New ritual: I begin my desk-time by lighting a candle. The expectant flare of the match and comforting flickering flame marks a small opening moment to help me begin. The candle, which I almost felt ashamed of purchasing (impulse buy; no reason why; it was on sale), is suddenly useful, a tiny reminder of the word I’ve chosen to meditate on for this year: perhaps as a guide, perhaps as warning. Even the tiny flame of a single candle is mesmerizing, its movements mysterious, its light enticing.
The word fire initially drew my attention because I was thinking of creative fire, of passion, of burning brightly in pursuit of art. Which sounds howlingly pretentious, I realize. But I felt comforted by the image that accompanied the word: of a furnace, deep inside, glowing with steady bright heat.
Fire is dangerous, as elements are. I pictured, too, a fire that burns across a prairie, leaving behind blackened space, but also a place for new growth in fertile soil — not a wasteland, after all.
Fire is sacred, precious, life and death. Without it, we would be hungry and cold in the dark.
A fire either is, or is not. When I blow out this candle, its flame vanishes. What keeps a fire alive? It needs oxygen to burn, and energy. It devours fuel. Some fuel burns bright and quick, while other fuel burns slow and steady. But in time, all fuel will run out and must be replenished.
You can’t leave a fire untended. It will burn out, or burn out of control. Either way, it needs attention.
What fires am I tending now? What feeds my fire?
I think of the story of the Little Match Girl, which I adored as a child of melodramatic bent. How the brief flame of each lit match gave the girl temporary comfort and relief — and visions of warmth and plenty — even while she froze to death, shoeless, in the street. Fire as illusion of heat.
Fire as passion, fire as creative, fire as necessary; fire as destructive, fire as hungry, fire as all-consuming, insatiable.
I fear this word and yet it draws me. What would happen if I let my fire burn? What does that even mean? Do I know?
One last image that keeps coming around: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “First Fig.”
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light!
PS The cartooning project continues, day by day. I’m posting a daily cartoon on Twitter and Facebook, and plan to use some here too, in future posts.
Today is my birthday. It’s the first day I’ve had time to reflect, active reflection, since we waded into the Christmas season, and when I sat down before my notebook such a whirl of disconnected thoughts poured out. I am thinking of starting an autobiographical cartooning project, as shown above. I’ve developed a relatively efficient way of making a 4-panel cartoon: I write for 3 minutes using the prompt “What’s on your mind?”; then I use a timer to draw four cartoons, scenes from the past 24 hours of my day, each completed in exactly 2 minutes; and finally I pair ideas or phrases from “What’s on your mind?” with the cartoons, creating captions that aren’t directly related, and yet, combined, tell a little story. I’ve been making these half-hapzardly, often while waiting at piano lessons, squeezed into a tiny amount of time. I love creating a visual artifact. I love creating something to keep.
I have sad news. On the morning of December 23, we said goodbye to DJ. Above is the cartoon I drew that morning, while she lay on the floor beside me, still very much alive. We were fortunate to have a vet come to our house, and the whole family was present in the room as DJ passed out of this world in the most peaceful way possible, with loving hands on her, truly surrounded by love, so I can’t be sad about that. And although I miss her goofy presence underfoot, I also can’t be sad that her suffering has been relieved. The end felt like a surprise, even though we were preparing for it for a long time, and even though signs had been accumulating that the time was coming. But really, DJ was fine right up until she wasn’t, and thankfully, we were able to respond quickly. As we made the decision, and prepared to say goodbye that morning, one of the kids wept, “I don’t want DJ to be a body!” That struck a chord deep within me. Yes. Oh, yes, I know what you mean.
I didn’t want DJ to be anything but what she was: alive, breathing, present, animated, here with us. But when I look at the photo, below, taken on her last walk that morning, I see her distress. And I know we can’t keep what isn’t ours to keep.
It is hard to say goodbye. I am struck over and over this holiday season by how hard it is to say goodbye. Even a welcome change can create a hole, nostalgia for what was. I’m thinking of the new parkland across the street, created by knocking down the houses that were there before, none of them very pretty, and yet, I found myself in the days immediately after they were gone irrationally missing them. Absence is absence. It’s why we keep telling ourselves stories that may not be serving us. It’s why we hang on to old pain and shame. It’s why we are afraid of making space for something new. Instinctively, we know that any absence, any loss, any goodbye will reshape us in ways impossible to predict.
Today has been a great day, a good birthday, and I’ve been doing exactly as I please and wish, which is my definition of the perfect birthday. I woke early to go for a walk with a friend. Kevin made me breakfast. I went out for coffee with two of my brothers. I treated myself at the bookstore. I hugged my mom, and my dad. I worked on the logistics for this new cartooning project, figuring out how to scan and edit images. I listened to music while drawing and writing. Oh, yes, and I blogged. Tonight, Kevin is taking me out for dinner.
Every year that comes around is a blessing. This past year has been full. Full of the unexpected, the hard, the surprising, and the miraculous. I learned how to draw this year! How unexpected is that? Never saw it coming. I also wrote a book by a hand, something that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been concussed. I’ve been kinder to myself in many ways, this year, accepting aging (I’m wearing new reading glasses, for example), deepening relationships, sending roots down into the earth, humbled by my work, demanding time to exercise and also to write. Many tears. Much warmth. Quiet, too. I can’t guess what will come in this new year. I have ideas, plans, stories to write, poems to memorize, kids to snuggle, friends to embrace, a new word to play with, songs to learn, habits and rituals to nurture.
Cartoons to create.
Below, from December 15: “I didn’t leave room for a caption.” Hey, lots of learning to do, too.
PS Soundtrack for this post: Lullaby, by the Dixie Chicks.
In the past couple of creative writing courses I’ve taught, I’ve devoted an entire class to listening to and writing fairy tales. Why? Sometimes I introduce an exercise without fully understanding its necessity, until I’ve been through it several times. After my fairy tale class yesterday, my brain was spinning, like I’d learned how to spin flax into gold. I may not entirely understand why the fairy tale is so valuable to listen to and enter into, but I’m getting closer.
Fairy tales are full of archetypal imagery: images that are powerful and timeless, even if they may be interpreted differently by different cultures and in different eras. Brothers and sisters; transformations; talking beasts; wise women and witches; kings and queens; red shoes; axes; forests; water. As we wrote our own fairy tales, some of these images no doubt found their way into our stories, and we knew they had meaning beyond themselves, we understood it at gut level. A dark forest conjures a meaning different from a river; the moon means something different from the sun; the power of a witch is different from the power of a king or a queen. Maybe we also understood that the meaning of these images was somehow malleable, too, and that we could work with it, we could subvert it, we could make it our own—we understood that meaning shifts. Sometimes it’s even our duty to shift meaning or fight against it.
Fairy tales are by their nature grim, even gruesome; the characters suffer horrors and sorrow that is difficult to comprehend. And yet the stories are told in a way that makes them enjoyable to listen to—not frightening, but compelling. One of the hardest tasks as a writer is to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader: fairy tales do exactly that. How do fairy tales protect us, even as they reveal traumatic narratives? Perhaps it is in part our detachment from their one-dimensional characters. But I think protection also relies on the use of archetypes to contain and control horror, and shape meaning.
What is the difference between meaning that is political or ideological and meaning that is literary? The world is not magical. In other words, what happens to us is not meaningful, in and of itself. We make it magical: we create the meaning. We impose shape onto the events we witness, onto our own experiences, onto the random gathering of routines, activities, sights and sounds, interactions and reactions that make up our lives—much of what falls through and into our lives is like the weather, out of our control. This could be terrifying, paralyzing. It is not a truth our brains accept easily; in fact, our brains are built to create narrative to explain the randomness, to comfort ourselves, in order to survive and to thrive. The same source of comfort drives our impulse toward religion, politics, and poetry: narrative. We need narrative because we need meaning. Meaning comes from shape, pattern, images that carry thematic weight, from threads being pulled together to weave a tapestry that is so satisfying to our brains that we don’t care that it’s not real because it feels real—it feels as it should.
Why do we seek to understand the motive of a man wielding an AR-15 in a church? (I’ve been wondering and wondering about this, because in my opinion, trying to pin down a motive in cases like this is a waste of our collective energy; but most news media would disagree.) There may be a fundamentally human reason driving this search: because without motive there’s no sense of cause and effect, there is only shapeless unformed chaos resulting in death and grief. Audiences want their stories to make sense, and the news media are storytellers and we are their audience. Think of all the different ways we impose narrative on the world around us—my interest is largely literary, but political narratives are inevitable and create competing storylines that truly fail to intersect. Some narratives exclude, lock out, imprison rather than connect.
How can literary narratives help us? By creating empathy—through windows and doors, through the lens of another’s eyes. By refusing to be ideological. By appealing to our human frailty and flaws—by showing us our possibilities and our hopes, and our failures. By releasing us from our humanness, too, sometimes, the way that fairy tales do. Fiction is inherently unrealistic (even so-called realism). Fiction will always be much more and much less than reality is—it contains both too much or too little of reality to be real. Fiction is interpretation. Fiction pushes the writer to identify what matters in whatever moment is being described. It creates magic inside of us all of a sudden! We become magical when we write and also when we read, because we are transforming what is into what could be—a recreation that has substance, shape, and meaning.
Something from something, as Etger Keret writes.
I wrote this in a white heat of emotionless thought after yesterday’s class, as if it were tearing from me whole: the reason I write, the power of writing, the value of it.
“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside of us.” – Silvana Ocampo
Write these words on my heart.
A person wonders whether she can carry home the things she learned, whether transformation in a radically different setting from home is sustainable. A person yearns to be the self she was while she was away. But a person knows, coming home is coming back to a crowd of needs waiting to be met. Even the house needs her. A person has so many loves. Loves are obligations but loves are also earned and cherished and what would a person write about were she to have no loves to tend to?
I can hold two oppositional thoughts in my head at the same time. I want to go home. I miss my family. I want to stay forever in this ridiculously rich creative space.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m home from Omega, in upstate New York, home from the Lynda Barry + Dan Chaon workshop, a 5-day intensive experience in a summer-camp-like setting, with an amazing yoga class every morning, ultra-healthy vegetarian/vegan food served three times daily, virtually no responsibilities, no chores, and perhaps most critically, almost no emotional labour except for the work that poured onto the page. My mind was uncluttered and immediately more open to images and connections. Will I be able to be joyful, I wondered on the evening we arrived, will my spirit find lightness? Is it still possible? I had my answer in less than a day: yes. It was so easy, under the circumstances, to be playful, attuned to what’s under the surface, easy to meet any challenge.
Writing isn’t easy, but it’s enjoyable, said Lynda Barry. She likened it to seeing runners go by in the middle of the day, and you can tell they’re enjoying it, but you never once think, hey, that looks easy. Writing — it’s the same. What this week kindled in me is a fire for the writing. For the possibility in writing, which is seductive to someone who entertains as rich a fantasy life as I do.
After Lynda Barry said goodbye, on the last morning, Dan Chaon, with whom she co-taught this workshop, helped us debrief our experience. Someone asked him about writing to an audience, and his answer had me in tears. It must have answered something very deep inside me, something neglected, lost, forgotten. I’m writing to my peers, he said. I’m writing to the writers I love, my kindred spirits.
I’m writing to my peers.
Am I capable of thinking of the writers I admire as peers? How does it change my mind and body to think: I am writing to Helen Oyeyemi. I am writing to Rumi. I am writing to Eden Robinson. I am writing to Ann Patchett, to Rilke, to Mavis Gallant, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to Mary Oliver. Feelings of love and awe and excitement come over me. I am writing so my work will speak to their work. In Lynda Barry’s classroom, we show our drawings to each other, but we also show our drawing to each other’s drawings. It sounds flaky, but it’s a reminder: this work, once created, lives a life separate from our own.
On Wednesday, I walked the labyrinth on campus, and spent a lot of time writing — my own writing, not guided writing. It was late in the evening. I decided to do one last project before snack and bed, something I’d been wanting to do for awhile: make the Rilke poem I’ve memorized and repeat often into a little cartoon. For the pictures, I looked at my peers’ attendance cards, hanging from the walls, and I chose images that seemed to speak to the words in the panel, and I copied them as best I could. All the drawings are drawings I admired, made by hands and minds I did not know. Then I taped the cartoon to the classroom wall and left it there for the rest of the week.
It was the kind of space that makes a person want to leave behind gifts. But on the last day, I untaped the cartoon from the wall and brought it home. It was the kind of space that makes a person want to believe she can bring what she found there home.
I know we were in another world, a bubble of creative vibes and chickpea scramble, but what was happening in the world was with us too, if at a remove. I mean, there we were in the United States of America during the week when the president spoke out in support of Nazis. There was pain and confusion in that classroom too. This feels like a crisis, said Lynda Barry, doesn’t it feel like a crisis? And everyone said yes. We are facing a crisis. What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do?
She didn’t have an answer. She just had us knuckle down and draw ourselves as a dejected Batman, draw the statue of Liberty with our eyes closed, make a map of a familiar walking path. And then she made us show our neighbour.
xo, Carrie aka Treetop Annie
On the weekend, I walked to the library with my elder daughter. While she browsed in the non-fiction stacks — the theoretical physics section — I played a little game that has served me well over the years: I wandered a little further (no theoretical physics for me) and plucked titles at random from the shelves, my choices based only on title or subject. In quick succession, I skimmed and rejected two books on Scottish folk and fairy tales, but my third choice had me sitting cross-legged on the floor, entranced.
It was a biography of Rachel Carson, the American scientist who became famous for her books about the sea and the beauty of the natural world, and who is remembered now as the author of Silent Spring, a book that warned the public about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Silent Spring was published in 1962; Rachel Carson died in 1964 of cancer. If you google Rachel Carson, you will find that to this day she is reviled in some circles as a “feminizi ecoterrorist.” The biography, Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear, and published in 1997, is a little more nuanced. It evokes a portrait of a self-effacing, deeply intelligent, patient, hard-working woman who was led by her love of nature and science to become outspoken on conservation issues. Rachel Carson began her career as a government biologist, writing educational pamphlets on a variety of subjects. But she’d always wanted to be a writer. Science became her subject. And with enormous effort and obsessive care, Rachel Carson fashioned a successful literary career; eventually, she became successful enough that she could afford to resign from her government post, in her mid-40s, to devote her life to writing about science in poetical narratives that appealed to a broad audience.
It goes without saying that Rachel Carson was an unusual woman for her era. What strikes me most, however, is how fresh and relevant her message remains today.
Even though the book was an enormous tome, I decided to check it out and carry it home, and I spent the weekend reading it with pleasure. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy biographies, especially of writers. I look for clues, I nod in recognition, or admit to envy for those who have a knack for self-promotion. Rachel Carson’s attention to detail, her push for publicity, her irritation with her first publisher, who failed to promote her first book — all of this impressed me. She had a vision for the entire publishing process and she saw it through, little deterred by criticism, yet open to critique, actively seeking it out, so as to better her own work. She also frequently turned down promotional opportunities, speeches, honorary degrees, etc., to preserve time and space for her research and writing. She knew how to say no. (Is it too late for me to learn?)
Rachel Carson lived with her mother, who kept house for her; she was the main breadwinner for her family, which included at times her older sister and brother, mother and father, and later, her orphaned nieces. She did not marry, had no children. Our lives, in their domestic details, do not much meet and overlap.
But reading about her life has got me thinking about the importance of devotion to a subject; no, the critical imperative of devoting attention to a subject, if one is to hope to learn, to understand, to teach, to share knowledge, to find solutions to human problems large and small. Our lives on earth depend upon it. We cannot be lead by those who would ignore deep, complex knowledge in favour of simplistic superficial fixes. We cannot give power to ignorance. (Too late? Well, then let’s stand true against powerful ignorance.)
Here is Rachel Carson on her belief in the universal accessibility of science:
“We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”
Here is Rachel Carson on the human tendency to focus on egocentric problems, and to fail to see our place in the vast sweep of time:
“Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.”
And here is Rachel Carson on the danger of seeing humankind as separate from nature:
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
Her solution? Wonder and humility.
“Focus attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us everyday.”
Recognize your place in the grand sweep of time. Know yourself to be part of the natural world. Wonder at your participation in the cyclical turnings. In this way, by becoming very small, by being a piece of something much larger than yourself, you will be of the world around you, not against it. I am fascinated by her repetition of the word “destruction” — her insistence that the human belief that we are above nature, not of nature, springs from a dangerously destructive impulse, that it invents and experiments with destruction.
I love when a book finds me.
To tell the truth, I don’t have a lot to say this morning. Yesterday, I came across a photo in the newspaper and felt like I had to respond to it. Because I can now draw, I drew it. I don’t even know how I would write about it. What are the limits of my imagination? The limits of my knowledge are vast. I don’t know the details of what is being shown, except that this photo was taken in Mosul, Iraq. All that seems certain is that these are two people, human beings, a father and his daughter, caught up in the horror of war, which is a man-made horror. “What is happening?” my youngest asked, when he saw this picture. “Their house has been bombed,” I said. “Who bombed them?” But I don’t even know that. According to the caption on the original photo, they live in Islamic State territory, so maybe they’re being bombed by whoever is fighting against Islamic State. Where is evil, in this picture? Where is the enemy? Why is it so easy to destroy, to reduce a building to rubble, to displace lives?
And the question I am most afraid to ask: How is our safety and security linked to this picture?
Propped on my desk right now is a little card on which I’ve written out the Ten Tenets of the City of Joy (I read the Ten Tenets in a newsletter from the Stephen Lewis Foundation, a charity I support). The City of Joy is a residence in the Democratic Republic of Congo that serves women who are survivors of sexual violence (rape is used as a weapon of war in a many conflicts, including in the DRC). You can read more about the City of Joy here.
The Ten Tenets give me something concrete to hold on to when I am feeling despair. Right now, I’m drawn to # 6: Give what you want most. And # 10: Practice kindness. But let me push this reflection further — I am not a victim of violence or a survivor of war. I am, in many ways, the beneficiary of the misery of others; the systems that work for me create disadvantage and disaster for others. And I don’t know how to change that. What would I be willing to sacrifice? I’d like to add one more tenet for myself. # 11: Listen.