Category: Big Thoughts
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.
Here I sit, Monday morning, trying to distill my thoughts into a package tidy enough to make sense. I’ve been reading “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” by Jenny Odell, which is not the type of book I usually manage to wade all the through; non-fiction seems to take me a long time to process, especially when it’s offering new ideas or new ways of looking at the world. Odell uses stories from her own life and experience to analyze different forms of attention, and different ways of being in community with others: with humans, with animals and birds, with ecosystems, with any animate or inanimate being that exists within our particular intersection of time and space.
Here’s a quote that jumped out at me, as I read this morning (Oh, yes, I’m trying to start every weekday/work morning by reading a book): “A community in the thrall of the attention economy feels like an industrial farm, where our jobs are to grow straight and tall, side by side, producing faithfully without ever touching. Here, there is no time to reach out and form horizontal networks of attention and support—nor to notice that all the non-“productive” life-forms have fled.”
Immediately, I thought of my life as a contract lecturer: how lonely it was. How, when I asked an administrator how many other contract lecturers there were at the university and whether there would be some way to reach out to others, to attempt to form a community, share stories (and possibly even to organize for better working conditions), I was told that no one knew how many lecturers there were, and that there was no easy way to identify and contact others who shared my situation.
How many people work jobs like this, now? Part-time, contract, isolated, without benefits or protection, jobs with no guarantee of future contracts, temporary, often with baffling administrative or online systems to learn and negotiate, no set hours, and workloads that creep outside the boundaries of what we’d thought we’d signed on for, our value measured by anonymous evaluations. “Producing faithfully without ever touching.”
It’s a recipe for burn-out. In my experience, it’s not a sustainable way to live a life. But this isn’t a post about disappointment. Because the next thought that came into my mind was how different life can be, if you have the ability (and privilege) to step away from “producing faithfully” and turn instead toward the networks of attention, support, and all the non-“producing” life forms that continue to exist. What am I willing to sacrifice in order to afford a different pace, a different way of being in the world?
Most obviously, I’m willing (and temporarily able) to sacrifice a regular paycheque. I’m willing to live with more risk, to invest time into projects that are underway or unfolding, but not yet profitable (and which may never be profitable). I’m willing to live with uncertainty. I’m willing to live in a nebulous zone of invisible productivity where others may not understand what I’m doing, or why. I’m willing to give up status and authority. I’m willing to *not* be too busy. I’m willing to say no. I’m willing to protect my time to go for walks, to read books, to draw, to write, as fiercely as I would any task deemed important or productive. I’m willing to work inefficiently.
Do I squander my time when I cook a meal from scratch? Is it a waste to go for a walk with the dog and notice trees, birds, other dogs, to stop and talk to neighbours out walking with small children and dogs? Is napping wasteful? I think most would agree that, no, these things are not wasteful; and yet, I feel a shame and guilt as I write this, because there are so many people expending their time and energy to do and achieve big things, or just to survive. Cooking, walking, resting, stopping seem like luxuries only a few can afford. I wonder: is that true?
One final thought, arising from this quotation: how necessary, how critical, how important to our survival as a species is the collective—the opposite of being alone, or being isolated from others who would both support and challenge us. Odell writes about how the self is not, in fact, a fixed property, even if algorithms may insist on its fixedness, and how boring life becomes when our likes and dislikes are made to seem predictable. In fact, we need to know and care about others who aren’t like us: to expand our understanding and empathy, to help us see in new ways, to live interesting lives.
Maybe that’s all I’m after: a life that interests me, not because it’s full of drama, excitement, glamour, but because its fundamentals are present to me in the smallest ways, the most mundane places, the simplest interactions. Fundamentals: birth, death, relationships, conflict, love, beauty, pain, the air, the ground, the sounds, my material self, the spirit. And so here I sit, recommitting to the responsibilities that I’ve decided matter to me; alone, but not feeling alone. Thinking of groups of people with whom I’ve formed bonds; thinking about what it means to be on a team; thinking about everything else, animate and inanimate, that is present with me in this time and this space.
Unrelated to this post, but worthy of an update via caption: our team won the cup final to cap off our season.
My word of the year is SPACE. What I didn’t expect to find within this word is its companion, SILENCE. Silence can be a challenging state to sit within. I don’t always want to hear my own thoughts so clearly, or recognize the distracted and tumbling, tangled nature of my own interior life.
We spent last week, the last week before school started, at the cottage that belonged to my stepmom, and still feels like hers, even though she’s been gone for more than a year now. We love going there, love being there. It’s been a gift to have this place in our lives, and the kids have memories that go back, now, 11 summers. It’s the kind of place that has become a touchstone, and returning is a kind of pilgrimage. Returning is a measure of time passing. While we’re there, though only for a week at most, it feels like we’ve always been there and will always be there.
You can only get there (easily, practically) by boat. About five years ago, Kevin developed an inner ear disturbance that’s triggered by boat rides, and each year the after-effects would last longer and longer (months, even), so for the past two summers, he’s hiked in on a path that literally no one else uses. It’s overgrown. It takes him about an hour and a half. And this year, it was occupied by swarms of insects. He arrived at the cottage looking like a wild man. He wasn’t sure he could manage the hike out, but on Monday, he and Rose trekked the path again, to save his brain.
The corollary to his necessary hike is that I’ve had to learn how to drive a boat (not high on my list of things I wanted to learn how to do). We do what needs doing to get us to this place.
There is plenty of space at the cottage. Space for the kids to play. A big lake for kayaking and adventuring, alone or together. Star-gazing at night. Shelves of books. Late, lazy mornings. Late-night all-family card games. We never seem to need anything more than what we’ve got. Even when meals get creative, by necessity.
Space, silence. Quiet.
I tuned out from the news, from podcasts, from the internet almost altogether. But I did listen to one podcast, On Being, on Sunday. The title was: Silence and the Presence of Everything.
Isn’t that something? How the themes of our lives get tied together by invisible thread? I’d been worrying about space and silence. Silence as a negative. Silence as too much space for my mind to listen, anxiously, to itself.
Silence. Presence. Everything.
“Silence and the Presence of Everything” was about listening. Not active listening for a particular thing you expect to hear, or have been told to listen for, or pay attention to. Listening to what’s there to be heard. Listening without judgement.
An interesting thing happened at the cottage. I managed to write a bit every afternoon, when no one was paying attention; no one even really noticed. What was strange and thrilling was how I would fall into the writing (fiction), almost as if by drifting toward an idea. An image would surface. I would let it drift. I would be resting or sitting by the water. And some small fragment would drift toward me. And then I would get up and write. The writing felt similar to listening.
It didn’t feel active. It didn’t feel forced. It felt like I’d tipped sideways into another time and place and body, and I was just there.
Now I’m here, home again. Dreading a root canal tomorrow morning, but otherwise glad for a day, today, in which I’ve done exactly what I want to do with all my new-found, new-made space: I wrote. I’d gotten up early to exercise with friends and by 10AM when everyone had left the house and the laundry was underway, I felt tired. So I meditated/napped for 10 minutes. And then I got up and wrote. I told myself: Remember to meditate/listen/nap before writing. Drift into what you’re about to do. Listen. It’s okay if listening turns into dreaming. Let yourself drift.
Space = silence. Silence = listening. Listening = drifting. Drifting = door opening to fictional world. Step inside. Space = writing.
Also, space = rest.
I’ll write another blog post (maybe) about what it feels like to let go of the need to pay attention to a particular something, and just be. It’s almost the opposite of striving. I’m such a striver. To be without purpose, listen without demand; it eliminates the task of waiting. It makes silence okay. Drifting toward mystery. Because mystery is okay too.
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.
Not every day is a good day.
There are days when you will feel lesser than your usual self. Days when you will wonder what this darkness is you’re carrying and whether you’ll have the patience and the courage to dig into it, and maybe unearth it, learn from it.
You will feel like you have nothing to offer. Yet you will go on offering, as if pulling scarves from your sleeve, rabbits from your hat.
You will wonder at the raw stupidity of your own ambition. You will be infuriated by your flurries of self-delusion. Who did you think you were?
You’ll go for a run, trying to run out your misery, like it could be wrung from you like sweat. You won’t know who to blame. You’ll be all out of scapegoats, so you’ll turn on yourself and say, You, it was you all along, you and your inflated imagination.
And you won’t know what to say in return.
You’ll forget how to be kind to yourself. The mirror will show you failure and worse — self-pity. You’ll feel sick with nerves. Worthless. Empty, vacuous.
You’ll wonder: Is this depression?
You’ll wish you’d never started down this road. If you could go back in time — ah, but you’ll know. You’ll know that even if you could go back in time, you wouldn’t be able to tell yourself not to try, not to imagine, not to do the work. You’ll know this is part of the cycle, part of the deal. You’ll know it actually doesn’t matter how good or bad you are at this thing you’ve chosen to do, and that’s the trouble, that you’re going to keep doing this, this thing, for the rest of your life, and there’s nothing else for it.
You’ll need to pick yourself up, scrape yourself off, and pull yourself together. You can’t diagnose yourself. You can only write about it. Writing is what you’ve got. Even if, today, it means nothing to you.
Even if this is one of those days, one of those anxious, splintering days.
Tomorrow it might mean something again.
And if it doesn’t, wait till the next day. And the next day. You’re imagining an enormous crater where your dreams used to be, but even at the very bottom of that crater, you’ll poke around and find something to entertain you, console you, and keep you alive.
This is an ideal day, wide open, warm. I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sandals. I’ve gone for a run in the park, walked the dog, hung the laundry, and meditated in the back yard listening to the birds and the traffic.
It is possible to be quiet and still.
And yet, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. Feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, grief, panic. When you strip away the layers of busyness, you have to look at yourself, pay attention, listen. Maybe you were busy for a reason. Maybe you didn’t want to scrutinize the uncomfortable emotions and their uncomfortable causes.
What a question. Oh boy. Rejection hurts. Not meeting my own expectations and hopes hurts. Feeling purposeless in my vocation hurts.
Is this true? Do you feel purposeless, directionless, or is your purpose and direction so attached to outcome that you’re standing in the way of recognizing what is before you? The here and now. Not what came before or what may come, but what is here before you in this very hour.
I come inside and draw a picture. I write this meditation.
I ask: Is my vocation, my purpose more closely related to being a writer, or to leading a life of contemplation? What connects these two points on the map inside my mind? What separates them?
A writer writes, of course, but more importantly, she publishes. Produces. Makes her ideas manifest on the page. Her work can be seen, recognized, appreciated.
What do you even call a person who leads a life of contemplation? How quiet and interior is a life of contemplation? How is such a life made manifest? Is it a life in which its purpose is entirely untethered from production, from recognition, from approval? Is it a life without notice? What would that mean?