- What felt good this month? I’m writing this on the last day of this month, which is the last day of this year, and a long winter waits ahead. This month, the advent calendar activities kept me going, surprising and fun; it made every day a little bit special and that was the kids’ doing: their creative suggestions powered the joy of the advent calendar (mine were terrible! dull, pedestrian, I would never have thought up surprise ice-cream outings or wearing someone else’s clothes for a day!). We also ate some very good food; and I wasn’t the only one to cook it! Angus cooks for us once a week, and he made my birthday dinner (three-cheese lasagna with roasted veggies). My siblings and parents also made and shared food with each other to celebrate Christmas. I loved sharing stories with writing friends this month too.
- What did you struggle with? Mostly I’d accepted in advance how different this holiday would be, and that helped. But I felt unexpectedly blue on Christmas Eve, missing our family’s rituals. I missed silly things, like straining for the high notes while singing Christmas carols with my siblings, or watching my mom open gifts, which wasn’t quite the same on Zoom. I missed serving a big turkey dinner to a very full table (I mean, our table was still pretty full, since I live with five other people, but you know what I mean).
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? The same. I think? I’m feeling a bit apprehensive about the next couple of months, hoping we can keep our boat afloat here, and stay hopeful and optimistic and healthy, mentally and physically, and not go stir crazy. I usually enjoy January — the quiet after the holiday storm — but there’s been a lot of quiet already. In any case, I’m giving myself a break, a holiday, right now. I know our routines and healthy habits will return to us soon enough. For today, I’ll enjoy some sloth and debauchery (on a small scale).
- How did you take care of yourself? Daily drawing and colouring. Getting outside every day. Spin and yoga. Not too much caffeine. Afternoon cup of tea. Reaching out to friends. Finding things to look forward to, including planning to sponsor another refugee family with a neighbourhood group, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. Adding new songs to my playlists, listening to artists that are new to me (Freddie Gibbs; SAULT; Open Mike Eagle; Jay Electronica; Rina Sawayama; Bleachers…). Reading fiction. Doing crosswords and word games.
- What would you most like to remember? That I can have fun, be fun. That even when I’m feeling down or discouraged about being a writer, some part of me is still excited about the stories I’m discovering, and the characters I’m getting to know.
- What do you need to let go of? Getting things right. I like the cartoon project because there’s always something wrong with it, the caption is worded awkwardly, or I’ve drawn the perspective all wonky — and that reminds me that my purpose in life isn’t to be perfect, but to dive in and get messy and do what I’m here to do, whatever that may be: whether or not I signed up for it, whether it makes sense or not, and even if I couldn’t possibly explain its value, or argue for its importance. It isn’t up to me to know what will matter or be meaningful. It’s up to me to be kind, sensible, attentive, alive to the world around me, and to witness and respond. Also, to love the flaws.
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.
It is the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, and my hair smells like bonfire smoke. I sat outside on the frozen ground from 4:30 – 7:30AM and watched the sky turn from dark to dim to pale grey dawn. Through my head came visions of friends, and the gratitude and love I’ve felt pouring into me and out of me all through these many months of pandemic otherworldliness, a circle of holding and care that has kept me not just afloat but enriched and comforted and stronger.
There are many ways to stay in touch, even from a distance. This year, I’ve quit Twitter and don’t seem to blog quite so often (perhaps you are surprised when a post drops into your email inbox). I rarely post to Facebook, more often check in on Instagram. Then, there are texts and emails. Occasionally a phone call (usually that’s my mom or dad). Even letters, cards, postcards (such a treat to receive!) And, of course, Zoom calls: sibs night, kundalini yoga, church.
There are walks with a friend, or a kid, or a dog, or the whole family.
Dec. 16, Family walk with dog, spontaneous snow angels
We meet outside, to meet in person. We learn the weather, we greet the seasons, the changing light, we pay attention.
Dec. 20, Family drinks in the back yard shack
All month, I’ve been drawing a daily portrait and writing a short caption, to capture a scene or moment from each day. I’ve noticed that my portraits most often depict me with others, not alone. Or, if I am alone, I’m thinking of someone else when I write the caption. This year of being apart has actually been a year of coming closer together, in some ways. In others ways, no — I no longer coach a team of lively teenaged girls, and I miss those casual and funny interactions. But I’ve grown closer with my own kids. There are friendships that have deepened.
Dec. 12, kundalini class on Zoom, in my studio
I’m closer to the ground. And my spirit is closer to the sky.
Enjoy the darkness, friends. Light a candle, and send out an I love you to someone you’ve been meaning to say that to. The days are short, but won’t always be so.
Drawing a flower with CJ.
- What felt good this month? At the beginning of the month, it felt wonderful to be on holiday (we spent two weeks away at an isolated cottage). As always, I hoped to bring that holiday-feeling home; but inevitably it has slipped. I can’t drink a caesar while cooking supper every day! It isn’t even possible to keep up the habit of twice-daily yoga. But it is possible to get up early every week day morning for a walk or run, followed by yoga. It’s also been blissful to take charge of my studio space, to clean and organize and purge and paint, and to set new goals. And we have kept the holiday-feeling going in small ways: Kevin bought a fake fire pit (propane-powered) and we’ve been sitting outside some nights, watching the flames, listening to tunes.
- What did you struggle with? After rejigging my studio, I panicked—as if I didn’t deserve the space, full of fear and doubt about my work and worth as a writer. But then I journaled, meditated, and went for a dog walk with Kevin, and I came out the other side. It helped to reframe my work through the window of books. Books are my life’s work. If I feel unmoored, I can ground myself by reading, writing, or connecting with others who read and write. I am so thankful for this blog as a place to come to, to share ideas, and experiment, too. I am so thankful for each one of you who reads. Thank you.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Unexpectedly calm. When my mind spirals away, caught in fear or doubt or shame, I notice, and find a safe branch on which to land. I breathe. I think: Is this true? What’s really happening right now? Are you okay? Is there anything you need to do? I’ve noticed, too, that projects are so very satisfying to work on and complete: my mind is soothed, no matter the task. Cleaning out the bathroom cupboards. Cooking a meal from scratch. Painting a door. Writing a grant application. Revising a story to send to my writing group. In this way, small accomplishments accrue, and the days flow peacefully, but don’t feel dull. And in the evenings, I reward myself with some stretching, watching a show, reading, eating popcorn, letting my mind and body relax. (Note: this is so much easier to achieve now that I’m not coaching! I do not take my easy evenings for granted!)
- How did you take care of yourself? All of the above. Plus, remembering to reach out to friends. Working on my posture, and core strength. Sticking with established healthy routines. Putting away the pairs of jeans that don’t fit anymore. Thanking my body for carrying me through this life. I ask a lot of my body! I am in total awe that my chronic running injury has healed through physio, and that I’m able to run fast again, without pain, at least for now. Every morning run through the park is a full-body expression of thanks.
- What would you most like to remember? It’s okay if I don’t remember very much from this time. Sometimes the best days aren’t super memorable—I don’t remember much when inside the flow, but if I’m fortunate, from the flow will emerge some work of substance, or a strengthened relationship, or deepening insight and capacity for approaching conflict, suffering and pain. I will remember where I was when Ruth Bader Ginsberg died; and my own sadness and immediate despair. But I’ll remember just as much that her passing sparked a renewed connection with one of my beloved American cousins. I’ll remember, too, what she worked toward: equality for all, a far-seeing, long road of commitment that developed from her own experiences, that was encouraged to develop through the support of her husband and family, and that extended till her death. Like John Lewis, she is a true role model of character and vision, beyond the self.
- What do you need to let go of? I deactivated my Twitter account a week ago, after watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix. I also turned off most of the app notifications on my phone. It’s been good, and I hope it lasts. What I’ve noticed: I’m freed to work with more focus throughout the day. But I’m also not filling my mind with fury and outrage, the primary emotions sparked by “doom-scrolling.” True, there’s less to distract me from my own restlessness and boredom, but here’s the strangest part: I’ve felt less restless, less bored, since signing off. There are more productive and meaningful ways to connect with others in this world. I commit to choosing those instead.
I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
Welcome to my studio.
I have a toothache. It’s affecting my outlook, I confess. This is the week of doing things that need to get done, so I’m going to see a dentist. To tell the truth, I kind of want the tooth just pulled. Last fall, I paid for an expensive root canal and less than a year later, the ache is back; was it worth the drilling and pain and cost?
It occurs to me, as I write this out, that pulling the tooth — the desire to pull the tooth, and be done with it — is a metaphor that perhaps I should explore in more depth.
Let’s assume I want to pull the tooth. Am I, therefore, the sort of person who rips painful problems from her life, leaving gaping holes, rather than spend the time and energy to fix them? Or am I the sort of person who recognizes that the fix is a scam, that when all the work is done, the tooth will just be hollowed out and crammed with filler, a shell of its former self, shored up for cosmetic purposes? It’s interesting, isn’t it, how a metaphor can be twisted any which way, to support opposing views.
Maybe it’s just a toothache. But I want it fixed!
All the fixes are imperfect, okay, I accept that. My question is: Which imperfect fix is worth it, given the costs? How can I ever know, when I’m trying to sort these things out? What’s the healthiest allocation of resources, what’s important to prioritize, what will I miss when it’s gone? No wonder it’s so hard, when making a choice, to say no — it feels like giving up, but also, it feels like an absence, a void, is scarier to accept than something known, even if the known thing is causing pain and can’t be perfectly put right again.
I know, I know. I’m over-thinking.
One of the problems of the pandemic is seeing fewer people, less often. It’s a recipe for unchecked eccentricities!
A friend said to me that she asks herself (and others): What do you want to do, and what can you do?
Another friend recommended long ago not to choose resentment over discomfort. Or at least to notice if it’s become a habit: truth is, if it’s what you’re accustomed to, resentment feels easier to accept than discomfort. Many of us (women, especially) are socialized to believe that feeling discomfort is bad and wrong, and that, when we feel it, we are bad and wrong, or we’ve done something bad and wrong. Resentment, by contrast, is an outer-facing feeling — blame someone else, blame the situation, blame anything but your own choice. Oh, resentment, you’re so easy to step into and you go on and on and on.
I think these are similar philosophies that acknowledge the difficulty, the fraught-ness, of decision-making. And I’m making decisions, choices, whether by doing or not-doing, all day long; some more consequential than others, but all fed by my private interior calculations that take into account (unconsciously, more often than not) my values, my relationship to others, my whims, my interpretation of available resources.
My daughter, Annabella, says that human beings have limited will-power, and that’s why routines are so important: a habit is a choice already made, and our energy can be spent making other choices, instead.
What do I want to do, and what can I do?
I want my tooth to stop aching. I also want the least expensive, least complicated option. But I don’t know: will I feel ugly or self-conscious if there’s a gap in my teeth?
I wonder how often I make choices based on how I imagine I’ll be perceived.
This post was never about the toothache. Not exactly. I like how these posts drift into the unexpected, into the weeds. I don’t know what’s waiting to be found till I come here and look around. More and more, I appreciate that this space exists, whatever its nebulous purpose. It feels like there’s room here for nuance and exploration and questioning, and eccentricity. I wander out into this space to make a few observations, see if anyone’s around. This is my overgrown empty lot in the middle of the city. This is my front lawn.
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