Some minor but symbolically significant changes are underway here at Ye Olde Blog. I’m excited for a reveal … soon(ish).
Today’s to-do list looks like this (as scribbled into my notebook): flu shot; Two Women; email replies; “FREE” [the word on which I meditated this morning] — what should I do re job???; take kids to Clay and Glass Gallery to see Beaver; blog; sibs convo?
So far, I’ve done almost none of these things. Email replies, check. Laundry (not on list), check. Now I’ve skipped over a number of items in order to blog.
I wanted to write about a very specific subject: practical communication tips for managing conflict. Not necessarily solving or resolving conflict, but finding ways to keep working with people with whom you have disagreements, which may be irreconcilable. (These tips are taken from a recent episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain.”) The technique is called “Conversational receptiveness,” wherein you use words and phrases to demonstrate to your counterpart that you’re engaged, listening, and curious about their point of view. I love this. As I listened to the podcast, patting myself on the back, I thought, maybe I’m someone who doesn’t mind conflict; after all, as a writer I have to be comfortable with discomfort in order to stick with my work. But as it turns out, there are actually many conflicts that many of us find quite agreeable and even fun — like debating ideas, or cheering for different sports teams. We can agree to disagree. The place where I get stuck (where we pretty much all do) is when a disagreement hinges on a belief — when we want the other person to believe what we believe, and to say so. This belief could be about a moral position, or an interpretation of a shared experience, or the memory of something that happened long ago. If you’re like me, you can think of plenty of occasions when this kind of core disagreement led to heart-ache (or at the very least to late-night rumination, running versions of conversations over and over, arguing points in your head, or fantasizing about the other person coming around to your point of view, and saying: you know what, Carrie, you were absolutely right!). Sigh. Truth is, I’ve done a lot of mindfulness training on this very stuff. Maybe I’m not a conflict-resolution genius after all!
Okay. So is there a way to be heard, when in serious disagreement with someone else? Good news (according to this podcast): The answer is yes, at least some of the time. The secret sauce may sound counterintuitive (but makes so much sense!): to be heard, you have to hear.
We love feeling heard. We love being heard. Dr. Julia Minson, the expert being interviewed, recommends a conversational strategy called: HEAR. (It’s an acronym.) Conversational receptiveness moves us away from “naive realism,” which is the assumption that we’re all experiencing things in the same way. (This is actually the basis of most of my fiction — a narrative’s conflict and interest and humour and tragedy, to my mind, comes about because no one experiences any situation in the same way. No wonder this all resonated so deeply — it’s my recurring theme.)
Here are Dr. Minson’s tips on how to HEAR better, and have better conversations (saving for later, in hopes that I shall put them to use).
H – Hedge. Respond with phrases that include words like perhaps … sometimes … maybe …
E – Emphasize agreement. Name a common cause or common goal, as in, we both think … or we both hope …
A – Acknowledge. Spend some of your airtime restating your counterpart’s argument. It sounds like you’re saying …
R – Reframe to the positive. Instead of saying, I hate not being heard, you could say, I love when someone takes time to really listen to me.
The other key to better conversations is to ask questions rather than make statements. This just plain makes sense. Questions open space. Statements put up walls. Oh boy is this a tough one for me. Just ask my kids. I’m overflowing with unsolicited advice! It’s probably all brilliant, right? It spills from me in these monologic torrents that are ultimately kind of meaningless, and ineffectual. So I’m working on it. What a difference it can make to ask a question that’s open-ended, that doesn’t have my answer waiting on the other side; not a leading question, but a question that expresses curiosity, interest, genuine wondering.
And this next bit was not in the podcast, but all of the above fits into my theory about CONTROL, and the problems it causes. In my own life, in my own character, I see that my desire to control can be ruinous to relationships (and to my own mental health). I can hardly think of a time when my impulse to control a situation, or a person, or a behaviour, or an experience led to a positive outcome. When I release my impulse to control, I’m inevitably more content, more accepting of situations that truly are not under my control, and, most importantly, I give the message to those around me that I trust them, and that they are trustworthy.
And when you send a message to the people around you that you value and trust them, when people feel heard, when people are heard, when you are listening and hearing those around you, you become someone who is also more trustworthy, who others will come to when they have hard things to talk about, and who, in turn, will be heard and listened to, too. That is my hope and my goal, as a parent, and as a friend, and as a writer. I am a work-in-progress! I’m under construction!
Do any of these tips resonate for you?
when things fall apart
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.
The writer fantasy
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.
Peace on the path
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
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?