The Sunflowers, by Mary Oliver
Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young —
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds —
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.
Say you were invited to hold a sunflower, and examine it, while reading and thinking about these words in Mary Oliver’s poem. Say you were invited to respond by asking questions of the sunflower, or listening to the sunflower ask you questions. What would come into your mind, and onto the page? On Friday evening, outside around a fire pit, my friend Jen led a small group of us in this meditation. It was already, newly dark, and we used cellphones to illuminate the page and look at our sunflowers. which another friend had cut down and brought from her yard. Several of us found bees nestled into the flowers.
This is what I wrote.
“… the long work / of turning their lives / into a celebration / is not easy. / Come //”
Some solutions seem so simple
I will paint my office door the bright yellow
of this sunflower’s petals
I will spend the whole day reading a book
I will stretch and breathe
But when restlessness turns inside me
what should I do then, Sunflower, tell me?
When I am afraid
that my service is too meagre
and I can’t think what to do to be a
better person — what should I do, Sunflower?
The restlessness, the sense of longing
of energy unused or squandered
The list of all the harms I’ve caused
shuffling round and round inside me —
Tell me, what should I do
to fix these feelings, Sunflower?
It is true I hear you humming
Too tall, cut down, a living
bee nested in your blossom that has not
bloomed, tucked beneath the brighter face of you
You are humming not an answer
but a blessing with a sting:
Get on with living
You are not between two points
like a traveller on a train stalled between
destinations, you are in the only place
in which you are as you are — alive
and very you
Do you remember when you saw a whole
field of us, sunflowers, calling you
and you drove on, you said, It’s not
my field, I would be a trespasser?
You were right enough
But we’ve found you anyway, again
as you are. Come
Tomorrow, I would like to write a post about the new colour of my office door, and the books I’ve been reading, and the ways I’m seeking to connect, and to learn and listen, and find antidotes to fear and despair, but for today, I invite you to find your own sunflower and ask it some questions. Whimsical, fanciful? Yup. Uncomfortable, weird? Maybe. Silly, frivolous? Try it and see for yourself.
Meditation, using a circle. What’s inside, what’s outside. Where am I?
I stand inside a circle made of pieces of cloth, knotted together. A wide circle. Five knots. I step to the knot that seems to be at the “top” and wait. Hands at sides. Feet planted. Close my eyes.
Ah. I see a big decision before me. A change that means letting go of responsibilities, letting go of relationships. Letting go. I’m invaded by hard emotions, painful; I don’t resist feeling these things. Sadness, vulnerability, loss of power and influence. I name some unflattering parts of myself, humble human motivations: How I want to be liked, admired, respected! Feel this. Emotions flood me, wash through. Easier to bear, when felt.
Isn’t that a strange truth?
I step clockwise. Knot two. My hands cupped at my heart. I’m laughing. I see conflict between loved ones, I’m at the edge of the argument, it’s not my argument, I want to fix it, but it’s not fixable, not by me; if at all. Is conflict only ever a bad thing? Or am I being asked to love the conflict, too, to let the people I love be who they are, even if it means conflict.
Next knot, third stop. I crouch low to examine a little gathering of stones in the shape of a smaller circle, outside of mine. I see someone I want to help and support. Our languages of love are different. To show her love, I need to speak her language; and not impose on her my own. Isn’t that the truth?
Fourth knot, and I stand and find my hands at my heart again, cupped, and I think — my writing! — and as soon as I’ve thought it, my hands fling themselves away from my body and throw the writing out of the circle. Oh no! But it’s mine! I’m wracked with fear and regret, even horror. I try to pretend it didn’t happen, I try pulling my hands back in, but I can’t undo what’s been done. And then I laugh. Of course, that is its purpose — my writing! stories, books, even this post — to be sparked into being, then released, sent away. The thoughtless motion of my hands — cupped close, then opened out, then close again — is the whole process. Make, finish making. Hold, let go.
Fifth stop, last knot. Eyes open, standing, calm, wondering. Sky is a marvellous clear colour, nearing night. I see: Dead tree, bare branches, oh, and the sharp profile of a funny, fat, little bird perched at the very top, as if waiting to be seen. It does not fly away. I watch for a long time. The bird is the world, I think. There it is, outside my circle. How I love the world, need it, need to bring it into my circle, invite the images to flow through me, through mind and body, and back out again.
(With thanks to my friend Jen for leading us through this meditation.)
This blog is like a corkboard on which to post thoughts, observations, whatever is front-of-mind right now. It acts as a public journal, an I WAS HERE scrawl on the wall. Trouble is, recently, whenever I sit down to post something, it’s not clear to me what’s front-of-mind. Mind is a-jumble. Influences are disparate and scrolling, images aflame, voices shouting, protests, outrage. What calls my attention is both very personal and tiny (my morning routine, for example) and overwhelmingly political and heavy (can’t even begin to list it parenthetically).
This morning I read an article by Lori Fox in The Globe and Mail that pretty much sums up what I’ve been ranting to Kevin about for these past many months. Please read what she’s written and know that I’m nodding along. At one point in the article, she writes about her own “small, selfish” dream. It’s a lovely dream. To paraphrase: Work that is useful and that she loves doing. Enough, and the time to enjoy it. A life with dignity and love.
It’s small enough, isn’t it, that everyone should dare to dream such a dream? Everyone should have the means of achieving it? It doesn’t sound selfish to me.
Originally, when I sat down to write this post it was about my own lovely week, which I spent reading stories, editing stories, and talking about stories. But when I wrote about how lovely it was, and how purposeful and peaceful I felt doing this work (tiny, personal), I also found myself tracking into the weeds of dismay and guilt, confusion and fury (overwhelming, political) as I reflected on how it was privilege that allowed me to do this work.
Earlier in the week, I watched this interview with Kurt Anderson on PBS (my favourite American news source), and it stirred in me emotions that I’ve been unable to unstir. Essentially, he argues that 1976 was the most equitable year on record (in America), and due to a wealth-driven philosophy that focuses on profit to the exclusion of all other concerns, we now find ourselves living in an economy that offers that “small, selfish” dream to fewer and fewer people. I realize that I live in Canada, not the US, but we’re not immune to troubling inequity. When I eat a peach, I can’t help but think of the hand that picked it, and wonder where that person is from, how much they’re being paid, and where they’re sleeping. Essential work is being done by people who are treated as less-than. And the system makes us complicit, even as we’re stuck in it.
How many people do you know whose work is precarious, cobbled-together gig by gig, without benefits or retirement packages? Look around, and you’ll see that defines a lot of us, even those who seem to be doing okay. How many jobs that were once secure and well-paid are now being done by people who work on contract or freelance? Remember when earning a PhD meant tenure-track job-security? I remember when writers were paid a dollar/word for book reviews published in the newspaper. You can argue that sectors that are struggling are sectors that are becoming obsolete in today’s economy; but that’s not necessarily true. Is education obsolete? Are the arts obsolete? What about news? Long-term care? Sectors struggle for many reasons, but what I see is that a profit-only model doesn’t work for the people who actually do the labour. Because in the profit-only model, labour is a cost. You squeeze the costs down, you make more profit. Ultimately, that means you’re squeezing people — you’re paying people less and less to do more and more. And the people are us.
I can observe all of this, and be outraged, but it tends to lead me toward paralysis. What’s the fix, what’s the cure?
Yesterday, I sat outside and read Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout, which I noticed, upon finishing, is labelled “A Novel.” I think that’s an American thing? The book is actually a collection of linked short stories, my favourite form, although I know linked short stories don’t sell well, so maybe “A Novel” is a marketing thing. In any case, the book doesn’t need to be anything other than what it is: stories about characters (often Olive, but sometimes not) navigating their broken paths and trying to figure out how to talk to each other and protect themselves across divides of class, race, culture, age, abuse, pain, illness, secrecy, experience, self-doubt. It’s brilliant, and I wept often, throughout.
Upon finishing, I thought: I just want to sit and read stories all day long. And then I’ll take a break and write stories for others to read. And then I’ll meet with people who love reading and writing and we’ll talk about it, and I’ll edit my stories and theirs. When I do this work I’m not always right, but I know what I’m doing and why.
Is this a roadmap for a career???? God, let it be so. At the very least, it’s a roadmap for making sense of life. For helping me see and understand and know what matters. And it ain’t profit, my friends (but you already know that!). We all know it, gut-deep: profit isn’t profitable when it costs us our communities, our health, our dignity.
Here’s my own small, selfish dream: I want to read, write, edit, discuss; work that has it uses, its purpose. And I want others to be able to do this work too, as they’re called to it.
Truth: A lot of my work is done on a voluntary basis (it’s my speciality!). But here’s the thing: volunteer work is not necessarily noble. People volunteer because they can afford to. I’m worried that my willingness and ability to work for little to no recompense is part of the problem. Consider the arts sector, where many initiatives survive because of people like me: Doesn’t this very structure — reliance on voluntary labour — create barriers toward participation for everyone who can’t afford to work for free?
But what’s the alternative in a sector that’s not profit-driven and never will be, that survives on grants, fundraising … and underpaid / unpaid labour?
It’s a dilemma that’s been troubling me. A lot.
And I’ve come around to a solution, of sorts: Universal Basic Income. It’s not perfect, but it seems like the viable place to start. A baseline of security, so everyone can afford their own tiny, personal dream: Enough and time to enjoy it. Dignity and love. Work that is useful and that you love doing.
(See what I mean? This post is WAY TOO MUCH, but it’s where my head is at, right now.)
A marvellous way to escape from the stasis and repetition of the everyday is by reading books. I’ve been reading more books these days than I have for a very long time, reading not merely for professional purposes, but as a fan.
And I just want to say: Read, friends, read!
Read a book! You won’t regret it! Sink in, let your brain get accustomed to taking the long, slow, scenic route instead of scrolling yourself down an endless wall of text. This might sound like self-serving advice, but really, I feel born-again.
Read a book!
It’s an immersion in a way that other forms of “entertainment” and learning are not, because it also involves engagement, as your mind works to build worlds and make connections. There are ideas and images forming inside your brain—new to you, exciting, challenging, alarming, frustrating, fresh and unknown—as you follow the line of words across the page. These brand-new images are transferred into the landscape of experiences, memories, and images that already belong to you. Connections between these worlds pop and crackle and spark something that has the potential to feel revelatory and transformative (at best), or at least interesting, different from your usual point of view.
Inside your mind, as you read a book, you’re actively creating something that is both collaborative and personal. You’re reading something written in a different time that is speaking to where you are right now (or attempting to). I think this is why it can feel like you know an author really well—because you’ve actually made something together when you read their book, even when you’re collaborating across cultures, languages, places, and times.
This past weekend, in related news, we camped at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, and went to the beach. And we read books. I even stayed up late one night to finish a conventional but highly entertaining murder mystery, borrowed from my brother (Ann Cleeves, The Long Call). I’d finished the book I’d brought camping (Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day), a book with which I had an ongoing argument, as it featured wealthy white British characters, several of whom were artists; at times, I strongly disliked everything about the book, but then bits seemed to capture something important about creating art, especially as a woman, and how valuable it is to have a champion, especially a patron with money and influence, but also how dangerous. In the end, it was the engagement with ideas, the argument with the book itself, that kept me transported and hooked.
Books transport me in so many different ways. Reading Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You brought me into characters who broke my heart, and with whom I craved even more time, and afterward I wanted to talk about these people like they were real; reading Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was both accusation and encouragement to reflect on my own transactional relationships, even while it pulled me along with a propulsive plot; reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed stirred up a mixture of emotions, including the desire to protect this seemingly vulnerable writer from her own blind spots, and respect for occasions of raw insight.
I’ve just started Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and already I feel like the top of my head has been lifted to make room for more seeing, more questions, more ways to jab at and unpeel my identity, my ways and means of performing myself.
Writing is not a glamorous job. Progress is made at a glacial pace, if what you’re doing can be even be seen as progress; it might be more rightly called meandering, looping, wondering, wandering. You can’t see what you’re making. You can’t know how it will be received, if it ever gets loose, let alone completed. You don’t know what arguments a stranger might have with what you’ve conjured on the page.
It often doesn’t feel like important or valuable work; certainly it doesn’t feel very useful a lot of the time. But when I read books, I know exactly why I write, and why I’ve chosen this wondering, wandering path. When I read, I feel belonging and expansion, both, at once. When I write, I feel like a giddy participant in a long, ongoing conversation about being alive, being a part of it all, in my own time and place and body, right now.
Right now, Canadian publishing is suffering. (Read this, if you want to know more about the nitty-gritty business of the industry.) But listen up, friends! If you’re lucky, you still have an independent bookstore operating despite the pandemic, and they’re the ones (according to the cited article) who have the potential to keep this fragile/tough cultural industry alive. All the books mentioned above (and many more!) were purchased at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo. Order online, pick up in the alley behind the store; or they deliver locally. Do a bit of searching. Find what’s available near you. There are many independent options other than Amazon, and these options are run by people who love books, too. They love reading. They believe in the collaboration between words on the page and individual minds. They want to challenge your horizons, send you on adventures, keep you up late at night. Amazon’s algorithm just wants to sell you more of the same.
Those are my thoughts for today. More ideas, coming soon.
Noticing something, as I sit at my desk on this hazy hot afternoon: some days I feel like speaking and other days I do not. Some days I need to absorb information and other days I’m prepared to synthesize material into something else, to pour it out. Some days are wordless, other days alight with language, tumbling into sense.
Today is a reflective day, an observant day, a day when tears rise easily, and my brain is making connections almost riotously, but also chaotically. I’m hungry, absorbent as a sponge, alert to the world around me, but somehow unable to smooth everything I’m feeling and seeing into a scene, an act, a verse.
Fly buzzes against the window screen.
Two men argue loudly across the street. I’ve put ear plugs in, but still I hear them.
It is necessary to be quiet, to collect, to listen, to be attuned to the inner reaches of things; to everything its season. Two days ago, I wrote for hours in a trance-like state, emerging late in the afternoon feeling like I’d lifted the top off my head and aired everything out. I floated for hours afterward, certain I could call this bliss to come again the next day with the proper application of ritual. But it didn’t happen. Today, such bliss seems even further away as I trek between appointments and prepare for tasks I do not wish to do. Such is the flux of life itself; be kind to yourself, I say (speaking to myself, as well as to you).
As I drove home just now, listening to news and weather on the radio, enjoying the brief whirr of air conditioning, I thought: today you are absorbing, collecting, waiting, and that is okay. You have some important decisions to make. You need to give your mind space, not press so hard on it. Words, sense, shape can’t be squeezed out on demand like paste from a tube.
So let yourself do what today calls you to do: Attend. Prepare. Clarity is coming. Let is unfold in its time.
Lately, I’ve been writing more in my own private journal, circular interior debates questioning my work here on earth (you know, basic existential navel-gazing). I’ve also been recording minor daily interactions that have become normal, but would have seemed strange pre-pandemic. Neither of these genres are blog-friendly, mainly because the posts are lengthy and, as mentioned before, circular. I go round and round, wondering and questioning and hopelessly meandering toward discerning … discerning what, exactly?
There’s the rub.
Lately, I’ve been:
Watching: Never Have I Ever (teen drama/comedy, Nexflix); Slings & Arrows (90s Canadian nostalgia, CBC Gem)
Reading: Untamed, by Glennon Doyle; Such a Fun Age, by Kylie Turner
Eating: greens greens and more greens from two different local CSA farmers
Doing: a 30-day fitness challenge with my soccer girls, which include planks and burpees; ergo, making myself get up by 7 every morning, making myself stretch, do planks and burpees, and ride the spin bike while watching Murdoch Mysteries (almost excessively Canadian, Netflix)
Now is the season of my case-by-case risk-assessment examination of each and every interaction proposed by a family member. It was always going to be easier to shut everything down than to open up again. We knew that. In practice, it feels brutal. What is the emotional cost of weighing the risks versus the reward each time a family member wants to get his hair cut, go to the mall, play outside with a friend? But truly, what it boils down to is: how do I decide, based on guidelines from politicians and public health and my own grasp of available data, whether I’m keeping my family safe or being over-protective? If you think it’s uncomplicated, well, that’s an opinion, one of many gradations of opinions on this subject, because we all have different thresholds, different information, different values, different interior emotional lives, different family dynamics, different pressures, different people we’re protecting, different fears, different experiences, different needs, different imperatives.
So, I revisit my friend Katie’s guidelines: STOMP. Space: more is better; Time: less is better; Outside: better than inside; Masks: important; People: fewer is better. (Maybe it could be SHTOMP, with the H for Hand-washing: often and well.)
Recent thought: What if, as I get older, I’m actually getting worse, not better?
Lately, I have no sense of myself in the wider world, or even in the small world of my own house. Lately, I feel no direction pulling me. I feel no peace, either. I am not content. I am dissatisfied with the state of the world, and with my own response to the needs crying out to be addressed. I am overwhelmed and muddled. I keep thinking that a major plot line will present itself to me, a direction. If I could join the revolution, where is that happening, and how, and can I enlist? What slogan would I write on my scrap of cardboard, to lift over my head, as I march down the street?
Black Lives Matter
No Justice, No Peace
Migrant Labourers Deserve Dignity and Rights (too long; writing slogans clearly takes talent)
Don’t Bring Guns to Wellness Checks!
Defund the Police
Universal Basic Income
Art is for Everyone
Pay All Essential Workers Like They’re Essential, Because They Are
Fuck the Gig Economy
Ban the Stock Market
Indigenous Lives Matter
Canada: We’ve Got Some Serious Work To Do
Cruel systems surround us. Unless we’re cut by them, we can stay blissfully unaware. If we’re the beneficiaries, maybe we’d rather not know, for when we do know, we don’t know how to untangle ourselves either. Systems are entrenched, heavy, crushing. I’m suspicious of any solution that puts the onus on the individual. But I can’t do nothing with all the everything I’m seeing!
For example: What would make it possible for people to work with dignity at jobs that we know are essential? What if, for example, people who love farming could afford to be farmers? What would that look like? Why do we accept profit as the most important goal? Who benefits from the push for corporate-style agriculture with heavy equipment, ruinous pesticides, antibiotics, fertilizers, and a low-paid migrant labour force? Where is the dignity in that? What if human dignity (and, by extension, environmental dignity) were the focus for all systems instead? I imagine this every day, and I haven’t got a clue what work to do to get us any closer.
One precious life, one precious life, one precious life, and what am I going to do with it; what am I doing with it? What I want to make manifest boils down to this: Dignity for All.
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