I’ve been sitting down to write this blog post for a few days, but it keeps changing on me. Circumstances keep changing. Time keeps moving and things keep happening, and I can’t decide what, exactly, I want to say. I even wondered, last night, whether maybe it was time to stop publishing random inner thoughts on a whim, sending them into the universe without taking time to reflect on why I’ve wanted to share what little I know (or think I know). But here I sit again, typing words into a blank rectangular space.
I write in other places too. I write in my notebook, in pen, words few people could decipher even if they tried. I like not knowing what will come of that material; I like knowing it’s likely nothing will come of it, and it will just exist as a muddy river of unfiltered thought.
I also write stories, using Scrivener or Word, and that always feels like I’m doing something different, too, than what I do here, on this blog. There, I have time, I take time, sometimes years, going over and over the lines of neatly spaced words. I polish. I revisit. I consider. I restructure. It’s satisfying, and while I do write these stories knowing they could be published, someday, the outcome is difficult to guess and in some ways doesn’t matter. I have to work them over till I feel done with them, or they’re done with me.
This blog is a different space. Immediate. Gratifying. Immediately gratifying. When I skim through the years’ worth of postings (nearly 11 years, now), it’s like looking through a scrapbook. Quite pleasant, though I don’t do it often. It can feel like I’m looking at a stranger’s life, in some ways. I’ve been and done many things in the past 11 years, I’ve had my enthusiasms, responsibilities, interests, routines. I’ve been knocked off the path by fortune and misfortune. As ever, I don’t know what happens next, exactly, but I trust that more change will come, and I’ll be pulled onward, to new (or seemingly new) revelations, interests, insights, and errors. There will always be something to write about, in one medium or another.
I had an experience on Friday night that disturbed me; I can’t think what to do about it, so I’m writing about it here. On Friday afternoon, I went to Stratford with my sixteen-year-old daughter, who is off to camp this weekend for a month; we saw Billy Eliot, a musical that confronts ideas about masculinity, among other subjects. That same evening, Kevin and I went and saw Booksmart, a movie about best friends graduating from high school, that was also endearingly, hearteningly queer-positive without making a big deal of it. I could think and imagine that the world was becoming (had become) a better place, a safer place. And then, almost as soon as we’d left the movie theatre, Kevin and I found ourselves in between two groups of young people who were shouting at each other. Actually, it was really only one young man who was doing most of the shouting, and what he was shouting was disturbing, bigoted, violent. He was with a group of other young men, and while I don’t think they participated, they also didn’t intervene. They all looked the same to me: white, early twenties, athletic, clean-cut. The angry guy was shouting past us, at a teenager in a red sweater who was standing some distance away with two friends, a young woman and a young man. It ws the boy in the sweater who was the target of the other man’s rage.
I don’t want to repeat the language used. It was derogatory and homophobic. And finally, the kid in the sweater, whose body language said that he was tired of this, weary, not quite resigned, shouted something back. And then the other guy really cut loose. One of the things he shouted at that point was “you little bitch.” I turned around when he said that, because I wanted to shame him, because I wanted him to know that people were paying attention, and the angry guy said, “Ha ha, not you, you’re fine, I was talking to that other bitch, the one in the red sweater.” And then he started shouting again, possibly because I lifted my middle finger to him (not my finest moment), although it’s equally possible he didn’t even notice the gesture, and was still shouting at the kid. Kevin and I kept walking, and the group of young men kept walking too, in the opposite direction, and I thought it would be okay now, probably, the shouting was over. We passed the boy in the red sweater with his friends, and I wanted to stop and say something, but I couldn’t think what. They seemed to be trying to put the scene behind them and decide where to go to get a drink.
I said to Kevin, “This is the world our kids will have to live in.”
And he said, “They’re already living in it.I’ve spent the weekend reading John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which follows the life of an Irish man from birth till death; it’s also the history of gay rights in Ireland, from the time of the protagonist’s birth when men could be arrested for being in a homosexual relationship (or beaten up, murdered, blackmailed or banished), to the referendum that legalized gay marriage in 2015. The trajectory is optimistic (which isn’t giving too much away — you should read it), but having witnessed what could only be called a disturbing scene of homophobic rage on the sidewalk on Friday night, when I got to the novel’s happy ending this morning, I felt my heart sink rather than rise.
Things are better. And things are still frighteningly not better.
And I don’t know what to do about it. Life asks us to be the best we can be under the circumstances. To use what talents we’ve got. To be true to ourselves. I believe that, just as I believe that every human being deserves dignity. That dignity is always worth fighting for. But the obstacles are enormous, and when you get right down to it, the horror of it is that the obstacles are almost all human-made. I can’t possibly list all the indignities humans are forced to endure, all the ways humans prevent other humans from being free, but it’s everywhere I turn, especially when I turn on the news.
Tap, tap, tap. I’ve typed for too long, and come up with too little. But I guess I haven’t yet given up on pressing publish, even when I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say.
“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.
(Apologies in advance for an extremely boring, list-heavy post. I will not be offended if you skip this one. I just had to figure out what went wrong today.)
Things I’ve done today:
Teaching-related: Replied to one student email; marked several student projects (so many more looming); prepped classes for this coming week; made three PowerPoint presentations; scanned artwork for PowerPoint presentations; downloaded artwork from students for launch party PowerPoint presentation; emailed event planner at university to organize details for class launch party; printer stopped working so Kevin had to drive to office, bring home crappy old printer, so I could print my class plan for tomorrow; packed bag for tomorrow’s class; transferred PowerPoint onto jump drive.
Soccer-related: Booked an exhibition game; cancelled an exhibition game; arranged ref for new exhibition game; answered emails from parents; posted summer season game schedule on TeamSnap; contacted coaches from two other teams to arrange rescheduling of regular season games (+ looked up coaches’ contact info online); emailed club admin about spring field times; emailed club admin about new player; emailed different club admin about procedure for rescheduling games; multiple emails to and from team manager about related subjects.
Child-related: Oversaw daughter’s online math test; arranged carpooling for youngest to attend birthday party (did not participate in carpool); picked eldest up from work; drove two children to swim lessons; related, found swim goggles and shampoo and loaded into bag with towel; also related, gave $10 to daughter to oversee youngest as swim lessons and walk him home; drove elder daughter to band practice; talked son through reversing into parking spot; pulled stuck ring off daughter’s finger (emergency-level panic situation); washed daughter’s shoes; instructed youngest to make birthday card; instructed eldest to open can of tuna for youngest’s very late lunch; discussed eldest’s English seminar on Death of a Salesman (he talked; I listened); facilitated cheerful conversation around the supper table.
Miscellaneous tasks: Updated calendar on the chalkboard for upcoming three weeks; four loads of laundry while watching YouTube videos and absorbing depressing Trump-crowing-about-being-exonerated news; made pasta with cabbage, walnuts, tofu and sage for supper, had to improvise and use three kinds of pasta because we were apparently out of matching pasta, which required boiling two separate pots of pasta water; put gas in car; put dishes in dishwasher, cleared table, wiped table; washed part of upstairs hallway floor.
Just for me: This blog post; rode spin bike for 70 minutes, with sprints every 5 minutes (easiest part of my day); texted a friend; multiple texts to and from my mom; took photo of dog (above) and texted it to child; ranted to Kevin about this feeling I have that I’m drowning, succumbing, going under and may not come up, and also how the house is filthy and no one vacuumed this weekend (not blaming him, just ranting generally, as he was just coming home with loads of groceries).
Things I didn’t do today: Go to church; meditate; eat lunch; read a book for pleasure; meet a friend; relax; nap; rest; do something just for the fun of it; take a break; cartoon, draw, write, sing, play piano, listen to music.
Children are now calling me to come watch an episode of Schitt’s Creek with them before bed, and I think this may be the best option at this moment in time.
I’m sitting in my cozy office, wearing reading glasses, listening to my favourite Spotify playlist (song of the moment: “Ya veras,” by Systema Solar), office door closed because my elder daughter is practicing piano obsessively. Kids are all home from school, which makes Rose-the-pup very happy. Kevin is mid-flight to Fort McMurray for a work trip. All schools, including the universities, are closed today due to freezing rain. I started teaching more than six years ago, and today’s is the class I’ve ever missed. (Not-Humble-Brag # 1)
I’ve decided that this post’s theme is the Not-Humble-Brag.
I’m uncomfortable with bragging. But it makes me even more uncomfortable to pretend that I’m not bragging. (Side note: Why call it bragging? Why not label it differently in my own mind, as good news, and own the sharing of it?) (Side note # 2: My superstitions are kicking in strongly, as all my instincts scream: if you announce that you have good news, you will be deservedly and instantly punished with bad news!)
Okay, superstitious self, what if the Not-Humble-Brags are less earth-shattering, more like gentle observations of loveliness? Hey?
For example, I’ve got a new story in the latest edition of The New Quarterly! (Not-Humble-Brag # 2)
The story is from an auto-fiction collection I’ve been working on steadily for a rather long time, and which makes me happy every time I dip into it, to revise, edit, polish, or write a brand-new story. On Monday evening, when I was in my office marking madly, my eldest daughter came rushing in. She was glowing. She’d just read the story in TNQ — “16th Century Girl” — and she’d loved it. She said, You should just do this, Mom. You should just write. She said she’d been thinking about writers who just wrote regardless of success during their lives, just wrote anyway, no matter what, and that could be me, as she saw it. You’re such a good writer, Mom, she said.
That night, I woke in the middle of the night and wondered whether I could “just write.” Would it satisfy me? What sacrifices would be involved?
Last night, I again woke in the middle of the night. This time, I asked myself: What is your ideal career path? Who is your role model?
I remembered that for a very long time, my ideal was Alice Munro. A mother and grandmother, devoted to the short story, who dabbled in other money-earning ventures, such as a bookstore she owned with her first husband, and teaching creative writing for a year or so early in her career; but mostly, who simply sat at her table, stared out the window, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Brilliantly. When I appeared at a literary festival named in her honour, I was told that she was known as a quiet, dedicated volunteer, serving pie at community functions to people who had no idea who she was, even if they’d come to the small town hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Even before her retirement a few years ago, she rarely engaged in readings or public appearances. Add the Nobel Prize on top of that, and could there be a more romantic ideal?
Next, I thought of Grace Paley, the American short story writer, teacher and activist. Here’s what Ann Patchett writes about Grace Paley, with whom Patchett studied in university: “Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story. Grace turned out a slender but vital body of work during her life. She kept her editors waiting longer than her students. She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person.” (from “The Getaway Car,” an essay in Patchett’s This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage.)
In my mind, Alice Munro and Grace Paley don’t represent competing versions of “how to be a writer”; for both women, being a writer was not about performing as a writer, it was about doing what needed to be done. There are different ways to do this.
If I were an academic, I would keep very close track of every publication, conference, appearance, event, workshop, review, panel, and award. I discovered this lack in my own accounting last fall when a colleague and I were applying for an academic grant (a SSHRC). Creating a somewhat comprehensive CV involved picking through old calendars, emails, and boxes of clippings. The exercise was instructive, and weirdly buoying. Look at all these things you’ve done, woman! (Not-Humble-Brag # 3)
But there’s a reason I haven’t kept track of these things very well.
As a writer, what I’ve done is not as important as what I’m going to be doing. What matters is what I’m making, not what I’ve made. (I realize that’s not completely accurate; past publishing history opens doors unavailable to many, which is a privilege and not to be minimized.) But there is no tenure. No security.
To be a mid-career, mid-level literary writer is … well, it’s a form of invisibility, to be perfectly frank. It takes fortitude. It takes devotion to an idea of oneself, an aspirational self, and it takes devotion to a singular cause, which is craft. Like Grace Paley, I don’t (can’t) compartmentalize my writing from my life. And yet my life ranges rather widely and wildly. It sprawls. My attention is divided. My loves are many. If I were to “just write,” as my daughter says, what would that mean? What path am I carving, in this career my CV claims I’m building?
We were awarded the grant, by the way. (Not-Humble-Brag # 4)
Now, to spend the rest of the afternoon, this gift of unexpectedly free mid-week calm, “just writing.”
Is there a word for the tiny balls of icy-snow that form when the temperature hovers around freezing? Whatever it is, it’s blowing down from the colourless sky right now and accumulating on rooftops and pavement. Almost Christmas. Just past the darkest day of the year.
This season, I’ve noticed the lights. People put up lights every season, of course, but this is the first season that I’ve paused in real appreciation to celebrate and enjoy the beauty and poignance of this collective effort — to light the early evenings and dark long nights. I’ve paused to admire blue icicle lights blinking on an apartment balcony, and whole houses lit up with tumbling disco colours projected upward from a source planted in the ground. I’m especially fond of a giant snowman tethered in a friend’s front yard, dancing with all colours of the pastel rainbow. It’s fair to say the lights have brought me great joy.
This is a difficult time of year. It’s a difficult time to be alone, or sick, or scared, to be estranged from or apart from or without or lacking, to be hungry or cold or lost, to be in need. Absences are starker.
But light also happens.
It’s like collectively we’re signalling to each other — that we know it’s dark out here, and this may be inadequate, but we’d like to offer up a bush wrapped in garish luminescence.
Like the giant snowman tethered in my friend’s front yard, light also signals lightness, ease, relaxation, being silly, goofy, making each other laugh. All of this I wish for you. Because life isn’t an either/or construction; we can grieve in the same moment that we’re peeing our pants with laughter. And in truth, we know this all the more profoundly during this season — that light needs the dark to be seen, to truly shine and sparkle and glitter.
FIRE is my word of the year, and its many meanings are very present with me at present. On my run this morning, I thought about how a fire can be an emergency, how it can burn down a house, or raze a forest. Going through fire is a metaphor for suffering and surviving, for being tempered by a painful experience. But after a fire, the soil is enriched by ash and carbon, and new life begins to grow.
Like fire that is an emergency, loss changes the landscape. Losing Marg was like going through fire. Of course, it was also like many other things, too, because Marg was extremely generous in her dying, and did everything possible to show her love and care for us, despite how sick she was. She had clarity about what was happening, and her wisdom gave us clarity, too. The fire tempered her, and it tempered us, too.
After loss comes grief. Sometimes grief comes even before loss — as we see loss coming toward us on the horizon. Grief isn’t predictable. It doesn’t follow a set timeline. At different points this spring, I recognized that grief was my companion, and that it was helping me to set my course.
Immediately after Marg’s death, I felt like a sleepwalker, numb, too tired to think, but slowly and steadily I drifted toward a different phase of being in the world — of being in the world. I began to meditate outside in our back yard. I let myself rest. I let myself not do next to nothing; listen, pay attention, breathe. Instinctively, I gave myself space. And with space, with breath, with oxygen to feed it, my interior fire began to flicker to life again. It was in that burnt out quiet space, in the aftermath and ash, that new shoots of green began to grow. I thought about (think about) Marg all the time. She was and is present in my mind, in my decision-making. Her clarity guides me, and her willingness in life to step forward, to be responsible, to take charge and to lead.
Because fire has another meaning, too — fire as passion, as heat and light and desire. There are times when I live without noticing how I’m feeling, numbed by routine and responsibility and the relentless obligations of being a mother to four children, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer. These are times when I’m dull, ticking boxes, struggling to keep my weak flame lit. And then there are times when I’m on fire! I’m paying attention — my attentiveness becomes acute, and I can see clearly what matters and what doesn’t matter.
From a place of quiet attention, comes clarity.
I have been tempered by fire, and my sense of purpose is strengthened. This I know: to feed my spirit, to remain grounded and whole, I must live creatively. Living creatively means improvising, sometimes; it means pursuing work that may not have a financial value; it means making space for others to play too. Since Marg’s death, I’ve found myself making choices from a place that feels powerful and certain. I ask: what matters to me, and am I acting on what matters to me? Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at church because when I saw the call for volunteers, instead of questioning the impulse, wondering whether I had the authority to speak, or the time to prepare, or the courage to stand up, I just said yes: this matters to me, and I will do it.
Another example: This spring, as I heard about protests in Nicaragua, as the situation became ever more troubling and desperate, as protestors were being killed, I wondered: Why isn’t this news being covered in the Canadian media? What can our government do to help the situation? And then I asked: Is there anything I can do? Yes! I could use my resources, skills, and contacts to write an opinion piece appealing to the Canadian government and getting this news before the public, at least to a small degree — I pitched the idea to an editor at the Globe and Mail, and wrote the piece while sitting in a tent on a rainy afternoon last weekend. I consulted with Nicaraguan contacts to ensure my facts were accurate. I sought feedback. And the piece was published in today’s Opinion section of the Globe. It’s a small act, but it’s something.
I’ve discovered something powerful about acting on what matters to me: It gives me fuel for the fire, energy to do more.
There are so many small ways to be whole, to feel whole. I don’t seek a work-life balance, because my work and life are utterly intertwined. I’m not interested in the concept of balance. I’m interested in recognizing which fires need to be fed, and which should be smothered. That’s a different kind of balance. It means asking: what do I have control over and what do I need to let go of?
A fire can burn out of control. Some emergencies cannot be prevented or stopped, can only be endured, withstood, survived, contained. But there are many smaller fires: a candle, a campfire, the flame inside a wood stove. These fires draw us, warm us, soothe us, invite community. The constantly changing shape of the flame is meditative and centring. We gather with others around the light and heat.
I hope to have more news to share in the weeks to come. More irons in the fire. More heat, more light. Meanwhile, more summer.
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