I’m fascinated by stories of people who are artists or who belong to other devotional professions that demand extreme discipline to a practice or a cause. I just finished reading a story in The New Yorker about the artist Vija Celmins, a woman now in her 80s, who paints, sculpts and draws the same subjects over and over again, sometimes for years at a time. She made bronze casts of 11 stones, for example, and spent years painting them so that they would like the exact replicas of the original stones. When she put the sculptures on display beside the original stones, people couldn’t tell them apart. Years! She also did a long series on spider webs, in which she would use an eraser to etch the web on a black/grey surface. She’s done paintings of the night sky, paintings of sand in the desert, paintings of small sections on ocean water, over and over and over again.
It’s funny, but I had a flash while staring at the lake last month, thinking about how impossible it was to try to capture the movement of water — yet that’s what she set out to do. I was mesmerized by the pattern on the surface of the lake, these symmetrical moving shapes, almost like ovals, all connected, that spread out across the surface of the water and both held and did not hold as they seemed to move and move and move, but also not change.
I can’t describe it in words.
I knew I’d need a photo, and also that a photo wouldn’t suffice, and I was tempted to try to draw it, but I couldn’t imagine the water holding still for me to be able to draw it. I would need the water to hold still. And I guess that also got me thinking about how impossible it is to describe a moment, even though that’s what I set out to do in the story collection I’ve been working on for five years now — trying to describe the intricacies of a sequence of moments. It all just falls to pieces. There isn’t time to grab everything. By the time I’d describe even a fraction of a moment, the moment would be very far behind me, and I wouldn’t be able to return to it. So it’s been an interesting exercise, but perhaps not one that can succeed. But I’m veering in the wrong direction. Success or failure doesn’t seem to be the point of what Vija Celmins (and others) are attempting in their devotion to a particular craft. Instead, there’s a common desire, shared by artists across mediums, to capture something ineffable by repetition. Or by a series of actions that will deepen our knowledge and experience of something particular, which can’t otherwise be named or known.
I don’t know.
Despite everything, something inside me still finds the stories I wrote vital and compelling. I continue to return to them, to work on them. Maybe they’re like the poems that I wrote all those years ago in young motherhood (never published) — necessary to my own survival, dull to anyone else. Who knows what pulls a person in, or why a subject demands one’s attention. It doesn’t have to be because it needs to be seen or known by anyone else.
Just now, in looking up more information about this artist, Vija Celmins, I came across this video of her talking about her work (link below). Listen to this: “Sometimes I think that the only part I think is of any value is the making itself. And the things about that it is, that are interesting is, that you’re making something that is basically unsayable.”
Is it strange to believe that sometimes a story can say the unsayable too?
Spending today drawing cartoons. Today, life is lovely and good, serious and moving, challenging and spacious. And slow. The pace is really really slow.
My word of the year is SPACE. What I didn’t expect to find within this word is its companion, SILENCE. Silence can be a challenging state to sit within. I don’t always want to hear my own thoughts so clearly, or recognize the distracted and tumbling, tangled nature of my own interior life.
We spent last week, the last week before school started, at the cottage that belonged to my stepmom, and still feels like hers, even though she’s been gone for more than a year now. We love going there, love being there. It’s been a gift to have this place in our lives, and the kids have memories that go back, now, 11 summers. It’s the kind of place that has become a touchstone, and returning is a kind of pilgrimage. Returning is a measure of time passing. While we’re there, though only for a week at most, it feels like we’ve always been there and will always be there.
You can only get there (easily, practically) by boat. About five years ago, Kevin developed an inner ear disturbance that’s triggered by boat rides, and each year the after-effects would last longer and longer (months, even), so for the past two summers, he’s hiked in on a path that literally no one else uses. It’s overgrown. It takes him about an hour and a half. And this year, it was occupied by swarms of insects. He arrived at the cottage looking like a wild man. He wasn’t sure he could manage the hike out, but on Monday, he and Rose trekked the path again, to save his brain.
The corollary to his necessary hike is that I’ve had to learn how to drive a boat (not high on my list of things I wanted to learn how to do). We do what needs doing to get us to this place.
There is plenty of space at the cottage. Space for the kids to play. A big lake for kayaking and adventuring, alone or together. Star-gazing at night. Shelves of books. Late, lazy mornings. Late-night all-family card games. We never seem to need anything more than what we’ve got. Even when meals get creative, by necessity.
Space, silence. Quiet.
I tuned out from the news, from podcasts, from the internet almost altogether. But I did listen to one podcast, On Being, on Sunday. The title was: Silence and the Presence of Everything.
Isn’t that something? How the themes of our lives get tied together by invisible thread? I’d been worrying about space and silence. Silence as a negative. Silence as too much space for my mind to listen, anxiously, to itself.
Silence. Presence. Everything.
“Silence and the Presence of Everything” was about listening. Not active listening for a particular thing you expect to hear, or have been told to listen for, or pay attention to. Listening to what’s there to be heard. Listening without judgement.
An interesting thing happened at the cottage. I managed to write a bit every afternoon, when no one was paying attention; no one even really noticed. What was strange and thrilling was how I would fall into the writing (fiction), almost as if by drifting toward an idea. An image would surface. I would let it drift. I would be resting or sitting by the water. And some small fragment would drift toward me. And then I would get up and write. The writing felt similar to listening.
It didn’t feel active. It didn’t feel forced. It felt like I’d tipped sideways into another time and place and body, and I was just there.
Now I’m here, home again. Dreading a root canal tomorrow morning, but otherwise glad for a day, today, in which I’ve done exactly what I want to do with all my new-found, new-made space: I wrote. I’d gotten up early to exercise with friends and by 10AM when everyone had left the house and the laundry was underway, I felt tired. So I meditated/napped for 10 minutes. And then I got up and wrote. I told myself: Remember to meditate/listen/nap before writing. Drift into what you’re about to do. Listen. It’s okay if listening turns into dreaming. Let yourself drift.
Space = silence. Silence = listening. Listening = drifting. Drifting = door opening to fictional world. Step inside. Space = writing.
Also, space = rest.
I’ll write another blog post (maybe) about what it feels like to let go of the need to pay attention to a particular something, and just be. It’s almost the opposite of striving. I’m such a striver. To be without purpose, listen without demand; it eliminates the task of waiting. It makes silence okay. Drifting toward mystery. Because mystery is okay too.
Saturday morning. Nowhere to be, nothing to do. Reading the paper, talking to kids, braiding someone’s hair, letting the dog in and out and back in again. Drinking coffee.
A flash of an idea for a new project skitters through my mind. I see myself, on a morning when the children are all in school and I’m alone, sitting at this same table, notebook open, exploring the idea, following the surprising places it could take me, just like I did at Lynda Barry’s workshop.
A counter-thought arises instantly: What would be the point?
Virtually every day, this tiny interior voice of judgement natters anxiously inside my head: What’s the point?
This morning, almost as instantly, a rebuttal: None of your damn business. Just do the work.
“None of your business.” -Lynda Barry
I think, in some profound way, this mantra is the foundation of Lynda Barry’s workshops and teaching; it’s why I knew I needed to go back again this summer, to drink from her clean, clear well of wisdom. You can waste a lot of time not making the perfect thing you think you should be making. “At a certain point, the question of good or bad becomes obscene,” she says. Placing value and expectations on the thing you are making, a something that communicates in images, that communicates, period, is obscene. Further to that, it’s not up to you to decide.
This is a hard lesson to absorb. And ever-useful.
What is this thing I’m making? What does it mean? What does it matter? Is it good? Do I like it?
None of your business. None of your damn business.
The thing you’re making is its own separate entity. It’s not you. It’s alive in its own way. And it can only exist if you make it. So make the flawed something that wants to made. Get out of your own way. What’s the point? None of your business. Repeat as often as needed.
I’ve been away. Now I’m back. I feel filled up, and in a laidback frame of mind, and body. My posture seems more generous, my thoughts move more easily toward making space for others, rather than pinging with desperation about the lack of space this might leave for myself. I also feel a little bit worn out, and tired, but not exactly anxious about this state of affairs. It’s a manageable level of tired, the kind that can be remedied with an afternoon nap (note to self: take one).I was in Rhinebeck, New York last week with Kevin and our youngest. We camped. Kevin and I attended Lynda Barry’s workshop. We wrote, we drew. We played tennis and basketball. We played cards. We farted with alarming frequency, because of the food, which didn’t convert anyone to veganism, I’m afraid; rather the opposite. On the rare occasions when cookies were served, or chicken, the joy of the diners was palpable, as was the greed; at one meal, my own husband turned into a cookie hoarder and ate so many, he felt sick.I read a freshly written story out loud on the last morning that felt like it was both mine and yet weirdly not mine; maybe it belonged to the collective imagination.A list of the wildlife we saw: a cicada coming out of its shell; a large black rat snake (almost stepped on it); deer (several); groundhogs (many); a beetle much bigger than my thumb (in the washhouse sink); chipmunks and squirrels (of course); we also smelled a skunk outside our tent, and heard the scritching of tiny paws on the walls all through the night.Back home in Canada, I spent the weekend at a soccer tournament. Our team went all the way to the finals, playing through pouring rain, ridiculous humidity, and hot hot heat. Somehow we also had a regular-season game to play on Monday night, about an hour outside of town. By which point, everyone was hurting, including yours truly. (I need a root canal, but that’s another story.)This is the first fall I won’t be teaching in six years. My approach toward September seems measurably different this summer — I scratch and paw at the absence of anxiety, admiring it, wondering if this is what ease feels like, and will it stay and play?
Not every day is a good day.
There are days when you will feel lesser than your usual self. Days when you will wonder what this darkness is you’re carrying and whether you’ll have the patience and the courage to dig into it, and maybe unearth it, learn from it.
You will feel like you have nothing to offer. Yet you will go on offering, as if pulling scarves from your sleeve, rabbits from your hat.
You will wonder at the raw stupidity of your own ambition. You will be infuriated by your flurries of self-delusion. Who did you think you were?
You’ll go for a run, trying to run out your misery, like it could be wrung from you like sweat. You won’t know who to blame. You’ll be all out of scapegoats, so you’ll turn on yourself and say, You, it was you all along, you and your inflated imagination.
And you won’t know what to say in return.
You’ll forget how to be kind to yourself. The mirror will show you failure and worse — self-pity. You’ll feel sick with nerves. Worthless. Empty, vacuous.
You’ll wonder: Is this depression?
You’ll wish you’d never started down this road. If you could go back in time — ah, but you’ll know. You’ll know that even if you could go back in time, you wouldn’t be able to tell yourself not to try, not to imagine, not to do the work. You’ll know this is part of the cycle, part of the deal. You’ll know it actually doesn’t matter how good or bad you are at this thing you’ve chosen to do, and that’s the trouble, that you’re going to keep doing this, this thing, for the rest of your life, and there’s nothing else for it.
You’ll need to pick yourself up, scrape yourself off, and pull yourself together. You can’t diagnose yourself. You can only write about it. Writing is what you’ve got. Even if, today, it means nothing to you.
Even if this is one of those days, one of those anxious, splintering days.
Tomorrow it might mean something again.
And if it doesn’t, wait till the next day. And the next day. You’re imagining an enormous crater where your dreams used to be, but even at the very bottom of that crater, you’ll poke around and find something to entertain you, console you, and keep you alive.
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.
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