Category: Big Thoughts
I’ve read some excellent books these past few months, all by women, mainly fiction. Most recently, I finished THREE WOMEN, by Lisa Taddeo, creative-non-fiction, and the kind of book a person wants to discuss afterward with someone else. In the absence of a book club, I bring my thoughts to you. (This is how compelling the book is: I was reading on the couch last weekend, sharing a blanket with my eldest daughter, when she suddenly said, “Wow that book must be good, Mom. You haven’t fallen asleep!”)
(Possibly related note: the book has a lot of graphic descriptions of sex. But in my interpretation, as you’ll see below, the sex stands in for desire more generally.)
THREE WOMEN is a book about women’s desire as examined through the lens of sexual desire(s) that our culture would call taboo. One woman defines herself as a submissive and has sex with other men and women while her husband watches or participates. One woman, in an almost-sexless marriage, has an affair with a former boyfriend after connecting on FB. One woman, as a high school student, was pursued by and sexually involved with a teacher, and when charges are pressed years later, the teacher is absolved and she is destroyed.
But she had already been destroyed. (This is not a spoiler; the book’s propulsive nature relies on exploration of character rather than plot.)
The most interesting section, for me, comes in the epilogue, when the author unpacks, most explicitly, the subject she’s been examining, and reveals that this particular desire she’s been exploring throughout is an exemplar for anything a woman wants—desire, generally.
Her mother, dying, has something she agrees to reveal to her daughter. Something she wants to tell her.
Are you ready? She asked me.
Yes, I said. I got close to her face. I touched her cheek. It was still warm and I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered.
Everyone, she said wearily, as though I had already missed the point. She added, Other women, mostly.
I thought it was the other way around, I said. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
That’s wrong. They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.
But who? I asked again. And what do you mean? You sound crazy.
Later, the author writes: “… we cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy.”
Finally: “There was a beauty in how little my mother wanted. There’s nothing safer than wanting nothing. But being safe in that way, I’ve come to know, does not inure you to illness, pain, and death. Sometimes the only thing it saves is face.”
So let’s talk about desire. Not sexual desire. Desire. Naming our hopes, our aspirations out loud.
Personally, I have trained myself to expect less, and perhaps also to want less, to make do with less, to make less a wonderful shelter, in a way, a goodness and righteousness, a way of life. I do believe, morally, in the ethic of more with less. But I also can see how lowering my expectations, and being afraid to name what I want (out loud or even quietly to myself) could make my whole life so much smaller. But if I name what I want, am I not guaranteeing I’ll never receive it? Jinx! Touch wood. I do this, when I accidentally state out loud something hoped-for.
In truth, I’m morally opposed to the idea of bottomless aspirational desire, of eternally needing and wanting more, which always seems to come at the expense of others. I disagree with inflicting harm on other people to favour one’s own pleasure. That is why the stories of two of the women in this book were more difficult for me to understand—acts of self-pleasure are rarely victimless. Can desire be healthy if acting upon it will damage those to whom we owe our loyalties and responsibilities?
I’ve been thinking about how comparing ourselves to others is a fast-track to misery. It’s a fast-track to bitterness, envy, and a form of self-loathing that we often turn outward on the object of our comparison. I fought these very feelings yesterday morning in a weight class at the gym, working out next to a woman who seemed effortlessly to wield weights heavier than mine, whose endurance was always greater than mine. My attention was divided, and I kept diminishing my own efforts, even while thinking things like: She must have more time to work out than I do, or even, It can’t be healthy to work out as much as she must, to be in such good shape. I also recognized, even as my thoughts ran in this direction, that any discontent I was feeling was so wholly not this stranger’s responsibility, but my own.
I wonder whether comparison whispers to us that we should have been wanting more all along, that our suppression of desire has cheated us somehow? Does it make us question our life choices? Recognize invisible alternate realities all around us that may already be closed to us?
Is our comparative envy perhaps also related to a scarcity of resources? For women, there is an extreme scarcity of resources around desire, success, and achievement. We have a very narrow window of acceptable achievement, and of the way to acceptably achieve. Naming our desires is not so straightforward. We have to be so careful not to name desires that would hurt others (as I said above), especially our children. We struggle, too, to claim our own successes. We work so hard to keep in balance all these pieces of ourselves — and our expectations for ourselves — that we inevitably fail on one important front or another.
We cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy. Is this a gift we could give to each other, especially as women? — admiration for each other’s strengths, in tandem with appreciation for our own.
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?
Running with a friend. A dear friend. Every Monday morning, 6AM, for the past decade, maybe longer. Time adds up. Conversations accrue. We change. We don’t change. We agree. We don’t agree. We listen. We understand. We’re gentle with each other, even when we don’t understand. It’s early. It’s dark. It’s light. It’s dark again. We see the stars. The sunrise. We talk. We’re quiet. We feel heroic. We’re tired. We’re energized. We ask questions. We tell stories. Share ideas. Consider options. Imagine what comes next, or many years from now. We remember. We celebrate.
Earlier this fall, I told her that I’d had a revelation, that I’d woken up in the middle of the night, and I’d thought — It’s okay to enjoy life.
And because she knows me so well, she understood the significance.
I said, I know it sounds sort of minor and obvious, but it really feels like a revelation — that it’s okay not to strive so hard all the time. That life should be enjoyed, as often as possible. That I don’t have to feel guilty about not feeling stressed out.
I said, The thing is that I realize that I’m really enjoying my life right now.
(Side note: I’m almost too superstitious to let that last sentence stand, but I’m going to put it out there into the universe, in recognition of the ebbs and flows, the waves that carry us closer to shore and back out again; I accept that not every day will I really enjoy my life; but also that I want to celebrate each day and hour that fills me up and makes those other times survivable.)
This morning, Monday morning, we ran again, for the five-hundredth time or so. Out to where the sky opens up and we can see the stars (except not this morning; it was overcast, snow on its way). As it happened, I felt more interior and listened more. But in her presence, I was reminded again that it’s possible and good and okay to enjoy my life: I gave myself renewed permission. I thought: What a gift it is to feel pleasure. To look forward to a blissful morning such as this very morning, beginning in the company of friendship, and moving through the usual morning routine surrounded by family — a shower, poached eggs on toast and a homemade mocha, reading the newspaper, the sound of a child playing the piano, the house gradually emptying out — and then, a quiet dog walk in the snow, returning home to quiet, where I’ll read, I’ll nap, I’ll write. And I did and it was.
Snow falling, falling, falling out the windows. A soft light. Living in my mind, feeling alive through characters, visiting other times and places, and yet anchored here in warmth. The best day I can imagine.
And so I say to you, too: Go ahead. Enjoy your life. You have permission! It’s okay! No matter how quiet, no matter how undramatic, no matter how small the victories. Enjoy. Whenever possible, love what you’ve got — life. Taste it. Feel it. See it. Embrace it. Let it be what it is, something that doesn’t quite belong to you, but is of you. It lives in you, through you, you are your own expression of this difficult wonderful gift.
This year is almost over, and here we are, wandering into the arms of a chilly month, narrowing light, naked branches, the hunt for snow boots that fit and mittens that match, while California burns, and the glaciers melt, and Jane Fonda gets arrested week after week pulling the fire alarm on the climate emergency. Yet I continue to drive an SUV. My son graduates from high school and observes from the back seat, on the way home, holding his cap, that he’s missed a lot of opportunities, that others took more chances, joined more clubs, showed up, shared their interests, while he … played video games, I guess, he said. (In fairness to him, he’s worked at least one part-time job since age 15.) But it’s not too late to show up, I said. What interests you? What pulls you?
How do we make meaning in our lives? How do we induce momentum? How do we change trajectory?
Am I flywheel set into a track and spinning of its own weight, or am I bird, catching the air currents, or am I free, fundamentally? What I see is that we obey laws that are beyond us, even while we attempt invention, innovation, revolution. The bird can dive through air currents, perhaps, to find others, but she’s still going where the wind blows her. She’s pulled by instincts that are collective rather than individual, needs that are seasonal. We set limitations as cultures, as civic systems, as families, as collectives; but we also long to see ourselves as living outside of those boundaries, as having free will, as being in control of our destinies.
I struggled to go to the Wild Writers Festival last weekend as Carrie Snyder, writer, because I’m not publishing and haven’t published [a novel] for so very long. It’s become ancient history. I’ve passed into the past. But I’m still present. Maybe we are all longing to be relevant.
I want to wear my own face, not a mask. I want my public voice to be my private voice. I want to step forth as vulnerable as I am grounded, as transparent as I am polished. Is it possible to be vulnerable and clear? Is it possible to perform transparently?
There’s a tug-of-war between exhausting precious personal resources in an effort to be relevant and wanted and needed (taking on responsibilities, saying yes when asked to participate), and guarding space so that quieter creative work can flourish (saying no, assessing offers through a different lens, basing decisions on a formulation that acknowledges the siren song of doubt and ego and the desire to be important, that taps into grounding foundational personal principles — a personal mission statement).
Maybe I need to rewrite my mission statement for this new stage in my life.
What needs to take priority? What boxes do I want to check? What do I want to do with this one wild and precious life? Like my son, how do I get involved, sign up, figure out what matters to me, what interests me, and devote my time to doing things that are challenging, not always what I “feel” like doing, and hopefully help feed and create community for others, too? How do I do all of this and yet stay true to what’s burning bright inside … the desire to hibernate, to close the door, to write and nothing more.
I’m not quite sure how to write about this. I’m not quite sure I should write about it, even though I’ve actually already written about it, in fact, in pen on damp paper clipped onto a clipboard, provided for me by a police officer. This morning, I gave a witness statement in response to an incident in my neighbourhood in which I became involved by happenstance, but also, I think, by choice.
The happenstance was simply that an incident was occurring at an intersection toward which I happened to be walking, this morning. The choice was to stop, to take time to observe and try to assess what was happening and how I could best engage to prevent escalation and harm. I couldn’t interpret what I was seeing, immediately, but I heard angry shouts; I saw three people, somewhat disconnected from each other, who seemed involved in a charged emotional situation; and I saw at least a dozen kids walking in groups to school. I wanted the kids to be able to pass by the situation without being affected, without being scared or harmed in some way. That was my primary motivation for staying on the scene.
It took a little while for the situation to resolve into any kind of clarity — for me to understand what had happened and what was at stake. I won’t go into detail. An incident had occurred, which had been triggering, and as one of the people involved came toward me, there was a loud verbal confrontation that I feared could become physically violent. That was when I stepped toward the person who was being accused of something, though I didn’t know exactly what at that time, and I said that I would walk along with him. I can’t say it was a decision that was well-received by everyone involved, but I did it anyway and I stuck it out.
My gut said that just being present, just walking with this person, would change the charged emotional noise all around us, and it did, at least enough, I think. Two children were walking toward us on the sidewalk. I told the person I was walking with that I wanted these kids to be safe. He said he understood. I asked him whether he understood that the police had been called, and he said yes. I asked him whether he intended to try to run away, and he said no. I tried to make sure we weren’t walking too quickly. I kept telling the man that I was going to stay with him. I made eye contact. I asked him ordinary questions. Where he lived, what work he did.
When the police arrived, three of us stayed on the scene to give witness statements. I did not need to give a victim statement, because I was not a victim. But there was a victim, at least one, possibly more. The man was moved into the back of the police vehicle. We stood in the drizzle and the cold for nearly an hour, while a police officer took our statements. I’d never been through the process before. Rose was frigid and shaking, barking and pulling on her leash, making it difficult to write down what I’d seen.
Ultimately, I found myself home again, then driving to Herrles to pick up pumpkins, as I’d promised my youngest I would do this morning. I found myself crying in the car. I was crying for the victim. I was crying for the bystander who was triggered and traumatized by what he’d heard. I was crying for the man who’d decided to do something that could potentially hurt so many others when he came into our neighbourhood this morning, instead of going to work. When I asked him if he had someone to call after this was over, a friend, family, was there anyone he could think of, he said no, he didn’t think so. He was crouched down at that point, and I can see his hand outstretched on the sidewalk, one finger drawing imaginary lines on the wet concrete.
I’ve been teetering atop my emotions all afternoon, feeling more than thinking about the fragility of human beings, about the ways we hurt each other, about how we pretend we’re ok till it’s obvious we’re not. I noticed that each of us who gave witness statements said that we wouldn’t need the assistance of victim services. Afterward, driving, I wondered at that impulse to say, hey, no thanks, this is nothing, I’ve seen this before, I’m not affected. But that can’t be true. I think we all were, because we all are, affected by what we see, experience, do and don’t do, and how we interact with the unexpected that comes toward us.
I’m sitting here thinking about how difficult it is for me to assess the unknown, to pass judgment, to decide who deserves what, to see the world as binary, and the humans in it in absolute terms. I can’t. Fundamentally, I don’t seem equipped to do that. I seem equipped, instead, to want to consider conflict, to understand it, maybe even to engage with it, to try to find a way to drain it of its emotional weather. To de-escalate. To bring everything back down to the ground. Where we’re all just humans and we’re all hurting, to different degrees. And some of us need to be stopped from hurting others. And we’re all holding stones. I want us to set down our stones.
I want for everything to make sense; but it doesn’t.
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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