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.
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?
Running with a friend. A dear friend. Every Monday morning, 6AM, for the past decade, maybe longer. Time adds up. Conversations accrue. We change. We don’t change. We agree. We don’t agree. We listen. We understand. We’re gentle with each other, even when we don’t understand. It’s early. It’s dark. It’s light. It’s dark again. We see the stars. The sunrise. We talk. We’re quiet. We feel heroic. We’re tired. We’re energized. We ask questions. We tell stories. Share ideas. Consider options. Imagine what comes next, or many years from now. We remember. We celebrate.
Earlier this fall, I told her that I’d had a revelation, that I’d woken up in the middle of the night, and I’d thought — It’s okay to enjoy life.
And because she knows me so well, she understood the significance.
I said, I know it sounds sort of minor and obvious, but it really feels like a revelation — that it’s okay not to strive so hard all the time. That life should be enjoyed, as often as possible. That I don’t have to feel guilty about not feeling stressed out.
I said, The thing is that I realize that I’m really enjoying my life right now.
(Side note: I’m almost too superstitious to let that last sentence stand, but I’m going to put it out there into the universe, in recognition of the ebbs and flows, the waves that carry us closer to shore and back out again; I accept that not every day will I really enjoy my life; but also that I want to celebrate each day and hour that fills me up and makes those other times survivable.)
This morning, Monday morning, we ran again, for the five-hundredth time or so. Out to where the sky opens up and we can see the stars (except not this morning; it was overcast, snow on its way). As it happened, I felt more interior and listened more. But in her presence, I was reminded again that it’s possible and good and okay to enjoy my life: I gave myself renewed permission. I thought: What a gift it is to feel pleasure. To look forward to a blissful morning such as this very morning, beginning in the company of friendship, and moving through the usual morning routine surrounded by family — a shower, poached eggs on toast and a homemade mocha, reading the newspaper, the sound of a child playing the piano, the house gradually emptying out — and then, a quiet dog walk in the snow, returning home to quiet, where I’ll read, I’ll nap, I’ll write. And I did and it was.
Snow falling, falling, falling out the windows. A soft light. Living in my mind, feeling alive through characters, visiting other times and places, and yet anchored here in warmth. The best day I can imagine.
And so I say to you, too: Go ahead. Enjoy your life. You have permission! It’s okay! No matter how quiet, no matter how undramatic, no matter how small the victories. Enjoy. Whenever possible, love what you’ve got — life. Taste it. Feel it. See it. Embrace it. Let it be what it is, something that doesn’t quite belong to you, but is of you. It lives in you, through you, you are your own expression of this difficult wonderful gift.
This year is almost over, and here we are, wandering into the arms of a chilly month, narrowing light, naked branches, the hunt for snow boots that fit and mittens that match, while California burns, and the glaciers melt, and Jane Fonda gets arrested week after week pulling the fire alarm on the climate emergency. Yet I continue to drive an SUV. My son graduates from high school and observes from the back seat, on the way home, holding his cap, that he’s missed a lot of opportunities, that others took more chances, joined more clubs, showed up, shared their interests, while he … played video games, I guess, he said. (In fairness to him, he’s worked at least one part-time job since age 15.) But it’s not too late to show up, I said. What interests you? What pulls you?
How do we make meaning in our lives? How do we induce momentum? How do we change trajectory?
Am I flywheel set into a track and spinning of its own weight, or am I bird, catching the air currents, or am I free, fundamentally? What I see is that we obey laws that are beyond us, even while we attempt invention, innovation, revolution. The bird can dive through air currents, perhaps, to find others, but she’s still going where the wind blows her. She’s pulled by instincts that are collective rather than individual, needs that are seasonal. We set limitations as cultures, as civic systems, as families, as collectives; but we also long to see ourselves as living outside of those boundaries, as having free will, as being in control of our destinies.
I struggled to go to the Wild Writers Festival last weekend as Carrie Snyder, writer, because I’m not publishing and haven’t published [a novel] for so very long. It’s become ancient history. I’ve passed into the past. But I’m still present. Maybe we are all longing to be relevant.
I want to wear my own face, not a mask. I want my public voice to be my private voice. I want to step forth as vulnerable as I am grounded, as transparent as I am polished. Is it possible to be vulnerable and clear? Is it possible to perform transparently?
There’s a tug-of-war between exhausting precious personal resources in an effort to be relevant and wanted and needed (taking on responsibilities, saying yes when asked to participate), and guarding space so that quieter creative work can flourish (saying no, assessing offers through a different lens, basing decisions on a formulation that acknowledges the siren song of doubt and ego and the desire to be important, that taps into grounding foundational personal principles — a personal mission statement).
Maybe I need to rewrite my mission statement for this new stage in my life.
What needs to take priority? What boxes do I want to check? What do I want to do with this one wild and precious life? Like my son, how do I get involved, sign up, figure out what matters to me, what interests me, and devote my time to doing things that are challenging, not always what I “feel” like doing, and hopefully help feed and create community for others, too? How do I do all of this and yet stay true to what’s burning bright inside … the desire to hibernate, to close the door, to write and nothing more.
I’m not quite sure how to write about this. I’m not quite sure I should write about it, even though I’ve actually already written about it, in fact, in pen on damp paper clipped onto a clipboard, provided for me by a police officer. This morning, I gave a witness statement in response to an incident in my neighbourhood in which I became involved by happenstance, but also, I think, by choice.
The happenstance was simply that an incident was occurring at an intersection toward which I happened to be walking, this morning. The choice was to stop, to take time to observe and try to assess what was happening and how I could best engage to prevent escalation and harm. I couldn’t interpret what I was seeing, immediately, but I heard angry shouts; I saw three people, somewhat disconnected from each other, who seemed involved in a charged emotional situation; and I saw at least a dozen kids walking in groups to school. I wanted the kids to be able to pass by the situation without being affected, without being scared or harmed in some way. That was my primary motivation for staying on the scene.
It took a little while for the situation to resolve into any kind of clarity — for me to understand what had happened and what was at stake. I won’t go into detail. An incident had occurred, which had been triggering, and as one of the people involved came toward me, there was a loud verbal confrontation that I feared could become physically violent. That was when I stepped toward the person who was being accused of something, though I didn’t know exactly what at that time, and I said that I would walk along with him. I can’t say it was a decision that was well-received by everyone involved, but I did it anyway and I stuck it out.
My gut said that just being present, just walking with this person, would change the charged emotional noise all around us, and it did, at least enough, I think. Two children were walking toward us on the sidewalk. I told the person I was walking with that I wanted these kids to be safe. He said he understood. I asked him whether he understood that the police had been called, and he said yes. I asked him whether he intended to try to run away, and he said no. I tried to make sure we weren’t walking too quickly. I kept telling the man that I was going to stay with him. I made eye contact. I asked him ordinary questions. Where he lived, what work he did.
When the police arrived, three of us stayed on the scene to give witness statements. I did not need to give a victim statement, because I was not a victim. But there was a victim, at least one, possibly more. The man was moved into the back of the police vehicle. We stood in the drizzle and the cold for nearly an hour, while a police officer took our statements. I’d never been through the process before. Rose was frigid and shaking, barking and pulling on her leash, making it difficult to write down what I’d seen.
Ultimately, I found myself home again, then driving to Herrles to pick up pumpkins, as I’d promised my youngest I would do this morning. I found myself crying in the car. I was crying for the victim. I was crying for the bystander who was triggered and traumatized by what he’d heard. I was crying for the man who’d decided to do something that could potentially hurt so many others when he came into our neighbourhood this morning, instead of going to work. When I asked him if he had someone to call after this was over, a friend, family, was there anyone he could think of, he said no, he didn’t think so. He was crouched down at that point, and I can see his hand outstretched on the sidewalk, one finger drawing imaginary lines on the wet concrete.
I’ve been teetering atop my emotions all afternoon, feeling more than thinking about the fragility of human beings, about the ways we hurt each other, about how we pretend we’re ok till it’s obvious we’re not. I noticed that each of us who gave witness statements said that we wouldn’t need the assistance of victim services. Afterward, driving, I wondered at that impulse to say, hey, no thanks, this is nothing, I’ve seen this before, I’m not affected. But that can’t be true. I think we all were, because we all are, affected by what we see, experience, do and don’t do, and how we interact with the unexpected that comes toward us.
I’m sitting here thinking about how difficult it is for me to assess the unknown, to pass judgment, to decide who deserves what, to see the world as binary, and the humans in it in absolute terms. I can’t. Fundamentally, I don’t seem equipped to do that. I seem equipped, instead, to want to consider conflict, to understand it, maybe even to engage with it, to try to find a way to drain it of its emotional weather. To de-escalate. To bring everything back down to the ground. Where we’re all just humans and we’re all hurting, to different degrees. And some of us need to be stopped from hurting others. And we’re all holding stones. I want us to set down our stones.
I want for everything to make sense; but it doesn’t.
After a summer to reflect on The X Page workshop and its reverberations, our ad hoc collective is preparing for a second season, with new workshop sessions starting in January, 2020.
In connected news, I’ve been freshening up my website, and have built a new page devoted to The X Page — please visit, look around, share. We are currently in the process of seeking candidates for the next season, so if you’re in the Waterloo Region, and you’re interested or know someone who might be, send them here.
The original project was a lot of work, there was no way around that conclusion, and many of us felt burnt-out following the final performance. Our discussions this summer circled around how to make the project sustainable for all involved, and we began to define the different leadership roles with more specificity, create a long-term plan for funding, and identify elements from the original production that could be revised or reframed. We also wanted to make space within the workshop for former participants to return in leadership roles.
For the 2020 season, The New Quarterly literary magazine has taken over a number of administrative tasks and responsibilities, which frees me and Lamees (who co-coordinated the first workshop with me) from much of the grinding effort necessary to get the project off the ground. I’m excited to be the production’s “stage manager,” a role which I rather accidentally filled last time around (and loved!), while Lamees will be working more directly with candidates during the recruitment process. I’m thankful for our ongoing conversations with Pamela Mulloy, the editor of The New Quarterly — and with others — as we continue to learn from and develop this project. This is not a static process.
Personally, it’s been a gift from the universe to be able to work on a project that combines so many of my interests, including Lynda Barry’s life-changing exercises (the “X page” of the workshop’s title), multi-disciplinary creative team-work, and the power of personal storytelling. I’ve got a running theory that the antidote to (and inoculation from) xenophobia, misogyny, and fear of others’ cultures, religions, and beliefs, is immersion in stories. You can’t sit with someone and listen to their stories without being changed in some way. Especially the particular stories that emerge from Lynda Barry’s X Page — stories that may on their surface appear ordinary, every day, but therein lies their power: X Page stories are rich with sensory detail, evoking images that transfer from speaker to listener, images that pull us directly into another human being’s experience. Being part of this process, through the workshop, is powerful.
Please spread the word.
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