I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
Welcome to my studio.
The Sunflowers, by Mary Oliver
Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young —
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds —
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.
Say you were invited to hold a sunflower, and examine it, while reading and thinking about these words in Mary Oliver’s poem. Say you were invited to respond by asking questions of the sunflower, or listening to the sunflower ask you questions. What would come into your mind, and onto the page? On Friday evening, outside around a fire pit, my friend Jen led a small group of us in this meditation. It was already, newly dark, and we used cellphones to illuminate the page and look at our sunflowers. which another friend had cut down and brought from her yard. Several of us found bees nestled into the flowers.
This is what I wrote.
“… the long work / of turning their lives / into a celebration / is not easy. / Come //”
Some solutions seem so simple
I will paint my office door the bright yellow
of this sunflower’s petals
I will spend the whole day reading a book
I will stretch and breathe
But when restlessness turns inside me
what should I do then, Sunflower, tell me?
When I am afraid
that my service is too meagre
and I can’t think what to do to be a
better person — what should I do, Sunflower?
The restlessness, the sense of longing
of energy unused or squandered
The list of all the harms I’ve caused
shuffling round and round inside me —
Tell me, what should I do
to fix these feelings, Sunflower?
It is true I hear you humming
Too tall, cut down, a living
bee nested in your blossom that has not
bloomed, tucked beneath the brighter face of you
You are humming not an answer
but a blessing with a sting:
Get on with living
You are not between two points
like a traveller on a train stalled between
destinations, you are in the only place
in which you are as you are — alive
and very you
Do you remember when you saw a whole
field of us, sunflowers, calling you
and you drove on, you said, It’s not
my field, I would be a trespasser?
You were right enough
But we’ve found you anyway, again
as you are. Come
Tomorrow, I would like to write a post about the new colour of my office door, and the books I’ve been reading, and the ways I’m seeking to connect, and to learn and listen, and find antidotes to fear and despair, but for today, I invite you to find your own sunflower and ask it some questions. Whimsical, fanciful? Yup. Uncomfortable, weird? Maybe. Silly, frivolous? Try it and see for yourself.
Two weeks is a long luxurious span of time to be on holiday, especially right now, especially when one’s holiday is basically a two-week quarantine away from other people and the world and news and thoughts of the future; it’s all a beautiful, slow-moving present; now, now, now.
We’re back home, but I’m holding onto my holiday brain for as long as I possibly can.
This is what I learned on holiday: Notice. Notice what I’m doing or about to do. Notice what effect it has on others around me. Notice what I like and don’t like about the things I’m doing and saying, and their effect. Do I want to change those things? Can I? (Don’t know. Maybe!) But it all starts by noticing. And then deciding what to do next.
As one of my kids told me: I think you have to want to change, Mom.
Yes. That is true.
On holiday, as an experiment, I sometimes did the opposite of what my first response would have been. I had the time. I noticed how I wanted to respond before I responded, and then if I didn’t want to respond that way, I paused myself and tried to respond differently, just to see what would happen. This was on a very small scale. For example, Annie and Kevin and I did yoga twice a day on the dock and one fine afternoon, I noticed that I wanted to announce to them—during tree pose—that I was wearing very slippery pants, and the pants were the reason I couldn’t place my foot up high on my opposite leg—I wanted to explain: hey guys, it’s not me, it’s my pants! But instead, I noticed that I wanted to do this before I did it. I noticed, too, that to speak would be to spoil this moment of shared concentration. I noticed that what I wanted to share was a) information not useful to them, and b) information that, if shared, wouldn’t actually solve anything. Any insecurity, any fear of failure, was mine; unrelated to what they were doing, and certainly not theirs to fix.
So I bit my tongue. I just did the pose. Obviously, this was a very tiny moment of noticing and making a very tiny decision, but I remembered it afterward, clearly, because I’m writing about it from memory now. What I noticed was that it didn’t hurt at all to stay quiet. It just shifted the moment, and my experience of the moment. It reminded me why I was doing yoga—as a gift to my body and mind, as a way of loving myself, respecting my body, no matter what it was/is capable of doing. It reminded me to thank my body for holding me up, no matter what the position.
It reminded to say: Thank you, body, for bringing me into this moment!
Notice, notice, notice. It’s why I meditate. I have to want to change if change is going to happen. But I also have to notice what I’m doing in the first place. So much of what we do, think, say is almost automatic. We’ve fit ourselves into systems, we’ve figured out how to survive, how to take the easiest route to self-soothing, how to comfort ourselves, how to minimize conflict (or ramp it up, if that’s what makes us feel alive/better). Our responses are formed by long experience, often dysfunctional, or harmful to our bodies and minds. Changing deep patterns takes patience, trial and error. Takes forgiveness and generosity above all else—to the self, which will extend then so easily to others too. If you can forgive yourself for your flaws and weaknesses it will be easy to forgive the flaws and weaknesses in others.
Insecurity, fear, the desire to be liked, the need to win and prove myself; these are among my deepest flaws. And I do want to change the way I respond when in their thrall. The only hope is to notice.
One more thing I learned on holiday (or learned anew, again): To notice when others are doing and saying things that make me feel good, cherished, calmer, more generous-minded—so I can learn from their deeds and words, and also be appreciative. For example, I’m so thankful that my children are kind and hopeful people, who are rolling with their changed circumstances, accepting what they’ve got and actively making the best of it, adapting, not complaining or mourning any perceived losses, just getting on with what’s being offered to them. I watch them, I notice, and I follow their lead.
- What felt good this month? Being on holiday and, more importantly, feeling on holiday. Being outside, as much as possible — I’m writing this outside, for example. Daily yoga with Annabella, and in the past couple weeks, we’ve bumped it to twice-daily. Going easy on myself in terms of expectations (especially while on holiday). Seeing friends and family in person, for walks or on porches, or back patios, or back yards.
- What did you struggle with? I’ve noticed a few things. One, it’s harder to remain vigilant about the pandemic, the further we get from its initial shock. Summer has given us a blissful break, but I dread the possibility of an interior, locked-in, limited-contact fall/winter. Two, I’m hyper-critical of my social interactions; specifically, any social error that I make now feels magnified and terrible, and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night replaying these moments. There’s a piece in today’s New York Times about how we’re all becoming more socially awkward, and I, for one, can attest that this is painfully true. Three, I feel a longing and almost a panic about finding things to do that will connect me with other people: I had a dream that I’d gotten a job working at a newspaper as a copy editor two days a week, and in the dream I was thrilled and excited, till I realized that it was likely work I could do from home, and I wouldn’t be with people. I woke up feeling confused, as this hasn’t been a conscious desire — to be with people, to work with people; in fact, I’ve been carefully arranging my life in order to work alone, writing things. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong? Or even somewhat wrong? Maybe I need to find outlets / work that allow me to be with others? (And is this a pandemic-induced feeling of starvation-for-contact, or a more fundamental issue, career-wise?)
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Flatter. I’m not sure I can explain this better. I feel suspended between seasons. There are too many unknowns looming. I’m riding the moment, trying not to think ahead or get ahead of where I’m actually at. My expectations feel low, and I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Mostly good, I think. But sometimes I think I need more … more ambition (?), a defined goal (?), something concrete to bolster my otherwise circular practices (?).
- How did you take care of yourself? Same as last month: I’m practicing radical self-love! (Try saying that out-loud and not undercutting it with a self-deprecating aside.) Reminding myself and my body that to be imperfect is to be human. Speaking up when I feel upset or ignored. Trying to address conflict directly. Trying to notice my own shortcomings and dysfunctional patterns, emotionally, so I can at least take a step back and say, hey, do I like this? Do I want to change this? And if so, try to respond differently than I ordinarily would. I’m talking very very small-scale changes: like, whether I eat a piece of chocolate now or save it for later. (To this point: I’ve noticed I tend to hoard for the future rather than permit myself to enjoy in the present; what does it mean to give myself permission to use my resources freely, without fear? What does a mindset of plenty, of enough, of bountiful, of abundance feel like? How would it change how I live?)
- What would you most like to remember? The lake. The way the water moves differently depending on the wind and the time of day: long ripples; flat; waves; dappled. The sunsets. Card games with the kids. The meals: potato crust quiche, beans and rice, risotto made with homemade broth, roasted beets. Bike adventures with CJ.
- What do you need to let go of? What I should probably let go of is news from the States. But I can’t and I won’t. I’m practically an obsessive about it, even when on holiday. I’m by turns baffled and infuriated, disbelieving, resigned. It’s like everything that’s been simmering under the surface has been turned up to a boil, all the chickens are coming home to roost: the country is armed to the teeth, divided, sick, hungry, the inequality is obscene, the systems corrupt and built on racist and misogynist beliefs, and reality itself seems upended by the lies and false narratives being peddled and eagerly devoured online. What am I witnessing? I can’t make sense of it, and want to. So much doesn’t make sense to my mind, perhaps most basic, the willingness to let so many people get sick and even die, when there are simple solutions that could stop the spread of the virus. If they’re willing, as a country, to accept so much death, what else will they be willing to accept? It frightens me. (And what am I willing to accept, as a Canadian, that I shouldn’t?) So … should I let this go, turn off the news? It doesn’t affect my life directly, does it? Wouldn’t I be more content, more peaceable of mind, if I were to let it go? How important is this form of passive engagement? In what ways do I become actively engaged for knowing more? (For one, as a dual citizen I’ve registered to vote, but that’s not new.) Is it a sick form of entertainment, in a way, or is there value in staying informed?
Meditation, using a circle. What’s inside, what’s outside. Where am I?
I stand inside a circle made of pieces of cloth, knotted together. A wide circle. Five knots. I step to the knot that seems to be at the “top” and wait. Hands at sides. Feet planted. Close my eyes.
Ah. I see a big decision before me. A change that means letting go of responsibilities, letting go of relationships. Letting go. I’m invaded by hard emotions, painful; I don’t resist feeling these things. Sadness, vulnerability, loss of power and influence. I name some unflattering parts of myself, humble human motivations: How I want to be liked, admired, respected! Feel this. Emotions flood me, wash through. Easier to bear, when felt.
Isn’t that a strange truth?
I step clockwise. Knot two. My hands cupped at my heart. I’m laughing. I see conflict between loved ones, I’m at the edge of the argument, it’s not my argument, I want to fix it, but it’s not fixable, not by me; if at all. Is conflict only ever a bad thing? Or am I being asked to love the conflict, too, to let the people I love be who they are, even if it means conflict.
Next knot, third stop. I crouch low to examine a little gathering of stones in the shape of a smaller circle, outside of mine. I see someone I want to help and support. Our languages of love are different. To show her love, I need to speak her language; and not impose on her my own. Isn’t that the truth?
Fourth knot, and I stand and find my hands at my heart again, cupped, and I think — my writing! — and as soon as I’ve thought it, my hands fling themselves away from my body and throw the writing out of the circle. Oh no! But it’s mine! I’m wracked with fear and regret, even horror. I try to pretend it didn’t happen, I try pulling my hands back in, but I can’t undo what’s been done. And then I laugh. Of course, that is its purpose — my writing! stories, books, even this post — to be sparked into being, then released, sent away. The thoughtless motion of my hands — cupped close, then opened out, then close again — is the whole process. Make, finish making. Hold, let go.
Fifth stop, last knot. Eyes open, standing, calm, wondering. Sky is a marvellous clear colour, nearing night. I see: Dead tree, bare branches, oh, and the sharp profile of a funny, fat, little bird perched at the very top, as if waiting to be seen. It does not fly away. I watch for a long time. The bird is the world, I think. There it is, outside my circle. How I love the world, need it, need to bring it into my circle, invite the images to flow through me, through mind and body, and back out again.
(With thanks to my friend Jen for leading us through this meditation.)
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a fiction writer, reader, editor, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, forever curious. I believe words are powerful, storytelling is healing, and art is for everyone.