FIRE is my word of the year, and its many meanings are very present with me at present. On my run this morning, I thought about how a fire can be an emergency, how it can burn down a house, or raze a forest. Going through fire is a metaphor for suffering and surviving, for being tempered by a painful experience. But after a fire, the soil is enriched by ash and carbon, and new life begins to grow.
Like fire that is an emergency, loss changes the landscape. Losing Marg was like going through fire. Of course, it was also like many other things, too, because Marg was extremely generous in her dying, and did everything possible to show her love and care for us, despite how sick she was. She had clarity about what was happening, and her wisdom gave us clarity, too. The fire tempered her, and it tempered us, too.
After loss comes grief. Sometimes grief comes even before loss — as we see loss coming toward us on the horizon. Grief isn’t predictable. It doesn’t follow a set timeline. At different points this spring, I recognized that grief was my companion, and that it was helping me to set my course.
Immediately after Marg’s death, I felt like a sleepwalker, numb, too tired to think, but slowly and steadily I drifted toward a different phase of being in the world — of being in the world. I began to meditate outside in our back yard. I let myself rest. I let myself not do next to nothing; listen, pay attention, breathe. Instinctively, I gave myself space. And with space, with breath, with oxygen to feed it, my interior fire began to flicker to life again. It was in that burnt out quiet space, in the aftermath and ash, that new shoots of green began to grow. I thought about (think about) Marg all the time. She was and is present in my mind, in my decision-making. Her clarity guides me, and her willingness in life to step forward, to be responsible, to take charge and to lead.
Because fire has another meaning, too — fire as passion, as heat and light and desire. There are times when I live without noticing how I’m feeling, numbed by routine and responsibility and the relentless obligations of being a mother to four children, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer. These are times when I’m dull, ticking boxes, struggling to keep my weak flame lit. And then there are times when I’m on fire! I’m paying attention — my attentiveness becomes acute, and I can see clearly what matters and what doesn’t matter.
From a place of quiet attention, comes clarity.
I have been tempered by fire, and my sense of purpose is strengthened. This I know: to feed my spirit, to remain grounded and whole, I must live creatively. Living creatively means improvising, sometimes; it means pursuing work that may not have a financial value; it means making space for others to play too. Since Marg’s death, I’ve found myself making choices from a place that feels powerful and certain. I ask: what matters to me, and am I acting on what matters to me? Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at church because when I saw the call for volunteers, instead of questioning the impulse, wondering whether I had the authority to speak, or the time to prepare, or the courage to stand up, I just said yes: this matters to me, and I will do it.
Another example: This spring, as I heard about protests in Nicaragua, as the situation became ever more troubling and desperate, as protestors were being killed, I wondered: Why isn’t this news being covered in the Canadian media? What can our government do to help the situation? And then I asked: Is there anything I can do? Yes! I could use my resources, skills, and contacts to write an opinion piece appealing to the Canadian government and getting this news before the public, at least to a small degree — I pitched the idea to an editor at the Globe and Mail, and wrote the piece while sitting in a tent on a rainy afternoon last weekend. I consulted with Nicaraguan contacts to ensure my facts were accurate. I sought feedback. And the piece was published in today’s Opinion section of the Globe. It’s a small act, but it’s something.
I’ve discovered something powerful about acting on what matters to me: It gives me fuel for the fire, energy to do more.
There are so many small ways to be whole, to feel whole. I don’t seek a work-life balance, because my work and life are utterly intertwined. I’m not interested in the concept of balance. I’m interested in recognizing which fires need to be fed, and which should be smothered. That’s a different kind of balance. It means asking: what do I have control over and what do I need to let go of?
A fire can burn out of control. Some emergencies cannot be prevented or stopped, can only be endured, withstood, survived, contained. But there are many smaller fires: a candle, a campfire, the flame inside a wood stove. These fires draw us, warm us, soothe us, invite community. The constantly changing shape of the flame is meditative and centring. We gather with others around the light and heat.
I hope to have more news to share in the weeks to come. More irons in the fire. More heat, more light. Meanwhile, more summer.
Oh my goodness, I’m flying off in a million different directions these days. Is this only the second week of summer holidays?? We kicked off our summer with a weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm. The heat was something else. We watched all of the World Cup games, went to the beach, performed the annual burning of the homework, lit some fireworks, chilled around the fire taking turns playing DJ, listening to our favourite songs. It was sweet.
Kevin flew off to Montreal for a couple of days last week.
Then we drove to Kingston for a soccer tournament (that’s me on the end feeling like a champion … and looking somewhat shorter than our team’s tallest players, some of whom aren’t quite 13 yet! Keep growing, girls!). In a bizarre twist, our team actually won all three of our opening games … but did not advance to the semi-finals. I’ve never seen a tournament organized like this, and hope never to see one like it again. The good news is, our team had a blast during the off-hours, plus on the field the girls played like stars, revealing inner grit and resolve and team joy, coming from behind to win each of the games. We had lots to cheer for.
I spent Sunday afternoon driving across Ontario to drop CJ at camp, where he’ll spend the week. It was a very long day, and the air conditioning in my little car DID NOT WORK. (Did I mention how hot it’s been?) Thankfully, I had a driving companion — Angus came along for the ride, and kept us entertained. We spent quite awhile making top 5 lists in the following categories: soups, salads, and sandwiches. Of course, this was over the supper hour when we were barrelling toward camp and not wanting to stop unless absolutely necessary. Discussion of our top 5 sandwiches inspired a long riff on the classic old-fashioned assorted sub. We were so hungry! Angus texted Kevin, who had already arrived home with the girls, requesting he pick us up exactly these sub sandwiches from Pepi’s, a local pizza place that Angus had heard makes good subs. Kevin kindly agreed. Then Kevin texted with the bad news: a hose had burst and the kitchen and basement were flooded.
Fortunately, this calamity had only just happened, likely less than half an hour before their arrival home. What could have been a total disaster was just a really messy cleanup (which I wasn’t too terribly sorry to have missed).
The sub sandwiches from Pepi’s were waiting when we got home … very late … The sub was exceptionally tasty. Definitely my # 1 sandwich. Also, the basement was drying out. Also, there were mountains of laundry.
In other news, the kid pictured above got her cast off. (Wrist broken in a soccer game.) But she can’t play for another couple of weeks. She is not loving her role as bench-warmer.
In other other news, I’m working on a potentially BIG project. So is Kevin! (Different projects.) I will share news when/if these projects get off the ground. I feel energized. It’s Marg. Her example was powerful, and I’m lucky to have known her — a woman who used her skills and talents and personality and time here on earth to take charge, take a stand, stand up, speak out, clear and grounded in her intentions and values. Sometimes this means walking toward conflict, rather than away. Difficult decisions, taking responsibility — this is tough stuff for those of us trained to be nice and likeable. I think we need to stop fearing conflict, fearing push-back. Our power is within us, people. I feel it when I run in the mornings. I feel it when I write. I feel it when I reach out to my community. I know what I love, I know what I believe in. I know that the world will always be troubled, there will always be weariness, grief, injustice, greed, unchecked self-interest. I can’t fix that. What I can do is respond to opportunities to be otherwise, to be the change. I remember that I started coaching soccer because I noticed no moms were coaching, and I thought that was weird and a bit sad. Why did the dads get to have all the fun? Then it occurred to me — why was I complaining about it? I could just volunteer and coach! It’s pretty simple, really. If you see something that bothers you, ask yourself: can I change this? If not, can I respond in some other proactive way?
Respond with love, not fear, at every opportunity. That’s the key.
This is a confusing time to be a writer, but maybe it’s just a confusing time to be a human being.
Everything is political. But I don’t think of myself as a political writer. Ideology is deadly to good writing, in my opinion and experience. As a writer, I value the ability to see many sides and perspectives. But now? Now? Is what I value as a writer valuable now?
My life is very pleasant. I live in Canada, which remains a safe country, especially for people like me, born with white skin of European background. I’ve received a solid education. I’m a home owner. My family and I have access to good health care. The public schools in our neighbourhood are awesome. My kids walk to and from their schools every day in relative safety (distracted/aggressive drivers being the main threat I fear). I have work that satisfies my spirit (often), leisure time to play in the back yard with my kids and ride my bike around the city, and time to volunteer many hours a week in order to satisfy my spirit even more. We drink clean water that comes from our taps. I have a washing machine in the basement. We eat really good food, most of it prepared at home. I share household chores with my husband, who has a flexible job that allows him to spend lots of time with our children, too. He supports my work, much of which doesn’t earn much money, recognizing it as a vocation.
I am living in privilege, a fortunate life. But at what cost? What does my security cost, what does my prosperity cost?
I live my life inside a bubble. I want everyone on earth to get to live inside a bubble of safety and security and prosperity and freedom. But that is not what is happening, nor does it seem to be the direction in which the world, and the balance of power, is turning. The leader of the United States, aka “the leader of the free world,” has little interest in freedom, aside from his own to increase his personal wealth and power by any means available. Trump is a president for oligarchs and oligarchs aren’t interested in democracy, because democratic states and institutions can’t pay bribes (or not very easily).
Few images occupy my mind, right now, more than children being separated from parents along America’s southern border. Does any other country on earth hold this policy toward asylum seekers? In Bangladesh, are Rohingya mothers separated from their children? In Lebanon, are Syrian refugees separated from their children? In Italy? In Germany? In Canada?
Take a moment to consider the chaos and terror these specific asylum seekers are fleeing. You may know that I have a personal connection to Nicaragua, which, though a dangerous country during the post-revolutionary 1980s, has for many years been considered safe, despite its extreme poverty. Neighbouring countries, including Honduras and El Salvador are wracked by gang violence and lawlessness, but Nicaragua seemed largely immune to these issues. No more. In the past two months, Nicaragua has slipped toward violence and repression, too; perhaps it’s been a long-time coming given that Daniel Ortega, the president during the 1980s, returned to power in the 2000s and changed the constitution to ensure he’d never have to leave. During his time in office, he’s amassed a personal fortune, never a good sign. Corruption inevitably leads to instability. And those who cling to their power illegitimately understand instinctively that their survival depends on repression, at all costs. So when protests began in April, the government cracked down. Hard. (This is the situation as I understand it, gleaned from the articles and reports I’ve read, although there could be other actors involved and the issues far more tangled and complex.) For those whose daily lives are caught up in the nightmare of random violence, it doesn’t really matter who’s to blame. Nicaragua, right now, is a scary place to be — random shootings by police and paramilitary groups, protestors arrested without due process, extra-judicial killings, a journalist shot while live-streaming a report, neighbourhood blockades, arson, fear all around.
How easily the world tips into chaos.
And people flee chaos, when they can. They leave their lives behind, maybe in hope, definitely out of desperation. These are asylum seekers, refugees.
How easily social norms are broken, replaced by new norms. We can get used to anything, we humans. There are people right now, hired to process and separate children from parents on the southern border of the United States. These people are doing a job. Somehow, they’ve told themselves that what they’re doing is normal and acceptable, perhaps even desirable, perhaps even the right thing to do.
Human beings throughout history have done this — normalized evil acts, told themselves they were doing the right thing, dehumanized the people they traumatized, abused, even killed. In Canada, somehow many people found it acceptable to separate First Nations children from their parents, to house them far away from home in residential schools, to punish them for speaking their language, to make this traumatic cruelty the law. And doesn’t it continue, in some form or another, even now?
All of this. Too much.
What world do I live in? I’m in a bubble.
But as witness to what’s happening outside of my bubble, my hands are not clean. The tools for our manipulation grow ever more powerful and many find it difficult to know what to believe or who to trust. The further our trust erodes, in our communities and leaders, the easier we are to manipulate. How to stay wise and informed in this era? How to express outrage, how to dig in my heels and refuse to accept what’s happening? How to be a useful bystander? Or not a bystander at all? How to be brave? How to make the world safer, kinder, more open?
Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?
What about the arc of my own tiny slice of history — does it bend toward justice? Forward and back, forward and back, we progress, we slip, we progress, we slip. Our life spans are brief and our memories flawed. We are distractible, confused, contradictory. We react. We comfort ourselves with lies and half-truths. We embrace denial. We focus on what’s before us. We cling to what we’ve got. The road to hell is paved with good intentions — that’s true too. Even when we’re trying to help, we get so much wrong.
Small, kind, hopeful acts. All I’ve got. The vital potential of art. All I’ve got. My own two hands. All I’ve got. My imagination. All I’ve got. The ability to listen. All I’ve got. To change. All I’ve got. To remember. To care. To witness. To record. All I’ve got.
The hardest day of the week to get oriented. There seem to be an infinite number of tasks that could be tackled — a few that should be tackled, and many that are just pleasant possibilities awaiting attention. But to be done properly these tasks require full attention. There are many ways to begin, but here is one that’s been working for me: I put on Marg’s green scarf and sit in the back yard and meditate.
On my general to-do list:
- Fall creative writing course at U of Waterloo: revamp reading list; tweak structure of peer review workshops; tweak participation rubric.
- Winter creative writing course at St. Jerome’s (new course!!!!): solidify curriculum, leaving room for student input within broader units.
- Write/edit/submit short stories: I’m working on editing a short story collection. I keep picking away at the stories, one by one; highly satisfying. I’m also setting the goal of submitting these polished stories, one by one, to literary magazines.
- Edit/submit poems: Same as # 3, only in poetry form.
- Expand/explore career options: Here is where I begin to drift off, untethered. I’m feeling a significant pull to further my education. I’ve narrowed my field(s) of interest to the following: spiritual work, counselling/therapy/coaching, writing/art therapy, conflict resolution, public speaking.
On Twitter, today, I retweeted an opinion from a thread on CanLit by Amanda Leduc, who wrote: “Literature is a special thing only insofar as it helps us to navigate the world & connect with one another.” Someone else replied: “I hear what you’re saying, but I have also talked to people who are alive today because literature literally saved their lives.”
And I wonder what I believe?
My experience as a teacher leads me to believe that writing can be powerful medicine, that telling our stories and being heard, no matter the medium, can be powerfully validating. Reading or seeing or hearing a story or image that strikes a chord within us can also be powerful. It can heal, or create an opening for healing. Who knows why something moves us? It may have nothing to do with the technical prowess of its creator.
I’m not saying that technical skill doesn’t matter or is immaterial. My God, when I read a book by someone who’s mastered the craft, I’m utterly transported. Most recently, that would be Ali Smith’s Autumn. I wanted to linger — am lingering, in memory — inside the richness and simultaneous spareness of her style. Yet I flew through the book and couldn’t put it down. That’s magic. There’s magic in deciding to pick up a book and read it, and discovering in it exactly what you need.
There is magic in the process, in all parts of the process, that’s what I’m saying. There’s work and then there’s magic. And magic doesn’t come in a form that’s graspable; magic, spiritual depth, grace — however you term it — does not arrive because you demand its arrival. A writer is not someone with special powers. A writer is someone who, with luck, occasionally finds a way to share an idea or an image with the the world, or whatever tiny piece of the world picks up our book and reads it and finds something within those pages. But there are lots of other ways to connect, even for writers. I come back to connection, to navigating the world. The world is what interests me. Relationships interest me. And, yes, spiritual life in particular interests me, even though or maybe because it’s almost impossible to put that life into words. (This is why we need images.)
Long story short. I’m happy to keep writing and practicing the craft of writing (see items #3 and #4 on above list). But I think I’m being called out beyond the borders of the page. I think there are other ways and means of connecting to the world using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about writing and shaping narrative, but also using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about being human, being mortal, being fallible, being forgiven, and loving and being loved.
I’ve been wandering through a book kindly sent to me by my Canadian publisher, Anansi, called The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, by Sharon Blackie. One of her suggestions is to find a place to return to, daily if possible, outside somewhere. A place where you can sit and simply be, and observe the natural world around you.
At first, I fantasized about biking or walking to a nearby park to sit beside the little creek that runs through it. But after several days of not biking or walking to the park to do this, I recognized that, as is often the case, fantasy and reality are two divergent paths. I do love my fantastical life, as lived in my imagination, but down here in reality, setting into action even small life changes requires a different toolbox.
Let me back-track.
I’ve just finished a three-day workshop on instructional skills (teaching skills), which was intensive, immersive, challenging, and rewarding. My takeaway could apply to life as surely as it applies to lesson-planning: to meet your objective, you need to identify it clearly, and create a process that leads you toward it.
So if my objective or goal is to sit outside in nature, and specifically, to find a place that I can return to daily if possible, what process would lead me toward that goal?
The answer turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, in this example. Best of all, it emerged naturally. After several days of not biking or walking to the park, one morning last week, I went to the back yard and sat down on a stump. Something must have called to me. I’d just walked my youngest up to meet his friends before school and instead of going into the house as usual, I went into the yard. The dog was with me, the air was sweet and temperate, and the buds were at their very newest, just barely emerging in a soft fuzz of yellow and green overhead. I took off my sandals and sat with bare feet in the grass. I closed my eyes. I listened to the birds and the traffic, and the jingle of the dog’s collar.
Aha. I’d found my spot, my place outside in nature to which I could return almost daily.
So I’ve been returning, not quite daily, but often enough to see already small changes in the grass and weeds and flowers. Today, I opened my eyes after a ten-minute meditation and thought, This is my work, too.
It might not look like work. And it might not register as work, because it is so full of pleasure. But I know that in order to write, to create, and yes, to teach, I must be contemplative. I must reflect. I must be quiet and listen and observe and watch, and be. In this quiet place — quiet on the inside, I mean — such wonderful fantastical ideas play across my mind. So much of my work happens in the imagination. So it is inevitable that some of these ideas will capture my interest enough to be named as possibilities to pursue here in the real world.
The process by which these possibilities are achieved seems to me both practical and mysterious. We are ever-changing, and our needs and interests are ever-shifting. The process by which we move toward goals, and the goals themselves, also change and shift, as they must; often unconsciously. I like when I can recognize what’s happening and celebrate it. I like when I can recognize what I want to have happen, and can tweak my daily routine to see it come about.
Exercise is one area where it’s been easy for me to set goals and achieve them. These goals have changed and continue to change, affected by injury, age, and intention. I am aware of both the changing nature of my goals, and of the changing processes required to meet them. Therefore, I feel ease and flexibility in my approach. Parenting is the same for me, somehow; ever-changing, but replete with clear objectives: to support and to love. The work might be hard, but the meaning of the work is clear.
Naming a goal is perhaps the most difficult step. Narrowing it down. Understanding it, understanding why you want this particular change, or outcome. Committing to it. Why do I want to sit quietly in nature as often as possible? Immediately, answers float to the surface. Because it calms me, because it connects me to something bigger than myself, because it clears my mind. It helps me to see the bigger picture. It feeds my spirit.
What if I were to name a different goal: to publish another novel. I’ll confess that my motives feel less clear in this example, even though the goal appears straightforward. Certainly, I understand the process. But the underlying objective, the greater why of it all, eludes and troubles me; no doubt it’s different now than it was when I first published. And so I wonder … Is it to further my professional career, both as a writer and a teacher? Is it to share knowledge in a creative way? To entertain an audience? Is it to earn a living? Is it to publicly express ideas important to me that can’t be otherwise expressed? Is it to garner attention and feed my ego? (How I fear this last intention, how I fear it might be a secret intention I hide even from myself.)
It seems to me that writing a novel expresses a different intention than publishing a novel. I’m at ease with the former; I’m uncomfortable with the latter.
Yet I want to name it as a goal. I want to publish another novel.
I want to learn from the process, again, how to go forth into the world carrying an idea, and how to share it openly, generously, without fear or shame. I want, also, to polish an idea until it becomes a publishable book, full of breathing characters that live beyond me.
Somehow, my body understands that sitting quietly on a stump is part of the process that will lead me there.
What would a writing community look like?
Okay, here’s the thing: I don’t know. But I have a few ideas. Could you please add yours?
A small workshop group that meets regularly to read and critique each other’s writing. In the classroom, I create small groups who read each other’s rough drafts, prepare comments, and present their editorial feedback in person, face to face. Because each student has submitted work for scrutiny, they recognize each other’s vulnerability in their own. Often students will tell me that they were paralyzed with anxiety before their first workshop, while afterward they feel energized, surprised to discover that they actually enjoyed the experience.
A writing partner. I meet with a friend on occasion to write at her kitchen table, while she does the same. When we’re finished, we read each other what we’ve written (or show each other, if it involves cartoons, which it might). I like working while someone else is working too — working in parallel. But best of all, I like the immediacy of sharing what I’ve just made, which is too fresh and new to be anything but marvellous. And because what we’ve made is so fresh and new and marvellous, there is no critique involved. We just enjoy, and let the thing be what it is. I really like that.
An online group or FB page. When I was running the template for my creativity course, I made a FB page so that participants could share the work they were doing. But not everyone used it. I’ve noticed this with other online FB groups to which I belong … not everyone feels comfortable posting in a semi-public forum to semi-strangers.
A fellow traveller. Occasionally, I meet to talk shop with a local writing friend. We’ve never shared our works-in-progress with each other; instead, we give each other the support and encouragement of fellow travellers on an often bumpy road. There’s a lot we don’t need to explain to each other, and that’s a relief. Over the years, I’ve also reached out to more experienced writers to ask for advice, and have received kind and generous responses.
A blog, like this one. You’re out there. I love hearing from you, because I confess the conversation can feel one-sided at times. Maybe that’s why I forget that my blog has offered me terrific literary connections over the years — almost a decade’s worth of connections, in fact.
Literary magazines. I drop in to The New Quarterly’s office on campus to say hello from time to time. I also find that just reading other writers’ work gives me a sense of connection. Sometimes I just have to respond, often on my blog, though occasionally I’ve written a letter to a writer I don’t know to express appreciation.
Other creative writing teachers. I have not accessed this community at all. There are only a couple of professors who teach creative writing at UW and I’ve utterly failed to reach out to them.
Something I notice as I gather up these ideas. My ideal community is give-and-take. It is non-hierarchical; everyone involved is a participant whose voice has equal value. It feels really good — like friendship does. It’s a conversation. It’s about sharing.
And that’s it, off the top of my head.
Please share your thoughts and ideas with me. Are you a writer seeking community? Maybe you’ve established community already? Maybe you’re not a writer, but you can pinpoint what connections have fed your work and life? What does community mean to you, in practice, not just in theory?
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