I’ve entered a new phase in my life. It should have a name, but it’s a little too nascent to be properly defined, as yet. In this phase, I’m not teaching and The X Page Workshop has wrapped up, and collectively the team has yet to decide what comes next. My focus, therefore, turns not outward, but inward.
All this year, I’ve been seeking space. Last fall, when I was drowning in responsibilities, the word SPACE became my mantra, and my goal. I worked so hard to give myself this gift. It’s here now. And I’ve recognized that my new goal is to allow the space I’ve elbowed open to remain spacious, not to clutter it with new pursuits. What if I give my writing the attention I’ve given everything else? That is the question before me. It’s an experiment. I wonder: will the writing life, its necessary solitude, its self-generated energy, continue to call so loudly now that I can turn toward it?
Here is the gift of time, to explore.
Here is where I inevitably get caught up in looping guilty thoughts, ranging from, can we afford this?, to if we can afford this what have I done to deserve this?
There lives inside me a desire, an impulse, to give rather than to receive. The discomfort I feel when receiving — praise, thanks, gifts, anything good — is profound; it makes me almost ungracious. I’ve been trying to learn how to say thank you for years. To say it and to absorb it and to accept it. I don’t want to hoard my riches. But I don’t want to squander them either. If I am to accept this gift of time, I have to accept it despite not knowing whether anything good or useful will come of it. That’s hard. I know that if I put my time into teaching, into running workshops, good and useful things will come of it. So it’s hard to step away from purposeful actions toward an activity that seems indulgent, self-indulgent, even, and not obviously of use to anyone else.
You see, in this new phase, I am a writer.
I mean, I am writer whose focus is on writing. Stories, a new novel, cartoons. I’m not, in this phase, a writer whose focus is on sharing her skills with others. I’m a writer who is practicing her skills. I need the practice. The practice calls me.
I am setting new routines, in order not to squander my riches: these gifts of time and space. Exercise early. Meditate when the house has emptied out. Follow the rituals that ease me across the border into a creative state: open my notebook, listen to a song while drawing a self-portrait, write for three minutes (or more) answering the question: What’s on your mind? And then writing, or editing, or cartooning. Also, and as important, reading. Books, fiction. On Monday, I read an entire novel (Normal People, by Sally Rooney.) Today, what’s on your mind? turned into a meditation on love, a spoken-word poem, inflected by the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack I’d been listening to. I hung up a load of laundry in the sudden sunshine. I meditated while standing in the grass in the back yard. I decided to write this post before setting up at the dining-room table to work on cartoons.
It feels easy.
It feels pleasurable.
It feels good.
I’m not a hedonist by nature. I’m ashamed, maybe, to enjoy feeling good. To enjoy ease. Something whispers that I’m not deserving. What a strange barrier to fulfillment. Truth be told, I’m drained and exhausted, teetering on the edge of burn-out. I know in my bones that this phase is as necessary as the other phase. The inward feeds the body and the spirit to prepare it for the outward. It’s good to feel good. To swim with the current. To sit quietly and breathe deeply. The scent of flowering trees is especially intoxicating just now. Am I ascending or descending? It’s too early in this phase to know. Either way, it feels good.
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?
Sometimes my skin feels too porous, and emotions pour in almost painfully. Yesterday, I started reading a personal essay in the newspaper written by the mother of a child on the autistic spectrum who was being bullied by classmates, people he thought were his friends. I had to stand up and walk away, so strong were my feelings of sickness and pain, gut-deep, a grief and horror that seemed to wash through my bloodstream.
I stood by the sink and wept.
Stories of exclusion, cruelty, judgement of others trouble me so deeply I can hardly tolerate the pain. I guess here in my mind, I live in a world in which people see each other, are kind to each other, have compassion for each other; but in the real world, there is a lot of pain inflicted even by people who are trying to be kind; pain is also inflicted by people who only want to be left alone, people who don’t want to engage, people who don’t care, who are struggling with their own troubles; and there is pain actively inflicted by people who fear and hate others for their differences, people who don’t want to understand or learn or listen, people who actively target others, weaker and more marginalized than themselves.
I can’t make sense of it.
It just doesn’t make sense in my brain.
I don’t have solutions. I can only to attempt to make spaces for that version of the world that exists in my mind to exist in real life. I’ve tried in the classroom, on the soccer field, inside my own family, and in this storytelling workshop. I know I’ve gotten things wrong. I suspect I’m sometimes the person who’s inflicted pain when trying to be kind, and acting in ignorance. But I’d rather try than hide. There is no alternative that makes sense to me.
For the past 11 weeks, I’ve been privileged to be part of The X Page Workshop. It was envisioned as a creative and collaborative undertaking that would bring together women from different cultural backgrounds, all of whom are making lives for themselves and their families in Canada. Each week, a group of almost 30 of us have met to work on writing and staging stories. Together, we’ve made something that’s rich and enriching. Just with stories! Just with stories and goodwill, trust, kindness, and effort. When we’re together in the beautiful space at the Centre for Peace Advancement, as we have been every Tuesday evening since March, I feel immersed in the possibility of the world inside my mind becoming a real place. It feels like a real place, then and there.
Just thinking about being there brings me a sense of peace and ease.
It isn’t perfect. Why should it be? This world in my mind has conflict, but it also has ways of talking about conflict, because there is trust, and the trust is constantly being earned. Each small thing offered, in this world in my mind, is actually a really big thing. Our gifts to each other don’t have to be grand gestures, large acts, or come from a place of material wealth.
I think the best gift we can give to someone else is to see and acknowledge them without wanting or trying to change them in any way.
To live in this world in my mind, I have to try to live with unconditional love. And that means feeling too porous sometimes to the brokenness in the real world. That means loving what’s broken, too, unconditionally. And that hurts. But it’s the only thing that makes any sense to me at all.
“We are changing all the time. You become what you love.
You’re always asked to sort of stretch a little bit more. But actually, we’re made for that.
There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us. And we’ve just got to be available. Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is a most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet, or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world. But in any case there’s absolutely no excuse for our making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health. Whether we think it’s going to go on forever. Those are just thoughts anyway.
But this moment we’re alive. So you can just dial up the magic anytime.”
– Joanna Macy in an interview with Krista Tippett (On Being)
I heard today on the radio that Teva Harrison died this past weekend. If you don’t know her work, you can read this piece by Teva in The Walrus, which includes her artwork, on finding four-leaf clovers. Teva was 42 years old when she died. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37. In the years in between, she became known for her work documenting her life with cancer, in text and illustrations / cartoons. Here’s another example from The Walrus. She also published a book called In-Between Days, which combines text and illustration into a unique form of non-fiction (reviewed here in The New York Times).
I don’t want Teva to be gone from the world.
I’m thinking of my stepmother, Marg, too, whose photograph sits just above the upper lefthand side of my computer screen. I can look at there anytime and she smiles back. And although she’s been gone almost exactly one year, each time I look at her photo, I experience a fresh, breathtaking disbelief that lasts for no more than a nanosecond — when I don’t believe she’s gone at all. How could she be, when she seems so alive and smiling at me, as if about to speak?
“Rilke invites us to experience what mortality makes possible. Mortality links us with life and all time. Ours is the suffering and ours is the harvest.
– from In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
Sometimes I think that art is a tiny sacred task that involves carrying fragments of material toward the light. We can’t carry too much at one time. Eternity is too vast for us to understand, but our mortality gives us a window, an entrance. So we pick up a grain of sand and swim with it toward the surface we imagine far above us. This is art. We don’t need to be great to do this work. We don’t need to be visionary. We don’t need to be anything but ourselves.
“This great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: in taking from us a being we have love and venerated, death does not wound us, without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.” – Joanna Macy reading from her translation of Rilke
This moment, we are alive. You are alive and reading these words, as I am alive, writing these words. What song wants to sing itself through us? The task sounds so easy, so joyous — doesn’t it? We just have to make ourselves available. Offhand, here are a few ways I personally dial up the magic: go for a run; talk with a friend; share an experience and share some experience; pet a puppy; meditate; read that book; cry; draw; stretch; be outside; write a story; sit for awhile and think, and breathe.
Hold, love, release. Repeat.
End-of-term launch party.
I’m done teaching for another term. My course was on the creative process: how to set goals, envision a major project, and lay the groundwork necessary to complete the work. I spent a couple of days this week and last meeting with students to hand back their final projects (stories in comic form), and to chat about the term. Some themes emerged in our conversations. Here’s what we learned.
The importance of mistakes. So many students talked about how important their mistakes had been in shaping their project, how an apparent mistake had turned out to be important or valuable to their drawing, or how freeing it was to allow themselves to make mistakes. My theory is that through mistakes our unconscious mind gives us important information we couldn’t otherwise access; and drawing is the perfect medium for this communication with the self, because we see our “mistakes” pretty much instantly, and have to figure out what they’re trying to tell us.
The freedom of stepping away from perfectionism. Students also expressed how freeing it was to embrace their mistakes, or even how freeing it was just to give themselves permission to make mistakes. Creating a major project by hand is time-consuming and laborious, and if you don’t accept the mistakes you’ll inevitably make, you’ll never finish what you’ve started.
The calm that exists inside creation. Every student in the class put a lot of time into their projects, and some put in vast swathes of time, far more than they’d anticipated, or really, that was required to meet the project’s guidelines. (In other words, they didn’t care about the rubric, they cared about the work itself.) Students talked about losing themselves in what they were doing. It didn’t feel like work. It was fun, it was relaxing. The time flew. There is a meditative quality to making things by hand, to being focused in this way; engaged.
The time for this is always with us. (To paraphrase Lynda Barry.) This feeling of calm, this experience of getting lost inside a pleasurable task, is available anytime. And yet, we seem to need someone to remind us of this, we need a reason to get engaged in this way, a task, a project for a class to give us the excuse to get lost in making something that requires focus and effort, that is time-consuming, and that ultimately may have no material or monetary value. We feel like we have to prove that it’s worth it. I wonder why? When it seems so obvious, looking at these wonderful students and their amazing artwork — their unique, truthful, serious, funny, silly, brave, thoughtful beautiful art — that it is worth it.
This course gave the students permission to make art. To draw. To colour. To turn their lives, their observations, their ideas into cartoons. Many expressed how valuable this practice was for them, and how much they hoped others would get the chance to take the course too. “Everyone should have to take this course!” “You have to teach it again for the sake of future students!” In truth, I’m not sure what I taught was a course so much as a concept: what I tried to do was make space for the students to make space for themselves.
Anyone can draw. Most of the students had no idea what they were signing up for when they entered my classroom on day one. They thought they were taking a creative writing course; the course description was vague; they were surprised to learn they’d be doing so much drawing. They weren’t sure they could do it. Many hadn’t drawn since high school, or even grade school. “I never thought I could draw well enough to …” And to a person, they could — they could tell the stories they wanted to tell through cartoons. (“Well enough” went out the window; “well enough” had no place in our classroom.)
Pride in accomplishment. The final projects undertaken by the students were big!! This was no small undertaking. And everyone did it! The deadline got met, and each project proved to be as unique and individual as the person who created it.
Thank you, Artists of ENGL 332! Thank you for your trust. It was an adventure.
Tomorrow morning (Wednesday), my students and I will be presenting our artwork at St. Jerome’s. It’s our last day of class this term, and in Monday’s class we worked on making artist’s statements (that’s mine, above). My instructions went like this: Include your name; Include a sentence or quotation that offers insight into who you are as an artist — why you make art, or why you believe art matters, or what motivates you, or inspires you; Include illustrations/cartoons.
The results were, in my opinion, brilliant. Within less than 45 minutes, students had created tabloid-sized, unique, creative, personal statements, illustrated with humour, freedom and personality — utterly delightful. I can’t wait to hang up these statements tomorrow. When I expressed surprise that so many of the students had managed to finish their work during the time allotted, they said they were used to it by now. Virtually every exercise I run in class is time-based — you have 7 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes. Done. During one particularly gruelling exercise, I remember joking that the title of the course shouldn’t be Creativity Unplugged, it should be Creativity Under Pressure. And then a student requested I play “Under Pressure” by Queen/David Bowie. And I did.
And we got the work done, whatever it was.
Yesterday was an opportunity to reflect on what we’d expected coming into this course, and what had actually happened. I feel that these public “check-outs,” by their nature, encourage people to say nice things, so I take it all with a grain of salt, but it was gratifying to hear that students had absorbed from the course exactly what I’d hoped to offer.
I hoped that discipline and routine and structure would nurture creative practice, and curiosity. Yes. (Though one of the students said he loathed the timed exercises.)
I hoped that students would find the exercises relaxing, meditative, so engaging that they’d lose track of time. Yes.
I hoped that students would rediscover their inner child. Yes.
I hoped that students would be delighted and surprised by the things they were making. Yes.
I hoped that students would see progress in their technical skills. Yes.
I hoped that we would laugh a lot. Yes.
I wanted to let the course unfold naturally, to go with the flow, the way I do when I’m writing and drawing, and I think that I got a whole lot closer to this goal than I ever have before, as a teacher. I wasn’t even that scared or anxious … most of the time.
And tomorrow morning we’ll display some of what we made, do a little more drawing, a little more talking, give away a few prizes, and enjoy being together one last time before the term ends.