Yesterday, I taught my last class of the term.
At the end of class, a student asked, “Does every class you teach feel like this one?” And I knew what he meant. I said, yes, it does. Every class, by the end of term, feels like our classroom felt last night: a buzzing, humour-filled, serious, safe space shared by interested thoughtful equals. There’s magic there. Every term progresses in the same way, from nervousness and skepticism and even a bit of boredom and wondering what we’re getting out of this, to a gradually increasing warmth and trust. Trust is the most important ingredient. How to build trust among strangers? It doesn’t happen all at once. We’re hesitant to share. We’re afraid of being judged. We’re dealing with our own private stuff; turmoil, sadness, anger, loss, stress, anxiety. And we’re writing all the while, often deeply personal material, material we weren’t necessarily expecting to discover, material that we want to protect.
So we have to figure out how to share, how to trust, how to listen, together. And every class, every year, it’s been the same, in my experience: by the last class, we reap the rewards of our work. It’s so hard to say goodbye.
For the last class, I like to read from Ann Patchett’s essay, “The Getaway Car,” from her collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, especially the section where she talks about studying creative writing with the great short story writer Grace Paley:
“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. … She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes, I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say. I would not begin to know how to teach another person how to have character, which was what Grace Paley did.”
Wow, I love that. I could read it over and over.
When I started teaching, four years ago, I needed money, and I was grateful for work. But it turns out that money was the least of it.
I teach because I love the process, and because I’m excited by possibility and potential in all shapes and sizes, and because it challenges me to be creative and constantly learning, and because I admire my students, each one of them, for being brave enough to go through this process, which isn’t always easy, and which they may not have expected to go through when they first signed up. There’s magic in the classroom. I’ve witnessed it. And I’m greedy. I want to keep witnessing it.
Should I have gotten that PhD, way back when it was a real possibility? Have I missed my calling? In some ways, I know I’m not a great teacher, and I’m no academic; I’m more of a coach, setting up practices and games, or a trail guide, leading a group into the woods for an adventure, or a host at a rather quiet party. Maybe I should be exploring possibilities outside of academia. Maybe there are other routes, other pathways, to teaching.
Maybe you have brilliant, simple, creative, helpful ideas you could share. Please, and thank you.
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 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.
Soon, I will teach my last class for another term. Because I am a sessional lecturer, there is no guarantee I will teach again. But I would like to; I would like, in addition to the introductory creative writing course I’m teaching now, to teach an advanced course that combines writing and drawing and collaboration, and demands serious commitment, a heavy workload; at the end of the course, everyone would have made a book (illustrated, but for adults).
Here are the questions this course would address, and engage with:
“What is creativity and where can I find it?”
“How can I get into the creative flow?”
“How can I stop procrastinating and do what I want?”
“Is creativity something I can practice? Can anyone?”
(In the above exercise, captions are paired with random illustrations; this is an example of an exercise one might do in my imaginary course.)
Last month, I spoke to a writer’s group about time management, and the question that arose most urgently was: How do I stop procrastinating? How do I get started? Which led into an even more complicated question: How do I get into the creative flow? Is this something you can learn and practice?
Yes, I said. You can practice getting into the creative flow. You can learn.
I believe this to be true. But in answering the question, last month, I got stuck on the how. And so I’ve been thinking about it, or my unconscious mind has been thinking about it, ever since. It isn’t just about discipline. (It is somewhat about discipline.) It’s about trusting that you can access something, fall into something, step into something that is unseen and unknown, without knowing or seeing it in advance. Can this be taught? I would like to try.
P.S. The course would be based around Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. It would be an unabashedly Lynda-Barry-styled course, even though I am a low-key Canadian who possesses not even a tenth of Lynda Barry’s charisma, and even though I am a writer not an artist; I believe the material would rise above my personal limitations.
This morning, I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms lifted over my head, lowering and raising and lowering, and aching and burning, and I began thinking about something else entirely. I remembered baking bread on Sunday afternoon, while listening to the Sunday Edition on podcast, an hour on Man’s Search for Meaning, a book written by Victor Frankl in 1946, shortly after he was released from a German concentration camp; his parents, brother and pregnant wife all died in concentration camps, a suffering I cannot fathom. And yet, Frankl wrote a book that is still in print, its words still luminous with love. On the program, his biographer discussed the fundamental flaw in the pursuit of happiness—the pursuit itself, the pursuit of a goal that cannot be forced into being, if happiness is even a reasonable or desirable pursuit at all. The more you chase it, the further from you it speeds. And, said the man, the relentless focus on the self, on creating happiness for oneself, dooms the enterprise. It’s only when we turn away from ourselves and focus on others that we become—not happy, but whole. We find meaning in our life because we’ve reached beyond ourselves.
Love is meaning. The only way to fully inhabit the self is to look, listen, love beyond the self.
I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms aching, and remembered, and remembered more: yesterday afternoon, chopping mounds of onions and sweet potatoes for our Thanksgiving dinner, listening to another podcast: Tapestry, with Mary Hines, an interview with a woman who had corresponded with Omar Khadr when he was a prisoner at Guantanomo Bay; the woman had become his teacher, and she testified on his behalf at a trial. She talked about the fear of God in a way that made this fear make sense: not cowering under fear of punishment by an angry god, but fear of refusing God’s invitation to action. Fear of making a choice based on the shallow terms on which we so often base our choices: fear of being judged by others, fear of looking foolish, fear of being singled out, fear of taking a stand and having to suffer the consequences. When none of these worldly or earthly pressures could shake the more profound fear of not doing justice, of not doing right—this, she said, was the fear of God. I look in awe at those with courage to stand firm in their convictions; does this strength come from a bigger place and purpose?
Do we know what is right? Do we know what is just?
The woman on Tapestry spoke about being pulled in an unexpected direction, a direction not of her own choosing. An invitation, an opening, a tidal pull, a crack where the light gets in.
As I sat in kundalini, I asked myself, as my arms spun circles and ached terribly, where am I pulled, who are the others upon whom I turn my gaze?
Stories, I heard.
You have stories, you already have stories, and stories pull you always out of yourself. Yet you resist their pull, you resist even the idea that you might be good at something, that you’ve written stories that are like gifts, in a way, that mean something larger than yourself—that don’t belong to you.
Who are you to say you should change course and seek a new outlet for your desire to be of use in this world? That’s not pull, that’s push, that’s pursuit.
I am so tired.
I stayed up to watch the Blue Jays game on Sunday night; the Blue Jays game and the presidential debate. After the debate, the Blue Jays won, which was fun. But I found myself unable to shake the image from earlier, of a composed, self-contained woman being stalked around the stage by a much-larger, hostile man, his eyelids narrowed, his rage and disgust scarcely contained.
It disturbed me.
Today, when I walked to yoga class, I had to pass by a number of men who were working on the hydro lines outside my house. I was one woman, they were many men. I did not fear them. But somewhere in the back of my brain, I wondered whether these men might speak of women the way that Trump was heard speaking of women, I wondered whether Trump is telling the truth and most men (or even some men, or even a few, which is more than enough) view women as sexual objects, to be desired or loathed, end of story; or are we to be “championed and revered,” as another Republican (Paul Ryan, to be precise) said when rebutting Trump, which sounded almost as terrible, in a weird way, as if I, as a woman, could not operate on my own steam, as if I, as a woman, were a figure of worship, mythical, not quite real. And then I shook my head and thought of all the open-hearted men in my life. And I kept on walking.
I’ve always chosen to believe that I can be myself, as a woman—small in stature, ordinary, complicated, messy, curious—and be accepted as an equal in any situation, and much of my experience confirms this; but when confronted with the evidence shown in that debate on Sunday night, my spirit shrank, a bit.
I wonder whether other women feel the same.
I didn’t do much more than hang out with these folks this summer. Now it is September 7th, and these folks are all in school, on their second day, which is much less exciting than a first day, for reasons we all understand. Never before have I felt so lonely in the house at this time of year. Maybe it’s because I was able to work effectively this summer even while the kids were home, so I don’t feel the same need to protect to my own space and quiet. Or maybe it’s because I need to develop some other social outlets. Our family was a remarkably self-sufficient unit this summer. It’s hard to get lonely or bored when potential companions and playmates can be found in the room next door.
I write the best blog posts while I’m hanging out laundry. They’ve vanished by the time I sit down here.
During our time at the cottage (five days of bliss), we brought little food, as we had been instructed to eat down the cupboards and freezer; we were the final guests this summer. This made meal planning a peculiarly satisfying challenge. The kids wanted to do the same thing here at home, so on Monday I did an inventory of our cupboards, freezers, pantry, and fridge that was astonishing and enlightening, and a little bit shaming. We are storing a lot of food that we’ve essentially forgotten exists. Yesterday, I took on the challenge and made a taboulleh salad out of quinoa, farro, kamut, all found, uncooked, in our fridge or freezer, chickpeas from the cupboard, a lemon and a half from the fridge, and olive oil. (I also bought parsley, cilantro, red onion, tomatoes and feta, so it wasn’t all from our supplies.) Two of four children were unhappy with the salad, but one of those two ate it anyway. “Does anyone actually like this?” said dissenting child # 1, and when everyone else said yes they did actually, dissenting child # 2 stayed silent and spooned the offending grains into his mouth while managing to look both angelic and patiently tormented.
I like the idea of the cupboard challenge, but in practice it requires someone (i.e. me) to do a lot of planning and cooking from scratch. It is a challenge that will be challenged by our fall schedule. And by any non-domestic ambitions I may hold.
What are my non-domestic ambitions? I feel strangely removed from whatever it was I intended to do with my life. When a friend asked, on our morning run together, What are you looking forward to now? I had no reply.
I have no reply. I’m just doing what’s before me (teaching, ferrying children, cooking challenges, possibly more soccer coaching, writing in some form or another), and I’ll do it to the best of my abilities. The good news is that I’m not not looking forward to anything either.
I’d forgotten how relaxed my mind had been all summer. It had so little extra to think about, to hold, to plan for, to juggle, to congregate onto a calendar. I mean, I appreciated that summer was wonderful and that my mind was relaxed. What I’d forgotten was how steep the decline in relaxation, in spaciousness, at this time of year. How does a person ever get anything done in this state? I seem dimly to recall the ability to parcel up time like the squares on a quilt, to do this and not that, or to do this while doing that. I dimly recall it, but I’m not looking forward to doing it; I guess that’s where I’m at on this the second day of the new school year.