Today is my birthday. It’s family tradition that we get to do what we like on our birthdays (within reason). Among my wishes was that I wanted to go to church: my dad’s band was playing at the service. I love the band’s mellow folksy sound — Dad plays the piano, and there’s a banjo, guitar, fiddle, and voices in harmony. The whole family came along, which was also my wish.
It was the last service of the year, and instead of listening to a sermon, the congregation was asked to reflect silently on two questions: what experiences in your life this past year have been life-giving; what experiences in your life this past year have been life-draining? I found myself turning away in my mind from labelling any experience as negative, or draining. Why? Because there is a part of me that remains forever hopeful, optimistic that any conflict or trial could be transformed by attention and care, or could be transformative in ways that can’t be guessed in the painful, hard moment of its happening.
But in truth, some experiences are draining. And I do try to pay attention to those, too.
Life-giving experiences this year: as I let my mind wander through memory, I saw images of connection. Sitting at the end of the dining-room table, poring over the novel I’m working on, feeling like an antennae connected to the universe, pinging with focus and energy. Eyes closed, doing yoga, sitting cross-legged on soft sheepskin surrounded by music. In my body, running in the early dark morning. With my family, around the table. With my soccer team, outdoors on summer evenings. With my writing group sitting at the table. With my word-of-the-year group. Listening to stories being shaped and coming alive. We are all raw material, and yet we are also all capable of transforming into exactly what others need, at any moment in time.
Life-draining experiences: I did not dwell on these heavily. But I acknowledge these were also a part of my year. I would call them: broken connections. Relationships in flux or turmoil. The distractions of the constant stream of information and news, the scroll of social media, disconnecting me from my body and mind, and from those who are present with me. Times when I lacked focus. Days when I was unable to write for lack of focus, or care. Frazzled energy. Fears too dark to name. Times when I felt overwhelming anxiety, paralysis, over everything I can’t control (which is, let’s be honest, most everything).
Connection / broken connections.
To be grounded is to be rooted, is to feel oneself sturdy, energy flowing directly to and from an idea, a cause, a project, a desire. To be grounded is to feel connected to place, connected to self, to body, to spirit, to feel whole. It may not be possible to feel this way always. But even to feel like this sometimes is wonderful. It’s good to remember that it’s possible to feel this way, at times and on days and in hours when I don’t.
Connection / broken connections.
There will always be broken connections. Broken connections remind us that we are needed, that our creativity is needed, that our love is needed, our attention is needed, that our hope is needed, crucial, essential. We can’t fix a lot of things that are broken. That’s a hard human truth to learn. Maybe we aren’t meant to do that, we humans — go around fixing things all the time. This isn’t to discount the importance of policy-making in shaping our lives; what I’m talking about seems more personal. What I’m talking about is loving awareness. Maybe loving awareness is about acknowledging hurt, pain, brokenness, and making connections despite our fears, despite the risks. Maybe it’s letting go of the expectation that we can fix anything at all, and just listening, trying to hear and feel underneath to what this broken connection is telling us. (Put down your phone? Go for a walk? Write in your journal? Sit with yourself? Hold someone’s hand? Ask someone to hold your hand?)
Letting go of the idea that you can control what happens doesn’t mean you give up hope.
Hope is not the same as expectation. Hope seems much richer, much deeper, much more flexible and open to the air. Emily Dickinson says it much better than I can.
Hope is the thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.
Title: poem excerpt by Rilke, drawings by Carrie
Captions: No one lives her life. We come of age as masks. / Our true face never speaks. / Somewhere there must be storehouses where all these lives are laid away. / Maybe all paths lead there, to the repository of unlived things.
Observation: It is easy (and a total delight) to cartoon every day when I’m on holiday. The challenge will be to create cartoons on days when I’m spread super-thin and scarcely keeping up. It will also be a challenge to accept the cartoons that suck — or, more accurately, to move past the idea that my drawing sucks while I’m drawing. This will be good practice in flipping the switch, like Lynda Barry tells us and like I tell my students: turn off that little voice that’s asking DOES THIS SUCK or IS THIS GOOD? Because you don’t know and you can’t know! Instead, tell yourself I DON’T KNOW BUT I’M DOING IT! Sometimes, when I make a glaring error in a drawing, I feel a sense of relief: it’s no longer perfect, and now I can relax and just make the thing without worrying about ruining it.
The mistake I made here was in the first panel, when I drew myself with dots for eyes, which is not my usual style.
Title: Worst sore loser
Captions: This morning we played soccer, and I was the worst sore loser. / The kids and Kevin are playing a board game. / Everyone agrees it’s better that I don’t play. / Self-awareness only goes so far in terms of self-improvement.
On this last day of this old year, I’m trying to figure out how to present my cartoon project. Process fascinates me. I love a long-term project and having completed quite a few know that the process must be simple and easy to manage. The parameters need to be strict enough to make completion challenging yet attainable. Any long-term project will test commitment, and therefore requires enough flexibility to prevent one bad day from destroying the whole task. My goal is to cartoon every day. Will I accept stick figures on a bad day? A single panel cartoon? What if I forget one day? Any long-term project also needs accountability. So I’d like to publish my cartoons throughout the year, likely here on my blog. I don’t publish every day, so I will likely weave the cartoons into weekly posts. We shall see. This is an ongoing experiment, and I am at the very beginning of it.
One of my favourite blog readers is visually impaired (Hi Kerry!), so I’m going to title and caption the cartoons in hopes that this will allow her to “see” them too.
Title: How to be a good person
Caption: Annie is doing a project today where she tries to be a good person. / She is trying mainly, as far as I can see, to pay attention to other people’s needs. / Giving of your time and attention are similar tasks. / Both are hard to do, and we spend lots of both without great thought.
What am I hoping to accomplish through this project? As with any long-term project, the excitement is in the surprise. I DON’T KNOW BUT I’M DOING IT! When I did my 365 self-portrait project, I learned how to be a subject and how to embrace the frame. I also learned the value of editing a day down to a single image. When I did my triathlon project, I discovered previously unrecognized reserves of determination, confidence, and inner strength. When I designed the creativity course last winter, I discovered the surprising joy of putting lines on a page. I learned brevity and gesture. When I write a novel, I discover whole new places and people. Ideas that are otherwise ephemeral become embodied. When I meditate for a year on a single word, the word becomes part of my being.
With this project, I’d like to become a better artist and cartoonist. I’d like to find my voice and style. I’d also like to practice a new way of holding and cherishing the daily, mundane, fleeting bits and pieces of life. I want to pay attention. I want to distill my ideas into an accessible format. But who knows? Who knows what will be accomplished? The project is the process, as it always it.
Title: I know this isn’t a job
Captions: I know this isn’t a job / But I feel so lucky that I get to make up tasks for myself, like this one / And somehow, sometimes, it turns into something real / something I can give to someone else.
PS Soundtrack for this post: Way With Words by Bahamas
Here we are, day one of a new year. I’ve walked the dogs through gently falling snow flakes. The children slept till 10AM. We have this one last day of our unusually relaxing holiday to do as we please, each of us, before the new year’s schedule clocks in tomorrow morning.
Of course I am thinking about what I’d like to do this year, in addition to what I’m already doing; what would I like to try, what experiment shall I undertake, what challenge, what adventure, what’s calling? And I have a small idea, a possibility I’ve been mulling for awhile that seemed affirmed yesterday by the conflating coincidences of driving across town on an unexpected errand while listening to an interview on the radio with Elizabeth Gilbert, who was talking about the creative impulse. The creative impulse is not benign, she said (and I paraphrase). If it isn’t put to use, if it isn’t acknowledged and fed, if it isn’t set free, it will find its own damaging purpose.
I began thinking about rage, just under the surface.
I was driving along a street I don’t very often take anymore, and it triggered a memory: that I’d stopped for gas, at a gas station that no longer exists, in fact, with two toddlers strapped into car seats in the back of our old red truck. I was enormously pregnant with my third child, and it was hot, a summer’s day, and we’d just gotten a load of groceries. I filled up the truck with gas, and as I was walking around the hood of the truck to climb back in to the driver’s seat, a man approached me. He looked, if not homeless, then close to homeless, and with a rough voice he asked if he could bum a cigarette.
My response shocked even me.
Rage. It was rage that poured out, with no warning, no pre-emptive interlude. “Do I look like I would have a cigarette?” I snapped at him, almost shaking with my fury, indicating my pregnant belly.
“No,” he replied sheepishly.
I got into the truck and slammed the driver’s side door, vibrating with rage.
I didn’t know what had come over me. I didn’t know why I was so very angry. I couldn’t think of a good reason to be feeling what I was feeling in that moment.
But now, I think maybe I understand. Like raging people all over this earth, my wider, deeper emotions were not accessible to me at that time in my life. I was repressing a great deal: disappointment about my career, the sense of boredom and aimlessness as I struggled to be a stay-at-home mom, exhaustion from the drudgery of the day-to-day. There were many things I was not telling myself, or allowing myself to feel, because I couldn’t have borne it. So when tapped or triggered, there was only one emotion on offer: rage. Rage is a defensive emotion. It lashes out so as to prevent us from feeling anything else.
I’ll never know exactly why the man’s question set me off, but I think I was afraid of him, and did not want him near me. I felt vulnerable. I also felt morally righteous. Whatever it was, I was feeling something for which rage was a cover. I was ambushed by my own inexplicable fury.
I think unless we allow ourselves to experience a full range of emotions, including those emotions that indict us for our own failings — jealousy, envy, disappointment, humiliation, fear, uncertainty, grief — we will be at the mercy of that one emotion that is always on tap, always available, a defence against what the world may think of us, and what we may think of ourselves deep inside. Rage rage against the dying of the light. Yes. But rage rage against the accusations that we know to be true, and the terror of being fragile, and the admission of loneliness and failure, and the misery of not knowing everything best.
Rage rage against being human and fallible.
Rage rage against culpability.
Rage rage against knowing thyself, because to know thyself truly is to know some awfully dark truths, is to acknowledge enormous imperfections, and ugly vanities, and moral failings.
Yet I maintain that it is better to know thyself than to remain lodged in clotted rage, railing against the world, and spewing harm and hurt. The hurt your rage will cause to your own self is far greater than any hurt you could bring upon yourself by knowing yourself truly. It is only when we see ourselves as vulnerable and weak and wrong (rather than wronged) that we can see others with compassion, and love too.
And the rage will diminish.
It really will. It will not shock you with its sudden emergence, or hurt those you love most dearly. You will feel its potential, yes, but you will know what it means, and hear what it’s saying: you will feel behind the rage to the emotion that rage is trying to protect you from feeling, and you will be able to name it, and to access it, and to experience it. It is only through experiencing the deeper emotion that you can understand yourself, and get through that emotion.
I am alert now to my own rage. I know it’s trying to tell me something more profound. Why am I so angry? Is this moment deserving of my anger? So rarely it is. Almost never, in truth. And pouring out my rage, pouring it onto to someone else, is unacceptable, always. I believe that. So if it happens, when it happens, I try to name that too. To apologize immediately. Never to let myself off the hook. To reflect. There is always more work to do. Because it is easy to mistake rage for purpose, for fuel. At least it’s better to feel something than nothing, maybe? But the opposite of rage is not emptiness, it’s not nothing, it’s not depression, it’s not powerlessness, it’s not silence. The opposite of rage is connection.
Here is my idea. This coming year, I would like to host writing adventures in my home. It will be an experiment, I confess. The point will be to use the physical act of writing — writing by hand onto the page — to bring us into a meditative state of focus, in which we can access memories, draw them forth. We’ll leap from the intensive imaginative images we’re experiencing in our minds into the adventure of fiction. The exercises will be guided, the space will be safe, and none of us will be able to guess in advance where we might travel to on any given evening. Being or becoming a writer is not the point. The process is the point. Play is the point. Adventure is the point. Discovering and mapping our own inner imaginative space is the point. Anyone can participate. Everyone has a creative impulse. This is just one of a myriad of ways to express it, but it’s the method I can offer, if you’re looking for an opening, if you’re looking for a way in. Or out. Or deep down.
Please send me a message if you’re interested and I’ll keep you in the loop as the idea becomes a plan.
Happy New Year!
PS The title of this post is the first line of a poem by Rumi called “The diver’s clothes lying empty.” Look it up if you don’t already know it. Read it out loud. It will tell you everything I’ve written here, and much more.