Showing posts with label spirit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spirit. Show all posts

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Favourite moment of the day

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Pouring my coffee this morning, I thought, this is my favourite moment of the day -- the smell of the warm coffee, the anticipation of sitting down at my computer and tasting the first sip.

But then it occurred to me that my day is full of favourite moments.

Some are ritualistic in their daily repetition, such as the cup of coffee.

Others alight out of the blue, like sitting beside CJ on the stairs well after his bedtime while he tries to remember what worry he was going to ask me about, what worry is keeping him from staying in his bed and falling asleep, his face in profile to mine, fixed in thought, and it feels like I could go on looking at him forever without ever tiring of the sight of him in the late-evening half-light coming through the window. At last he says: "Why do we have to lose our baby teeth and then grow adult teeth? Why aren't we just born with adult teeth?"

This is my favourite moment. And this. And this.

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Leaping in the air to cheer my daughter who is suddenly rocketing into second place with a pure blast of speed as she comes around the bend at the end of the 800-metre race. Somehow, on the straightaway, her face turns toward mine, from the track to the stands, and it feels like our eyes lock and I can see the fatigue caused by her effort, and I am telling her that she can keep going, she can do it, and she is telling me that she already knows this, wordlessly, and the image becomes fixed in my mind in a way that feels quite permanent.

An email out of the blue from a senior editor at a major Canadian magazine, asking me to consider writing for them -- goosebumps.

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The light in the early morning as we approach solstice.

The scent of peonies in bloom.

Talking to a loved one, even though they're not having a good day, knowing a loved one feels comfortable talking to me, even though they're not having a good day.

Seeing a 4:10-kilometre split while out-running a thunder storm at soccer practice. Saying to my daughter after we've dashed to the car through driving rain, now I'm going to go for an under 4-minute kilometre. Just one. And she says, you can do it!

And anything seems possible.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sanctuary

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What I love about our back yard is that it's beautiful because of our efforts to make it beautiful. When we moved in eleven summers ago (eleven summers ago!), the yard behind the house was bare dirt. It was so bare, so dusty that my toddling crawling babies would be filthy after playing outside. One of our first projects was to build a fence to block off the view of the parking lot next door. Over the years we poured a concrete patio behind the house, supplemented with bricks, that the kids used to run their trikes on. The summer Fooey started walking, Albus and AppleApple and I used sidewalk chalk to colour each brick a different colour (while Fooey grinned and sucked on the chalk, according to photographic evidence).

Grass grows here now, and weeds, and dandelions, and moss.

Kevin's dad, who died seven years ago this fall, planted some of the healthiest perennials -- grasses and hostas -- that thrive in hard growing areas of the yard. I think of him when I see them.

We've lost a few trees and branches, some to storms and ice, and others by choice. I've got two long laundry lines strung between trees and the back porch.

The raspberry canes we planted produce every summer, and we're working on a rhubarb patch and blueberry bushes, and we bought our first cherry tree yesterday, with plans for a new row of fruit trees along the back fence. The back fence also has a ladder, new this summer, to assist smaller children taking a short cut.

There's the trampoline, the soccer net, the play structure, the sand, the painted stumps for jumping on. The raised beds continue to be a work in progress, in the back yard and the front. The picnic table is rickety and needs replacing (that's on our summer to-do list too).

We've never fixed the garage, which is as ugly and utilitarian as ever it was. When we moved in, we thought it would be among our first projects. Goes to show how priorities change.

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I've been sitting out here often these past few weeks, as the weather has gotten warm. The flowering garden is at its peak in spring-time. It is luscious and thick right now, variegated greens, colourful patches of purple and pale blue and yellow from the weedier plants that return each year, along with pinks and whites, yellows and oranges. Mint flourishes here too, and chives, which I see have already gone to seed. The dogs love to be outside, although they've got a dreadful habit of rolling in newly planted beds. I don't think the new strawberry plants are going to survive.

I've been sitting out here, soaking in the beauty. It's strange how peaceful it feels here, despite the traffic rolling past non-stop on the busy streets that surround us. I hear wind in the branches. The colours are soothing. My heart slows down. The trees offer shelter, the sun warmth. I'm more blessed than I deserve. And so, to show my gratitude and to say thank you, I come outside, and I sit, here. I write. I watch. I listen. Think. Be.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

All my puny sorrows

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I keep a record of the books I'm reading here (which is to say, there), but occasionally I feel the urge to write about a book I've read here (which is to say, here).

Last night, up far too late, I finished Miriam Toews' ALL MY PUNY SORROWS. This is the kind of book for which book clubs were invented -- a lot of book clubs are about friends getting together and drinking wine and the book is the excuse, I get that, but nevertheless there's a genuine need underlying the concept of the book club. After finishing a heartbreaking resonant emotionally complex narrative don't you just want to gather some friends immediately and talk about it?

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS is a semi-autobiographical novel about the relationship between sisters, one exquisitely talented and suicidal, and the other a bit of a mess and desperate to save her sister's life. As in all of Miriam Toews' novels, the bit characters are as vividly drawn and unique as everyone else, and humour hums silvery through the anguish and grief. But this novel feels different to me, too. It is more raw and immediate, less polished, a straight throughway from beginning to end of almost (seemingly) unmediated experience. People don't behave like you want them to. They behave like people.

The mother of these two sisters, who has also lost her husband to suicide, is the most brilliantly drawn loved and loving independent fearless woman I can remember reading in a book, ever. Her depth of soul and lightness of spirit anchors the narrative. But even her love cannot anchor her daughters. And that seems to be part of the book's message (though it's not a "message" book): that we are responsible for our own lives, that we can only carry the weight of responsibility for the things that are ours to change. And the lives of others do not belong to us, even when we're mothers. We raise our kids up with love and care, and we offer love and care pretty much forever, as long as we're living, but that's all we can do. The mother tells her daughter near the end of the book that letting go of a grief is more painful than holding onto it, but it's what she hopes her daughter will be able to do.

Maybe if you've lost a husband and a daughter to suicide, you understand profoundly how little your love can cure or save someone who doesn't want to be saved. That doesn't mean you don't try to save someone. That means that life is not about problem-solving, even though we may wish it to be so. We may wish to pour our minds into solutions and fix what's broken, especially on a personal level, especially in families, and that's a good impulse, I'm not saying it's not. But to survive trauma and grief without becoming bitter, we have to recognize that we're not that important. We're not in charge of other people's choices. We're in charge of our own puny sorrows.

What we can offer are small, ordinary gifts. But a gift is a gift, isn't it. It doesn't ask for anything in return.

There's some strangeness to reading this book, knowing Miriam Toews' personal history, which cleaves closely to the book's story. It's difficult to read it as fiction, I guess.

One final observation: it's been awhile since I've read a book that references so many other books. Entire poems are recited by characters, for example. I loved that. Reading as comfort and connection, as a way to speak the unspeakable. Words might not save us, but they may just console us. We read and we are less alone.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Art on the driveway: a rebuttal

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After re-reading yesterday's post, let me rebut myself, point by point.

How do you manage to travel, to run to appointments, to make presentations, and dress professionally, and be brushed and unwrinkled and fresh smelling?

You do your best. Sometimes you fake it. You nap when you can, and drink plenty of water. You remember to smile. You find a good deodorant. You carry floss. You gain a few key pieces in your wardrobe that are trustworthy. You apply makeup, if necessary. You give yourself a break.

How do you exercise and eat well and keep a sharp eye on your children's needs, both physical and emotional?

You do your best. You don't get down on yourself if you can't run as fast as you used to. You go as hard as you can, in the moment. You exercise with friends. You pay attention. You listen. You show up.

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How do you clean your house and yard and fold laundry and cook food from scratch, and lovingly tuck your children in at night, and read them bedtime stories?

Forget the house and yard. The dog hair matters less than you think. Do the laundry when you get a chance. Let your husband cook. Make your kids do some chores too. And then you’ll have time to read to them and tuck them into bed most nights. And when you’re not there, they can look after each other, because you’ve taught them well, so be glad about that—plus they relish the freedom of independence, so it’s good for everyone some of the time.

How do you go to the soccer practices and piano lessons and swim lessons and travel tournaments and meets?

You don’t go to them all, and that’s the long and the short of it. You represent as best you can. Sometimes you won’t be able to be there. Support them in other ways. Schedule rides, carpool, ask questions, cheer when you can. This isn’t the end of your world or theirs.

How do you teach classes and welcome students and read essays and comment and mentor and remain open and flexible and funny and never bitter?

You treat this as seasonal work. It isn’t year-round, because you’re not a full-time teacher. If you’re fortunate enough to be asked to teach, it means you’ve reached a stage in your career when you have something to offer. Remember the wonderful teachers who nurtured and inspired you. You’re getting the opportunity to give a bit of that back to others. And you learn a great deal by teaching.
Also, you don’t want to be bitter. So don’t be. Easy as that. 
Journal. Run it off. Don't say yes if you really mean no. This is your life. Don't sleepwalk, don't idly wish or wait for someone else to point the way. Take responsibility.

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you braid your daughter's hair

How do you host meals and go to parties and celebrate birthdays and be a good partner?

You drop some things in order to do others. You compromise. This is seasonal too, in a sense. You accept that you can’t go to everything, and so you prioritize. You spontaneously dash out to a movie on a weeknight with your husband. You decide not to play soccer this summer so you can save your head, and suddenly Sunday evenings open up.

How do you meditate and feed your spirit and do yoga and stay fit and healthy of body and of mind?

You do. Because if you don’t, you won’t be you. You get up early. You pray. You read. You practice breathing. It works.

How do you continue to make art that is worthy of being called art?

This you cannot answer. All you know is that there is mystery in making art, and it’s none of your business as the maker to judge it worthy or not worthy of being called art. What you do is this. You begin. You dream. You research. You prepare yourself in a million different ways. And when you’re ready to write, you’ll know, and you’ll make time and space for it (with help from your husband, who is the person who reminds you that you still know how to do this).
Also, you keep short-term goals present in your mind. You make lists. You check them off. It all adds up.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Music for the spirit

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my new book (essay anthology): The M Word!

Newsflash: Inbox no longer empty. I guess inboxes are like kitchens. Cleaning them is a process not an end.

A few newsy bits to record today.

I've started a spring yoga challenge: hot yoga every day for the next two weeks. I'm thinking of it as a bridge to get me through to spring. Like, the real spring. Or at least to get me through to London, and maybe when I'm back from London conditions will be favourable once again for running outside. But right now, I'm so tired of running on icy slippery windy snow-flecked streets. I need an exercise practice I can look forward to. (I'll still be running during the next few weeks, of course; I'll just be cursing as I go, which is not so good for the soul.)

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the dogs say hello

I've been working on the children's book: THE CANDY CONSPIRACY! And I can now announce that the illustrator will be Marion Arbona, whose work you can browse on her website here. I haven't seen her concepts for the story yet, but I'm really looking forward to that. The illustrated imagination. I find people are often fascinated (horrified?) to learn that as the writer I have nothing to do with the cover design for my books, nor will I have anything to do with the illustrations for this children's book, but I actually think it's best that way. I'm not a designer or an illustrator. I write the words. And it's a privilege to get to see my words interpreted by someone else. The words become shared. Maybe their meaning is altered too, to some small degree, but that's the case every time someone reads them, because reading is a collaborative experience.

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our yard, March 20, 2014: the dirty truth

Today has been a day of pleasant list-crossing-offing.

I went to a mid-morning yoga class, which felt entirely decadent. I got to the university library to gather some research material. I sent off forms for children's summer camps. I met Kevin for lunch! I renewed library books. I'm an efficient relaxed version of myself. Plus it's sunny.

Plus I've started playing the ukulele. It's easy, it's fun, it's relaxing. I'm currently harbouring a small fantasy that we have ukes enough for the whole family to play, and we all sit around strumming and harmonizing together. Note: this has not even come close to happening. But Kevin and I did spend an evening in front of the fire, last weekend, playing 3-chord songs, him on guitar, me on uke. It was not in the least bit romantic, because I'm an impatient and grumpy teacher, and he is still learning rhythm, but he didn't give up, which was very nice of him, and I got to sing, which was very nice for me, and now we want everyone to do it.

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boy with viola

The thing about making music is that it is both creative and relaxing. The rhythm and repetition take you to a meditative place. You can do it for a long time and not get bored of it. You can do it alone, or with others. You can challenge yourself to learn something new, or you can comfort yourself by playing something familiar. When my kids are feeling down or tired or restless or bored or melancholy, I want them to consider turning to a musical instrument for consolation and for pleasure. I go to the piano like that. I play more often than my family knows.

I often start my day with a song.

I often have no idea what I'm going to play. I just sit down and discover it. It's a creative process that's much like free-writing. Our brains are wired to rhythm; it begins with the heartbeat. As much as I love sports and believe in it as a positive body-healthy outlet for all ages, I believe too in music-making as a way of connecting with our deeper selves, and with others. Music for the spirit!

Enjoy your weekend, everyone.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Imagine your way to success

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DJ is posing for the camera, which we're all finding hysterical

Somehow, last week's brief thaw fooled me, despite knowing better, into thinking that spring-like conditions were in the offing. I keep stepping outside and registering the cold as a shock -- as a personal affront -- as if it weren't absolutely to be expected at the end of February. The windchill registered at -21C on my run this morning, for heaven's sake! AppleApple has told me that on April 1st, she is wearing a sweater to school no matter how cold it is. I was just glad she didn't set that particular deadline for March 1st.

To further gather my thoughts regarding yesterday's post on fear and unwinding, I would like to observe that there's a fine line between acknowledging and reflecting on one's fears, and becoming mired and stuck in an introspective feedback loop of one's fears. I feel like I'm atop a small hill that I've been climbing for awhile, and this is a good place to pause and acknowledge that it was hard to trust my brain post-concussion. It was hard, and it was scary, but I don't want it to colour my life. I've got other hills to climb.

That's why I played soccer a few weekends ago. That's why I write every day. That's why I meet friends. That's why I want to go out dancing and do kundalini yoga again and get a decent pair of snow pants and maybe some cross country skiis so I can play outside whatever the weather -- take that, February! I'm a huge believer in imagining your way to success. You have to know where you want to go or you'll never get there.

Writing and meditation and reflection are expressions I'm naturally drawn to as an introspective person. It's why I'm a writer, I am sure. But life is lived concretely. It's hands in bread dough. It's running as the sky grows light. It's vacuuming the dog hair (or teaching the five-year-old how to vacuum the dog hair).

Here's what I'm visualizing. And doing.

My big (overarching) goals for the year:
* write the first draft of a new novel
* promote Girl Runner
* create a solid curriculum for my creative writing class

My small (everyday) goals for the year:
* read
* write daily meditations
* run, weight lift, yoga, spin, bike, dance, play soccer
* help and support my family
* give the kids more responsibilities around the house
* bake
* offer and accept invitations to spend time with friends
* play the piano and sing

I could go on. But that's a good start.

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two Saturdays ago: this was taken after we all pitched in to clean the house together; I hope to blog more about this new plan, if all goes well

A total side note that spoke to the fitness guru in me: I read in yesterday's newspaper that sprinting is more beneficial to the aging body than distance running (the caution being that you need to be a strong runner, and probably a distance runner, before attempting sprints, because non-fit sprinting an excellent way to injure yourself.) No wonder I love soccer so much -- it's basically sprinting, except you get to chase a ball.

I also read that going for a walk has an almost medicinal effect on the mind and body. Why don't we build our cities and communities around that simple concept? Imagine the health benefits. Imagine how we'd all be walking off the edges of our worries. Wouldn't that be a wonderful thing?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Unwinding

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I went away for the weekend.

I needed to be unwound. That's what it felt like: a slow and steady unwinding of the tightly knotted self. It was almost like I'd forgotten how to have fun. How to partake of fun. How to be fun.

Responsibility requires armour, maybe.

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I skiied on this frozen lake. I hadn't been on cross country skiis since childhood, but it felt like I could have gone forever. It's much easier to glide across the snow than to slog through the snow in running shoes. Winter's long long iteration spoke so differently when I was gliding like a hot knife through butter into the wind. Isn't this a blast, it said.

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Our oven has been fixed, have I mentioned this?

AppleApple baked an apple-cranberry crisp to christen it. The crisp took all evening to prepare, and we devoured the entire pan in fifteen minutes flat. Fooey made brownies a few days later. I've used it to bake potatoes, but that's all so far. I've got to get some veggies roasting while winter's still on.

Oh, yeah, winter's still on. I checked the 7-day weather forecast, and it's going to be cold, cold, and also, cold.

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I've come home thinking: I've got some work to do. I don't mean the laundry or the scheduling or even writing. I mean something different. Maybe I don't even mean work. I mean: I'd like to figure out how to unwind myself. How to be unwound. How to break down my fears.

I don't like to think of myself as fearful, but it's there, so why hide it or hide from it? I'm not afraid of external challenges; I accept many things I cannot change. What I fear is closer to the bone: it is the bone, and the guts, the heart, the spirit. I fear the limits of my mind and imagination, and the limits of a body that ages and changes. And I'm afraid of my fears, closing me off from laughter and lightness of heart.

But I'm not afraid to call them out. And I'm not afraid to chase the light -- or maybe it's enough simply to turn toward it. Throw open the windows and doors. Bask. It might be cold, cold, cold, but the days are getting longer, the sunlight is growing stronger.

AppleApple is obsessed with names. Yesterday, while we were sitting around the supper table, she looked up all of our names in one of her (many) baby name dictionaries: according to this one, Carrie derives from Caroline, which means small and strong. I like that very much.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Alight

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A habit I'm reinstating: yoga, once a week. I went to a free class on my birthday, and renewed my commitment to practice more regularly, and not just in my office (although that counts too, and is valuable). I like being pushed, in a class setting, to hold poses longer than comfortable. I like the community feeling, too. And I've become excellent at savasana. I'm serious! When I started practicing yoga, four years ago, I hated lying in the final pose, and had to force myself to be still and stay in the room. I was absolutely itching to get up and get going -- after all, the hard work was done; what was the point of lying around?

Now I open my eyes and think, Uh-oh, there are only two people left in here, and the next class is waiting to get in. And while I haven't been asleep in savasana, I have been away. It's that away-ness, that emptying out, that I'm committing to again this year. I remind myself, again, that I can't grab for things; that isn't how it works. The things that are truly worthwhile arrive, alight like the gifts they are. The moments we live for. I'm not saying sit back and relax while the universe takes care of everything. I'm saying, prepare yourself always for these moments of grace, and recognize them when they come. That's all. Choose work you love, if you can, so that the process always seems to be renewing and refreshing itself, so you'll always have more to learn, so you'll stay curious and engaged.

After yesterday's class, I found myself reflecting on the word "discernment." (Fellow Mennonites are likely to be familiar with this word.) It's a word I've long disliked. At worst, I suspect it of being code for "refusal to decide" or "failure to take a stand" or "terminal wishy-washyness" or "paralysis of purpose." (Can you tell I would flunk at committee meetings?) I'm not against reflection or debate or consideration. But at a certain point -- and who's to say when this is? -- the discernment must end and the decision-making begin.

Or maybe that's my problem with discernment. Maybe I don't like for discernment to be artificially separated out from action. Maybe the way I figure things out is to do, to try, to practice, to hash it out along the way, to stuff my foot in my mouth from time to time and learn the hard way. Maybe I believe less in coming around to clarity, than in going on gut and whim and instinct. I really don't know. Too many questions, too much guilt, too much worry about being politically correct or causing offence, and I grind to a halt, afraid to do or try or say anything. But the opposite of discernment is Rob Ford: shameless empty entitled belligerent self-pitying posturing. There's got to be a middle ground. There's got to be a way to be in this world that is considerate and out-spoken, compassionate and practical, whole and vulnerable, open and strong, clear and welcoming, thoughtful and active.

There's got to be.

That's my savasana reflection, from January 9th, 2014. Perhaps this will be the first in a small, ongoing series.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

For a limited time only

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It's only Tuesday, right? I'm apprehensive about my responsibilities this week. The layers of planning material in my head keep shifting, and I'm terrified of what might be falling to the bottom. It's dark down there. Things might biodegrade without me even noticing.

I fall asleep to syllabus material, and wake considering supper plans versus ingredients on hand. A small but persistent section of my brain is wholly devoted to identifying time slots in which I can fit in a run. I'm visiting a book club this week, there are teacher interviews to arrange for each child, and I'm in charge of facilitating a panel discussion at the Wild Writers Festival on Saturday, at which I'd like very much to appear a) prepared, b) composed, and c) sane. (If I could actually be all of these things, that would be even better.) The clock is ticking on resolving a gymnastics decision, swim girl has a big meet in Brantford all weekend, and we need to plan a birthday party for next weekend. What else? Oh, the asthma puffer ran out this morning. Our tub tap is leaking rather frantically. Our stove needs repair.

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I wrote a piece for Open Book Ontario, which they've posted today. I'll admit it reads rather manically. It's on my writing habits, and the peacefulness of my office. This office is my calm centre. I've started doing yoga in here some mornings, with kundalini music playing, and it's pure bliss.

Much of my happiness comes from motion. I see my eight-year-old spin on a bar, hold herself upside-down, toes pointed, strong and glowing. I see the game unfolding on the field, the risks being taken. I see my eldest and me racing up and down grocery aisles late at night, revelling in the hunt for bargains, laughing at our impulses and follies: for me, corn flakes; for him, anything new and available for a limited time only, such as the soda that purports to taste like chocolate.

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But I'm tired. I'm tired, and I know, too, that much of my happiness comes from points of connection, from stillness within the motion. Holding CJ's hand on the walk home from the school bus. Washing his hair in the pool showers. Conversations as we drive somewhere together, me and a kid, or two, or three. I'm always looking for what I can share with each child, and that keeps changing. I remember when I gave the kids a bath every night before bed, and they remember how I pretended to be a giant making kid soup. Now we're splintered and running, and I'm looking for those moments to stretch out my hand and grab on to theirs, figuratively if not literally, as we whirl in our separate circles.

The days look impossible if I try to hold them all at once.

So maybe, really, I shouldn't try. I won't try. If there's any secret to this time, it's that. Do what you're doing, be where you are. Make your lists, prepare, yes, but know what you're waiting for, and recognize it when it arrives, no matter how small it seems. It's none of it small. You know what I mean.

Monday, September 23, 2013

This morning I tried

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Hey, our green living-room is on the CBC's book site today. It accompanies an interview I did with them on blogging -- on being a blogger as well as a fiction writer.

This morning, I walked again. But I'm restless nevertheless, so it occurred to me to try something different. What I'm missing about running is not just the physical release, but also that sense of taking part in a moving meditation.

But in challenge is opportunity!

Yesterday afternoon, I had time to listen to the radio and bake bread, and I tuned in to Tapestry on CBC Radio One, where I can always find peace on a Sunday afternoon. The subject was "crazy busy," as in, "Hi, how are you?" "Oh, I'm crazy busy!" More to the point, the subject was finding stillness in a culture that has latched onto the concept of being so busy we just can't slow down.

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Now, I like busy. I've even been told that I scare people a little bit with my busyness. But I also like still. Or say that I do. I say that I like stillness, but perhaps in truth I privilege busyness over quietude. I sit in stillness at my writing desk, but my mind is whirring with energy and imagination. I find stillness of mind when I run, but it's curious, isn't it, that I need to be in motion to fall into such calm. So here's a radical challenge for me: how to be still, while being still?

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Meditation, of course.

If you listen to the Tapestry program (if you're not too crazy busy, they've got podcasts of past shows), you'll hear that it ends with a discussion on meditation. The man being interviewed suggests starting by repeating a mantra, word or phrase, preferably in a language not your own: he gave "maran atha" as an example, which is from the Aramaic, and means "Come, O Lord."

This morning, I tried meditating. I set a timer for twenty minutes. The dogs were very interested as I sat on the floor, knees crossed, eyes closed, within licking range (not helpful, dogs!). I thought the words maran atha over and over, and it kind of reminded me of "marathon," which seemed just about right on a number of levels. I ended up meditating for half an hour, and what worked best was to say the words in combination with this four-cornered breathing pattern I remembered learning in yoga a few years ago. It probably has a name.

Breathe in for a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Breathe out for a count of four. Hold for a count of four.

I found it easiest to breathe in, hardest to breathe out. I like metaphors, so I decided this means I'm in a place where I'm more prepared to take it all in, rather than pour it all out. It was really really really lovely and when I opened my eyes I felt like I'd been quiet for awhile and gone somewhere, quietly. I'm thinking of setting my alarm early so I can take time to start my day like this. Even if I'm not rising early to run -- to meditate in motion -- I can keep to a routine of rising early and entering the day with a practice.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Where mom-at-home meets working-mom, part two

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Hi there. For some reason this old blog post, titled "Where mom-at-home meets working-mom" has gotten a ton of hits this week, so I went back to re-read it, and found myself entirely drawn in to the conversation (if you go to read it, too, definitely read through the comments).

It was originally written in October, 2011: nearly two years ago.

I was asking myself some tough questions.

**When I unpeel myself from them [my kids], who am I? **Who am I outside this home? And the question I'm most scared of, the one I really want to ask: **How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at-home?

It's funny how these questions have answered themselves. The good fortune of having The Juliet Stories recognized danced me outside of the house, and unpeeled me from them. And it turns out that the answer to those questions is: I'm pretty much exactly the same person, except in nicer clothes (maybe: ask my stylish daughter).

What about this question: How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at home?

Now there's a tougher one. Clearly, my career has developed in the past two years. I have publishing contracts for two new books, essays in three upcoming anthologies, and a new teaching job. I field regular invitations to do readings and host literary events. That said, it's not a career that involves full-time hours and the corresponding full-time pay. It's a pretty insecure career, built around a constant flow of push and energy that must be generated by me alone. Funny, kind of sounds like parenting. Turns out that my working self is not all that removed from my mom-at-home self. Both roles have developed and changed, but it's not like one cancels out the other. Maybe my original question framed it wrong: it's not either/or. How could it be?

What's gotten cancelled out is other things I didn't expect. I miss my playgroup, meeting up with other women once a week -- the regular, routine warmth and connection that I have yet to replace. I rarely bake anymore, and haven't canned a thing this summer; probably won't. I don't have the energy, even if I had the time. We now have a dishwasher and I drive much more than I'd like to, ferrying older children to extra-curriculars. I'm alone a lot, which I relish and appreciate (it is essential to my work), even while missing contact that can't be replaced by social media. Oddly, the thing I thought I'd miss -- full-on time with my children -- I don't, because, as it turns out, we still share a ton of activities, scheduled and unscheduled. You never stop being a parent, no matter what else you might be doing.

But here's a confession: this past winter, I tried to find a traditional job. You know, a job-job. This is an insurance town, so most of the openings were inside insurance companies. We were going through a tough financial spell, and my writing career had never seemed more risky and indulgent. I sent out a dozen resumes. I received one reply. ONE. It was a no-thank-you, but I was grateful even for that. The worst thing about the experience was discovering that I wasn't even qualified for jobs I didn't want, let alone jobs I did. Thankfully, we got through the very bad month and the slightly-less-bad next month, and our fortunes steadily improved again. But the fear lingers: that if my family were to need me to find a job-job, to keep us afloat, I would be useless as tits on a bull, as my mother-in-law would say.

It's been a decade since the famous (infamous?) "Opt-out revolution" article was published, interviewing women who'd given up promising careers to become stay-at-home moms. I'm not sure I gave up a promising career when I became a stay-at-home mom at the age of 26, but I had recently been promoted, and the opportunity to advance and develop within my chosen field of media / publishing / editing / journalism was there. I can't remember whether I related to the women in the original article, but I remember thinking it was annoying, setting up this dichotomy between women, making it so either/or. Aren't we all in this together, I thought?

I also thought, secretly, quietly, that there would be time for everything, and I didn't appreciate being told that one choice might disadvantage me in another area of my life.

Recently, a follow-up article was published on those same "opt-out" women interviewed a decade ago: what had happened to them? ("The opt-out generation wants back in.") Well, the economy had happened to them (all were American). Most had gone back to work, whether they wanted to or not; most had found it difficult to re-start their careers, and many had taken jobs that were below where they had been or could have been. Those whose marriages had ended were particularly disadvantaged and struggling. Few, however, expressed regret about their original choice. One woman struck me particularly -- she had been in a traditional media job (like me), and found it virtually impossible to find work in a much-changed industry. The article ends with her landing an exciting job, after searching for several years, but at much less pay than she would have earned a decade before, only to have the project shut down six weeks later, and everyone let go. She was back to square one.

Let me tell you, I sure related to that article with a pang of recognition. Yet, I can't feel regret, either. Because there are other interesting questions posed in my post, two years ago, questions that seem at least as significant, and more mysterious. I can't answer them, especially the last one, but that's why they're so fascinating.

**Where am I heading, at my breakneck pace? **What am I failing to stop for? **What if I can't squeeze every fascinating everything in? **What matters? **Will I always be so impatient? So goal-oriented? **Can I be both ambitious and content, or do those two states of mind cancel each other out? 

Because it isn't all about money, is it? If I look directly into my fear, and stare over the precipice of what would happen to my family were we thrown into financial crisis, and it were suddenly up to me alone to support us, I see many possibilities beyond disaster. I see family and friends. I see lifestyle changes and probably a lot of creative improvisation. I see a web of connections. We're not without resources -- I'm not without resources. That's what I see, two years on, despite my recent experience of hunting for jobs I didn't want and for which I was not qualified.

Because, I see, too, that I am already qualified for other jobs -- ones I do want. This work might not offer the same security and stability, but maybe that just keeps me a step closer to reality. Stability is an illusion anyway, as we all secretly know.

It's a gift to be doing what I love. I love being a mother. I love writing. I love thinking things through. My hope for myself, now and future, is that every time I doubt or question, I return to this: gratitude.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sent and spent

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I sent this pair off to buy something for lunch, for the second time this week. They went to Vincenzo's and got sushi and soda pop. CJ ate a blue frosted cupcake before they were even home. "We tried the free samples!" (On Monday, I let them go to the grocery store to get something for lunch and they returned with: Corn Pops, Cap'n Crunch, mini chocolate chip cookies, and three cheese buns. I think I see improvement?)

Fooey is doing tennis camp this week, which is why she's not been involved. (Side note: she's been working on filling in a journal all about herself, and had this to say on the page with prompts about her parents. "The one thing I hope I never inherit from my mom is the way she ... HAS NO STYLE." And: "The one thing I hope I never inherit from my dad is the way he ... HAS NO HAIR." My attempts to defend myself were met with scorn. Well, justified perhaps, because that kid has style.)

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It feels like a day for black and white.

Here is my desk, right now. On the left, see the syllabus I'm working on. In the middle, my BlackBerry, which flashes whenever I get a message (very distracting, but I must like being distracted; text me, please!). On the right, this week's calendar full of to-do lists and daily events not to be forgotten. And on the computer screen, a message to my editor with the revised version of Girl Runner attached. Yup! She's gone off. I've sent her on her way.

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Kevin, who has been my first reader for as long as I've had a writing career, stayed up past midnight reading the new draft, and told me this morning that he couldn't put it down. He offers the following blurbs: "I felt like I was running in Aggie's shoes over a 100-year race." And "The book had the perfect combination of pace and depth, just like the 800 metres." And: "Normally I can read only a few pages at a time. I read half the book in one sitting." As he's obliged only to say good things, for the sake of our marriage, you might think this input is highly suspect, but I'm going with it. It's been a summer of intense and sometimes crazy-making labour, and I can't do more without a serious break from the material. And my editor is pleased to have it back on her desk again.

And now I give myself the respite of a week or so, before the madness of the fall schedule begins, to be quiet, peaceful, breathing, playing, and not working. Tall order.

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One last thing. My next post is going to be about everything I'm excited for this fall. It really and truly is. Because there is so much coming in and now that I've sent the manuscript I can breathe and sit back and look at it all. And rest my head. And say thank you.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Morning of cognitive disinhibition

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Well, we got one home from camp. Albus has returned: freckled, dirty-footed, exhausted, and craving his screened devices. It's been an odd two weeks without him, and a portent of life to come. He's already twelve years old, and given that I left home when I was seventeen, my sense is of us entering a different stage of parenting, of trying to figure out how hard to hold on, and how much to let go. I intend to do a lot of both. For example, our ten-year-old, who is quite enormously tall, asked to snuggle with us the other night. She just needed to be hugged and held, despite her long legs and muscular shoulders and ability to make me hot lunches.

I'm serious about the hot lunches. She's made me several this week, thinking up a menu, preparing it, presenting it on a plate, and knocking on my office door. I could get used to this.

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The fourth week of our summer holidays is coming to a close. This week has been cool, and marred by ridiculously noisy street-work going on directly outside my window, occasionally causing my entire office to vibrate in such a way that ear plugs become quite useless. It's also been a tough writing week due to the work that I'm doing. I will come through this and look back on this time fondly, I'm sure, as I always seem to do, but it's a grind. Instead of entering directly into the book this morning, I skimmed my FB feed, making all kinds of connections and discoveries (or so it felt; nice when procrastination takes on a purposeful aura).

* First I read an article on success by a young tenured professor who believes in giving, doing favours, taking time to do one thing and go deep, and making strong connections. I also appreciated his point that the most highly successful people, whatever their fields, were rarely the most outstanding performers as children, and that in fact it was their motivation and grit that set them apart.

* Which leads me to a blurb I read next explaining why creative people are often eccentric. This is science, folks! Apparently, creative people (and eccentrics) experience cognitive disinhibition, which means their brains fail to filter out extraneous information -- I assume this includes sensual and aural information, in addition to the collection of random facts about celebrities while standing in line at the grocery checkout. It's the ability to process this excess of information without becoming overwhelmed that leads to fascinating breakthroughs. But it can also inspire peculiar behavioral traits. Like Bjork wearing the swan dress at the Oscars, according to the blurb -- which was awesomely cool, I thought.

Okay, so stay open and make connections and get gritty.

Next?

* I took an online assessment to determine my "Decision Pulse." It's quick and easy, and I usually avoid these things like that plague, which shows you how determined I am to be distracted this morning -- to open myself to vats of cognitive disinhibition! I make my decisions, according to this quick and easy quiz, based on 1. Humanity 2. Relationships 3. Achievement. Apparently, I don't care about safety or security at all. (Sorry, family!) I think by "Humanity" the test means humanitarian impulses and the desire to serve a greater good. Which sounds lofty, and may or may not be accurate, though I do spend time each day praying that the work I do will help in some way. That it will heal and nourish rather than hurt.

* Finally, I guffawed with enormous appreciation as I read Anakana Schofield's brilliant and hilariously written take-down of the shallow, missing-the-point-entirely publicity machine that one steps into when one publishes a book. Anakana is the author of Malarky, which I've given to my husband to read right now, and she's damn funny, and doesn't seem to care who she's offending (which is a trait I would dearly like to grow into, but haven't yet). She's out in Vancouver and we've never met in person, but have enjoyed some back and forth via email regarding exercise habits and, yes, readings and publicity and such. She's put her finger on something really critical here, too: that it seems everyone wants to be a writer, but no one wants to be a reader. (Consider the proliferation of blogs!) What book publishers should be doing is nurturing readers; and what every writer knows it that public appearances inevitably turn into mini-sessions on "how to be a writer." But it's readers writers need, isn't it. People who love books. People who find solace in words. People who soak up a story, who think about the characters afterward and worry for them. People like me, actually. I love reading. Books are like old friends, companions, sparring partners, comforters, moral compasses, inspirations, teachers.

With that in mind, I'll turn off my distractions and step into the book I'm making, hoping it will ultimately offer both escape and comfort to a reader like me, sometime, somewhere, somehow.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I got on my bike

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This morning I got on my bike and went to the "county" track meet (ie. a bunch of schools competing, including both of my two older children's).

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The 800 metre start, girls, ages 9-12.

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She ran most of the race in lane two. Oops. "Did you know it's shorter if you run on the inside lane?" "What? Really?!" A real-life math problem.

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A hard-run race. I think she was a little disappointed with her end result, but every race is a learning experience. And she ran her heart out! Proud mama.

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Tug-of-war. Not so many photos of this child. I was picking up a please-don't-embarrass-me-mom vibe. Which I get. I'm so sympathetic and can totally feel it, too. Of course I'm going to say something dorky in front of his friends! I remember this age so clearly myself and instinctively want to give him space. Then I wonder: am I giving him too much space and he won't know that I care? You know?

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Then I got on my bike and went to the kindergarten picnic.

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We shared our sandwiches (his idea).

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The kids performed songs. When it was time to say goodbye, I got so many kisses, so many hugs; it was hard parting. Such a different stage.

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And I got on my bike and went back to the track. (My ankle doesn't hurt on my bike. Yay! Plus I'd forgotten how fun it is to cycle around the city.) Kevin had arrived in my absence, live-texting me results of events I was missing. We both got to watch the relays.

Then I got on my bike and went home.

:::

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Found, yesterday, amongst the masses of work brought home from school.

"Who? Carrie Snyder: Author of the GG nominated Juliet Stories and, my mom.

"What? I can learn alot from mom including work hard and you can acheive anything, follow your dreams, or whims depending on which you have. Nothing is really that impossible if you really want it. And are willing to pour your life into it.

"Where/when? At the book launch in 2012, when the story became a book.

"Why? Writing a book with four kids is not easy. The Juliet Stories took seven years to write. It takes an amazing woman with great patience to do that. She sets goals and acheives them. Aside from that she is a very happy person with a big family and a big heart. She is also a runner and marathonist and triathlete. If you don't think she is successful, I would like to hear what is."

I don't know what life is all about, except that it's for living. Yesterday was a down day. The puffy ankle wasn't helping. I was feeling pessimistic. I was remembering that the nature of being a writer is being dissatisfied. That's what gives you the push to keep creating. It's a sense of needing to do more. I was remembering that I write out of a painful mixture of confidence and doubt, and that it never seems to become easy (not the writing itself, which is frequently joyful, but everything surrounding it). And then I found this. My child was mirroring back to me things I couldn't see or appreciate for myself. I hope to mirror to my children the same: love and belief and admiration.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Life as a gambler

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Opened the fridge this morning, looking for an egg, and suffered a flicker of regret at turning down a new career path (ie. midwifery; perhaps the egg twigged it). I remember blogging last winter about wanting to escape out from under the expectation that my writing would need to earn a living (even a modest living) -- a sweet dream of writing for pleasure, while pursuing work that would be very different indeed. I blogged about the writer's cycle of survival, which involves filling out many application forms, a cycle that feels like one is perpetually asking for help. How exhausted I felt by the cycle. How I hated asking for help.

And yet here I am, several months on, willingly filling out more application forms.

It doesn't feel like I'm asking for help, just now. It feels more like an elaborate gamble, which is how my writing life feels, in truth. My maternal grandfather was a gambler. He loved the horses. Like most gamblers, he probably lost more than he won, but he talked a big game. I think of myself as essentially cautious -- hey, we've lived in the same house for a decade and I never try anything new with my hair -- but that may be partly illusion.

When I consider the choices I've made in my life, the risks I can stomach, the hope I can generate against slim odds, the faith in the race, I'm not so far removed from my gramps. When it comes right down to it, I'm pretty much a gambler at heart. Or maybe it's at gut rather than heart, the gut being the location of much of the gambler's decision-making. It feels right, or it doesn't. That's as clear as it gets for me.

I have the gambler's ability to look forward rather than back. Or elsewhere, rather than here. I separate myself into possibilities, hiving off rejection, stepping free from what isn't to be with an energy that may flag but oddly doesn't seem to deplete. I just finished reading Aleksander Hemon's collection of essays "The Book of My Lives," and he writes in his final essay something that rings true to my instincts, to what I know about why I write, too: "In my books, fictional characters allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, has been nearly everything). I'd found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my biography. I'd needed narrative space to extend myself into; I'd needed more lives. I'd cooked up those avatars in the soup of my ever-changing self, but they were not me -- they did what I wouldn't or couldn't."

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My agent tells me, gently, that very few fiction writers survive on their writing alone; most have other jobs. I know this is true. I did very much want to develop a different and separate career, especially one with security, but the truth of it is that my writing hours are essentially full-time as it is, and I am also in the thick of it with my four kids, and there isn't time or space or energy to add a third parallel life into the mix without sacrificing one or both of the other two occupations.

So I'm back to gambling.

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But more precisely, I'm back to the imagination. This is a gamble both literal and figurative. I gamble every time I send a project out to be assessed, in hopes it will find favour and win support, and that process I could take or leave, quite honestly, except that I can't and I won't because it's in support of the larger and more profound gamble to which I see I'm truly bound, and that is the wild, wonderful, risky, ever-creative, potentially illuminating, grace-filled gamble of making something from scratch, of writing more lives than I could ever live. How could I give it up? What wouldn't I do to keep this gamble going?

It's unsteady ground, and it has its practical limitations, as Hemon goes on to express heart-rendingly in the same essay, but it's familiar. It's known. I know here. I am suddenly reminded that I used to listen rather obsessively to Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" the summer that I was ten, and we were living with my aunt and uncle in Tennessee, before moving to Canada. "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you're sitting at the table. There'll be time enough for counting when the dealing's done."

No counting shall I do.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Be here now

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on Birthday Eve, still eleven years old
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on Birthday Morn, twelve times 'round the sun

I'm feeling compelled to sum up this month, even though it's not quite over. It's been such a month, and I've been unable to share some of the crucial details of its ups and downs and whirling arounds, which has forced me into awkward positions on this blog, made me into something of a contortionist. My ambiguity has caused a few friends to contact me with concern, wondering if all is well.

Well, all is well. And I don't mean that in a Rob Ford way, whistling past the suddenly emptied offices of his communications team.

It's been a good month.

It's been a good month, but I won't pretend it's been easy. Decision-making is never easy, even when one is making decisions about excessively positive things, opportunities one has called out for, and hoped for, and pursued with determination. As I wrote in an earlier post, the doors are open. An open door is a blessing, and I feel blessed to be welcomed to enter.

But I have come to recognize, also, this month, that I can't walk through every open door, not at the same time. I may contain multiplicities, but I am only one. I can only be in one place at a time. (I know you already knew that, but it's taken me some convincing.) I am mother to four children. I am a writer. I would like to become a midwife. All those doors are open for me, right now. And I feel blessed. You, however, have probably already jumped ahead to the very obvious question that I somehow managed to avoid throughout this whole process: You are probably asking, okay, Carrie, that's wonderful and all, but how, exactly, do you plan to go to school full-time, remain involved in your children's busy lives, and continue to write?

Somehow, I thought I could do it all. I wasn't going to not do some of it, oh no, I was going to do it all.

Magical thinking, perhaps. I am the sort of person who thrives on juggling responsibilities. Quietly, I told myself I could set aside the writing for the summer months. I did not need to attend so many soccer games and swim meets. We could get a dishwasher. The kids could learn to cook. Quietly, I thought, bring on the challenge.

But then the doors opened, all at once.

And suddenly I had to confront my own limitations -- of time and of energy. I had to ask myself: what am I prepared to sacrifice? And I had to accept that now is not the right time to become a midwife. That is a hard sentence to write, and it's taken me all month to carry myself toward accepting what I'm realistically capable of, right now.

For a good part of the month, I thought that this was an existential question about midwifery versus writing. Do I want to be a midwife or a writer? Well, the fact is, I'd like to be both, and I still believe it's possible. I am already a writer, married to it for better or for worse and enjoying a happy stretch of career momentum right now. And I'm grateful to midwifery for being a career that does not discriminate against age: expect me to apply again sometime in the next decade, as my children grow up and get their driver's licences and learn how to cook. No, what I've come around to recognizing is that this is not a question about midwifery versus writing. It's not even, really, a question. It's about being where I'm at, right now. And right now I have four children in the thick of their young and developing lives, and I want to be at the soccer games and swim meets. The shortened work day might drive me crazy sometimes, but I want to be here after school to gather them in, to follow up and dig around and take care of their lives in this very hands-on way. Juggle and spin it however I like, I can't commute to another city for school and be here for this now that won't always be.

How fortunate that I have an office, here, that I have quiet space to work, solitary time that is sandwiched on either side by frenetic activity and demands. I even have time to run and play soccer myself, to cook from scratch, see friends, and go on the occasional field trip. I go to bed done, and I sleep well at night.

I'd still love to doula at friends' births.

I'd still like the kids to learn how to cook.

And we're getting that dishwasher anyway -- on Thursday, in fact.

When the time is right, I still hope to become a midwife.

But for now, my heart is full with the life that is all around me, right here, right now.

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Here's a poem that wrapped itself around me a few days ago, coming from a book of essays I'm reading by Anne Lamott, called Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.

"Late Fragment," by Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.