Category: Writing

May reflections

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May Reflections

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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….)

xo, Carrie

PS What do you need to let go of?

A good time for good stories

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Our days have found their routines. I start with exercise: a good sweat puts me in a good mood. If I’m on the spin bike, I also get to watch a favourite show on Netflix. Right now, that’s Murdoch Mysteries, another Canadian television gem that I’ve taken too long to discover (like Schitt’s Creek). I like my entertainment understated.

Next, I might mix up a sourdough loaf, or pop one in the oven (if I mixed it up last night; very occasionally, what I pop in the oven is scones … mmm). Shower. Breakfast: eggs on toast, or porridge with seeds and yogurt. Newspaper, coffee. I take my time. Then I head to my office.

Meanwhile, the kids appear, and three of them, plus Kevin, lace up their running shoes and head out the door, no matter the weather, for the 10:30 Running Club. The same daughter who organized Fake Prom 2020 has somehow gotten her brothers and dad running daily. This is nothing short of a miracle. The kid is a motivational genius. Best of all, the 10:30 Running Club has a fan! Apparently, someone on the route noticed their regularly daily efforts, and began appearing on his porch to cheer them on as they passed. Last week, he made them a motivational poster. I mean, how awesome is that?!

I think this is a good time for good stories.

That said, the novel I’m working on is pretty dark. I hope it’s pretty and dark, or maybe romantic and dark, or magical and dark.

It’s where I spend most of the hours between 10AM and 5PM, week days. And it does feel like it’s a place, this novel, because I time travel to get there. It’s set in the 16th century and it’s pure escape for me to drop down into that imaginary place and write about whatever I find there.

Around 5PM, I exit the office and begin to cast about for supper ideas. I listen to a podcast or the radio, wash up the dishes that have accumulated throughout the day, and bake the loaf of sourdough (if I haven’t already). And cook a meal. It’s usually ready around 6:30/7PM. I haven’t mentioned the laundry and lunch breaks I’ll take at some point during my writing day (laundry time is when I watch Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert to catch up on my satirical news fix; I’ll often pop upstairs to check in on the youngest’s online schooling, but mostly I don’t do much parenting during these writing hours).

Supper is family time. We catch up. After supper, the kids do the cleanup. Kevin and I walk the dog. Around 8PM, I do yoga. And then watch something on Netflix with Kevin, or not. Depends on the day. Wednesdays is sibs night, when we meet via Zoom and consume a few beers.

Before bed, I feed my sourdough starter (“Doughy”), maybe mix up a loaf.

And that’s a day.

This morning, I received another good story in my inbox: one of The X Page writers, Swati, emailed to share her experience of publishing “Crayons,” her story about a favourite teacher that always makes me LOL when I read it. (Link here; enjoy!) A friend who read Swati’s story suggested that she look up the teacher and share it with her. And the teacher replied! Here are a few of the teacher’s words: “You have no idea how much you have lifted my spirits. I have been struggling lately, especially with this virtual teaching, not seeing my students and not knowing if I’m even making a difference. You have reminded me why I still teach and why I love it so much!  Thank you!”

Actually, you have no idea how much this message lifted my spirits, too.

Thank you to Swati and her teacher and my 10:30 Running Club’s number one fan. Thank you for seeing, for cheering, for noticing, for your attention to someone else’s efforts. You’ve reminded me that the gift of appreciation is always in us to give, and immeasurably wonderful to receive.

xo, Carrie

The gift of a story, told

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I have to highlight today’s featured X Page story, “The Virgin,” which is accompanied by a recorded performance of the stage version of the story. If you have 4 minutes, please take time to listen to Anandi tell her story in her own voice (video embedded below). The written version is longer and has more details, but both versions are equally expressive and funny, told from the perspective of a child who becomes a participant in a ritual she doesn’t fully understand. I was privileged to hear the original draft of this story read out loud during a small group session. It felt like we were right there in the wedding tent, the air bright with saffron, experiencing this memory along with Anandi.

Here is the link to Anandi’s story, “The Virgin.”

Today, I’m drinking a cup of turmeric tea and thinking about the rare and unusual pleasure that comes from hearing a story, freshly written and read out loud in the author’s voice.

The word that sparked Anandi’s memory during that workshop session was “gift.” Seems appropriate.

xo, Carrie

 

Recipe for a writing life

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This, I promise myself, shall be a quick post, written in haste while the bread for our supper bakes.

Yes, I’m onto the sourdough trend, like everyone else on Instagram; and I’m rather chuffed to say I developed my starter from scratch during the early days of this lockdown when it seemed like there was almost nothing to do except huddle-on-sofa-scrolling-the-news and make-your-own-sourdough-from-scratch, and so I did both.

But anyway. We’re past that point at our house, now. I think it’s week 5? We’re into the rhythm of being with each other all the time; and hardly with anyone else. The kids, by some strange miracle, recently started a running club, plus they cleaned the basement, like really cleaned it, like three days’ worth of organizing, purging, rearranging, and decision-making, in order to make a rec room haven. Impressive!

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And, at last (and so far!), this has been a good writing week for me, which is more than I can say for all the other weeks. Today, for example, I spent an hour and a half drawing ideas for my 16th century novel. It was an odd way to start my writing day, and not in the least what I’d planned or intended, but it helped. It lit a flame. After lunch, I worked on a chapter from another project. And that’s been the day. What more do I need? It was ever so satisfying. Tangible, calm, simple.

Sit down, do it.

Hey, just realized my recipe for a writing day is kind of like my recipe for sourdough! You mix up a starter. It spend days on the counter. You feed it: flour and water. It ferments and bubbles. When it’s ready, you fold part of it into a bowl with more flour and water. You bake it. You serve it. And you feed the part you didn’t use, so you can use it tomorrow. You do this over and over again. Every day. It’s repetitive. It requires only a few ingredients. Every loaf is a bit different. But every loaf draws on the same bubbling, fermenting starter, and so it’s also of the original source — like every story I write draws on the same bubbling fermenting starter of my mind, and I have to keep feeding it, and I have to keep using it, and it’s exactly that simple. (Oh, and during those times when you can’t use it, you can put your starter in the fridge for awhile and it will wait till you’re ready again.)

Feed it, use it. Feed it, use it. Feed it, use it.

Recipe for a writing life.

xo, Carrie

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PS Here’s today’s loaf, fresh out of the oven! And my post just done! Did you know that if you put your ear close to the bread when it’s fresh out of the oven, you can hear it “singing”? It pops and crackles.

Dancing in the living-room

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Joy. Gratitude. Thanksgiving.

As I’ve written about in previous posts, my moods are not exactly fixed at the moment, nor do they tend toward neutrality. There are wild swings, some into dark regions of the soul. But also, and as wildly, toward delight, pleasure, and even joy. Take Thursday. I got up at 5AM for a sunrise kundalini yoga class, live on Zoom, led by my friend Kasia. I lit candles and sat in the dark, feeling connected to the others who were out there, sitting in the dark, doing this practice together. The movement from darkness to light was gradual, as night turned to dawn and moved toward morning. It was a rainy morning, if I remember correctly, so the light never got very bright, but it came. It came.

I did a lot of writing on Thursday. Journal writing. Reflecting. Working through the unpleasant emotions that had been bubbling up all week. It felt like grief had taken me over and was spilling into bitterness. There were some big and hopeful things I’d been working towards, which were coming to fruition, and which had stopped, suddenly, like almost everything else has stopped, suddenly.

I hadn’t let myself name those losses — others have lost so much more; I have so much to be thankful for.

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And that is true, but it is also true that naming what I’ve lost (temporarily or permanently) turned out to be a helpful exercise. I’d been wallowing blindly, and on Thursday I laid it all out — here’s what I don’t have; here’s what I can’t do; here’s what may not happen — and I saw that my fears were interconnected, that I wasn’t angry at anyone, not even myself, or even disappointed, exactly. I was longing for someone to promise me that everything would be okay.

And no one can do that.

No one ever could, really. As a parent, I know what it’s like to be on the other side — the side that is in the position to make promises of safety, security, comfort. I know how impossible it is. I know that instinctively, during these times, I want to hold my child close, and the words that I whisper are “I love you. I’m with you. I’m here. I won’t leave you. It will be okay.” But the “it will be okay” part isn’t a promise that it will be as we wish it to be, rather that sorrow / pain / sickness is part of life, that everyone feels despair, and that this too shall pass.

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Victor Frankl wrote about finding meaning and purpose amidst tragedy. Resilience and hope come not from ease but from challenge, from a focus beyond ourselves and our own needs and fears.

On Thursday, I wrote all this down, I baked another loaf of sourdough and cooked a delicious meal for my family, but I was still feeling mostly wretched; irritable, restless, cramped and sour. I knew my friend Kasia was leading a second class that evening, so I decided to do it. It felt excessive, needy and messy, embarrassing to turn up again on Kasia’s screen, hey I’m back for more of your medicine, and it also felt necessary. (Find what your prayer is, and pray — to paraphrase Brother David Steindl-Rast, interviewed on the latest On Being podcast.) Again, I lit candles. This time, the light outside the windows turned by invisible gradations to darkness. I’d seen it come and I’d seen it go.

I emerged from my office cave/yoga studio brimming with energy. I’m tempted to call it hope. It definitely felt joyful. I’d thought some big and comforting thoughts. I’d written them down. (Another form of prayer, for me.)

I wrote:

Love the form, container, body you’re in.

Fear is the self trying to protect the self.

No to anticipatory suffering

Yes to anticipatory joy

Reality will look, feel, be different anyway.

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I don’t know, these thoughts seemed big in the moment.

How to live the big thoughts? Isn’t that what we’re all trying to figure out how to do? Make manifest what burns bright within us?

Well, here’s what I did on exiting my cozy office: I went to the living-room to have a beer and some popcorn with Kevin. And I started live-streaming my sister Edna’s concert, which she was performing in her living-room (as part of a line-up of DJs). Edna’s music is for dancing, so instead of sitting down with my glass of beer, I started dancing. My kids, as they wandered in, were all combinations of horrified, intrigued, embarrassed, amused. Kevin plugged in our disco light. We pushed back the couches. Sock feet slid best on the wood floorboards. By the time Edna’s set ended, we were six dancers dancing. And didn’t I feel it all — joy, gratitude, thanksgiving!

The joy builds inside, to paraphrase Brother David Steindl-Rast again, and it has the opportunity to spill out into thanksgiving, which is what you share with everyone around you.

Don’t keep it in. Don’t hide it. Don’t feel guilty for feeling it. Don’t be parsimonious with your joy, it’s a renewable resource. You can’t be happy all the time, and you can’t be grateful for all moments, but all moments are opportunities for gratitude.

from On Being’s newsletter “The Pause”

Yes.

xo, Carrie

This was not the post I’d intended to compose

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This photo is completely unrelated to this post, and purely for your amusement (or, if you don’t much like dogs in glasses, mine).

This morning, sitting cross-legged and meditating in my friend Kasia’s virtual-yet-live yoga class, my head was quiet with deep and peaceful thoughts. Hours later, though I scribbled a cue for myself in my notebook, the same head seems to be noisy with surface natter.

We’ve entered our fourth week in lockdown, or whatever this is called.

There are times, like during this morning’s meditation, when I feel grounded and calm. But I think my family would likely point to all the times I’ve appeared wild-eyed or grim, or perhaps both in delightful combination.

I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always intended to improve as life goes on; and how it’s pleasant to consider that hard times can be improving times; but, let’s be honest, hard times also expose fundamental personal weaknesses and flaws in the most obvious and predictable ways. For example, pre-children, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Post-children, I was merely a mild hypochondriac, too focused on my kids’ needs and on our packed schedule to be obsessively tracking and self-diagnosing my own (mostly psychosomatic) symptoms. In the midst of this pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful service beyond the walls of this house, the terrible hypochondriac in me has returned, and she turns up most regularly in the middle of the night.

So … am I improving as life goes on? Or am I regressing?

Am I helper or do I desperately need help?

Maybe it’s both; and maybe it always is, always was, always will be.

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This was not the post I’d intended to compose. Instead, as happens when I come to this space, this is the post that wants to be written. This is how writing works, in my experience. It is always a surprise, and, crucially, it’s never a painful or disappointing or scary surprise. I just find it interesting; curious; the strangeness of what’s lurking in my subconscious amuses me. Discovering it makes me feel better.

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Recommended new podcast: Sugar Calling (NYT), which is Cheryl Strayed talking to writers, starting with George Saunders, who read out a letter he’d written to his students in which he told them that the job of the writer continues even now (and that we can all do this job): be a witness to this moment. Now isn’t the time for interpretation or elucidation; it’s the time to pay attention to your interior emotional life, to the things you notice around you, to the details. (Honestly, it’s always that time, for a writer; but now is even more keenly the time.)

In that spirit, to finish this post, here are a few small details I’ve recently observed about this time.

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I open the snack drawer, hoping to find a stray chocolate almond. I know there won’t be any; they were finished off days ago and Kevin won’t be shopping till at least tomorrow. But I open the drawer in hope. And lo — I discover the very large bag of dried apricots! I’d forgotten about the apricots! The apricots are orange and bright and sweet. And I am happy.

When I wander to the living-room to narrate, unprompted, this tiny emotional journey to my (mostly indifferent) daughters, the elder child lights up: she’s experienced the same hope / disappointment / surprise / happiness each time she opens the snack drawer too.

(At this time, I often wander into rooms to narrate, unprompted, my mundane experiences to whoever is sitting there. I don’t always get a reply.)

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A second observation, which I haven’t yet dumped on my children (because I think they will mock me for it), is this little oddity: I’m actually enjoying washing my hands. Multiple times a day. For at least twenty seconds each time. I’ve always washed my hands somewhat obsessively, but after watching a how-to video, I knew I could do even better; however, the thought of all that hand washing, and the actual fact of it, was almost overwhelming. The way thinking about changing your baby’s diapers day after day after day can feel overwhelming if you let your mind go there. The endless futility of the task! Standing there, doing the same thing over and over and over again. I felt impatient every time I squirted soap on my hands, washing, washing, washing.

But more recently, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the hand-washing ritual has become almost welcome. It feels like a deliberate pause, a gentle self-massage, a quiet moment to myself. I plant my feet, and breathe deeply (our soap smells really good). Weird, huh.

My mantra these days (whispered only to myself) is: What’s your rush? What’s your hurry?

That feeling of impatience that arises at various moments throughout the day — I know it’s not coming from my circumstances, because there’s literally nowhere to rush to. So it must be coming from deep within my self. (Where do I think I’m going? Why do I need to get there? What could be better than here and now?) And if I notice this, I can feel my way through it, somehow, to a place where at least for a few breaths, I’m in no hurry at all.

xo, Carrie

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