Some things that have happened in the past few month or so. My mom had a health crisis requiring emergency surgery and was sent home too soon as it is clear our hospital system is under intense stress and they needed her bed for someone else asap. I scheduled multiple appointments, took notes at multiple appointments. Somewhere in there I got hired at a new job that I’d applied for in a haze of fear and self-doubt after Francie didn’t make the Canadian literary prize lists. I kept getting up early and going for runs, walks. I did yoga every single morning. Our home hosted multiple teen sleepovers. I cooked excellent meals, sourced veggies from two CSAs. I completed two puzzles. I biked to church. I got a booster shot. I agreed to sit on another committee. I agreed to take part in a mentorship program. I sent and received many emails related to the other new job I’m starting (again) this winter, teaching creative writing at UW. Kevin went to England for a week with our youngest and got to have lots of nice lattes and go to soccer games. I crushed two tires on our car while turning into a parking lot (don’t ask). I played “writer” on a few occasions, including at the Wild Writers Festival this past weekend. I had a meltdown over the phone with a bureaucratic person who was obstructing my mom’s care. I sent many desperate texts to friends who replied with kindness and humour and met me for walks. I dashed over to mom’s house often. I almost stopped drinking alcohol completely. I lost weight from stress-not-eating. I started a low-dose anti-anxiety medication. I called my therapist for an emergency appointment and asked, Is life overwhelming right now, or is it just me being overwhelmed by life? How can I tell the difference? I decided I still love writing, storytelling, fiction, books. I revamped my resume. I wrote several poems. I consulted with many kind people, who offered guidance, listened, and gave me different perspectives on things. All these things.
Things fall apart. But they also hold, strangely. At times, often while doing yoga or running or biking, I feel strong, flexible, confident, present in my body in that moment. Things fall apart, but I am still laughing, dreaming, planning, being alive, savouring being alive. Things fall apart, but the purpose of life becomes clearer in the debris: be where you are right now. Do what makes you feel good. Find ways to do good and serve others while feeding yourself. Look for beauty. It’s everywhere.
And … seek help when overwhelmed, when in the overwhelm. Doesn’t matter whether the overwhelm is within or without. No point in pointing fingers, or blaming yourself for not being sufficient to the cause. There are many hands reaching to pull you up and remind you: care for yourself as you care for others. Protect yourself.
And thank your wise past self for setting good habits in good times that will see you through the hard times. Notice, appreciate, celebrate your own capacity to make this all possible: this life in pieces, this whole life.
PS I’m beginning to wonder whether my gift to my future self should be learning how to say “no.” How to prioritize needs / demands, self / others. How to protect my time and energy. I thought I’d learned how during the pandemic, but maybe it’s just one of those (many) things that needs to be learned over and over again.
My agent just compared the emotional aftermath of publishing a book to the postpartum experience, and the accuracy blew my mind. I’ve given birth 4 times. I remember. Unsettling emotions that feel socially inappropriate; fear of expressing doubt or grief or anxiety; head-level recognition of how lucky you are combined with gut-level anxiety or blankness, and confusion about the disconnect between what you’re being told the experience should feel like, and how you’re experiencing the experience in your own body.
I remember a brilliant debut writer saying to me, a few years ago, something like: I thought it was going to be so different. I thought I’d be having all these profound meaningful conversations with other people who love literature. I thought I’d be entering a bigger community, a world of ideas. Now that isn’t to say this can’t happen. I would love to imagine that it does happen. But as far as I can tell, there’s no secret world of ideas, the passcode to which is publishing a book. And yet, I’ve found myself wishing for the same things: for connection, community, exciting exchanges of ideas. I just read a personal essay in The New Yorker by a writer (Darryl Pinckney) who was mentored as a young man by the writer Elizabeth Hardwick (late 1970s, early 1980s), and, oh, his description of her apartment in NYC, her stacks of manuscripts, her writing life and books, her red velvet couch, her country home, her housekeeper, the intensity of her focus on writing, writers, words and ideas! Exquisite! And I thought: oh dear, I recognize this fantasy, I long for this fantasy, this fantasy goes deep for me! It’s overflowing with nostalgia and comfort and wealth and the right amount of solitude, the luxury of being cared for; and like all fantasies it has the potential to wreck the loveliness of what could actually be.
As a new mother, a young mother, I instinctively got through the difficult days and hours by settling into them, accepting what was happening, sleeping as much as I possibly could, paring back the expectations of what I could manage to do, and just doing what I could manage. (To be clear, I didn’t suffer from postpartum depression; and I might have needed different treatment and intervention if so.) Rest, shifting expectations, settling in, accepting where you’re at … in a way, this is how all life gets lived. It’s what’s worked for me, anyway, and I’m applying the same knowledge to my current experiences with my fourth book of fiction, feeling my way forward. Paring down my expectations to meet what’s possible, what’s doable, what’s practical, what matters most to me.
I’m speaking too about caregiving, generally; and how to be kind to yourself; and how to approach with surrender and acceptance the vicissitudes and unexpected crises, and the need to recalibrate, to turn attention to the priority of the moment, even if it’s not the priority you’d planned for. All of this is possible, if you feel at peace with the choices you’re making. If you know that your choices match up with your values, with the things you hold most dear.
Knowing that, I can recognize the writing fantasy, and let go of much in it: the red velvet couch, the wealth, the housekeeper, the country home. And I can focus in on the desire to connect, to mentor and be mentored, to participate in a creative community, to support and be supported, to be nourished by a life that includes art and ideas. That’s possible. That’s doable. That’s worth building toward.
I’m trying again. This is the photo I wanted to show you in my previous post, and I’ve figured out how to share it with you!
It has been a crushingly busy week and a half, and a delightfully busy weekend; and today, Thanksgiving Monday in Canada, I give thanks for a day of rest and recovery. I am not on-call for anything or anyone in particular.
Yesterday, I led worship at my church — a service that fed me and that was what I wished for, for my own agonized mind and weary body. It was a gift to myself (and I hope to those in attendance too). It was an invitation to be moved and held by the beauty of poetry, by song, by harmony, by grounding and resting and allowing yourself to be fed. I biked to the service, too, on trails that run through parks and behind industrial areas and through neighbourhood back yards. This gave me time to prepare and soak myself in nature. My art therapist recently observed that water often appears in my sketches, symbolizing comfort, peace, ease, release, renewal, even creativity. She suggested I visit bodies of water when I’m feeling stressed or down, and at first I couldn’t think of any bodies of water worth visiting — nothing I could really immerse myself in completely. But then I realized that I don’t need a lake or an ocean. Even a small stream running through a concrete viaduct speaks to me. It reminds me of my childhood self. When I stand beside a stream, no matter how small, I feel like I’ve come across a secret world, somewhere special, magical, otherworldly.
So yesterday, when I got to the stream that runs through the concrete viaduct, I stopped, even though I was running a little bit late, and said, Carrie, take a breath, here. Look. Enjoy. Let yourself feel how special this moment is, for you.
I opened this new blogging template to try again because I want to write about how I’m caring for myself in the midst of a time when I’m being called on to be a caregiver — a new and intense and somewhat relentless level of caregiving that has no particular end in sight.
I hear myself saying, out loud, “Great job, Carrie!” The voice is my own, but my brain interprets it as a general voice of omniscient kindness. “You can do this, Carrie. Take a deep breath.” “Hang in there. This is hard and you are doing it!” “You seem stressed out, Carrie, can you uncross your legs and sit more comfortably? Ground your feet? Breathe, just breathe.”
I hear myself telling others that they are doing a great job. Thanking them for their efforts and care. Really noticing and appreciating the efforts and care of others.
I see myself pausing to enjoy a moment: to scratch the dog’s belly and snuggle her, to take a photo of a beautiful sight, to stop and look at the light hitting the leaves, to savour what’s happening, to meet people’s eyes on the trail, smile, say good morning, savouring the reward and good feeling of a connection being offered in return.
Laughter, stories, listening. Giving myself some slack. Lowering the bar. Asking for what I need instead of stewing resentfully in silence, waiting for someone to notice or read my mind.
Clearly saying what I want or need: “No thanks, I don’t need help in the kitchen. I’m really enjoying this meditative time alone chopping the veggies and turning them into delicious food. It’s very therapeutic for me. Thank you for offering to help.”
Being honest: “Hey, I’m feeling really down right now. It’s not you, it’s me. I just need a little time on my own.” “I don’t have the energy to cook dinner tonight, could you help with that, please?”
On Friday, late afternoon, totally depleted, I instinctively went to the piano and began to play. I started by sight-reading classical music and eventually moved to inventions by ear. I played for at least an hour. It felt like I was literally healing my own brain with rhythm and patterns and tonal sounds. I was repaired. I was no longer depleted. I was ready to welcome guests.
Clarity. Connection. Kindness. Wholeness. Humour. Pause, release, rest. Breath. Empathy too. Everyone is acting out of their own powerful stories, known to them or not. I am not responsible for their stories, but I can be understanding and empathetic. And I can take responsibility for my own — observe my own patterns, do the work to excavate my limiting stories and reframe them, rewire the patterns in my own brain in order to better serve myself and those around me.
It takes time, patience, repetition, and an understanding that there is no end point, no goal of perfection, just pleasure in the process, joy in the journey, peace on the path.
Everything is different now.
There will be many readers who understand what it’s like to be a person in the middle. Sandwiched in between. Caregiver to generations on either side. It is just the way that it is. There are seasons in our lives. I think this is a new season. I haven’t wrapped my head around the implications. I’m too tired to do that.
It’s okay. This is not a post of complaint. It is a statement of where I’m at. A crisis happens. We take it one day at a time, maybe one breath at a time.
Everything is different now.
These are the gifts that I’m pouring into the things that are calling me, and have called me, in my life so far:
I know I can be kind, competent, fierce, intelligent, organized, dogged, practical, concise, loyal, clear, ethical, insightful, efficient, brave, calm, self-aware, disciplined, knowledgeable, pleasant, confident, assured, dignified, fun and funny.
(I can also be a whole list of other things too, including impatient, self-pitying, exhausted, discouraged, and irritable; but these don’t manifest as gifts quite so often.)
I’ll post again if/when I have the energy to figure out this new blog template (WordPress has done an update and everything looks different, and I can’t figure out how to add in the beautiful fall photos of the leaves in the park that I was planning to use to illustrate this post.)
Or maybe I will start a fresh new blog from scratch, which almost seems like the easier choice right now. Any suggestions for free and easy-to-use blog/web design platforms?
A friend has offered to redesign the banner on my website to remove the title “Obscure CanLit Mama,” which no longer fits so well. On a hot August morning in 2008, I titled the blog on a whim, and began sending out posts to the universe. My youngest was newborn. He’s now in high school. In those early days, I wrote a lot about the kids. I posted recipes and meal plans. I wrote about juggling constant stay-at-home childcare with attempts to steal even a smidgen of writing time. I’d published one collection of short stories, four years earlier. It seemed presumptuous to attach myself to CanLit as a participant (even an Obscure one). The Mama was the ascending identifying force in my life at that time.
I haven’t posted a recipe in a very long time.
I don’t write about my kids, except glancingly.
These days, I come here, to this familiar space, to reflect mostly on writing, but also on what seem to me to be ephemeral, spiritual matters: aging, artistic discipline, setting routines, learning new things, re-learning old things, the repetition of the seasons, creative practices, play, emotional weather / weathering emotions. Etc.
In the 14 years that this blog has existed, I’ve poured energy into being a writer, laying claim to that identity, earning grants, publishing three more books, teaching creative writing, organizing writing workshops, serving as a consulting editor with The New Quarterly, speaking, travelling, practicing the craft, seeking to keep my connection to my writing alive and thriving.
Obscurity is a self-effacing mindset (erasing? shrinking? minimizing? hiding?). I know that. But it was necessary protection as I tried to become / be a writer. I’ve been afraid of being a writer, of laying claim to this identity and its shifting cultural responsibilities. Since childhood, I’ve wanted to perform magic tricks with language, to conjure imaginary landscapes, converse with imaginary people, finding solace in their losses and successes. I did not aspire beyond that — that was a big-enough dream. I knew my writing wouldn’t be activist in nature, because I am not an activist by nature. I’m a ventriloquist, an observer, a performer, agnostic, hungry to learn, curious about the questions, less-so the answers, the mystery, not the proof.
It’s a rather exalted view of being a writer. Or maybe I mean ecstatic. Or impractical. But I admire it, I love what my former self was attempting.
I dipped into The Juliet Stories this morning, a book now ten years old, and the writing sang off the page, just like magic. I couldn’t remember the person who’d written it. It was like reading a stranger’s words. Did I know then what I’d made? No. I didn’t trust its worth. I didn’t need to. I just kept trying, year after year, focused on the writing, and eventually made something.
I want very much to be that same writer, to write with confidence, believing in the magic of language. “You know it’s not the same as it was”: this song came on my “Run Fast” playlist this morning (oh Harry! so nostalgic); maybe “As It Was” especially resonates in These Times, when we’re trying to remember who we were Before. But life is lived in the present, and time carries us onward. We change; and experiences change us. It’s not the same as it was. That’s a neutral statement, at heart. It doesn’t have to weigh heavily, though it’s tempting to roll around in those deliciously bittersweet emotions.
What’s next? What path am I running, where does it lead? I can’t see very far ahead of my feet. Whose hands am I holding? What’s pulling me onward?
What kind of a writer am I now? What kind of a writer do I aspire to be? Do I need to know? No. As Lynda Barry would remind me: it’s none of your business. Follow the energy, get comfortable in the not-knowing.
I don’t have a new title for this blog, just my name. Enough? Enough. Yes.