- What felt good this month? Honestly, it’s been a challenging month, with a lot of push-pull emotions. But this question is reminding me of all that’s been good, too. It felt good to re-enter the world, occasionally. I sourced several comfortable masks to carry in my purse. Started physio, the result of which is that I’ve been able to go for some early morning runs (personal moments of bliss; I hi-fived a tree branch this morning!). On Tuesday afternoons, I’ve been biking to pick up Fertile Farm’s CSA offerings, just like I did in the before-times. (We’re getting two different CSA boxes this summer, Tuesdays and Saturdays, so our Monday supper challenge is to finish all the greens in the house before their impending replenishment!) Strawberries and asparagus are in season: eating lots. My peonies bloomed, and I cut some of the blossoms and dried them, hoping their scent will last. We celebrated Father’s Day with homemade carrot cake, shared with my dad in the back yard. The back yard, by the way, is AMAZING. I’ve been joining Annabella for double yoga sessions on Saturday mornings. Hanging laundry on the line. I met with my girls’ soccer team on Zoom and we started a fitness challenge (which explains why I’m suffering through burpees every morning). The kids finished school, and yesterday morning, Calvin and I kicked off his summer holidays by drawing and writing together in our journals, like we’ve done in summer’s past, which is very good indeed. And, last but not least, Kevin’s been concocting fancy weekend drinks with herbs from his garden.
- What did you struggle with? My emotions. I’ve felt restless, sometimes bored, distracted by anxieties. Mental fatigue. Making case-by-case decisions about our family’s activities as invitations to socialize begin again: what’s low-risk, what’s doable, what are the compromises or modifications that make normalcy possible? I almost had a panic attack on a walk with a friend last week, when we ventured to a park that felt too crowded with unmasked strangers. I suspect my absorption of US news is affecting my perceptions of safety here in Southern Ontario, where the numbers of new infections are relatively low. Also recognizing that the sameness of my days is causing a crash in creativity. As the months grind onward, I crave variety, challenge, adventure, new sights and sounds. There’s not much growth in the comfort zone.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? More restless, less focused, but also more optimistic about our collective ability to adapt to post-pandemic life. Work-wise, I finished writing a complete first draft of the 16th century novel. It requires major revision, perhaps even rethinking, so I’ve set it aside to steep for awhile. In its absence, I haven’t landed solidly on a writing project as absorbing. However, I do have big news: this month I signed a contract with a major Canadian publishing house to publish my next novel (tentatively titled Francie’s Got a Gun; not set in the 16th century). It’s been a long time coming, and I’m slipping the news in here rather quietly; look for a more formal announcement once the manuscript is finalized (due date for revisions: January 31, 2021). Maybe by the time the book comes out (2022), we’ll be free to throw a big old-fashioned launch party, which is really the reason I wanted to publish a new book and I’m not even making that up. God, I love a good launch party. I’m going to spend the next 2 years planning it. All of that said, and as this rambling paragraph attests, I’m casting around right now looking for something to occupy my energies, as I wait for notes from my new editor, dip into other writing projects, and hang out with my children.
- How did you take care of yourself? This month, I looked after my physical health. I went to physio on the advice of my chiro. I did a tea cleanse for the first two weeks of June. Also: almost-daily cardio, dry brushing, stretching, yoga, reading for pleasure, weekly sibs check-ins, salads, homemade yogurt, journaling, evening walks with Kevin and Rose, planning some fun events for our summer holidays, meeting friends outdoors and for walks.
- What would you most like to remember? What it feels like to walk uptown again, after several months’ absence: how strange the air feels, how empty the streets, how heightened my awareness of surroundings. Eating ice cream with a friend on one of my first outings post-lockdown. How my brain has struggled to feel safe doing activities that were once so ordinary they required no thought. Also: Black Lives Matter, and the hope for change.
- What do you need to let go of? I need to let go of my desire to control, which is a desire to protect and a compulsion to try to prevent bad things from happening. I’ve noticed particularly in interactions with my children that I’m always on patrol, attempting to prevent disaster, messes, missteps, no matter how insignificant (“don’t leave that jar of pickles on the edge of the counter”; “did you put on sunscreen?”; be careful, watch out, don’t forget, did you remember to, have you thought about …). My watchfulness is not helping anyone. My hyper-vigilance renders me needlessly anxious, and also feeling pointlessly guilty and responsible for anything bad that happens that I haven’t prevented; but it’s also harming my kids, who deserve my trust, and who can really only learn from experience. Painful as that is to recognize. I’d like to stop putting up caution signs and issuing warnings, and just … let go … let go … and I mean this on all fronts, in both my professional and my personal life, I want to walk a path that honours and accepts all I can’t know, all I do not control. God, it’s hard. But stuck together in close quarters, lo these many months, I’ve seen the harm of it more clearly, and I’ll keep trying to open my hands, unclench my jaw, and let go.
Lately, I’ve been writing more in my own private journal, circular interior debates questioning my work here on earth (you know, basic existential navel-gazing). I’ve also been recording minor daily interactions that have become normal, but would have seemed strange pre-pandemic. Neither of these genres are blog-friendly, mainly because the posts are lengthy and, as mentioned before, circular. I go round and round, wondering and questioning and hopelessly meandering toward discerning … discerning what, exactly?
There’s the rub.
Lately, I’ve been:
Watching: Never Have I Ever (teen drama/comedy, Nexflix); Slings & Arrows (90s Canadian nostalgia, CBC Gem)
Reading: Untamed, by Glennon Doyle; Such a Fun Age, by Kylie Turner
Eating: greens greens and more greens from two different local CSA farmers
Doing: a 30-day fitness challenge with my soccer girls, which include planks and burpees; ergo, making myself get up by 7 every morning, making myself stretch, do planks and burpees, and ride the spin bike while watching Murdoch Mysteries (almost excessively Canadian, Netflix)
Now is the season of my case-by-case risk-assessment examination of each and every interaction proposed by a family member. It was always going to be easier to shut everything down than to open up again. We knew that. In practice, it feels brutal. What is the emotional cost of weighing the risks versus the reward each time a family member wants to get his hair cut, go to the mall, play outside with a friend? But truly, what it boils down to is: how do I decide, based on guidelines from politicians and public health and my own grasp of available data, whether I’m keeping my family safe or being over-protective? If you think it’s uncomplicated, well, that’s an opinion, one of many gradations of opinions on this subject, because we all have different thresholds, different information, different values, different interior emotional lives, different family dynamics, different pressures, different people we’re protecting, different fears, different experiences, different needs, different imperatives.
So, I revisit my friend Katie’s guidelines: STOMP. Space: more is better; Time: less is better; Outside: better than inside; Masks: important; People: fewer is better. (Maybe it could be SHTOMP, with the H for Hand-washing: often and well.)
Recent thought: What if, as I get older, I’m actually getting worse, not better?
Lately, I have no sense of myself in the wider world, or even in the small world of my own house. Lately, I feel no direction pulling me. I feel no peace, either. I am not content. I am dissatisfied with the state of the world, and with my own response to the needs crying out to be addressed. I am overwhelmed and muddled. I keep thinking that a major plot line will present itself to me, a direction. If I could join the revolution, where is that happening, and how, and can I enlist? What slogan would I write on my scrap of cardboard, to lift over my head, as I march down the street?
Black Lives Matter
No Justice, No Peace
Migrant Labourers Deserve Dignity and Rights (too long; writing slogans clearly takes talent)
Don’t Bring Guns to Wellness Checks!
Defund the Police
Universal Basic Income
Art is for Everyone
Pay All Essential Workers Like They’re Essential, Because They Are
Fuck the Gig Economy
Ban the Stock Market
Indigenous Lives Matter
Canada: We’ve Got Some Serious Work To Do
Cruel systems surround us. Unless we’re cut by them, we can stay blissfully unaware. If we’re the beneficiaries, maybe we’d rather not know, for when we do know, we don’t know how to untangle ourselves either. Systems are entrenched, heavy, crushing. I’m suspicious of any solution that puts the onus on the individual. But I can’t do nothing with all the everything I’m seeing!
For example: What would make it possible for people to work with dignity at jobs that we know are essential? What if, for example, people who love farming could afford to be farmers? What would that look like? Why do we accept profit as the most important goal? Who benefits from the push for corporate-style agriculture with heavy equipment, ruinous pesticides, antibiotics, fertilizers, and a low-paid migrant labour force? Where is the dignity in that? What if human dignity (and, by extension, environmental dignity) were the focus for all systems instead? I imagine this every day, and I haven’t got a clue what work to do to get us any closer.
One precious life, one precious life, one precious life, and what am I going to do with it; what am I doing with it? What I want to make manifest boils down to this: Dignity for All.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
While leading a recent yoga class, my friend Kasia said, These are beautiful times and we’re lucky to be alive right now.
I appreciate that perspective.
It’s easy to get bogged down in how hard everything is. How the things that used to be simple to do now require pre-planning and masks and protocols. How our bodies can feel like disease vectors. How familiar I’m becoming with my own physical manifestations of anxiety (tight chest, buzzing brain, inability to alight).
But I don’t deny that what Kasia says may also be true: that these are beautiful times and we are lucky to be alive right now.
Because change feels possible. Because it feels like we’re seeing with new eyes. Because we are freed from what it was like before to maybe figure out how we can make what comes after better. Because our own strengths and weaknesses are more visible. Because we need to know what’s broken in order to fix it. Because we can’t keep building on the same broken foundations. Because we’re being forced to identify our core values, our reasons for being, and what we really care deeply about.
I’m not pretending this is an ideal time to live through, or a fun time. I’m not pretending everyone’s equally affected, either. It’s a scary time, a discordant time, a time when we’re required to hold dissonant information, and altogether too much of it, in our heads all at once.
The interiority of this time has freed me to write a lot. One day, during a meditation, I heard the words create and destroy used together, and my brain suddenly couldn’t peel them apart. It was the strangest thing. It was like the two words, apparent opposites, had fused in my mind. Create/destroy. I saw how interconnected those states of being are, so tightly bound that, in truth, one cannot exist without the other. We tend to posit that one is good and the other is bad. But if both belong to each other, that duality of judgement is rendered inconsequential.
In every end, a new beginning. But also, in every beginning, an end. To make something is to unmake something else.
When I write, I create/destroy.
We are in create/destroy right now. Is it a beautiful time? It’s not a time of symmetry and balance, if that’s what beauty means to you; it’s a time of extremes. Our house is very quiet. The world is roiling. But if beauty means potential (no matter how far from realization), if beauty means truth (no matter how painful), if beauty means invention (create/destroy), then now, right now, is beautiful.
These are beautiful times and I am lucky to be alive right now.
- What felt good this month? Honestly, writing felt good. Specifically fiction. I was able to sink even more deeply into the new routine and spend many hours each week day working on the 16th century novel. It felt easy, purposeful, and like I was entering my own personal escape pod. I can tell it is a balm for my spirit, so much so, that it’s really all I want to do, with little breaks for sitting in the sunshine watching wildlife in the backyard. It felt good, also, to ask my family to do a bit more cooking. And it felt good to refrigerate the sourdough starter during the heat wave and take a break from baking bread every. single. day.
- What did you struggle with? The news. The grim evidence of neglect, inequality, injustice, always present but gruesomely exposed by the pandemic. I know it’s unhealthy to crawl into bed and scroll through that newsfeed of horror, finger-pointing, invective and cruelty in search of the occasional lively bit of joy (like Sarah Cooper!); but I still haven’t removed Twitter from my phone. On a small scale, I struggled with the growing sense that I’m becoming more socially awkward and introverted, to the point that small talk feels almost painful. I haven’t been to a store, or any public and enclosed space, really, since mid-March, and I’ve only driven once since March 13. Once! I’m not struggling with that, rather I’m struggling to imagine returning to a time when I wanted to go out and do things. My social skills are on the decline. I’m becoming attached to my bubble!
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? This is hard to assess. It’s ever more clear that the re-opening process will be slow, at times painful, and that no one really knows what they’re doing or where exactly we’re going. I’m less hopeful than I was a month ago, maybe because the unrest convulsing our neighbours to the south would suggest that they are on a desperate, chaotic, increasingly violent trajectory. And we live next-door. How can there be healing in the absence of justice? This may be a fire that burns out quickly, or it may be a hinge for transformation; or it may end in tragedy. But there is a void in leadership, the emperor most certainly has no clothes, and what frightens me is that tragedies seem to happen in slow motion, but also with a sense of doomed inevitability. I hope I’m wrong. Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, I’m feeling ever more centred in and committed to my discipline as a writer. There are questions that can only be answered through art, which opens us to deeper questions, to pause, to empathy, to challenge, to greater attention.
- How did you take care of yourself? I talked out loud about things that were bothering me, including confessing my own shortcomings. I tried to do so in a way that was honest but also compassionate. I helped organize some fun family events, to give us things to look forward to this past month: fake prom, birthday celebrations, special meals. I asked for help when I needed it. Also: exercise, sweat, braids, incense, turmeric tea, weekly sibs night, Dead to Me, podcasts, sitting outside in the sun, and joining my church’s congregational prayer on Sunday mornings, online via Zoom.
- What would you most like to remember? The quiet of our bubble. The calmness of our house. All four kids in the kitchen, talking and laughing. Running club. The fuzz of green turning to blossoms, to full-fledged leaves. Discovering that our back yard is a nature preserve of bird song and busy creatures. I will remember us sitting around the table in the evenings, lingering over supper. I will be so happy that we had this extra time together.
- What do you need to let go of? Wow. I’ve sat here a long time trying to sort this out in my mind. My gut response is: “I need to let go of worrying that I /we will be changed for the worse by this.” That confuses me. But it also makes a lot of sense. (related: see my answer to #3) I see the pandemic / lockdown as a stripping away of many things, as a great silence and pause. But what roars up when the silence ends? I don’t know. I worry. I think I need to let go of certainty. I need to accept the discomfort that attends this fragile human state of being. I need to let go of “before.” On a personal level, this pause is a chance to notice where the current is pulling me. I’d like to let myself be pulled. And let myself go there, even if it challenges my value system and notions of worth. But — I don’t want to let go of my responsibility to others, nor be lulled into inaction, safe in my bubble. (Damn, this is a convoluted answer to what should be a simple question….)
PS What do you need to let go of?
spot the dog
While in this time of strangeness, isolation, social distancing, and hunkering down waiting, waiting, I’m trying to sort out how to get through each day intact, as whole as possible. I’ve been informed by my children that I must must must limit my intake of coronavirus news; and they’re right; and I’m trying.
But I’ve felt distracted, full of questions about what’s right to do, what’s wrong to do, and whether the decisions I’m making are harming or helping our collective cause, and the individual lives in our immediate family. Last week was a whirl of decision-making, including cancelling The X Page’s remaining workshop sessions and the performance, while making plans for publishing the stories. There was a constantly changing flow of information from public health officials and various levels of government. We found out on Thursday that schools would be closed at least till early April; all soccer cancelled too; just last night, it was recommended that all bars and restaurants in Ontario close or move to take-out or delivery only.
And I’m pretty sure the phrase “social distancing” entered my vocabulary less than a week ago, but now we all know it, and we’re trying to practice it, and to understand why, and to explain it to those people in our lives who don’t see what the point is, exactly.
It’s been a bit too much, while also being not nearly enough. Fears: diffuse; particular; unseen.
And now the late-night talk shows have gone off the air, just when I most need their mixture of news, satire, reassurance and comedy!
So here’s what I’m doing to stay afloat, mentally. I’m not saying it’s all working for me, just that these are the lifelines I’m grabbing hold of today, and did yesterday, and in all likelihood will again tomorrow.
Meditation. I have a kneeling bench that my dad made for me a few years ago, which is comfortable to sit on yet prevents me from falling asleep. (An habitual problem.) I recommend The New York Times’s guide to meditation, if you’re just getting started. There are also lots of apps to try out (I like Headspace; it’s not free, but you might be able to access a free trial to see if you like it).
Over on Instagram, Elizabeth Gilbert posted an easy-to-do meditation you can bring into any moment of your day, taking notice of a descending list of things all around you. This is my scribbled version, below, and it’s helped me at least once today when I was waiting to wash my hands, as there was a line-up for the bathroom, and I was feeling irrationally irritated about the waiting:
Podcasts. Below are a few. If you have a favourite, could you please leave your suggestions in the comments? I need more!
The Daily from The New York Times, a podcast that lasts just about long enough for a quick morning run (and, yes, it has been a lot about the coronavirus lately, but the info is solid and trustworthy, not inflammatory).
On Being, a podcast that I sometimes have patience for and sometimes not (it’s dense with spirituality).
Poetry Unbound, a podcast in which a poem is read, discussed, then read again. Episodes are about 11 minutes, the perfect amount of time to sit in quiet mediation.
Dog walks with Kevin and Rose have also been a balm. However, I cancelled a walk with a friend this morning, perhaps an over-reaction? I just don’t know. Does anyone?
Finally, here’s one last lifeline, which I’m hoping to share with my writing friends: daily drawing/writing in my notebook. I haven’t done this yet today, but it’s on my to-do list. (That’s yesterday’s cartoon, above.)
Follow this recipe for 10 minutes of bliss: Put on a song at random from my Lynda Barry playlist on Spotify (which has 64 followers at present!); draw a self-portrait to that song; then write for 3 minutes, answering the question: What’s on Your Mind? Or Why Did This Song Choose You Today?
Celebration; grief. This is me, right now.
How to hold two extreme emotional states within one mind and body, all at once? I can’t do it. Instead, I seem to have landed somewhere in the middle, in flatness that speaks of protection, flatness that is an antidote to fear, but also to joy.
I can’t reveal more, and recognize that it may seem disingenuous or deceptive to hint at drama without offering details. I apologize. I don’t mean to be locked down, or to seem vague or untruthful; but also, this is too much of me not to speak of it at all. The depth of grief involves a personal situation, close to my heart, and I’m unlikely ever to reveal details outside my very closest circle. The height that deserves celebration involves my professional life; and this, I think, will be revealed more widely in due course, just not yet.
To say that I am distracted would be an understatement.
To say that I am challenged is accurate, but not strong enough.
To say I’m hanging in here, staying focused on what matters, jettisoning temporarily all that can be let go, surviving, feeding myself, breathing, reaching out to ask for help as needed, is true, all true.
I look forward to sharing my good news, in good time.
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