This is a gift from a friend, from Iran. She gave it to me on Wednesday evening. While I had the words to thank her for the gift, I felt tongue-tied and incapable of properly expressing my grief and horror for what is happening in her homeland. I have felt submerged and helpless by the news of the plane shot down near Tehran, and all those lives senselessly gone; 138 people on that plane were coming to Canada, some were citizens, others were permanent residents or students. Young and old. The wealth of talent they had brought and were bringing to Canada speaks to how fortunate we are, as Canadians, to be blessed by the knowledge and skills and gifts of people from around the world. I hope we live up to expectations, though I know for sure that’s not always true. I wish we would be the country we aspire to be, and that we often tell ourselves we are.
This coming week, my life fills up again with extra activities, beyond writing and parenting. Soccer starts on Monday, with practices and exhibition games to plan; and The X Page workshop starts on Wednesday, twelve weeks of adventure and potential and hopes and challenge, leading to a performance on April 3. Click here for more information (you can already buy tickets!).
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing and writing. Let me tell you what that feels like: BLISS.
The release into another way of being feels so effortless while inside of this state. This is bliss, I’ve said almost every day this week, by which I mean transcendence, by which I mean, entrance into this other realm of existence where I am open to mystery, filled with wonder and delight, delighting in not-knowing, as if on a perpetual adventure and also feeling deeply powerful — feeling certain that it is a worthy undertaking to attempt to bring forth and make manifest and visible the spiritual, the otherwise unknowable and unknown world, through stories, through fiction.
How to connect that world to this one? That way of being and seeing and existing to this one? I don’t know. How to make sense of this escape when all around me is need, responsibility, confusion, and how can I live both there and here?
I wrote the two paragraphs above at my writing group, yesterday, and after I’d read the reflection aloud, one of my friends said: This should be our manifesto. We spend a lot of time talking, in the group, about why we write, what matters, what draws us to this discipline. How can we live both there and here?
One last curiosity: this morning, I opened a notebook that I thought was blank, and discovered several entries, scribbled in pen, dated not long after the birth of my first child. More than seventeen years ago. I was in my twenties. I was pregnant with my second child. Here’s something I wrote, in between describing teething, exhaustion, and anxiety dreams: “have felt mildly depressed after getting no writing time all week, no breaks from mothering & cleaning & cooking, etc. i need it, it feeds me. i think it is this other world for me, an escape, a place where things make sense and have significance or can be made to seem so.”
What a remarkable reminder: I’ve needed it, it’s been feeding me, for as long as I can remember. I don’t know whether I can make sense of what’s happening in the world right now, and I can’t make sense of grief, nor fury, nor fear, and I can’t explain why terrible things happen, nor why leaders behave irrationally, cruelly, impulsively, and without regard for human life. I don’t know why. I don’t know, I don’t know. But I know, on a very small scale, that writing helps. Telling stories helps. As necessary as bread.
Today is my birthday. It’s family tradition that we get to do what we like on our birthdays (within reason). Among my wishes was that I wanted to go to church: my dad’s band was playing at the service. I love the band’s mellow folksy sound — Dad plays the piano, and there’s a banjo, guitar, fiddle, and voices in harmony. The whole family came along, which was also my wish.
It was the last service of the year, and instead of listening to a sermon, the congregation was asked to reflect silently on two questions: what experiences in your life this past year have been life-giving; what experiences in your life this past year have been life-draining? I found myself turning away in my mind from labelling any experience as negative, or draining. Why? Because there is a part of me that remains forever hopeful, optimistic that any conflict or trial could be transformed by attention and care, or could be transformative in ways that can’t be guessed in the painful, hard moment of its happening.
But in truth, some experiences are draining. And I do try to pay attention to those, too.
Life-giving experiences this year: as I let my mind wander through memory, I saw images of connection. Sitting at the end of the dining-room table, poring over the novel I’m working on, feeling like an antennae connected to the universe, pinging with focus and energy. Eyes closed, doing yoga, sitting cross-legged on soft sheepskin surrounded by music. In my body, running in the early dark morning. With my family, around the table. With my soccer team, outdoors on summer evenings. With my writing group sitting at the table. With my word-of-the-year group. Listening to stories being shaped and coming alive. We are all raw material, and yet we are also all capable of transforming into exactly what others need, at any moment in time.
Life-draining experiences: I did not dwell on these heavily. But I acknowledge these were also a part of my year. I would call them: broken connections. Relationships in flux or turmoil. The distractions of the constant stream of information and news, the scroll of social media, disconnecting me from my body and mind, and from those who are present with me. Times when I lacked focus. Days when I was unable to write for lack of focus, or care. Frazzled energy. Fears too dark to name. Times when I felt overwhelming anxiety, paralysis, over everything I can’t control (which is, let’s be honest, most everything).
Connection / broken connections.
To be grounded is to be rooted, is to feel oneself sturdy, energy flowing directly to and from an idea, a cause, a project, a desire. To be grounded is to feel connected to place, connected to self, to body, to spirit, to feel whole. It may not be possible to feel this way always. But even to feel like this sometimes is wonderful. It’s good to remember that it’s possible to feel this way, at times and on days and in hours when I don’t.
Connection / broken connections.
There will always be broken connections. Broken connections remind us that we are needed, that our creativity is needed, that our love is needed, our attention is needed, that our hope is needed, crucial, essential. We can’t fix a lot of things that are broken. That’s a hard human truth to learn. Maybe we aren’t meant to do that, we humans — go around fixing things all the time. This isn’t to discount the importance of policy-making in shaping our lives; what I’m talking about seems more personal. What I’m talking about is loving awareness. Maybe loving awareness is about acknowledging hurt, pain, brokenness, and making connections despite our fears, despite the risks. Maybe it’s letting go of the expectation that we can fix anything at all, and just listening, trying to hear and feel underneath to what this broken connection is telling us. (Put down your phone? Go for a walk? Write in your journal? Sit with yourself? Hold someone’s hand? Ask someone to hold your hand?)
Letting go of the idea that you can control what happens doesn’t mean you give up hope.
Hope is not the same as expectation. Hope seems much richer, much deeper, much more flexible and open to the air. Emily Dickinson says it much better than I can.
Hope is the thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.
I’ve typed, deleted, and typed anew the first sentence. The problem isn’t that there’s nothing to write about and reflect on. The problem is there is so much! And I’m struggling to identify the theme that would bind these disparate aspects of my week together.
On Wednesday, we held the open house for the second season of The X Page workshop, which will begin in January, 2020. It was an emotional evening, a familiar team of women gathering to meet new candidates for this collaborative, cross-cultural project. I was reminded of the small miracles and many challenges behind and before us. The energy felt familiar: a bubbling sense of adventure, curiosity, wondering, nerves. The desire to hear each other’s stories. To connect on a deeper level. Wondering what we would make together? Wondering, also, where we might go wrong, would we say the wrong thing, make an assumption that would be hurtful, misunderstand one another — this, too, is part of the project, part of any project that transports us out of our comfort zones. This may also be the greatest intrinsic potential in the project: that it may teach us how to sit with discomfort, express it, feel our way through it, forgive and be forgiven, and learn from being challenged, because we often (unconsciously) try to avoid all of this, in our ordinary spheres of reference, our primary contexts.
On Thursday, my emotions were at a low. I felt unworthy in all aspects of my life; I’m not saying it was rational, only that it was what I felt. I mention this because I want to be honest about the ways my emotions can bottom out, sometimes. I was feeling profound despair, weakness. Thankfully, instinctively, I didn’t cancel plans/routines and hide away, even though I wanted to. Friday morning, I got up early to run. I went to visit a friend. Two poultices for my spirit: exercise and friendship. My emotional trajectory could not help but rise.
On Saturday, I received an award that five years ago would have been unimaginable — I was named Youth Coach of the Year for the district in which my team plays. To be honest, this was one of the things I was beating myself up about on Thursday; I didn’t feel deserving of this recognition. I kept listing all of my limitations as a coach. And then, on Saturday, it came to me — my limitations have been my strength as a coach. Or perhaps, more accurately, awareness of my limitations has been my strength. I prepare for practices diligently. I do my homework. I ask lots of questions. I’ve surrounded myself with assistant coaches whose technical skills are stronger than my own. I’ve benefited from thoughtful mentorship and coach’s education. I was very green when I first volunteered, and I’m grateful to the club for trusting me to learn and grow alongside the players. More clubs should do this. Give moms the benefit of the doubt, the vote of confidence, the support needed to volunteer.
I’ve invented my idea of what it means to be a coach almost from scratch, because I didn’t play competitive sports as a kid — I didn’t have a role model in mind. (Here’s an exercise: picture a coach. Did your mind conjure a red-faced man pacing beside a field, square-jawed with tension, or yelling at his players?) There were almost no women coaching at my soccer club when I started, and there still aren’t many. I wonder whether a lack of role models actually gave me freedom to develop my own coaching style. It’s not punitive, it’s not authoritarian, and it’s definitely not angry. Honestly, it’s kind of goofy. My approach is light. I think out loud, ask questions, admit when something isn’t working the way I’d hoped, ask players for feedback to see whether we can figure this out together. I enthusiastically admire players’ creativity and technical skills. I try to highlight moments when a player has pushed herself out of her comfort zone to try something new — regardless of whether or not it worked. What I want to create is a collaborative learning environment for everyone. I think and hope this creates an atmosphere of trust and shared knowledge, where players are comfortable saying if they don’t understand something, where they can ask for help, even just tell me that they’re having an off day and they don’t know why.
I want to be the kind of coach, the kind of leader, who is also a participant, a collaborator.
Here’s what I believe. I believe that strength comes from (not despite) vulnerability. I believe that trust is earned by working through challenges, being human together, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. I believe that knowledge is not fixed and top-down, but ever-curious. I believe that almost all of what we know can be learned only by experience: experience is the source of expertise. It’s also painful, and hard, and sucks sometimes. So we need each other to remind each other of our potential, as individuals, and as a team. I believe we should be seen for who we are, not asked to change ourselves fundamentally to fit in. I believe it’s the coach’s job to position players for success, to see and believe in them, so they can see and believe in themselves.
I believe that your team needs you to be you. And my team needs me to be me.
Last but not least — it’s not worth it if isn’t fun. That’s the glue that sticks all of this, all of us, together.
This is the second wide-ruled notebook this month that I’m filling with words, words that seem to be becoming something. This afternoon, when I laid down my pen, I looked out the window and said, “I don’t even know if it’s any good.”
And I heard this reply: “You don’t need to know. It’s none of your damn business.”*
Keep making what you’re making, people. Get out of your own way. None of this belongs to us, we’re just here to do the work that’s come calling.
* in Lynda Barry’s voice
I’ve been running a lot, and will continue to run a lot for as long as I can stave off injury and chronic pain, no matter the weather. Winter has descended early on Southern Ontario, and I’ll admit that it takes a little more gumption to layer up and run out into a stiff headwind over icy sidewalks. You have to really want to, for some reason beyond the running itself — and for me, that’s my mental health. Running clears my mind. Clears my anxieties. Makes me feel stronger, powerful.
But I do have to run early, it has to be the first thing I do upon waking, or I lose the gumption. I don’t mind running in the dark, oddly enough. My favourite path is reasonably well-lit, and I’ve come to love the quiet of the early morning, its solitude almost dream-like, the darkness a strange comfort, womb-like. There was little wind this morning, and I kept a steady pace, earbuds in, tuned to a podcast called Dolly Parton’s America, which at one point brought me to tears, as the host described the unexpected connections between Dolly Parton’s Tennessee mountain home, and his own father’s Lebanese mountain home. About how different musical instruments and rhythms, patterns and vocalizations find confluence across culture and time, come together, remind us of our common need for expression beyond words or even actions. So that happened on this morning’s run: I was crying.
And then, as I turned onto a busier stretch, I was yelling at the cars buzzing by, their noise and fumes drowning out the podcast.
Emotions: they’re all over the place. Where do they come from, where do they go?
When I got home, I replayed one section again, to drink in what Dolly Parton had said. I’m telling you: You have to listen to this podcast! I’m starting to believe that Dolly Parton is not only a brilliantly talented songwriter and musician, but also a wise, grounded human being, who is carrying a message for our moment that we’re having difficulty hearing. To paraphrase what the podcast’s host said: Dolly Parton is expressing an ethos, a spirituality, in which no one is cast out. No one is condemned from the community. She has her opinions, but she will also allow that you have yours; and she has a massive capacity to see the other, to understand complexity in human behaviour. (I wonder if this points to a difference between being an artist and being an activist; both are necessary and important to instigating and envisioning change, but the roles don’t necessarily overlap, because the strengths of an artist are different from the strengths of an activist. Their ways of framing experience often run counter to each other.)
I spent last week watching documentaries, having bought a pass to our local feminist film festival — founded by a friend nine years ago — which runs every November. I crammed in as many movies as I could: I saw a movie about the family of Colton Boushie, thrust into a public spotlight, speaking with clarity out of their pain; a movie about women incarcerated in New Brunswick, making art together, cast in and out of the system and trying to see their way clear; a movie about an Israeli family in which the father transitions to becoming a woman; a movie about an all-woman sailing team who sailed in a race around the world; a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and a movie about Toni Morrison. (What made it really special was that I saw each movie with a friend or with one of my two older kids.)
At the end of seeing all these movies, I said: How anyone makes it through this world whole is beyond me. And maybe we don’t. Maybe we don’t make it through this world whole. But there are moments of clarity, amidst the confusion. Moments when people are called by some force beyond themselves to take a stand. Moments when they call others in and hold them. Moments of forgiveness. Moments beyond pain and suffering. The victories might be small and temporary. But no matter.
If you pay attention to someone else’s story, you’ll see under the armour and bluster and noise to the complexity of need and of fear and of hope beneath. We all want a safe place to call home. We all want to feel safe, and loved, without condition. How can we be that for each other? It comes naturally to want to be that for my family and friends, but can I try, too, to be that for those with whom I have little connection and less understanding? Can I ask for the same in return?
After a summer to reflect on The X Page workshop and its reverberations, our ad hoc collective is preparing for a second season, with new workshop sessions starting in January, 2020.
In connected news, I’ve been freshening up my website, and have built a new page devoted to The X Page — please visit, look around, share. We are currently in the process of seeking candidates for the next season, so if you’re in the Waterloo Region, and you’re interested or know someone who might be, send them here.
The original project was a lot of work, there was no way around that conclusion, and many of us felt burnt-out following the final performance. Our discussions this summer circled around how to make the project sustainable for all involved, and we began to define the different leadership roles with more specificity, create a long-term plan for funding, and identify elements from the original production that could be revised or reframed. We also wanted to make space within the workshop for former participants to return in leadership roles.
For the 2020 season, The New Quarterly literary magazine has taken over a number of administrative tasks and responsibilities, which frees me and Lamees (who co-coordinated the first workshop with me) from much of the grinding effort necessary to get the project off the ground. I’m excited to be the production’s “stage manager,” a role which I rather accidentally filled last time around (and loved!), while Lamees will be working more directly with candidates during the recruitment process. I’m thankful for our ongoing conversations with Pamela Mulloy, the editor of The New Quarterly — and with others — as we continue to learn from and develop this project. This is not a static process.
Personally, it’s been a gift from the universe to be able to work on a project that combines so many of my interests, including Lynda Barry’s life-changing exercises (the “X page” of the workshop’s title), multi-disciplinary creative team-work, and the power of personal storytelling. I’ve got a running theory that the antidote to (and inoculation from) xenophobia, misogyny, and fear of others’ cultures, religions, and beliefs, is immersion in stories. You can’t sit with someone and listen to their stories without being changed in some way. Especially the particular stories that emerge from Lynda Barry’s X Page — stories that may on their surface appear ordinary, every day, but therein lies their power: X Page stories are rich with sensory detail, evoking images that transfer from speaker to listener, images that pull us directly into another human being’s experience. Being part of this process, through the workshop, is powerful.
Please spread the word.
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