- What felt good this month? This month passed in a flash! I won’t say it’s been easy, but a few things that felt good involved small actions that directed my energies outside of myself. Being a fiction writer doesn’t offer many opportunities to directly serve or (even interact with!) others, which is something I struggle with, but these actions made sense for me, right now: I donated blood (first-time), and will donate again, because I can—(At the clinic, I kept thinking of that slogan “It’s in you to give”; it felt like an uncomplicated way to be helpful); I’m in the midst of helping organize season three of The X Page: applications are open now to refugee and immigrant women in Waterloo Region, who are interested in storytelling—please spread the word!; I enjoyed Tuesday morning conversations with my grandma, who lives in Indiana; I got more involved at church; and I had fun sending out daily messages for two weeks to my word of the year group, as we did a “tea cleanse” together. My days are spent mostly inside the same rooms of the same house with the same people; reaching out felt really really good.
- What did you struggle with? Apparently, I struggled to remember this question existed! Somehow, it got lost while writing the original draft for this post; I’m answering it today, March 2. I struggled to figure out how to support my children, all living under this same roof, while also offering them independence, autonomy, and the “right” amount of responsibility. Are my expectations too low, too high; do they have enough opportunities to separate from me and be with their peers? Teenagers need their peers, a lot. The pandemic has made these important years for developing independence very challenging to navigate (and it wasn’t easy in the first place). So, parenting. That’s been a struggle, and these micro-decisions, made daily, weigh on me.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I’m okay. It feels like spring is in the air … but not quite near enough. I’ve been working steadily on a writing project, and have heard from my editor with a revised timeline for my new novel: all good! Within the waiting, I can still be productive and find focus and hope.
- How did you take care of yourself? This one’s a bit tricky, at least this past month. I’ve got solid habits and routines: I practice those daily; sometimes they bring me joy, but sometimes they’re just plain shoring me up, which is often what they felt like this month. Self-care has looked like this: Rarely drink alcohol. Exercise most days. Stretch often. Eat homemade food. Give myself permission to veg. Tell my body how awesome it is (this is more important for women raised in the 1980s and 90s than you might realize!). Play the piano: I’ve been doing this almost every day, and it’s freeing and fun.
- What would you most like to remember? That I like reading novels all in one gulp! Take a Saturday, Carrie, and just lay on the couch and read a novel from start to finish. It’s the best escape imaginable. (Just finished Lily King’s Writers and Lovers; and before that, Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions.)
- What do you need to let go of? Shame. The fear of doing things wrong and offending people. The fear of being unworthy, or embarrassing, or flaky, or foolish. It would be so lovely to give myself the gift of trust. I’d love to enter the world freely, messily, making mistakes and owning up to them, and learning from them; getting back on the horse, again and again. I need to let go of my craving for acknowledgement and permission. And just get on with doing the work.
Today was Kevin’s birthday. I picked up smoked salmon and bagels for a birthday brunch, and stopped by Mom’s on the way home to surprise her with a donut. She thought up the most lovely birthday surprise for Kevin — books delivered from Wordsworth. I wish my worries for her could be solved from within (myself, I mean). Looking at this drawing now, I can see exactly what I did wrong when drawing the stairs! It makes me happy to see it. Then I might see it differently when drawing stairs next time. (Chairs are another struggle …).
This drawing is based on the animation for Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,”which features tea cups. I sent it to my word group for today’s moment of pause, during our tea cleanse. What if our molecules could remember when we were one? This morning, on our church’s Zoom call, my older daughter spoke movingly, and it sparked something in others, and things felt, briefly, hopeful.
Ugh. I hate everything about this drawing (almost everything). I spent today working on the first of two grant applications — painful writing. I’m tired, but that’s not the problem. The problem is a chronic pain issue that flares from time to time; like now. I drew a sad and ugly figure staring blankly at her cellphone, and then began to add in other tiny versions of me, trying to help the blue woman, soothe her, sit with her, check in on her. Plus there are those weird green legs lying on the floor. The whole time I was drawing, it felt like an argument with myself.
While waiting at the back of a long line outside a lab, I saw a woman break down when it was her turn to enter the building, and nurses from inside came out to help; I was too far to figure out what exactly was happening. The woman in front of me, who had come on her lunch break, finally gave up and left, she said she couldn’t keep waiting and waiting. I thought of her, for some reason, while doing kundalini this evening; it’s so novel to speak to anyone outside my family. I hope she’ll get in quickly when she goes tomorrow morning.
I took notes at an X Page meeting on Zoom this afternoon to plan for the smooth running of our spring workshop (season 3!!). I looked crusty and ancient on the screen. CJ forgot to do his piano lesson (also online) because I was in the meeting and wasn’t available to remind him. Instead, he was watching soccer highlights with Kevin in the living-room!! He was very sad when he told me he’d forgotten, just before supper. I sent a message to apologize to his piano teacher and she offered to do a lesson with him tonight. After drawing this, I was glad I hadn’t quit the project on Monday. (My plan is to review month-by-month, rather than committing to a particular length of time in advance; I think I’ll know when it’s served its purpose.)
I’m doing a lot of kundalini this week. I’d gotten a half-start on this drawing just before this evening’s class started, and while meditating, I kept thinking about what I wanted it to express. I spent this afternoon continuing work on grant-writing for this project I’ve started with my Grandma. In this drawing, I’m a ghost in the room, a time-traveller, observing, imagining a scene from someone else’s life — which never happened, mind you — but now feels as though it is real (to me).
I asked my younger daughter if I could go with her on her lunchtime dog walk. I haven’t been out during daylight much this week. There was a big snow storm last night. My older daughter went out and shovelled out walk. I worked on grant applications and X Page stuff all day. Never napped, though the hope of a nap was what got me out of bed this morning. Too much sitting. More kundalini tonight.
This is a visualization of my word of the year — SOURCE. It’s a mysterious word. It points to being at the origin, and to being inexhaustible, I can return again and again, drink of it, seek it, it refreshes, restores. I had a vision during kundalini last night of SOURCE as eternity, as the place from which I came and to which I will return. It was soothing. Today, I’m weighing another volunteer opportunity that’s arisen. I like being asked to serve. I feel most at home when volunteering; and I miss that from my soccer coaching, for sure. But any commitment needs weighing. I won’t commit unless I’m all in.
Last night at dinner, I asked how everyone was doing right now. Our eldest said it’s fine, but it’s boring. Every day is busy, he said, and passes quickly, but it feels the same. And I agree. And therefore, I see the usefulness of this daily cartoon project is its ability to capture, succinctly, visible to the eye, proof of tiny fluctuations within the sameness.
Two years ago, I was preparing to teach the graphic-art-based creativity course at St. Jerome’s, which was really a class about developing an artistic practice, setting goals, and staying open to how a project may change and grow as it unfurls. There’s discipline, the verb, and discipline, the noun, and together they sustain an artistic practice. The hope is that the practice will hold and develop over a lifetime, unique and personal: a pathway into the flow, a mindset, a series of ever-renewing explorations that feed on curiosity and feed curiosity.
If all things flow, I can never step into the same river twice; yet I yearn to find ways to fix experience as it flies. That’s the paradox of being alive, existing inside these breathing time-stuck human bodies: how to occupy the liminal space between immersion and interpretation, how to dance between these ways of being in the world; liminality is what art emerges from, the desire for engagement mixed with the need for something more than preservation — for response, for improvisation, for metaphor, image, song. My practice(s) is a way to step into the river, and also a means of capturing what’s here to be found.
I started a new notebook this morning. To mark the first page of each new notebook, I trace my hand and write my birth date and today’s date, a ritual I learned in a Lynda Barry workshop. As I traced my hand this morning, using a brush rather than a pen, I thought: I love the artistic practices I’ve created. They are cobbled together from different times, teachers, discoveries, experiments, using different mediums, tools and technologies; and they do change as I change and adapt, but they are unique to me and durable.
I love writing by hand, even though I don’t always use it as a method of writing new material. There are easier ways to write, but some stories and reflections call out to be discovered by hand.
I love the playfulness of crayons, which I’m using in my current daily drawing project, begun on December 1st as a month-long trial, and which I’m considering continuing into January, maybe beyond. (I’m also considering scanning these cartoons + captions and posting them weekly on the blog; this will only work if it’s easy. That’s one of the principles of my personal practices, the ones that have stuck: they’re easy to maintain, the materials are easy to acquire, the technology is easy to access.)
I love my studio, this lively yet meditative space that I use daily, which is a retreat, a place I look forward to being in, comforting, cozy, tidy, organized, small, contained yet spacious (the high ceiling, the white walls).
There isn’t much movement out there. We are locked down again in Ontario. There isn’t much movement anywhere, on any front, not in my own personal or professional life. But in this studio space, on the pages of these notebooks, there is movement. There is a river ever-flowing, into which I can step, and be transported.
And that is a gift.
My project ideas for 2020 have changed quite a bit; some came to fruition, others vanished almost as quickly as I’d conceived them. Now, I’m planning my projects for 2021, and looking forward to sketching out new ideas and goals on a fresh index card, and glueing 2020’s into this latest notebook. How will 2021’s projects grow, change, develop? Only time will tell. But they’ll exist, in nascent form, in ripening and in bloom, inside these notebooks, in crayon drawings, in pen, in Scrivener and Word files, and here, online. Sharing what I’m making is an important facet of my practice, too; thank you for being out there.
If you’ve got a moment, drop me a line or leave a comment and tell me about your artistic practices, what you’re doing right now to step into the river, both to enter the flow and to fix experience as it flies.
Listening to Joni Mitchell’s River.
I listen to this song even when it’s not the Christmas season. They’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Oh, Joni. I recently read a profile about her early songwriting in the New York Times and then drifted over to read another piece in The New Yorker from 2012 by Zadie Smith about becoming a Joni convert. I’d already read the Zadie Smith essay, maybe when it was originally published, but I read it again. The internet will give you so many windows and doors to open, chasing ideas that you might tell yourself are inspirational or aspirational, when really, you just want to be as original and seemingly free as Joni Mitchell. But it’s okay just being you. Isn’t it?
I’ve started a new project that I’m planning to do every day in December, and possibly beyond. It’s a way of crossing the threshold from the every day into the imagination, a daily portrait and caption, created in about 20 minutes or so, while listening to music. I draw a portrait on an index card in pen, then colour it with crayons (an important part of the playful process!), then write a few lines about whatever’s on my mind, giving myself no more than 3 minutes for the text so I don’t start sweating over it. Like this:
Here are a few other good things and random thoughts, on this Friday afternoon when I’ve run out of steam and am about to turn to fun videos on youtube while doing my stretching routine on the office floor, which isn’t a half-bad way to spend half an hour, truth be told — maybe I’ll count that as one of the random good things going on right now. I’m also attempting to do sets of 10 burpees whenever I think of it throughout the day. While waiting for lunch to heat in the microwave, for example. Before bed. The goal is to raise my heart rate in spurts throughout the day, maybe to compensate for not running right now (though I do ride the spin bike pretty frequently). Whatever. It lifts my spirits every time. I finish my burpee set and throw my hands in the air in victory! Yes! (I should draw that.)
Other daily goals: Go outside! Every day.
And: Flip my current pattern of writing in a frantic panic late in the afternoon, and write in the mornings instead (answer email only after I’m all written-out). The daily portrait and caption kickstarts this goal, and so far it’s worked wonders. Start with something fun and easy, something I look forward to doing, and suddenly I’m pitched into writing new material without even thinking twice.
Also: Work harder. (Weird, I originally wrote “Word harder.” That works too.) Work/word harder is my main life goal. But I mean that only insofar as I mean work harder to dig in, commit, finish projects, even if I don’t know what will happen to them. Hard things are hard. Curiosity is my fuel. Patience is a gift but also can be a weakness if it turns into numb acceptance. Grit is necessary. Add it to your breakfast. Relish and savour what you’re doing because you never know what you’re making. Or what will stick, what will matter, what others will appreciate.
For example: A student sent me a message this week, writing: “I also wanted to tell you that as a graduate, I still appreciate your class. I’ve read books a little differently since, with more compassion, and more interest in the beauty of the work.” How could I guess that a student would come away from a writing class with a new lens on reading? What a gift. I love thinking about the accident of connections, about the things we keep that perhaps someone else has given us, but they don’t know.
Okay, one more goal: Reach out with appreciation for the gifts received from others. I might also add, if there’s a teacher who’s helped you in some way, let her know. Especially now. Any teacher who can engage her students through the screen or the mask is working at a level of commitment and energy and preparation that is almost impossible to understate.
In conclusion, as this seems to be a post that has brought up boundless wells of inner gratitude, I’m grateful for a friend’s idea to create our own collectively brainstormed advent calendar of family activities. As a family of six, each of us contributed four ideas which were randomly sprinkled into the calendar’s pockets. Day 1: decorate Christmas cookies (made by F); Day 2: breakfast for dinner (waffles, made by me); Day 3: ice cream delivery to grandparents; Day 4: games night. (Days 1 and 2 shifted the responsibility to the baker and the cook, and both of us were slightly crusty about this; as a result, we’ve also created a bunch of back-up activities to be accessed should one idea not work out on a particular day).
I’m grateful for a little surprise to look forward to every day of advent.
And I’m grateful to you, my friends who read this blog. It gives me a little boost knowing you’re out there. Connections. They’re harder to come by right now, and I cherish them all the more for that.
Wow. I tuned in to an amazing event at the Wild Writer’s Literary Festival yesterday evening. Managed to squeeze it in between the whole family getting their flu shots at a drive-through clinic (amazingly well-run, and gives me hope for the future of public health care in Canada) and birthday cake and gifts for this newly minted adult, pictured above with her sister’s homemade carrot cake. The aforementioned amazing literary event was a panel on the short story, with Souvankham Thammavongsa, Jack Wang, and Vinh Nyugen. Souvankham just won the Giller Prize with her collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife, and Jack Wang is the author of a recently published collection that I want to read too, We Two Alone, and Vinh Nyugen is a professor of English who happens to be teaching a short story class to my son, who in his first term of Arts at the University of Waterloo. And How to Pronounce Knife is on the syllabus; my son is now on his second read, and says he has to write his assignment before I can get a chance to read it myself.
But last night, I got a taste of both writer’s styles, and, oh, it was wonderful. Both writers read from each other’s stories, and that flipped the usual way things are done, and made it somehow so much better. It was a treat for the writers, too, to hear their words read with such affection by someone else. I love the short story as a form. And it was so interesting to hear their approaches to writing short stories. Jack Wang said he tries to see how much he can stuff into the short story and still make it work; and Souvankham Thammavongsa talked about making what we take for granted into something strange; and also about how she wants her endings to devastate the reader.
I loved that. I’ve never wanted to admit that as a goal, but damn if it isn’t true. To write toward a feeling rather than an idea seemed to be something both writers agreed on.
And there was more. I think you can access the interview on the Wild Writers website till the end of the November. And you should, if, like me, you’re craving deep intricate exploration of the ways in which stories work, or can work, or might work, and how they get made. Or even if you just want your brain pushed open a bit. I don’t make my stories in quite the same way, but that’s what made their conversation so interesting — maybe I could try different ways of entering into a story, maybe I could try shoving more in, why not? What would happen? I’ll be thinking for a long time about Souvankham’s Point A, Point B, and Point C (the last one being the point that the writer knows about that doesn’t get into the story at all, but exists outside of it, calling to the reader from out past its boundaries).
I also spent some time scrutinizing the backgrounds of the rooms in which each writer was speaking, because I’ve got a few events online to attend myself, and I want to know … things I really don’t know. Like, which wall in my house would make the best background, and do I need extra lighting, and should I wear makeup, and if I’m going to half-dress-up (top half only, of course) what colours work best on-screen, and will my knock-off bluetooth ear buds conk out midway through and what then?
Clearly, these are things that must be figured out by doing, and there are a lot of people learning how to do these things well, from whom I’m sure I can learn lots.
Meanwhile, this is the set-up I’m going to try out, mainly because it’s closest to the router. But the bookshelves make a good background, I think. Please wish me luck as I dip my toe into this new online literary existence this evening, in the brief role of “Introducer” for a conversation between Lamees Al Ethari and Antonio Michael Downing (also at the Wild Writers Literary Festival); and tomorrow morning, as I read my picture book Jammie Day to a friend’s online kindergarten class!
PS For those of you who read these posts as a newsletter received via email, the timing on the aforementioned events will be off by a day. This post was written on Thursday afternoon but due to automation beyond my control (or expertise, more accurately!), it will be sent on Friday. And I can report, updating this post on Friday morning, that both events were more interactive, more natural-feeling, and most importantly more fun than I’d dared to hope they could be. It felt like I could be myself. At the Wild Writers event, the conversation was thought-provoking, personal, and got my brain pinging with ideas. And after the Jammie Day reading and Q&A, all the kindergarteners stood up to show me their pyjamas, and then turned on their microphones to send me a chorus of goodbyes and thank-yous. It was wonderful.
(Yes, I put on a bit of make-up; yes, I borrowed a ring light from my husband, who does online presentations all the time; and I’m pretty sure no one saw my bright-patterned leggings, or noticed that I was sitting cross-legged on a yoga block on the floor!)
Ever get the feeling that too much is on your mind, so instead of trying to say it all, you say nothing instead? Yeah. That’s where I’m at. That’s where I’ve been at for a few weeks now. I’ve also been reasonably busy, trying to seize all the moments in all the days that have come calling. It was sunny and warm for a full five days, so I was outside as much as possible with friends and family. Then one of my kids had a migraine for three days last week. I haven’t been able to run, as the nagging pain has returned, so I’ve been experimenting with other forms of self-soothing. Early morning dog walk: unsuccessful, did not provide enough endorphins, although the dog was thrilled with all the new scents to sniff. Riding the spin bike: much more successful, with the added bonus of delightfully cheesy Canadian entertainment. (While spinning, I watch Murdoch Mysteries, and I’ve been told that I talk out loud to the characters, muttering things like “Don’t go in there, George! You’re going to regret it!” or “It’s the brother. It has to be the brother!”)
Up till last Friday, I was working full-tilt on novel revisions, and now need to pause and consult with my editor to make sure we’re on the same page. It’s been fun, and a relief, and an escape, immersing myself in an imaginary world, where imaginary characters make imaginary choices and try to figure out how to mend themselves, or inflict mending on others.
My corkboard is mostly empty, but for a number of physio exercises — I’ve drawn a series of reminders for myself on index cards, including instructions for stretching exercises that are meant to get a person up from her desk at least once an hour. (It has yet to happen, but a person can hope to change her ways!) The other items on the corkboard are a watercolour of two people in a tree, inspiration for my novel; a drawing of hands that look to be in prayer, to remind myself that my work requires patience and grace, and also as a reminder of the novel’s theme of spiritual searching; and some sketches that show the steps for making a labyrinth, though it looks more like I’ve drawn a strange, childlike version of the brain. Not on the corkboard, but critical to the revision process, is a sketched-out structure for the novel, done in a kind of personal visual code that I find very satisfying and comforting to look at.
Tomorrow, my oldest daughter turns 18. I’ve ordered donuts for pick-up. I’m planning to bike to pick them up, no matter how cold. Also this week, I’m introducing a conversation at the Wild Writers Festival on Thursday, 7-9PM, between two wonderful writer, Lamees Al Ethari and Antonio Michael Downing: here’s the registration information. And on Friday morning, I’m going to read my picture book Jammie Day to a friend’s kindergarten classroom. These last two events, needless to say, are happening online. One of my goals for this pandemic time is to become more tech-savvy; or at least, less-tech-anxious.
I’m grateful for plans. No matter how small. Like those donuts.
Almost every day, I lie on my office floor. Sometimes I take a nap. It’s a glorious floor for napping. More often, I do those physio exercises 0n the corkboard. I meditate, or listen to a podcast. Almost every day, my eyes fill with tears. It seems like a way to live now, on the verge of tears, but also attempting to strengthen and bolster oneself, to practice breathing, to pay attention to the pain, not to ignore it. Not to be overwhelmed by it.
Till next time—
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