Category: Big Thoughts
I am someone who keeps an eye on my neighbourhood. I know the comings and goings of many of its residents, in part because I work from home with a window that faces the street, in part because our house is at a transitional section in the neighbourhood, through which much traffic travels on foot, bicycle, and by car, into and out of the uptown core. Across the street, several houses were knocked down last fall to make space for a park, which does not yet exist; it’s a plot of sandy land whose purpose, as yet, seems unclear.
I see, and I remember.
One morning, last week, I saw a woman in the middle of the street pushing a shopping cart. I heard her first, her screams could have been the shouts of girls teasing each other, but I quickly understood this was something else. I went to the front door and saw her in the street, pushing a shopping cart half-filled with what looked like clothing, screaming at a minivan that had stopped so as not to hit her. The van tried to pass, and she took a swing at it, a lit cigarette in her free hand. Then she came into our driveway, pushing the cart, and veered in behind the neighbouring apartment building. At this point, I called the police, my heart racing. I lost sight of her when she went behind the building, but my eldest, whose bedroom window overlooks our backyard, said he’d seen her squeeze through the fence at the back of the apartment building, and run through our neighbour’s yard. She’d abandoned the shopping cart and was carrying several bundles of belongings, shrieking at the world like her brain was fire.
On the phone, the dispatcher asked for a description. Perhaps I should not write down a detailed description here. I’d never seen her in our neighbourhood before. Her thighs were exposed, no pants, though I think she was wearing underwear. A dark blue long-sleeved sweater. Shoes? Flip-flops, I think.
The police did not arrive on my watch. I heard later from other neighbours, who had also called the police, that she was eventually found. A police officer called me later that afternoon to ask follow-up questions on what I’d seen. I could only describe what was on the surface, visible, a rough chronology of a brief series of events. He promised me, when I asked, that the woman had been found and that she would be okay.
What was happening inside her mind to turn her so violent and probably—it’s only occurred to me now—afraid? What happens to a person that they become this untethered to reality? She was out in public without pants. Cursing at anyone who came near. Screaming, slamming her shopping cart into the side of the apartment building, swinging at cars, seemingly in her own version of reality, trapped in a world that must look very different to her than it does to me.
I don’t know what to do with this scene, this snippet of a story that is not a complete story. It only has a beginning, no middle, no end.
I see it happening through the window, and my instinct is to hide. I wonder what people with training in such situations would say or do, what their approach would be, as they’d attempt to intervene. Would they try to bring her back into this world? How would they assess the danger she represents—to herself and/or to others. I wonder how a person can get so lost. What trauma is she expressing, what has she experienced?
I felt afraid of her. Afraid for her.
I keep wondering what my responsibility is as a human being in this situation. As a bystander. A witness. What is the appropriate action to take? And maybe I’m wondering something more, too: what if my responsibility goes deeper? What training or education would I need in order to become more than a bystander or a witness? What if I wanted to get involved, to help, not just to “help” — what would I need to learn?
This is a confusing time to be a writer, but maybe it’s just a confusing time to be a human being.
Everything is political. But I don’t think of myself as a political writer. Ideology is deadly to good writing, in my opinion and experience. As a writer, I value the ability to see many sides and perspectives. But now? Now? Is what I value as a writer valuable now?
My life is very pleasant. I live in Canada, which remains a safe country, especially for people like me, born with white skin of European background. I’ve received a solid education. I’m a home owner. My family and I have access to good health care. The public schools in our neighbourhood are awesome. My kids walk to and from their schools every day in relative safety (distracted/aggressive drivers being the main threat I fear). I have work that satisfies my spirit (often), leisure time to play in the back yard with my kids and ride my bike around the city, and time to volunteer many hours a week in order to satisfy my spirit even more. We drink clean water that comes from our taps. I have a washing machine in the basement. We eat really good food, most of it prepared at home. I share household chores with my husband, who has a flexible job that allows him to spend lots of time with our children, too. He supports my work, much of which doesn’t earn much money, recognizing it as a vocation.
I am living in privilege, a fortunate life. But at what cost? What does my security cost, what does my prosperity cost?
I live my life inside a bubble. I want everyone on earth to get to live inside a bubble of safety and security and prosperity and freedom. But that is not what is happening, nor does it seem to be the direction in which the world, and the balance of power, is turning. The leader of the United States, aka “the leader of the free world,” has little interest in freedom, aside from his own to increase his personal wealth and power by any means available. Trump is a president for oligarchs and oligarchs aren’t interested in democracy, because democratic states and institutions can’t pay bribes (or not very easily).
Few images occupy my mind, right now, more than children being separated from parents along America’s southern border. Does any other country on earth hold this policy toward asylum seekers? In Bangladesh, are Rohingya mothers separated from their children? In Lebanon, are Syrian refugees separated from their children? In Italy? In Germany? In Canada?
Take a moment to consider the chaos and terror these specific asylum seekers are fleeing. You may know that I have a personal connection to Nicaragua, which, though a dangerous country during the post-revolutionary 1980s, has for many years been considered safe, despite its extreme poverty. Neighbouring countries, including Honduras and El Salvador are wracked by gang violence and lawlessness, but Nicaragua seemed largely immune to these issues. No more. In the past two months, Nicaragua has slipped toward violence and repression, too; perhaps it’s been a long-time coming given that Daniel Ortega, the president during the 1980s, returned to power in the 2000s and changed the constitution to ensure he’d never have to leave. During his time in office, he’s amassed a personal fortune, never a good sign. Corruption inevitably leads to instability. And those who cling to their power illegitimately understand instinctively that their survival depends on repression, at all costs. So when protests began in April, the government cracked down. Hard. (This is the situation as I understand it, gleaned from the articles and reports I’ve read, although there could be other actors involved and the issues far more tangled and complex.) For those whose daily lives are caught up in the nightmare of random violence, it doesn’t really matter who’s to blame. Nicaragua, right now, is a scary place to be — random shootings by police and paramilitary groups, protestors arrested without due process, extra-judicial killings, a journalist shot while live-streaming a report, neighbourhood blockades, arson, fear all around.
How easily the world tips into chaos.
And people flee chaos, when they can. They leave their lives behind, maybe in hope, definitely out of desperation. These are asylum seekers, refugees.
How easily social norms are broken, replaced by new norms. We can get used to anything, we humans. There are people right now, hired to process and separate children from parents on the southern border of the United States. These people are doing a job. Somehow, they’ve told themselves that what they’re doing is normal and acceptable, perhaps even desirable, perhaps even the right thing to do.
Human beings throughout history have done this — normalized evil acts, told themselves they were doing the right thing, dehumanized the people they traumatized, abused, even killed. In Canada, somehow many people found it acceptable to separate First Nations children from their parents, to house them far away from home in residential schools, to punish them for speaking their language, to make this traumatic cruelty the law. And doesn’t it continue, in some form or another, even now?
All of this. Too much.
What world do I live in? I’m in a bubble.
But as witness to what’s happening outside of my bubble, my hands are not clean. The tools for our manipulation grow ever more powerful and many find it difficult to know what to believe or who to trust. The further our trust erodes, in our communities and leaders, the easier we are to manipulate. How to stay wise and informed in this era? How to express outrage, how to dig in my heels and refuse to accept what’s happening? How to be a useful bystander? Or not a bystander at all? How to be brave? How to make the world safer, kinder, more open?
Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?
What about the arc of my own tiny slice of history — does it bend toward justice? Forward and back, forward and back, we progress, we slip, we progress, we slip. Our life spans are brief and our memories flawed. We are distractible, confused, contradictory. We react. We comfort ourselves with lies and half-truths. We embrace denial. We focus on what’s before us. We cling to what we’ve got. The road to hell is paved with good intentions — that’s true too. Even when we’re trying to help, we get so much wrong.
Small, kind, hopeful acts. All I’ve got. The vital potential of art. All I’ve got. My own two hands. All I’ve got. My imagination. All I’ve got. The ability to listen. All I’ve got. To change. All I’ve got. To remember. To care. To witness. To record. All I’ve got.
The hardest day of the week to get oriented. There seem to be an infinite number of tasks that could be tackled — a few that should be tackled, and many that are just pleasant possibilities awaiting attention. But to be done properly these tasks require full attention. There are many ways to begin, but here is one that’s been working for me: I put on Marg’s green scarf and sit in the back yard and meditate.
On my general to-do list:
- Fall creative writing course at U of Waterloo: revamp reading list; tweak structure of peer review workshops; tweak participation rubric.
- Winter creative writing course at St. Jerome’s (new course!!!!): solidify curriculum, leaving room for student input within broader units.
- Write/edit/submit short stories: I’m working on editing a short story collection. I keep picking away at the stories, one by one; highly satisfying. I’m also setting the goal of submitting these polished stories, one by one, to literary magazines.
- Edit/submit poems: Same as # 3, only in poetry form.
- Expand/explore career options: Here is where I begin to drift off, untethered. I’m feeling a significant pull to further my education. I’ve narrowed my field(s) of interest to the following: spiritual work, counselling/therapy/coaching, writing/art therapy, conflict resolution, public speaking.
On Twitter, today, I retweeted an opinion from a thread on CanLit by Amanda Leduc, who wrote: “Literature is a special thing only insofar as it helps us to navigate the world & connect with one another.” Someone else replied: “I hear what you’re saying, but I have also talked to people who are alive today because literature literally saved their lives.”
And I wonder what I believe?
My experience as a teacher leads me to believe that writing can be powerful medicine, that telling our stories and being heard, no matter the medium, can be powerfully validating. Reading or seeing or hearing a story or image that strikes a chord within us can also be powerful. It can heal, or create an opening for healing. Who knows why something moves us? It may have nothing to do with the technical prowess of its creator.
I’m not saying that technical skill doesn’t matter or is immaterial. My God, when I read a book by someone who’s mastered the craft, I’m utterly transported. Most recently, that would be Ali Smith’s Autumn. I wanted to linger — am lingering, in memory — inside the richness and simultaneous spareness of her style. Yet I flew through the book and couldn’t put it down. That’s magic. There’s magic in deciding to pick up a book and read it, and discovering in it exactly what you need.
There is magic in the process, in all parts of the process, that’s what I’m saying. There’s work and then there’s magic. And magic doesn’t come in a form that’s graspable; magic, spiritual depth, grace — however you term it — does not arrive because you demand its arrival. A writer is not someone with special powers. A writer is someone who, with luck, occasionally finds a way to share an idea or an image with the the world, or whatever tiny piece of the world picks up our book and reads it and finds something within those pages. But there are lots of other ways to connect, even for writers. I come back to connection, to navigating the world. The world is what interests me. Relationships interest me. And, yes, spiritual life in particular interests me, even though or maybe because it’s almost impossible to put that life into words. (This is why we need images.)
Long story short. I’m happy to keep writing and practicing the craft of writing (see items #3 and #4 on above list). But I think I’m being called out beyond the borders of the page. I think there are other ways and means of connecting to the world using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about writing and shaping narrative, but also using what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about being human, being mortal, being fallible, being forgiven, and loving and being loved.
Anxiety is not a stranger in this house.
Lately, it’s been visiting me regularly. I suppose it could be grief. It could also be the loose, unfinished nature of the work I try to do. I’ve trained myself to be patient, to trust, to allow things to unfold in their time, not to push too hard, not to rush the process. But it’s taken training because I am actually someone who appreciates a firm decision. I like to make plans and execute them. In the fuzzy existence of being a writer, plans seem forever in flux, at the mercy of whim or economics or both. I like to take action, I like to make and to do. But there is only so much I can make or do or act upon in this fuzzy existence of being a writer. If that is where I exist. If that is what I am.
Anxiety is not a stranger.
I haven’t cartooned for two days. Soccer season is upon us, and most evenings are packed and late. I haven’t shifted my routine to cartoon at another time, or even to cartoon in another fashion — by speeding up the process, or limiting my expectations, drawing faster, messier, more piecemeal. I’d come to expect something of myself in my drawings, which had become less and less like cartoons. (That sentence is written deeply in the past tense, I realize.)
Anxiety preys on expectations.
I’ve been writing. Diligently. Every day. But the project is self-indulgent. It’s all about the writing itself, language, structure, stripped down sentences, ideas, and not at all about the plot. I’m torn: do I write to please myself, or do I write to please others? I think that by pleasing myself I will please almost no one else.
Anxiety is another word for doubt. Self-doubt.
It is rainy today. I haven’t sat outside on my stump. Sometimes, the meditation soothes me, especially listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. Being outdoors soothes me. Yesterday evening, we gathered to bury the ashes of my stepmother. The beauty of where we were came rushing up to meet us. A wide softly sloping ploughed field, a stand of thick green trees. As the brief ceremony beside the grave began, I saw a hawk holding over the field, riding the air currents in a soft sloping arc.
Later, we sang: I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.
The comfort of the gospel songs felt like medicine, and made holy space, and we kept hearing a lone bird chirping in the trees overhead, as if it were joining our song.
Anxiety reminds me of all the smart, brave, kind things I should have done and did not do. Anxiety reminds me of all the wrong, stupid, foolish things I have done. Anxiety plants inertia.
Sometimes, it seems I am so closed, even to myself, that only writing will dig up what hurts. But I don’t know what hurts, if anything. I don’t know why a sensation of nervous energy froths beneath my ribs, no matter how I rise early to exercise it into submission. I wonder, what have I learned from sitting down to write this post? Perspective is a long game. Introspection comes up short.
I’ve been wandering through a book kindly sent to me by my Canadian publisher, Anansi, called The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, by Sharon Blackie. One of her suggestions is to find a place to return to, daily if possible, outside somewhere. A place where you can sit and simply be, and observe the natural world around you.
At first, I fantasized about biking or walking to a nearby park to sit beside the little creek that runs through it. But after several days of not biking or walking to the park to do this, I recognized that, as is often the case, fantasy and reality are two divergent paths. I do love my fantastical life, as lived in my imagination, but down here in reality, setting into action even small life changes requires a different toolbox.
Let me back-track.
I’ve just finished a three-day workshop on instructional skills (teaching skills), which was intensive, immersive, challenging, and rewarding. My takeaway could apply to life as surely as it applies to lesson-planning: to meet your objective, you need to identify it clearly, and create a process that leads you toward it.
So if my objective or goal is to sit outside in nature, and specifically, to find a place that I can return to daily if possible, what process would lead me toward that goal?
The answer turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, in this example. Best of all, it emerged naturally. After several days of not biking or walking to the park, one morning last week, I went to the back yard and sat down on a stump. Something must have called to me. I’d just walked my youngest up to meet his friends before school and instead of going into the house as usual, I went into the yard. The dog was with me, the air was sweet and temperate, and the buds were at their very newest, just barely emerging in a soft fuzz of yellow and green overhead. I took off my sandals and sat with bare feet in the grass. I closed my eyes. I listened to the birds and the traffic, and the jingle of the dog’s collar.
Aha. I’d found my spot, my place outside in nature to which I could return almost daily.
So I’ve been returning, not quite daily, but often enough to see already small changes in the grass and weeds and flowers. Today, I opened my eyes after a ten-minute meditation and thought, This is my work, too.
It might not look like work. And it might not register as work, because it is so full of pleasure. But I know that in order to write, to create, and yes, to teach, I must be contemplative. I must reflect. I must be quiet and listen and observe and watch, and be. In this quiet place — quiet on the inside, I mean — such wonderful fantastical ideas play across my mind. So much of my work happens in the imagination. So it is inevitable that some of these ideas will capture my interest enough to be named as possibilities to pursue here in the real world.
The process by which these possibilities are achieved seems to me both practical and mysterious. We are ever-changing, and our needs and interests are ever-shifting. The process by which we move toward goals, and the goals themselves, also change and shift, as they must; often unconsciously. I like when I can recognize what’s happening and celebrate it. I like when I can recognize what I want to have happen, and can tweak my daily routine to see it come about.
Exercise is one area where it’s been easy for me to set goals and achieve them. These goals have changed and continue to change, affected by injury, age, and intention. I am aware of both the changing nature of my goals, and of the changing processes required to meet them. Therefore, I feel ease and flexibility in my approach. Parenting is the same for me, somehow; ever-changing, but replete with clear objectives: to support and to love. The work might be hard, but the meaning of the work is clear.
Naming a goal is perhaps the most difficult step. Narrowing it down. Understanding it, understanding why you want this particular change, or outcome. Committing to it. Why do I want to sit quietly in nature as often as possible? Immediately, answers float to the surface. Because it calms me, because it connects me to something bigger than myself, because it clears my mind. It helps me to see the bigger picture. It feeds my spirit.
What if I were to name a different goal: to publish another novel. I’ll confess that my motives feel less clear in this example, even though the goal appears straightforward. Certainly, I understand the process. But the underlying objective, the greater why of it all, eludes and troubles me; no doubt it’s different now than it was when I first published. And so I wonder … Is it to further my professional career, both as a writer and a teacher? Is it to share knowledge in a creative way? To entertain an audience? Is it to earn a living? Is it to publicly express ideas important to me that can’t be otherwise expressed? Is it to garner attention and feed my ego? (How I fear this last intention, how I fear it might be a secret intention I hide even from myself.)
It seems to me that writing a novel expresses a different intention than publishing a novel. I’m at ease with the former; I’m uncomfortable with the latter.
Yet I want to name it as a goal. I want to publish another novel.
I want to learn from the process, again, how to go forth into the world carrying an idea, and how to share it openly, generously, without fear or shame. I want, also, to polish an idea until it becomes a publishable book, full of breathing characters that live beyond me.
Somehow, my body understands that sitting quietly on a stump is part of the process that will lead me there.
Yesterday, at piano lessons, I wrote out some plans in an attempt to frame my goals in terms that were clear and measurable.
The template I followed was to name my identity or ROLE (or the identity or role that I wanted to claim), name GOALS for myself within that role, and name STRATEGIES or practical tasks I could do to achieve that goal, or some parts of that goal. The final piece of the puzzle was to BUILD ACCOUNTABILITY into my goals—in other words, involve others.
And I recognized that accountability is where the concept, and shape, of writing communities takes on real life and value.
This exercise helped me understand that my starting place should be with a role and goals; that’s the only way I’ll be able to understand what a writing community, and accountability, means to me, or what kinds of community feed and sustain the goals I’m setting for myself.
Here’s how the exercise looked on the page, roughly speaking.
For role, I started with WRITER.
I named two goals: PUBLISH NEW BOOK + PUBLISH SHORT STORIES/ESSAYS IN (LITERARY) MAGAZINES
Then I named strategies for approaching each.
PUBLISH NEW BOOK: Find publisher for The Swimmer (new novel manuscript); rewrite/edit Francie (novel manuscript in progress); research toward new manuscript; write new manuscript (novel; as yet undefined)
PUBLISH SHORT STORIES/ESSAYS: Contact editors; send out stories; polish stories; maintain a spreadsheet to track submissions; write new stories and essays; apply for grants or writer-in-residence positions
I noticed that there were two distinct categories within each larger goal: 1. strategies for getting published and 2. strategies for writing new work
Ergo, a third goal: WRITE NEW WORK.
And, my strategies for the goal.
WRITE NEW WORK: write on campus (i.e. free from distraction); contact editors (pitch story ideas); write with friends.
What surprised and pleased me about this analysis is the level of accountability (aka writing communities) already built into existing strategies. (Maybe you would find the same?!) For example, built into “find a publisher” is accountability: my agent is involved in this process. I’m not tackling it alone. However, I’ve got little/no accountability built into rewrite/edit my work-in-progress. This is of my own doing: I’m extremely private and superstitious about work in progress. The closest I’ve come to building accountability into this stage is to write/rewrite in parallel with a friend; Kevin is also my first reader on all manuscripts, but he’s not an editor, and besides, our marriage depends on him NOT offering editorial advice on my rough drafts. So here is a gap where I can ask: do I need more accountability at this stage in the process? And my honest answer is: I don’t know. I’ve handled this stage on my own FOREVER, and with measurable success.
But I’m open to considering a change.
I would be even more open, in fact, to seeking earlier editorial feedback on the short stories and essays I’ve been writing. This could be a wise step to add before submitting to magazines. Food for thought.
To return to the goal of writing new work, I wonder, at present, what does “writing with friends” look like? What’s the picture it makes in my mind? Perhaps it means what I’m already doing: Parallel writing at a friend’s kitchen table. Perhaps it means another workshop with Lynda Barry (though not this summer, sadly). I also think it means writing along with my students in class. However, given my current daily commitments, I don’t think it means organizing or leading writing workshops or a larger writing group … but perhaps it will mean that someday.
If you feel inspired or intrigued, I hope you’ll give this exercise this a whirl! Name your role, your goals, your strategies, and the ways in which you plan to build in accountability. How will you measure success?
I will measure success in BIG tangible goals, but also in TINY steps along the way: every time I write something new, including this post, I’ve met a goal. I’ve dropped a pebble on the path. Do cartoons count? YES! Private journal rants? YES! Letters to the editor? PROBABLY, HEY WHY NOT!
Yesterday, I also named and analyzed two other roles: TEACHER and FRIEND/FAMILY MEMBER. I won’t go into detail here. But we all have more than one role, so it’s worth considering how these roles overlap and interplay, and limit or feed each other.
Naming your ROLE will change how you frame your approach. How you see yourself is key, it’s critical, it’s the MOST IMPORTANT PART of this whole exercise. It’s also worth remembering that this isn’t a one-time assessment, but needs to be examined and altered as we continue to grow and change, as new roles are thrust on us, often out of our control, or new circumstances bring loss. Personally, I loved doing this exercise. Maybe you will find it clarifying too?