Two years ago, I was preparing to teach the graphic-art-based creativity course at St. Jerome’s, which was really a class about developing an artistic practice, setting goals, and staying open to how a project may change and grow as it unfurls. There’s discipline, the verb, and discipline, the noun, and together they sustain an artistic practice. The hope is that the practice will hold and develop over a lifetime, unique and personal: a pathway into the flow, a mindset, a series of ever-renewing explorations that feed on curiosity and feed curiosity.
If all things flow, I can never step into the same river twice; yet I yearn to find ways to fix experience as it flies. That’s the paradox of being alive, existing inside these breathing time-stuck human bodies: how to occupy the liminal space between immersion and interpretation, how to dance between these ways of being in the world; liminality is what art emerges from, the desire for engagement mixed with the need for something more than preservation — for response, for improvisation, for metaphor, image, song. My practice(s) is a way to step into the river, and also a means of capturing what’s here to be found.
I started a new notebook this morning. To mark the first page of each new notebook, I trace my hand and write my birth date and today’s date, a ritual I learned in a Lynda Barry workshop. As I traced my hand this morning, using a brush rather than a pen, I thought: I love the artistic practices I’ve created. They are cobbled together from different times, teachers, discoveries, experiments, using different mediums, tools and technologies; and they do change as I change and adapt, but they are unique to me and durable.
I love writing by hand, even though I don’t always use it as a method of writing new material. There are easier ways to write, but some stories and reflections call out to be discovered by hand.
I love the playfulness of crayons, which I’m using in my current daily drawing project, begun on December 1st as a month-long trial, and which I’m considering continuing into January, maybe beyond. (I’m also considering scanning these cartoons + captions and posting them weekly on the blog; this will only work if it’s easy. That’s one of the principles of my personal practices, the ones that have stuck: they’re easy to maintain, the materials are easy to acquire, the technology is easy to access.)
I love my studio, this lively yet meditative space that I use daily, which is a retreat, a place I look forward to being in, comforting, cozy, tidy, organized, small, contained yet spacious (the high ceiling, the white walls).
There isn’t much movement out there. We are locked down again in Ontario. There isn’t much movement anywhere, on any front, not in my own personal or professional life. But in this studio space, on the pages of these notebooks, there is movement. There is a river ever-flowing, into which I can step, and be transported.
And that is a gift.
My project ideas for 2020 have changed quite a bit; some came to fruition, others vanished almost as quickly as I’d conceived them. Now, I’m planning my projects for 2021, and looking forward to sketching out new ideas and goals on a fresh index card, and glueing 2020’s into this latest notebook. How will 2021’s projects grow, change, develop? Only time will tell. But they’ll exist, in nascent form, in ripening and in bloom, inside these notebooks, in crayon drawings, in pen, in Scrivener and Word files, and here, online. Sharing what I’m making is an important facet of my practice, too; thank you for being out there.
If you’ve got a moment, drop me a line or leave a comment and tell me about your artistic practices, what you’re doing right now to step into the river, both to enter the flow and to fix experience as it flies.
It is the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, and my hair smells like bonfire smoke. I sat outside on the frozen ground from 4:30 – 7:30AM and watched the sky turn from dark to dim to pale grey dawn. Through my head came visions of friends, and the gratitude and love I’ve felt pouring into me and out of me all through these many months of pandemic otherworldliness, a circle of holding and care that has kept me not just afloat but enriched and comforted and stronger.
There are many ways to stay in touch, even from a distance. This year, I’ve quit Twitter and don’t seem to blog quite so often (perhaps you are surprised when a post drops into your email inbox). I rarely post to Facebook, more often check in on Instagram. Then, there are texts and emails. Occasionally a phone call (usually that’s my mom or dad). Even letters, cards, postcards (such a treat to receive!) And, of course, Zoom calls: sibs night, kundalini yoga, church.
There are walks with a friend, or a kid, or a dog, or the whole family.
Dec. 16, Family walk with dog, spontaneous snow angels
We meet outside, to meet in person. We learn the weather, we greet the seasons, the changing light, we pay attention.
Dec. 20, Family drinks in the back yard shack
All month, I’ve been drawing a daily portrait and writing a short caption, to capture a scene or moment from each day. I’ve noticed that my portraits most often depict me with others, not alone. Or, if I am alone, I’m thinking of someone else when I write the caption. This year of being apart has actually been a year of coming closer together, in some ways. In others ways, no — I no longer coach a team of lively teenaged girls, and I miss those casual and funny interactions. But I’ve grown closer with my own kids. There are friendships that have deepened.
Dec. 12, kundalini class on Zoom, in my studio
I’m closer to the ground. And my spirit is closer to the sky.
Enjoy the darkness, friends. Light a candle, and send out an I love you to someone you’ve been meaning to say that to. The days are short, but won’t always be so.
Listening to Joni Mitchell’s River.
I listen to this song even when it’s not the Christmas season. They’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Oh, Joni. I recently read a profile about her early songwriting in the New York Times and then drifted over to read another piece in The New Yorker from 2012 by Zadie Smith about becoming a Joni convert. I’d already read the Zadie Smith essay, maybe when it was originally published, but I read it again. The internet will give you so many windows and doors to open, chasing ideas that you might tell yourself are inspirational or aspirational, when really, you just want to be as original and seemingly free as Joni Mitchell. But it’s okay just being you. Isn’t it?
I’ve started a new project that I’m planning to do every day in December, and possibly beyond. It’s a way of crossing the threshold from the every day into the imagination, a daily portrait and caption, created in about 20 minutes or so, while listening to music. I draw a portrait on an index card in pen, then colour it with crayons (an important part of the playful process!), then write a few lines about whatever’s on my mind, giving myself no more than 3 minutes for the text so I don’t start sweating over it. Like this:
Here are a few other good things and random thoughts, on this Friday afternoon when I’ve run out of steam and am about to turn to fun videos on youtube while doing my stretching routine on the office floor, which isn’t a half-bad way to spend half an hour, truth be told — maybe I’ll count that as one of the random good things going on right now. I’m also attempting to do sets of 10 burpees whenever I think of it throughout the day. While waiting for lunch to heat in the microwave, for example. Before bed. The goal is to raise my heart rate in spurts throughout the day, maybe to compensate for not running right now (though I do ride the spin bike pretty frequently). Whatever. It lifts my spirits every time. I finish my burpee set and throw my hands in the air in victory! Yes! (I should draw that.)
Other daily goals: Go outside! Every day.
And: Flip my current pattern of writing in a frantic panic late in the afternoon, and write in the mornings instead (answer email only after I’m all written-out). The daily portrait and caption kickstarts this goal, and so far it’s worked wonders. Start with something fun and easy, something I look forward to doing, and suddenly I’m pitched into writing new material without even thinking twice.
Also: Work harder. (Weird, I originally wrote “Word harder.” That works too.) Work/word harder is my main life goal. But I mean that only insofar as I mean work harder to dig in, commit, finish projects, even if I don’t know what will happen to them. Hard things are hard. Curiosity is my fuel. Patience is a gift but also can be a weakness if it turns into numb acceptance. Grit is necessary. Add it to your breakfast. Relish and savour what you’re doing because you never know what you’re making. Or what will stick, what will matter, what others will appreciate.
For example: A student sent me a message this week, writing: “I also wanted to tell you that as a graduate, I still appreciate your class. I’ve read books a little differently since, with more compassion, and more interest in the beauty of the work.” How could I guess that a student would come away from a writing class with a new lens on reading? What a gift. I love thinking about the accident of connections, about the things we keep that perhaps someone else has given us, but they don’t know.
Okay, one more goal: Reach out with appreciation for the gifts received from others. I might also add, if there’s a teacher who’s helped you in some way, let her know. Especially now. Any teacher who can engage her students through the screen or the mask is working at a level of commitment and energy and preparation that is almost impossible to understate.
In conclusion, as this seems to be a post that has brought up boundless wells of inner gratitude, I’m grateful for a friend’s idea to create our own collectively brainstormed advent calendar of family activities. As a family of six, each of us contributed four ideas which were randomly sprinkled into the calendar’s pockets. Day 1: decorate Christmas cookies (made by F); Day 2: breakfast for dinner (waffles, made by me); Day 3: ice cream delivery to grandparents; Day 4: games night. (Days 1 and 2 shifted the responsibility to the baker and the cook, and both of us were slightly crusty about this; as a result, we’ve also created a bunch of back-up activities to be accessed should one idea not work out on a particular day).
I’m grateful for a little surprise to look forward to every day of advent.
And I’m grateful to you, my friends who read this blog. It gives me a little boost knowing you’re out there. Connections. They’re harder to come by right now, and I cherish them all the more for that.
Drawing a flower with CJ.
- What felt good this month? At the beginning of the month, it felt wonderful to be on holiday (we spent two weeks away at an isolated cottage). As always, I hoped to bring that holiday-feeling home; but inevitably it has slipped. I can’t drink a caesar while cooking supper every day! It isn’t even possible to keep up the habit of twice-daily yoga. But it is possible to get up early every week day morning for a walk or run, followed by yoga. It’s also been blissful to take charge of my studio space, to clean and organize and purge and paint, and to set new goals. And we have kept the holiday-feeling going in small ways: Kevin bought a fake fire pit (propane-powered) and we’ve been sitting outside some nights, watching the flames, listening to tunes.
- What did you struggle with? After rejigging my studio, I panicked—as if I didn’t deserve the space, full of fear and doubt about my work and worth as a writer. But then I journaled, meditated, and went for a dog walk with Kevin, and I came out the other side. It helped to reframe my work through the window of books. Books are my life’s work. If I feel unmoored, I can ground myself by reading, writing, or connecting with others who read and write. I am so thankful for this blog as a place to come to, to share ideas, and experiment, too. I am so thankful for each one of you who reads. Thank you.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Unexpectedly calm. When my mind spirals away, caught in fear or doubt or shame, I notice, and find a safe branch on which to land. I breathe. I think: Is this true? What’s really happening right now? Are you okay? Is there anything you need to do? I’ve noticed, too, that projects are so very satisfying to work on and complete: my mind is soothed, no matter the task. Cleaning out the bathroom cupboards. Cooking a meal from scratch. Painting a door. Writing a grant application. Revising a story to send to my writing group. In this way, small accomplishments accrue, and the days flow peacefully, but don’t feel dull. And in the evenings, I reward myself with some stretching, watching a show, reading, eating popcorn, letting my mind and body relax. (Note: this is so much easier to achieve now that I’m not coaching! I do not take my easy evenings for granted!)
- How did you take care of yourself? All of the above. Plus, remembering to reach out to friends. Working on my posture, and core strength. Sticking with established healthy routines. Putting away the pairs of jeans that don’t fit anymore. Thanking my body for carrying me through this life. I ask a lot of my body! I am in total awe that my chronic running injury has healed through physio, and that I’m able to run fast again, without pain, at least for now. Every morning run through the park is a full-body expression of thanks.
- What would you most like to remember? It’s okay if I don’t remember very much from this time. Sometimes the best days aren’t super memorable—I don’t remember much when inside the flow, but if I’m fortunate, from the flow will emerge some work of substance, or a strengthened relationship, or deepening insight and capacity for approaching conflict, suffering and pain. I will remember where I was when Ruth Bader Ginsberg died; and my own sadness and immediate despair. But I’ll remember just as much that her passing sparked a renewed connection with one of my beloved American cousins. I’ll remember, too, what she worked toward: equality for all, a far-seeing, long road of commitment that developed from her own experiences, that was encouraged to develop through the support of her husband and family, and that extended till her death. Like John Lewis, she is a true role model of character and vision, beyond the self.
- What do you need to let go of? I deactivated my Twitter account a week ago, after watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix. I also turned off most of the app notifications on my phone. It’s been good, and I hope it lasts. What I’ve noticed: I’m freed to work with more focus throughout the day. But I’m also not filling my mind with fury and outrage, the primary emotions sparked by “doom-scrolling.” True, there’s less to distract me from my own restlessness and boredom, but here’s the strangest part: I’ve felt less restless, less bored, since signing off. There are more productive and meaningful ways to connect with others in this world. I commit to choosing those instead.
For those of you who come here to read a Canadian literary blog (if that’s what this is!), it’s probably a surprise to learn that the bulk of searches that bring people to this site include the word “midwife.” Far and away the most popular post on this entire blog is one I wrote in 2013 called “Why I Want to be a Midwife.” I composed it just before the interview stage of my application to enter a midwifery program, and the post is heartfelt and passionate and idealistic (if memory serves; to be honest, I haven’t read it recently). Maybe it’s helped others at the same stage of their journey to become midwives. Maybe it’s been read by people who have actually become midwives!
I never updated the post with news of what came next: I got into the program; but ultimately turned down my spot. I’m not a midwife. You already know that. (The people who read the post seem not to know that, as a number of the comments ask how it’s going.)
Anyway, this is a long rambling intro that I did not sit down intending to write.
Maybe this is a nudge to reflect on setting aside expectations, the desire for control. You never know what’s going to stick. You don’t know what you’re making while you’re making it. The consequences of our choices, deeds, words are unpredictable, outcomes uncomfortably beyond even our best guesses.
As a friend wrote in a reflection she shared with me this morning: Let life reveal itself through you.
This morning, I felt buoyant, like my feet weren’t touching the ground as I ran through the park, the fog, the flock of white walking gulls on green grass, the song in in my ear buds: “Everything is everything,” sang Lauryn Hill. And everything was everything, as it is. I knew it from the inside out, my whole body expressing joy. I wasn’t focused on what wasn’t—I was loving what was.
Let life reveal itself through you.
PS The second-most-popular post is one called “Tree Stump Playground,” from 2011. Photo above is from the playground as it looks today.
The darkest hour is before the dawn (says who?), but I don’t think we’re there yet. Our planet flares with alarms, and I keep scrolling the news like it’s entertainment. Like it’ll make a difference to know more and more, somehow. Like I’ll reach the end and go: there, done, at last, problem solved! 1
(Anonymous commenter: “The darkest hour is actually midnight.”)
The equality we’ve fought for is tenuous, incomplete, and may erode further. What hope is there that we humans on planet Earth will work together, pull together, row in a direction that honours difference, blesses the frail, lifts up everyone who is in pain? Where does it hurt? What’s your story? 2
Vote? Of course! I’ve got my ballot filled in, ready to mail back to Ohio. I will take deep breaths and hope. One voice, one gesture, one act of faith. But VOTE is not enough to fix what’s broken. Dividing, degrading, self-dealing; cynicism. What does democracy mean? For the people, by the people? Also, a corporation is a person?? Also, send more money? 3
Don’t pretend the end justifies the means. We live in the means! If you lie and cheat to win, you’re not a winner, you’re a liar and a cheat. If the only way to win is at all-costs, I’d rather be the sucker who spoke her heart and lost. 4
My heroes are the ones who saw the long road ahead and walked onward toward a light and promise they knew wouldn’t be found in their own lifetimes. Or maybe ever. But they saw it and articulated it. Our better selves. Where everyone will have enough, and dignity too. 5
Where love not greed rules. What I see: my brothers sisters friends strangers the ground underfoot the air trees stars the living oceans are of me and I of them. All of us humans are flawed, broken, in need. To share is to receive but also to give. 6
Look at this bountiful world. End
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