I am not in the habit of naming plants. But this one has earned a banner.
I’m plant-sitting this winter. My sister’s family began the process of putting their house on the market in mid-October just before winter descended, and the plants came to visit as part of the decluttering/ house-staging operation. Since the house sale and subsequent move dragged on into the heart of the Winnipeg winter, the plants are here to stay until spring when Mother Nature finally renders it safe to transport them outside.
In the meantime, I’ve been playing nursemaid to Lazarus, who arrived at my door as one withered leaf dwarfed by an enormous pot. It’s a plant with some sentimental significance to my brother-in-law, and so I was entreated by my sister to see if it could be salvaged.
I would like to be able to say that I performed some clever acts of horticultural wizardry, but the truth is Lazarus was stuck randomly near a nice big window, and watered generously once a week. Maybe it just needed a change of scenery. For what ever reason, it’s back, and growing.
I’m back too, after a blog hiatus of over two years. I have no intention of boring you with a lot of excuses reasons for my long silence. Let’s just say I needed a change of scenery.
I’ve celebrated my return with a new look for the blog. Bear with me, because it’s still a bit of a work in progress.
As am I. Because one of the reasons I will acknowledge for my long hiatus is that the things I want to write about are changing. Maybe not drastically– I’m still me, after all. But just as Lazarus is essentially a whole new plant sprouting from an old root, I’ve been growing some new metaphorical foliage of my own. “Turning over new leaves,” as it were.
It was never my intention to stop writing. Life just sort of happened. A lot of life, to be honest. It’s been a summer– and fall– of big transitions. Endings and beginnings. Inner transformations and outward changes, some planned and some from way, way out in left field.
Most of it too big– too life-y– to bundle up into a tidy blog post.
It was, frankly, a chapter in my life where just doing the living took all my energy and attention. It was, therefore, a time that will likely be fodder for a lot of writing–someday.
Mind you, it’s not that I haven’t done any writing these past months. But the kind of writing that helped me negotiate that journey isn’t for this audience. Most of it is, truthfully not for any audience. At least not in its current form.
And then, of course, there’s the hurdle of re-starting. During my years as a counsellor and academic advisor to high school students, I became all too familiar with this phenomenon in its school manifestation. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Or done it. You miss a class or two, perhaps because you weren’t finished an assignment one day. Or maybe you just had too many other things on the go. And then, because you are now even further behind, you miss another class. And so it goes– the more classes you miss the harder it is to go back, until eventually you can scarcely even think of yourself as being connected to that class in any way. At that point there is never going to be a good time to go back. It just comes down to a decision. Go now, or stay gone.
When I started this blog over two years ago, I never made myself any commitments regarding how long or how often I would write here. It started as a glorious experiment in seeking audience, and I was thrilled to discover that people both from the other side of the world and my own backyard were interested in what I had to say. Even though I haven’t posted in months, there are, amazingly, still a handful of hits on this blog most days. Occasionally my readers even tell me they miss it and ask me if I’m planning to post more. (Thanks Marie!)
So here I am back. Sort of. Because I suspect that going forward this blog may not be exactly what it was before I, metaphorically, took a flying leap off one of life’s high diving boards last summer. I don’t know yet exactly what new form it will take. The bigger the jump the longer it can take one to return to the surface, and if I’m truly honest with myself, I’m only just now coming up for air. But I am surfacing. Refreshed, re-engaged, but perhaps still a tiny bit dizzy from the leap.
My kitchen sink is acting up again. After a couple of doses of peel-your-flesh-off toxic drain cleaner we had it behaving nicely for quite a while. But the other day it once again started to do that “I’ll finish draining when I get around to it” thing that is particularly suspense-invoking when it is combined with the dishwasher draining backwards into the sink. Whatever periodically blocks that drain is clearly located downstream from the dishwasher, far out of reach of my best unclogging efforts.
It’s been a week for blockages, apparently. Wednesday afternoon my long-dormant gallstones rose up against me and knocked me flat in a gallbladder attack that came on so suddenly I had to abandon a workshop I was teaching. In thirty years spent at the front of myriad classrooms, I could not recall ever having to walk out on a class like that due to illness. I’ve taught through gastrointestinal complaints and arthritis pain. I staggered through one whole summer session with dreadful morning sickness. Once I even fell off a desk mid-lesson, picked myself up, and kept right on teaching. But this was the first time I stopped suddenly, excused myself from the room and never made it back!
Fortunately I work with people who possess amazing problem-solving skills and a “show must go on” mentality. Within minutes of my distress message to the office, one of my colleagues was by my side calling 911, and another colleague had picked up where I left off with the workshop.
The emergency room was another story, speaking of blockages. It was one of those days in the downtown ER where, if you don’t actually have blood gushing from an arterial knife wound, you’d better bring a good book and some snacks. The movement of patients through the system appeared slower than my sink drain at its most sluggish. Nine hours after my arrival, long after my gallbladder had stopped misbehaving, an enthusiastic medical student and her supervising physician pieced together a diagnosis.
It’s been a while since I’ve written here. I’m not even sure I can explain why. I could say I’ve been busy, but that’s generally a given. I could say there was nothing to write about, but anyone who pays any attention to my life can attest that there’s always something going on that has the makings of a good story.
Maybe too much. Part of my challenge lately has been not knowing where to start. There are certainly things I want to– need to– write about. But they aren’t all ready for this particular audience.
Some of them aren’t ready for any audience, really. And that’s the problem.
I’ve always thought “writer’s block” meant the writer didn’t know what to say. Lately, however, it has struck me that “writer’s block” can also result from the things we are holding back from saying. Like my pesky gallstones, or the mystery glop in my kitchen plumbing: the things we don’t say–won’t say– are afraid to say– block the flow. We can’t write anything, because the thing we most need to write, but are resisting, is sitting in the way.
There was a moment a few weeks ago when I came very close to standing in the middle of the office and yelling “SLOW DOWN!”
I didn’t. Because branch directors aren’t supposed to have temper tantrums.
But you can bet I thought it. I thought it as loud as I could. I thought it in the direction of my staff, and my boss, and her boss, and her bosses’ boss…
Because seriously, people. It’s not all urgent. Some of it may not even be all that important.
Of course, I’m a fine one to talk– the self-confessed queen of the “to do” list. But I’m learning.
(See what I did there?)
It took a few weeks of quietly beating myself up to finally stop feeling guilty for taking an unplanned hiatus from this blog while I was busy teaching a course. But I’m over that now. The guilt, that is. The course has one more class session and a lot of papers to mark.
I’ll be busy for a while. Truthfully, I’ll always be busy. In my family we’re wired for busy. But I’m gradually learning to be more selective about my busy-ness. I’m learning, for example, that I can actually say no to things that other people expect me to do. (And actually, Thanksgiving went very nicely even without me producing a turkey and a gazillion home-made pies.)
I went to a restorative yoga class last week. I haven’t done yoga of any kind for years decades. It was amazing. There was a moment, about an hour into the 90 minute class, when the whirring in my head stilled completely. Then, when the instructor directed us to gradually come out of the pose, a little voice in my head came out of nowhere and silently screamed “NOOOOOOO–I don’t ever want to leave this state of relaxation.” I’m going back to Yoga North today to sign up for more classes.
The first thing I noticed after last week’s yoga session was how much more energy I had. I came home from yoga and launched into a handful of minor home repairs that I had been avoiding for weeks because I was “too busy” to do them. They took mere minutes. In other words, I always did have the time to do them, but my mind was too busy to know that.
Ironically, I’m more productive when I slow down. But the secret is not to slow down with the goal of being more productive, because that won’t stop the brain from spinning. You have to slow down with the goal of slowing down.
If nothing else, try slowing down for just the 19 minutes it takes to listen to Carl Honore’s TED talk.
It was never my intention to take a break of nearly three weeks from writing here, but it appears that is what I have done. And although I never made a formal commitment to myself (or you) to write according to any particular schedule, I caught myself getting increasingly bothered by the fact that I wasn’t writing. Until yesterday.
I was catching up on some reading at work yesterday, and I came by chance upon two articles. Each article by itself was mildly interesting, but the juxtaposition of the two was what really fascinated me.
The first article was all about things employers can do to “remove distractions” in the workplace, and was full of what I presumed were supposed to be outrageous examples of the things employees do at work that are “unproductive.” Things like looking at Facebook, or (horror of horrors) talking to their co-workers. In one instance (and we were, I presume, supposed to be shocked by this) a group of employees had brought a pet bird into the workplace and were “wasting time” caring for it.
The second article was about mental health and reducing work place stress. One of the key strategies this article identified for having a healthy work life was, of course, taking regular breaks.
The contradiction between these two articles is nothing new. If you scan all the articles relating to human resource issues in the workplace in any given week, I predict there will always be at least one article on time wasting, and at least one article on the importance of taking breaks.
I am irked by the subtle classist undertone that that I perceive when I read these articles. Typically it is the high paying, overstressed manager/professional who is being urged to take breaks, while at the same time it is the rank-and-file employees having their access to the internet curtailed so they won’t waste company time taking the occasional five minute respite from their duties. As though somehow our differing levels of authority mean that our brains and bodies work differently. As though some of us need breaks more than others. As though some of us should have more rights than others to take those breaks in the time and manner that is most healthy for us.
People work most efficiently and effectively when they take breaks. Period. We need to take breaks, even from the things we love. I have never understood the people who don’t take all of the holiday time to which they are entitled. (Whenever people complain to me that they don’t know when they can possibly use all their vacation days, I suggest they donate their unused vacation days to me. There is, apparently, some sort of HR policy that prevents them from taking me up on this generous offer. But hey, it can’t hurt to try!)
So yeah, I took a break. And it won’t be the last. Because when it comes right down to it, breaks are what keep us from breaking.
I was sitting with a group of women, chatting about our plans for the weekend. One woman had made plans to look after her young grandchildren for the day on Saturday. Her daughter had then called to asked if she would also take the kids for Friday evening. The answer was a firm no. “But,” protested the daughter, “You never do anything on Friday evening.”
Which, my friend informed us, was exactly the point. Friday was her night to do, or not do, what she wanted.
Verbiage about differences between introverts and extroverts occupies almost as much internet real estate as the cute cat pictures. It is therefore commonly understood that some people get their energy from being around other people, while the rest of us need to retreat from the world to recharge.
In spite of this, I’ve noticed that we all– introverts and extroverts alike– tend to refer in conversation to time spent home alone as “doing nothing.” “Doing something,” on the other hand tends to have the default meaning of “engaging in some sort of activity away from home, and probably involving other people.”
On my “About” page I describe myself as, “A big-time introvert who makes a living with people, and comes home to people.” Now don’t get me wrong, I love the people — well, person– to whom I come home. But the truth is that when she heads off for summer camp my own introvert’s soul relishes its own kind of vacation. I look forward to coming home from my people-filled office to a quiet space and filling my evenings with my own thoughts. With reading and writing and long walks. With strange little meals eaten at odd times. With no one but me caring when I do the laundry and whether the milk is getting low.
When I know I’m going to have some extended time alone, I plan all sorts of delicious solitary pursuits. But when the world gets wind of the fact that I’m on my own for a stretch of time, invariably this thing happens: well meaning people (of whom I am also very fond) start inviting me for dinner because I am alone. Sometimes I say no.
Here’s where it gets awkward. Because of our apparent cultural bias toward “doing things,” part of me feels guilty for saying no (really, it’s not you–it’s me). And then I feel like I should feel guilty for feeling guilty. And then I end up trying to explain myself to the universe in a guilt-laden blog post, when really the whole point was that I just wanted to guard my time alone for doing things like, say, writing blog posts.
Sometimes I say yes to the invitations. And I have a lovely time, and enjoy the people I’m with. But if I happen to have said no to you, then please know that it doesn’t mean I don’t want to spend the time with you. Rather, it means I need to spend the time with me.
I don’t really feel that guilty. But I do wish we could all stop referring to home-alone time as “doing nothing.” Because you should see the list of things I’ve got planned for these few, precious days of solitude! The list that, truthfully, I’ve been making for months in anticipation of this time. On the one hand, I don’t want to feel compelled to share with you everything that’s on the list. On the other hand, if I don’t guard the time I’ve set aside to do these things, then when I (inevitably) find myself back in the middle of other peoples lives, the things I didn’t do with my time alone will haunt and frustrate me.
I will, in other words, be happier when we do spend time together if I also spend some time alone. Doing something.
I was getting my hair washed. I like getting my hair washed. Note that this is not the same as washing my hair. Washing my hair is a routine, pedestrian chore that goes along with showering and brushing my teeth. Getting my hair washed is something that happens at best every six weeks when I go for a haircut. Getting my hair washed is a bit of luxury — having someone else slowly and expertly massage your scalp is a substantially different experience than hastily scrubbing a bit of shampoo and conditioner over your head as you scramble to prepare for work. But I digress.
I was getting my hair washed, and a strange thought occurred to me. This young salon assistant, who I know absolutely nothing about, can see a part of my body that I can’t see myself. (Apparently strange things happen inside my head when you rub the outside!) The thought intrigued me, and it got me thinking about all the ways in which other people had views of me to which I had no access without the aid of some form of technology.
There’s a large wall of mirrored glass which reflects me walking to the elevator at work each morning, but I don’t have a clue what that mirror displays when I am walking away from it.
There is an exclusive club of doctors and nurses who have been up close and personal with parts of my internal workings that are not normally on display.
I never get to see myself sleeping.
Then, because this is how the inside of my head works, I began to think about the less tangible ways in which other people might see aspects of me that are not readily visible from my perspective.
For example, I wrote recently about my “impostor syndrome” dream and all the anxiety that my subconsciously imagined classroom represented. In my real classroom last week, my students painted a very different picture in the feedback they provided.
So which is really me? The partial me I see? Or the view that is visible to everyone else?
Both, together with a third perspective: the parts of me that only I can see. Because you may be able to see the back of my head, but only I can see what’s in it.
Unless, of course I decide to offer you a glimpse. And unless you agree to accept it.
Which is why I write this blog. And why you read it.
Famous. I wanted to be famous. I blame the acting classes, and the modicum of success I experienced in the grade nine musical theatre production. Oh and I’m sure all those piano lessons were a contributing factor. To be honest, I wasn’t very specific about what I wanted to be famous at. So long as I was famous.
At some point in my early 20s I do recall pausing to reflect on how I would know when I had achieved fame, and I came up with an elegantly simple measure. For me, being famous meant that people I didn’t know personally would recognize me and know who I was.
So thirty years later how am I doing?
To begin with, having spent so much of my career teaching in one form or another, I have amassed three decades worth of former students. One thing about being a teacher is that there is generally one of me with a whole roomful of students, multiplied by class after class, year after year. And, to be brutally honest, unless you were really exceptional (either for good or ill), the odds of me remembering your name fifteen or twenty years later are a little iffy. But you remember me, because I was the one performing at the front of the room. So when you rush up to me in the mall to say hi, I must admit that I experience that moment as if someone I don’t know has recognized me. It’s flattering, but a little disconcerting, especially when I really don’t remember any details of our time together.
Secondly, because of a series of management roles I have held, both in the independent high school where I taught, and more recently in the public service, my name has, for years, appeared publicly. I have, for at least two-thirds of my working life, been the person who is named as being officially in charge of something. Consequently, over the years there have been particular contexts in which I could introduce myself and anticipate a response of “Oh, I know who you are!”
Andy Warhol said everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, and I have managed to pull off a few fifteen minute stints of fame for my writing. Not Margaret Atwood or Ernest Hemingway fame. Just the kind of modest fame that lets you go to bed grinning with self-satisfaction, but leaves you still needing to haul yourself off to the day job in the morning. I’ve read my work on the radio and been published in academic journals. I’ve written study guides for a local theatre and actually been paid to do it. And twice now, in the eight months I’ve been blogging here, the lovely editors at WordPress have seen fit to Freshly Press my work. I’m still riding the wave of the most recent Fresh Press, and I have to confess that it brings out in me that same impulse that long ago made me dream of fame. It’s thrilling to watch my stats spike, to count the likes (thank you!) and tally the new follows (Welcome!) Comments mean a great deal, especially the ones where the commenter has added their own thoughts, and the biggest reward of all is when someone re-posts what I have written.
Because the truth is, I’m no longer looking for my old vision of fame. I no longer care if, when I meet you on the street, you recognize my face or know my name. What matters to me at this stage of my life is that something I did made a difference to you. When you re-post my blog, you are telling me that you thought I said something worth reading– that it mattered to you in some way, and therefore might matter to the people who read your blog. And that matters a great deal to me.
When I first clicked “Publish” back in September I had no idea where this blog was going. It evolved, along with my newly restored ability to go for long walks, out of my time off work to recover from hip replacement surgery. My initial goals were to give myself an excuse to write more regularly, and to find an audience for my writing. The blog has been a success on both counts. While I haven’t been able to maintain the same pace since going back to work, I have managed to post at least once or twice a week even in my busiest times. I have been “Freshly Pressed” and managed to amass over 1000 followers– some of whom appear to be actual human beings, and a few of whom are actually interested in reading what I’ve written (as opposed to trying to entice me to buy their products or join their pyramid schemes… but hey, nobody said this was a perfect world.)
Turns out, the best things about blogging are those actual human beings — both the ones who read and comment on my blog, and the ones whose writing engages and inspires me daily. So when I pondered how I could mark the milestone of my 100th blog post, it occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was to celebrate with those people whose blogs have been such an inspiration to me.
There are, however, some obvious logistical barriers. Most of my blogging friends live very far from me and from one another, and many of them blog anonymously. So as much as I would like to have my daughter whip up one of her epic cakes and have my blogging buddies over for a party, it’s not going be feasible.
Unless I make it a virtual party!
So, welcome to my 100th Blog Post Party. Break out the balloons, pour yourself a glass of your beverage of choice, and I’ll take you around the room and introduce you to the other guests.
There’s Matt from Must Be This Tall To Ride. Matt has just come through the toughest year of his life, but he has distilled an incredible amount of wisdom out of the pain of his divorce. I look forward daily to his insightful writing as he navigates his single life and the challenges of part-time parenting. And speaking of distilling tough life experiences into some amazing writing, I’d like you to meet Fish of Gold, Ziya Tamesis at A Day with Depression and Jess at The Fevered Pen.
I have become very fond of little Phillip through the stories and pictures his mom shares on That Cynking Feeling. Elizabeth at Living with Autism also blogs eloquently about her experiences parenting her autistic son, Dylan.
You may have noticed I haven’t been posting much lately. I have been doing a bit of non-blog writing, but mostly I’ve just been super-busy with other things. Chiefly, I’ve got a lot of papers to grade for the two (what was I thinking?) courses I taught this term over and above my already busy day job. I should be doing that right now.
I don’t know if I would call it an obsession, but at this point in my life I am focused on finding ways to live more creatively. Teaching is, for me, a creative pursuit. Grading papers is not. My job affords opportunities for creativity, but it also comes with lots of barriers to creativity. Sometimes I think my biggest barrier to living a more creative life is me.
One of my greatest creative mentors is a woman I have never met, but who lives so vividly through her books that I feel as though I have. A few days ago I was having a sort of “crisis of faith”—as in I was seriously doubting my faith in my own creativity. I expressed it in this blog post. The very next day, as though the universe itself was responding to my shaken confidence, I picked up Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper from my nightstand and happened upon these words, written by Cameron in reflection upon a concert of Richard Rodgers’ lesser-known works:
All of us who make things worry whether or not what we make is “original.” Listening to the Rodgers evening proved this worry to be irrelevant. Clearly, Rodgers was the “origin” of all his work. The prism of his sensibility is what made it original. The same is true for all of us. We are the origin or our work. Our allowing work to move through us in the issue. As we suit up and show up each day at the page or easel or the camera, we have an “eye” that becomes the “I” present in all that we do. (pp. 57-58)
Julia Cameron is one of those rare beings who actually make a living being creative. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, and even composed opera. But Cameron’s greatest gift to the creative world has surely been her many books of gentle wisdom on how to unlock the creativity we all carry within us. Beginning with The Artist’s Way, and moving through multiple volumes of reflections and exercises that encourage the reader to dig deeper into the depths of his or her own creativity, Cameron has quite literally “written the book” on how to live a more creative life.
Mind you, she’s not alone. There are others whom I have found to be able guides in my quest to centre myself within my creativity. Twyla Tharp. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Stephen King. And others whose names escape me for the moment.
So many things escape me. So many times I have tried to take a run at living a more creative life, and before I know it all the things that have a tendency to squelch my efforts rush in and fill up all the spaces in my day, and in my mind. The truth is my willpower is not very powerful. I’m way better at starting projects than I am at finishing them.
But I’m not giving up.
There’s been a lot written about Disney’s new creation Frozen. For me, the most powerful metaphor in this amazing film comes in the middle of Elsa’s iconic song “Let it go” where she essentially creates a staircase by walking up it. That’s how I see the process of creating a different way of living. Create the path by walking on it. One step at a time.