In the past couple of creative writing courses I’ve taught, I’ve devoted an entire class to listening to and writing fairy tales. Why? Sometimes I introduce an exercise without fully understanding its necessity, until I’ve been through it several times. After my fairy tale class yesterday, my brain was spinning, like I’d learned how to spin flax into gold. I may not entirely understand why the fairy tale is so valuable to listen to and enter into, but I’m getting closer.
Fairy tales are full of archetypal imagery: images that are powerful and timeless, even if they may be interpreted differently by different cultures and in different eras. Brothers and sisters; transformations; talking beasts; wise women and witches; kings and queens; red shoes; axes; forests; water. As we wrote our own fairy tales, some of these images no doubt found their way into our stories, and we knew they had meaning beyond themselves, we understood it at gut level. A dark forest conjures a meaning different from a river; the moon means something different from the sun; the power of a witch is different from the power of a king or a queen. Maybe we also understood that the meaning of these images was somehow malleable, too, and that we could work with it, we could subvert it, we could make it our own—we understood that meaning shifts. Sometimes it’s even our duty to shift meaning or fight against it.
Fairy tales are by their nature grim, even gruesome; the characters suffer horrors and sorrow that is difficult to comprehend. And yet the stories are told in a way that makes them enjoyable to listen to—not frightening, but compelling. One of the hardest tasks as a writer is to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader: fairy tales do exactly that. How do fairy tales protect us, even as they reveal traumatic narratives? Perhaps it is in part our detachment from their one-dimensional characters. But I think protection also relies on the use of archetypes to contain and control horror, and shape meaning.
What is the difference between meaning that is political or ideological and meaning that is literary? The world is not magical. In other words, what happens to us is not meaningful, in and of itself. We make it magical: we create the meaning. We impose shape onto the events we witness, onto our own experiences, onto the random gathering of routines, activities, sights and sounds, interactions and reactions that make up our lives—much of what falls through and into our lives is like the weather, out of our control. This could be terrifying, paralyzing. It is not a truth our brains accept easily; in fact, our brains are built to create narrative to explain the randomness, to comfort ourselves, in order to survive and to thrive. The same source of comfort drives our impulse toward religion, politics, and poetry: narrative. We need narrative because we need meaning. Meaning comes from shape, pattern, images that carry thematic weight, from threads being pulled together to weave a tapestry that is so satisfying to our brains that we don’t care that it’s not real because it feels real—it feels as it should.
Why do we seek to understand the motive of a man wielding an AR-15 in a church? (I’ve been wondering and wondering about this, because in my opinion, trying to pin down a motive in cases like this is a waste of our collective energy; but most news media would disagree.) There may be a fundamentally human reason driving this search: because without motive there’s no sense of cause and effect, there is only shapeless unformed chaos resulting in death and grief. Audiences want their stories to make sense, and the news media are storytellers and we are their audience. Think of all the different ways we impose narrative on the world around us—my interest is largely literary, but political narratives are inevitable and create competing storylines that truly fail to intersect. Some narratives exclude, lock out, imprison rather than connect.
How can literary narratives help us? By creating empathy—through windows and doors, through the lens of another’s eyes. By refusing to be ideological. By appealing to our human frailty and flaws—by showing us our possibilities and our hopes, and our failures. By releasing us from our humanness, too, sometimes, the way that fairy tales do. Fiction is inherently unrealistic (even so-called realism). Fiction will always be much more and much less than reality is—it contains both too much or too little of reality to be real. Fiction is interpretation. Fiction pushes the writer to identify what matters in whatever moment is being described. It creates magic inside of us all of a sudden! We become magical when we write and also when we read, because we are transforming what is into what could be—a recreation that has substance, shape, and meaning.
Something from something, as Etger Keret writes.
I wrote this in a white heat of emotionless thought after yesterday’s class, as if it were tearing from me whole: the reason I write, the power of writing, the value of it.
“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside of us.” – Silvana Ocampo
Write these words on my heart.
1. I am eleven years old and the stadium is enormous. The track is long and hard and black and very hot. I am wearing beat-up runners, the laces dirty, and I am sure that I am amazing. The sky opens around me. I could throw up. The white lines are chalked in. After the gun goes off, we stay in our lanes until we reach a certain mark, and then we funnel in together. The stands hum with kids, teachers, some parents (not mine), and underneath the stands the light filters in stripes and the ground is wet with spilled drinks. When I run I am not afraid, only that I won’t win; I must win. Afterward, under the stands, a teacher congratulates me in a teasing way, and I am offended by his tone. Why should he act surprised? Did he not see my brilliance? The way I ran down the tall girl in grade seven, the way I opened up a lead with 300 metres to go? The way I could not, thereafter, be caught.
2. It is going to rain. I park my bike and lock it. The underside of the stands is a sticky zone of concrete splashed with soda and dripping popsicles, spilled popcorn, children in pinnies darting, and I am too late. Rushing up from underneath and out into the seats, I see her bright yellow shirt at the finish line. The race just over. I did not see her run! I can’t stop telling people, even though it disappoints them unnecessarily, how I missed the moment. The moment was there and is gone.
3. She is sturdy and wonderful and fleet and strong. She runs so hard she will throw up, crawling off to the edge of the track, afterward. She has run faster than the girls a year old, faster than every girl on the track, and with an ease and power that I am certain I could never match, nor never did match. When she stops running, two years from now, what will I do? She waits in full sunlight beside the stands while I take her picture, her eyes squinting. “Wait,” I say. “Let me take another!” But she is impatient. She doesn’t care about pictures. She is unpinned in time.
4. Last year, in grade six, I was the fastest girl in the school. I won two red ribbons racing the 800 metres (harder for me) and the 1500 metres (I could have run forever, it felt like). What has changed? The stadium is the same, the same spilled drinks under the stands, the same open sky as I step out from under the stands and into the heart of this place–grass field and oval track, little black stones, white chalk lines. I will lose the pace in the 800 metres; I won’t even attempt the 1500 metres; and in my new speciality, the hurdles, I will hit several. I won’t fall, but I won’t win. Everything is the same except for me. I shouldn’t have cut my long, long hair. I shouldn’t have gotten older. I don’t know myself at all. My capacity for suffering is diminished and I will never again win a red ribbon at a track meet.
5. There is no last track meet. There will always be more. The light will always slant through the stadium seating, the canteen will always serve popcorn and icy sugar drinks, the teachers will always tell you where to stand and remain surprised at who you are and what you can do; or surprisingly disinterested, just as irritating. There will always be safety pins to attach the coloured ribbons to your shirt, fluttering, proof of your achievements. You will always feel sick before your race. You will fight the feeling that you can’t bear to lose. You will have to live with it, live with the possibility of losing. You will sublimate your competitiveness, you will try to bury it. You will become a nice person. You will miss the uncomplicated, greedy, gritty child whose cells you have shed, entirely.
On spiritual food
I have less than 15 minutes in which to write this blog post, so necessity will determine its structure: a list. Here are a few things that have been feeding me spiritually, lately.
Cycling. Cycling at a leisurely pace, on safe trails, through the beauty of our Canadian spring. Biking home from campus, the thought comes like a refrain: this is exactly what I’ve always dreamed of, teaching at a university, being able to bike to and from work, taking life at a pace that does not sap it of its natural rhythms.
Church. I’ve been drawn to church this calendar year. I grew up in the Mennonite church, attended a variety of different churches, in different settings, and despite long lapses and absences, feel at home there, at home in the hymns, the passages of scripture (like poetry, my daughter whispered to me recently), and in the community. My mind and spirit are fed in the Sunday services. It helps to have found a church that appeals to me as someone who seeks and questions, rather than someone who yearns for answers and prescriptions.
Poetry. I can’t say enough about how poetry is feeding me right now. I’m teaching the poetry unit in my creative writing class, and everything about it feels fresh and alive. I’m alert to the necessity of poetry, how it moves toward meaning and mystery in a way no other art form can, quite, except maybe for song.
Music. Playing it, singing it, listening to it. On Saturday, driving home from an event in Chatham (a presentation at a library), I kept myself awake by singing along to opera. Harder than it sounds (or maybe not!). Only possible when alone in a vehicle (as I’m sure my children would assure you).
Friends. Every human connection sparks something in me — gratitude, appreciation, comfort, hope. I am blessed with friendships that are old and have weathered much, and by newer more fragile friendships too. I am aware of a web of connections that opens around me and my family, supporting us.
Dogs. Our dogs, these two formerly homeless animals that we adopted almost five years ago, who took at least three years to settle in and trust us, bless us daily with their in-the-moment animal presence.
This list could go on and on. But I’m about to get on my bike and cycle to campus (in the rain!) to work in my quiet office before teaching this afternoon. And I’m hungry. (Literally and figuratively.)
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.
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.
I am standing in warrior one pose in kundalini class, in Kasia’s sunny studio, my hands held in the air like fists, and at her command I am kicking my back leg up and through like a ninja or judo expert, neither of which I am. The music is guttural shouting — har har har har har in the throat, finishing with a strong shout: har! Our fists punch down and our legs kick forward.
The tree in Kasia’s backyard is bright orange and red and I am loving the shouting and kicking and punching, not because I’m angry, not because I have any fury to kick or punch through, but because it feels good to shout and kick and make known my presence on this earth. I don’t know what this kriya is for, that she’s chosen for this morning’s class, but I decide it is a kriya to rip out the walls of fear and hesitation and doubt — self-doubt — and cause a great wellspring of courage to flow forth into the universe, into the flamingly beautiful dying leaves, the crisp blue sky, the chilly wind, the room full of privileged white middle-aged women (and one man) chanting and kicking and rendering themselves vulnerable to mockery.
I see that. I see that, too.
I kick. I punch. I shout. The guts feel good on the shout. The foot plants after each kick with steadiness and purpose.
After this we will sit for awhile and meditate and the word awaken will fight with the word dream, and I won’t know which I crave more.