I think I was always a little bit afraid of David Bowie. I was afraid of his many guises, his shape-shifting abilities, his restlessness, the enormity, the almost-dangerous energy of his creative fervour. I’m a no-make-up low-key woman who has never quite understood the appeal of punk or glam-rock; I prefer my world stripped down to the bones, rather than glammed up. So, his work made me a little bit afraid, I think, even if I found much to admire in his seemingly infinite curiosity and innovation.
This video, Lazarus, was made while he was dying and aware that he was dying; it was made while he was continuing to be himself — a creative genius — and to inhabit himself fully, as he was, throwing himself openly in to the arms of creation. I look at him in this video and I am afraid, but I am meant to be afraid, I am unsettled, but I am meant to be unsettled, I am in grief, and I am meant to be in grief, I am moved, I am horrified, I am worried for him, I am filled with thanks and sorrow. He lets us see him weak and dying, blind and shackled by illness, he lets us see him afraid, working feverishly until the end, drugged, in the grip of the desire to make more and more and more, and he lets us see him dancing, briefly, and then he goes away and shuts the door. He has to let us see him at his worst, at his weakest, in order for us to know him, believe in him, trust him, come with him.
What is art?
I want to know, and I think about this constantly, and perhaps all the more right now as I invite others to come create with me. How tempting it is to define art by what pleases us, individually, personally; or even to define art by what we cannot do ourselves, but admire.
What is art?
It isn’t that art is anything, it’s that it can be anything. It involves the shaping of life and experience, of image, of idea, into something that speaks beyond itself. For example, walking to meet the kids after school is not art. But if I write a poem about walking to meet them, or a story, or I photograph the small details I’m seeing on that walk and create a collage or meditative post on the blog, or I stop to mark each corner by laying a painted stone, or the children and I create a dance to mark the walk and perform it as we’re walking home from school — this is art. We’ve altered and interpreted an experience. We’ve tried to express how it makes us feel; or we’ve asked someone to look differently at their own similar experience; or we’ve challenged or upset the experience in some way, we’ve caused a disruption, we’ve called for attention. We’ve broken the routine, deliberately.
What is art?
It is comfort. It is disruption. It is an answer, but more often it is a question. It is personal. It is political. When we create, when we make something, we make ourselves vulnerable, there is no denying that risk is involved. If you watch David Bowie’s last video, you see this truth laid bare, and you see how intrinsic vulnerability is to the process of creating art. It is a scary thing to do. Sometimes, it’s a scary thing to watch or witness, too.
I believe it takes practice and discipline to make art; that, too. And those who pursue their art at the highest level of focus and craftsmanship, like David Bowie did, will work enormously hard to learn their craft, hone their skills, test their vision, challenge themselves through professional collaboration, and practice, practice, practice. What is practice? It means to do, doesn’t it. It implies commitment, repetition, but it also means you just show up and do the thing you’re practicing. So, on a fundamental level, I think, what it takes to make art is a simple willingness to try, to experiment, to take what may be a single, tentative step in the dark, into the unknown.
So often, we stop ourselves by judging what we’re doing, and by comparing what we’re doing to what others are doing. Yes, comparison can be instructive; we all learn from those more skilled and knowledgeable. But I think the point of how David Bowie lived his life is that comparison is much more often pointless, and not only pointless, but destructive — creatively destructive. Comparison either diminishes or elevates what you’ve made; and in some strange way, has nothing to do with what you’ve made, why you’ve made it, where it comes from. What pours forth from you? What pours forth from you at this precise moment in time? Nobody but you can create what you can. To create is to embrace what you’ve got inside you, even while you let it out, let it go, let it take shape in the world.
Anyone can do this. In any variety of ways. What you make might not be polished, it might be very humble indeed, it might be raw, it might not make perfect sense, it might not match the vision in your head. But here it is, you’ve made it. You’ve arrived, you’ve departed.
“The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” -David Bowie
It’s actually been a difficult week. I’m on the periphery of two difficult recent losses, women gone too young, both taken by cancer; and wondering how, trying, hoping to support those friends for whom the loss is much much closer, terribly personal. I’m trying not to be paralyzed by the idea that a small gesture is too small, or to fear doing or saying the wrong thing; but I also want to acknowledge that it can be hard to know what to do or say in situations that fall outside of our normal every day interactions. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I wonder how many of us are paralyzed by the fear that we might do or say the wrong thing? Maybe that’s because it is easy to do or say the wrong thing. I think about what mattered when Kevin’s dad died seven and a half years ago, and remember that the questions and interest of people too many steps removed from the situation seemed callow and offensive, even when well-meant and kindly spoken. But the cards and casseroles were wonderful, no matter who they came from, and the presence of friends at the funeral really did help. So from this, I would observe that presence and a simple offering is far and away more valuable than trying to say the right thing. I remember another friend telling me (from personal experience) that the worst thing to say to someone who is grieving is “you must be feeling …” or “you must be so …” Just say, I’m sorry for your loss, he told me. Consider how common the “You must be …” sentence construction is and how often it gets applied to situations out of the norm. I wonder why. No matter the intention, it comes off sounding like the speaker is trying to dictate the ground rules for emotion. Thinking about everything I’ve written here, I’m coming around to concluding that to do is far more valuable than to say, in difficult times. After all, isn’t that our impulse when faced with someone else’s grief or loss: to do something. It’s just that we don’t always know what to do, what’s appropriate, what’s needed, what would help rather than add to the burden.
Perhaps some of you might be willing to share in a comment what words or (more likely) deeds helped you through a difficult time. And thanks for listening.
PS A link to an article in Slate magazine about a woman who designs empathy cards with messages she would have liked to have received during her cancer treatment.
I was kind of bummed out about missing my kids’ Halloween on Thursday evening, even though it was a really terrific class (and I read them Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, which would scare anyone), and the trick-or-treaters and their dad had to endure cold rain and wind. Even so. I missed it. And got no good pics.
But we were invited to a Day of the Dead party last night, so we decided to all dress up. Bring out the camera, Obscure CanLit Mama.
Why is it so much fun to dress up and be scary? We revelled in the chilly walk over to the party, dressed like this. I can’t explain it even a little bit. Be afraid! And be festive!
We didn’t stay late, in part because a) we were all tired, b) the littlest threw up after devouring two giant cookies and guzzling root beer, and c) well, that last reason is really quite enough to warrant an early departure, let’s face it. Oh, yes, c) we had swimming and running and soccer and more soccer today, that last item all the way down the highway in Mississauga. Which is where we’re headed right about now, as soon as I push publish on this post.
I finished reading a beautiful and powerful book last night. It’s called Out of Grief, Singing, and was written by Charlene Diehl, who is a poet and also a friend and mentor. It is a difficult book to read, in some ways, because it is about a mother experiencing something no parent wants to imagine: the death of her child. But it is not as difficult to read as you might imagine before opening its pages. You only need to be prepared to be moved profoundly and deeply as you follow this mother on her journey out of grief, singing. I started reading the book in an airport, which I cannot recommend unless you are comfortable sobbing in public. I finished it in the privacy of my own bedroom, and I let the tears flow freely.
In a sense, the book is about the grieving we do in public and in private — the ways in which we are permitted to welcome grief (or not) into our daily interactions, and the discomfort (or fear) that many of us feel when we hear about someone else’s experience with death and loss. I’ve been thinking about the book all morning. I’ve been thinking how I’ve felt awkward and anxious about approaching someone who has suffered a profound loss. I’ve felt at a loss myself. At a loss for words, or actions. The people who help Charlene on her journey show love, compassion, patience. They don’t tell her what she’s feeling or what she’s supposed to be feeling, but honour where she is. They don’t pretend nothing has happened. They are open to her story. They are open to her daughter’s existence, and to the fact that her daughter lived and died.
That may sound really obvious, but I think it is not.
The greatest hurt seems to come from strangers who make assumptions, and so many assumptions are made about women of childbearing age; I know I’ve made thoughtless assumptions myself. Is this your first baby? is maybe not the best question to ask the pregnant woman standing behind you in line at the grocery store. Or, be aware that you may be expounding on the wonders of natural childbirth to a woman who has delivered prematurely, her baby kept alive by machines: and in your ignorance that you are suggesting that this woman has done something wrong, as if she had choice in the matter. Know that your childless neighbours may or may not have chosen to be childless; or that they may have suffered losses, that they may be parents without living children. Know that not everyone gets to choose their story. Know that people’s experiences are not all the same.
This is profoundly hopeful book, full of grace.
Charlene’s two living children, born after the death of their sister, hold her in their lives in ways that are completely natural. The older sister they never knew is present in their family. In the book, Charlene relates how her son says that his older sister is there whenever he has a feeling that surprises him, or that he can’t know — much like he can’t know this sister, yet she is mysterious and present.
me and Charlene in Winnipeg earlier this fall
Charlene was my professor that November many years ago when she went into early labour. I remember the shock of hearing the news, and hearing, less than a week later, that the baby girl had died. I was twenty, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to respond. I signed a card that someone more thoughtful than me bought and sent on behalf of our class. I never thought to visit. I think I would have imagined it an imposition. I think, also, that it’s okay to be where we’re at, and I wasn’t in a place where I could have been helpful. We aren’t, always, are we.
I hope I’m somewhere else now. I hope, if called upon, that I could be like the friend who listens to Charlene’s story over and over again, and because she is present and listening, is able to reflect back to Charlene that her story is not repetitive, nor is it a trap, but it is ever-changing, changing with Charlene as she moves through that long first winter after the death of her daughter.
I don’t know why the book has come into my life now, but it came and I am glad for it. Thank you, Charlene.
What am I missing? I asked in my last post.
Well, this morning I was missing my sanity, at least briefly. A left-behind lunch box required a hasty drive to a far-away school. And it felt a bit like the straw on the camel’s back. What am I missing? Maybe the whole point. Life is good when it is busy, but it can get just that much too busy. So busy that instead of hugging my kids goodbye, I’m racing out the door yelling hurry, hurry, hurry! Because it feels like there isn’t a second to waste.
Is there a second to waste? What, exactly, would I be wasting in that second, anyway?
What am I missing?
Yesterday, a friend’s wife passed away. Cancer. I never met her, except through her blog. She was the mother of children close to the ages of mine.
That much-repeated bit of advice about holding your kids while you have the chance? Yes. That’s all.
Have I been writing quite often about my dreams? Maybe it’s because I’m woken on so many mornings by my alarm, pulled out of dreamland, bringing the dreams with me. My kids are not going to remember the 2.0 version of their mother, the one who for thirty-five years or so was the very opposite of early riser. The 2.0 version thought 7 o’clock in the morning was quite viciously early enough, thank you very much. But the 2.0 version has been obsolete for over a year now. She may already have been forgotten. My kids are going to remember version 2.1, up before dawn, coming in from outside in running gear, or freshly showered after spin class. “Where were you this morning?” they ask sometimes, greeting me from their perch at the breakfast bar.
I’ll admit: it wasn’t easy to recalibrate my instincts. But I’ll admit, too: change has brought about all sorts of good things. I’m friendlier, for one thing. Less prone to the growlies. Less resentful, somehow, of the necessary morning duties, more light-hearted regarding the inevitable complaints. (“This toast is too cold!” “This porridge is too hot!”)
This morning, I woke with dreams of my friend’s father still in my mind. We attended the memorial service last night. Let me tell you about one small and extraordinary moment. After the more formal proceedings, we all went to the church basement to eat sweets, visit, and share memories. Among the people who got up to say something was a woman I’d never met. She wasn’t a family member or someone from the neighbourhood. She said she knew my friend’s father from work. She said that she worked as a teller in a bank. My friend’s father had been a customer. She spoke about his friendliness, his stories, his interest in her life, about how, as she came to know him, she would wave him over to her line. She regretted that she hadn’t gotten the chance to say goodbye. She was glad to be able to come to his memorial service. She came to his memorial service. Isn’t that amazing?
This is what it says to me: The potential for meaningful relationships is all around us.
Meaningful relationships don’t have to be conventional. They don’t necessarily require tons of time. They can be as simple as asking your bank teller a question. Being interested. Being curious. Being, most of all, present.
Today was a day rife with potential challenges. I got up early. I did not nap. I was interviewed on live radio right after the kids left for school. And then I headed off to lead writing workshops for teens. Several fairly major things remain to be checked off my to-do list. But it hasn’t been a hard day, not at all. I feel a little foot-weary from standing. I feel a little wired from more than my usual dose of caffeine. But I feel, also, the worth of every interaction, no matter how small. Pay attention. Whatever is happening in your day, look it full in the face. Ask questions. Wonder. Give it your best.
I thought, today, about how new experiences are always around us. How people, if pushed in the friendliest of ways, will embrace something new. How even the most grownup of us crave to feel those moments so common in childhood — the ones that delight and surprise us. How maybe all of us are waiting to be delighted and surprised. And then I thought, I can do that.
It’s as easy — and as crazy hard — as stepping outside of my comfort zone.