my mood, for weeks, months, years (more than a decade, at least), I’ve run or walked with my friend Nina, who has been our neighbour for 18 years, and my friend since we lived across the hall from each other on campus, our first year of university. This past weekend, she and her family moved away.
I’m still working out how to approach this absence.
I started by hand-writing Nina a letter and sending it in the mail. It felt like it approximated the feeling of the kinds of conversations we’ve had, over the years; the letter wasn’t about anything special, just the particularities of the now, and unlike an email or text, I folded it up and stuck it into the envelope and no copy was kept to remind me of what I’d said, it was of its moment, she was the recipient, no one else, and like our walks, it came and it went.
An observation: when I sat to write the letter, on paper with pen, it felt like Nina was present with me; I don’t get the same sensation when composing an email. (side note: Why is email so awful? I have a few theories …)
On Tuesday, a fox trotted near where I was stretching in the front yard; I feel that we know each other, as we see each other often, early in the morning. She’s very beautiful, her orange fur mottled with greys and blacks. She crossed the road, then sat for a moment, and watched me watching her.
That afternoon, I biked to pick up our first CSA box from Fertile Ground farm: greens, greens, greens! On Saturday, I’ll walk to pick up our first CSA box from Little Fields Farm, because, yes, for the second summer running, I belong to two CSAs; I am a fan of women-who-farm.
Please send salad recipes!
On Wednesday, everyone was out of the house, active, with friends. I took my mom to get her second dose of vaccine. The workshop session was an easy one for me: I got to watch my friend Melissa in action, vocal coaching. Mark your calendars: the X Page Performance “Little Things” will be live on Zoom, July 7th, at 7PM. Tickets are free, registration opens here on June 23!
On Thursday morning, I met my son in the park for a run. My grown son, who now lives away from home. I ate healthy food all day (greens for lunch, more greens for supper), but my back ached and I didn’t feel fabulous. Napped on the couch, groggy, too late in the day. Walked over to visit neighbours, still groggy. Trying to remember how to be social again. (Trying to remember what exactly I’m doing with my life, that too.)
Today, it rains. I did a longer yoga session this morning (yoga last night, too, with my friend Kasia; look for more offerings from her this summer, some online, some in-person). Started my time in this studio reading and meditating.
After that, email. (Trying so hard not to start my days with email!)
Now this. Then lunch (more greens??). Laundry. Writing, revising. I want to cook lentils with spinach for supper, and braised bok choy on the side. But the kids will want to order in (our Friday ritual). Which of us will prevail?
I neglected to invite anyone over to our backyard this evening, a Friday ritual I’d intended to start again, and managed the past two Fridays in a row. But it’s raining, with a big thunderstorm forecast for this aft. Excuses, reasons: It’s raining. And inertia. And maybe social anxiety. Who knows? I’m trying to remember how to be in the world again, how to host, how to invite, how to converse, how to connect in real life, in ways that make sense and are sustainable. Y’know?
Go easy, my friends. Enjoy your weekend.
This is a photo of a squirrel eating tinfoil on our fence; there was also a cardinal, but he took off and is the streak of motion in front of one of the blue chairs.
The days have begun to whirl again. After such stillness and waiting, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I’m trying to declare the weekends sacred, and Sundays for meditation, reflection; a worthy aspiration, at the very least.
The truth is that I feel energized after a long quietness. So I’m not resenting an upsurge in activity even as this new stage unfolds and unfurls. But I must be cautious, awake: I don’t want to drift back into the non-stop tumble in which we found ourselves, pre-pandemic.
But, listen. It’s good. I’ll have news to share soon on a couple of creative projects. I’ve got work that feeds my heart and mind, and wonderful people around me and radiating out in expanding circles in whose company I delight, and from whom I am continually learning. I’ve been hanging laundry on the line. My children make music in the living-room. The gardens are bursting and blooming. What more do I need?
(Well, it would be nice if everyone in this house each had a chore they really loved … the way that I love doing laundry… and if that chore could be complementary, say, if someone just loved cleaning bathrooms, and someone loved vacuuming, and someone loved clearing the counters … now that would be heaven.)
But listen, too: our community, our country, our land, the whole world, it is shook up and reeling and in pain and in need, and we can’t fall asleep or wander half-dazed into how it was before, we need to be AWAKE and AWARE and CURIOUS and HUMBLE. I want this place I live in to be a little bit better because I’ve tried, in whatever ways, no matter how small … and that means stumbling, and being quiet, and apologizing a lot of the time too. There is so much to learn, and so much pain that cascades through generations. Every ceremony, every ritual, every practice, every meal I cook food for someone else, every time I stop and listen, pause, listen, pause, reflect, sit, still, breathe, laugh, hug, cry … no action is neutral. This past week in Canada, 215 children were found buried in a secret grave on the grounds of a former residential school, and this is our present. This is not history. This is our now. So much cannot be fixed, must not be forgotten; bad governments, bad systems, hierarchies built to maintain power, no matter the costs. And here we are, human beings, whirling and bumping into each other, trying, trying, trying to figure this out. Individuals trying to look each other in the eyes, to listen, to say, You matter. I’m sorry. I want to help. Help me?
Slow down, sit, listen. Someone is trying to tell you something (not me).
That’s my present, right now. That’s my goal. Slow down, sit, listen. Breathe. Pay attention. Burn something, that too. A candle, a stick of incense. Ego.
Inquiries for the universe…
A few years ago, after returning from a three-week writing residency in France, I put an idea out into the universe: hey, universe, could you send more cross-disciplinary collaboration my way? I’d worked with a wonderful actor / writer / translator as part of the residency, and both of us hoped to find a way to create together again. The universe didn’t align for the two of us to reconnect, though we tried; however, as so often happens, another door opened. In fact, a few different doors, one leading to the next. The first was that I began spending several mornings a week with a young woman who had recently come to Canada with her husband and children; she couldn’t get into a language program, so I volunteered to help her with some English studies. Really, what I remember most about those mornings are our conversations. I realized that my neighbourhood, my work, my friend group, even my church was its own bubble, a comfort zone, and pretty homogenous; and that I had a strong desire to connect with people across the possible barriers of language, religion and culture. The idea for The X Page storytelling workshop grew out of this friendship.
And lo and behold, The X Page became a forum for cross-disciplinary artistic collaboration, as well as new friendships and connections. Our third season starts this week, and will happen entirely online. We’ve adapted, but the goals remain the same: artistic collaboration and exploration, and cross-cultural conversations and connections. It genuinely feels like I sent an idea out to the universe, and the universe answered.
Today, I’ve woken with another kernel of an idea: Hey universe, could I expand on the X Page workshop somehow, to make its goals available more broadly, to many more people? Here’s the spark: Before drifting off to sleep last night, I read a New York Times article about an Australian community-building concept called “The Shed.” Apparently, these “sheds” began as retreats for retired and out-of-work men, and only recently have women started their own “sheds.” The story is about women taking over part of an unused school building; their shed is run by volunteers who are also participants, and it’s a mix of socializing (playing games, eating together) and crafts/ skills, like sewing, painting, gardening, cooking, singing in a choir. It’s a mix.
When I woke up, I was still mulling over the idea of “the shed,” which sounds a bit like a community centre, but which also seems more ground-up, or holistically invented and sustained.
It’s also all very post-pandemic, and impossible right now: gathering together, in person. But hey, universe: is there something here? What do you think? Maybe it’s the idea of a shared project, like “the shed.” Maybe it’s the fact that it’s free for all. Maybe it’s the concept of having space for a variety of activities, which I’ve found makes connections across barriers easier. I’m feeling this rather urgently right now: somehow we have to find ways to make more connections, especially outside of our bubbles, in order to nurture our sense of collective care. We’ve got big urgent crises to cope with. We need to find ways to have difficult conversations, and common ground. Social media does not work for these purposes; it seems almost designed to push us to greater and greater extremes. Belonging comes from something else, I’m convinced of it—outside of algorithms that fail to surprise us, that try to sell us more stuff, and that compete for our attention by exploiting our emotional weak points.
My attention is invaluable. So is yours. It is our time here on earth. It’s what we’ve got to give.
So if you’ve spent a few minutes of your attention reading this post, I send you immense thanks. And to the universe, I send this flicker of an idea: in what ways can I deepen my involvement in building community and connection on the ground, in the real world, both now and whenever we can meet in person again?
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.
Truth is, I have too much to say and too little, at once.
I haven’t been doing nothing, though it can feel like it. I’ve composed and submitted two grant applications, I’ve revised a new essay that’s been accepted for publication, I’ve written new material, I’ve read some good books (The Past, by Tessa Hadley and The Cold Millions, by Jess Walters), I’ve worked on projects close to my heart. I’ve volunteered my time, I’ve earned next to nothing (okay, nothing), I’ve done a shit-ton of yoga (shout-out to my friend Kasia’s brilliant life-saving kundalini classes, a source anyone can now tap into as they’re all online), I’ve watched a lot of Murdoch, plus, with other family members: All Creatures Great and Small, Call My Agent, and The Bureau. I’ve cooked some decent meals, mostly vegetarian; more accurately, I’ve cooked a lot of meals, decent or otherwise. I’ve tried. I’ve cleaned the kitchen. Again and again.
I’ve showered almost every day. My hair keeps growing. Somehow, I’m getting pimples and developing jowls. I’ve played piano (mostly Bach), and drawn cartoons (but I’ve given up the latter, at least temporarily, because it was starting to feel more like a chore than a joy). I’ve reached out to friends. I’ve gone quiet. Reached out again. I’ve watched two of my kids return to school. I’ve upgraded our mask collection. I’ve ordered new tea towels, another pair of sweatpants, and I’ve signed up for two summer CSAs.
I’ve gone for walks, some long, some really short. I’ve laid on my studio floor in the dark. I’ve tried out scented candles. I’ve set a Tuesday morning standing date with my Grandma, who lives in Indiana, on Zoom. I’ve avoided looking at myself on Zoom. I’ve taken copious notes. I’ve drunk a shit-ton of tea (shout-out to my sister-in-law’s fabulous tea blends: I recommend most highly the Cosy Cottage Blend, Rose-Coloured Glasses, and Ginger Chew; and she’s got a sale on right now, too).
I’ve stretched. I’ve vacuumed (but only rarely). I’ve noticed the light changing and the changing shape of the moon in the sky. I’ve watched the trees fill with crows, hordes of crows rising, settling, cawing, skating on the wind in the middle of a snow storm. I’ve learned what a raccoon’s tracks look like. I’ve sprouted new plants from cuttings and hung them in windows, in pretty clay pots. I’ve asked a lot of questions about what I’m doing here on earth. I’ve settled on: this. At least for now.
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