On Monday, I’ll start another “writing sabbatical” spell, two weeks devoted to further revision (and maybe to writing another grant application, if there’s time). Meanwhile, I’m tidying up my interior life, sweeping cobwebs, sorting and organizing, ticking boxes on a to-do list. Seeking courage! There’s been some volunteer work, appointments, I voted early, and morning exercise continues, including several runs with my university kids, who live near enough that our running routes can overlap.
Today, I’ve devoted my hours of quiet to stepping toward that liminal space that is revision, stepping toward the unknown. In preparation, I’ve been reading a print-out of the most recent version of the manuscript, which includes my editor’s notes. I’m marking up the pages with a black pen, responding to her questions and comments. My intention is to finish this preliminary work before Monday. Here’s hoping I can read my scrawl when I head back to working on-screen next week…
Also in preparation, I’ve been doing some free writing, at the suggestion of a therapist.
And yesterday evening, I led a Lynda Barry “X Page” exercise at the inaugural meeting of a writing club we’ve begun at the X Page, with the intention of creating continuing connection and community for those (participants and team members alike) who seek it. Anyone involved in any of our past three seasons is welcome to join. The idea is simple: an hour-long meeting, monthly, to write a story together and then read to each other. Overcoming the limitations of Zoom, that’s exactly what we did yesterday evening, and it was … incredibly moving. Those who shared their brand-new precious stories gifted us with images that were by turns tender, vulnerable, personal, unique, relatable. I remember: two hands almost touching; arms flung out wide to feel the ocean breeze; being knocked down by a wave, fully-clothed; paddling toward sunset; skin burning under a hot sun; the beauty of a remembered city; sand, wind, sun.
The prompt was “ocean” or “lake.” We wrote for 8 minutes. No editing afterward, and no critique from the listeners; a brand-new story is truly a gift, it’s come from somewhere mysterious, and if we’re lucky enough to witness its beginning, all we need to express is thanks.
I often find the X Page exercise to be revealing of one’s state of mind (I’ve observed this in my own writing, in any case). When I analyze the story that popped up for me, what I notice is my desire to be in two places at once, and a resentment that I cannot be. I notice, too, that I’m upset to have missed an opportunity to soak in a unique sensory experience, I long to have that experience in my physical vocabulary (even now, oddly enough, I feel the pull of missing out).
If you’re interested in writing your own X Page, here’s Lynda Barry, in fabulous mirrored sunglasses, leading the exercise herself.
My ocean story, below.
I am in Grandma’s sedan, we are driving from her house in a tidy town in New Jersey to the Jersey shore — the ocean. I have just gotten to spend the night at Grandma’s, which is very special, just me! My younger brothers (I have three, and one is a new baby) were not invited. Grandma made my favourite food (mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy and peas) and she took me to see the movie “Annie” with my cousin, and she bought us candy. Now Grandma is driving me back to the tiny cottage on the Jersey shore where my family is staying — Mom, Dad, brothers. The cottage belongs to Grandma and her husband, and they let us stay there every summer. I sleep in the attic with my brothers, sometimes my cousins too, crowded together. There is an outdoor shower with the floor covered in sand. To walk to the beach you pass big houses with smooth white stones or shells in their front yards.
Grandma is talking. She is telling me about a sandstorm that blew in to the beach yesterday, while I was in town with her. I am feeling a bit upset, though I don’t want her to know. I missed the sandstorm! My brothers have had an adventure that I can’t quite imagine. “Oh, you don’t want sand in your eyes,” says Grandma; but I do. I want sand in my eyes, wind whipping, the ocean wild and exciting.
Hello there. This morning, I sit down again to work on revisions for what I’m calling my “new novel,” even though it is actually quite old, a thing I’ve been working on for a very long time, years. I have at various times committed myself to working on this book even when it meant not being with my family; sacrifices abound.
I am very afraid, at times, and at other times, I set my fear aside.
Should I call you “my fear”? Do you belong to me? Are you mine? I do not think you are separate from me. I think you are of me, generated within me, and therefore also tamped down by me, or lessened or diluted, diminished, by how I relate to you. I feel you in me, recognize the effect you have on me, in my body, in my mind.
Fear, you make me irritable.
Fear, you separate me from people I love.
Maybe I need you to do this, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel comfortable, but if I am too accommodating, too connected to the people around me, the people I love, I may not be able to go deep enough to do this work.
It’s debatable, however—how deep I need to go. I think this could prove to be a practical set of revisions, more head than heart, grubby, meticulous, grinding work, patient and methodical and a bit bland. The work required by the previous round of revisions was hot as a raging fire, it took me out of myself. Do I need to leave myself to do this work? I’m going to find out.
Am I afraid of leaving myself?
I don’t think that’s my fear—I don’t think you represent that, fear.
I think I am afraid of being insufficient to the task.
I know that is what I fear.
At least I can speak to you clearly and plainly. I can say, I get you fear, and I feel the same way, but while I notice you in the room, inside my chest, roiling up my thoughts, to notice you is to acknowledge your presence, not to give you a say in how I act, the choices I make.
I will use my resources.
I will respect my ability to learn and grow.
I will honour the work that’s already gone into this project, and accept with gratitude the support of my two insightful editors.
I will believe in my abilities, skills, work ethic, command of the English language, and years of experience.
I will trust my instincts, but I will be wary of moments when I sense that I’m becoming defensive—that’s telling me something too.
Fear, I don’t know that you’re telling me anything I need to hear. I can’t stop you from warning me to be small, to be cautious, to turn away, to keep myself safe from scrutiny and therefore from harm. But the relationships and connections that surround a creative piece of work, a creative offering, are part of the experience too—and that value is incalculable, unquantifiable. And that’s what this revision is too: a complicated multi-dimensional experience.
Can’t we lean toward love, fear?
I wish I could solve you or soothe you. Will you always be here? Are you part of the puzzle? An engine too, in a way? Fear of death, fear of being left behind, left out, fear of not achieving my potential, fear of being invisible. Strange, when I write this all out, I notice that I’m not as afraid of those things as I once was. I want to be who I am: a drop in an ocean of wonder.
Dear Fear, I see you, I know you so well. Let’s get to work on this book. You can come too, I can’t stop you, but let’s try to enjoy the ride, okay? Let’s have fun with this. Let’s appreciate the privilege of this opportunity, this supported opportunity, this fortunate and complicated experience.
“Little Things” with full cast; illustrations by Tarunima Mittal
Well, in truth I can hardly remember what happened yesterday, let alone these past few months, but apparently, during the blur of lockdown and walks around the block and waiting, a few remarkable things have happened, of which I’ve been a part.
The X Page Workshop is completing its season three run TONIGHT (July 7th, 2021) with a live performance on Zoom! Tickets are free and you can register to attend right up till it starts at 7PM. I am truly in awe of what’s been accomplished by this group in 12 short weeks … on a compressed schedule … in a virtual space … Live online means accepting that some unknowns are out of our control (like, should I start worrying about a massive thunderstorm that shuts off the power? Okay, just checked the Weather Network and it’s calling for light rain over that time); but we’ve done everything we can to prepare those elements over which we do have some agency. And I think that’s the key to life, isn’t it? Prepare, and also let go. Let it be what it will be.
And here’s what it already is:
Sixteen women from the community, writing, editing, and polishing their own original, personal story.
Rehearsing it, vocal coaching, staging it, practicing it in small groups and at home.
Learning framing, lighting, how to angle the camera, troubleshooting tech issues.
Negotiating with children and pets and housemates to create a stage on which to present.
Choosing photos, props, outfits, hairstyles.
Supporting everyone else on the team and in the cast with collaboration, creative ideas, presence, encouragement, cheers. Such generosity!
Not to mention all the behind-the-scenes work to create a slideshow, program, original artwork, cohesive script, extra rehearsal time, tech support, and clear communication to keep everyone rowing in synch.
And on a personal note, there’s more work in the works, for which I am over-flowing with gratitude. As soon as this project ends, I’ll be diving into revisions for my new novel, with a planned pub date of next summer. It’s called Francie’s Got A Gun, and I’m starting to believe it will be a real thing … but you can ask me again in a month or so, when the first round of revisions are due. I plan to dive deep and stay deep till that work is complete.
I’ve also received a second grant toward the project I’m working on with my grandma. Much of the research is complete, and writing has begun; but I will be setting it aside temporarily to finish Francie. One thing at a time. One big project at a time, anyway. (I think I can keep cooking dinner and fetching veggies and doing yoga and other good summer things.) At times, it feels like I’m half-asleep, working in slow-motion, digging my way through deep tunnels, burrowing into what seem like dead ends, and then I surface and wake in wonder at all that is being accomplished, even if the pace seems whimsical, even if I lose some of the good stuff underground. I don’t know how much time I’ll get in this life, but I hope to use it all up, and make (and discover) some beautiful things along the way — ephemeral as a performance, strong as a connection, life-giving as a community, sustaining as a story, well-told.
Hope to see you tonight. And if not there, then somewhere, sometime, virtually or in real life, soon.
artwork by Tarunima Mittal
For the past three years, I’ve been a part of a storytelling project that aims to foster connections between immigrant and refugee women in our region and the local arts community. The multidisciplinary workshop is named after the Lynda Barry writing exercise we use to find our way into the writing process: The X Page. Over twelve weeks, a group of women meets to write and revise original stories, collaborate on animating these stories through performance and artwork, and finally, to perform the stories for an audience.
This season, we’ve been transported by necessity into a virtual space, which has nevertheless felt like shared space, with room to explore, make connections, to listen, laugh, cry. For me, that’s the key to the whole project: to get to be taken inside someone else’s world, to hear what matters to them, the “little things” they’ve kept or lost along the way, and the themes to which they find themselves returning.
Lynda Barry’s exercise opens many pathways to the heart.
The trust involved in this process is immense. Each workshop session, I’m filled with gratitude for everyone’s efforts, kindness, generosity, and presence. This year, I’m working as the project’s coordinator, which involves me in almost every aspect of behind-the-scenes planning. We are in the homestretch now!!!! The performance will be live on the evening of Wednesday, July 7th, 7PM. Mark your calendars, register to attend (tickets are free, but registration is required), please come and please share news of this workshop with your friends.
The stories are beautiful. The art is beautiful. The connections are beautiful.
We chose the title “Little Things” for this season’s performance because the stories revolve around seemingly small moments, singular scenes, objects that have been kept and carried across borders, or lost along the way; and because even a little thing — held, cherished, and shared — is imbued with depth, meaning, promise, truth.
A story is a little thing. An offering. It is an invitation. Listen. Here I am. Here is something I’ve kept all this time, that matters to me, that I’ve carried all this way; do you see, do you understand? A story is a powerful little thing. Powerful good.
This is a photo of a squirrel eating tinfoil on our fence; there was also a cardinal, but he took off and is the streak of motion in front of one of the blue chairs.
The days have begun to whirl again. After such stillness and waiting, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I’m trying to declare the weekends sacred, and Sundays for meditation, reflection; a worthy aspiration, at the very least.
The truth is that I feel energized after a long quietness. So I’m not resenting an upsurge in activity even as this new stage unfolds and unfurls. But I must be cautious, awake: I don’t want to drift back into the non-stop tumble in which we found ourselves, pre-pandemic.
But, listen. It’s good. I’ll have news to share soon on a couple of creative projects. I’ve got work that feeds my heart and mind, and wonderful people around me and radiating out in expanding circles in whose company I delight, and from whom I am continually learning. I’ve been hanging laundry on the line. My children make music in the living-room. The gardens are bursting and blooming. What more do I need?
(Well, it would be nice if everyone in this house each had a chore they really loved … the way that I love doing laundry… and if that chore could be complementary, say, if someone just loved cleaning bathrooms, and someone loved vacuuming, and someone loved clearing the counters … now that would be heaven.)
But listen, too: our community, our country, our land, the whole world, it is shook up and reeling and in pain and in need, and we can’t fall asleep or wander half-dazed into how it was before, we need to be AWAKE and AWARE and CURIOUS and HUMBLE. I want this place I live in to be a little bit better because I’ve tried, in whatever ways, no matter how small … and that means stumbling, and being quiet, and apologizing a lot of the time too. There is so much to learn, and so much pain that cascades through generations. Every ceremony, every ritual, every practice, every meal I cook food for someone else, every time I stop and listen, pause, listen, pause, reflect, sit, still, breathe, laugh, hug, cry … no action is neutral. This past week in Canada, 215 children were found buried in a secret grave on the grounds of a former residential school, and this is our present. This is not history. This is our now. So much cannot be fixed, must not be forgotten; bad governments, bad systems, hierarchies built to maintain power, no matter the costs. And here we are, human beings, whirling and bumping into each other, trying, trying, trying to figure this out. Individuals trying to look each other in the eyes, to listen, to say, You matter. I’m sorry. I want to help. Help me?
Slow down, sit, listen. Someone is trying to tell you something (not me).
That’s my present, right now. That’s my goal. Slow down, sit, listen. Breathe. Pay attention. Burn something, that too. A candle, a stick of incense. Ego.
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?
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