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.
spot the dog
While in this time of strangeness, isolation, social distancing, and hunkering down waiting, waiting, I’m trying to sort out how to get through each day intact, as whole as possible. I’ve been informed by my children that I must must must limit my intake of coronavirus news; and they’re right; and I’m trying.
But I’ve felt distracted, full of questions about what’s right to do, what’s wrong to do, and whether the decisions I’m making are harming or helping our collective cause, and the individual lives in our immediate family. Last week was a whirl of decision-making, including cancelling The X Page’s remaining workshop sessions and the performance, while making plans for publishing the stories. There was a constantly changing flow of information from public health officials and various levels of government. We found out on Thursday that schools would be closed at least till early April; all soccer cancelled too; just last night, it was recommended that all bars and restaurants in Ontario close or move to take-out or delivery only.
And I’m pretty sure the phrase “social distancing” entered my vocabulary less than a week ago, but now we all know it, and we’re trying to practice it, and to understand why, and to explain it to those people in our lives who don’t see what the point is, exactly.
It’s been a bit too much, while also being not nearly enough. Fears: diffuse; particular; unseen.
And now the late-night talk shows have gone off the air, just when I most need their mixture of news, satire, reassurance and comedy!
So here’s what I’m doing to stay afloat, mentally. I’m not saying it’s all working for me, just that these are the lifelines I’m grabbing hold of today, and did yesterday, and in all likelihood will again tomorrow.
Meditation. I have a kneeling bench that my dad made for me a few years ago, which is comfortable to sit on yet prevents me from falling asleep. (An habitual problem.) I recommend The New York Times’s guide to meditation, if you’re just getting started. There are also lots of apps to try out (I like Headspace; it’s not free, but you might be able to access a free trial to see if you like it).
Over on Instagram, Elizabeth Gilbert posted an easy-to-do meditation you can bring into any moment of your day, taking notice of a descending list of things all around you. This is my scribbled version, below, and it’s helped me at least once today when I was waiting to wash my hands, as there was a line-up for the bathroom, and I was feeling irrationally irritated about the waiting:
Podcasts. Below are a few. If you have a favourite, could you please leave your suggestions in the comments? I need more!
The Daily from The New York Times, a podcast that lasts just about long enough for a quick morning run (and, yes, it has been a lot about the coronavirus lately, but the info is solid and trustworthy, not inflammatory).
On Being, a podcast that I sometimes have patience for and sometimes not (it’s dense with spirituality).
Poetry Unbound, a podcast in which a poem is read, discussed, then read again. Episodes are about 11 minutes, the perfect amount of time to sit in quiet mediation.
Dog walks with Kevin and Rose have also been a balm. However, I cancelled a walk with a friend this morning, perhaps an over-reaction? I just don’t know. Does anyone?
Finally, here’s one last lifeline, which I’m hoping to share with my writing friends: daily drawing/writing in my notebook. I haven’t done this yet today, but it’s on my to-do list. (That’s yesterday’s cartoon, above.)
Follow this recipe for 10 minutes of bliss: Put on a song at random from my Lynda Barry playlist on Spotify (which has 64 followers at present!); draw a self-portrait to that song; then write for 3 minutes, answering the question: What’s on Your Mind? Or Why Did This Song Choose You Today?
This is the second wide-ruled notebook this month that I’m filling with words, words that seem to be becoming something. This afternoon, when I laid down my pen, I looked out the window and said, “I don’t even know if it’s any good.”
And I heard this reply: “You don’t need to know. It’s none of your damn business.”*
Keep making what you’re making, people. Get out of your own way. None of this belongs to us, we’re just here to do the work that’s come calling.
* in Lynda Barry’s voice
After a summer to reflect on The X Page workshop and its reverberations, our ad hoc collective is preparing for a second season, with new workshop sessions starting in January, 2020.
In connected news, I’ve been freshening up my website, and have built a new page devoted to The X Page — please visit, look around, share. We are currently in the process of seeking candidates for the next season, so if you’re in the Waterloo Region, and you’re interested or know someone who might be, send them here.
The original project was a lot of work, there was no way around that conclusion, and many of us felt burnt-out following the final performance. Our discussions this summer circled around how to make the project sustainable for all involved, and we began to define the different leadership roles with more specificity, create a long-term plan for funding, and identify elements from the original production that could be revised or reframed. We also wanted to make space within the workshop for former participants to return in leadership roles.
For the 2020 season, The New Quarterly literary magazine has taken over a number of administrative tasks and responsibilities, which frees me and Lamees (who co-coordinated the first workshop with me) from much of the grinding effort necessary to get the project off the ground. I’m excited to be the production’s “stage manager,” a role which I rather accidentally filled last time around (and loved!), while Lamees will be working more directly with candidates during the recruitment process. I’m thankful for our ongoing conversations with Pamela Mulloy, the editor of The New Quarterly — and with others — as we continue to learn from and develop this project. This is not a static process.
Personally, it’s been a gift from the universe to be able to work on a project that combines so many of my interests, including Lynda Barry’s life-changing exercises (the “X page” of the workshop’s title), multi-disciplinary creative team-work, and the power of personal storytelling. I’ve got a running theory that the antidote to (and inoculation from) xenophobia, misogyny, and fear of others’ cultures, religions, and beliefs, is immersion in stories. You can’t sit with someone and listen to their stories without being changed in some way. Especially the particular stories that emerge from Lynda Barry’s X Page — stories that may on their surface appear ordinary, every day, but therein lies their power: X Page stories are rich with sensory detail, evoking images that transfer from speaker to listener, images that pull us directly into another human being’s experience. Being part of this process, through the workshop, is powerful.
Please spread the word.
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.