Anxiety is not a stranger in this house.
Lately, it’s been visiting me regularly. I suppose it could be grief. It could also be the loose, unfinished nature of the work I try to do. I’ve trained myself to be patient, to trust, to allow things to unfold in their time, not to push too hard, not to rush the process. But it’s taken training because I am actually someone who appreciates a firm decision. I like to make plans and execute them. In the fuzzy existence of being a writer, plans seem forever in flux, at the mercy of whim or economics or both. I like to take action, I like to make and to do. But there is only so much I can make or do or act upon in this fuzzy existence of being a writer. If that is where I exist. If that is what I am.
Anxiety is not a stranger.
I haven’t cartooned for two days. Soccer season is upon us, and most evenings are packed and late. I haven’t shifted my routine to cartoon at another time, or even to cartoon in another fashion — by speeding up the process, or limiting my expectations, drawing faster, messier, more piecemeal. I’d come to expect something of myself in my drawings, which had become less and less like cartoons. (That sentence is written deeply in the past tense, I realize.)
Anxiety preys on expectations.
I’ve been writing. Diligently. Every day. But the project is self-indulgent. It’s all about the writing itself, language, structure, stripped down sentences, ideas, and not at all about the plot. I’m torn: do I write to please myself, or do I write to please others? I think that by pleasing myself I will please almost no one else.
Anxiety is another word for doubt. Self-doubt.
It is rainy today. I haven’t sat outside on my stump. Sometimes, the meditation soothes me, especially listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. Being outdoors soothes me. Yesterday evening, we gathered to bury the ashes of my stepmother. The beauty of where we were came rushing up to meet us. A wide softly sloping ploughed field, a stand of thick green trees. As the brief ceremony beside the grave began, I saw a hawk holding over the field, riding the air currents in a soft sloping arc.
Later, we sang: I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.
The comfort of the gospel songs felt like medicine, and made holy space, and we kept hearing a lone bird chirping in the trees overhead, as if it were joining our song.
Anxiety reminds me of all the smart, brave, kind things I should have done and did not do. Anxiety reminds me of all the wrong, stupid, foolish things I have done. Anxiety plants inertia.
Sometimes, it seems I am so closed, even to myself, that only writing will dig up what hurts. But I don’t know what hurts, if anything. I don’t know why a sensation of nervous energy froths beneath my ribs, no matter how I rise early to exercise it into submission. I wonder, what have I learned from sitting down to write this post? Perspective is a long game. Introspection comes up short.
Title: Finding Footing
Captions: I ran with Heather this morning. It was snowing. The snow was so deep we couldn’t find our footing. We talked about our words of the year: fire and fresh. At home, I put unmelted snow from my hair on Annie’s forehead.
(What I like about this cartoon is the image of the snowflake that appears in each panel. It creates a visual motif that links the pictures with the text. The “on” should be “onto” but when writing in pen, mistakes get made and they’re permanent. So be it.)
The joy of embarking on a new project is the mystery of what its process will unearth. It’s too early into the cartooning project to guess what’s yet to be learned by doing it. What I’ve noticed so far is that already I have a sense of how many words can fit into each panel. Brevity and clarity are paramount. Thematic clarity is valuable, but sometimes a scattered cartoon, written and drawn in haste, can have its charms.
Captions: This particular cartoon is very time-challenged. Things that happened today: Forgot to pick up Angus from work … Tuned out during scripture reading at church … Walked backward into the cold wind with Calvin.
(This cartoon was written and drawn in almost exactly 10 minutes, which I think is the absolute minimum amount of time required.)
Some days I’ve drawn two cartoons, one on a political subject, and the other more personal. For the purposes of keeping the project streamlined, I’m allowing myself to post only one cartoon each day (on Facebook and Twitter); so far, I’ve chosen the personal over the political. The political cartoons have gone into blog posts instead. I don’t feel that I’ve settled on a drawing singular style, yet. I like that. I like the freedom to experiment with both subject matter and style.
Title: Is It Like Climbing A Mountain Of Snow?
Captions: What happens if I don’t feel like drawing? Is it like climbing a mountain of snow to get to campus? Like doing the dishes and vacuuming? If I just show up, just do it, just keep going, it will happen?
(This was the one day so far that I really didn’t feel like cartooning. I’m glad that I did. It’s a good reminder to just show up and do it, even if you don’t feel like it; good advice for life in general, for writing in particular.)
Questions I’m mulling: What makes a good cartoon? What’s too personal, in terms of subject matter? Would these cartoons be of interest only to family and friends? Is it possible to find the universal in the daily? (Of course it is! The question, really, is how?)
Title: Messy House
Caption: “My house is messy,” Asmaa said, and I said, “I won’t look.” But she wanted to show me. On the coffee table, a pan of butter, markings where dough was rolled out. She brought me a plate of baklava. “Too sweet?” “No!” I ate three.
(Most of these cartoons pair random scenes from the day with largely unrelated captions, and I enjoy discovering how these two dissimilar things respond to each other, but for this one, all the scenes drawn come from the story described in the text.)
Something interesting I’ve observed: that cartoons have the capacity to envelope sad, difficult narratives in a way that eases the pain, I think. Something I think about quite a lot is how to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader. I see in cartooning a possible means of tackling challenging subjects in non-traumatizing ways. Cartoons remind me of poems, a bit.
Title: This Day
Captions: This day has almost crushed me, yet it hasn’t been hard, objectively. I felt close to collapse, inside and out. I felt swarmed inside by anxiety that was almost pain. Yet, I did all of the things.
(Here, I think the scenes from the day soften the description of depression/anxiety in the text.)
Things I like about this project: I get to draw everyday. It’s an opportunity to reflect on my day, and pay attention to it in a different, unusual, creative way. It’s also an opportunity to invent thematic coherence and narrative out of the raw material of life. Life is raw. We humans, we have a tendency to pattern. Pattern may be illusion, but it is powerful. Pattern brings comfort — order to disorder, shape to chaos, coherence to uncertainty.
Title: Suddenly I Felt That I Understood
Captions: Today, I baked bread and I read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. In it, she quotes a line from Emily Dickinson… “After great pain, a formal feeling comes —” Which suddenly I felt that I understood absolutely.
(The drawing of my hands kneading bread dough didn’t really turn out. But now you know what that panel is all about. Kind of looks like two islands separating in the middle of a lake … or, I don’t know; what do you see? I’m trying very hard not to re-do any “mistakes” in the cartoons, but rather to accept them as speaking from or to some secret part of myself I couldn’t otherwise reveal.)
Today is my birthday. It’s the first day I’ve had time to reflect, active reflection, since we waded into the Christmas season, and when I sat down before my notebook such a whirl of disconnected thoughts poured out. I am thinking of starting an autobiographical cartooning project, as shown above. I’ve developed a relatively efficient way of making a 4-panel cartoon: I write for 3 minutes using the prompt “What’s on your mind?”; then I use a timer to draw four cartoons, scenes from the past 24 hours of my day, each completed in exactly 2 minutes; and finally I pair ideas or phrases from “What’s on your mind?” with the cartoons, creating captions that aren’t directly related, and yet, combined, tell a little story. I’ve been making these half-hapzardly, often while waiting at piano lessons, squeezed into a tiny amount of time. I love creating a visual artifact. I love creating something to keep.
I have sad news. On the morning of December 23, we said goodbye to DJ. Above is the cartoon I drew that morning, while she lay on the floor beside me, still very much alive. We were fortunate to have a vet come to our house, and the whole family was present in the room as DJ passed out of this world in the most peaceful way possible, with loving hands on her, truly surrounded by love, so I can’t be sad about that. And although I miss her goofy presence underfoot, I also can’t be sad that her suffering has been relieved. The end felt like a surprise, even though we were preparing for it for a long time, and even though signs had been accumulating that the time was coming. But really, DJ was fine right up until she wasn’t, and thankfully, we were able to respond quickly. As we made the decision, and prepared to say goodbye that morning, one of the kids wept, “I don’t want DJ to be a body!” That struck a chord deep within me. Yes. Oh, yes, I know what you mean.
I didn’t want DJ to be anything but what she was: alive, breathing, present, animated, here with us. But when I look at the photo, below, taken on her last walk that morning, I see her distress. And I know we can’t keep what isn’t ours to keep.
It is hard to say goodbye. I am struck over and over this holiday season by how hard it is to say goodbye. Even a welcome change can create a hole, nostalgia for what was. I’m thinking of the new parkland across the street, created by knocking down the houses that were there before, none of them very pretty, and yet, I found myself in the days immediately after they were gone irrationally missing them. Absence is absence. It’s why we keep telling ourselves stories that may not be serving us. It’s why we hang on to old pain and shame. It’s why we are afraid of making space for something new. Instinctively, we know that any absence, any loss, any goodbye will reshape us in ways impossible to predict.
Today has been a great day, a good birthday, and I’ve been doing exactly as I please and wish, which is my definition of the perfect birthday. I woke early to go for a walk with a friend. Kevin made me breakfast. I went out for coffee with two of my brothers. I treated myself at the bookstore. I hugged my mom, and my dad. I worked on the logistics for this new cartooning project, figuring out how to scan and edit images. I listened to music while drawing and writing. Oh, yes, and I blogged. Tonight, Kevin is taking me out for dinner.
Every year that comes around is a blessing. This past year has been full. Full of the unexpected, the hard, the surprising, and the miraculous. I learned how to draw this year! How unexpected is that? Never saw it coming. I also wrote a book by a hand, something that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been concussed. I’ve been kinder to myself in many ways, this year, accepting aging (I’m wearing new reading glasses, for example), deepening relationships, sending roots down into the earth, humbled by my work, demanding time to exercise and also to write. Many tears. Much warmth. Quiet, too. I can’t guess what will come in this new year. I have ideas, plans, stories to write, poems to memorize, kids to snuggle, friends to embrace, a new word to play with, songs to learn, habits and rituals to nurture.
Cartoons to create.
Below, from December 15: “I didn’t leave room for a caption.” Hey, lots of learning to do, too.
PS Soundtrack for this post: Lullaby, by the Dixie Chicks.
Today has not been the kind of day that I would call productive.
I’m sitting here with a marked-up manuscript at my elbow that is calling out for revision, for new scenes to be written, for work and attention and focus. I’m at the point in this project where I keep thinking, Don’t let me die before it’s done! Which makes me reflect on the courageous creativity of people who know their time is limited, like Gord Downie, who, in his final year-and-a-bit, wrote and sang the songs he knew he needed to share with those he loved. There is a real terror that the end will come before you’ve finished the work you intended to do. That terror is real.
And yet, I’m sitting here and have not dug in. On Saturday I spent nine hours glued to my desk, working on this book. Total luxury. Today, I’ve been unable to manufacture focus.
My mind is elsewhere …
As some of you may know, we have two dogs. They came to us as a mismatched pair, rescue dogs who were found, abandoned, wearing matching pink sweaters in the middle of freezing February in an industrial Ohio town. How they survived even a few hours in the “wild” I’ll never know, as they are almost entirely lacking in good sense. They were then impounded and doomed, only to be rescued by a Canadian group, who subsequently struggled to adopt them out as a pair … until we came along. We’ve had this motley pair in our home for more than five years. It took the dogs at least two years to settle in and fully trust us. Suzi still wakes up and begins howling around 5AM every morning. One of the challenges of caring for rescued animals is that their histories are unknown; even their ages are unknown. What we do know is heartbreaking: they were abandoned.
More than a year ago, DJ was diagnosed with cancer. Luckily, it’s slow-growing and she continues to enjoy life, eating well, going for walks, even while there are signs of her illness’s progression in her body. Today, we received news that it is highly probable that Suzi has cancer too, but hers appears more aggressive.
Truth is, I’m pretty broken up.
This is what I’m thinking about as my book waits by my elbow. Two little dogs.
I’m thinking about how a dog doesn’t have a mission in life, or not an articulated mission, not a mission in the sense that we invent such things; a dog doesn’t need a mission to enjoy its time here on earth, from what I’ve observed. A dog thrives on routine, loves food, and is highly attuned to the humans with whom it interacts. A dog can greet you at the door better than anyone. A dog is also reliant on the kindness of those who care for it; and therefore like all innocent creatures a dog is vulnerable to mistreatment and abandonment. It breaks the heart, as I’ve said. We’ve tried to imagine our dogs’ lives before they came into ours; we’ve tried to imagine them as adorable puppies; we wonder when they first met, and why they got along (two female dogs usually don’t bond like this). We’ve also fictionalized them in our imaginations, turning them into doggie detectives (more lucky than bright), and, most recently, cartoon super heroes (DJ’s superpower is her terrible breath, Suzi’s is her ear-piercing whine). Maybe I’ll write them into a book, someday, who knows. If there’s time.
This post feels too close to eulogy. The dogs are sleeping under the table, near my feet. They’re still here. Today is today. Pet your doggies while you may.
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.