Inquiries for the universe…
A few years ago, after returning from a three-week writing residency in France, I put an idea out into the universe: hey, universe, could you send more cross-disciplinary collaboration my way? I’d worked with a wonderful actor / writer / translator as part of the residency, and both of us hoped to find a way to create together again. The universe didn’t align for the two of us to reconnect, though we tried; however, as so often happens, another door opened. In fact, a few different doors, one leading to the next. The first was that I began spending several mornings a week with a young woman who had recently come to Canada with her husband and children; she couldn’t get into a language program, so I volunteered to help her with some English studies. Really, what I remember most about those mornings are our conversations. I realized that my neighbourhood, my work, my friend group, even my church was its own bubble, a comfort zone, and pretty homogenous; and that I had a strong desire to connect with people across the possible barriers of language, religion and culture. The idea for The X Page storytelling workshop grew out of this friendship.
And lo and behold, The X Page became a forum for cross-disciplinary artistic collaboration, as well as new friendships and connections. Our third season starts this week, and will happen entirely online. We’ve adapted, but the goals remain the same: artistic collaboration and exploration, and cross-cultural conversations and connections. It genuinely feels like I sent an idea out to the universe, and the universe answered.
Today, I’ve woken with another kernel of an idea: Hey universe, could I expand on the X Page workshop somehow, to make its goals available more broadly, to many more people? Here’s the spark: Before drifting off to sleep last night, I read a New York Times article about an Australian community-building concept called “The Shed.” Apparently, these “sheds” began as retreats for retired and out-of-work men, and only recently have women started their own “sheds.” The story is about women taking over part of an unused school building; their shed is run by volunteers who are also participants, and it’s a mix of socializing (playing games, eating together) and crafts/ skills, like sewing, painting, gardening, cooking, singing in a choir. It’s a mix.
When I woke up, I was still mulling over the idea of “the shed,” which sounds a bit like a community centre, but which also seems more ground-up, or holistically invented and sustained.
It’s also all very post-pandemic, and impossible right now: gathering together, in person. But hey, universe: is there something here? What do you think? Maybe it’s the idea of a shared project, like “the shed.” Maybe it’s the fact that it’s free for all. Maybe it’s the concept of having space for a variety of activities, which I’ve found makes connections across barriers easier. I’m feeling this rather urgently right now: somehow we have to find ways to make more connections, especially outside of our bubbles, in order to nurture our sense of collective care. We’ve got big urgent crises to cope with. We need to find ways to have difficult conversations, and common ground. Social media does not work for these purposes; it seems almost designed to push us to greater and greater extremes. Belonging comes from something else, I’m convinced of it—outside of algorithms that fail to surprise us, that try to sell us more stuff, and that compete for our attention by exploiting our emotional weak points.
My attention is invaluable. So is yours. It is our time here on earth. It’s what we’ve got to give.
So if you’ve spent a few minutes of your attention reading this post, I send you immense thanks. And to the universe, I send this flicker of an idea: in what ways can I deepen my involvement in building community and connection on the ground, in the real world, both now and whenever we can meet in person again?
Yesterday afternoon, I set out solo in the sunshine. I love the people in my house and I love my house; yet the need to escape was powerful. To move.
On the busier sections of path, snippets of conversation floated past:
“The single-best way to leave a legacy, guaranteed, is to have a lot of children—” (Spoken by one young man to another, both wearing sunglasses, coming toward me on the trail.)
“Actually, I had a bit of a set-back this week. My tennis friend called and said ‘I have bad news….'” (Two women crossing my path diagonally.)
The sun was so warm, I took off my scarf and hat, unzipped my jacket.
On the quiet stretches of path, I told myself stories about who I wanted to be, who I remembered being. Who knows what a calling is anyway? I miss interacting with people. I miss working with students, I miss coaching. I said this out loud, so I could really hear it.
I listened to an On Being podcast three times yesterday, while mixing and kneading bread dough, doing laundry, searing a small roast, chopping veggies (though not while out walking): Krista Tippett’s conversation with Ariel Burger. I listened and listened and listened, trying to absorb the wisdom.
Do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
It sounds very basic: a recipe for being a witness, not a spectator.
I wondered what to do if the person being humiliated was yourself; what then? (The podcast does not discuss power.) I see people who are hurt and wounded by their interactions with systems designed to crush and humiliate them, hurt by people acting within those systems, and I think: what protection is there against this cruelty, injustice? We are asking too much of individuals to fight for themselves, by themselves.
Maybe that’s the power of witness? If you can, if you are able, be a witness, a true witness, and do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
Be a blessing.
Be a blessing? How? Alone in my studio, writing stories? With my family? Reaching out to friends?
We are also called to be as strangers to each other, to recognize and acknowledge that others can and will surprise us, if we allow them to. If we approach each other (strangers, family, friends) neither from a place of fear, nor from a place of over-familiarity, what will we learn?
To be a blessing is to push against, as well as to meet. My ideas, experiences, perspective, beliefs will not match up perfectly with yours, no matter how we might wish it. Unity is not conformity.
The divine in me sees the divine in you.
But you are not me. I am not you.
To be blessed is to be given something to carry. A blessing can be heavy. It can ask a lot of the other, the one who is seen. As a coach, as a teacher, as a parent, what I hope to communicate is the deep value in trying; not striving, necessarily, it doesn’t have to be so strenuous; trying. To say: I tried, is to acknowledge your own effort. To say: You tried, is to see someone else’s, to name it.
There’s a lightness to trying. There’s acceptance that trying doesn’t always lead to success. There’s room for surprise. Experiment. Consider. Be blessed. Leap. What if you try and you discover something different, something unexpected, something you weren’t looking for? Isn’t that wonderful too? To try is to leave room for curiosity.
Today was Kevin’s birthday. I picked up smoked salmon and bagels for a birthday brunch, and stopped by Mom’s on the way home to surprise her with a donut. She thought up the most lovely birthday surprise for Kevin — books delivered from Wordsworth. I wish my worries for her could be solved from within (myself, I mean). Looking at this drawing now, I can see exactly what I did wrong when drawing the stairs! It makes me happy to see it. Then I might see it differently when drawing stairs next time. (Chairs are another struggle …).
This drawing is based on the animation for Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,”which features tea cups. I sent it to my word group for today’s moment of pause, during our tea cleanse. What if our molecules could remember when we were one? This morning, on our church’s Zoom call, my older daughter spoke movingly, and it sparked something in others, and things felt, briefly, hopeful.
Ugh. I hate everything about this drawing (almost everything). I spent today working on the first of two grant applications — painful writing. I’m tired, but that’s not the problem. The problem is a chronic pain issue that flares from time to time; like now. I drew a sad and ugly figure staring blankly at her cellphone, and then began to add in other tiny versions of me, trying to help the blue woman, soothe her, sit with her, check in on her. Plus there are those weird green legs lying on the floor. The whole time I was drawing, it felt like an argument with myself.
While waiting at the back of a long line outside a lab, I saw a woman break down when it was her turn to enter the building, and nurses from inside came out to help; I was too far to figure out what exactly was happening. The woman in front of me, who had come on her lunch break, finally gave up and left, she said she couldn’t keep waiting and waiting. I thought of her, for some reason, while doing kundalini this evening; it’s so novel to speak to anyone outside my family. I hope she’ll get in quickly when she goes tomorrow morning.
I took notes at an X Page meeting on Zoom this afternoon to plan for the smooth running of our spring workshop (season 3!!). I looked crusty and ancient on the screen. CJ forgot to do his piano lesson (also online) because I was in the meeting and wasn’t available to remind him. Instead, he was watching soccer highlights with Kevin in the living-room!! He was very sad when he told me he’d forgotten, just before supper. I sent a message to apologize to his piano teacher and she offered to do a lesson with him tonight. After drawing this, I was glad I hadn’t quit the project on Monday. (My plan is to review month-by-month, rather than committing to a particular length of time in advance; I think I’ll know when it’s served its purpose.)
I’m doing a lot of kundalini this week. I’d gotten a half-start on this drawing just before this evening’s class started, and while meditating, I kept thinking about what I wanted it to express. I spent this afternoon continuing work on grant-writing for this project I’ve started with my Grandma. In this drawing, I’m a ghost in the room, a time-traveller, observing, imagining a scene from someone else’s life — which never happened, mind you — but now feels as though it is real (to me).
I asked my younger daughter if I could go with her on her lunchtime dog walk. I haven’t been out during daylight much this week. There was a big snow storm last night. My older daughter went out and shovelled out walk. I worked on grant applications and X Page stuff all day. Never napped, though the hope of a nap was what got me out of bed this morning. Too much sitting. More kundalini tonight.
This is a visualization of my word of the year — SOURCE. It’s a mysterious word. It points to being at the origin, and to being inexhaustible, I can return again and again, drink of it, seek it, it refreshes, restores. I had a vision during kundalini last night of SOURCE as eternity, as the place from which I came and to which I will return. It was soothing. Today, I’m weighing another volunteer opportunity that’s arisen. I like being asked to serve. I feel most at home when volunteering; and I miss that from my soccer coaching, for sure. But any commitment needs weighing. I won’t commit unless I’m all in.
Last night at dinner, I asked how everyone was doing right now. Our eldest said it’s fine, but it’s boring. Every day is busy, he said, and passes quickly, but it feels the same. And I agree. And therefore, I see the usefulness of this daily cartoon project is its ability to capture, succinctly, visible to the eye, proof of tiny fluctuations within the sameness.
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.
This blog is like a corkboard on which to post thoughts, observations, whatever is front-of-mind right now. It acts as a public journal, an I WAS HERE scrawl on the wall. Trouble is, recently, whenever I sit down to post something, it’s not clear to me what’s front-of-mind. Mind is a-jumble. Influences are disparate and scrolling, images aflame, voices shouting, protests, outrage. What calls my attention is both very personal and tiny (my morning routine, for example) and overwhelmingly political and heavy (can’t even begin to list it parenthetically).
This morning I read an article by Lori Fox in The Globe and Mail that pretty much sums up what I’ve been ranting to Kevin about for these past many months. Please read what she’s written and know that I’m nodding along. At one point in the article, she writes about her own “small, selfish” dream. It’s a lovely dream. To paraphrase: Work that is useful and that she loves doing. Enough, and the time to enjoy it. A life with dignity and love.
It’s small enough, isn’t it, that everyone should dare to dream such a dream? Everyone should have the means of achieving it? It doesn’t sound selfish to me.
Originally, when I sat down to write this post it was about my own lovely week, which I spent reading stories, editing stories, and talking about stories. But when I wrote about how lovely it was, and how purposeful and peaceful I felt doing this work (tiny, personal), I also found myself tracking into the weeds of dismay and guilt, confusion and fury (overwhelming, political) as I reflected on how it was privilege that allowed me to do this work.
Earlier in the week, I watched this interview with Kurt Anderson on PBS (my favourite American news source), and it stirred in me emotions that I’ve been unable to unstir. Essentially, he argues that 1976 was the most equitable year on record (in America), and due to a wealth-driven philosophy that focuses on profit to the exclusion of all other concerns, we now find ourselves living in an economy that offers that “small, selfish” dream to fewer and fewer people. I realize that I live in Canada, not the US, but we’re not immune to troubling inequity. When I eat a peach, I can’t help but think of the hand that picked it, and wonder where that person is from, how much they’re being paid, and where they’re sleeping. Essential work is being done by people who are treated as less-than. And the system makes us complicit, even as we’re stuck in it.
How many people do you know whose work is precarious, cobbled-together gig by gig, without benefits or retirement packages? Look around, and you’ll see that defines a lot of us, even those who seem to be doing okay. How many jobs that were once secure and well-paid are now being done by people who work on contract or freelance? Remember when earning a PhD meant tenure-track job-security? I remember when writers were paid a dollar/word for book reviews published in the newspaper. You can argue that sectors that are struggling are sectors that are becoming obsolete in today’s economy; but that’s not necessarily true. Is education obsolete? Are the arts obsolete? What about news? Long-term care? Sectors struggle for many reasons, but what I see is that a profit-only model doesn’t work for the people who actually do the labour. Because in the profit-only model, labour is a cost. You squeeze the costs down, you make more profit. Ultimately, that means you’re squeezing people — you’re paying people less and less to do more and more. And the people are us.
I can observe all of this, and be outraged, but it tends to lead me toward paralysis. What’s the fix, what’s the cure?
Yesterday, I sat outside and read Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout, which I noticed, upon finishing, is labelled “A Novel.” I think that’s an American thing? The book is actually a collection of linked short stories, my favourite form, although I know linked short stories don’t sell well, so maybe “A Novel” is a marketing thing. In any case, the book doesn’t need to be anything other than what it is: stories about characters (often Olive, but sometimes not) navigating their broken paths and trying to figure out how to talk to each other and protect themselves across divides of class, race, culture, age, abuse, pain, illness, secrecy, experience, self-doubt. It’s brilliant, and I wept often, throughout.
Upon finishing, I thought: I just want to sit and read stories all day long. And then I’ll take a break and write stories for others to read. And then I’ll meet with people who love reading and writing and we’ll talk about it, and I’ll edit my stories and theirs. When I do this work I’m not always right, but I know what I’m doing and why.
Is this a roadmap for a career???? God, let it be so. At the very least, it’s a roadmap for making sense of life. For helping me see and understand and know what matters. And it ain’t profit, my friends (but you already know that!). We all know it, gut-deep: profit isn’t profitable when it costs us our communities, our health, our dignity.
Here’s my own small, selfish dream: I want to read, write, edit, discuss; work that has it uses, its purpose. And I want others to be able to do this work too, as they’re called to it.
Truth: A lot of my work is done on a voluntary basis (it’s my speciality!). But here’s the thing: volunteer work is not necessarily noble. People volunteer because they can afford to. I’m worried that my willingness and ability to work for little to no recompense is part of the problem. Consider the arts sector, where many initiatives survive because of people like me: Doesn’t this very structure — reliance on voluntary labour — create barriers toward participation for everyone who can’t afford to work for free?
But what’s the alternative in a sector that’s not profit-driven and never will be, that survives on grants, fundraising … and underpaid / unpaid labour?
It’s a dilemma that’s been troubling me. A lot.
And I’ve come around to a solution, of sorts: Universal Basic Income. It’s not perfect, but it seems like the viable place to start. A baseline of security, so everyone can afford their own tiny, personal dream: Enough and time to enjoy it. Dignity and love. Work that is useful and that you love doing.
(See what I mean? This post is WAY TOO MUCH, but it’s where my head is at, right now.)
Last post, I wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek (I hope!) that it had just occurred to me that as I get older, I could be getting worse not better.
Here’s what comes to mind when I think worse, not better: Less ambitious, less courageous, more cautious, more conservative, less likely to throw myself into something new wholeheartedly, crabbier, boring, predictable, less engaged with the world, more fearful, content with the status quo, narrow-minded, petty, envious, self-indulgent, less willing to give of myself.
You probably have your own personal list of worse, not better.
Which makes me wonder, what’s on the better, not worse list? Funnier, looser, less concerned about what others think, flexible, giving, generous of mind and heart, trusting myself and others, sharing responsibilities, moral clarity, openness, curiosity, wonder, kind and tough, practical and impractical, disciplined and relaxed.
Oh dear. Some push-pull on that list.
What if: Instead of fearing that I’m getting worse as I get older, I acknowledge that I’m changing? My ambitions are changing. My desires are changing. Having checked the major life goals off my list (education, family, career), it seems harder to name what I want. Maybe the goals at this stage (mid-40s) are looser.
At moments, I do sense a wholeness, a oneness, an understanding of purpose that feels deep and wordless, and wondrous. But it is fleeting, as ecstatic experiences tend to be. I get the feeling, in these moments, that our purpose here on earth is to be brazenly present and wholly human, insatiably curious vessels of grace poured into imperfect containers, cracked and fragile and not meant to last. We’re meant to be brief, and aware of our limitations; in our brevity, we sense eternity; in our faultiness, generosity of spirit.
I used to dismiss religion’s various visions of heaven or paradise. Hated it, actually. But I’m starting to understand, more deeply, why these visions exist. Because here on earth, we’re bound to invent a series of flawed experiments, no matter how heart-felt our intentions. Criticism is easy, also necessary, also demonstrates involvement in the process; but the ease with which a critic can point out flaws, versus the challenge to she who attempts change, or reversal, or to implement a new idea, structure, system, vision, dream—well, it’s a pretty massive gulf. It’s why Canada keeps commissioning reports and implementing few/none of the reports’ recommendations.
The will to act almost has to be collective.
And while we wait for collective action, people suffer. As individuals, we see our neighbours suffering, and we find band-aid solutions, work-arounds, we tinker with the machinery we’ve inherited, upheld by greed and power and inertia. But we can’t knock it down till enough of us amass at the gates and demand change.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. Hope despite set-backs. Hope despite seeing the same script played again and again. How to serve hope, see hope, carry hope? And I think, ah, that’s where the vision of heaven comes in. It’s something to hold onto, to imagine, to dream of. It’s often present in art. Think of gospel songs: crossing the river, being called home, carried home, the relief and sweetness of rest after labour. This represents what we long for, and can’t quite glimpse. Wholeness, resolution, peace.
I can’t possibly know exactly what a better world would look like, let alone figure out how to get there. Just like I can’t even seem to see what a better Carrie would look like, let alone figure out how to get her there. I do hope I’m not getting worse. I hope the small actions I undertake every day in hopes of being healthy, humble, self-aware, humorous, curious, generous, trustworthy and trust-giving, are not outweighed by my multitude of neurotic tics, anxieties, fears, lethargy, indecision, vanity, ignorance, injury and self-interest. But who knows, really?
I’ll just have to hope without knowing, be without knowing, and take action without knowing, exactly, the consequences. Better or worse? Change keeps happening whether we notice or not, sanction it or not. So, whether better or worse, definitely different. Hopefully braver. Hopefully clearer. Hopefully lighter. But who knows.
Watching: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” (Ted Talk)
Listening: Today’s program from Tapestry, on “how to ethically navigate the pandemic’s new normal as restrictions begin to lift” (CBC Radio)
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