Starting today, new stories from the 2020 X Page Workshop are being published daily by The New Quarterly. Below, is our theatre director’s introduction to the online series.
Today’s story, which would have been the opening performance onstage, is called “Pant Rant.” I remember hearing the first draft of “Pant Rant” being read during a small-group workshop and being totally blown away; afterward, we all sat in silence, rocked by the rhythm and depth of the raw words. “Pant Rant” is a gritty, rich and poetical examination of mental toughness in defiance of persistent indignities endured for the sake of survival. At least, that’s how I read it. I wish you could hear Xiao tell her story in her own voice; instead, it’s her gift to us on the page. I find this story especially resonant as I think about the people who are working in dangerous conditions, physically and emotionally, in places like meat-packing plants and long-term care homes, performing difficult tasks that the rest of us prefer not to think much about.
This photo is completely unrelated to this post, and purely for your amusement (or, if you don’t much like dogs in glasses, mine).
This morning, sitting cross-legged and meditating in my friend Kasia’s virtual-yet-live yoga class, my head was quiet with deep and peaceful thoughts. Hours later, though I scribbled a cue for myself in my notebook, the same head seems to be noisy with surface natter.
We’ve entered our fourth week in lockdown, or whatever this is called.
There are times, like during this morning’s meditation, when I feel grounded and calm. But I think my family would likely point to all the times I’ve appeared wild-eyed or grim, or perhaps both in delightful combination.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always intended to improve as life goes on; and how it’s pleasant to consider that hard times can be improving times; but, let’s be honest, hard times also expose fundamental personal weaknesses and flaws in the most obvious and predictable ways. For example, pre-children, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Post-children, I was merely a mild hypochondriac, too focused on my kids’ needs and on our packed schedule to be obsessively tracking and self-diagnosing my own (mostly psychosomatic) symptoms. In the midst of this pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful service beyond the walls of this house, the terrible hypochondriac in me has returned, and she turns up most regularly in the middle of the night.
So … am I improving as life goes on? Or am I regressing?
Am I helper or do I desperately need help?
Maybe it’s both; and maybe it always is, always was, always will be.
This was not the post I’d intended to compose. Instead, as happens when I come to this space, this is the post that wants to be written. This is how writing works, in my experience. It is always a surprise, and, crucially, it’s never a painful or disappointing or scary surprise. I just find it interesting; curious; the strangeness of what’s lurking in my subconscious amuses me. Discovering it makes me feel better.
Recommended new podcast: Sugar Calling (NYT), which is Cheryl Strayed talking to writers, starting with George Saunders, who read out a letter he’d written to his students in which he told them that the job of the writer continues even now (and that we can all do this job): be a witness to this moment. Now isn’t the time for interpretation or elucidation; it’s the time to pay attention to your interior emotional life, to the things you notice around you, to the details. (Honestly, it’s always that time, for a writer; but now is even more keenly the time.)
In that spirit, to finish this post, here are a few small details I’ve recently observed about this time.
I open the snack drawer, hoping to find a stray chocolate almond. I know there won’t be any; they were finished off days ago and Kevin won’t be shopping till at least tomorrow. But I open the drawer in hope. And lo — I discover the very large bag of dried apricots! I’d forgotten about the apricots! The apricots are orange and bright and sweet. And I am happy.
When I wander to the living-room to narrate, unprompted, this tiny emotional journey to my (mostly indifferent) daughters, the elder child lights up: she’s experienced the same hope / disappointment / surprise / happiness each time she opens the snack drawer too.
(At this time, I often wander into rooms to narrate, unprompted, my mundane experiences to whoever is sitting there. I don’t always get a reply.)
A second observation, which I haven’t yet dumped on my children (because I think they will mock me for it), is this little oddity: I’m actually enjoying washing my hands. Multiple times a day. For at least twenty seconds each time. I’ve always washed my hands somewhat obsessively, but after watching a how-to video, I knew I could do even better; however, the thought of all that hand washing, and the actual fact of it, was almost overwhelming. The way thinking about changing your baby’s diapers day after day after day can feel overwhelming if you let your mind go there. The endless futility of the task! Standing there, doing the same thing over and over and over again. I felt impatient every time I squirted soap on my hands, washing, washing, washing.
But more recently, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the hand-washing ritual has become almost welcome. It feels like a deliberate pause, a gentle self-massage, a quiet moment to myself. I plant my feet, and breathe deeply (our soap smells really good). Weird, huh.
My mantra these days (whispered only to myself) is: What’s your rush? What’s your hurry?
That feeling of impatience that arises at various moments throughout the day — I know it’s not coming from my circumstances, because there’s literally nowhere to rush to. So it must be coming from deep within my self. (Where do I think I’m going? Why do I need to get there? What could be better than here and now?) And if I notice this, I can feel my way through it, somehow, to a place where at least for a few breaths, I’m in no hurry at all.
1 My kids’ teachers, who have been reaching out to their students with such empathy about the unprecedented collective experience we’re sharing; among their offerings are optional assignments that invite connection with other students, and even breathing techniques for finding calm during anxious moments. Thank you to all the teachers who are doing their best to support their students right now. #education
2 My kids, who have been finding ways to keep themselves soothed and entertained without entirely relying on screens. This includes doing puzzles in their rooms, figuring out how to play Battleship with a friend via FaceTime, practicing piano, baking cookies and sour cherry bread, kitchen clean-up, imaginary games in the backyard, soccer, playing with Rose, drawing with me or painting with Kevin, and above all, accepting the situation rather than fighting it. #parenting
3 Kevin, whose bottomless well of optimism, flexibility and creativity is an especially useful toolbox right now (to mix metaphors!). He’s self-employed, I’m self-employed: generally speaking, we’re both tolerant of risk, practical, disciplined, and comfortable with the necessary short-term pivot in service of deeper, long-term goals. It’s a partnership suited to current circumstances. I’m also thankful that I can tell him what I really think, even if it ain’t pretty. #marriage
4 The pair of cardinals in our front bush, who popped out yesterday as if to say hello, just as I was looking out the front window. The peach-coloured female hopped onto the windowsill and cocked her head, inches from me on the other side of the glass. I held my breath. #nature
5 That everything I’m doing right now feels like it has spiritual purpose: it’s a gift. The focus of my waking hours seems to be to seek the spirit, nourish the spirit, bring forth the spirit, pay attention to all in my life that is spiritual. Practice, pray, reflect, share, write, dream. I’m loving all the online tools available for connecting with others. Sibs night via Zoom. Church service via YouTube and Skype. My friend Kasia’s yoga, live-streamed via Facebook into my tiny peaceful office every evening at 8PM. I have more time to spend meditating every day, accompanied by beautiful poetry podcasts or meditation reflections. It feels like my emotional life is closer to the surface and more visible, plainer, simpler; I feel more vulnerable, but also quieter. Within the restlessness, I’m finding stillness. There isn’t much I can do to help at the moment, except stay home. But that gives me even greater permission (if I need it, and sometimes I do!) to pause, breathe deeply, sense connection, reflect on the ties that bind us together, and pray for the possibility that our global community may unite around principles of mutual protection, dignity and care. #hope
While in this time of strangeness, isolation, social distancing, and hunkering down waiting, waiting, I’m trying to sort out how to get through each day intact, as whole as possible. I’ve been informed by my children that I must must must limit my intake of coronavirus news; and they’re right; and I’m trying.
But I’ve felt distracted, full of questions about what’s right to do, what’s wrong to do, and whether the decisions I’m making are harming or helping our collective cause, and the individual lives in our immediate family. Last week was a whirl of decision-making, including cancelling The X Page’s remaining workshop sessions and the performance, while making plans for publishing the stories. There was a constantly changing flow of information from public health officials and various levels of government. We found out on Thursday that schools would be closed at least till early April; all soccer cancelled too; just last night, it was recommended that all bars and restaurants in Ontario close or move to take-out or delivery only.
And I’m pretty sure the phrase “social distancing” entered my vocabulary less than a week ago, but now we all know it, and we’re trying to practice it, and to understand why, and to explain it to those people in our lives who don’t see what the point is, exactly.
It’s been a bit too much, while also being not nearly enough. Fears: diffuse; particular; unseen.
And now the late-night talk shows have gone off the air, just when I most need their mixture of news, satire, reassurance and comedy!
So here’s what I’m doing to stay afloat, mentally. I’m not saying it’s all working for me, just that these are the lifelines I’m grabbing hold of today, and did yesterday, and in all likelihood will again tomorrow.
Meditation. I have a kneeling bench that my dad made for me a few years ago, which is comfortable to sit on yet prevents me from falling asleep. (An habitual problem.) I recommend The New York Times’s guide to meditation, if you’re just getting started. There are also lots of apps to try out (I like Headspace; it’s not free, but you might be able to access a free trial to see if you like it).
Over on Instagram, Elizabeth Gilbert posted an easy-to-do meditation you can bring into any moment of your day, taking notice of a descending list of things all around you. This is my scribbled version, below, and it’s helped me at least once today when I was waiting to wash my hands, as there was a line-up for the bathroom, and I was feeling irrationally irritated about the waiting:
Podcasts. Below are a few. If you have a favourite, could you please leave your suggestions in the comments? I need more!
The Daily from The New York Times, a podcast that lasts just about long enough for a quick morning run (and, yes, it has been a lot about the coronavirus lately, but the info is solid and trustworthy, not inflammatory).
On Being, a podcast that I sometimes have patience for and sometimes not (it’s dense with spirituality).
Poetry Unbound, a podcast in which a poem is read, discussed, then read again. Episodes are about 11 minutes, the perfect amount of time to sit in quiet mediation.
Dog walks with Kevin and Rose have also been a balm. However, I cancelled a walk with a friend this morning, perhaps an over-reaction? I just don’t know. Does anyone?
Finally, here’s one last lifeline, which I’m hoping to share with my writing friends: daily drawing/writing in my notebook. I haven’t done this yet today, but it’s on my to-do list. (That’s yesterday’s cartoon, above.)
Follow this recipe for 10 minutes of bliss: Put on a song at random from my Lynda Barry playlist on Spotify (which has 64 followers at present!); draw a self-portrait to that song; then write for 3 minutes, answering the question: What’s on Your Mind? Or Why Did This Song Choose You Today?
Choice is power. But the illusion of choice renders us vulnerable to exploitation. I woke from this morning’s 20-minute nap with this thought clear in my mind.
I’d been reading an article in The New York Times (a very long-read, as this manifesto before you threatens to be), called “You Are Now Remotely Controlled.” Upon waking, I sat down with my notebook and began to write. “I’m having an important idea,” I told my youngest, home from school today because his teachers are striking in support of strong public education. “When will you be done with your idea?” he asked, at last. He wanted me to pour him a bowl of cereal. “It’s turning into a very big idea,” I said. He poured his own bowl of cereal.
I want to use this reflection to pull together a number of disparate thoughts / observations / concerns about choice, autonomy, responsibility and shame. I want to reflect on how the illusion of choice shames us into believing that we are willing participants in our own exploitation, that we’ve willingly consented to give away our private lives, and that we deserve what we get. We might even believe that we prefer it this way. Anyone with a car can drive Uber or Skip the Dishes to earn a bit of extra cash; anyone with a room can rent it out at their convenience; anyone with an internet connection can publish a blog for free; anyone with a cellphone can become an “influencer.”
But it’s this illusion of choice, this illusion of independence and personal autonomy, that makes us vulnerable. It is only when we know we are oppressed that we can fight back. If we are kept in a state of confused distraction, if we feel shame about our personal choices (which may in fact be “choices”), we will remain disorganized, overwhelmed, stressed out, and isolated, even while believing ourselves to be ever more connected. Sure, we’re connected — but to what, and by whom?
I can’t stop thinking about something Trump said while still a candidate for the presidency: “I love the uneducated.” I think he instinctively understands the moment in which we’re living, which makes him especially dangerous. We think he’s joking when we says things like this, but he’s actually incredibly transparent: he’s stating his game plan (and it’s not just his). As citizens of democratic countries, we not only want to imagine ourselves free, our identity relies on it. Paradoxically, this makes us vulnerable to manipulation too; when identity is at stake, recognition of a different version of reality can be too painful to accept. The less we know, the less equipped we are to understand and interpret our triggers, which are attached to our pain, let alone to distinguish between facts and “fake news.”
It’s my observation that the gig economy is a function of this moment in time, too. We’ve been sold the idea that contract employees are willingly trading security for independence. But the gig economy only makes sense if those employed by contract can earn enough to live at a similar standard to those employed in traditional jobs. And it’s clear we can’t. Also clear that the gig economy puts pressure on the individual to support themselves in ways that go beyond their capacity as individuals to fulfill — to negotiate higher wages, save for retirement, etc. Further, the gig economy has the effect of eroding traditional jobs — with labour so cheap, and labourers so plentiful, who can afford tenured professors, for example?
What “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” focuses on, though, is the power that data mining — which feeds artificial intelligence — gives to private corporations, whose interests fundamentally put them at odds with our interests, with the public good. Instead, we become consumers to be activated by “remote control.” Our phones are always with us. (Mine is plugged in beside me right now, ringer on.) We can’t imagine life without this device that only recently entered our lives — I didn’t carry a cellphone on my person till around 2010, yet I went into full-on panic when briefly separated from my phone due to a mix-up this past weekend. What would entertain me while I did chores? And what if someone needed to reach me? I was like a smoker separated from her pack of cigarettes.
Okay, so I’m addicted to my phone. I confess it. Aren’t most of us? Despite surviving the majority of my life without it, I seem convinced that my well-being depends on it. Yet it is this device, according to “You Are Now Remotely Controlled,” that makes it so easy for me to be monitored and manipulated — it is an important tool, among many other tools in the “internet of things” that is turning us into robots.
I am writing the first draft of this reflection by hand, in my notebook. The act of writing by hand becomes, in our era, an act of rebellion against the norm. A notebook cannot be surveilled. It is not connected to anything but itself. (Not to mention that my handwriting is virtually illegible, even to me.)
Surveillance capitalism traffics in prediction. The better a corporation is at predicting what we want / how we feel, the better it is at telling us what we want by understanding what we’re feeling. We are not, in fact, private autonomous individuals making multiple choices independently every day, we are highly predictable creatures with our inner lives, habits, routines and decisions being carefully monitored and collected digitally.
I’d like to connect the NYT article to a program that aired on the CBC’s Ideas on Friday evening, which was so compelling that I didn’t turn it off, even after I’d finished the dishes. It was part 2 in a series called “Why journalist Emily Bell is calling for a civic media manifesto.” Bell observes that it is legitimately becoming more difficult for us to find trustworthy news sources, especially at the local level. (Note that the two sources I’ve used for this post are The New York Times, which is probably the biggest independent newspaper in the world; and CBC radio, a public broadcaster funded by the Canadian government.) As anyone who works in journalism knows, the industry has suffered massive job losses and cuts over the past decade; we also know that bloggers are no replacement. A journalist without independence (or without adequate independent funding) is not free to do their job. “Influencers” are an example of personal journalism that is manipulated, easily and cheaply, by corporate interests. Why? Because an individual is personally vulnerable. An individual lives on a knife’s edge. She has children to feed, her reputation to protect. Freelancers need to get hired again, and again, and again.
This is what the gig economy thrives on. It’s the illusion of choice that I flagged way back when, at the beginning of this very very long essay.
An individual will sacrifice a great deal in order to feed her children, keep a roof over her head, and ensure she’ll get hired again. And she’s exhausted. There’s only one of her. How can she afford to anger the rich and powerful? When I worked as a sessional lecturer, I talked to a department chair about the insecurity built into the system: they tried to explain that I was fortunate to be given courses for two consecutive terms. That’s eight months of work. The standard for contract lecturers, in my experience, is to be given a contract for a single term (four months of work). And then you have to reapply, or perhaps, if you’re lucky, you’ll be offered a contract again, seemingly out of the blue. There is no stability. I was trying to explain, in return, that this made it very difficult to plan ahead. And they explained that the budgeting system made it impossible for them to make better offers. As I sat in their office, I thought, We are two human beings trapped in an inhumane system. How many people at the university were employed as contract lecturers, I asked them? And they said there was no data available on that. They suggested I could find the data myself, contact fellow adjuncts and contract lecturers and try to organize, to protest. I was flabbergasted. I was one person. I had limited resources, was already overstretched and underpaid. I was exhausted.
The NYT article suggests that protection for individuals requires governments to pass stronger laws, supported by the slow but certain democratic impulses of their citizens; this may be the solution. But is it too late? As Emily Bell points out, large data-mining corporations now possess more information than any single government. What would regulation look like? Who would enforce it? Who has the power? I fear totalitarianism by stealth. I fear all that we are accepting without question.
“Who will write the music, and who will dance?” writes the article’s author, Shoshanna Zuboff.
I can think of a number of policy changes that would help. A living minimum wage would go some distance toward reducing inequality. Strong public education with well-paid teachers is foundational, too. (“I love the uneducated.”)
But in Shoshanna Zuboff’s words I hear something that’s already within us — it’s our capacity for creativity, our capacity to write the music, real music, not computer generated. Algorithms are inherently boring. They are designed to predict the future; in other words, they’re predicated on predictability. It’s why I find Amazon’s suggestions for books I might like so boring — what I want is a human being who loves reading, in a bookstore, handing me a selection that’s a bit off the wall and unexpected, something I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. Human beings have the capacity to surprise ourselves and others. In surprise is delight. An algorithm offers, instead, a solution. But our brains don’t necessarily want solutions and efficiencies — we want absurdity, we want to be able to laugh and to weep at what we intuitively understand is not fixable. We crave mystery, though it can be difficult to recognize that — a page-turner, I would argue, takes us toward a solution, but we read it because we love the process of getting there.
Here’s a good example: Little Women is a beloved and much-read book not because of its tacked-on happy ending, but because of its imperfections — because we know the happy ending feels tacked-on (as Greta Gerwig’s film’s version brilliantly subverts). But if Jo and Laurie had married, I doubt Little Women would still be read, and relevant, today. We love Little Women for its complexity, for the messy emotions it evokes in us, and because it reminds us of our own imperfect lives. When I was a kid, I read it over and over again, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it — how it could have turned out differently for Jo, how unfair things were, how it lit in me a longing for a different ending, and yet how I had to accept it, nevertheless. This is the pleasure, the delight of the “wrong” solution, the solution unknown to the algorithm.
Something else. When we can buy anything and receive it instantly, we are denying ourselves another pleasure, that of anticipation, of weighing our desires against our needs, of imagining what the wanted thing might give us. We have been lulled into believing that the easy path is desirable. Yet we know in our bones that everything we care about deeply is hard. Parenting is hard. Love is hard. It aches. But it brings us to life. That is what we are losing. You know that feeling when you walk into a room and everyone is staring at their screens? And they glance up and their eyes are blank and they look numb? The men who design the tech that would manipulate our every decision are very smart at efficiencies, and at making us want more and more of whatever is being sold; but what makes life worth living? There’s a basic immorality at play in the systems they create — or any system created to maximize profit: an indifference to what’s being destroyed. And what’s being destroyed is the humanity of the humans lured into and trapped in these systems.
I gave up being a contract lecturer not exactly because I didn’t like teaching, but because I despised the system, and could not support it, if I could afford to choose otherwise. So I calculated what we could afford, and I chose otherwise. But the truth is that I didn’t really want to be a tenured professor either; I could see that their roles were untenably uncomfortable too, in many ways. It makes me wonder what to wish for.
The problem with systems designed for maximum efficiency is that these systems almost invariably fail to count some losses as actual costs; the losses that count are the ones found on a ledger. The loss of an individual’s security is not counted as a cost. Nor is the loss of an individual’s creative life. Nor the loss of pleasure, relationships and community-building when an individual is stretched to the limit just to survive, or when an individual has as colleagues other individuals who are treated as second-class.
We are not machines. We can’t live like we are. We won’t thrive. Here’s my own personal proof: I’m close to completing a project that I started a year ago in February, which I call “The Hourlies.” Each month, I’ve taken a 24-hour period and drawn a cartoon depicting each waking hour. It’s laborious, time-consuming, very dear to me, and completely non-monetizable. It’s also an enormous accomplishment in which I take great pride.
Drawing a cartoon is an act of creative rebellion. And each act of creative rebellion is an antidote to the paranoia, despair and fear that we’re being fed daily.
You know, Trump is half-right in his paranoia and fears — we are being monitored and many news sources are untrustworthy; he’s tapped into real fears and that gives his message currency and power. It’s just that he’s also the logical conclusion of what happens when we let paranoia, disinformation, ignorance, gossip, fear, greed and self-interest become our guiding principles. So let’s not do that, even though we could, even though we’re being pushed to. If we become like Trump’s example, we will live only on the surface of our lives, sating our base desires, but cold to the best of ourselves, to our openness, generosity, curiosity, and our imaginations, where images live.
Images can be used to manipulate us, too, of course; Trump knows how to draw a crude portrait that calls out our basest emotional responses — disgust, envy, greed, rage and fear. But images nevertheless remain my personal source of hope.
I think we can fight images with images.
Images can become stories, poems, drawings, songs. Images can be made into something that helps us see and know that we are human, we are alive, we are not machines. Visit with your own personal imagine. Let the joy of surprise and creation pull you away from your devices and screens, at least for a little while, every day. Call it your own personal rebellion against the surveillance economy. Get a cheap composition notebook and a black pen, and let yourself be led.
Maybe our creativity will disrupt the cruelty of efficiencies. Maybe policy will follow.
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.)
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?
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm mother of four, writer of fiction and non-, dreamer, contemplative, mid-life runner, coach, forever curious. I'm interested in the intersection between art and spirituality. What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty? What if everyone could make art?