The bugs whirring in the trees. The sound of wind through branches. Cars and trucks grinding by on the nearby streets. I am gliding through these days. Maybe I want to keep this time, but maybe I also want to let it be. Let it roll like weather, let myself rest in the grass and look at the sky, so different every time, completely clear this morning with sunlight at the tips of the trees, the leaves lit from behind, green etched on pale blue.
I am waiting to discover something—what?—new?—about myself? about my purpose? about what I might become? I wonder why I always feel so sure that I am becoming—it seems so optimistic; because of course I am so sure that what I am becoming will be an improvement on this present iteration of self.
I’ve noticed that my flaws are magnified by this time of intense closeness with my little family unit. There are fewer of the everyday, outside, fleeting social interactions that help me to see myself differently; at home, my relationships tend to be more raw, less inhibited by boundaries and graces. In the outside world, I perform civility. Home is where I let my hair down (or wind it into a messy bun, more often!), seen only by those closest to me, who are also most bound to me and therefore most forgiving. Within these close relationships, I see reflected my limitations, my tendencies, my patterns, my behavioural tics and triggers. In truth, it is more often than not painful, humbling.
The question presents itself almost non-stop: Do I want to change? And if the answer is yes, what would I like to become, if not this?
Also, acceptance: this is what I’ve got to build upon.
This weekend, I listened to this On Being interview from 2013 with John Lewis. I’ve been thinking a lot about non-violent resistance, and what it means; and its relationship to my faith and faith tradition in the Mennonite church. I am planted in this soil. Here are my roots. How do I flower and grow and express “love in action”? The idea of resistance infers that against which you must resist—there is an implied relationship, a force that is pushing back. What John Lewis seemed to know is that in order for “good trouble” to bear fruit, you must present yourself at the edge, where you can meet resistance. You must be morally unassailable, dignified, restrained, patient, but also forgiving (of yourself and others). Non-violent resistance is hard, it requires self-discipline, rehearsal, practice (you learn to protect your head with your arms, you learn to curl into a ball on the ground, in practical terms). To win the moral battle, which may or may not move you closer toward your goal, you must be spiritually prepared to suffer. But to meet resistance effectively, you also need clarity of mission. The thing against which you are resisting must be clearly in view.
I’ve been thinking, too, that I lack clarity of mission. I don’t know my own goals. And this is why it feels like I’m waiting. (I’ve also been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and thinking about the many ways in which human beings cause each other pain and are hurt, despite our best intentions, despite trying to protect ourselves; and how powerless that can make us feel, to act, to respond, to seek out relationship with others.)
re resistance, re mission, re goals, just found this in my notes: I still need to write that blog post about the flaws in the system. Which flaws? Which system?
Too many flaws, too many systems.
On this subject, more to come. But I shall spare you and stop here for now.
A marvellous way to escape from the stasis and repetition of the everyday is by reading books. I’ve been reading more books these days than I have for a very long time, reading not merely for professional purposes, but as a fan.
And I just want to say: Read, friends, read!
Read a book! You won’t regret it! Sink in, let your brain get accustomed to taking the long, slow, scenic route instead of scrolling yourself down an endless wall of text. This might sound like self-serving advice, but really, I feel born-again.
Read a book!
It’s an immersion in a way that other forms of “entertainment” and learning are not, because it also involves engagement, as your mind works to build worlds and make connections. There are ideas and images forming inside your brain—new to you, exciting, challenging, alarming, frustrating, fresh and unknown—as you follow the line of words across the page. These brand-new images are transferred into the landscape of experiences, memories, and images that already belong to you. Connections between these worlds pop and crackle and spark something that has the potential to feel revelatory and transformative (at best), or at least interesting, different from your usual point of view.
Inside your mind, as you read a book, you’re actively creating something that is both collaborative and personal. You’re reading something written in a different time that is speaking to where you are right now (or attempting to). I think this is why it can feel like you know an author really well—because you’ve actually made something together when you read their book, even when you’re collaborating across cultures, languages, places, and times.
This past weekend, in related news, we camped at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, and went to the beach. And we read books. I even stayed up late one night to finish a conventional but highly entertaining murder mystery, borrowed from my brother (Ann Cleeves, The Long Call). I’d finished the book I’d brought camping (Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day), a book with which I had an ongoing argument, as it featured wealthy white British characters, several of whom were artists; at times, I strongly disliked everything about the book, but then bits seemed to capture something important about creating art, especially as a woman, and how valuable it is to have a champion, especially a patron with money and influence, but also how dangerous. In the end, it was the engagement with ideas, the argument with the book itself, that kept me transported and hooked.
Books transport me in so many different ways. Reading Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You brought me into characters who broke my heart, and with whom I craved even more time, and afterward I wanted to talk about these people like they were real; reading Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was both accusation and encouragement to reflect on my own transactional relationships, even while it pulled me along with a propulsive plot; reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed stirred up a mixture of emotions, including the desire to protect this seemingly vulnerable writer from her own blind spots, and respect for occasions of raw insight.
I’ve just started Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and already I feel like the top of my head has been lifted to make room for more seeing, more questions, more ways to jab at and unpeel my identity, my ways and means of performing myself.
Writing is not a glamorous job. Progress is made at a glacial pace, if what you’re doing can be even be seen as progress; it might be more rightly called meandering, looping, wondering, wandering. You can’t see what you’re making. You can’t know how it will be received, if it ever gets loose, let alone completed. You don’t know what arguments a stranger might have with what you’ve conjured on the page.
It often doesn’t feel like important or valuable work; certainly it doesn’t feel very useful a lot of the time. But when I read books, I know exactly why I write, and why I’ve chosen this wondering, wandering path. When I read, I feel belonging and expansion, both, at once. When I write, I feel like a giddy participant in a long, ongoing conversation about being alive, being a part of it all, in my own time and place and body, right now.
Right now, Canadian publishing is suffering. (Read this, if you want to know more about the nitty-gritty business of the industry.) But listen up, friends! If you’re lucky, you still have an independent bookstore operating despite the pandemic, and they’re the ones (according to the cited article) who have the potential to keep this fragile/tough cultural industry alive. All the books mentioned above (and many more!) were purchased at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo. Order online, pick up in the alley behind the store; or they deliver locally. Do a bit of searching. Find what’s available near you. There are many independent options other than Amazon, and these options are run by people who love books, too. They love reading. They believe in the collaboration between words on the page and individual minds. They want to challenge your horizons, send you on adventures, keep you up late at night. Amazon’s algorithm just wants to sell you more of the same.
Those are my thoughts for today. More ideas, coming soon.
When I think about the word balance, a word I’ve considered maybe somewhat irrelevant or inapplicable to my life, what I’m beginning to sense or feel, as much as understand, is that I am always in transition. I almost never arrive anywhere, and certainly don’t stay. I exist in flux even while viewing myself as being a creature reaching toward, aiming toward, permanence.
Yet I am human, mortal, entirely impermanent.
Rituals exist to pin down significant moments; because the moments in my life run together like water. But what I’m glimpsing in the word balance is a peace in accepting this state. I’m seeing the fluidity in my being in all of existence, in the way time moves, and that I move in time. I’m seeing that I am of my time, immovable from the history that surrounds me even if this history will not remember or know me, especially.
During the lockdown, my work was not deemed essential. Because it isn’t. I am not planting vegetables or stocking shelves or administering tests or researching cures or triaging patients or caring for those who need special care. My work has been on the page, and in the home.
I’ve had time. And I’ve noticed that, given the time, I can write and imagine in a bigger way than I had before. I’ve noticed, too, that I continue to feel anxious, to experience existential dread, to float in the brine of my own small shames, to wish often to be better than I am. That has always been with me, will always be with me. Feelings come and go and come again. I’ll always have feelings, mixed up and catching me off-guard and demanding my attention. It’s my response to the feelings that is changing.
Can I live with discomfort? The answer is yes.
Disappoint myself or disappoint others? Sometimes the choice is pretty stark. Sometimes you can’t square the circle. Sometimes — often, really — you cannot please everyone, and by trying to do so, you please no one, least of all yourself. What is your inner voice whispering? Does it hurt to hear it?
I’m trying out an experiment. I’ve come to believe that I don’t have time to do most things, let alone all things. Just write. Cook. Read, research a bit. Yoga, run. That’s it. A little bit of housework. Parent, pay attention to my kids. Be a good friend. That’s it.
Whether it brings me anything, doesn’t matter. It’s the ego wants things brought to it. This is my river. Is it service enough to just write? I don’t know. But I’d like to find out. Or try.
Time to unfold, unfurl, spread out. What’s the rush?
What am I hurrying to discover? It all comes to light in time.
Noticing something, as I sit at my desk on this hazy hot afternoon: some days I feel like speaking and other days I do not. Some days I need to absorb information and other days I’m prepared to synthesize material into something else, to pour it out. Some days are wordless, other days alight with language, tumbling into sense.
Today is a reflective day, an observant day, a day when tears rise easily, and my brain is making connections almost riotously, but also chaotically. I’m hungry, absorbent as a sponge, alert to the world around me, but somehow unable to smooth everything I’m feeling and seeing into a scene, an act, a verse.
Fly buzzes against the window screen.
Two men argue loudly across the street. I’ve put ear plugs in, but still I hear them.
It is necessary to be quiet, to collect, to listen, to be attuned to the inner reaches of things; to everything its season. Two days ago, I wrote for hours in a trance-like state, emerging late in the afternoon feeling like I’d lifted the top off my head and aired everything out. I floated for hours afterward, certain I could call this bliss to come again the next day with the proper application of ritual. But it didn’t happen. Today, such bliss seems even further away as I trek between appointments and prepare for tasks I do not wish to do. Such is the flux of life itself; be kind to yourself, I say (speaking to myself, as well as to you).
As I drove home just now, listening to news and weather on the radio, enjoying the brief whirr of air conditioning, I thought: today you are absorbing, collecting, waiting, and that is okay. You have some important decisions to make. You need to give your mind space, not press so hard on it. Words, sense, shape can’t be squeezed out on demand like paste from a tube.
So let yourself do what today calls you to do: Attend. Prepare. Clarity is coming. Let is unfold in its time.
- 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.
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