Blank. I sit before the screen, blank. My thoughts are with people I care about, people I love, people who are facing an illness that everyone fears: cancer. Cancer is so much more prevalent than it once was, it seems. Or maybe cancer existed in greater numbers than was spoken of, once; there was a time when cancer marked a person with shame, though that makes no sense to me. Cancer used to be like Voldemort: a word too terrible to speak. People hid it, kept it secret. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Now, everyone knows someone who has cancer. Most of us probably have close friends or family whose lives have been changed by cancer. It’s a presence in our landscape, it’s almost a place. It has its own geography, its own language, its own time zone.
In my own life, cancer has visited people I love, people very close to me. One of my brothers survived childhood cancer. You’d never know it, now. But I’m sure he knows it. We know it. When he turned forty, it seemed like a dream, a wonderful ordinary dream. I thought about how many other children, treated in his era, were not so fortunate. I thought of the loss to their sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends.
Cancer opens question marks in a life. The unknown looms. What will happen? How long do I have? What do I need/want to get done here on earth? What’s urgent, what matters, and what’s superficial, what can I cast off? But the question marks are always there, have always been there, we’re just not thinking about them. I want to think about them. Life is precious. This is a statement both banal and cliched; and completely absolutely heartbreakingly true. Life is always precious. It seems all the more precious when we’re made aware of how fragile life is. Tough, but fragile. Because life isn’t ours to hold onto. Life is a gift. I think of this New Yorker story about super-rich tech men who are building bunkers in the American desert, preparing to survive nuclear war or some other human-made disaster, and I think: What arrogance, to imagine that you can control what will happen to you; what a waste of resources, splurged on the self. This is how you want to spend your numbered days? All the money in the world can’t buy you immortality. You are mortal, as we all are, you are made of flesh and blood.
So, what to do? What to do, sitting here, feeling blank, feeling angry, feeling afraid, staring at this screen, knowing most piercingly that life is precious, that today is precious, that this hour is precious? I don’t know, any more than anyone else. It is not only life that is precious, it is time, our measure of life. Time is a luxury. Time passes, and we pass through time. Today, I will bake a birthday cake for a nine-year-old. I’ve already wrapped a few carefully chosen presents for him. I’ve walked him partway to school. We hugged at home, but he did not want a hug when we said goodbye on the sidewalk. Today, I will write for awhile and draw for awhile. Today, I will play on a soccer field with a group of lively eleven and twelve year old girls. Today, I will eat cake and watch an excited boy blow out candles, make a wish, open gifts.
I will wish for presence given to the task at hand, each one in turn. Every minute, poured into the task of love and care, patience, devotion, hope, joy, even grief, even that. Whenever I am discouraged, I take a really deep breath. Whenever I am afraid, I take a really deep breath. Life is precious. Breathe deep. Life is a gift. Breathe deep. Right now, today, this hour, life seems like a wonderful and ordinary dream, for which I give thanks.
P.S. I want to add to these reflections after reading two obituaries in the Globe and Mail newspaper today, one about Penelope Reed Doob, a scholar of dance and literature, the other a personal memory about Richard Wagamese, a Canadian-Ojibway writer. Penelope Reed Doob was not only a scholar, but also did medical research, founding a company involved in finding a cure for HIV/AIDS in the late-1980s/early-1990s. “I wanted to save lives,” she is quoted as saying. “However, I eventually wondered what I was keeping people alive for. I thought that dance was one reason why people should enjoy life.” The piece about Richard Wagamese recalls his story about a librarian who helped him when he was homeless. “She opened the world for him. He told us that the librarian taught him to read, see, hear and feel through everything she introduced to him.”
What connects the dots between these thoughts and my reflection, above? To state that life is precious, that it is a gift, is the most obvious of observations. It’s almost too basic. Life must also be worth living—a worth that is felt and experienced. What makes life worth living? For Penelope Reed Doob, it was dance, it was art. For Richard Wagamese, it was also art, music, books, education. For me, it’s play, art, words, creating, sharing, good food, the list goes on and on. There is surviving and there is living. Living should not be a luxury, available only to the privileged or the lucky.
That is all.
Just realized why this morning is feeling emptier than usual. For the past couple of months, I’ve spent Wednesday and Thursday mornings tutoring a new neighbour in ESL, and as of Monday, she’s attending formal ESL classes, which was always the goal. My intention was only to tide her over while she waited to get into the program.
Last week, we spent Thursday morning walking and riding the bus together, so her new route to school would become familiar. The next day, I listened to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast; the February post is Junot Diaz reading Edwidge Danticat’s story “Seven.” At the story’s end, two characters, who are immigrants from Haiti, ride the bus together. The phrase that spoke to me was: trying to see through her eyes.
I spent Thursday morning trying to see through my friend’s eyes, and it seemed that although we moved through the same physical space together, what we saw and heard did not mean the same thing to both of us. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How privilege, skin colour, gender, age, wealth, familiarity, health, past experiences alter the world as we move through it. We exist in relation to what surrounds us, and in relation to how we perceive and are perceived.
Here’s what I wrote after listening to “Seven.”
When I am with my friend, I feel as though I am almost wearing her skin, her headscarf, I feel the exposure and vulnerability of being a newcomer, unaccustomed to the weather, to the language, to what is safe and what is dangerous. As we walk along a sidewalk, I see she fears the big black dog whose owner clips its collar to a leash on our approach — she recoils as she passes the dog, politely pulled off the sidewalk by the owner, who says good morning. But she does not seem to fear the white man and woman who come toward us with dyed and shaven hair, who I fear might be skinheads. Instead, I recoil.
Later, as we arrange ourselves on the bus, it is I who stagger unsteadily to a seat, uncertain of my balance, while my friend stands braced against the stroller and a pole, concerned for me. Her face is tired. She has been in Canada for almost three months. I think suddenly, she is tough, tougher than I can guess, tougher than me. All this time, I have wanted to protect her, but as I see her now I am ashamed to have been so reductive. She has told me about the guns coming to Syria, bang bang. She has endured more than I can imagine. Even so, I recognize her anxiety as she tries to orient herself. I want to assuage it, to reassure her.
I tell her, This is the stop. I pull the line and stand. The men move out of our way to let the stroller by. I want to help her lift the stroller, but she doesn’t need my help. We begin to walk. She sounds out the letters on the building across the street: “Don McLaren Arena.” Yes, I say, ice skating. I mime ice skating. She laughs and I think she doesn’t understand so I continue to mime. She taps her head. What she’s trying to tell me is that she will remember “Don McLaren Arena” — this is her stop. Great idea! I stop ice skating and exclaim.
We walk in silence for awhile. I don’t want to fumble with my phone and Google translate in this bright sunshine. I see a man walking a big black dog, ahead, different man and dog. They are walking on a cross pass away from us. In Syria, dogs inside the house? I ask. She laughs, No! Brother, chickens, sheep, dog, she says. Outside. I tease her: Maybe someday, you will have a dog. In Canada, so many people have dogs and cats. No, no, no, she says. No dog, no cat. A bird, she says to me.
I can see her face, turned toward me, smiling, an objectively beautiful face, no makeup, clean and memorable. She is wearing a light-coloured headscarf.
A bird, I say.
A bird, she agrees. We walk past Tim Horton’s where she and her husband have come to buy coffee and roll up the rim to win. He won another coffee. She was hoping for a car, a TV. But just a coffee. No one wins the car, I tell her. She tells me that a little dog scared their daughter, who is five, who began to scream in fright, and the dog’s owner, a woman, picked up the dog and held it in her arms. It was okay? I ask. It was okay.
My friend is opening up the world to me. I see that I can’t see through her eyes, though I try, though I want to. I can only walk beside her, often in silence. Wondering what this place looks like through her eyes. Is it ugly or beautiful? Welcoming or closed? Is it safe or dangerous? Is it home? Could it be home? Everything looks both brighter and starker when I’m walking beside her. There is a clarity to the light, and a barrenness, as if the objects and structures are being stripped back to their bones.
The light is bright for February, and we are warm. Even my friend, wrapped in her black coat, always cold, admits that she is now warm. The baby starts to fuss as we near their apartment. I don’t want to say goodbye. It seems I receive as much from her friendship as she could possibly receive from mine, because I enjoy her company, because I am happy when I am with her, more curious, more alert, more aware, because even a bus ride feels purposeful, somehow, when I’m trying to see through her eyes.
I’m blogging during the Superbowl, pausing to go watch the commercials and the half-time show.
I want to write about the lovely rituals that are sustaining me these days. At some point every day I spend 15 minutes doing kundalini yoga while listening to music (Mongolian throat singing; Tanya Tajaq; and Leonard Cohen’s last album are my current go-to’s). I follow yoga with 10 minutes of meditation, using Headspace, which is an online app. I’ve added in 15 minutes on the spin bike once a day, too, to get my heart rate up and start working on my cardio again, now that my head can handle it. And I’m walking about four times a week. Of course, I’m also writing by hand and spending a lot of time drawing, too. My hours are blessed and peaceful.
I am grateful.
I’ve been thinking that artists must be humble, must have humility before a higher power, as Leonard Cohen himself seemed to, because to make art is to be reliant on gifts beyond our grasp. We can only beg to be blessed, to be used, to serve, to be spoken through. So the work that gets done, the effort and discipline, it’s like trying to break a code, or tap some mystery that we know does not belong to us and cannot be grabbed, only given. Maybe that’s why my daily rituals seem so powerful to me.
I used to believe that work was the thing. Now I believe almost wholly in mystery. I believe in stumbling, through work but also through ritual, through faith, through any trick that might cast a spell, into the path of mystery; you might say, also, into the path of grace. I believe that whatever I’m here to do, I do not know, and it isn’t up to me to decide. What’s up to me is the choice to show up, again and again, with hope. To sing great praise, to open myself, to listen. I know nothing. I know nothing of what I am making, only that I am making it, planning it and studying for it (reading, researching, filling my brain with information and images) and making it. Surprise is the best part of the exchange. I am almost always surprised by what I’ve made, on the other side of making it. It is a simple joy. I want to share this joy, because it seems so easily discovered, like it’s always there, always waiting to be found.
I believe in mystery. I believe that anything I’ve made comes not from me, but through me, and it is not for me, and anything I gain from it is not for me, but for a power greater than myself, something I can’t know, but only glimpse, as through a glass darkly.
The dark is luminous when I walk the dogs, early. I forget to dress the little one in her pink sweater and she shivers and hurries along the paths carved between snowbanks. We slip and skid and crunch over packed ice. Morning has not yet broken. Night is a form of protection. It hides us from ourselves.
We sleep and dream, and we travel in our dreams.
In my dreams I sort out the riddles of my immediate future. I prepare elaborate plans. I wake, convinced these plans have been set in motion, convinced I’ve solved all problems.
When I walk the dogs, early, it is like the dreams are still within me or upon me, as night surrounds me. I am completely myself, the dreamer.
The dreamer has always lived in me, and I in her.
“I feel sorry for you when you read the newspaper, Mom, because you always seem so disappointed and so sad.”
“I’m not disappointed, exactly.”
“It’s like your beliefs get crushed, over and over. You’re too optimistic.”
“I’m hopeful. I think I can have hope without being naive. I’m sad and I have hope.”
“Morning has broken,” I say to the child who is still lying in bed. I sweep open the curtains. There is morning, breaking on our skyline, which is segmented by the roofs of apartment buildings. There is morning, streaks of pink and orange splitting the dark.
Must everything be broken, even morning? What do these words mean?
The day floods the dreams. And so begins the stark, bright march through the hours of consciousness, of schedules, of time marked, and meals prepared and eaten, and chores and errands ticked off the ever-lasting list.
Morning has broken, like an axe splitting the frozen sea inside. Something must do the job. Can my dreams come with me like shadows, attached to my feet, weighing nothing? Can I do everything I want to do, now that I am awake?
I am not brave.
All around me, on every side, I see people taking a stand, even against storms of anger and doubt, willing to throw themselves into the fray, defending their beliefs, being harassed and called out and challenged. I see people whose belief is powerful enough to carry them through the storm, they can ride their belief like a winged creature. What would it feel like to believe in something, in anything, with such conviction? I am not brave. I do not have the courage of my convictions. I am ashamed. I stand on nothing, I have no inner core of righteousness, no ballast in the storm, I seem to be blank where I should have rage, faith, outrage, certainty. I have no certainty.
My parents divorced when I was an adult. This was harder than it may have seemed, because as an adult, shouldn’t I have been capable of forming opinions and being strong and rational? I was not capable. I remember pacing in my kitchen, trying to make a very specific decision, and knowing that any decision I made would hurt someone I loved, even the decision to make no decision. Any decision or non-decision, any action or non-action, would be interpreted as taking a side, declaring allegiance, and all I wanted to do was to love both of my parents for who they were, separately, without causing harm to the other. All I wanted to do was to give them both the benefit of the doubt, which is an odd phrase now that I write it out. Pacing in my kitchen, I recognized that whatever I did or did not do, whatever I said or did not say, I could not repair what was broken; I was insignificant, that was part of it, but also, a broken thing could not be put right by the single perfect action of a third party. The realization released me, to some degree. There was no right decision. There was only doing what one must and living with the consequences.
This happened almost a decade ago; but the same paralysis strikes me now whenever I step in between two differing points of view, whenever I become involved in conflict. How can I fix this, how can I help?, quickly turns to, how can I hide myself away from this?
Do no harm. How I long to live by this mantra, no matter how impossible.
Yet I think, I do, that brave people have to be willing to disturb, to trouble, to shake the trees and shout from hills. And maybe this causes harm. Certainly it causes disruption and conflict and pain. It has to, because what else brings about change?
I am sorry. Forgive me. I am not brave.
I am walking into Waterloo Park through the entrance by Father David Bauer Drive, my bag heavy over my left shoulder, filled with everything I will need for class tonight. It is cold but I’m starting to sweat under my pink jacket, which I bought on sale two and a half years ago, when I spent some of my earnings from my book on cross country skis, and this jacket, now a bit dingy and dirty.
It is the first day this fall that I have worn the pink jacket to teach.
I walk through the gravel parking lot and past the skateboard park where two young men are showing off their tricks. They’re pretty good. I admire their focus and their bursts of energy followed by relaxation. I notice that the trash I stopped to pick up last week has not been replaced by more trash, and I feel satisfied; perhaps I feel self-satisfied.I look to the swing sets and I am so happy when I see him, there again. Last week, he wasn’t here, and I wondered if something had happened to him, or even if perhaps I’d invented him or imagined him — he is a teenager, an older teen, who sits on the swings every Tuesday afternoon at 4 PM. He doesn’t just sit on the swing and look at his phone, he swings, pushing himself into the air, pumping his long legs. His bicycle is parked nearby. My heart is happy to see him — I feel this literally, a little popping of happiness under my ribs.
And then I’m on, not stopping to watch him, of course, not stopping at all, only glad to know he is there, a grown kid, swinging back and forth, faithful to some impulse only he can know.
I cross the bridge over the little creek. And through the trees on the little dirt path to the vast parking lot.I forget and step onto the pavement, rather than walking the narrow strip of grass along the edge of the parking lot, like I always do. Quickly, I step back into the grass, but is it too late? Too late for what. You’re being obsessive compulsive, I tell myself, the universe does not care whether you step on pavement or grass. Your habits and rituals are here to serve you, not to ensnare you. I know, I know; I don’t stop until I reach the road, the long line of cars stretching in both directions like a fast-moving river.
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