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.
I’m fascinated by stories of people who are artists or who belong to other devotional professions that demand extreme discipline to a practice or a cause. I just finished reading a story in The New Yorker about the artist Vija Celmins, a woman now in her 80s, who paints, sculpts and draws the same subjects over and over again, sometimes for years at a time. She made bronze casts of 11 stones, for example, and spent years painting them so that they would like the exact replicas of the original stones. When she put the sculptures on display beside the original stones, people couldn’t tell them apart. Years! She also did a long series on spider webs, in which she would use an eraser to etch the web on a black/grey surface. She’s done paintings of the night sky, paintings of sand in the desert, paintings of small sections on ocean water, over and over and over again.
It’s funny, but I had a flash while staring at the lake last month, thinking about how impossible it was to try to capture the movement of water — yet that’s what she set out to do. I was mesmerized by the pattern on the surface of the lake, these symmetrical moving shapes, almost like ovals, all connected, that spread out across the surface of the water and both held and did not hold as they seemed to move and move and move, but also not change.
I can’t describe it in words.
I knew I’d need a photo, and also that a photo wouldn’t suffice, and I was tempted to try to draw it, but I couldn’t imagine the water holding still for me to be able to draw it. I would need the water to hold still. And I guess that also got me thinking about how impossible it is to describe a moment, even though that’s what I set out to do in the story collection I’ve been working on for five years now — trying to describe the intricacies of a sequence of moments. It all just falls to pieces. There isn’t time to grab everything. By the time I’d describe even a fraction of a moment, the moment would be very far behind me, and I wouldn’t be able to return to it. So it’s been an interesting exercise, but perhaps not one that can succeed. But I’m veering in the wrong direction. Success or failure doesn’t seem to be the point of what Vija Celmins (and others) are attempting in their devotion to a particular craft. Instead, there’s a common desire, shared by artists across mediums, to capture something ineffable by repetition. Or by a series of actions that will deepen our knowledge and experience of something particular, which can’t otherwise be named or known.
I don’t know.
Despite everything, something inside me still finds the stories I wrote vital and compelling. I continue to return to them, to work on them. Maybe they’re like the poems that I wrote all those years ago in young motherhood (never published) — necessary to my own survival, dull to anyone else. Who knows what pulls a person in, or why a subject demands one’s attention. It doesn’t have to be because it needs to be seen or known by anyone else.
Just now, in looking up more information about this artist, Vija Celmins, I came across this video of her talking about her work (link below). Listen to this: “Sometimes I think that the only part I think is of any value is the making itself. And the things about it that is — that are — interesting is that you’re making something that is basically unsayable.”
Is it strange to believe that sometimes a story can say the unsayable too?
Spending today drawing cartoons. Today, life is lovely and good, serious and moving, challenging and spacious. And slow. The pace is really really slow.
Saturday morning. Nowhere to be, nothing to do. Reading the paper, talking to kids, braiding someone’s hair, letting the dog in and out and back in again. Drinking coffee.
A flash of an idea for a new project skitters through my mind. I see myself, on a morning when the children are all in school and I’m alone, sitting at this same table, notebook open, exploring the idea, following the surprising places it could take me, just like I did at Lynda Barry’s workshop.
A counter-thought arises instantly: What would be the point?
Virtually every day, this tiny interior voice of judgement natters anxiously inside my head: What’s the point?
This morning, almost as instantly, a rebuttal: None of your damn business. Just do the work.
“None of your business.” -Lynda Barry
I think, in some profound way, this mantra is the foundation of Lynda Barry’s workshops and teaching; it’s why I knew I needed to go back again this summer, to drink from her clean, clear well of wisdom. You can waste a lot of time not making the perfect thing you think you should be making. “At a certain point, the question of good or bad becomes obscene,” she says. Placing value and expectations on the thing you are making, a something that communicates in images, that communicates, period, is obscene. Further to that, it’s not up to you to decide.
This is a hard lesson to absorb. And ever-useful.
What is this thing I’m making? What does it mean? What does it matter? Is it good? Do I like it?
None of your business. None of your damn business.
The thing you’re making is its own separate entity. It’s not you. It’s alive in its own way. And it can only exist if you make it. So make the flawed something that wants to made. Get out of your own way. What’s the point? None of your business. Repeat as often as needed.
I’ve been away. Now I’m back. I feel filled up, and in a laidback frame of mind, and body. My posture seems more generous, my thoughts move more easily toward making space for others, rather than pinging with desperation about the lack of space this might leave for myself. I also feel a little bit worn out, and tired, but not exactly anxious about this state of affairs. It’s a manageable level of tired, the kind that can be remedied with an afternoon nap (note to self: take one).I was in Rhinebeck, New York last week with Kevin and our youngest. We camped. Kevin and I attended Lynda Barry’s workshop. We wrote, we drew. We played tennis and basketball. We played cards. We farted with alarming frequency, because of the food, which didn’t convert anyone to veganism, I’m afraid; rather the opposite. On the rare occasions when cookies were served, or chicken, the joy of the diners was palpable, as was the greed; at one meal, my own husband turned into a cookie hoarder and ate so many, he felt sick.I read a freshly written story out loud on the last morning that felt like it was both mine and yet weirdly not mine; maybe it belonged to the collective imagination.A list of the wildlife we saw: a cicada coming out of its shell; a large black rat snake (almost stepped on it); deer (several); groundhogs (many); a beetle much bigger than my thumb (in the washhouse sink); chipmunks and squirrels (of course); we also smelled a skunk outside our tent, and heard the scritching of tiny paws on the walls all through the night.Back home in Canada, I spent the weekend at a soccer tournament. Our team went all the way to the finals, playing through pouring rain, ridiculous humidity, and hot hot heat. Somehow we also had a regular-season game to play on Monday night, about an hour outside of town. By which point, everyone was hurting, including yours truly. (I need a root canal, but that’s another story.)This is the first fall I won’t be teaching in six years. My approach toward September seems measurably different this summer — I scratch and paw at the absence of anxiety, admiring it, wondering if this is what ease feels like, and will it stay and play?
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