Inquiries for the universe…
A few years ago, after returning from a three-week writing residency in France, I put an idea out into the universe: hey, universe, could you send more cross-disciplinary collaboration my way? I’d worked with a wonderful actor / writer / translator as part of the residency, and both of us hoped to find a way to create together again. The universe didn’t align for the two of us to reconnect, though we tried; however, as so often happens, another door opened. In fact, a few different doors, one leading to the next. The first was that I began spending several mornings a week with a young woman who had recently come to Canada with her husband and children; she couldn’t get into a language program, so I volunteered to help her with some English studies. Really, what I remember most about those mornings are our conversations. I realized that my neighbourhood, my work, my friend group, even my church was its own bubble, a comfort zone, and pretty homogenous; and that I had a strong desire to connect with people across the possible barriers of language, religion and culture. The idea for The X Page storytelling workshop grew out of this friendship.
And lo and behold, The X Page became a forum for cross-disciplinary artistic collaboration, as well as new friendships and connections. Our third season starts this week, and will happen entirely online. We’ve adapted, but the goals remain the same: artistic collaboration and exploration, and cross-cultural conversations and connections. It genuinely feels like I sent an idea out to the universe, and the universe answered.
Today, I’ve woken with another kernel of an idea: Hey universe, could I expand on the X Page workshop somehow, to make its goals available more broadly, to many more people? Here’s the spark: Before drifting off to sleep last night, I read a New York Times article about an Australian community-building concept called “The Shed.” Apparently, these “sheds” began as retreats for retired and out-of-work men, and only recently have women started their own “sheds.” The story is about women taking over part of an unused school building; their shed is run by volunteers who are also participants, and it’s a mix of socializing (playing games, eating together) and crafts/ skills, like sewing, painting, gardening, cooking, singing in a choir. It’s a mix.
When I woke up, I was still mulling over the idea of “the shed,” which sounds a bit like a community centre, but which also seems more ground-up, or holistically invented and sustained.
It’s also all very post-pandemic, and impossible right now: gathering together, in person. But hey, universe: is there something here? What do you think? Maybe it’s the idea of a shared project, like “the shed.” Maybe it’s the fact that it’s free for all. Maybe it’s the concept of having space for a variety of activities, which I’ve found makes connections across barriers easier. I’m feeling this rather urgently right now: somehow we have to find ways to make more connections, especially outside of our bubbles, in order to nurture our sense of collective care. We’ve got big urgent crises to cope with. We need to find ways to have difficult conversations, and common ground. Social media does not work for these purposes; it seems almost designed to push us to greater and greater extremes. Belonging comes from something else, I’m convinced of it—outside of algorithms that fail to surprise us, that try to sell us more stuff, and that compete for our attention by exploiting our emotional weak points.
My attention is invaluable. So is yours. It is our time here on earth. It’s what we’ve got to give.
So if you’ve spent a few minutes of your attention reading this post, I send you immense thanks. And to the universe, I send this flicker of an idea: in what ways can I deepen my involvement in building community and connection on the ground, in the real world, both now and whenever we can meet in person again?
Today was Kevin’s birthday. I picked up smoked salmon and bagels for a birthday brunch, and stopped by Mom’s on the way home to surprise her with a donut. She thought up the most lovely birthday surprise for Kevin — books delivered from Wordsworth. I wish my worries for her could be solved from within (myself, I mean). Looking at this drawing now, I can see exactly what I did wrong when drawing the stairs! It makes me happy to see it. Then I might see it differently when drawing stairs next time. (Chairs are another struggle …).
This drawing is based on the animation for Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,”which features tea cups. I sent it to my word group for today’s moment of pause, during our tea cleanse. What if our molecules could remember when we were one? This morning, on our church’s Zoom call, my older daughter spoke movingly, and it sparked something in others, and things felt, briefly, hopeful.
Ugh. I hate everything about this drawing (almost everything). I spent today working on the first of two grant applications — painful writing. I’m tired, but that’s not the problem. The problem is a chronic pain issue that flares from time to time; like now. I drew a sad and ugly figure staring blankly at her cellphone, and then began to add in other tiny versions of me, trying to help the blue woman, soothe her, sit with her, check in on her. Plus there are those weird green legs lying on the floor. The whole time I was drawing, it felt like an argument with myself.
While waiting at the back of a long line outside a lab, I saw a woman break down when it was her turn to enter the building, and nurses from inside came out to help; I was too far to figure out what exactly was happening. The woman in front of me, who had come on her lunch break, finally gave up and left, she said she couldn’t keep waiting and waiting. I thought of her, for some reason, while doing kundalini this evening; it’s so novel to speak to anyone outside my family. I hope she’ll get in quickly when she goes tomorrow morning.
I took notes at an X Page meeting on Zoom this afternoon to plan for the smooth running of our spring workshop (season 3!!). I looked crusty and ancient on the screen. CJ forgot to do his piano lesson (also online) because I was in the meeting and wasn’t available to remind him. Instead, he was watching soccer highlights with Kevin in the living-room!! He was very sad when he told me he’d forgotten, just before supper. I sent a message to apologize to his piano teacher and she offered to do a lesson with him tonight. After drawing this, I was glad I hadn’t quit the project on Monday. (My plan is to review month-by-month, rather than committing to a particular length of time in advance; I think I’ll know when it’s served its purpose.)
I’m doing a lot of kundalini this week. I’d gotten a half-start on this drawing just before this evening’s class started, and while meditating, I kept thinking about what I wanted it to express. I spent this afternoon continuing work on grant-writing for this project I’ve started with my Grandma. In this drawing, I’m a ghost in the room, a time-traveller, observing, imagining a scene from someone else’s life — which never happened, mind you — but now feels as though it is real (to me).
I asked my younger daughter if I could go with her on her lunchtime dog walk. I haven’t been out during daylight much this week. There was a big snow storm last night. My older daughter went out and shovelled out walk. I worked on grant applications and X Page stuff all day. Never napped, though the hope of a nap was what got me out of bed this morning. Too much sitting. More kundalini tonight.
This is a visualization of my word of the year — SOURCE. It’s a mysterious word. It points to being at the origin, and to being inexhaustible, I can return again and again, drink of it, seek it, it refreshes, restores. I had a vision during kundalini last night of SOURCE as eternity, as the place from which I came and to which I will return. It was soothing. Today, I’m weighing another volunteer opportunity that’s arisen. I like being asked to serve. I feel most at home when volunteering; and I miss that from my soccer coaching, for sure. But any commitment needs weighing. I won’t commit unless I’m all in.
Last night at dinner, I asked how everyone was doing right now. Our eldest said it’s fine, but it’s boring. Every day is busy, he said, and passes quickly, but it feels the same. And I agree. And therefore, I see the usefulness of this daily cartoon project is its ability to capture, succinctly, visible to the eye, proof of tiny fluctuations within the sameness.
We’re in such a trippy time warp here in continuing lockdown (with cases heading in the right direction again, so there’s hope). But there’s always hope! And I’m noticing that hope comes in the form of a small change or surprise or pleasure that can be found, really, in any day. Even the dullest of days.
For example: supper! It happens every single day, but we all look forward to it. I currently have the time to put more thought and preparation into the evening meal, and it is worth it. We gather, talk, eat good food. It’s simple, it’s satisfying.
Another example: snow falling from the sky!
And: the days getting incrementally longer. It’s 5:19PM as I type this and it’s still light out!
Also: group activities!
With my word group, I’m doing a 2-week tea-cleanse, in which we brew and sip teas throughout the day, and connect with our words and with each other via email, and maybe, too, via psychic powers.
With my family, we are doing reward charts! Who knew? It began when I offered to print up a chart for our youngest, who needed encouragement to practice more often (online school is sapping his motivation). As soon as people spotted his reward chart, it quickly spiralled. Now everyone has one (mostly with the goal of practicing a musical instrument every day, although Kevin gets a pass—he’s drawing instead). When everyone earns 10 stars, we get a pizza party! Individuals can earn a separate reward for every 25 stars. The rules and rewards were discussed and agreed upon and planned for at some length; and tonight is the night: Pizza Party! Whoo-hoo! We even had a sign-up sheet so people could bring something extra (like a fruit tray, or Scotch mints, or a cake). We’re planning to watch a movie too (“Soul”). [Update: What a wonderful movie to share as a family; laughter, music, and the exploration of big existential questions. You should watch it too!]
Finally, on the group activity front, I’m connecting virtually as much as possible through yoga classes on Zoom, texts with friends and family, Zoom calls with my Grandma, and writing time with imaginary characters (that counts too, right?). Today I tried a midday movement class out of New York city that, frankly, seemed to be inviting me nap for an hour on my heated studio floor while making fractional movements with my arms and legs. So maybe that was a one-time thing. But I tried it!
Explore: that’s what’s giving me hope, and purpose, and spark right now. Try it, sign up, reach out, say yes to something different and new, even if it’s just challenging yourself to cook a meal with the weird passed-over ingredients haunting your cupboards (my supper plan for Thursday!).
I’d love to hear what’s giving you hope, in small surprising ways, right now.
Two years ago, I was preparing to teach the graphic-art-based creativity course at St. Jerome’s, which was really a class about developing an artistic practice, setting goals, and staying open to how a project may change and grow as it unfurls. There’s discipline, the verb, and discipline, the noun, and together they sustain an artistic practice. The hope is that the practice will hold and develop over a lifetime, unique and personal: a pathway into the flow, a mindset, a series of ever-renewing explorations that feed on curiosity and feed curiosity.
If all things flow, I can never step into the same river twice; yet I yearn to find ways to fix experience as it flies. That’s the paradox of being alive, existing inside these breathing time-stuck human bodies: how to occupy the liminal space between immersion and interpretation, how to dance between these ways of being in the world; liminality is what art emerges from, the desire for engagement mixed with the need for something more than preservation — for response, for improvisation, for metaphor, image, song. My practice(s) is a way to step into the river, and also a means of capturing what’s here to be found.
I started a new notebook this morning. To mark the first page of each new notebook, I trace my hand and write my birth date and today’s date, a ritual I learned in a Lynda Barry workshop. As I traced my hand this morning, using a brush rather than a pen, I thought: I love the artistic practices I’ve created. They are cobbled together from different times, teachers, discoveries, experiments, using different mediums, tools and technologies; and they do change as I change and adapt, but they are unique to me and durable.
I love writing by hand, even though I don’t always use it as a method of writing new material. There are easier ways to write, but some stories and reflections call out to be discovered by hand.
I love the playfulness of crayons, which I’m using in my current daily drawing project, begun on December 1st as a month-long trial, and which I’m considering continuing into January, maybe beyond. (I’m also considering scanning these cartoons + captions and posting them weekly on the blog; this will only work if it’s easy. That’s one of the principles of my personal practices, the ones that have stuck: they’re easy to maintain, the materials are easy to acquire, the technology is easy to access.)
I love my studio, this lively yet meditative space that I use daily, which is a retreat, a place I look forward to being in, comforting, cozy, tidy, organized, small, contained yet spacious (the high ceiling, the white walls).
There isn’t much movement out there. We are locked down again in Ontario. There isn’t much movement anywhere, on any front, not in my own personal or professional life. But in this studio space, on the pages of these notebooks, there is movement. There is a river ever-flowing, into which I can step, and be transported.
And that is a gift.
My project ideas for 2020 have changed quite a bit; some came to fruition, others vanished almost as quickly as I’d conceived them. Now, I’m planning my projects for 2021, and looking forward to sketching out new ideas and goals on a fresh index card, and glueing 2020’s into this latest notebook. How will 2021’s projects grow, change, develop? Only time will tell. But they’ll exist, in nascent form, in ripening and in bloom, inside these notebooks, in crayon drawings, in pen, in Scrivener and Word files, and here, online. Sharing what I’m making is an important facet of my practice, too; thank you for being out there.
If you’ve got a moment, drop me a line or leave a comment and tell me about your artistic practices, what you’re doing right now to step into the river, both to enter the flow and to fix experience as it flies.
Listening to Joni Mitchell’s River.
I listen to this song even when it’s not the Christmas season. They’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Oh, Joni. I recently read a profile about her early songwriting in the New York Times and then drifted over to read another piece in The New Yorker from 2012 by Zadie Smith about becoming a Joni convert. I’d already read the Zadie Smith essay, maybe when it was originally published, but I read it again. The internet will give you so many windows and doors to open, chasing ideas that you might tell yourself are inspirational or aspirational, when really, you just want to be as original and seemingly free as Joni Mitchell. But it’s okay just being you. Isn’t it?
I’ve started a new project that I’m planning to do every day in December, and possibly beyond. It’s a way of crossing the threshold from the every day into the imagination, a daily portrait and caption, created in about 20 minutes or so, while listening to music. I draw a portrait on an index card in pen, then colour it with crayons (an important part of the playful process!), then write a few lines about whatever’s on my mind, giving myself no more than 3 minutes for the text so I don’t start sweating over it. Like this:
Here are a few other good things and random thoughts, on this Friday afternoon when I’ve run out of steam and am about to turn to fun videos on youtube while doing my stretching routine on the office floor, which isn’t a half-bad way to spend half an hour, truth be told — maybe I’ll count that as one of the random good things going on right now. I’m also attempting to do sets of 10 burpees whenever I think of it throughout the day. While waiting for lunch to heat in the microwave, for example. Before bed. The goal is to raise my heart rate in spurts throughout the day, maybe to compensate for not running right now (though I do ride the spin bike pretty frequently). Whatever. It lifts my spirits every time. I finish my burpee set and throw my hands in the air in victory! Yes! (I should draw that.)
Other daily goals: Go outside! Every day.
And: Flip my current pattern of writing in a frantic panic late in the afternoon, and write in the mornings instead (answer email only after I’m all written-out). The daily portrait and caption kickstarts this goal, and so far it’s worked wonders. Start with something fun and easy, something I look forward to doing, and suddenly I’m pitched into writing new material without even thinking twice.
Also: Work harder. (Weird, I originally wrote “Word harder.” That works too.) Work/word harder is my main life goal. But I mean that only insofar as I mean work harder to dig in, commit, finish projects, even if I don’t know what will happen to them. Hard things are hard. Curiosity is my fuel. Patience is a gift but also can be a weakness if it turns into numb acceptance. Grit is necessary. Add it to your breakfast. Relish and savour what you’re doing because you never know what you’re making. Or what will stick, what will matter, what others will appreciate.
For example: A student sent me a message this week, writing: “I also wanted to tell you that as a graduate, I still appreciate your class. I’ve read books a little differently since, with more compassion, and more interest in the beauty of the work.” How could I guess that a student would come away from a writing class with a new lens on reading? What a gift. I love thinking about the accident of connections, about the things we keep that perhaps someone else has given us, but they don’t know.
Okay, one more goal: Reach out with appreciation for the gifts received from others. I might also add, if there’s a teacher who’s helped you in some way, let her know. Especially now. Any teacher who can engage her students through the screen or the mask is working at a level of commitment and energy and preparation that is almost impossible to understate.
In conclusion, as this seems to be a post that has brought up boundless wells of inner gratitude, I’m grateful for a friend’s idea to create our own collectively brainstormed advent calendar of family activities. As a family of six, each of us contributed four ideas which were randomly sprinkled into the calendar’s pockets. Day 1: decorate Christmas cookies (made by F); Day 2: breakfast for dinner (waffles, made by me); Day 3: ice cream delivery to grandparents; Day 4: games night. (Days 1 and 2 shifted the responsibility to the baker and the cook, and both of us were slightly crusty about this; as a result, we’ve also created a bunch of back-up activities to be accessed should one idea not work out on a particular day).
I’m grateful for a little surprise to look forward to every day of advent.
And I’m grateful to you, my friends who read this blog. It gives me a little boost knowing you’re out there. Connections. They’re harder to come by right now, and I cherish them all the more for that.
I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
Welcome to my studio.
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