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.
Today, I’m researching power structures in late-Elizabethan England, but I’m thinking about power-structures in 2020 North America, and especially, I’m thinking about self-expression. The freedom to think and express what is on your mind. The freedom to be yourself. What does that even mean? I think we’re getting a glimpse into what that means to people of colour living in white supremacist systems; and for those of us who have had the privilege of expressing ourselves freely no matter the circumstances (by and large), it’s a wake up call. I’ve been watching Amber Ruffin’s stories of her encounters with police, on Seth Meyer’s show this week. I want to shout: I can’t stand this! It’s not fair!
It’s not fair! Why did I think things had changed? I think I wanted to believe that in some way, we could all live as equals, especially here in Canada. Easy for me to think. I have white skin. So do my kids. I have never, not once, had an encounter with police where I thought: I might die. Listen to Amber’s stories. What struck me about the one I heard today, which I’ll try to embed below, is how the situation forced her to comply, even to agree with the cop who was threatening Amber on her own front porch—she had to agree, to comply, because it was the only safe thing to do. She couldn’t say: lady, you are lying. She had to swallow the lie.
Freedom of expression: erased. The ability to say what she was thinking: erased.
I get that as individuals we “police” ourselves all the time, we decide what’s safe to say or not say given the circumstances, and that there are legitimate reasons to self-censor, including to be polite, or not to hurt others. I get that. But this isn’t the same. It’s always chilled me to think about what happens to artists in countries where everyone is expected to think the same—or to pretend to. I’ve tried to imagine what I would do if I could not write freely. If every word I placed on the page had to be weighed, or coded, if I was forever compromising the truth of my own experience, hiding it from view. How would it change me? How would I survive self-negation? Well, guess what, Carrie, this is happening right now all around you. You just haven’t wanted to see it.
To be told who you are by someone else: happening now.
To be constrained by pre-judgement: happening now.
To alter your behaviour so as to survive: happening now.
I’m gonna quote Scott Woods’ blog post, titled “5 Things No One is Actually Saying about Ani Di Franco and Plantations,” written in 2014, which has been making the rounds, because he says all of this, and much more, much better than I can:
“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. …
Here’s the deal with racism:
Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”
We are living in a moment. It is a very particular moment. It’s not the same moment we thought we were living in, scarcely a week ago. Now it is another moment, replete with other images, some combined with where we were and still are (masks), and some brand new (protestors).
I decided, this week, to attend the protest organized by Black Lives Matters in my home community. I did so even though I’ve been faithfully quarantining and have scarcely left the house for the almost three months. (Yes, I wore a mask and so did almost everyone in attendance.) In Scott Woods’ list of the manifestations of racism, I see myself. I see my privilege, my access, my blindness, my errors. I know that I stick my foot in my mouth time and again due to my ignorance and that others have been generous enough to forgive me for this. I don’t claim to understand beyond my own life experience, despite living a life of imagination. I do not understand. But I can’t stand living like this—in ignorance, in a place where others living next to me are not free to move, speak, be, because of the colour of their skin. I refuse apathy.
When Trump held up the Bible, I recoiled. I’m Mennonite, and even though I have my own arguments with the Bible, the image looked utterly blasphemous to me. I thought: his understanding of the Bible is so superficial, he thinks it’s just a prop, used to intimidate, to confer power, to rally to violence. Oh, and he is right, because it has been used like that, and for that.
But for many of us, our relationship with the Bible is much more complex. Conflicted, maybe, yes, but we also know it as a comfort, with words that connect us with others who are seeking truth, who are suffering, struggling, who know Jesus as a shit-disturber, someone who sought to turn the power structure upside down, a healer who invited tax collectors and women to join the circle, who asked his followers to give everything away and come with him. Give everything away! I don’t think Trump has read that part.
But the truth is, even though I have, I haven’t given much away, let alone everything. I’ve sacrificed almost nothing, really. I’ve been assuming that goodwill and kindness would be enough to bring everyone along on equal terms, and holy shit, that is nowhere near enough. So I ask myself: What am I willing to give away? What am I willing to sacrifice, to challenge, to dismantle, to disrupt, am I willing to feel discomfort and get over myself, and get out of the way?
Discomfort. I think that’s step number one for me, and dammit, isn’t that a doable ask? Lord, grant me the humility to get comfortable feeling discomfort. Being challenged. Admitting when I’m wrong. Although the truth is, step number one has been GRIEF and RAGE.
Because this can’t go on. There’s too much at stake.
- 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?
There are a few items on my must-do list every day.
Make my bed. Get dressed.
Eat a good breakfast.
There are items that are on my almost-always-do list, like exercise, stretch, and eat supper together as a family (much easier to accomplish right now, that’s for sure).
But go outside. That’s a must-do. It’s on the list even though some days I have to remind myself to do it. Most of my tasks, at present, revolve around the kitchen and my office, with stops at the dining-room table and various locations around the house to pick up laundry. Go outside! I remind myself.
Or the day will not be complete.
Yesterday, I went outside and sat on the back steps. Are there more birds this spring? Or do we just notice them more?
While sitting, quietly, and doing exactly nothing else, I noticed a chipmunk darting around the patio. Soon, I realized it had a hideaway in a tree stump nearby. And then I discovered it had a friend, perhaps a baby chipmunk. I decided this was the mother chipmunk, as I watched her interact with the baby, who kept poking its head out of the hole in the stump, only to be pushed back inside by mama chipmunk.
I don’t actually know anything about chipmunks. So I could be interpreting this all wrong. But watching their interactions was delightful. And everyone enjoyed my report on my chipmunk friend at the supper table (more interesting than a report on the laundry or the sourdough, that’s for sure!).
So this morning, I went back outside and sat on the steps, in hopes of seeing my chipmunk friend again. There she was! This time, she stayed partially hidden, camouflaged by the myrtle that grows around the stump. I could see her eye and snout as she sniffed the world. Delightful!
This afternoon, my youngest joined me on the back steps. He wanted to meet my chipmunk friend. At first, it seemed she would not appear, but suddenly, there she was, darting around the patio. She froze, seeing us, and did not move a muscle. “Pretend you’re not looking,” my son said. We averted our eyes, and sure enough, freed from our attention, she darted into her hole.
We didn’t see her again. Instead, we watched the birds: two robins hopping around the yard, a cardinal dropping by, a sparrow. And other birds we could hear, but not see. After awhile, we decided to tour the yard to see all the flowers. Delightful!
If you say to the world, Please fill me with delight!
The world will reply, Go outside!
Don’t do anything, just sit there.
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.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a writer of fiction and non-, reader, planner, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, mentor/coach, forever curious. I'm interested in the intersection between art and spirituality. What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty? What if everyone could make art?