Like many of you, my days — their very substance — have changed. And I’m finding comfort in a daily drawing and writing session, the results of which I’ve been sharing here. Will it last? I don’t know, but I’m debating whether these cartoons and poems should replace the ordinary content of my blog, which is more like this … more like me talking to you (rather than me talking to my notebook), more conversational, a little more “newsy.” The writing I’ve been doing in my notebook is closer to fiction or poetry; and its tone might not fit the blog’s, perfectly.
But, still. I’m making it, and I enjoy sharing it. I will keep sharing it for the time being, and perhaps find another way to do so, in order to preserve this space for, well, this.
How are you? I hope you’re finding ways to enjoy your days, which may feel extra-long and extra-slow; the stretched-out passage of time, in the absence of much happening, reminds me of my days spent parenting small children.
We are good, here. Our eldest returned from his trip to Montreal (where the city had shut down around them); he’s restless, and has yet to settle in to the strangely calm routine the rest of us have invented for ourselves. Kevin is our designated leave-the-house-for-supplies-person. We are grateful for our big back yard. There’s room to kick a soccer ball. Room to refinish a coffee table. My office is an oasis of peace. I’m mainlining meditation, and have been tuning in every evening at 8PM to my friend Kasia’s livestream kundalini session on Facebook. At some point this week, I baked a double batch of cinnamon raisin bread that was divine. Yesterday, I wiped down every major surface with a bleach solution, a tedious and wearying project that opened my heart with gratitude and amazement for everyone whose job it is to wipe down surfaces, to keep us safe. My admiration and thanks are with each and every worker on the front-lines, putting themselves at risk, doctors and nurses, and also cashiers and cleaners. My job by comparison is ridiculously easy: stay home, stay calm. I think often of those who have lost work, who fear the immediate future, the basics of survival. A couple of weeks ago, I was mercifully awarded a major grant from the Canada Council for a novel I’m working on, the timing of which has been a major relief; I’m certain we’ll be okay even if the kids can’t work their summer jobs, even if Kevin’s business shrinks in the near-term. I feel fortunate, too, to share my home with five other people, plus dog. We might irritate each other from time to time; but we also have close companionship. Staying connected, generally, has taken on increased significance. I enjoyed tuning in to my church’s virtual service this morning. Last week, my sibs and I met for drinks via Zoom.
The forced presence and stillness suits me, at least for now. But, as you’ll see from my “poems” below, I’m also aware of underlying anxiety, of uncertainty, of the fear of the unknown that seems to be floating through the atmosphere, bubbling up from the depths.
Below, you’ll find samples of my drawing and writing from the past couple of days. Feel free to read, or skip, as you wish. Sending you presence, light, hope, stillness, and, in place of anxiety, free-floating poetry.
PS Add this to your recommended reading list: Washington Post article about a poet in Southern Italy who shared his personal cellphone number on social media, offering to talk to anyone who wanted to call. As Seth Meyers would say: this is the kind of story we need right now.
Thursday’s cartoon was drawn to Lindi Ortega’s “Fires.” I think it’s a double self-portrait, of me, right now, waving to me, from a time before coronavirus. But who knows? These portraits seem to draw themselves.
What’s on your mind?
Today’s poem comes to you from a land of uncertainty where nothing and everything has changed from one moment to the next, and the landscape looks the same, only bleaker, and the world is windswept and bleary, all crispness reduced to the edges of dried grass rustling as we shuffle past, keeping a safe distance from one another. When our hands brush briefly, accidentally, before parting, I flinch as if I’ve touched fire, fever, the source of fever — or is it I who am a danger to you? Either way, I bear responsibility for the possibility of infection, and this reminds me that we must be guarded and vigilant, we must restrict our children’s movement and our own.
Is twenty seconds long enough to thoroughly clean my hands?
The pressure in my chest expands. I sneak into the bathroom to take my temperature again, momentary reassurance that I am well. But is this well? I stand in the bathroom looking at the number that presents itself to me, a neutral number, on a neutral device of measurement, and I ask, what about the invisible suffering parts of us, how can we measure and assess those fevers and chills and aches?
There is so much surface that needs to be disinfected, vast and spreading; what’s underneath must be even vaster, almost infinite, the darkness we fall into, the anxious pain that presses against the ribs, trying to get out. I see it everywhere, written on everyone, muted, uneasy, restlessly awake now.
We knew we would die one day.
We thought we would know better what we had dominion over, what we could control. These depths bubbling like lava, like an eruption at the bottom of the sea, like rumour — are not the message we’d been awaiting. We want instruction. A six-step undertaking to cleanse our surroundings. A bleach solution (9 parts to 1).
A tincture, an inoculation. A cure.
Friday’s cartoon was drawn to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” A friend observed that the past two portraits seem to be expressing a fractured self; in any case, the figures are all boxed up and separated, though some of them are reaching out.
What’s on your mind?
My mind empties out and I see behind the overcast grey sky a clean-swept blue; now hidden, but still there, and I imagine the wind pushing at the clouds and opening a smear of light; the clouds torn like paper, ripped like fabric.
Experience has the same effect, working on my mind to rub away the clouds of certainty. In its place, a frayed understanding — that nothing holds, and that certainty is less desirable than I’d imagined, that instead I am happy to settle for being useful, for finding myself, occasionally, in the right place at the right time.
I see that vulnerability is like an invitation, while certainty silences. The rip in the massing clouds reveals the sky, blue, which was always there, if I’d known to open myself, frayed, worn, fragile, as I’ve always been, whether I knew it or not. I let myself be seen. And in return, I see you.
Saturday’s cartoon was drawn to Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream.” I drew it with my eyes closed. I took the theme rather too literally, which is why I’m running, sort of, though I couldn’t visualize what dream, exactly, I was running down. So I drew a few little star-like flowers that can be seen near my right elbow, like the flowers I noticed on the spider fern whose tendrils are hanging over our sink (pictured at the top of this post).
What’s on your mind?
This time is this time is this time of now and now and now and it is almost impossible to be anywhere else or with anything else but what’s before me.
I notice the spider fern is flowering, tiny delicate blooms hanging over the sink.
I notice my son’s head smells like sweat, and my daughter’s head smells like coconut oil. I touch their hair.
My hands smell of bleach, though I used gloves, and I wonder if the smell is real or remembered, is it in my nostrils or just the memory of it, the way I can smell cigarette smoke from someone else’s car even after I’ve rolled up my window and driven away, even after I’ve left my car in the parking lot to sit outside the door of my daughter’s piano lesson, how even here I think I can smell the stranger’s cigarette smoke in my hair — and by extension, her poor decisions and regrets and longing; which are, of course, my own.
The piano studio has locked its doors.
We live inside.
We do not drive anywhere. We are in a time of plague and even yesterday seems very far from today, estranged from today.
Now. Now. Now. The sound of my pen scratching — too fast, sloppily — across the page. I’ve only just noticed that I grip it as near to the tip, the nib, as is possible. I only just see it — my pen — as an instrument I am playing, an extension of my body, a tool encircled by five tips of fingers, each with a half-moon circle of curved, opaque nail. There are no straight lines on my hand. The pen is straight and hard and useful to me, it is made for this task and nothing more; but I am made for bending, praying, curling, holding, I am made for giving way. I am made for praise. For contorting myself anew.
I am made for change and ever-change, evermore, now, as before.
Yesterday’s cartoon was drawn to Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want.”
I wrote: I guess it’s not so impossible to imagine myself writing out of this pandemic and finding myself on the other side. I guess it’s not impossible to imagine the world spinning on its axis, the sun rising, the night, the moon. It’s not impossible to imagine the unimaginable, a different world where we do for each other unusual kindnesses and in return ask only for the chance to record what is beautiful, what mattered in that moment. We came together, apart, and it’s not impossible to imagine we were changed in ways we could not guess, when looking out the window at the barren street and silent passersby, their dogs keeping them from falling out of love entirely, in this waitful watchful time of suspense and drudgery, a quietness which once we’d named fear; and now, unnamed.
photo by Sam Trieu
We are at the halfway mark of season two of The X Page Workshop.
And I’m reflecting on how things, especially ineffable things, are made manifest.
Four years ago in April, I travelled to France to participate in an interdisciplinary arts festival, where I collaborated on a performance project with Kelly Riviere, a translator and actress, who has since become a playwright. We loved working together. For me, it awakened a hunger for more creative collaboration; but when I returned to Canada, I couldn’t figure out immediately how to connect my solitary writing work with the work of other artists in other disciplines.
I believe that The X Page workshop is an answer to the hunger I first recognized while working with Kelly in France. My hunger wasn’t exactly a desire to do theatre. Or to write plays. Or to perform. I think what I really wanted was to be a part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to know how other artists and creators work, and I wanted to work in collaboration with them.
photo by Sam Trieu
In essence, I believe the existence of The X Page is an example of how something as ineffable as a wish or a dream, or even an emotion, can be made manifest, can become something that takes form, that exists, that is in the world. There’s no map for doing this. In truth, there’s not even a destination. When I think of the disparate threads of my own experience that inform this project, it’s almost comical. You couldn’t replicate this as a plan! But it’s not about making a plan, and that’s what I’m recognizing and, honestly, what I’m most in awe of. How we make the things we make without knowing what we’re making. I LOVE that.
As the workshop took incipient form, I remember my sense of purpose as I pulled friends, acquaintances, and people I’d only just met into the project, seeking advice, partnership, sponsorship, support, reaching out, calling people (and I hate talking on the phone!), emailing, meeting in person, fundraising, grant-writing, making decisions, making mistakes, learning from my mistakes. My energy was almost obsessive in nature. I didn’t know if the idea would work, I didn’t know what we would make in the end, and I didn’t know if the project would be sustainable. I just knew we had to do it.
And here we are, in season two.
photo by Sam Trieu
My point is that we are all, at all times, in the midst of doing things that will make manifest other things.
To this point, I’ve noticed a tendency to self-sabotage, to downplay success and magnify failure. I do this privately, and I do it publicly.
Truth: I don’t like this quality in myself.
Also truth: My absolute greatest fear is being blinded by pride and ego, and becoming a giant asshole.
And it’s become clear to me that self-sabotage in no way prevents that fear from coming true. Nope. Instead, it hampers my ability to bring into being other projects, as or more ambitious than this one. And that is not a manifestation I’m interested in nurturing.
My goal this year is to notice a) what is being made manifest and b) how I respond to what is being made manifest. Specifically: What I’m bringing into the world. The things I dislike, as well the things I love. And I don’t think that self-sabotage is the way to bring the things I care about into the world. Self-critique, accepting mistakes, taking responsibility, forgiving myself, learning, changing, observing, seeking counsel, and recognizing what’s not mine to bear — all of those are excellent qualities that I hope to claim for myself; and none involve self-sabotage.
I’ve brought some things into the world that I love so much!
My children, but also my relationships with my children, which are ever-shifting, growing, changing.
My collaborative connections with people I admire, but also the work that goes into developing, maintaining, and cherishing these relationships.
My friendships, but also the nurturing and care both given and received within these relationships.
And, of course, my writing, but also my relationship to my writing, the way I’m learning to value it, prioritize it, make space for it, and celebrate the moments that I decide are worth celebrating.
- A new story in Room magazine.
- A successful grant application for a work-in-progress. (With thanks to ECW Press for their recommendation.)
I often set myself a project that spans the full year. This year, I’m considering chronicling my daily writing life, but I haven’t figured out how best to frame it. Should I keep it short, as in a daily tweet? Today’s would read something like …
Tired, late night @ Edna King’s show in Guelph. Writing group cancelled this AM; I miss them, we haven’t met in a month. Fell asleep on couch reading Song of Achilles. Drew self-portrait, wrote What’s on Your Mind + blog post. Next, continue revising new novel. #writinglife
But in all honesty, one day is going to look a lot like the next, and a tweet has limited space for the animating details.
The long-form version of today’s chronicle goes something like this …
Today, I’ve been staggering around like a zombie after getting 4 hours of sleep last night; not conducive to clear-headed composition. I went to my sister’s show last night, an intense experience (EDM) that sent me into a form of dance/trance, which I spent thinking about my character, Bess, from the new novel I’m writing, set in the 16th century. My eyes were closed much of the time, and I kept gazing into my mind’s eye for Bess, trying to see what she was seeing: the image of darkness and enclosure, the image of an open night sky.
I’m reading Song of Achilles, historical fiction, and this morning, I fell asleep within ten minutes of picking up the book.
I was disappointed that my writing group meeting was cancelled again, as we’ve struggled to find time to meet this year. Our aspiration is to meet every other week, but we’ve only gotten together once in 2020 due to illness, travel, and other meetings and complications. I look forward to those mornings so much. It’s one of the only spaces where I have neither need nor compulsion to explain anything about #writinglife. We’re all in the industry, struggling, staying hopeful, doing the work, and encouraging and believing in each other. I’m missing that medicine.
While walking the dog, I thought about this blog post. I thought: what if I were honest, publicly, about this path I’m on? I’m giving myself a year; one year, in which to research and write with full commitment. January was blissful. I spent many hours of many days simply sitting and writing. It was blissful and it was filled with anxiety. I also sent out six grant applications at the beginning of last month, and four were rejected earlier this week. Truth! Ugh! Painful! Shameful! Humiliating!
But, on the other hand, also in January, I learned that my short story, “16-Century Girl,” published last winter by The New Quarterly, had been submitted for a National Magazine Award.
And, I filled another notebook! I’m working on two separate and very different fiction projects. One is historical fiction, and I’m close to completing a first draft (“close to completing” could mean 6 weeks or 6 months, or even longer). The other project is very new, and I’ve only been working on it for a few months; too new to discuss, though it does have a name: I’m calling it Two Women. I work on Two Women by hand, composing with pen and paper, and I’ve filled three notebooks so far. I’m working on Bess in Scrivener, and I’m composing it as if amassing a great heap of loose scraps, writing forward until I reach the end.
This week, I reached an end, of sorts, for Bess, and started back at the beginning, preparing for a slow, careful, thorough revision by setting up the Scrivener file beside a Word doc with the same text, and going through line by line, scene by scene, deleting, rewriting, composing new scenes. Don’t ask me why I’m taking this route. I’m writing this novel completely on gut instinct and dream-like visualization. The manuscript is short but dense. I’m curious to see whether it wants to be fleshed out further, or whether its structure and tone demands that it remain short and dense.
Also while walking the dog, I had a thought about the auto-fiction short story collection I’ve mostly completed; could each story be punctuated by one of my 4-panel cartoons, as a way of creating a breath between the stories, which are heavy and kind of demanding, and I don’t think anyone would want to sit down and read them all at once? Something needs to ease the transition between stories; maybe the meditative cartoons I’ve been drawing would fit there?
So that’s today, as of 2:03PM. As soon as I press publish on this blog post (if I do indeed decide to publish it), I’m setting up Bess in the side-by-side format, to work through whatever scene comes next. I have to pick up kids at 2:45, but I can return home and keep working on Bess till it’s time to make supper.
The other writing I’ve done today was in my notebook. As is my habit, I answered the question: What’s On Your Mind? as a means of dumping out surface anxieties before getting to work. I also drew a self-portrait — dancing last night — to Lizzo’s “Juice”.
Lastly, I will report that I continue to wait, with seemingly perpetual hope, patience, and possibly delusional optimism, to hear from my agent about two completed manuscripts (one for children, one for adults). Would you like to wait with me? We could be here awhile. But in the meantime, while I wait, I’ll be writing and dreaming and writing and dreaming, in full-on bliss, stealth-attacked by anxieties, and holding dear to prayers and visions. Truth.
I wasn’t in a good cartooning mood yesterday. But I wanted to capture this quotation from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton, which I was reading. So I sat down and wrote it out, arranging the words on the page as if they were a poem. I started by writing the words in non-photo blue pencil, and inked them in afterward. I was quite sleep-deprived, and realized only later, when reading over my efforts, how many “typos” I’d made. So it wasn’t a good cartooning day. To cartoon, you need patience, focus, concentration. In keeping with my word of the year, I’m trying to pay attention to what manifests, in order to understand what’s underneath. In all honesty, I might not have noticed I was lacking those traits yesterday if I hadn’t tried to cartoon.
In conclusion, I need more sleep. I have been trying to get 7 hours of sleep each night, consistently; trying and failing, I must add. I’m addicted to early morning exercise. It’s my bliss. And that means getting to bed earlier. Which means turning off my phone earlier, and climbing into bed with a book. Like the one in which I found the words I felt compelled to record, above. But I confess it’s a hard habit to change — to read a book instead of scrolling though social media feeds. The latter offers the illusion of connection, and sometimes, in the case of Twitter, a steady stream of outrage that temporarily livens my brain; but also drains me of real purpose, or the desire to act in real, tangible ways.
When I read, especially fiction, I transcend the body I’m in and become familiar with other bodies, other realities, through immersive sensory perceptions. I see through other eyes. And in this exchange, I often feel seen, or feel able to see myself more clearly. That is how I felt reading the passage above: It says what I cannot.
Reading it, I wanted to write out the words so I could keep them in tangible form. The words called out from me a response. Which led me here. Which is, where, exactly? Sitting at my desk on a dull Saturday afternoon, the first day of February, my fingers smelling of peeled garlic, not vacuuming or cleaning the bathrooms, composing a small gathering of thoughts for release, winging out into the ether.
One final thought: I write fiction to know how others are, in large part because “I realize I don’t know how others are.” But one of the oddest things I’ve discovered while writing a collection of autobiographical stories, is that I also don’t know how I am. Fiction is a necessary construction, and sometimes it becomes a mirror. A fictional character, like Lucy Barton, can say what we cannot because as a projection of her author’s imagination she is elaborately protected from the particular dangers of human pain, and this makes her free, as a character, to reveal what our human minds protect us from most vigilantly — her ambiguities, confusion, contradictions, the places where she gets stuck, the ways in which she hurts others, her lies and her truths. We see her, and we see ourselves more clearly for a moment, too.
There are times, unexpected —
My word of the year is MANIFEST.
I chose this word despite feeling discomfort about its complexity, and despite recognizing that I don’t completely understand its multiple meanings nor how the word will be useful in shaping or framing my outlook this year.
Sometimes a word just wants to be used. This word kept coming up. I kept seeing it and hearing it. And it arrived with a clear image. A manifestation is what’s visible. To make manifest is to show. Within the word is its reason for being, its implicit shadow: everything that is latent, hidden, unconscious, unseen, unknown and mysterious under the surface. The image I see is of surfacing. I’m in a deep body of water, carrying an offering to the surface. My offering is small, no bigger than a grain of sand, and I have a long way to go from the ocean floor to the open sky. But I enjoy the work. I’m swimming happily toward the surface with my grain of sand. When I pop through, I’ll float on the surface for a little while, resting, holding my grain of sand up to the sky in case a bird wants to carry it away. It won’t be long till I dive down to the bottom, again, to find another grain of sand.
Something that is manifest is readily perceived by the senses; it is what’s shown.
A manifestation can also mean the spiritual made real.
There are things that are declared, or announced, before they spring into being; to make manifest is to bring into being that which did not exist. My life’s work, I think. Because I also believe that what isn’t yet seen does exist, just not in tangible form. My life’s work is to go underground and surface, again and again.
When I frame my work as a spiritual quest rather than a career, it makes sense in a way that soothes and comforts me. It makes sense in a way that other framing does not and never has; I’m left cold and anxious, seething with envy and practical concerns, when I try to frame my work as a career, something that is transactional in nature, something I do in order to receive something in return—money, success, fame, or even simply a decent living. Nope. That’s asking my work to be something it fundamentally isn’t.
Accept what is before you. Be led. Open pathways for others, but don’t be angry or worried or dissatisfied if the path you see for them is not the path they see for themselves.
A story should call us, should lead us, we should follow it; if we’re dragging that story behind us like a dead weight, we know it’s not alive. It makes sense to me to visualize and live my life, as much as is possible, in this way—being called, following where I’m being led, whether or not it makes sense or is logical or dutiful or practical or immediately rewarding. I can’t know what I’m making. I can’t know what I’m doing in the moment of doing it. I’m just swimming, swimming, swimming toward the light carrying this little grain of sand.
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