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I think I’ll stay under here where it’s safe.

In his podcast episode called Emergency, Benjamen Walker speaks into a secret recorder hidden in a pen while sitting in a hot tub:

I fled my studio for Spa Castle … I’m just finding it impossible to work these days. It’s the news, blaring out of the radio, blasting from the computer. It’s relentless, and it climbs over every wall I build and slides in under every door I close. There’s no escape.

And as far as I can tell, this is a new thing. Of course, the 24-hour news cycle has been around for decades now, we got that in the 1990s with the Iraq War and the O.J. Simpson case. But it was still a news cycle. That cycle has disintegrated. Today, now, it’s just news all the time. And once you check in, there’s no checking out. There’s no longer a calm after the storm, because it’s a storm that never ends.

And this non-stop hurricane of pain, it’s affecting my mental health, my physical well-being, and my podcast. This is why I’m here, talking to you, dear listener, from a hot tub at Spa Castle. …

The musician Neil Young once said that what is most precious to him is his creative space, a space he goes to great lengths to maintain and protect. Well, the past few months of breaking news has completely broken down the barriers protecting my creative space. It’s now been overrun by hot takes and longreads and memes, tweets, and I’m scared—terrified, actually—that I won’t be able to put everything back together again.

This captures how I feel about writing in the last three years, in general, and definitely here, online. The non-stop hurricane of pain has decimated my mental, physical, and digital creative spaces.

I don’t know how to write on this blog anymore. I know how I used to write, so when I’m in that headspace for the week or so it takes me to write a post, I can write here, but otherwise I feel like I have tape over my mouth. It’s the news and it’s Facebook and it’s parenting pre-teens and it’s Year 5 of living across the country from my family and it’s depression and it’s being in my 40s, facing the reality that things aren’t always going to keep getting better, sometimes things will regress and contract and get worse.

So while I flounder around, boarding up broken windows, sweeping up shards of glass, turning down the volume on the news, I thought I’d tell you where things stand right now.

Lia is eleven. I love her so much that I have to hug and kiss her every chance I get, and thank God she still likes it. She is reading books from the Grade 7 shelf and perfecting her round-off back handspring back tuck. Every day from December to April she wore an orange fox hat named Tiki. A few weeks ago she made a coconut cake from scratch all by herself. I like buying her presents—it’s easy, you just buy something with a fox on it, or something made from strawberries or mango or both.

Nico is nine. He just bought himself a fidget cube, and he has assigned noises to each button and gizmo. His life’s ambition is to get me to belly laugh, which he does often, but he needs to find another audience for his potty humour, because I’m not it. He wrote an excellent short story called “Death Battle,” about a boy named Thor who defends Canada from the monster Holy Fish. I get him to tutoring sessions by play-fighting with him at the bus stop and bribing him with jalapeno Cheetos.

My children are part of the hurricane, and part of the bunker against it.

Today is my wedding anniversary. My marriage to Shawn is now legally allowed to drink in the U.S. In honour of the occasion, I dug up this recording of a men’s quartet singing our wedding text. Shawn is the ground in which the bunker is buried; he is a solid constant.

A love-red butterfly for my one and only.

Reading is my equivalent of noise-cancelling headphones. I have put together a background reading list to inform my current fiction project, and it is both comforting and inspiring at the same time. These are books of utopian fiction, first- and second-wave feminism, middle-class domestic fiction, metafiction, feminist economics. This list would seem pretentious to me except that it’s all so damn inspiring and relevant to what I’m writing, I’m gobbling it up.

I started with the books I had already read, books I had close to hand. Old books bubbled up in my memory, new books surfaced in the Recommendations feed on Goodreads. I’m up to 75 books and I’m aiming for 100. I decided to read the books in order of publication, because I like to eat my vegetables before dessert, but I’m finding that it’s all dessert. I feel like a student again, reading short story cycles for my thesis project.

I’m making butterflies for #the100dayproject and posting them to Instagram. This is turning out to be an ode to my home decorating as well as an origami project.

It’s a real book! With pages!

I don’t watch as much TV since my children started staying up until 9 pm or later. I climb under the covers with one earbud in, listening to Audible, which is the best for reading long, dense books. I’m almost halfway through 27 hours of The Golden Notebook narrated by Juliet Stevenson. I tried to read The Golden Notebook fifteen years ago and couldn’t make it through five pages for boredom. Now I’m riveted. Fascism, socialism, communism, free women, repudiated novels and unfinished novels and diary excerpts—it’s all up-to-the-minute even though it’s the 1950s.

Michelle and I have been inching along with a print version of Pilgrimage of Desire. The designs are all done, we’re reviewing physical proofs, and you’ll be able to order it from Amazon and your local bookstore very soon.

Is it summer yet? I need a breather. I want to do more writing. I think I’ll spread a little sand and a beach towel on the floor of my bunker, hang some rainbow butterflies from the ceiling.

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I do love a good Word of the Year. Some of mine in the past have been Strategy, Chillax, Stardust, Reunion, and Fly. Last year’s was just a sound, a wordless moan. Words of the Year are not always transformative, but they’re always evocative and comforting, like a smooth stone carried in a pocket.

This year I was feeling more energized, and I started paying attention in December for a Word of the Year to cross my path.

The word I met was mise-en-place, a French phrase from the world of professional cooking that literally means “to put in place.” But mise-en-place is so much more, as I am discovering.

In my systems work with Cairene MacDonald, we have talked about mise-en-place in its strictest sense, which involves assembling all of one’s tools and ingredients before beginning to work. We’ve also talked about it in a larger sense, of doing whatever planning and preparation is required to make the work go smoothly. These were useful ideas that I aspired to but could never consistently apply.

The revelation of working clean

Then, in the last days of December, a book title flitted across my computer screen, I don’t even remember how. Work Clean: The life-changing power of mise-en-place to organize your life, work, and mind by Dan Charnas (affiliate link). Hmm. Sounds interesting. Is it one of those fluffy productivity books that recycles random tired ideas at a shallow level? Well, it’s only $1.50 on Kindle, let’s check it out.

To my surprise and pleasure, I found it to be a solidly researched, well-structured, and useful book. Through interviews with top chefs in New York and beyond, Charnas absorbs and transforms old productivity saws into a comprehensive paradigm that struck me as fresh and original.

There are stories to hold my interest and demonstrate principles, helpful exercises, and examples that translate kitchen practices to home and office life. I read quickly through the opening chapters and have slowed down now as Charnas is going through the ten “ingredients” of working clean.

My thought is to make each “ingredient” a focus for one month and do the exercises. But the concepts have already flooded me with new ways of seeing some of my problematic work habits.

I’m just naturally messy. Is that true?

For example: In recent years, I have not been good at tidying up as I go or cleaning as I cook. I make a mess, throw things all over the place. I leave all the pieces of a project out, intending to pick it up again, using the physical stuff as a reminder of what I have left undone. “I’ll come back to that later,” I think to myself. “If I stop to put things away, I won’t be able to keep myself going.” I live with the mess until I can’t stand it any longer, and then I do a marathon cleaning session.

This aversion to cleaning up as I go drives my husband nuts. It strikes him as disrespectful when I leave a mess, especially in a space that he has just cleaned. “Who are you expecting to deal with this?” he asks when I ignore a spill or leave a can to rust in the sink. “We live in a small space, we need to keep it tidy.” I try to explain myself, “It’s just how my brain works. I get distracted. I’m thinking about something else. I’m just trying to get the important stuff done. The rest can wait.”

I revisit advice to writers that says, “The dishes can wait,” and “No one on her deathbed ever wished she’d done more housework,” and “Cleaning is just a form of procrastination,” and I feel justified in my messy ways.

Then along comes Work Clean. It’s right there in the title. Dan Charnas and his chef-experts are very compelling at explaining WHY cleaning as you go is so important, and how it impacts your work from beginning to end.

“Even the most refined systems become useless unless maintained. It is not enough to find a ‘right place’ for everything. Cooks can’t use a static system; the system must move. So the real work of mise-en-place isn’t being clean, but working clean: keeping that system of organization no matter how fast and furious the work is.”

This rings true with me, because I know from Cairene that time management is change management, that no ritual or solution stays put for long, but they must all be tweaked and adapted and pruned continuously.

“What many chefs seem to be aiming for, then, is not cleaning for the sake of cleanliness, but rather cleaning as a spiritual practice. Chefs see a direct correlation not only between the condition of one’s station and one’s mind, but also between the tolerance of dirt and the tolerance of distractions, and between the disposition of oneself to cleaning and to responsibility in general. Thus the idea of ‘working clean’ is not only personal but collective. Our roommate’s mess becomes our mess. Our mess becomes our co-worker’s mess. … This holistic view of cleaning — that it should be integrated into every moment of a chef’s work, and that cooks clean not just for one but for all — creates the foundation for excellence in the professional kitchen.”

I couldn’t clean while I worked just because I knew I ought to, or because my husband wanted me to. But I’m finding that I can do it when I’m doing it for the order of my mind and for the excellence of my work. Just a few days of applying mise-en-place to my daily habits and chores has felt SO different, so meaningful and yes, empowering.

A year of mise-en-place

Mise-en-place. Charnas calls it a philosophy and a system, a setup but also the practice of preparing that setup and the mind state of someone who knows exactly how to think, plan, and move. I am looking forward to a year of learning how to embody all of these aspects of mise-en-place, in service to my life and health and writing.

How about you? What’s been your experience of mise-en-place? And do you have a Word of the Year? I’d love to know.

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My last post on gresik.ca was almost a year ago, so I have a lot to catch you up on. And yes, in keeping with the global trend, 2016 was a pretty tough year in my life and household — in fact, my Word of the Year was not a word at all, but just an inarticulate groan of misery. But good things happened too … so here’s a quick skip through the last twelve months.

January and February

My depression, which returned in 2015, took a big downward spike over Christmas, thanks to homesickness and burnout. With the expert and compassionate support of my psychiatrist, I upped my meds, but it took about two months for me to level out again.

Thankfully I’ve been mentally stable since then, and I’ve continued sessions with my therapist, Annie. I’m amazed at the power of long-term weekly therapy, which I’ve never done before. After a year of work with her, I feel like we are still just getting to the good stuff.

March to June

My mental health recovered just in time for our family to enter crisis mode. My kids are at an age where I don’t want to write too specifically about what they’re going through, but I can say that for most of the spring, it was just one traumatic thing after another. I was spending significant time every day doing emotional interventions with the kids, arranging and attending professional appointments, communicating with the school and other parents … it was exhausting and scary.

Crisis mode meant that I had to drop everything anytime the kids needed me. I often missed my weekly writing Meetup, or church, or optional work events, or social outings. I couldn’t go away on my own for a day or two. Life got really small and intense.

July and August

The school year couldn’t end too soon. In fact, we cut it short with a three-week trip to Ontario to decompress and visit family. We all needed the break, and it was wonderful to have downtime. We spent a week with my in-laws, a week at my family’s cottage, and a week in Ottawa. We celebrated at our nephew’s wedding. Shawn and I left the kids with my parents for a few days and we had a twentieth-anniversary getaway in Bobcaygeon. The kids and I rode crazy rollercoasters at Canada’s Wonderland. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Things stayed low-key when we returned to Vancouver. Swimming lessons, day camp, Pacific National Exhibition, bike rides in Stanley Park. My grandfather passed away while we were camping on the Sunshine Coast, and I was able to fly home for a week to attend his funeral and grieve with my family, which is a testament to the fact that the kids were out of crisis and I could leave them for a bit.

September

Back-to-school had even more meaning this year, because the kids were returning to a brand new school building after two years of being bussed to portables at another location. The new space helped shake up some of the troublesome dynamics, as did their new classroom placements. They’re still having challenges, which we’re working away at, but everything is at a lower, more manageable level.

October and November

With more breathing space in my work schedule, and with new insights from my therapy work, I made a commitment in October to return to fiction writing. I decided to revisit a short story collection that I started years ago, and I began working on it regularly. This book will be my major creative project of 2017 so I hope to share more about it as I go along.

I also started recording a Pilgrimage of Desire audiobook, using the free recording space at the Vancouver Public Library, and I am very close to releasing a paperback version of Pilgrimage as well. The ebook has been out for almost two years and is still selling steadily, so I’m excited to make more versions available.

December

December is all about Christmas. After last year’s disaster, I decided that priority number one was to make sure me and my family came through the holiday happy and healthy. Everything else was optional. So I did better planning and got things done early. We also skipped stuff that was just too much. And I’m happy to say that priority number one was accomplished.

December is also when Cairene MacDonald’s new virtual coworking space opened! Homeroom is a great place to get regular support and encouragement, especially for us work-from-home creative types. I’ve been posting there almost every day and I’m looking forward to continuing my apprenticeship in systems crafting and energy management with the Homeroom community.

 

So there it is, a quick recap of 2016 to get you caught up on where I’m at and explain why I haven’t been around so much. I’m hoping to change that in 2017. And as Mary Poppins says, “Well begun is half done.”

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