I want to write about a subject of some difficulty to process and confess.
I’ve been thinking about how I ascribe value to the things that I do. If something is hard, I assign it greater value. If something comes easy, I assign it less. Therefore, when a task or job or skill comes naturally for me, I tend to shrug off its worth. Oh, that was easy, that was nothing.
I respond to success by accepting or seeking out tasks of greater difficulty. I readily take on challenges. I choose to do the things that will be hard precisely because they will be hard. I take on this work in order to improve underused or underdeveloped skills, and to force myself out of my comfort zone. I choose it on the premise that it’s healthy for the ego and the soul to attempt and practice activities, tasks, or jobs that expose inner flaws, that force one to confront fears, that are therefore in many ways gut-wrenchingly difficult. Any accomplishment that comes out of such a frightening and challenging place is, frankly, astonishing and wonderful.
But I’m beginning to question the wisdom, at this time in my life, of this approach.
I’m beginning to wonder whether by tackling tasks of great challenge and difficulty, tasks that do not necessarily align with my natural talents, I’m unconsciously selling myself short. Rather than resting and calling myself to go more deeply into that which comes (superficially) easily, am I displaying a kind of boredom and restlessness, a mind that demands constant stimulation, even in negative form?
I seem to be good at writing fiction. Storytelling comes easy to me, more easy than anything else I’ve ever tried, always has, as far back as I can remember. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s what I need to focus on, strictly, as a life-long cause, as a hard-earned practice.
Just because something comes easy doesn’t mean it’s not hard, that’s what I’m beginning to perceive, to glimpse, ever so dimly. In fact, it may be the more difficult path because it comes easy, because I fail to value it, because ease can lead to boredom, because by delving deeper into a natural-born talent I risk discovering my limits. And that’s bloody terrifying, way scarier than failing at something I already know I’m not particularly good at.
It seems that the challenge that’s before us is not always the most obvious.
To do what I want to, as a storyteller, I need to bear witness to what is. I need to shed light. But I want, too, to bring light. And maybe that’s more about imagining what could be.
I’ve been thinking about this: about shedding light and bearing light, and how the two are not the same at all, yet I want to be able to do both at once. I want to illuminate the dark areas of our culture and our lives, and I want to bring light while doing so.
It’s a small “big thought” on a day when it seems the snow will never stop falling, nor the wind whipping. The kids are hoping for a snow day tomorrow. Maybe I am too …
Ta-da! This is the cover as it will appear in the UK & Australia, available February, 2015.
I’ve given myself a crash course in discipline this week. After all those late nights, and hospitality suites, and complementary drinks, and absence of regular meals, I needed to believe that I still possessed both will and discipline.
I’m vaguely recalling that my intention for the fall festival tour was to have fun.
So good job. Mission accomplished. Not that hard to achieve after all, frankly, when dispossessed of the ordinary responsibilities of one’s regular day to day life. Even just not having to do laundry for six people: instant party atmosphere.
Now I’m back to the day to day—mostly. And I decided that the situation demanded a shock to the system, like being tossed into the deep end and told to swim, and then by necessity remembering how. So I set my alarm early every morning this week. I got up early every morning this week (except for today; apparently, by Friday, I’m toast and require more than 5 hours of sleep, especially after driving to and from Hamilton yesterday for an evening reading). On Monday I did weights, on Tuesday and Thursday I ran with friends, outside, in the dark, no matter the cold, and on Wednesday I ran with my own Girl Runner at the indoor track. She found this to be an exhilarating experience as we zipped around and around past the early morning walkers and joggers like we were wearing superhero capes. “Don’t you just feel like doing interval sprints?” she asked me after we’d done our first lap. “No, I’m not getting that same feeling,” I replied. But of course her eagerness for a challenge won out. I couldn’t let her sprint alone. I had to give chase. It was fun.
Now, afterward. Afterward I could barely walk. It doesn’t seem either possible or fair, to feel so out of shape after such a brief interlude of fun-having, but there it is. My grey hairs are showing.
I do have more grey hairs, or white hairs, more precisely, than I did a month ago. I’m not making that up.
I turn forty in a little over a month. I don’t always feel like the young one anymore. I’ve decided this is a good thing, mostly. I just have to get used to being expected to know things. Actually, I like that part of it. I could get used to that.
Back to the crash course in discipline—which includes setting timers on the writing of these posts. This blog is where I come to have fun. This is my own personal hospitality suite. And the timer just went, right when the post was going off the rails a bit. Okay, reel it in. Stop bantering idly on about aging and the happy faking of wisdom. There are other projects on which I must lavish my allotment of work-time.
A friend said to me this morning, as we were running together in the damp, dark pre-dawn, This book is not your whole identity, you know. You are much more than this book.
I needed to hear that. Thanks, friend.
I hadn’t recognized, quite, how Girl Runner has subsumed not just my hours, my focus, my working life right now, but also my identity. I am wearing, almost as a costume, almost full-time, the cloak of person-who-wrote-Girl-Runner. It’s not an invisibility cloak; it might be the opposite, a visibility cloak. But what’s visible is author-of-Girl-Runner, and invisible is everything else. Which is why completing that race felt so very good, perhaps.
My professional life is caught up in this identity: I would not be a teacher or a guest speaker if I were not, first and foremost, the author of Girl Runner. If I shrugged off that visibility cloak, an enormous section of my money-earning life would vanish in a poof of dust.
So it’s scary, I guess, to imagine not pouring my all into inhabiting my writer self. Carrie who writes books earns a living, whether by writing books or by spinning off the writing of books into related enterprises. Earning a living has long been my goal. It’s a worthy goal, I believe.
But maybe that goal feels a little one-dimensional as I pursue it with greater success and therefore greater effort, greater demands on my time. And on my identity.
If the writer cloak were balled up and chucked into a dusty corner, or even just hung up in a closet for awhile, what identity would emerge? Would I be fearful and lost? Free-roaming? Empty? Or would I find friend, mother, baker, caregiver rising up to fill the space? Or something else I can’t guess or imagine? But I can’t imagine it, because in truth being a writer isn’t a cloak, it’s more like tough thread woven right through the skin.
Yet I sense that other parts of me are being shadowed, right now. It’s like I planted a seed that’s grown, quite suddenly, to become a tall leafy tree, shading out all else. It’s like I’ve become that tree. But I’m not. The tree is of me, but separate from me. Can I climb its branches and catch some light? Should I wait patiently for the season to change, the leaves to fall, to crunch around in them, to see them turn to compost, wait for other seeds to grow, a forested tangle of identity, creeping on the ground and digging in roots and reaching for the sky? Can I be many different parts all at once, or can I only do/be one thing at a time fruitfully, fully, well?
photo credit: Shari Lovell
This morning began unusually. I woke at 6AM, refreshed after a very very long sleep, having crashed out just after 9PM last night. Teaching takes a lot of energy, at least for someone who would skew toward introverted on the personality continuum, and I had my class on Wednesday night (a happy place to spend three hours, I must tell you, even though our windowless brick room in a hive-like building resembles a bunker, and gets very muggy when packed out with creativity and debate). What a day to go and teach. I think it was a good thing, as it forced me to be focused and to pay attention to something other than the noise.
There was some noise on Wednesday. There was this lovely interview done by the Canadian Press, which ran in various media outlets. There was the phone call from the Writers’ Trust to confirm that Girl Runner was on the list, and various emails to note upcoming appearances and media requests associated with the award. I checked my calendar a lot. And my phone. Twitter and Facebook kept pulling me in. It was a lot of noise, as I say, and I found myself unable to settle and reflect, or even, quite, to feel what was happening.
So I was grateful to my students for occupying my evening. We talked about poetry. There was so much to learn from the discussion, so many reminders of why poetry matters, why words matter.
photo credit: Shari Lovell
Kevin had gotten take-out ramen for supper, which I reheated in our shiny new microwave when I got home, nearing 10PM. (Yes, we finally got a microwave, and I must confess my leftover lunches are much more enticing than those consumed during our long, cold pre-microwave era.) After eating, all the kids in bed, Kevin dug through his scotch collection (so many bottles, each with an inch or three of liquid, leftover from our years of hosting scotch parties), and pulled out a particularly choice selection. I don’t have the name handy. But he went online to check its current value, were it full and unopened, and announced that we would be celebrating with a $5,000 bottle of scotch. I mean, seriously?! There was just enough for two wee drams.
One of the pleasures of the scotch party is hearing our friend Mike read the tasting notes, so to keep with tradition, I will tell you that this ridiculously pricey scotch tasted heavily of oak barrels, with overtones of straw (or was that the colour?) and undertones of turmeric and cinnamon. Or something like that. Maybe it was nutmeg. And a bit of blue sky.
It was a lovely celebration. I was up five hours later to run with my speedy friend Heather, who kindly slowed down for the occasion; also because that will be my last run before I attempt the Toad, tomorrow morning: 25 kilometres of likely-to-be-muddy trail. God help me.
The book I was reading this morning is called A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I’m going to keep talking about it until I’m done, and probably for a long time thereafter, and the next reader I’ve got in mind is my 11-year-old daughter.* We’re both of us possessed of a lot of energy and drive (I hazard to suggest she’s got even more of both than I do), and we both of us need to find ways and reasons to turn down the noise and become still. (And not because we’re crashing!)
my girl runner
Wednesday, after the prize announcement and before teaching, I dashed over to her school to watch her run a cross-country race. She came second out of a large field of 7th and 8th graders. “I’m so tired! Weirdly tired! Like way too tired!” she told me immediately afterward as she lay prone on the grass. “You just ran three kilometres really fast,” I pointed out. “That’s not it!” “Well, maybe you’re too frail and shouldn’t run more than 200 metres,” I suggested, tongue in cheek. She’s read Girl Runner. She smiled faintly. Then she sat up and took off her shoes. “My feet are too hot!”
At first, she was quite disappointed in her performance, and it mattered not when I pointed out that the girl who finished first was two heads taller and a grade older. She insisted on expecting better of herself. I kept assuring her that she’d been wonderful, that she’d given her all, that I was very proud, and finally, much later, before bed, she smiled to reassure me that she was happy with the race. Mostly. I can’t argue with her. Her expectations are her own. She isn’t discouraged when she doesn’t meet them. Instead, her expectations seem to fire her with greater focus and renewed intent. Yeah. I get that. There will always be someone faster, smarter, more talented. But I think she already knows: that it’s not about comparisons. It’s about finding one’s own voice, one’s own passion.
But what about stillness? What about releasing expectation? What about rest for the mind and body?
A Tale for the Time Being is the story, in part, of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who’s offered decades to the practice of meditation, prayer, ritual gratitude for each gift, no matter how small. She bows with her whole body to the world. She is at peace with mortality. The humility of her daily practice gives her SUPAPOWAs! Even her physical frailty is a strength.
So I wake this morning, early, thinking about how whatever I have to offer must come from a grounded place, a place where I sit in stillness and silence, practicing gratitude, bowing with my whole body to this beautiful, difficult, scary, noisy world, with openness and with humility. A gift is a gift. What to do with it? How to give thanks? How to give, no matter how tired, frail, mortal, flawed? How to be still. How to listen.
PS I’d like to point you toward a review of Girl Runner by a blog-reader who is an Ironman athlete and writer; he also digs into the history of women’s long distance running.
* Note: after writing this post, I finished A Tale for the Time Being, and discovered that in the final third of the book, there are several extremely dark scenes relating to extreme bullying, attempted rape, and child prostitution, and although my 11-year-old is a mature reader, I don’t think the book is meant for her–not yet. But sections of the book are meant for her! However, I can’t figure out how to carve out the darkness to show her the light. I think this Tale for the Time Being will have to wait, for the time being. Nevertheless I highly recommend it to a mature adult audience. What is light without shadow? (The book also contains the clearest explanation of quantum mechanics that I’ve ever read.)
Insects buzz. Insects with a vibrating hum and insects chirping at regular quick intervals, like a racing pulse. Cars pass. Engines roar, mildly, louder when accelerating, heavily whirring before changing gears, puttering, brakes squeaking, a rushing sound like wind that is not wind, that is mechanical, a hush of white noise.
Shadows on yellow brick, moving as the wind moves the trees, patterned, like lace.
The dogs begin to bark. What have they seen or heard? The first to begin is DJ, loudest, the leader of this pack of two. Suzi joins, confused, eager, uncertain. DJ stops, stiffens behind the raspberry patch, behind the cluster of dead flowers, and sniffs the air. Whatever she has seen is gone. The yard is safe, again.
On the clothesline a few items hang, shirts upside-down, athletic gear airing in the breeze and sunshine. The leaves are turning colour. The sky is steady opaque blue, not quite dark, not quite light, clear behind the flame orange leaves, like an artificial backdrop for a photograph I took last year, and the year before, but not yet this year.
photo of the changing leaves, last year
I have not taken any photos of changing leaves this year. This is not because the leaves have not changed. I don’t know why I haven’t brought my camera outside to catch the season on its cusp of coming.
I am sitting in a green plastic fake Adirondack chair, bought uptown at the hardware store for cheap. The floorboards beneath my feet are painted a rich blue, the paint also bought uptown at the same hardware store.
I turn to examine the pile of sandals by the open back door, and see instead a large spider, suspended in its web, very near me. It hangs upside down. It is alive, its legs twitch, each leg thin and ringed with a pattern of pale tan, dark brown, and a shade in between the two colours that looks mottled. Its body is fat, and also patterned in shades of brown. I would fear it, but it has lived on our porch for much of the summer, moving its web higher or lower when disturbed by one of us. I have watched it through the kitchen window suck clean the body of a large fly, a bee, draining each to a dried husk of its former self.
I am writing this because I’ve given the students in my creative writing class the same exercise. I want to feel what they feel while forced to sit and focus for 15 consecutive minutes, uninterrupted except by what they observe, their objective to seek out the details, no matter how small, and place them on the page, without judgement, without critique, simply observing and noting and describing.
It is an exercise I’ve given myself at times throughout this past year. It asks not: is this interesting; but rather: what is here to be found?
The timer rings. I don’t want to finish yet. The dogs have gone inside, and are working themselves into a sudden frenzy of emotion, howling and yipping at something they’ve seen through a window. Gradually, the noise diminishes, then stops abruptly. Here is Suzi, come to find me, her little body quivering.
Here am I, glad for the excuse to sit still and think of nothing but what is, right now.