For the past three years, I’ve been a part of a storytelling project that aims to foster connections between immigrant and refugee women in our region and the local arts community. The multidisciplinary workshop is named after the Lynda Barry writing exercise we use to find our way into the writing process: The X Page. Over twelve weeks, a group of women meets to write and revise original stories, collaborate on animating these stories through performance and artwork, and finally, to perform the stories for an audience.
This season, we’ve been transported by necessity into a virtual space, which has nevertheless felt like shared space, with room to explore, make connections, to listen, laugh, cry. For me, that’s the key to the whole project: to get to be taken inside someone else’s world, to hear what matters to them, the “little things” they’ve kept or lost along the way, and the themes to which they find themselves returning.
Lynda Barry’s exercise opens many pathways to the heart.
The trust involved in this process is immense. Each workshop session, I’m filled with gratitude for everyone’s efforts, kindness, generosity, and presence. This year, I’m working as the project’s coordinator, which involves me in almost every aspect of behind-the-scenes planning. We are in the homestretch now!!!! The performance will be live on the evening of Wednesday, July 7th, 7PM. Mark your calendars, register to attend (tickets are free, but registration is required), please come and please share news of this workshop with your friends.
The stories are beautiful. The art is beautiful. The connections are beautiful.
We chose the title “Little Things” for this season’s performance because the stories revolve around seemingly small moments, singular scenes, objects that have been kept and carried across borders, or lost along the way; and because even a little thing — held, cherished, and shared — is imbued with depth, meaning, promise, truth.
A story is a little thing. An offering. It is an invitation. Listen. Here I am. Here is something I’ve kept all this time, that matters to me, that I’ve carried all this way; do you see, do you understand? A story is a powerful little thing. Powerful good.
Today I went for a long bike ride on trails and paths around the city. I just kept going and going and going, seeing if I could find how the trails linked up, so I could go in a very big loop. The city is full of wildness, and birds.
I stopped to take photos, and I noticed that my mind and body and spirit were revelling in anything new. Turning down a path I’d never followed before. Discovering a street lined on both sides with flowering trees, in full bloom. Even a patch of construction gave me a sense of newness and discovery.
It’s what I crave, right now. How to exit from stasis, to experience my life in motion, as I know it to be, but do not often feel, right now. Time spins onward, but I’m like a stop-animation film performing a series of postures in my studio, my kitchen, my living-room, over and over and over. At night, the dreams have been difficult, sleep disturbed, as the day’s fears and anxieties try to untangle themselves.
Cruising slowly, gently on my bike today was pure bliss.
I think it helped to be part of the X Page workshop last night, too; to be in a space that is actively promoting the idea that the process is the experience, and the outcome or goal is a lovely result, but not the thing itself: the process is the thing. It is it. As we settled in to listen to each other’s stories, separated by our screens, by the occasional technological glitch, holding our elbows against a barrage of exceptionally sad, frightening, painful world news, the space became its own entity, and we were temporarily transported. What do I hear when I stop and listen, when I toodle along more slowly, when I take a new trail?
All day, I’m faced with choices. What if I kept turning again and again away from self-pity, away from anger, disappointment, away from the harsh self-talk that keeps me tangled in my own unhappiness. That voice will come, it will return, of course, but I have the choice to listen, notice, and say to myself, Is this what you want to do? Do you want to tell yourself you’re wasting your time, you’ve made the wrong call, you got it all wrong? Or do you want to say instead (or adjacent to, if instead is too challenging): Look what you’re making, be gentle, hold your heart dear.
In the words of Joy Harjo: “This is my heart. It is a good heart.”
Those are the opening lines of a poem / song, but I can’t find an accurate version of the text to share with you just now; below, a link to a YouTube video of Joy Harjo, the American poet laureate from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, playing saxophone and performing the text as a song.
This is my heart. It is a good heart. Something changes in my body when I hear those words.
Listen up. Life feels pretty off-kilter here in Ontario, month 13 of pandemic, and projections showing us flying off the rails, if, if, if. Or maybe no matter what.
Uncertainty. It’s where we’re at. Can we laugh while crying? Damn, I sure hope so.
To counteract the blahs, we’ve been trying to think up activities, ways to demarcate our days, things to plan for (like Fake Prom, last spring). One kid floated the idea that we should make a family newspaper, in the tradition of The Snyder News, a “popular” newsletter which I forced my brothers to help me produce back in the late 1980s. At its peak circulation, it cost more in Xeroxing and postage than the meagre subscription price was bringing in, causing it ultimately to fail. (Do not put me in charge of the money side of any venture.)
Back to the future (i.e. the present), while brainstorming who would write what for our family publication, someone suggested having an advice column, and I experienced in that moment a deeply personal calling: “Oh, this is so exciting! You can send me your problems and I’ll give you advice!” Awkward beat of silence. “Nobody has any questions that need my advice? They can be anonymous!”
“I think you give us enough advice already.”
“I know, you could call your column: ‘Unsolicited Advice.'”
(Insert overnight pause, to process my hurt feelings.)
And: Challenge accepted! Here’s my rough draft, which I’ll share with you first (since no one in my family reads my blog, as far as I know, and if they do, spoiler alert!).
Unsolicited Advice, by M.C.
Just think of everything that could go wrong! That’s a good place to start. After that, think of everything you could do to prevent anything bad from ever happening ever. If that feels overwhelming, you can start by closing all cupboard doors immediately after opening them, rather than leaving them swinging for an indefinite period of time because you think you might come back later for more chips, or whatever. Imagine all the concussions you’ll prevent! While you’re at it, close that drawer too! While less consequential in terms of disaster prevention, at least no one will catch their sleeve causing them to send a cup of hot coffee flying (worst-case scenario) or snagging their sweater (sad face emoji). And there’s more! (fortunately, my contract is on-going!), but these basic principles will get you started, and you’ll be off to the races.
Speaking of the races, if you’re thinking of running a race, or even just running, be sure to wear shoes designed for this specific purpose and not for some other event such as hiking or swimming or tennis (unless you’re experimenting with barefoot running, in which case, nothing can save you!). Double-tie your laces, and stretch beforehand—dynamic stretches, not the static kind like we used to do in gym class when I was a kid (this advice is based on real scientific advancement). When running, be careful not to step in any holes. That’s just generally good advice! But always worth restating! If on your run, you see an angry mob of Canada geese approaching (very dangerous, especially during mating season), spread your arms and scream. You’ll see! Highly effective. Be sure to practice your screaming before you get yourself into a situation that may involve Canada geese. You can scream into a pillow or just practice during Mario Kart races.
To reiterate, in case this isn’t sinking in (one can never be too careful!): our basic principle is prevent, prevent, prevent. Remember that fun goes hand-and-hand with risk (don’t hold hands, for heaven’s sake, do I even need to tell you that?), and is also pleasurable, addictive and difficult to avoid, and is therefore an ongoing threat to your health! It’s best to maintain a hyper-heightened risk-assessment mindset at all times. But be careful! Overloading your frontal cortex with stress hormones (which may or may not be a thing, just google it), could cause mental burnout. Counteract those effects with a calm and boring meditative practice, which is generally considered safe, provided you don’t burn incense while you’re at it (fire hazard alert!), but on the very rare occasion has been known to accidentally hypnotize practitioners into believing everything is okay (don’t hyperventilate, M.C.!), which causes them to let their guard down and enjoy their day, which may lead them to have fun (remember = risk!), so be sure to meditate with caution. You have been warned!
This column is accepting questions (and we remain disappointed); however, it seems reasonable to assume that the volume, force, and acuity of our unsolicited advice may serve as a disincentive. Who needs to ask questions, when all the questions you’ve never even thought to ask are already being answered? I understand: And that’s my job, as advice columnist, at your service.
Remember: stay alert, be afraid, and never stop worrying.
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?
A good writing day is like manna, like heaven on earth, like a happy dream. You feel purposeful, adventurous, inspired. You’re carried along, you’re surprised and delighted by what you find.
But that’s not today.
Today’s revelation comes from a different place: Today was a slog.
You weren’t very happy with the bones of the story you’d laid out yesterday, and it felt insurmountable — the problems to overcome, the incoherent structure, the didactic tone, the clumsiness, the exposition. But you went ahead and tried, anyway, to dig into the story. To write.
And guess what! Note to self!: Even a writing day that feels like a slog is a glorious accomplishment. Maybe even more than the day that felt easy. Because you didn’t give up. Because you were kind to yourself. When you read over the ragged sentences, you didn’t say: this is crap! (Even if it was.) You said: this is a very rough draft. All drafts start out rough.
This is what a rough draft looks like.
This is a start. You start by telling the story to yourself.
Then you dig in, you get your hands dirty, you notice what’s alive and you go there and pay attention, and gradually these piles of bones begin to fit together, to fill out into a story that you can do something with.
Revise, play, revise, play.
It’s play, this process. Like playing imaginary games as a child, where there were rules but you were making them up as you went, and there were always more possibilities, depending on who or what drifted into the scene, and you got to get dressed up and be someone else, a changeable someone depending on what was needed, and you packed a snack, and you climbed a tree, and you sat up there, pretending till it seemed the world was yours to make and make up.
The slog is all of this. So don’t fear it, jump in.
A sunny Saturday, and cold. I spent lots of time outside today, walking with Angus to pick up eggs and veggies from Claire, then deliver some items to Mom. I also delivered tea to friends in the neighbourhood. This afternoon, I scored an entire set of bedroom furniture from a neighbour, for CJ’s basement room. I’m still hyped up on the high of a) seeing people b) free furniture c) exercise outside.
I drew today while listening to a Tara Brach meditation, where she invited us to think lovingly, compassionately toward someone else, feeling what they feel, feeling what we could offer. The smell of baking bread is in the air, and I’ve been behind all day. Late to all my tasks, all day. (What tasks? Getting out of bed, breakfast, church, playing piano, drawing, baking bread, riding spin bike, shower, making supper … so really …).
Today, I started a two-week “tea cleanse” with my word group. I’m the de facto facilitator and have spent a lot of time thinking of how we can use these moments of pause, as a group. I hope others try my daily writing practice: “What’s on your mind?” Today, I drew out a rewrite plan for my 16th century novel after writing “What’s on your mind?” and revised a tough essay. So it (the quick-journal practice) worked for me, at least for today.
Kasia’s kundalini tonight celebrated and called forth REST — as winter calls us to slow down, reflect, eat soup, drink tea. Be warm, gentle with yourself. Such a big writing day, starting with talking Grandma, then revised a big story, with feedback from my writing group. All this energy and activity has nothing to do with rest, but I’ll need the reminder soon enough; being gentle on to myself when I’m tired is one of my greatest challenges.
Today’s cartoon is inspired by the movie “Soul.” We watched it as a family tonight, for our pizza party, after we all earned our 10 stars on our reward charts. How to live every minute? What is a spark and how is it different from a purpose? How to see this water we’re swimming in as the whole ocean? (We had root beer floats, movie snacks aka candy, a homemade pudding cake, a fruit tray, wings and garlic bread, along with the pizza. We went all out.)
Everything has been slightly ahead of me today, but I’m doing it, I’m doing it all. Decided during kundalini (going seriously overtime), that I would draw my sibs night gathering. Everyone came! On time! I’m drinking a beer, which is a novelty right now. The full moon has been my companion all day, big and bright on the horizon this morning as I rode the spin bike, and rising out my window tonight while I was doing kundalini, and now, while I write and draw and laugh with my sibs.
Tired today. It’s a Friday tired. I do insist on getting up by 6AM to ride the spin bike every week day, even when I’ve stayed up late the night before. Woke feeling — not dread, just this: apathy. The very opposite of flow, today’s word for our tea cleanse. I don’t feel capable of giving my mind over to writing, so I’ve drawn, played piano, walked Kevin’s cellphone (forgotten at home) to his office, passing all the unnervingly shuttered shops uptown, thinking “this is nuts.” But it’s the same as it’s been for some time, no worse. So it must be me, not the circumstances. This is the day when I need REST, I need to remind myself to be gentle. Sometimes the flow eddies and slows, maybe it even looks frozen, but — have patience, rest — under the surface, down deep, it’s still there, moving. Believe it.
The best place to wonder, connect, observe, record, interpret, embrace, breathe, share, contemplate, create, and be. Come on in. Here, find everything that occupies and distracts this Canadian fiction writer. Your comments are welcome.
Subscribe to obscurity
My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a writer of fiction and non-, reader, planner, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, mentor/coach, forever curious. I'm interested in the intersection between art and spirituality. What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty? What if everyone could make art?