I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
Welcome to my studio.
The Sunflowers, by Mary Oliver
Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young —
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds —
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.
Say you were invited to hold a sunflower, and examine it, while reading and thinking about these words in Mary Oliver’s poem. Say you were invited to respond by asking questions of the sunflower, or listening to the sunflower ask you questions. What would come into your mind, and onto the page? On Friday evening, outside around a fire pit, my friend Jen led a small group of us in this meditation. It was already, newly dark, and we used cellphones to illuminate the page and look at our sunflowers. which another friend had cut down and brought from her yard. Several of us found bees nestled into the flowers.
This is what I wrote.
“… the long work / of turning their lives / into a celebration / is not easy. / Come //”
Some solutions seem so simple
I will paint my office door the bright yellow
of this sunflower’s petals
I will spend the whole day reading a book
I will stretch and breathe
But when restlessness turns inside me
what should I do then, Sunflower, tell me?
When I am afraid
that my service is too meagre
and I can’t think what to do to be a
better person — what should I do, Sunflower?
The restlessness, the sense of longing
of energy unused or squandered
The list of all the harms I’ve caused
shuffling round and round inside me —
Tell me, what should I do
to fix these feelings, Sunflower?
It is true I hear you humming
Too tall, cut down, a living
bee nested in your blossom that has not (will not)
bloom(ed), tucked beneath the brighter face of you
You are humming not an answer
but a blessing with a sting:
Get on with living
You are not between two points
like a traveller on a train stalled between
destinations, you are in the only place
in which you are as you are — alive
and very you
Do you remember when you saw a whole
field of us, sunflowers, calling you
and you drove on, you said, It’s not
my field, I would be a trespasser?
You were right enough
But we’ve found you anyway, again
as you are. Come
Tomorrow, I would like to write a post about the new colour of my office door, and the books I’ve been reading, and the ways I’m seeking to connect, and to learn and listen, and find antidotes to fear and despair, but for today, I invite you to find your own sunflower and ask it some questions. Whimsical, fanciful? Yup. Uncomfortable, weird? Maybe. Silly, frivolous? Try it and see for yourself.
Two weeks is a long luxurious span of time to be on holiday, especially right now, especially when one’s holiday is basically a two-week quarantine away from other people and the world and news and thoughts of the future; it’s all a beautiful, slow-moving present; now, now, now.
We’re back home, but I’m holding onto my holiday brain for as long as I possibly can.
This is what I learned on holiday: Notice. Notice what I’m doing or about to do. Notice what effect it has on others around me. Notice what I like and don’t like about the things I’m doing and saying, and their effect. Do I want to change those things? Can I? (Don’t know. Maybe!) But it all starts by noticing. And then deciding what to do next.
As one of my kids told me: I think you have to want to change, Mom.
Yes. That is true.
On holiday, as an experiment, I sometimes did the opposite of what my first response would have been. I had the time. I noticed how I wanted to respond before I responded, and then if I didn’t want to respond that way, I paused myself and tried to respond differently, just to see what would happen. This was on a very small scale. For example, Annie and Kevin and I did yoga twice a day on the dock and one fine afternoon, I noticed that I wanted to announce to them—during tree pose—that I was wearing very slippery pants, and the pants were the reason I couldn’t place my foot up high on my opposite leg—I wanted to explain: hey guys, it’s not me, it’s my pants! But instead, I noticed that I wanted to do this before I did it. I noticed, too, that to speak would be to spoil this moment of shared concentration. I noticed that what I wanted to share was a) information not useful to them, and b) information that, if shared, wouldn’t actually solve anything. Any insecurity, any fear of failure, was mine; unrelated to what they were doing, and certainly not theirs to fix.
So I bit my tongue. I just did the pose. Obviously, this was a very tiny moment of noticing and making a very tiny decision, but I remembered it afterward, clearly, because I’m writing about it from memory now. What I noticed was that it didn’t hurt at all to stay quiet. It just shifted the moment, and my experience of the moment. It reminded me why I was doing yoga—as a gift to my body and mind, as a way of loving myself, respecting my body, no matter what it was/is capable of doing. It reminded me to thank my body for holding me up, no matter what the position.
It reminded to say: Thank you, body, for bringing me into this moment!
Notice, notice, notice. It’s why I meditate. I have to want to change if change is going to happen. But I also have to notice what I’m doing in the first place. So much of what we do, think, say is almost automatic. We’ve fit ourselves into systems, we’ve figured out how to survive, how to take the easiest route to self-soothing, how to comfort ourselves, how to minimize conflict (or ramp it up, if that’s what makes us feel alive/better). Our responses are formed by long experience, often dysfunctional, or harmful to our bodies and minds. Changing deep patterns takes patience, trial and error. Takes forgiveness and generosity above all else—to the self, which will extend then so easily to others too. If you can forgive yourself for your flaws and weaknesses it will be easy to forgive the flaws and weaknesses in others.
Insecurity, fear, the desire to be liked, the need to win and prove myself; these are among my deepest flaws. And I do want to change the way I respond when in their thrall. The only hope is to notice.
One more thing I learned on holiday (or learned anew, again): To notice when others are doing and saying things that make me feel good, cherished, calmer, more generous-minded—so I can learn from their deeds and words, and also be appreciative. For example, I’m so thankful that my children are kind and hopeful people, who are rolling with their changed circumstances, accepting what they’ve got and actively making the best of it, adapting, not complaining or mourning any perceived losses, just getting on with what’s being offered to them. I watch them, I notice, and I follow their lead.
- What felt good this month? Being on holiday and, more importantly, feeling on holiday. Being outside, as much as possible — I’m writing this outside, for example. Daily yoga with Annabella, and in the past couple weeks, we’ve bumped it to twice-daily. Going easy on myself in terms of expectations (especially while on holiday). Seeing friends and family in person, for walks or on porches, or back patios, or back yards.
- What did you struggle with? I’ve noticed a few things. One, it’s harder to remain vigilant about the pandemic, the further we get from its initial shock. Summer has given us a blissful break, but I dread the possibility of an interior, locked-in, limited-contact fall/winter. Two, I’m hyper-critical of my social interactions; specifically, any social error that I make now feels magnified and terrible, and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night replaying these moments. There’s a piece in today’s New York Times about how we’re all becoming more socially awkward, and I, for one, can attest that this is painfully true. Three, I feel a longing and almost a panic about finding things to do that will connect me with other people: I had a dream that I’d gotten a job working at a newspaper as a copy editor two days a week, and in the dream I was thrilled and excited, till I realized that it was likely work I could do from home, and I wouldn’t be with people. I woke up feeling confused, as this hasn’t been a conscious desire — to be with people, to work with people; in fact, I’ve been carefully arranging my life in order to work alone, writing things. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong? Or even somewhat wrong? Maybe I need to find outlets / work that allow me to be with others? (And is this a pandemic-induced feeling of starvation-for-contact, or a more fundamental issue, career-wise?)
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Flatter. I’m not sure I can explain this better. I feel suspended between seasons. There are too many unknowns looming. I’m riding the moment, trying not to think ahead or get ahead of where I’m actually at. My expectations feel low, and I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Mostly good, I think. But sometimes I think I need more … more ambition (?), a defined goal (?), something concrete to bolster my otherwise circular practices (?).
- How did you take care of yourself? Same as last month: I’m practicing radical self-love! (Try saying that out-loud and not undercutting it with a self-deprecating aside.) Reminding myself and my body that to be imperfect is to be human. Speaking up when I feel upset or ignored. Trying to address conflict directly. Trying to notice my own shortcomings and dysfunctional patterns, emotionally, so I can at least take a step back and say, hey, do I like this? Do I want to change this? And if so, try to respond differently than I ordinarily would. I’m talking very very small-scale changes: like, whether I eat a piece of chocolate now or save it for later. (To this point: I’ve noticed I tend to hoard for the future rather than permit myself to enjoy in the present; what does it mean to give myself permission to use my resources freely, without fear? What does a mindset of plenty, of enough, of bountiful, of abundance feel like? How would it change how I live?)
- What would you most like to remember? The lake. The way the water moves differently depending on the wind and the time of day: long ripples; flat; waves; dappled. The sunsets. Card games with the kids. The meals: potato crust quiche, beans and rice, risotto made with homemade broth, roasted beets. Bike adventures with CJ.
- What do you need to let go of? What I should probably let go of is news from the States. But I can’t and I won’t. I’m practically an obsessive about it, even when on holiday. I’m by turns baffled and infuriated, disbelieving, resigned. It’s like everything that’s been simmering under the surface has been turned up to a boil, all the chickens are coming home to roost: the country is armed to the teeth, divided, sick, hungry, the inequality is obscene, the systems corrupt and built on racist and misogynist beliefs, and reality itself seems upended by the lies and false narratives being peddled and eagerly devoured online. What am I witnessing? I can’t make sense of it, and want to. So much doesn’t make sense to my mind, perhaps most basic, the willingness to let so many people get sick and even die, when there are simple solutions that could stop the spread of the virus. If they’re willing, as a country, to accept so much death, what else will they be willing to accept? It frightens me. (And what am I willing to accept, as a Canadian, that I shouldn’t?) So … should I let this go, turn off the news? It doesn’t affect my life directly, does it? Wouldn’t I be more content, more peaceable of mind, if I were to let it go? How important is this form of passive engagement? In what ways do I become actively engaged for knowing more? (For one, as a dual citizen I’ve registered to vote, but that’s not new.) Is it a sick form of entertainment, in a way, or is there value in staying informed?
Meditation, using a circle. What’s inside, what’s outside. Where am I?
I stand inside a circle made of pieces of cloth, knotted together. A wide circle. Five knots. I step to the knot that seems to be at the “top” and wait. Hands at sides. Feet planted. Close my eyes.
Ah. I see a big decision before me. A change that means letting go of responsibilities, letting go of relationships. Letting go. I’m invaded by hard emotions, painful; I don’t resist feeling these things. Sadness, vulnerability, loss of power and influence. I name some unflattering parts of myself, humble human motivations: How I want to be liked, admired, respected! Feel this. Emotions flood me, wash through. Easier to bear, when felt.
Isn’t that a strange truth?
I step clockwise. Knot two. My hands cupped at my heart. I’m laughing. I see conflict between loved ones, I’m at the edge of the argument, it’s not my argument, I want to fix it, but it’s not fixable, not by me; if at all. Is conflict only ever a bad thing? Or am I being asked to love the conflict, too, to let the people I love be who they are, even if it means conflict.
Next knot, third stop. I crouch low to examine a little gathering of stones in the shape of a smaller circle, outside of mine. I see someone I want to help and support. Our languages of love are different. To show her love, I need to speak her language; and not impose on her my own. Isn’t that the truth?
Fourth knot, and I stand and find my hands at my heart again, cupped, and I think — my writing! — and as soon as I’ve thought it, my hands fling themselves away from my body and throw the writing out of the circle. Oh no! But it’s mine! I’m wracked with fear and regret, even horror. I try to pretend it didn’t happen, I try pulling my hands back in, but I can’t undo what’s been done. And then I laugh. Of course, that is its purpose — my writing! stories, books, even this post — to be sparked into being, then released, sent away. The thoughtless motion of my hands — cupped close, then opened out, then close again — is the whole process. Make, finish making. Hold, let go.
Fifth stop, last knot. Eyes open, standing, calm, wondering. Sky is a marvellous clear colour, nearing night. I see: Dead tree, bare branches, oh, and the sharp profile of a funny, fat, little bird perched at the very top, as if waiting to be seen. It does not fly away. I watch for a long time. The bird is the world, I think. There it is, outside my circle. How I love the world, need it, need to bring it into my circle, invite the images to flow through me, through mind and body, and back out again.
(With thanks to my friend Jen for leading us through this meditation.)
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.)
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