artwork by Tarunima Mittal
For the past three years, I’ve been a part of a storytelling project that aims to foster connections between immigrant and refugee women in our region and the local arts community. The multidisciplinary workshop is named after the Lynda Barry writing exercise we use to find our way into the writing process: The X Page. Over twelve weeks, a group of women meets to write and revise original stories, collaborate on animating these stories through performance and artwork, and finally, to perform the stories for an audience.
This season, we’ve been transported by necessity into a virtual space, which has nevertheless felt like shared space, with room to explore, make connections, to listen, laugh, cry. For me, that’s the key to the whole project: to get to be taken inside someone else’s world, to hear what matters to them, the “little things” they’ve kept or lost along the way, and the themes to which they find themselves returning.
Lynda Barry’s exercise opens many pathways to the heart.
The trust involved in this process is immense. Each workshop session, I’m filled with gratitude for everyone’s efforts, kindness, generosity, and presence. This year, I’m working as the project’s coordinator, which involves me in almost every aspect of behind-the-scenes planning. We are in the homestretch now!!!! The performance will be live on the evening of Wednesday, July 7th, 7PM. Mark your calendars, register to attend (tickets are free, but registration is required), please come and please share news of this workshop with your friends.
The stories are beautiful. The art is beautiful. The connections are beautiful.
We chose the title “Little Things” for this season’s performance because the stories revolve around seemingly small moments, singular scenes, objects that have been kept and carried across borders, or lost along the way; and because even a little thing — held, cherished, and shared — is imbued with depth, meaning, promise, truth.
A story is a little thing. An offering. It is an invitation. Listen. Here I am. Here is something I’ve kept all this time, that matters to me, that I’ve carried all this way; do you see, do you understand? A story is a powerful little thing. Powerful good.
- What felt good this month? This month has been a haze. What’s felt good in the past week or so is getting outside to run in the park, early in the morning. Delighting in the capacity of my body to run, to take deep breaths, to move. And yesterday, I got my first dose of vaccine. That felt nerve-wracking but real: a dose of hope. I’m loving the X Page workshop sessions: it feels like such a gift right now, when our province is locked down, being part of these intimate, meaningful conversations as new stories get discovered, told and shaped. Sometimes I think that’s my life’s calling — it’s not writing after all, but witnessing, creating structures that invite deep listening and telling, discovery and connection: sharing storytelling skills. Other things that felt good: Friday night games night (online) with my sibs and their partners; and, just in the past week, reconnecting with friends, after some weeks of feeling too down and inward even to try.
- What did you struggle with? Everything? We are locked down in Ontario, and will be for the next month or so. My mood swings daily, hourly. I feel like I’m possibly going crazy and a few minutes later, I feel fine. Sometimes I can’t bear to open email or problem-solve a single thing. But usually if I push past the feeling and just attempt the task, I can do it, I can manage just fine. The word “languishing” is floating around right now. Yup. That’s about right.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? At the beginning of the month, dread was in the air: the signs of a disastrous rise in cases were all around us, but somehow, the kids were still going to school and we were able to visit friends outdoors in what felt like relatively normal social situations. By mid-month, that ended. I channelled my rage toward decision-makers into making a bunch of phone calls to politicians to argue for a sufficient safety net and protections for those people most affected by the pandemic’s surge. That felt cathartic. I won a small grant to research a project I’m working on. But, but, but … I’m struggling with changes, combined with a sense of stagnancy amidst the onrush of passing time. It was hard to say goodbye to my eldest, who moved out to a new apartment. His room looks really empty at the end of the hallway.
- How did you take care of yourself? The usual. Meditation, yoga, writing, drawing, X Page meetings, texting friends, journaling, getting outside, exercise, stretching, preparing and eating good food. Not stressing over the messy state of the house. Watching shows with Kevin: Call My Agent; Le Bureau; and right now, Shtisel. My daily routine can feel a bit stale at times, but it keeps me going: the alarm goes off early, and I get up and the day begins, and that is good. “Why am I doing this?” I asked myself one early morning this week. “Because you can!” I replied. Gratitude. Loving engagement.
- What would you most like to remember? That I am blessed. That my resources run deep. That I can ask for help, if I need it. That not everything can be fixed, but brokenness isn’t a flaw; can even deepen compassion, and understanding.
- What do you need to let go of? Fear of failure. This hampers me almost more than I bear to admit. My answer to this question last month was so wise, I want to hold onto it: “Outcomes,” I wrote. “Process is so much more valuable than outcomes.” When my fear of failure rises, I get stuck on the holy grail of outcomes, which invites judgement, comparison, and demands quantifiables. Is it possible to live more freely? Maybe I need to let go of my idea of myself as a writer, or my idea of what that looks like, and how my experience compares. I’m attracted to the idea of a calling; maybe I need to let go of that too. What does a purposeful life look like? I long to be a “good” person, but what does that mean? Does fear of judgement, of getting things wrong, stop me from responding with my full heart — stop me from being a person who listens deeply, who responds with care, and who can laugh at herself because she loves herself, flaws, failures, and all?
Inquiries for the universe…
A few years ago, after returning from a three-week writing residency in France, I put an idea out into the universe: hey, universe, could you send more cross-disciplinary collaboration my way? I’d worked with a wonderful actor / writer / translator as part of the residency, and both of us hoped to find a way to create together again. The universe didn’t align for the two of us to reconnect, though we tried; however, as so often happens, another door opened. In fact, a few different doors, one leading to the next. The first was that I began spending several mornings a week with a young woman who had recently come to Canada with her husband and children; she couldn’t get into a language program, so I volunteered to help her with some English studies. Really, what I remember most about those mornings are our conversations. I realized that my neighbourhood, my work, my friend group, even my church was its own bubble, a comfort zone, and pretty homogenous; and that I had a strong desire to connect with people across the possible barriers of language, religion and culture. The idea for The X Page storytelling workshop grew out of this friendship.
And lo and behold, The X Page became a forum for cross-disciplinary artistic collaboration, as well as new friendships and connections. Our third season starts this week, and will happen entirely online. We’ve adapted, but the goals remain the same: artistic collaboration and exploration, and cross-cultural conversations and connections. It genuinely feels like I sent an idea out to the universe, and the universe answered.
Today, I’ve woken with another kernel of an idea: Hey universe, could I expand on the X Page workshop somehow, to make its goals available more broadly, to many more people? Here’s the spark: Before drifting off to sleep last night, I read a New York Times article about an Australian community-building concept called “The Shed.” Apparently, these “sheds” began as retreats for retired and out-of-work men, and only recently have women started their own “sheds.” The story is about women taking over part of an unused school building; their shed is run by volunteers who are also participants, and it’s a mix of socializing (playing games, eating together) and crafts/ skills, like sewing, painting, gardening, cooking, singing in a choir. It’s a mix.
When I woke up, I was still mulling over the idea of “the shed,” which sounds a bit like a community centre, but which also seems more ground-up, or holistically invented and sustained.
It’s also all very post-pandemic, and impossible right now: gathering together, in person. But hey, universe: is there something here? What do you think? Maybe it’s the idea of a shared project, like “the shed.” Maybe it’s the fact that it’s free for all. Maybe it’s the concept of having space for a variety of activities, which I’ve found makes connections across barriers easier. I’m feeling this rather urgently right now: somehow we have to find ways to make more connections, especially outside of our bubbles, in order to nurture our sense of collective care. We’ve got big urgent crises to cope with. We need to find ways to have difficult conversations, and common ground. Social media does not work for these purposes; it seems almost designed to push us to greater and greater extremes. Belonging comes from something else, I’m convinced of it—outside of algorithms that fail to surprise us, that try to sell us more stuff, and that compete for our attention by exploiting our emotional weak points.
My attention is invaluable. So is yours. It is our time here on earth. It’s what we’ve got to give.
So if you’ve spent a few minutes of your attention reading this post, I send you immense thanks. And to the universe, I send this flicker of an idea: in what ways can I deepen my involvement in building community and connection on the ground, in the real world, both now and whenever we can meet in person again?
The darkest hour is before the dawn (says who?), but I don’t think we’re there yet. Our planet flares with alarms, and I keep scrolling the news like it’s entertainment. Like it’ll make a difference to know more and more, somehow. Like I’ll reach the end and go: there, done, at last, problem solved! 1
(Anonymous commenter: “The darkest hour is actually midnight.”)
The equality we’ve fought for is tenuous, incomplete, and may erode further. What hope is there that we humans on planet Earth will work together, pull together, row in a direction that honours difference, blesses the frail, lifts up everyone who is in pain? Where does it hurt? What’s your story? 2
Vote? Of course! I’ve got my ballot filled in, ready to mail back to Ohio. I will take deep breaths and hope. One voice, one gesture, one act of faith. But VOTE is not enough to fix what’s broken. Dividing, degrading, self-dealing; cynicism. What does democracy mean? For the people, by the people? Also, a corporation is a person?? Also, send more money? 3
Don’t pretend the end justifies the means. We live in the means! If you lie and cheat to win, you’re not a winner, you’re a liar and a cheat. If the only way to win is at all-costs, I’d rather be the sucker who spoke her heart and lost. 4
My heroes are the ones who saw the long road ahead and walked onward toward a light and promise they knew wouldn’t be found in their own lifetimes. Or maybe ever. But they saw it and articulated it. Our better selves. Where everyone will have enough, and dignity too. 5
Where love not greed rules. What I see: my brothers sisters friends strangers the ground underfoot the air trees stars the living oceans are of me and I of them. All of us humans are flawed, broken, in need. To share is to receive but also to give. 6
Look at this bountiful world. End
Two weeks is a long luxurious span of time to be on holiday, especially right now, especially when one’s holiday is basically a two-week quarantine away from other people and the world and news and thoughts of the future; it’s all a beautiful, slow-moving present; now, now, now.
We’re back home, but I’m holding onto my holiday brain for as long as I possibly can.
This is what I learned on holiday: Notice. Notice what I’m doing or about to do. Notice what effect it has on others around me. Notice what I like and don’t like about the things I’m doing and saying, and their effect. Do I want to change those things? Can I? (Don’t know. Maybe!) But it all starts by noticing. And then deciding what to do next.
As one of my kids told me: I think you have to want to change, Mom.
Yes. That is true.
On holiday, as an experiment, I sometimes did the opposite of what my first response would have been. I had the time. I noticed how I wanted to respond before I responded, and then if I didn’t want to respond that way, I paused myself and tried to respond differently, just to see what would happen. This was on a very small scale. For example, Annie and Kevin and I did yoga twice a day on the dock and one fine afternoon, I noticed that I wanted to announce to them—during tree pose—that I was wearing very slippery pants, and the pants were the reason I couldn’t place my foot up high on my opposite leg—I wanted to explain: hey guys, it’s not me, it’s my pants! But instead, I noticed that I wanted to do this before I did it. I noticed, too, that to speak would be to spoil this moment of shared concentration. I noticed that what I wanted to share was a) information not useful to them, and b) information that, if shared, wouldn’t actually solve anything. Any insecurity, any fear of failure, was mine; unrelated to what they were doing, and certainly not theirs to fix.
So I bit my tongue. I just did the pose. Obviously, this was a very tiny moment of noticing and making a very tiny decision, but I remembered it afterward, clearly, because I’m writing about it from memory now. What I noticed was that it didn’t hurt at all to stay quiet. It just shifted the moment, and my experience of the moment. It reminded me why I was doing yoga—as a gift to my body and mind, as a way of loving myself, respecting my body, no matter what it was/is capable of doing. It reminded me to thank my body for holding me up, no matter what the position.
It reminded to say: Thank you, body, for bringing me into this moment!
Notice, notice, notice. It’s why I meditate. I have to want to change if change is going to happen. But I also have to notice what I’m doing in the first place. So much of what we do, think, say is almost automatic. We’ve fit ourselves into systems, we’ve figured out how to survive, how to take the easiest route to self-soothing, how to comfort ourselves, how to minimize conflict (or ramp it up, if that’s what makes us feel alive/better). Our responses are formed by long experience, often dysfunctional, or harmful to our bodies and minds. Changing deep patterns takes patience, trial and error. Takes forgiveness and generosity above all else—to the self, which will extend then so easily to others too. If you can forgive yourself for your flaws and weaknesses it will be easy to forgive the flaws and weaknesses in others.
Insecurity, fear, the desire to be liked, the need to win and prove myself; these are among my deepest flaws. And I do want to change the way I respond when in their thrall. The only hope is to notice.
One more thing I learned on holiday (or learned anew, again): To notice when others are doing and saying things that make me feel good, cherished, calmer, more generous-minded—so I can learn from their deeds and words, and also be appreciative. For example, I’m so thankful that my children are kind and hopeful people, who are rolling with their changed circumstances, accepting what they’ve got and actively making the best of it, adapting, not complaining or mourning any perceived losses, just getting on with what’s being offered to them. I watch them, I notice, and I follow their lead.
This blog is like a corkboard on which to post thoughts, observations, whatever is front-of-mind right now. It acts as a public journal, an I WAS HERE scrawl on the wall. Trouble is, recently, whenever I sit down to post something, it’s not clear to me what’s front-of-mind. Mind is a-jumble. Influences are disparate and scrolling, images aflame, voices shouting, protests, outrage. What calls my attention is both very personal and tiny (my morning routine, for example) and overwhelmingly political and heavy (can’t even begin to list it parenthetically).
This morning I read an article by Lori Fox in The Globe and Mail that pretty much sums up what I’ve been ranting to Kevin about for these past many months. Please read what she’s written and know that I’m nodding along. At one point in the article, she writes about her own “small, selfish” dream. It’s a lovely dream. To paraphrase: Work that is useful and that she loves doing. Enough, and the time to enjoy it. A life with dignity and love.
It’s small enough, isn’t it, that everyone should dare to dream such a dream? Everyone should have the means of achieving it? It doesn’t sound selfish to me.
Originally, when I sat down to write this post it was about my own lovely week, which I spent reading stories, editing stories, and talking about stories. But when I wrote about how lovely it was, and how purposeful and peaceful I felt doing this work (tiny, personal), I also found myself tracking into the weeds of dismay and guilt, confusion and fury (overwhelming, political) as I reflected on how it was privilege that allowed me to do this work.
Earlier in the week, I watched this interview with Kurt Anderson on PBS (my favourite American news source), and it stirred in me emotions that I’ve been unable to unstir. Essentially, he argues that 1976 was the most equitable year on record (in America), and due to a wealth-driven philosophy that focuses on profit to the exclusion of all other concerns, we now find ourselves living in an economy that offers that “small, selfish” dream to fewer and fewer people. I realize that I live in Canada, not the US, but we’re not immune to troubling inequity. When I eat a peach, I can’t help but think of the hand that picked it, and wonder where that person is from, how much they’re being paid, and where they’re sleeping. Essential work is being done by people who are treated as less-than. And the system makes us complicit, even as we’re stuck in it.
How many people do you know whose work is precarious, cobbled-together gig by gig, without benefits or retirement packages? Look around, and you’ll see that defines a lot of us, even those who seem to be doing okay. How many jobs that were once secure and well-paid are now being done by people who work on contract or freelance? Remember when earning a PhD meant tenure-track job-security? I remember when writers were paid a dollar/word for book reviews published in the newspaper. You can argue that sectors that are struggling are sectors that are becoming obsolete in today’s economy; but that’s not necessarily true. Is education obsolete? Are the arts obsolete? What about news? Long-term care? Sectors struggle for many reasons, but what I see is that a profit-only model doesn’t work for the people who actually do the labour. Because in the profit-only model, labour is a cost. You squeeze the costs down, you make more profit. Ultimately, that means you’re squeezing people — you’re paying people less and less to do more and more. And the people are us.
I can observe all of this, and be outraged, but it tends to lead me toward paralysis. What’s the fix, what’s the cure?
Yesterday, I sat outside and read Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout, which I noticed, upon finishing, is labelled “A Novel.” I think that’s an American thing? The book is actually a collection of linked short stories, my favourite form, although I know linked short stories don’t sell well, so maybe “A Novel” is a marketing thing. In any case, the book doesn’t need to be anything other than what it is: stories about characters (often Olive, but sometimes not) navigating their broken paths and trying to figure out how to talk to each other and protect themselves across divides of class, race, culture, age, abuse, pain, illness, secrecy, experience, self-doubt. It’s brilliant, and I wept often, throughout.
Upon finishing, I thought: I just want to sit and read stories all day long. And then I’ll take a break and write stories for others to read. And then I’ll meet with people who love reading and writing and we’ll talk about it, and I’ll edit my stories and theirs. When I do this work I’m not always right, but I know what I’m doing and why.
Is this a roadmap for a career???? God, let it be so. At the very least, it’s a roadmap for making sense of life. For helping me see and understand and know what matters. And it ain’t profit, my friends (but you already know that!). We all know it, gut-deep: profit isn’t profitable when it costs us our communities, our health, our dignity.
Here’s my own small, selfish dream: I want to read, write, edit, discuss; work that has it uses, its purpose. And I want others to be able to do this work too, as they’re called to it.
Truth: A lot of my work is done on a voluntary basis (it’s my speciality!). But here’s the thing: volunteer work is not necessarily noble. People volunteer because they can afford to. I’m worried that my willingness and ability to work for little to no recompense is part of the problem. Consider the arts sector, where many initiatives survive because of people like me: Doesn’t this very structure — reliance on voluntary labour — create barriers toward participation for everyone who can’t afford to work for free?
But what’s the alternative in a sector that’s not profit-driven and never will be, that survives on grants, fundraising … and underpaid / unpaid labour?
It’s a dilemma that’s been troubling me. A lot.
And I’ve come around to a solution, of sorts: Universal Basic Income. It’s not perfect, but it seems like the viable place to start. A baseline of security, so everyone can afford their own tiny, personal dream: Enough and time to enjoy it. Dignity and love. Work that is useful and that you love doing.
(See what I mean? This post is WAY TOO MUCH, but it’s where my head is at, right now.)
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