Category: Big Thoughts
Soon, I will teach my last class for another term. Because I am a sessional lecturer, there is no guarantee I will teach again. But I would like to; I would like, in addition to the introductory creative writing course I’m teaching now, to teach an advanced course that combines writing and drawing and collaboration, and demands serious commitment, a heavy workload; at the end of the course, everyone would have made a book (illustrated, but for adults).
Here are the questions this course would address, and engage with:
“What is creativity and where can I find it?”
“How can I get into the creative flow?”
“How can I stop procrastinating and do what I want?”
“Is creativity something I can practice? Can anyone?”
(In the above exercise, captions are paired with random illustrations; this is an example of an exercise one might do in my imaginary course.)
Last month, I spoke to a writer’s group about time management, and the question that arose most urgently was: How do I stop procrastinating? How do I get started? Which led into an even more complicated question: How do I get into the creative flow? Is this something you can learn and practice?
Yes, I said. You can practice getting into the creative flow. You can learn.
I believe this to be true. But in answering the question, last month, I got stuck on the how. And so I’ve been thinking about it, or my unconscious mind has been thinking about it, ever since. It isn’t just about discipline. (It is somewhat about discipline.) It’s about trusting that you can access something, fall into something, step into something that is unseen and unknown, without knowing or seeing it in advance. Can this be taught? I would like to try.
P.S. The course would be based around Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. It would be an unabashedly Lynda-Barry-styled course, even though I am a low-key Canadian who possesses not even a tenth of Lynda Barry’s charisma, and even though I am a writer not an artist; I believe the material would rise above my personal limitations.
Last night, I read the news that Leonard Cohen had died. Immediately, I wanted to call my college roommate, who introduced me to his music and poetry. She was the one person on earth who I wanted to talk to, to say, have you heard the news? I feel so sad. When Carol Shields died many years ago, it was my mom who I wanted to call. It is as if relationships are embedded with art, or art is embedded with relationships, intense, personal relationships. A song is more than a soundtrack to an experience, or some songs are. Some songs are experiences.
I learned to play piano by ear by playing Suzanne and Bird on a Wire.
That’s an experience.
I’m writing this while listening to CBC Radio Two’s special on Leonard Cohen. So my thoughts are scattered. I’m listening to Leonard Cohen sing Suzanne, in fact.
Yesterday, I went to two movies at a feminist film festival playing town. Both movies were labours of love, the filmmakers following their subjects for years. The first movie, called Driving with Selvi, was about an Indian woman who became a taxi driver; but it was also about child marriage, and forced prostitution, and the precarious existence as a young woman unprotected by her family or the law. Through it all, Selvi’s radiant personality shone like a beacon of joy and gratitude, for all that she had. The second movie, called The Apology, told the story of three women, known now as the grandmothers, who had been forced into sexual slavery in World War Two by the Japanese military; all were teenagers when they were kidnapped, two were 13 or 14. I watched this movie with my mom and my almost-14-year-old daughter, and we wept. A lot. The grandmothers carried so much pain, decades of hiding and shame, and yet here at the end of their lives, as they protested to publicize this hidden chapter of history and supported each other, it was their dignity that shone through. They were tired. But they had a vision for peace and healing.
Both were Canadian-made films, by female directors.
Both were an antidote to the despondence I’ve been feeling. These were not perfect stories about perfect people with perfect endings. These were stories of perseverance and injustice and work and hope and love. These women, in both movies, were so loved.
I went for a run this morning, a pathetic wheezing run into the chilly wind, and I went with a friend, because I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. My friend told me that she wished her work involved making things; to which I replied that I wished my work involved doing things. We laughed. We wondered if we were on the right track, in that general way that people wonder; is it too late, am I locked in, now, now that I’ve devoted myself to a single pursuit?
I think, way back when, that I wanted to be an artist, the way the Leonard Cohen was an artist; I think this is what I imagined, along with my college roommate, when we listened to his songs and read his poems. We imagined ourselves immersed in ideas and emotion and symbolism and significance, which sounds abstract, but felt, in the moment, intensely real, like we would be swimmers in a great universal ocean, like we would be poets.
Wherever I was going with this post, it’s gone. I’ve lost the thread.
I think we have much to struggle against now and going forward. Art is where I’m turning for comfort. Art is what I’ve got, and so far it’s the only answer I can give.
All is not well in my mind. I am uneasy, restless, despondent, flat. I woke at 4AM and could not sleep. I feel aimless and free-falling despite the structures that surround me, including this solid house.
Yesterday, I read an article from The New Yorker, on the multitudinous self, which is at odds with the idea of the holistic self we seem to admire and aspire to. Yet we are not the same across time or within our different relationships; we are not as consistent as we imagine we should be, or perhaps we imagine we are. The essay tried to put the divisiveness of this election into context, by discussing the difference between neighbourly relationship, which are governed by decency and revolve around the particular, and politics, which is ideological and abstract; a single human being may present one way in one sphere and another, seemingly contradictory way, in another sphere (not to mention the further spheres in which the self must operate — family, job, religion, soul, etc.).
And in essence, the essay was an argument for accepting the multitudinous self rather than striving for a holistic impossibility. It pointed out that the characteristics that make a great leader in the corporate world may not make a great parent in a family; but that doesn’t mean one person can’t do both, or be both, only that we behave differently in different contexts, within our different roles. That is why politically at-odds neighbours can meet in the park and talk about their dogs. Because those are two separate spheres.
But social media challenges us, the spheres cross and so we are behaving politically in our neighbourly spaces; and that complicates and divides us in ways that make us deeply uncomfortable. The argument being, I think, that it is not a character flaw to behave differently in different situations; it is the basis for community survival.
This morning, I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms lifted over my head, lowering and raising and lowering, and aching and burning, and I began thinking about something else entirely. I remembered baking bread on Sunday afternoon, while listening to the Sunday Edition on podcast, an hour on Man’s Search for Meaning, a book written by Victor Frankl in 1946, shortly after he was released from a German concentration camp; his parents, brother and pregnant wife all died in concentration camps, a suffering I cannot fathom. And yet, Frankl wrote a book that is still in print, its words still luminous with love. On the program, his biographer discussed the fundamental flaw in the pursuit of happiness—the pursuit itself, the pursuit of a goal that cannot be forced into being, if happiness is even a reasonable or desirable pursuit at all. The more you chase it, the further from you it speeds. And, said the man, the relentless focus on the self, on creating happiness for oneself, dooms the enterprise. It’s only when we turn away from ourselves and focus on others that we become—not happy, but whole. We find meaning in our life because we’ve reached beyond ourselves.
Love is meaning. The only way to fully inhabit the self is to look, listen, love beyond the self.
I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms aching, and remembered, and remembered more: yesterday afternoon, chopping mounds of onions and sweet potatoes for our Thanksgiving dinner, listening to another podcast: Tapestry, with Mary Hines, an interview with a woman who had corresponded with Omar Khadr when he was a prisoner at Guantanomo Bay; the woman had become his teacher, and she testified on his behalf at a trial. She talked about the fear of God in a way that made this fear make sense: not cowering under fear of punishment by an angry god, but fear of refusing God’s invitation to action. Fear of making a choice based on the shallow terms on which we so often base our choices: fear of being judged by others, fear of looking foolish, fear of being singled out, fear of taking a stand and having to suffer the consequences. When none of these worldly or earthly pressures could shake the more profound fear of not doing justice, of not doing right—this, she said, was the fear of God. I look in awe at those with courage to stand firm in their convictions; does this strength come from a bigger place and purpose?
Do we know what is right? Do we know what is just?
The woman on Tapestry spoke about being pulled in an unexpected direction, a direction not of her own choosing. An invitation, an opening, a tidal pull, a crack where the light gets in.
As I sat in kundalini, I asked myself, as my arms spun circles and ached terribly, where am I pulled, who are the others upon whom I turn my gaze?
Stories, I heard.
You have stories, you already have stories, and stories pull you always out of yourself. Yet you resist their pull, you resist even the idea that you might be good at something, that you’ve written stories that are like gifts, in a way, that mean something larger than yourself—that don’t belong to you.
Who are you to say you should change course and seek a new outlet for your desire to be of use in this world? That’s not pull, that’s push, that’s pursuit.
I am so tired.
I stayed up to watch the Blue Jays game on Sunday night; the Blue Jays game and the presidential debate. After the debate, the Blue Jays won, which was fun. But I found myself unable to shake the image from earlier, of a composed, self-contained woman being stalked around the stage by a much-larger, hostile man, his eyelids narrowed, his rage and disgust scarcely contained.
It disturbed me.
Today, when I walked to yoga class, I had to pass by a number of men who were working on the hydro lines outside my house. I was one woman, they were many men. I did not fear them. But somewhere in the back of my brain, I wondered whether these men might speak of women the way that Trump was heard speaking of women, I wondered whether Trump is telling the truth and most men (or even some men, or even a few, which is more than enough) view women as sexual objects, to be desired or loathed, end of story; or are we to be “championed and revered,” as another Republican (Paul Ryan, to be precise) said when rebutting Trump, which sounded almost as terrible, in a weird way, as if I, as a woman, could not operate on my own steam, as if I, as a woman, were a figure of worship, mythical, not quite real. And then I shook my head and thought of all the open-hearted men in my life. And I kept on walking.
I’ve always chosen to believe that I can be myself, as a woman—small in stature, ordinary, complicated, messy, curious—and be accepted as an equal in any situation, and much of my experience confirms this; but when confronted with the evidence shown in that debate on Sunday night, my spirit shrank, a bit.
I wonder whether other women feel the same.
Write while listening to music.
Sept. 29 Listening to music at half time, Jacob Hespeler High School, to the pounding of basketballs on wood, to the squeak of shoes; Eminem, but I don’t know which song. The music, the moment. Pounding rising beat and intensity. The girls huddle up and shout their little cheer. Music’s over. Game on.
The music is still in my head as I stare into space during a time out. It makes me feel excited, determined, pumped up. Cliches. How to express the whirling sensation in the blood, under the skin, like a flame licking kindling, burning up that dry wood, these old dry bones have life in them yet. I am exactly the wrong age. Not old enough for wisdom, not young enough for spirit.
Write while listening to music.
Oct. 3 At the Beckett school of music. From behind closed doors, a cacophony of voices, instruments, songs, chords, melodies. A piano teacher sings along with her student, “One, two, three, four, One two three four, One two and three four.” Further away, the sounds of a piano being played by expert hands, a fluttering waterfalling of notes rippling over the keys.
From behind the nearest closed door, the one behind which my daughter is playing her violin, a lively piano bubbles up, chirpy in tone, and then her violin bites into the opening bar — a tango. She is slightly off-key. They march together, piano and violin, and suddenly the counting goes awry and they stall out, confused, and I can hear their voices trying to sort it out. Two competing pianos now pound at each other with the violin dancing its sprightly tones. Both pianos stop at once. The pianist behind the other door stumbles and hesitates, chopping out a four-beat march in a minor key, stopping and starting, a herky-jerky effect. At a patch of confidence, the speed increases. Then stops.
I hear again the rippling of notes from somewhere far away, rolling, rolling, effortlessly, decoratively.
On the drive here, I could not countenance the thoughts crossing my tired mind; listening to a song on the radio, a brand-new lively pop song that tormented me with its worn-out familiarity. My eyes could scarcely focus and I said, I can’t be this tired all the time. Because the thoughts wandering into my mind and tapping with some irritation on the bones of my skull, were saying, I can’t bear art. I can’t bear how profoundly it can fail to do its job. I can’t bear the necessity of selling it for survival. I can’t bear to make it. Elena Ferrante has been stalked for months so as to rip her from anonymity and I can’t understand why, can only see the pain of it, and how necessary her invisibility to her work.
All of this music sounds like the cacophony in my head, the crossed wires, and missed connections. The random pairings of discordant melodies and misshapen chords, the staggering array of possibilities that is yet, as yet, and possibly forever, incoherent. I can’t make sense of it. I can’t strip it down and hold its many shapes and piece them together again. I can’t bind it in place. I can’t even hear it. My powers are waning, if ever they were waxing, and I fear what I cannot do and I fear the effort wasted. Yet I can’t stop writing. I’m still writing. No matter the unthreading it leaves in its wake.
I didn’t do much more than hang out with these folks this summer. Now it is September 7th, and these folks are all in school, on their second day, which is much less exciting than a first day, for reasons we all understand. Never before have I felt so lonely in the house at this time of year. Maybe it’s because I was able to work effectively this summer even while the kids were home, so I don’t feel the same need to protect to my own space and quiet. Or maybe it’s because I need to develop some other social outlets. Our family was a remarkably self-sufficient unit this summer. It’s hard to get lonely or bored when potential companions and playmates can be found in the room next door.
I write the best blog posts while I’m hanging out laundry. They’ve vanished by the time I sit down here.
During our time at the cottage (five days of bliss), we brought little food, as we had been instructed to eat down the cupboards and freezer; we were the final guests this summer. This made meal planning a peculiarly satisfying challenge. The kids wanted to do the same thing here at home, so on Monday I did an inventory of our cupboards, freezers, pantry, and fridge that was astonishing and enlightening, and a little bit shaming. We are storing a lot of food that we’ve essentially forgotten exists. Yesterday, I took on the challenge and made a taboulleh salad out of quinoa, farro, kamut, all found, uncooked, in our fridge or freezer, chickpeas from the cupboard, a lemon and a half from the fridge, and olive oil. (I also bought parsley, cilantro, red onion, tomatoes and feta, so it wasn’t all from our supplies.) Two of four children were unhappy with the salad, but one of those two ate it anyway. “Does anyone actually like this?” said dissenting child # 1, and when everyone else said yes they did actually, dissenting child # 2 stayed silent and spooned the offending grains into his mouth while managing to look both angelic and patiently tormented.
I like the idea of the cupboard challenge, but in practice it requires someone (i.e. me) to do a lot of planning and cooking from scratch. It is a challenge that will be challenged by our fall schedule. And by any non-domestic ambitions I may hold.
What are my non-domestic ambitions? I feel strangely removed from whatever it was I intended to do with my life. When a friend asked, on our morning run together, What are you looking forward to now? I had no reply.
I have no reply. I’m just doing what’s before me (teaching, ferrying children, cooking challenges, possibly more soccer coaching, writing in some form or another), and I’ll do it to the best of my abilities. The good news is that I’m not not looking forward to anything either.
I’d forgotten how relaxed my mind had been all summer. It had so little extra to think about, to hold, to plan for, to juggle, to congregate onto a calendar. I mean, I appreciated that summer was wonderful and that my mind was relaxed. What I’d forgotten was how steep the decline in relaxation, in spaciousness, at this time of year. How does a person ever get anything done in this state? I seem dimly to recall the ability to parcel up time like the squares on a quilt, to do this and not that, or to do this while doing that. I dimly recall it, but I’m not looking forward to doing it; I guess that’s where I’m at on this the second day of the new school year.