artwork by Tarunima Mittal
For the past three years, I’ve been a part of a storytelling project that aims to foster connections between immigrant and refugee women in our region and the local arts community. The multidisciplinary workshop is named after the Lynda Barry writing exercise we use to find our way into the writing process: The X Page. Over twelve weeks, a group of women meets to write and revise original stories, collaborate on animating these stories through performance and artwork, and finally, to perform the stories for an audience.
This season, we’ve been transported by necessity into a virtual space, which has nevertheless felt like shared space, with room to explore, make connections, to listen, laugh, cry. For me, that’s the key to the whole project: to get to be taken inside someone else’s world, to hear what matters to them, the “little things” they’ve kept or lost along the way, and the themes to which they find themselves returning.
Lynda Barry’s exercise opens many pathways to the heart.
The trust involved in this process is immense. Each workshop session, I’m filled with gratitude for everyone’s efforts, kindness, generosity, and presence. This year, I’m working as the project’s coordinator, which involves me in almost every aspect of behind-the-scenes planning. We are in the homestretch now!!!! The performance will be live on the evening of Wednesday, July 7th, 7PM. Mark your calendars, register to attend (tickets are free, but registration is required), please come and please share news of this workshop with your friends.
The stories are beautiful. The art is beautiful. The connections are beautiful.
We chose the title “Little Things” for this season’s performance because the stories revolve around seemingly small moments, singular scenes, objects that have been kept and carried across borders, or lost along the way; and because even a little thing — held, cherished, and shared — is imbued with depth, meaning, promise, truth.
A story is a little thing. An offering. It is an invitation. Listen. Here I am. Here is something I’ve kept all this time, that matters to me, that I’ve carried all this way; do you see, do you understand? A story is a powerful little thing. Powerful good.
Listen up. Life feels pretty off-kilter here in Ontario, month 13 of pandemic, and projections showing us flying off the rails, if, if, if. Or maybe no matter what.
Uncertainty. It’s where we’re at. Can we laugh while crying? Damn, I sure hope so.
To counteract the blahs, we’ve been trying to think up activities, ways to demarcate our days, things to plan for (like Fake Prom, last spring). One kid floated the idea that we should make a family newspaper, in the tradition of The Snyder News, a “popular” newsletter which I forced my brothers to help me produce back in the late 1980s. At its peak circulation, it cost more in Xeroxing and postage than the meagre subscription price was bringing in, causing it ultimately to fail. (Do not put me in charge of the money side of any venture.)
Back to the future (i.e. the present), while brainstorming who would write what for our family publication, someone suggested having an advice column, and I experienced in that moment a deeply personal calling: “Oh, this is so exciting! You can send me your problems and I’ll give you advice!” Awkward beat of silence. “Nobody has any questions that need my advice? They can be anonymous!”
“I think you give us enough advice already.”
“I know, you could call your column: ‘Unsolicited Advice.'”
(Insert overnight pause, to process my hurt feelings.)
And: Challenge accepted! Here’s my rough draft, which I’ll share with you first (since no one in my family reads my blog, as far as I know, and if they do, spoiler alert!).
Unsolicited Advice, by M.C.
Just think of everything that could go wrong! That’s a good place to start. After that, think of everything you could do to prevent anything bad from ever happening ever. If that feels overwhelming, you can start by closing all cupboard doors immediately after opening them, rather than leaving them swinging for an indefinite period of time because you think you might come back later for more chips, or whatever. Imagine all the concussions you’ll prevent! While you’re at it, close that drawer too! While less consequential in terms of disaster prevention, at least no one will catch their sleeve causing them to send a cup of hot coffee flying (worst-case scenario) or snagging their sweater (sad face emoji). And there’s more! (fortunately, my contract is on-going!), but these basic principles will get you started, and you’ll be off to the races.
Speaking of the races, if you’re thinking of running a race, or even just running, be sure to wear shoes designed for this specific purpose and not for some other event such as hiking or swimming or tennis (unless you’re experimenting with barefoot running, in which case, nothing can save you!). Double-tie your laces, and stretch beforehand—dynamic stretches, not the static kind like we used to do in gym class when I was a kid (this advice is based on real scientific advancement). When running, be careful not to step in any holes. That’s just generally good advice! But always worth restating! If on your run, you see an angry mob of Canada geese approaching (very dangerous, especially during mating season), spread your arms and scream. You’ll see! Highly effective. Be sure to practice your screaming before you get yourself into a situation that may involve Canada geese. You can scream into a pillow or just practice during Mario Kart races.
To reiterate, in case this isn’t sinking in (one can never be too careful!): our basic principle is prevent, prevent, prevent. Remember that fun goes hand-and-hand with risk (don’t hold hands, for heaven’s sake, do I even need to tell you that?), and is also pleasurable, addictive and difficult to avoid, and is therefore an ongoing threat to your health! It’s best to maintain a hyper-heightened risk-assessment mindset at all times. But be careful! Overloading your frontal cortex with stress hormones (which may or may not be a thing, just google it), could cause mental burnout. Counteract those effects with a calm and boring meditative practice, which is generally considered safe, provided you don’t burn incense while you’re at it (fire hazard alert!), but on the very rare occasion has been known to accidentally hypnotize practitioners into believing everything is okay (don’t hyperventilate, M.C.!), which causes them to let their guard down and enjoy their day, which may lead them to have fun (remember = risk!), so be sure to meditate with caution. You have been warned!
This column is accepting questions (and we remain disappointed); however, it seems reasonable to assume that the volume, force, and acuity of our unsolicited advice may serve as a disincentive. Who needs to ask questions, when all the questions you’ve never even thought to ask are already being answered? I understand: And that’s my job, as advice columnist, at your service.
Remember: stay alert, be afraid, and never stop worrying.
We’re in such a trippy time warp here in continuing lockdown (with cases heading in the right direction again, so there’s hope). But there’s always hope! And I’m noticing that hope comes in the form of a small change or surprise or pleasure that can be found, really, in any day. Even the dullest of days.
For example: supper! It happens every single day, but we all look forward to it. I currently have the time to put more thought and preparation into the evening meal, and it is worth it. We gather, talk, eat good food. It’s simple, it’s satisfying.
Another example: snow falling from the sky!
And: the days getting incrementally longer. It’s 5:19PM as I type this and it’s still light out!
Also: group activities!
With my word group, I’m doing a 2-week tea-cleanse, in which we brew and sip teas throughout the day, and connect with our words and with each other via email, and maybe, too, via psychic powers.
With my family, we are doing reward charts! Who knew? It began when I offered to print up a chart for our youngest, who needed encouragement to practice more often (online school is sapping his motivation). As soon as people spotted his reward chart, it quickly spiralled. Now everyone has one (mostly with the goal of practicing a musical instrument every day, although Kevin gets a pass—he’s drawing instead). When everyone earns 10 stars, we get a pizza party! Individuals can earn a separate reward for every 25 stars. The rules and rewards were discussed and agreed upon and planned for at some length; and tonight is the night: Pizza Party! Whoo-hoo! We even had a sign-up sheet so people could bring something extra (like a fruit tray, or Scotch mints, or a cake). We’re planning to watch a movie too (“Soul”). [Update: What a wonderful movie to share as a family; laughter, music, and the exploration of big existential questions. You should watch it too!]
Finally, on the group activity front, I’m connecting virtually as much as possible through yoga classes on Zoom, texts with friends and family, Zoom calls with my Grandma, and writing time with imaginary characters (that counts too, right?). Today I tried a midday movement class out of New York city that, frankly, seemed to be inviting me nap for an hour on my heated studio floor while making fractional movements with my arms and legs. So maybe that was a one-time thing. But I tried it!
Explore: that’s what’s giving me hope, and purpose, and spark right now. Try it, sign up, reach out, say yes to something different and new, even if it’s just challenging yourself to cook a meal with the weird passed-over ingredients haunting your cupboards (my supper plan for Thursday!).
I’d love to hear what’s giving you hope, in small surprising ways, right now.
Our morning routine is sturdy and pleasant. Exercise, shower, breakfast. We’ve worked out a shower schedule, since there are six of us vying for a spot. I’ve been eating chia seeds and oats soaked in yogurt, or scrambled eggs on homemade bread for breakfast. Everyone is at their desk (or couch, or bed) by 9AM. Peaceful. And motivating, too. I’m wasting less time in the mornings getting to my own work.
Today, I wrote for so long that two of my pens ran out of ink! Something that brings me pleasure each day is to check in on my plants. I’ve got two new ones that I repotted from cuttings, and it gives me such a kick to see the progress their little shoots are making, day by day, slowly, slowly, rising and unfurling into shiny new leaves.
If I’m getting “better” at drawing, as a few people have commented recently, does it change my approach to this project? I’d like to keep this fun, unselfconscious, an adventure into the unknown, into the hidden parts of myself that only my hand and pen can discover; like what’s shown today, above, in my awkward hesitant shape, revealing the vulnerability I felt (but didn’t want to admit) during this conversation with a friend.
Many lovely grace notes on this quiet Sunday—baking bread, playing hymns and singing harmony with Annabella, church on YouTube and Zoom followed by watching the Liverpool game while everyone sat around in the living-room—but it all revolved around breath. Controlled. In, out, long, smooth.
Talked to my Grandma this afternoon, asking questions about specific times and experiences in her life. We will keep talking. I want to ask her about big things, like, how do you feel about death? How did you survive the upsets and shocks in your life? (Talk about self-conscious: I do not like the drawing of myself in the corner of the Zoom screen, and nearly scribbled over it before posting here; but decided to let it stand.)
Sometimes I can’t keep my eyes open and I unroll my yoga mat and lie down in a very particularly way on my studio floor (which is heated), and I nap—for no more than 24 minutes. More stories via Zoom from my Grandma this morning. I’m listening. I have time to listen.
I paused my day to watch Kamala Harris take her oath of office, and was later transfixed by Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb.” We aren’t broken, we are unfinished, she proclaimed. I write these words on my heart. (I’ll admit, I held my breath till Joe Biden was sworn in, and then—relief.)
It can get very busy in the kitchen at breakfast time: for accuracy, this drawing should have at least two more people squeezed into it. I spent the morning talking to Grandma again, and she told me about celebrating the inauguration last night, even watching the entire TV special, sitting through all the musical acts, even when she didn’t love the songs. Someone chose them for a reason, she told me. We talked about change today, and next time we are going to talk about death.
I’ve scarcely left my desk all day; but after supper last night, our whole family walked uptown. It was the first time we’d all been out together since lockdown. I get very panicked and queasy seeing new businesses opening now, and trying to survive. Like, the worst feeling! I wonder why?
I should have taken photos of my drawings in full natural daylight, but I forgot till it was too late (too late being just after 5PM). I notice a lingering and annoying dissatisfaction with the imperfection caused by the poor lighting. The colours are faded and distorted, for one thing! But I’m too tired and it’s too much end-of-the-week to start all over again (plus, I’d have to wait till tomorrow to re-take all the photos!). Hey, it’s Friday evening, and we’ve got take-out on the table, from Sari-Sari Filipino Cuisine. Look them up, if you live in Kitchener. They post their menus daily on Facebook, and the food is delicious and inexpensive, and served in the most generous portions.
Happy weekend, everyone.
Note: About a week after originally posting this, I photographed all the drawings again, in natural daylight, and uploaded them to replace the ones that had annoyed me so much. Is the post measurably better because of this? I don’t know, but I feel better!
Everyone looked after me all day. My favourite part was going around the table and hearing what everyone considered to be the thing they were most proud of in 2020. (Mine was painting my door yellow, and transforming my office into my studio.)
I’m glued to Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian show on Netflix that thankfully has about a thousand episodes (give or take). When I learned there were many seasons yet to watch, I ran out of my studio hollering: “Winter is saved!”
Kevin’s new year’s eve bonfire kept burning out last night. “I smell like smoke,” I told Heather on our starting-the-new-year-off-right walk. We came upon a statue that was like a horror movie, a man’s face replaced with an owl and maybe a possum (?); squirrel and duck for hands. We laughed so much.
We drove to Claire’s farm to pick up eggs and meat, and Claire showed us the pigs in the barn. Back home, we started a new 30-day yoga cycle with Adriene, called “Breath.”
Strange what my pen and hand tell me—not always what I want to hear. Mostly, I walked with my family this morning, on a spontaneous walk through fresh snow. But this was how I felt, trying to reach across the barriers of self/other.
Welcome to my studio. I enter this small warm room, close the yellow door, and feel—welcomed in. Happy to be here, at this desk, to look out these windows, to feel excited, wondering what I’ll find today?
I’m trying to read a book before falling asleep, rather than scrolling the news on my phone. My theory is that my dreams will be better, more interesting. But last night, the children in this book found a dead dog and my sleep was restless; tired today. (Soundtrack on repeat: “Exile” T. Swift and B. Iver)
It’s a lot to ask, that stories drop into my hands from their perfect mutability in my mind. I ask for grace and energy, I ask for a stronger work ethic, I ask for magic; but it’s desire I need, to answer longing with scratches on the page.
Yesterday, as Trump’s followers over-ran Congress, I was doing that terrible thing where I was watching a livestream on my laptop, scrolling my phone, and texting people, as if by consuming too much information, I’d find an answer to the question—what is going to happen?
I promised myself I’d sit down and draw even if I felt completely empty. That would capture the day too—an empty page, some pen scratches and scribbles.
My drawings this week all kind of look the same, I told Kevin on our after-dinner walk with Rose. Not much is changing. We are in liminal space—waiting. Not transition, but waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Today I made a list of things I want to do every day: go for a walk, the longer the better; burn and create energy with intense cardio; yoga; cartoon; play piano; afternoon tea break. I’d also like to meditate and read; and of course write. And cook. (But not clean.)
Good news: started my day in my studio and wrote part of a story almost immediately! Not-bad news: I can’t draw cars. This one looks like a bus, sort of. Above: me and Nina going for a walk, early Monday morning tradition.
Panic attack reading news of a stay-at-home order starting Thursday in Ontario. Felt like I was drowning. But what changes, I asked? Put on headphones and draw—follow pen into memory, shape, imagination. You’ve got resources. Sources.
Sidewalks slick with ice, we walked, skated, slipped, slid on a short dog walk after supper. Waiting for us to pass was a fox in the little park across the street. It sat perfectly still, alert, focused on our presence, till we were gone.
And now we’re all caught up. What do you think of my new journaling method? I’m on month two, and I’ve noticed a growing interest in attempting to draw background and setting, as well as figures. I’ve noticed, too, that this exercise slows me down and changes the flow of my attention, no matter what I’m feeling.
Two years ago, I was preparing to teach the graphic-art-based creativity course at St. Jerome’s, which was really a class about developing an artistic practice, setting goals, and staying open to how a project may change and grow as it unfurls. There’s discipline, the verb, and discipline, the noun, and together they sustain an artistic practice. The hope is that the practice will hold and develop over a lifetime, unique and personal: a pathway into the flow, a mindset, a series of ever-renewing explorations that feed on curiosity and feed curiosity.
If all things flow, I can never step into the same river twice; yet I yearn to find ways to fix experience as it flies. That’s the paradox of being alive, existing inside these breathing time-stuck human bodies: how to occupy the liminal space between immersion and interpretation, how to dance between these ways of being in the world; liminality is what art emerges from, the desire for engagement mixed with the need for something more than preservation — for response, for improvisation, for metaphor, image, song. My practice(s) is a way to step into the river, and also a means of capturing what’s here to be found.
I started a new notebook this morning. To mark the first page of each new notebook, I trace my hand and write my birth date and today’s date, a ritual I learned in a Lynda Barry workshop. As I traced my hand this morning, using a brush rather than a pen, I thought: I love the artistic practices I’ve created. They are cobbled together from different times, teachers, discoveries, experiments, using different mediums, tools and technologies; and they do change as I change and adapt, but they are unique to me and durable.
I love writing by hand, even though I don’t always use it as a method of writing new material. There are easier ways to write, but some stories and reflections call out to be discovered by hand.
I love the playfulness of crayons, which I’m using in my current daily drawing project, begun on December 1st as a month-long trial, and which I’m considering continuing into January, maybe beyond. (I’m also considering scanning these cartoons + captions and posting them weekly on the blog; this will only work if it’s easy. That’s one of the principles of my personal practices, the ones that have stuck: they’re easy to maintain, the materials are easy to acquire, the technology is easy to access.)
I love my studio, this lively yet meditative space that I use daily, which is a retreat, a place I look forward to being in, comforting, cozy, tidy, organized, small, contained yet spacious (the high ceiling, the white walls).
There isn’t much movement out there. We are locked down again in Ontario. There isn’t much movement anywhere, on any front, not in my own personal or professional life. But in this studio space, on the pages of these notebooks, there is movement. There is a river ever-flowing, into which I can step, and be transported.
And that is a gift.
My project ideas for 2020 have changed quite a bit; some came to fruition, others vanished almost as quickly as I’d conceived them. Now, I’m planning my projects for 2021, and looking forward to sketching out new ideas and goals on a fresh index card, and glueing 2020’s into this latest notebook. How will 2021’s projects grow, change, develop? Only time will tell. But they’ll exist, in nascent form, in ripening and in bloom, inside these notebooks, in crayon drawings, in pen, in Scrivener and Word files, and here, online. Sharing what I’m making is an important facet of my practice, too; thank you for being out there.
If you’ve got a moment, drop me a line or leave a comment and tell me about your artistic practices, what you’re doing right now to step into the river, both to enter the flow and to fix experience as it flies.
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