My word of the year is SPACE. What I didn’t expect to find within this word is its companion, SILENCE. Silence can be a challenging state to sit within. I don’t always want to hear my own thoughts so clearly, or recognize the distracted and tumbling, tangled nature of my own interior life.
We spent last week, the last week before school started, at the cottage that belonged to my stepmom, and still feels like hers, even though she’s been gone for more than a year now. We love going there, love being there. It’s been a gift to have this place in our lives, and the kids have memories that go back, now, 11 summers. It’s the kind of place that has become a touchstone, and returning is a kind of pilgrimage. Returning is a measure of time passing. While we’re there, though only for a week at most, it feels like we’ve always been there and will always be there.
You can only get there (easily, practically) by boat. About five years ago, Kevin developed an inner ear disturbance that’s triggered by boat rides, and each year the after-effects would last longer and longer (months, even), so for the past two summers, he’s hiked in on a path that literally no one else uses. It’s overgrown. It takes him about an hour and a half. And this year, it was occupied by swarms of insects. He arrived at the cottage looking like a wild man. He wasn’t sure he could manage the hike out, but on Monday, he and Rose trekked the path again, to save his brain.
The corollary to his necessary hike is that I’ve had to learn how to drive a boat (not high on my list of things I wanted to learn how to do). We do what needs doing to get us to this place.
There is plenty of space at the cottage. Space for the kids to play. A big lake for kayaking and adventuring, alone or together. Star-gazing at night. Shelves of books. Late, lazy mornings. Late-night all-family card games. We never seem to need anything more than what we’ve got. Even when meals get creative, by necessity.
Space, silence. Quiet.
I tuned out from the news, from podcasts, from the internet almost altogether. But I did listen to one podcast, On Being, on Sunday. The title was: Silence and the Presence of Everything.
Isn’t that something? How the themes of our lives get tied together by invisible thread? I’d been worrying about space and silence. Silence as a negative. Silence as too much space for my mind to listen, anxiously, to itself.
Silence. Presence. Everything.
“Silence and the Presence of Everything” was about listening. Not active listening for a particular thing you expect to hear, or have been told to listen for, or pay attention to. Listening to what’s there to be heard. Listening without judgement.
An interesting thing happened at the cottage. I managed to write a bit every afternoon, when no one was paying attention; no one even really noticed. What was strange and thrilling was how I would fall into the writing (fiction), almost as if by drifting toward an idea. An image would surface. I would let it drift. I would be resting or sitting by the water. And some small fragment would drift toward me. And then I would get up and write. The writing felt similar to listening.
It didn’t feel active. It didn’t feel forced. It felt like I’d tipped sideways into another time and place and body, and I was just there.
Now I’m here, home again. Dreading a root canal tomorrow morning, but otherwise glad for a day, today, in which I’ve done exactly what I want to do with all my new-found, new-made space: I wrote. I’d gotten up early to exercise with friends and by 10AM when everyone had left the house and the laundry was underway, I felt tired. So I meditated/napped for 10 minutes. And then I got up and wrote. I told myself: Remember to meditate/listen/nap before writing. Drift into what you’re about to do. Listen. It’s okay if listening turns into dreaming. Let yourself drift.
Space = silence. Silence = listening. Listening = drifting. Drifting = door opening to fictional world. Step inside. Space = writing.
Also, space = rest.
I’ll write another blog post (maybe) about what it feels like to let go of the need to pay attention to a particular something, and just be. It’s almost the opposite of striving. I’m such a striver. To be without purpose, listen without demand; it eliminates the task of waiting. It makes silence okay. Drifting toward mystery. Because mystery is okay too.
Erase, and try again. Erase, and try again.
I sit down at my desk to try to write, wanting to scream. Maybe that’s the problem. I want to scream, not write. I want to rant, not write. I want to tweet my rage, not write.
On Friday, my dad and daughter and I drove to Princeton, New Jersey for the funeral of my dad’s uncle, my grandma’s younger brother, who passed away in June at the age of 93. He and his wife had been married for 68 years (makes our 20 sound like a drop in the bucket!). The drive was long, but Dad brought lots of snacks, and we enjoyed the conversation and the scenery. Friday night, rather late, we had dinner in downtown Princeton at a Turkish restaurant, a feast that included a surprise delivery to our table of fresh-baked pitas, which we dipped in house-made hot sauce. We were tired, but we were happy. Flora and I stayed up late watching Friends. On Saturday morning, we breakfasted at the hotel with Grandma and her younger sister and her sister’s husband (who live in Argentina), and my aunt and uncle, who’d all travelled together from Indiana. It was fun. Grandma took one look at me, and sent me back to my room for a sweater (she was sure I’d be chilled due to the A/C), and then led the way, and organized the seating, which should tell you something about her character. She’s 97! I wanted to shout to the room in general, because, honestly, no one would ever guess it.
We dressed up, went to the memorial service and interment, sang, prayed, heard beautiful music. Met relatives. Visited.
Went back to the hotel to change before more family time that afternoon. Turned on the TV. News of a shooting underway in El Paso, Texas. Turned off TV. Pushed news out of mind. Changed, drove to a quiet tree-lined street near downtown Princeton, the home of one of my dad’s cousins. Feasted on a magnificent spread of appetizers. Went for a walk with Flora. Met more relatives. Visited. Listened to grandma and her sister and sister-in-law tell stories. Laughed. Feasted on a magnificent Argentine meal prepared by my dad’s cousins. Argentine music on the stereo. Red wine. Grandma having to be forcibly stopped from helping with the dishes.
Back at the hotel, Flora and Dad and I visited with Grandma in her hotel room. I returned the earrings I’d borrowed from Grandma. It was Grandma who asked whether we’d heard about the shooting. “He’s evil,” she said. She meant Trump. If you knew my Grandma, you’d know that word was not one she would use lightly. The ferocity of her emotion surprised me, even if I was feeling the same.
Flora and I spent the rest of the evening goofing off, wandering the hotel, making ourselves tea, tried to stay up late again to watch Friends, but fell asleep instead.
When my alarm sounded at 7AM, I turned on the news, using my CBC radio app — news from Canada. “Almost thirty people killed in less than 24 hours in mass shootings in the United States …” I thought more people had died of their wounds in El Paso, but no — there had been a second shooting overnight, this time in Dayton, Ohio, a city not an hour from where I grew up. The shooter was killed by police within the first minute that he opened fire, but he still killed at least 9 people; this is the scale of damage that can be done with an assault weapon, and in a world where anything made any sense, it would be evidence to silence the “good guy with a gun” theory forever.
In the breakfast area of the hotel, the news of both shootings played on the large-screen TV. The hotel’s guests were visibly disturbed. The feeling in the room was something unlike anything I’d felt before. It wasn’t shock. It was bewilderment, horror, shame. This keeps happening. This is not an anomaly. This is the new normal. How can this be?
Nevertheless, we had a fun, sociable breakfast with Grandma and everyone else. Briefly, though I don’t think we wanted to go there, the conversation tilted to the causes of this violence. White supremacy. Gun culture. Trump. Racism. White evangelicals — how could they support Trump? But even within our group there was no unity on the solutions. Maybe there are too many solutions, rather then too few?
After our goodbyes, we packed up for the long drive. About half an hour north of Princeton, we drove past Bedminster. It was only later that evening, at home, when I was scouring news sites for opinions and information, that I saw Trump had given his statement (paltry, weak, vague) at his estate in Bedminster, New Jersey. I said, “We drove right by that monster this morning!” And then I thought, good grief, that word rolled out of my mouth unprompted. Do I actually believe he’s a monster? If I call him a monster, what does that make me? And I felt as if rage and hatred was a hole down which I did not want to spiral. Yet I couldn’t turn off the news. I kept scrolling and scrolling, looking for some kind of answer to questions I couldn’t even form. I stayed up till my phone battery was almost dead, at which point, I left my phone downstairs because I knew if I brought it up to bed, I’d never sleep. Would the shootings have affected me in the same way if I hadn’t been in the States when they’d happened? If I hadn’t felt that collective bewilderment in the breakfast area of a Hampton Inn on Highway 1 near Princeton, New Jersey?
This can’t be healthy — and by this, I mean this obsession with the news, in particular this news (though I’ve also been obsessed, this summer, with news of climate change and melting ice, and the murderers, teenagers, crossing Canada, who haven’t been seen for two weeks, whose motives seem linked with the nihilist beliefs of these American shooters). Should I turn it off? Hide my phone? Do I struggle to turn it off because I’m addicted to the feelings of rage and horror this news incites in me?
I feel a need to respond, and not with tweets or rants. To protest. To be an activist. To try to change the way things are. To work to make a better world. To identify possible change and bulldoze toward it. But I also feel very very tired. Overwhelmed. Bewildered. It’s too much. Enough. Do something!
But what? What narratives am I creating? Isn’t it my job to respond with narrative? A narrative is purposeful and directed, but the news confuses me. A confused mind cannot create narrative. Somehow, I have to un-confuse my mind, and also my spirit.
We did it! The X Page storytelling workshop culminated in a show in front of a sold-out audience, and the experience was so profound and meaningful that I don’t want to try to peel it apart. Suffice it say, we could feel the attention and support of the audience as the performance unfolded on stage; and throughout, I felt pure joy to be witnessing these unique personal stories told with such confidence and personality, and staged so brilliantly and effectively.
I’ve been thinking about the material world. How we attach value to things, and how we measure value according to a concept so abstract it only exists because we’ve collectively agreed to believe in it — money. We seem to believe that for a thing to matter it has be material, its worth evaluated and determined on the open market. It’s a formulation that makes no sense to me at all. It seems to me, instead, that a material thing only has value when it is attached to meaning that is beyond its material form. Things don’t matter to us because of what they cost or what we can sell them for; things matter because they connect us to the ephemeral, to experiences, to memories, to images and stories.
So much of what I do has no monetary value attached. Sometimes I get paid for my work; often I don’t. I have a new story in PRISM International that took four years to write. It’s a little over 1,000 words. I earned $90 for it. I was thrilled and happy to earn anything at all (literary magazines are run on a shoestring and a prayer, and I don’t take payment for granted). My point is not that I should have been paid more, or even that I should have been paid anything, but that the value of that story, to me, is unrelated to monetary compensation. It’s unrelated to material compensation of any kind. I wrote it to explore an idea. I loved working and reworking the words on the page. The language and structure were surprising. I felt rich every time I waded into its words. I felt fed. I felt alive.
I felt the same during our Tuesday night workshops. I felt the same during the performance on Sunday.
I believe the value of the workshop was in the connections made, the space carved out for stories to be told and heard, and the hope and joy, and sense of belonging, that comes from working with others toward something bigger than yourself.
I believe the value of my little story “Early Onset” is in its existence: strange and unsettling, and, to paraphrase the words of its main character, “terrible good, terrible good.”
We need to have enough material goods to live more than a life of struggle, survival, and trial. Beyond that, what we long for won’t be answered by the material. No prize, no public acknowledgement, no stack of cash will satisfy; quite the opposite. If we’re doing what we’re doing for material reasons, receiving material reward only makes us hungry for more, greedy for it, like addicts. Trust me; I know. I know what we’re longing for can’t be bought or sold. I know that meaning and purpose, belonging, are not commodities. I know that within us is always enough; and I know that we’re always seeking, nevertheless. We’re seeking to connect, even briefly, with mystery, with the unknown and unknowable, from whence we’ve come and to which we will return, carrying nothing.
We’re always becoming who we might be.
I am a maker of experiences, not things. Even when I make things, it’s because they’re attached to experiences — stories, cartoons: my attempt to translate experience into a form accessible by someone else, its effect ephemeral, the tiniest vanishing ripple on the greatest lake. Enough. I am enough. You are enough. We are enough. And isn’t this life just terrible, terrible good?
Sometimes my skin feels too porous, and emotions pour in almost painfully. Yesterday, I started reading a personal essay in the newspaper written by the mother of a child on the autistic spectrum who was being bullied by classmates, people he thought were his friends. I had to stand up and walk away, so strong were my feelings of sickness and pain, gut-deep, a grief and horror that seemed to wash through my bloodstream.
I stood by the sink and wept.
Stories of exclusion, cruelty, judgement of others trouble me so deeply I can hardly tolerate the pain. I guess here in my mind, I live in a world in which people see each other, are kind to each other, have compassion for each other; but in the real world, there is a lot of pain inflicted even by people who are trying to be kind; pain is also inflicted by people who only want to be left alone, people who don’t want to engage, people who don’t care, who are struggling with their own troubles; and there is pain actively inflicted by people who fear and hate others for their differences, people who don’t want to understand or learn or listen, people who actively target others, weaker and more marginalized than themselves.
I can’t make sense of it.
It just doesn’t make sense in my brain.
I don’t have solutions. I can only to attempt to make spaces for that version of the world that exists in my mind to exist in real life. I’ve tried in the classroom, on the soccer field, inside my own family, and in this storytelling workshop. I know I’ve gotten things wrong. I suspect I’m sometimes the person who’s inflicted pain when trying to be kind, and acting in ignorance. But I’d rather try than hide. There is no alternative that makes sense to me.
For the past 11 weeks, I’ve been privileged to be part of The X Page Workshop. It was envisioned as a creative and collaborative undertaking that would bring together women from different cultural backgrounds, all of whom are making lives for themselves and their families in Canada. Each week, a group of almost 30 of us have met to work on writing and staging stories. Together, we’ve made something that’s rich and enriching. Just with stories! Just with stories and goodwill, trust, kindness, and effort. When we’re together in the beautiful space at the Centre for Peace Advancement, as we have been every Tuesday evening since March, I feel immersed in the possibility of the world inside my mind becoming a real place. It feels like a real place, then and there.
Just thinking about being there brings me a sense of peace and ease.
It isn’t perfect. Why should it be? This world in my mind has conflict, but it also has ways of talking about conflict, because there is trust, and the trust is constantly being earned. Each small thing offered, in this world in my mind, is actually a really big thing. Our gifts to each other don’t have to be grand gestures, large acts, or come from a place of material wealth.
I think the best gift we can give to someone else is to see and acknowledge them without wanting or trying to change them in any way.
To live in this world in my mind, I have to try to live with unconditional love. And that means feeling too porous sometimes to the brokenness in the real world. That means loving what’s broken, too, unconditionally. And that hurts. But it’s the only thing that makes any sense to me at all.
End-of-term launch party.
I’m done teaching for another term. My course was on the creative process: how to set goals, envision a major project, and lay the groundwork necessary to complete the work. I spent a couple of days this week and last meeting with students to hand back their final projects (stories in comic form), and to chat about the term. Some themes emerged in our conversations. Here’s what we learned.
The importance of mistakes. So many students talked about how important their mistakes had been in shaping their project, how an apparent mistake had turned out to be important or valuable to their drawing, or how freeing it was to allow themselves to make mistakes. My theory is that through mistakes our unconscious mind gives us important information we couldn’t otherwise access; and drawing is the perfect medium for this communication with the self, because we see our “mistakes” pretty much instantly, and have to figure out what they’re trying to tell us.
The freedom of stepping away from perfectionism. Students also expressed how freeing it was to embrace their mistakes, or even how freeing it was just to give themselves permission to make mistakes. Creating a major project by hand is time-consuming and laborious, and if you don’t accept the mistakes you’ll inevitably make, you’ll never finish what you’ve started.
The calm that exists inside creation. Every student in the class put a lot of time into their projects, and some put in vast swathes of time, far more than they’d anticipated, or really, that was required to meet the project’s guidelines. (In other words, they didn’t care about the rubric, they cared about the work itself.) Students talked about losing themselves in what they were doing. It didn’t feel like work. It was fun, it was relaxing. The time flew. There is a meditative quality to making things by hand, to being focused in this way; engaged.
The time for this is always with us. (To paraphrase Lynda Barry.) This feeling of calm, this experience of getting lost inside a pleasurable task, is available anytime. And yet, we seem to need someone to remind us of this, we need a reason to get engaged in this way, a task, a project for a class to give us the excuse to get lost in making something that requires focus and effort, that is time-consuming, and that ultimately may have no material or monetary value. We feel like we have to prove that it’s worth it. I wonder why? When it seems so obvious, looking at these wonderful students and their amazing artwork — their unique, truthful, serious, funny, silly, brave, thoughtful beautiful art — that it is worth it.
This course gave the students permission to make art. To draw. To colour. To turn their lives, their observations, their ideas into cartoons. Many expressed how valuable this practice was for them, and how much they hoped others would get the chance to take the course too. “Everyone should have to take this course!” “You have to teach it again for the sake of future students!” In truth, I’m not sure what I taught was a course so much as a concept: what I tried to do was make space for the students to make space for themselves.
Anyone can draw. Most of the students had no idea what they were signing up for when they entered my classroom on day one. They thought they were taking a creative writing course; the course description was vague; they were surprised to learn they’d be doing so much drawing. They weren’t sure they could do it. Many hadn’t drawn since high school, or even grade school. “I never thought I could draw well enough to …” And to a person, they could — they could tell the stories they wanted to tell through cartoons. (“Well enough” went out the window; “well enough” had no place in our classroom.)
Pride in accomplishment. The final projects undertaken by the students were big!! This was no small undertaking. And everyone did it! The deadline got met, and each project proved to be as unique and individual as the person who created it.
Thank you, Artists of ENGL 332! Thank you for your trust. It was an adventure.
Tomorrow morning (Wednesday), my students and I will be presenting our artwork at St. Jerome’s. It’s our last day of class this term, and in Monday’s class we worked on making artist’s statements (that’s mine, above). My instructions went like this: Include your name; Include a sentence or quotation that offers insight into who you are as an artist — why you make art, or why you believe art matters, or what motivates you, or inspires you; Include illustrations/cartoons.
The results were, in my opinion, brilliant. Within less than 45 minutes, students had created tabloid-sized, unique, creative, personal statements, illustrated with humour, freedom and personality — utterly delightful. I can’t wait to hang up these statements tomorrow. When I expressed surprise that so many of the students had managed to finish their work during the time allotted, they said they were used to it by now. Virtually every exercise I run in class is time-based — you have 7 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes. Done. During one particularly gruelling exercise, I remember joking that the title of the course shouldn’t be Creativity Unplugged, it should be Creativity Under Pressure. And then a student requested I play “Under Pressure” by Queen/David Bowie. And I did.
And we got the work done, whatever it was.
Yesterday was an opportunity to reflect on what we’d expected coming into this course, and what had actually happened. I feel that these public “check-outs,” by their nature, encourage people to say nice things, so I take it all with a grain of salt, but it was gratifying to hear that students had absorbed from the course exactly what I’d hoped to offer.
I hoped that discipline and routine and structure would nurture creative practice, and curiosity. Yes. (Though one of the students said he loathed the timed exercises.)
I hoped that students would find the exercises relaxing, meditative, so engaging that they’d lose track of time. Yes.
I hoped that students would rediscover their inner child. Yes.
I hoped that students would be delighted and surprised by the things they were making. Yes.
I hoped that students would see progress in their technical skills. Yes.
I hoped that we would laugh a lot. Yes.
I wanted to let the course unfold naturally, to go with the flow, the way I do when I’m writing and drawing, and I think that I got a whole lot closer to this goal than I ever have before, as a teacher. I wasn’t even that scared or anxious … most of the time.
And tomorrow morning we’ll display some of what we made, do a little more drawing, a little more talking, give away a few prizes, and enjoy being together one last time before the term ends.