I’ve read some excellent books these past few months, all by women, mainly fiction. Most recently, I finished THREE WOMEN, by Lisa Taddeo, creative-non-fiction, and the kind of book a person wants to discuss afterward with someone else. In the absence of a book club, I bring my thoughts to you. (This is how compelling the book is: I was reading on the couch last weekend, sharing a blanket with my eldest daughter, when she suddenly said, “Wow that book must be good, Mom. You haven’t fallen asleep!”)
(Possibly related note: the book has a lot of graphic descriptions of sex. But in my interpretation, as you’ll see below, the sex stands in for desire more generally.)
THREE WOMEN is a book about women’s desire as examined through the lens of sexual desire(s) that our culture would call taboo. One woman defines herself as a submissive and has sex with other men and women while her husband watches or participates. One woman, in an almost-sexless marriage, has an affair with a former boyfriend after connecting on FB. One woman, as a high school student, was pursued by and sexually involved with a teacher, and when charges are pressed years later, the teacher is absolved and she is destroyed.
But she had already been destroyed. (This is not a spoiler; the book’s propulsive nature relies on exploration of character rather than plot.)
The most interesting section, for me, comes in the epilogue, when the author unpacks, most explicitly, the subject she’s been examining, and reveals that this particular desire she’s been exploring throughout is an exemplar for anything a woman wants—desire, generally.
Her mother, dying, has something she agrees to reveal to her daughter. Something she wants to tell her.
Are you ready? She asked me.
Yes, I said. I got close to her face. I touched her cheek. It was still warm and I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered.
Everyone, she said wearily, as though I had already missed the point. She added, Other women, mostly.
I thought it was the other way around, I said. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
That’s wrong. They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.
But who? I asked again. And what do you mean? You sound crazy.
Later, the author writes: “… we cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy.”
Finally: “There was a beauty in how little my mother wanted. There’s nothing safer than wanting nothing. But being safe in that way, I’ve come to know, does not inure you to illness, pain, and death. Sometimes the only thing it saves is face.”
So let’s talk about desire. Not sexual desire. Desire. Naming our hopes, our aspirations out loud.
Personally, I have trained myself to expect less, and perhaps also to want less, to make do with less, to make less a wonderful shelter, in a way, a goodness and righteousness, a way of life. I do believe, morally, in the ethic of more with less. But I also can see how lowering my expectations, and being afraid to name what I want (out loud or even quietly to myself) could make my whole life so much smaller. But if I name what I want, am I not guaranteeing I’ll never receive it? Jinx! Touch wood. I do this, when I accidentally state out loud something hoped-for.
In truth, I’m morally opposed to the idea of bottomless aspirational desire, of eternally needing and wanting more, which always seems to come at the expense of others. I disagree with inflicting harm on other people to favour one’s own pleasure. That is why the stories of two of the women in this book were more difficult for me to understand—acts of self-pleasure are rarely victimless. Can desire be healthy if acting upon it will damage those to whom we owe our loyalties and responsibilities?
I’ve been thinking about how comparing ourselves to others is a fast-track to misery. It’s a fast-track to bitterness, envy, and a form of self-loathing that we often turn outward on the object of our comparison. I fought these very feelings yesterday morning in a weight class at the gym, working out next to a woman who seemed effortlessly to wield weights heavier than mine, whose endurance was always greater than mine. My attention was divided, and I kept diminishing my own efforts, even while thinking things like: She must have more time to work out than I do, or even, It can’t be healthy to work out as much as she must, to be in such good shape. I also recognized, even as my thoughts ran in this direction, that any discontent I was feeling was so wholly not this stranger’s responsibility, but my own.
I wonder whether comparison whispers to us that we should have been wanting more all along, that our suppression of desire has cheated us somehow? Does it make us question our life choices? Recognize invisible alternate realities all around us that may already be closed to us?
Is our comparative envy perhaps also related to a scarcity of resources? For women, there is an extreme scarcity of resources around desire, success, and achievement. We have a very narrow window of acceptable achievement, and of the way to acceptably achieve. Naming our desires is not so straightforward. We have to be so careful not to name desires that would hurt others (as I said above), especially our children. We struggle, too, to claim our own successes. We work so hard to keep in balance all these pieces of ourselves — and our expectations for ourselves — that we inevitably fail on one important front or another.
We cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy. Is this a gift we could give to each other, especially as women? — admiration for each other’s strengths, in tandem with appreciation for our own.
I’ve been running a lot, and will continue to run a lot for as long as I can stave off injury and chronic pain, no matter the weather. Winter has descended early on Southern Ontario, and I’ll admit that it takes a little more gumption to layer up and run out into a stiff headwind over icy sidewalks. You have to really want to, for some reason beyond the running itself — and for me, that’s my mental health. Running clears my mind. Clears my anxieties. Makes me feel stronger, powerful.
But I do have to run early, it has to be the first thing I do upon waking, or I lose the gumption. I don’t mind running in the dark, oddly enough. My favourite path is reasonably well-lit, and I’ve come to love the quiet of the early morning, its solitude almost dream-like, the darkness a strange comfort, womb-like. There was little wind this morning, and I kept a steady pace, earbuds in, tuned to a podcast called Dolly Parton’s America, which at one point brought me to tears, as the host described the unexpected connections between Dolly Parton’s Tennessee mountain home, and his own father’s Lebanese mountain home. About how different musical instruments and rhythms, patterns and vocalizations find confluence across culture and time, come together, remind us of our common need for expression beyond words or even actions. So that happened on this morning’s run: I was crying.
And then, as I turned onto a busier stretch, I was yelling at the cars buzzing by, their noise and fumes drowning out the podcast.
Emotions: they’re all over the place. Where do they come from, where do they go?
When I got home, I replayed one section again, to drink in what Dolly Parton had said. I’m telling you: You have to listen to this podcast! I’m starting to believe that Dolly Parton is not only a brilliantly talented songwriter and musician, but also a wise, grounded human being, who is carrying a message for our moment that we’re having difficulty hearing. To paraphrase what the podcast’s host said: Dolly Parton is expressing an ethos, a spirituality, in which no one is cast out. No one is condemned from the community. She has her opinions, but she will also allow that you have yours; and she has a massive capacity to see the other, to understand complexity in human behaviour. (I wonder if this points to a difference between being an artist and being an activist; both are necessary and important to instigating and envisioning change, but the roles don’t necessarily overlap, because the strengths of an artist are different from the strengths of an activist. Their ways of framing experience often run counter to each other.)
I spent last week watching documentaries, having bought a pass to our local feminist film festival — founded by a friend nine years ago — which runs every November. I crammed in as many movies as I could: I saw a movie about the family of Colton Boushie, thrust into a public spotlight, speaking with clarity out of their pain; a movie about women incarcerated in New Brunswick, making art together, cast in and out of the system and trying to see their way clear; a movie about an Israeli family in which the father transitions to becoming a woman; a movie about an all-woman sailing team who sailed in a race around the world; a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and a movie about Toni Morrison. (What made it really special was that I saw each movie with a friend or with one of my two older kids.)
At the end of seeing all these movies, I said: How anyone makes it through this world whole is beyond me. And maybe we don’t. Maybe we don’t make it through this world whole. But there are moments of clarity, amidst the confusion. Moments when people are called by some force beyond themselves to take a stand. Moments when they call others in and hold them. Moments of forgiveness. Moments beyond pain and suffering. The victories might be small and temporary. But no matter.
If you pay attention to someone else’s story, you’ll see under the armour and bluster and noise to the complexity of need and of fear and of hope beneath. We all want a safe place to call home. We all want to feel safe, and loved, without condition. How can we be that for each other? It comes naturally to want to be that for my family and friends, but can I try, too, to be that for those with whom I have little connection and less understanding? Can I ask for the same in return?
Today, I went to the climate protest in our town square. None of my kids went, and Kevin was working and couldn’t strike, so it was just me. We live nearby, and I walked, noticing people amassing, some with signs, many with children or pushing strollers. By sheer dumb luck, I ended up standing on a concrete riser closer to the front, where I could see some of the speakers. Drumming. Call and response. “What do we want?” “Climate action!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” And then a stripped-down orchestra appeared, led by a conductor, and they began playing Ode to Joy, quietly at first, a single cello, then more instruments joined, and at last, like magic, the choir burst out singing. I was right in the middle of it; I’d seen them filing in with their sheet music.
Goosebumps. I wished my kids had skipped school to experience this, too.
One speaker asked us to turn to someone else and say why we’d come. I turned to the woman behind me and introduced myself, and she introduced her son. I admired his handmade sign, covered in scribbles (he was 2 years old, at most). But I didn’t say why I’d come, nor did I ask her why she’d come.
At one point, the crowd start chanting something that I interpreted as HOPE. After calling this out for awhile, I realized everyone else was saying VOTE.
Well, it was hope that got me out the door and into the crowd. At least, I think that’s what it was. I wonder whether recognizing and responding to the climate crisis is a matter of viewing everything through a different lens. There are so many things we’re blind to, until we learn to see differently (racism, misogyny, poverty, and the list goes on and on). We don’t know what we don’t know, in so many ways, and so often we don’t understand until we’ve experienced something up close, either personally, or in some other immersive way (side note: stories are powerful like this). My kids, yes the same ones who didn’t go to the protest, are seeing the world differently: my son, who can vote this fall, says he’s most interested in climate policies because the other stuff seems insignificant by comparison (jobs, the economy, taxes).
This one sign said: STOP LIVING IN YOUR FANTASY.
That got me. It is a form of fantasy to imagine we can keep living the way we’re living, especially here in Canada, where we consume far more than our fair share of pretty much everything. I didn’t make a sign, but I was thinking: WAKE UP!
I was also thinking: WHAT ARE YOU WILLING TO SACRIFICE?
But that’s more of a question for myself, a personal question. What happens after a protest? I feel overwhelmed and swamped with partial and seemingly insignificant choices — cooking vegetarian/vegan (which we often do), refilling plastic containers at the bulk store (ditto), walking more, driving less (but soccer fields are so far away!). Maybe I want to know that whatever I’m sacrificing will actually be consequential, rather than merely delusional. Rather than another form of fantasy. I want a road map. I want direction.
Also, I want leaders who do something. But what? What would I be willing to sacrifice?
I’ve been sitting down to write this blog post for a few days, but it keeps changing on me. Circumstances keep changing. Time keeps moving and things keep happening, and I can’t decide what, exactly, I want to say. I even wondered, last night, whether maybe it was time to stop publishing random inner thoughts on a whim, sending them into the universe without taking time to reflect on why I’ve wanted to share what little I know (or think I know). But here I sit again, typing words into a blank rectangular space.
I write in other places too. I write in my notebook, in pen, words few people could decipher even if they tried. I like not knowing what will come of that material; I like knowing it’s likely nothing will come of it, and it will just exist as a muddy river of unfiltered thought.
I also write stories, using Scrivener or Word, and that always feels like I’m doing something different, too, than what I do here, on this blog. There, I have time, I take time, sometimes years, going over and over the lines of neatly spaced words. I polish. I revisit. I consider. I restructure. It’s satisfying, and while I do write these stories knowing they could be published, someday, the outcome is difficult to guess and in some ways doesn’t matter. I have to work them over till I feel done with them, or they’re done with me.
This blog is a different space. Immediate. Gratifying. Immediately gratifying. When I skim through the years’ worth of postings (nearly 11 years, now), it’s like looking through a scrapbook. Quite pleasant, though I don’t do it often. It can feel like I’m looking at a stranger’s life, in some ways. I’ve been and done many things in the past 11 years, I’ve had my enthusiasms, responsibilities, interests, routines. I’ve been knocked off the path by fortune and misfortune. As ever, I don’t know what happens next, exactly, but I trust that more change will come, and I’ll be pulled onward, to new (or seemingly new) revelations, interests, insights, and errors. There will always be something to write about, in one medium or another.
I had an experience on Friday night that disturbed me; I can’t think what to do about it, so I’m writing about it here. On Friday afternoon, I went to Stratford with my sixteen-year-old daughter, who is off to camp this weekend for a month; we saw Billy Eliot, a musical that confronts ideas about masculinity, among other subjects. That same evening, Kevin and I went and saw Booksmart, a movie about best friends graduating from high school, that was also endearingly, hearteningly queer-positive without making a big deal of it. I could think and imagine that the world was becoming (had become) a better place, a safer place. And then, almost as soon as we’d left the movie theatre, Kevin and I found ourselves in between two groups of young people who were shouting at each other. Actually, it was really only one young man who was doing most of the shouting, and what he was shouting was disturbing, bigoted, violent. He was with a group of other young men, and while I don’t think they participated, they also didn’t intervene. They all looked the same to me: white, early twenties, athletic, clean-cut. The angry guy was shouting past us, at a teenager in a red sweater who was standing some distance away with two friends, a young woman and a young man. It ws the boy in the sweater who was the target of the other man’s rage.
I don’t want to repeat the language used. It was derogatory and homophobic. And finally, the kid in the sweater, whose body language said that he was tired of this, weary, not quite resigned, shouted something back. And then the other guy really cut loose. One of the things he shouted at that point was “you little bitch.” I turned around when he said that, because I wanted to shame him, because I wanted him to know that people were paying attention, and the angry guy said, “Ha ha, not you, you’re fine, I was talking to that other bitch, the one in the red sweater.” And then he started shouting again, possibly because I lifted my middle finger to him (not my finest moment), although it’s equally possible he didn’t even notice the gesture, and was still shouting at the kid. Kevin and I kept walking, and the group of young men kept walking too, in the opposite direction, and I thought it would be okay now, probably, the shouting was over. We passed the boy in the red sweater with his friends, and I wanted to stop and say something, but I couldn’t think what. They seemed to be trying to put the scene behind them and decide where to go to get a drink.
I said to Kevin, “This is the world our kids will have to live in.”
And he said, “They’re already living in it.I’ve spent the weekend reading John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which follows the life of an Irish man from birth till death; it’s also the history of gay rights in Ireland, from the time of the protagonist’s birth when men could be arrested for being in a homosexual relationship (or beaten up, murdered, blackmailed or banished), to the referendum that legalized gay marriage in 2015. The trajectory is optimistic (which isn’t giving too much away — you should read it), but having witnessed what could only be called a disturbing scene of homophobic rage on the sidewalk on Friday night, when I got to the novel’s happy ending this morning, I felt my heart sink rather than rise.
Things are better. And things are still frighteningly not better.
And I don’t know what to do about it. Life asks us to be the best we can be under the circumstances. To use what talents we’ve got. To be true to ourselves. I believe that, just as I believe that every human being deserves dignity. That dignity is always worth fighting for. But the obstacles are enormous, and when you get right down to it, the horror of it is that the obstacles are almost all human-made. I can’t possibly list all the indignities humans are forced to endure, all the ways humans prevent other humans from being free, but it’s everywhere I turn, especially when I turn on the news.
Tap, tap, tap. I’ve typed for too long, and come up with too little. But I guess I haven’t yet given up on pressing publish, even when I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say.
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?
This is a confusing time to be a writer, but maybe it’s just a confusing time to be a human being.
Everything is political. But I don’t think of myself as a political writer. Ideology is deadly to good writing, in my opinion and experience. As a writer, I value the ability to see many sides and perspectives. But now? Now? Is what I value as a writer valuable now?
My life is very pleasant. I live in Canada, which remains a safe country, especially for people like me, born with white skin of European background. I’ve received a solid education. I’m a home owner. My family and I have access to good health care. The public schools in our neighbourhood are awesome. My kids walk to and from their schools every day in relative safety (distracted/aggressive drivers being the main threat I fear). I have work that satisfies my spirit (often), leisure time to play in the back yard with my kids and ride my bike around the city, and time to volunteer many hours a week in order to satisfy my spirit even more. We drink clean water that comes from our taps. I have a washing machine in the basement. We eat really good food, most of it prepared at home. I share household chores with my husband, who has a flexible job that allows him to spend lots of time with our children, too. He supports my work, much of which doesn’t earn much money, recognizing it as a vocation.
I am living in privilege, a fortunate life. But at what cost? What does my security cost, what does my prosperity cost?
I live my life inside a bubble. I want everyone on earth to get to live inside a bubble of safety and security and prosperity and freedom. But that is not what is happening, nor does it seem to be the direction in which the world, and the balance of power, is turning. The leader of the United States, aka “the leader of the free world,” has little interest in freedom, aside from his own to increase his personal wealth and power by any means available. Trump is a president for oligarchs and oligarchs aren’t interested in democracy, because democratic states and institutions can’t pay bribes (or not very easily).
Few images occupy my mind, right now, more than children being separated from parents along America’s southern border. Does any other country on earth hold this policy toward asylum seekers? In Bangladesh, are Rohingya mothers separated from their children? In Lebanon, are Syrian refugees separated from their children? In Italy? In Germany? In Canada?
Take a moment to consider the chaos and terror these specific asylum seekers are fleeing. You may know that I have a personal connection to Nicaragua, which, though a dangerous country during the post-revolutionary 1980s, has for many years been considered safe, despite its extreme poverty. Neighbouring countries, including Honduras and El Salvador are wracked by gang violence and lawlessness, but Nicaragua seemed largely immune to these issues. No more. In the past two months, Nicaragua has slipped toward violence and repression, too; perhaps it’s been a long-time coming given that Daniel Ortega, the president during the 1980s, returned to power in the 2000s and changed the constitution to ensure he’d never have to leave. During his time in office, he’s amassed a personal fortune, never a good sign. Corruption inevitably leads to instability. And those who cling to their power illegitimately understand instinctively that their survival depends on repression, at all costs. So when protests began in April, the government cracked down. Hard. (This is the situation as I understand it, gleaned from the articles and reports I’ve read, although there could be other actors involved and the issues far more tangled and complex.) For those whose daily lives are caught up in the nightmare of random violence, it doesn’t really matter who’s to blame. Nicaragua, right now, is a scary place to be — random shootings by police and paramilitary groups, protestors arrested without due process, extra-judicial killings, a journalist shot while live-streaming a report, neighbourhood blockades, arson, fear all around.
How easily the world tips into chaos.
And people flee chaos, when they can. They leave their lives behind, maybe in hope, definitely out of desperation. These are asylum seekers, refugees.
How easily social norms are broken, replaced by new norms. We can get used to anything, we humans. There are people right now, hired to process and separate children from parents on the southern border of the United States. These people are doing a job. Somehow, they’ve told themselves that what they’re doing is normal and acceptable, perhaps even desirable, perhaps even the right thing to do.
Human beings throughout history have done this — normalized evil acts, told themselves they were doing the right thing, dehumanized the people they traumatized, abused, even killed. In Canada, somehow many people found it acceptable to separate First Nations children from their parents, to house them far away from home in residential schools, to punish them for speaking their language, to make this traumatic cruelty the law. And doesn’t it continue, in some form or another, even now?
All of this. Too much.
What world do I live in? I’m in a bubble.
But as witness to what’s happening outside of my bubble, my hands are not clean. The tools for our manipulation grow ever more powerful and many find it difficult to know what to believe or who to trust. The further our trust erodes, in our communities and leaders, the easier we are to manipulate. How to stay wise and informed in this era? How to express outrage, how to dig in my heels and refuse to accept what’s happening? How to be a useful bystander? Or not a bystander at all? How to be brave? How to make the world safer, kinder, more open?
Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?
What about the arc of my own tiny slice of history — does it bend toward justice? Forward and back, forward and back, we progress, we slip, we progress, we slip. Our life spans are brief and our memories flawed. We are distractible, confused, contradictory. We react. We comfort ourselves with lies and half-truths. We embrace denial. We focus on what’s before us. We cling to what we’ve got. The road to hell is paved with good intentions — that’s true too. Even when we’re trying to help, we get so much wrong.
Small, kind, hopeful acts. All I’ve got. The vital potential of art. All I’ve got. My own two hands. All I’ve got. My imagination. All I’ve got. The ability to listen. All I’ve got. To change. All I’ve got. To remember. To care. To witness. To record. All I’ve got.
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