Daily Practice Revisited

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Yesterday, I was thinking about my word for 2017: Practice. I was thinking about how, like so many things in my life, I figured that I could just set it and forget it. Practice! I’m going to practice. Every day. Writing, being a writer, mindfulness. Poof! Done.

I feel like I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again because apparently I’m not getting it: it’s not that easy. It seems funny to me that I chose such an active word. The word itself exhorts me to do something, and yet, I don’t. I just sort of expect it to come, I’m just magically writing every day and it flows like water, easy. What I am coming to realize is that practice is hard (how embarrassing! I’m just coming to this realization?!) Developing any kind of daily practice takes a lot of effort. It feels really awful, in the beginning. Each day, I have to drag myself to the thing I want to do and basically force myself to do it. After the doing, I might feel better, but not usually. Often, I feel disappointed. Like, is that it? That’s what daily practice looks like?

This may be a function of social media and the sharing of carefully selected moments of life. I scroll through Instagram and see a lovely photo of someone doing a headstand, or sitting in a peaceful spot writing, or their running shoes on the ground. What these pictures don’t show is everything that led to that moment. I’m realizing that what goes into those moments is a lot of push, a lot of preparation. A lot of choosing to be there. That is the rub of it, for me. I have to choose to practice.

This week I have: gone for a run that was mostly a walk; gone to a yoga class; not purchased a big bag of chips to inhale; meditated once; sat down to write this blog post; gotten out of bed to work on a poem. All of these things took monumental effort. Took me getting outside of myself for a moment, acknowledging what I reflexively wanted, recalling what I wanted ideally, and taking a step in that direction. So much of my life is just reacting, reacting, reacting. Thinking “I want to eat a whole big bag of chips” happens in a fraction of a second, and in that sliver of time my hand reaches for the bag and puts it on the belt at the grocery store and then opens it in the truck and eats it on the drive home. If I don’t stop and check myself, before you know it, it’s gone.

I am realizing that I will take the path of least resistance, always and forever. If I don’t push myself a little, I’ll never make any changes. I’ll sit and stare at my phone and let my kids binge-watch The Wiggles until they’re ready to move out of the house. I’ll never write another poem, climb another mountain, or drink a glass of water if I don’t make myself do it. Practice is a series of choices, every single day. I choose and choose and choose again. Sometimes, I choose the easy thing: the whole bag of chips, the staying on the couch, the not-writing. And often, I think, “that’s it. This is me, forever and ever. I’ll never be different.” But that’s not true. The beauty is that there will always be another choice to make, right around the corner, and I can choose differently. The hard part is remembering that. The hard part is not listening to the nasty voice in my head that tells me no, never, not good enough, give up.

I did not want to write a blog post today. I do not want to work on some poems. I don’t want to read a book, or go for a walk. Today, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted. But I will do some or all of these things, because I know that this is how I build a practice. I just fucking do it.

What will you do today?

Adjustments

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It’s so easy to type out “I’m going to take myself seriously as a writer”, but it’s another thing entirely to actually do that. I’ve filled out the forms for daycare, and today I’ll drop them off. There is a wait list. It could be months before I’ve got even those eight hours child free per week. And already, those eight hours don’t feel like enough.

So what’s a gal to do in the mean time? It’s limbo, but I can’t sit on my hands while I wait. I have to continue to make things happen, in little ways.

My word for 2017 is “practice”. I’d intended to write every day, and for almost two months, I did. Sometimes it was only a few sentences, or journalling. Sometimes a poem or a blog post. It felt largely aimless, but I was doing it. And then I fell off the wagon. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written daily, but I’m trying to find my way back. This is what my writing life looks like. This is what being a writing mother looks like. You get into some kind of routine, and then everyone gets sick and it’s all you can do to make it to a seven pm bedtime and you pass out wedged between two stuffed up, coughing babies.

This morning, when the ache in my lower back became unbearable, I determined to get up and write morning pages. Charlotte turned towards me, wanting to nurse, so I nursed her, willing myself to stay awake. It took me four attempts. Four times I made my way out of bed in increments, stepping lightly down the stairs, getting to the bottom and hearing her cry for me. Once I got all they way to the kitchen, began to write in the bright light glaring off the glass table top. I’m doing it, I thought.

Then I heard her creaky voice over the baby monitor: “Mama, are you? Mama, are you? Mama!” Heard Paul try to shush her. Heard her insistence for me. I slammed my journal shut, my feet heavy on the stairs. I sat down hard on the edge of the bed, determined not to nurse her.

“Go to sleep, baby,” I whispered, patting her back with a firm hand. And she did. And she stayed asleep, and I wrote two more pages and then I turned on my computer and I fiddled with two poems. And when they all woke up I felt so accomplished. This. This is what I’ll do. I’ll be the mom who wakes up an hour, two hours before her kids in order to write. I’ll do this for years, until they don’t need me so intensely anymore. Or at least, I’ll do it for the rest of the week.

And what of the rest of the time, when I can’t be writing? I’ve been thinking of this, too. I read as a writer, closely, with more curiosity. I don’t read just to finish a book, which is how I used to do it. I glean little bits as I go, about form and style and also just ideas, information that I squirrel away for the future.

In her essay “Upstream”, Mary Oliver writes “Attention is the beginning of devotion”. I’ve been turning this over in my mind for weeks. She writes of attention to the natural world. Of giving our children and ourselves the freedom to inhabit wild places and to notice every detail, to fall in love and cherish the world.

And then yesterday, this blog post from Shawna Lemay on how to live more poetically. She writes:

How to live more poetically? Cultivate elegance, a tender heart, an attentiveness, a generous integrity.

There it is again: attention. I’m well aware that attention to my daily life is not my strong suit. If I could be wandering green fields and forest streams all day long, I’m sure I could be a little more attentive. But my job now, as a writer and a mother, is to find a way to bring attention to the runny noses, the toy battles, the endless chatter about dragons, the complaints over dinner. The sweet moments, too, but they aren’t as common as I’d like. Or maybe I’m missing them. This, too, is a practice. It’s all practice, and I must come back to it again and again, a thousand times, until it’s like breathing.

Little tweaks, little changes here and there. Adjustments to my day, my outlook. Just as I’m getting discouraged, I have to remind myself: come back. See what can give, apply a little pressure until it clicks. Make space and see what happens.

Balance Point

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In a recent personal rejection from The New Quarterly, the editors noted that while they often publish work “engaged with the dark side of the human condition and family” those works typically have a “point of balance.”  It got me thinking about my tendency to gravitate towards that darkness, to the exclusion of the light. It’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember; there was a time where I was sure I wouldn’t have kids because how could I raise kids in a world I had no hope for? These feelings have been exaggerated lately, to the point where I actually feel paralyzed to write anything at all (I do, though, continue to write daily).

I feel like it’s disingenuous to write pretty things, all light and air, when the world is dark and getting darker. Even in the microcosm of family life, I feel like it’s a disservice to the truth if I don’t talk about my struggles. Parenting is hard. Marriage is hard. If we don’t talk about it, everyone continues to suffer in silence, alone in the dark. But it seems like my devotion to the hard truths of life has become an unhealthy obsession: if I’m not writing about hard, sad things, I’m not writing. I can remember this being a part of my writing life as early as my teens. I wrote in my journal most often when I was going through heartbreak, either romantically or with friends. Writing through the darkness was how I made, how I continue to make, sense of things. That is a part of my depressive nature, I suppose. So maybe a part of my practice must be to continually choose to turn towards the light. To document the neutral times, the happy times. To learn the language of levity.

In the days since Trump’s election, I’ve seen it suggested by a few different artists that to continue to make beautiful things is, in fact, a radical act. I feel this responsibility to the truth; to not look away from all of the horrific things happening in the world. I feel like, as artists, we must witness and document. But people need to rest, too. I write so often about self-care, and for me, self-care is sometimes turning away from the endless feed of news and towards something so beautiful it takes my breath away: a favourite poem, the light on the hillside at sunset, my kids holding hands as they play. This leads me to wonder if my power as a writer might be in creating things of beauty. Safe places to rest the mind for a while. Because we can’t afford to look away. We have to stay engaged in order to fight what is coming, what is already here and has been here beneath our notice for decades. But to look for the beauty in each day, to turn towards the light, is the balance point I need right now. It’s a gift I can offer, first to myself, and then to my kids, and then to the rest of the world.

A Word for 2017

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This morning as I browsed some favourite bloggers, I noticed that Lindseay Mead of A Design So Vast had written a post about her word for 2017.. She writes that sometimes, if a particular word presents itself in the days and weeks leading up to the new year, she’ll choose it as something to guide her in the coming year. I like this idea because it seems simpler and more general than listing resolutions and trying to stick to them all. I like to think of choosing a word as a touchstone, something to come back to again and again. A way of checking in with yourself.

Last year, I chose the word “connect”. I’m not sure how I did at connecting, overall. It was meant to encompass my self, my children, my partner, the present moment. In looking back through my blog, I see there were days where I absolutely chose to connect with those around me, and also days when I made a very concious choice to disconnect. I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded or failed. Rather, I set an intention and came back to it when I needed to.

In the final weeks of 2016, there was a word that popped into my mind over and over. An idea that intrigued me. I wrote about it here and here: daily practice. Or, for the purpose of this exercise, just “practice” will do.

This has to do with my writing, first of all. I’ve wondered how a daily writing practice would change me. I’ve been inspired by Sarah Bousquet of One Blue Sail and her daily blogging, as well as blogger Elan Morgan and their daily poetry practice. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing either of those things, but in the end, I feel like life with three kids is a little too hectic for me to commit to any one specific form. So instead I would like to practice my craft, somehow, every day for the next year. Just practice coming to the page every day, even if it’s just a 10 minute freewrite in my journal.

I’d also like to practice showing up for myself. Practice coming back to the present moment as many times as I have to in a day. Practice self-care. There are so many things that I wish I just had perfect right out of the gate, and it’s my nature to give up when they’re not. So I’d like to let this word remind me to be gentle with myself and to keep at it, whatever it may be, doggedly, even when it feels messy or lame.

What about you? Have you ever chosen a word for your year? What word would you choose for 2017?

P.S. I had to Google how to spell “practice”. The internet says that as a Canadian, should be using “practice” for the noun and “practise” for the verb. It also notes that Americans use “practice” for both noun and verb and so I’m going to stick with that for ease!