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.
I’m fascinated by stories of people who are artists or who belong to other devotional professions that demand extreme discipline to a practice or a cause. I just finished reading a story in The New Yorker about the artist Vija Celmins, a woman now in her 80s, who paints, sculpts and draws the same subjects over and over again, sometimes for years at a time. She made bronze casts of 11 stones, for example, and spent years painting them so that they would like the exact replicas of the original stones. When she put the sculptures on display beside the original stones, people couldn’t tell them apart. Years! She also did a long series on spider webs, in which she would use an eraser to etch the web on a black/grey surface. She’s done paintings of the night sky, paintings of sand in the desert, paintings of small sections on ocean water, over and over and over again.
It’s funny, but I had a flash while staring at the lake last month, thinking about how impossible it was to try to capture the movement of water — yet that’s what she set out to do. I was mesmerized by the pattern on the surface of the lake, these symmetrical moving shapes, almost like ovals, all connected, that spread out across the surface of the water and both held and did not hold as they seemed to move and move and move, but also not change.
I can’t describe it in words.
I knew I’d need a photo, and also that a photo wouldn’t suffice, and I was tempted to try to draw it, but I couldn’t imagine the water holding still for me to be able to draw it. I would need the water to hold still. And I guess that also got me thinking about how impossible it is to describe a moment, even though that’s what I set out to do in the story collection I’ve been working on for five years now — trying to describe the intricacies of a sequence of moments. It all just falls to pieces. There isn’t time to grab everything. By the time I’d describe even a fraction of a moment, the moment would be very far behind me, and I wouldn’t be able to return to it. So it’s been an interesting exercise, but perhaps not one that can succeed. But I’m veering in the wrong direction. Success or failure doesn’t seem to be the point of what Vija Celmins (and others) are attempting in their devotion to a particular craft. Instead, there’s a common desire, shared by artists across mediums, to capture something ineffable by repetition. Or by a series of actions that will deepen our knowledge and experience of something particular, which can’t otherwise be named or known.
I don’t know.
Despite everything, something inside me still finds the stories I wrote vital and compelling. I continue to return to them, to work on them. Maybe they’re like the poems that I wrote all those years ago in young motherhood (never published) — necessary to my own survival, dull to anyone else. Who knows what pulls a person in, or why a subject demands one’s attention. It doesn’t have to be because it needs to be seen or known by anyone else.
Just now, in looking up more information about this artist, Vija Celmins, I came across this video of her talking about her work (link below). Listen to this: “Sometimes I think that the only part I think is of any value is the making itself. And the things about it that is — that are — interesting is that you’re making something that is basically unsayable.”
Is it strange to believe that sometimes a story can say the unsayable too?
Spending today drawing cartoons. Today, life is lovely and good, serious and moving, challenging and spacious. And slow. The pace is really really slow.
Here I sit, Monday morning, trying to distill my thoughts into a package tidy enough to make sense. I’ve been reading “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” by Jenny Odell, which is not the type of book I usually manage to wade all the through; non-fiction seems to take me a long time to process, especially when it’s offering new ideas or new ways of looking at the world. Odell uses stories from her own life and experience to analyze different forms of attention, and different ways of being in community with others: with humans, with animals and birds, with ecosystems, with any animate or inanimate being that exists within our particular intersection of time and space.
Here’s a quote that jumped out at me, as I read this morning (Oh, yes, I’m trying to start every weekday/work morning by reading a book): “A community in the thrall of the attention economy feels like an industrial farm, where our jobs are to grow straight and tall, side by side, producing faithfully without ever touching. Here, there is no time to reach out and form horizontal networks of attention and support—nor to notice that all the non-“productive” life-forms have fled.”
Immediately, I thought of my life as a contract lecturer: how lonely it was. How, when I asked an administrator how many other contract lecturers there were at the university and whether there would be some way to reach out to others, to attempt to form a community, share stories (and possibly even to organize for better working conditions), I was told that no one knew how many lecturers there were, and that there was no easy way to identify and contact others who shared my situation.
How many people work jobs like this, now? Part-time, contract, isolated, without benefits or protection, jobs with no guarantee of future contracts, temporary, often with baffling administrative or online systems to learn and negotiate, no set hours, and workloads that creep outside the boundaries of what we’d thought we’d signed on for, our value measured by anonymous evaluations. “Producing faithfully without ever touching.”
It’s a recipe for burn-out. In my experience, it’s not a sustainable way to live a life. But this isn’t a post about disappointment. Because the next thought that came into my mind was how different life can be, if you have the ability (and privilege) to step away from “producing faithfully” and turn instead toward the networks of attention, support, and all the non-“producing” life forms that continue to exist. What am I willing to sacrifice in order to afford a different pace, a different way of being in the world?
Most obviously, I’m willing (and temporarily able) to sacrifice a regular paycheque. I’m willing to live with more risk, to invest time into projects that are underway or unfolding, but not yet profitable (and which may never be profitable). I’m willing to live with uncertainty. I’m willing to live in a nebulous zone of invisible productivity where others may not understand what I’m doing, or why. I’m willing to give up status and authority. I’m willing to *not* be too busy. I’m willing to say no. I’m willing to protect my time to go for walks, to read books, to draw, to write, as fiercely as I would any task deemed important or productive. I’m willing to work inefficiently.
Do I squander my time when I cook a meal from scratch? Is it a waste to go for a walk with the dog and notice trees, birds, other dogs, to stop and talk to neighbours out walking with small children and dogs? Is napping wasteful? I think most would agree that, no, these things are not wasteful; and yet, I feel a shame and guilt as I write this, because there are so many people expending their time and energy to do and achieve big things, or just to survive. Cooking, walking, resting, stopping seem like luxuries only a few can afford. I wonder: is that true?
One final thought, arising from this quotation: how necessary, how critical, how important to our survival as a species is the collective—the opposite of being alone, or being isolated from others who would both support and challenge us. Odell writes about how the self is not, in fact, a fixed property, even if algorithms may insist on its fixedness, and how boring life becomes when our likes and dislikes are made to seem predictable. In fact, we need to know and care about others who aren’t like us: to expand our understanding and empathy, to help us see in new ways, to live interesting lives.
Maybe that’s all I’m after: a life that interests me, not because it’s full of drama, excitement, glamour, but because its fundamentals are present to me in the smallest ways, the most mundane places, the simplest interactions. Fundamentals: birth, death, relationships, conflict, love, beauty, pain, the air, the ground, the sounds, my material self, the spirit. And so here I sit, recommitting to the responsibilities that I’ve decided matter to me; alone, but not feeling alone. Thinking of groups of people with whom I’ve formed bonds; thinking about what it means to be on a team; thinking about everything else, animate and inanimate, that is present with me in this time and this space.
Unrelated to this post, but worthy of an update via caption: our team won the cup final to cap off our season.
I often come to this blog when I want to capture something ineffable — a mood, a moment, an emotion. It’s become a container for that which is fleeting (okay, what isn’t fleeting?); or, more precisely, for that which I want a record, a trace of what it felt like, or what it meant, whatever “it” was.
Today, I come to this blog to record what it felt like to watch a player score a massively critical goal in an intense and challenging match — the game-changer. I keep returning to this moment in my mind, and replaying the passes that led up to it, as well as the pure joy that seemed to pour through my body as I crouched and opened my mouth and SCREAMED that joy right out from my guts. (Everyone else was screaming too, so my own yell didn’t stand out.)
The scream felt so spontaneous and so free, like it was coming from a pure, deep well of emotion. Wonderful emotion. I’ve been on the other side, witnessing an important goal scored against our team, and I know that the emotions there (at least for me) are flattening or deadening; I don’t feel much. There’s a recognition that disappointment happens, and sometimes things don’t work out, and also that it’s just a game.
It is just a game.
But I actually wonder, upon reflection, whether it just being a game made this particular moment of joy that much purer and simpler, too. I can think of other joyous emotional moments, but they all come freighted with a shadow side. The birth of a child is joyous, and terrifying; the love you didn’t know you’d feel is shadowed with the possibility of a loss you hadn’t fathomed before. And when The Juliet Stories was shortlisted for a Governor General, I also experienced a moment of joy that was almost without compare; but in the same moment, I nearly collapsed from the weight of all those years of waiting and work.
It shouldn’t seem like a goal in a soccer game should make me feel the same level of joy. And yet I’m here to report that it did. It totally did! But it was joy without anything else attached — no shadow side, no deeper responsibility, no fulfillment of a life’s dream. Just joy, pure and simple. And I think I felt that level of joy so purely because it was just a game. Because I knew that it really didn’t matter one way or the other, in the great scheme of things. Our team would still be a terrific team, and we still would have had an awesome season, with lots of good memories, even if the goal hadn’t happened.
But it did happen. And when it happened, it was a beautiful manifestation of things working out, of the opposite of disappointment — potential fulfilled. And my response was a full-body scream of YES!
A cross-field through-ball deep to space — an absolutely massive kick from a player I’ve loved coaching for three seasons now; a gutsy run onto the ball, and a turn and a cross from a player new to the team this season who has been a fiery force to behold; and a charging run onto the ball and perfectly placed one-time shot into the back of the net from a player I coached years ago in house-league, who joined our team this season, and who I knew had exactly that kind of high-pressure finish in her.
Our fiery force scored a beautiful goal not long after to close out the game. I screamed again, just as loud. Might have wiped away a few tears too.
I suppose it is a pretty intense emotional investment to coach a group of players over a season; many of them now for four seasons. I’ve seen them grow up from ten-year-olds to teenagers. I’ve seen their skills develop through effort, willingness to push themselves, practice, trial and error. I’ve seen them learn and re-learn how to work together as a team, not just as individuals. And I’ve seen them become who they were today: a team full of potential, fulfilling their potential. It’s awesome to peak at the end of the season. We play in the cup final next weekend, just like we did last season. And all 18 players were part of this win today.
As I said in my pre-game speech (short, and a bit emotional): I’m so proud to be their coach, and I’m so proud of everyone’s development and progress this season. I finished by saying that I was really hoping we could get one last game together next weekend, and (as they already knew), for that to happen, we’d just have to win.
And they did.
I think we all must have really wanted one last game together.