Often when I sit down to write I have no idea what I want to say before I start. Writing is one of the ways I discover what my subconscious is working on, and it’s through putting words to the page or screen that I formulate my opinions about the world much of the time. Truth is, I’m really a verbal thinker (talking helps me think through sticky problems), but in the absence of other people writing is the next best thing.
Because of this tendency to think and write at the same time (rather than planning out what I’m going to say), I delete a lot of what I write. Every remaining sentence is one I have tinkered with, re-written, and re-ordered innumerable times. It is a frustrating and slow process, and as I’ve aged, one I find hampered by brain fogs – a kind of internal weather subject to settling in when I least expect it (particularly when my B12 isn’t in check). Whenever I am struggling to get a good sentence on the page, I think about Edna St. Vincent Millay, the celebrated poet of the early twentieth century who is said to have composed her perfect stanzas so thoroughly in her head before writing them down that they needed no editing. I only hate her a little bit for this – though I expect her famous mind for writing declined in middle age when she developed the morphine addiction that would contribute to her early death at 58.
In writing practice there is an often-discussed divide between the “pantser” and the “plotter”–the former being someone who flies by the seat of their pants and does little or no planning before sitting down to write, the latter being the opposite–someone who meticulously plans out their work before committing anything to the page. Apparently there is also a middle way known as “plantser” but I have never heard anyone identify themselves in this category.
I would very much like to be a plotter, as deep in my heart I do feel it’s most correct to sit down with a structure and an outline before one starts writing. However, I am just not that way, and it’s not for lack of trying. My friend Kyla identified my problem with plotting when I was attempting a novel during Nanowrimo some years back when she said “If you’ve worked out what you are going to write in some detail, the actual writing part becomes a bit pointless because you already know what is going to happen next.” This, I find to be as true with non-fiction as with fiction writing. If I’ve already worked the problem out in my mind, I’m ready to go onto the next thing, not elucidate more on the thing I’ve figured out. Of course there is always a lot of editing, but my outlining process happens in long-form writing. It’s time-consuming because there are a lot of dead-ends, but given my attempts to change my writing “personality” over the years, I’m not sure a pantser can become a plotter (and vice versa).
With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about the logistics of writing a book. Over my adult life, this idea has come up several times, but I’ve always talked myself out of it fairly quickly. The closest I’ve come was the completion of Nanowrimo about a decade ago, from which I emerged with a terrible first draft of a novel at 65,000 words or so. I’ve never been interested in revisiting that project or fiction in general since, though it was a revealing process in many ways. I learned that 65,000 words in a month is 2100 words per day and that if one doesn’t self-edit too much, those words can be knocked out in as little as 90 minutes. I realized that the phenomena of characters making decisions against the author’s intent or plans is a real thing–characters do come to life in the subconscious in a way that gives them their own agency to redirect or drive narrative development. And ultimately, I understood that to turn out something book-length means putting oneself in service to the writing above all else for at least a specified period of most days.
In my usual nod to plotting, I’ve attempted some thoughts towards a book proposal in the last month, but found I got bogged down in questions I knew would only be answered through the writing itself. And so I’ve been writing instead. About 4000 words so far, not very much, but enough to see the process I learned during Nanowrimo works as I remember it did. A few hundred words a day, allowing the writing itself to generate ideas and direction, some dedicated reading that inspires and influences my own topic and writing style – and I can see it’s possible to do this thing, though I shake my head as I type those words.
Yesterday I wrote in my process journal, “If a book is to be, it will come out over a long period of work and I will be confident about it then. I do not have to be confident about it now.” Perhaps a bit of a mantra each time I sit down to the laptop and feel stumped at what is going to come next. The trick is to first get a lot of words on the page which reach towards something, and once I see what that something is, to remove every word that doesn’t actually need to be in the way. So that’s what I’m attempting right now. Getting a lot of words on the page every day. I’m not doing anything as heroic as Nanowrimo so my daily output goal is 500-750 words, except on days when I’m writing the newsletter or this blog. I figure that 10,000 words a month is respectable and doable progress, though it will mean cutting back on textile studio time to get there. Even if there is not a book at the end of the rainbow, I will have figured out a lot of thoughts by writing them down.
As to what I am writing about, I’m not exactly sure yet. Not sure enough to share in any case. I will document my experience here as I go as this is the public record of my inner life, and to some degree the writing I am doing now is connected back to the reasons I started this blog in 2003. So if I’m a little quiet at times, that’s where I am. Working out what I think, word by word, encouraged by the springtime emerging outside my window.
Tomorrow I turn 49. Not a milestone birthday, but a messenger of sorts. A foreshadowing.
As far as it goes, I’ve done well in the last year. My fitness has been on track, I started a new job in the fall, my family is all still living, my partnership is loving, and I’ve put a fair amount of writing and objects out into the world. If I find myself anxious these days (and I do) it’s not because of any lack in my own life, but because the socio-political winds are blowing in the wrong direction and I am not able to prognosticate the future. But then I remind myself, it was ever thus, and there is no period in which humans have been free from calamity or suffering and why should now be any different?
One of the weird coincidences in my life is that my birthday and work anniversary are only a few days apart. As of February 3rd, I had worked for my employer for 24 years which is half of my life. I’ve been thinking about how much I identify with that role lately, specifically as it relates to people in my Facebook feed spewing conspiracy nonsense, not to mention supporting the current protest in Ottawa. While I don’t believe that government does everything right/makes all the right choices, I have grown impatient (angry, really) with the implication that myself and people like me are working in concert to actively harm our fellow citizens, neighbours, and family members. Because for someone to believe in the conspiracies being promoted out there, that is literally what they have to believe, not to mention the fact that nearly every doctor, scientist, and academic must be in on it as well. Whether it is 9/11 or anti-vax, to believe in conspiracy is to actively despise the civil service, or at least some quarter of it. And while I aspire to detachment, I’ve started to take that quite personally.
I am a big believer in the right to public protest, and have participated in many a demonstration in my life. I believe citizens should let government know when they are dissatisfied with policies or are seeking redress, and I’ve always felt that a demonstration outside my workplace is a sign the work we do is relevant to people, enough that communities seek change or inclusion in process. Where things veer off course for me is in demands that democratic processes should be discarded in the face of big trucks, that government should abandon programs or policies without plans for new ones that take all people into account, and ultimately that fascist views should be included in “the tent” of ideas for consideration. If anything is worrying me on the eve of my birthday, it is this.
On the weekend I read about a California couple who got snowed in at their mountain cabin on December 6th, but only recently called for help as their supplies dwindled. I suppose they were used to being snowed in and were just waiting, figuring two months of supplies would last until they could get out again. But as it’s been a historic snowfall year in Lake Tahoe, that didn’t happen and they had to call for helicopter evacuation. Upon reading this I implored Brian to imagine living that far off the grid, and how lucky one would be to not know what was going on in the world. If I didn’t know about current events, then surely they wouldn’t be impacting me the way they are. Right?
In the meantime, Brian bought me an Oculus VR headset for my birthday and I’m finding solace in virtual reality. It’s very clean and trippy in there, surprisingly calming. I seem to have reached a point lately where all I want to do is take low doses of mushrooms and float around in imagined reality. Given the state of the world these days can anyone really blame me?
Halfway through 2021, I stopped meditating altogether.
After cultivating a fairly steady practice since 2014, this came as a bit of a surprise to me. I have occasionally stopped for a couple of weeks, and “daily” has sometimes meant 4 times per week, but I always return to practice fairly quickly because I notice it in my nervous system when I don’t. Perhaps more practical than any spiritual quest, meditation is one of the most effective mechanisms for regulating anxiety I have found, and Zen study helps me situate myself in the tempest of this world.
At first I told myself it was just due to summertime which always turns routines sideways. The heat dome and successive heat waves didn’t help as my sleep was disrupted frequently and I had trouble motivating myself to the cushion in the early mornings. As the cooler air of September prevailed I had the greatest intention to return to my rhythm during the fall practice period. But although I cleaned my Zendo and put fresh flowers on the altar, I did not sit once from September through December. “New job/new schedule,” I told myself whenever the feeling that I “should” be sitting arose, “I’ll get back to it when I’m ready.”
After a few months, a great resistance rose inside of me whenever I thought about sitting again. I predicted failure of attention and wild discomfort, convincing myself that returning would require starting from five minutes per day and building up all over again, something I didn’t want to face up to after years of being fairly dedicated.
But last Sunday, on the second day of the new year, I entered my zendo, bowed to the altar and then slipped onto my homemade meditation bench to join my sangha in Vancouver on Zoom. Knees on the cushion, facing the wall for the first bells of meditation practice, I immediately relaxed into the posture that feels like home to me even after many months away. Sitting, walking, sitting, then dharma talk and Zen service; besides a little fidgeting during the meditation periods, it was as thought I had never taken a break at all.
I often hear people say things like “knitting/running/gardening is my meditation,” but I don’t agree with this equivalence. I knit, weave, run, garden, cook – and as far as it goes, only meditation is my meditation. It is not the same as any activity (because it is primarily the absence of activity), even those which have a calming or focussing effect. Though meditation has a beneficial effect on my well-being, it is literally the only time in my day without purpose or utility. There is no end product. There is nothing in my life that has a similar effect to putting on my rakusu and bringing my attention to the breath. In and out. In and out.
I had forgotten that in my months of absence, but as I have come to sit for the last ten days, I am remembering every moment of my practice and my vows. I am missing my teachers and my community of practitioners anew. And I am reminded how this simple act of sitting daily helped me navigate the earliest days and anxieties of the pandemic. Somehow returning has been effortless, and I feel as though I’ve merely returned to where I left a part of myself and picked it up again.
In 2021 I made no new year goals, and I barely chose a word to guide my year (though I played with Renewal as an idea, I can’t say I really committed to it). Feeling disillusioned by my inability to plan around the pandemic which had blasted away all my goals for 2020, my general sense of well-being did not allow me to plan for the even the near future.
While I am not exactly able to see a path forward into 2022, and I am already tired by things to come, I have decided that rather than adopting a “let’s just get through this” mindset, I will work with the concept of fluidity and flow in 2022. As Lao Tzu and Lucretius (among many) have noted, water has the qualities of being soft and yet strong enough to erode rock. I would like to find the qualities of gentleness, strength, flexibility, and movement as I enter this new year with big and small goals. I am embracing “Fluid” as my word for 2022 as I seek to soften my approach to hard problems that have to be tackled.
1) Arrange renovations on my parent’s second home and move them into it. This is my biggest goal and part of helping them age in their community with less property to take care of.
2) Create my position at work and get appointed to it indeterminately. I’m currently on an assignment, but would like that to become permanent and am working towards that happening.
3) Staff my new work team once positions are created. That’s nine positions which come with a whole lot of work to create and fill them.
4) Run 15 km. (My previous record is 12 km.)
5) Complete one 30-day yoga challenge.
6) Increase on all my powerlifts: Deadlift 250, Benchpress 115, Squat 230
7) Complete one other fitness challenge (to be chosen later in the year).
8) Knit a first pair of socks.
9) Hand paint two warps.
10) Create some upholstery fabric and reupholster one footstool and a chair.
11) Weave a double-width blanket.
12) Organize community fibre meet-ups once omicron has passed.
13) Host an open studio where people can drop-in for a day of visiting and fibre discussion.
14) Publish 10 issues of Comfort for the Apocalypse.
15) Make fifty blog posts. (One down, 49 to go!)
16) Complete one long-read essay.
17) Return to Zen practice and study. Attend one residential retreat in 2022.
18) Put $2000 in savings and leave it there.
19) Read 100 books (I did this challenge last year and got to 91). This includes War and Peace which I am reading right now.
20) Do the January Cure (The Apartment Therapy program for getting one’s house in order for the year to come, which started yesterday).
21) Get to New York for friend’s wedding and family visiting in June. This is covid-dependent, but it’s on the agenda and will be the first trip outside of BC in over two years.
22) Arrange one smallish house improvement project – laundry room, downstairs bathroom or tbd – in the fall.
Though I feel these goals are achievable because they align with where I am currently at, a lot of external factors will influence how and if they happen. While that is always been true, it just seems more obvious in the face of wave after wave of pandemic infections. While I hope that 2022 brings an end to Covid (or at least sends it into endemic status), I also know that I will continue to carve out a life in my small/local community and use the quieter pace of lockdown for generative creative and spiritual practice. I hope that you are able to do the same, finding a focus that works to stabilize your own place in this ever-emerging world and even discovering new pleasures amidst our days of uncertainty. A better world is still possible, but we have to believe it’s so in order to make it there.
I haven’t done a catch-up post for awhile, and here we are at the end of the 2021 (almost!) Enough said that between viral mutation and climate change catastrophes it’s been a weird year, though we’ve done pretty well getting through it at Birdsong (owing to a great community and quite a bit of housing and financial privilege which allowed us to escape the precarity many people are facing right now).
Like everyone, I’m a bit done with the disaster movie life, but I’m also pretty sure that this is the way life will be framed forever until I die. I had hoped that the worst of the planetary undoing would come sometime in my 80s when I could just nope on out of here, but it seems that I’m going to experience a lot of it thirty years ahead of my preferred schedule.
But I’m going to do my best to enjoy whatever time in whatever conditions we’ve got left – and I don’t mean by flying around the world and churning more garbage for the landfill. Case in point, I still cherish beautiful tableware and last week Brian and I bought a set of vintage pottery from Mexico to replace our (ho-hum) everyday dishes. This is the kind of small delight I need with my morning coffee, or my evening meal – mugs that fit perfectly in the hand, the lightness of well-made stoneware, and little birds!
But while the big news on this home front is that we have new tableware, a lot more is going on in our extended families right now with elder parents transitioning and moving (which involves no small amount of drama in my family). I anticipate a lot of heavy lifting in the new year facilitate some of this. Fortunately no one is in a precipitous health decline and it’s more that everything has become too much and no one is denying it anymore. I hope that moving into more manageable housing will relieve some of the stress in my parents lives and help them live longer and with less anxiety. This Christmas will be the last we celebrate in their home of fifty years, and though my brother will stay on the family property it does mark the end of the central gathering place my mother always created for the holidays.
So I guess it’s no wonder I’m feeling a little verklempt as we enter the holiday season, because I can see that over the next few years things are going to get a little harder for everyone, even with these modifications and supports.
I’ve been baking cookies for the annual Xmas feast on Gabriola – which the last two years has involved delivered meals for those who sign-up – and this has brought a little Christmas cheer into the house which has smelled perpetually like ginger this week. Besides basic cookies, I attempted some German baking at my mother’s request–stollen and lebkuchen–which are among her favourite seasonal treats. While I may not be the best judge of my own baking, Brian confirms that both have turned out (the chocolate dipped lebkuchen are crazy good), though he has never had pfeffernüsse or lebukuchen before so perhaps he isn’t the best judge either. Suffice to say, we will be arriving at my parent’s home with a lot of baking this year (including Brian’s shortbread and Christmas cake), plus all the trimmings for Christmas dinner since we offererd to cook this year.
The provincial health announcement yesterday recommends the curtailing of gatherings, but more than anything I am worried about the weather which is supposed to blow in wintery around Christmas eve. I’m hoping that it holds off until the travel part of our day is done, which won’t be until later in the evening. Everyone we will be seeing is vaccinated, and our older family members are boosted, which doesn’t guarantee anything against omicron, but does help according to the data I’ve read. We booked our boosters for January 8th yesterday as we are part of “whole community” vaccination efforts on Gabriola and get to go a little ahead of our age cohort as a result. Brian and I are still inside six months since our second vaccination, so we should still be protected. Christmas has always been a stressful time for me, but the last couple of years have really been over the top.
And yet, I am still grateful heading into 2022 – that we have enough to carry ourselves through, that no one close to us has been struck terribly ill or by disaster in the last year, that I have great love in my life. I have lived through years where none of this is true – and so I am holding on to the goodness that is here right now. One day past the solstice, today is when the light begins to return today, which is truly a cause for celebration. We are through the longest night, though perhaps not the longest winter – my holiday wish for everyone is that we may pass through these days stronger and more connected, despite that which keeps us physically apart.