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.
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.